Branching Out: Interviews Colin Edwin of Porcupine Tree

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Colin Edwin

Colin Edwin

Colin Edwin may currently be on a break from his regular gig as the bassist for iconic progressive metal band Porcupine Tree, but he’s been far from idle. recently spoke with Edwin about his current projects, including his new CD collaboration with guitarist Jon Durant, Burnt Belief.

(Note: An edited-for-space version of this interview appeared in the Spring 2013 College issue of Tell Magazine. The following is the complete interview.) I’m really enjoying the record. So I wanted to chat with you about that. It struck me as very … the word ambient comes to mind, it reminds me of the space where Robert Fripp and Tony Levin do, the quieter King Crimson stuff. Is that the kind of feel you were going for?
Colin Edwin: Yeah, well, I think Jon has an approach on the guitar that isn’t dissimilar to people like David Torn and Robert Fripp where he’s approaching the guitar from a slightly less conventional angle. He’s more concerned with texture and things like that, rather than conventional soloing. We headed in that area quite naturally and Jon was doing his own thing with that before I met him; he’s done quite a few albums on his own, so it’s the common ground that we have together, it’s that sort of way of playing. And I think that, with all of the things that I’ve done, there’s been a thread of that, an interest in ambient music and textural music, in everything I’ve done with Porcupine Tree and other people as well. How did your collaboration with Jon Durant come about?
Edwin: I met Jon while I was touring in America with Porcupine Tree. We just met after a couple of concerts and had a chat and we got along quite well. Jon wrote to me last year and said, “I’m planning to do an album, do you want to come and play on it?” I was well up for that because he’d given me a couple of his CDs and I’d enjoyed them. So I ended up going to Boston and we went to a studio in New Hampshire and it was all done live in the studio with a couple of other musicians, a guy called Jerry Leake who’s on Burnt Belief, on percussion, and a violinist called Karen Lynn. And it was bizarre because we hadn’t met before, we hadn’t all been in the same room. I’d never worked with Jon before, and I was thinking “Jon lives in Boston. It’s full of musicians. Why’s he asking me?” But actually it went really, really well and we ended up, a lot of the stuff on Dance of the Shadow Planets, which is the album we did together, ended up being first or second take. So it was very, very successful. And then Jon wrote to me again earlier this year and said “I’m planning another album,” but he didn’t’ really have anything planned in a big way, so I suggested that I do some sort of audio manipulation with his ambient guitar soundscape-type things. And inevitably that meant that I was becoming—rather than just being the bass player—I was becoming a collaborator, because I was making structures out of what he sent me. But he was very enthusiastic about the sketches I sent him and everything grew out of that. It was a natural development for me. I have to say it felt very straightforward going and playing with Jon. It wasn’t a difficult thing to do. I found my space on his previous album very, very easily, you know. It seemed like a very seamless collaboration. As I understand it, you actually did a lot of this over the Internet from your respective studios. Is that correct?
Edwin: That’s correct, yeah. So how did that actually work? Were you sending files back and forth? What was the process there?
Edwin: Yeah, pretty much. A couple of the tunes maybe I had developed on my own and I got Jon involved, and a couple of the other ones, Jon had developed and I just more or less played to them. But most of the album, it was a process of, he would send me some of his guitar cloudscapes and I would feed them through an Audio Slicer, which is a device that basically chops up the audio, but you can set the length of the slice and the attack of the slice so you can have a different tempo, it can have a different feel, you can have a very slow thing, you can have a fast attack. So I would sit and feed the cloudscapes to the Audio Slicer and then I would basically sit and listen to it and try and get ideas for things to play with what I’d done. So I might have a drum loop idea or a bass line idea. And when I had something solid, I’d sketch it out and then send it back to Jon, and then Jon would come and maybe develop a theme or he’d suggest a few things. We’d start discussing the idea and if we both felt that it had something going on, we’d end up working on it individually and sending it back and forth to each other. It flowed pretty fast. We found our space together quite easily with that. It’s amazing—you think about 20–30 years ago, this kind of thing was inconceivable. You’d have to be together in the same room, right?
Edwin: Well, yeah, but I would say that I think probably the experience of doing Jon’s previous album, the experience that we had together, it meant that, I guess, we’d already made the connection. So it’s a funny thing, musical chemistry. I could feel that obviously the idea was going to be something that he would respond to. But you never know until you do it. But in a way, it’s certainly something that couldn’t have happened without today’s technology. So how was Burnt Belief actually put together? Was it pretty much you working at your place and him working at his?
Edwin: Yeah, it was pretty much the polar opposite of the previous album, the total opposite way of working. So I guess if we do another one, we’d actually like to be in the same room together. It really does sound seamless.
Edwin: I guess it’s fair to say that I’ve been involved in some things where I have been in the same room with people and it hasn’t felt that good. So it’s probably a product of the way that we work together, the reason it works. So I understand that there’s a concept—a theme—behind Burnt Belief? Could you elaborate on that?
Edwin: Yeah, it’s an interest that Jon and I share. It’s a difficult thing to articulate. There’s this sort of madness that people accept, if you like. When you think about everyday reality, and a lot of the beliefs that people have—we all have them … it’s an observation that a lot of what we accept as reality is actually quite bizarre. And a lot of people have quite bizarre beliefs. It was a point of discussion, when I did Jon’s first album with him, in the time driving between New Hampshire and Boston—it’s quite a long way, and we’d end up chatting and that’s one of the things that fascinated both of us. And it happened that as we were working on Burnt Belief, I was reading a book called When Prophecy Fails. It’s a fascinating book—it was written in the 1950s and its about a UFO cult, a group of people who were following a suburban housewife who had gathered these followers around. They were all set to supposedly ascend in a UFO to some other planet to escape a catastrophe that was going to hit earth. But there were people that had followed this woman, had given up jobs, left their houses, left their apartments, and of course it didn’t happen. So it’s all about this idea that people have beliefs that are then destroyed. But for some people, they go on being even more set in their beliefs. They think it has something to do with them—they didn’t say the right prayer, or they didn’t sacrifice the right thing or something. But what was knocking around last year was this idea that the Mayan calendar was going to end. So we thought it was a thematic thing that we were discussing and talking about, and it made sense to conceptualize the music about that. Because it makes an important point to me, that there are plenty of examples throughout history—I’m always fascinated by Eastern Europe. In my lifetime, there’s been the fall of the Berlin wall and there must have been people in East Germany who totally believed in the communist system. And suddenly it disappeared. And this is relevant today as it was 300 years ago. People have wacky beliefs, people have crazy ideas, and they’re proved wrong and they still believe them, or they still look back on things and think, “No, I was right.” And it’s a question I’d to pose to a lot of people. So we thought, “We’re going to hang the whole album around that.” And it made an interesting point of discussion from the publicity angle as well, because I didn’t believe for a second that the world was going to end on Dec. the 21st. A lot of people did!
Edwin: Evidently, yeah. Over here, there was news about people gathering in France, there was a mountain that was going to explode and a UFO was going to come out. Crazy stuff. (laughs) People can believe anything I think, sometimes. It’s post-apocalyptic in a way, the album. I never thought that if the world was going to end, it was going to be like a Metallica album. (laughs) For me, it’s probably closer to what we’ve done. That’s a very abstract idea. That’s for the listener to decide. So would you say that the music represents what would happen after the world actually ending?
Edwin: Well, yeah, yeah … I mean, I’m very wary to give an explicit meaning to things, because one of the things I’ve learned about art is that it has more power if people can project their own thing onto it. And yet, I think if you say to somebody, “This is about this,” you can point the way and they can almost project their own thing. They will anyway. So it’s meant as a discussion point for me, and maybe a starting point for somebody, rather than a big “It’s about this and you must think this.” For me, that’s not the way to go about it. It’s not Tommy. It’s not an opera.
Edwin: No. (Laughs) Of course, there’s no lyrical content … it’s very difficult to make it like that. But I think it would probably be an ideal soundtrack for that kind of environment, the post-apocalypse, the end of things, transitions and things like that. I think it would make some very good film music. Have you gotten any interest in possibly using your music as a soundtrack?
Edwin: Well. not so far, but some of Jon’s previous stuff has ended up with NASA. That’s appropriate I think, for its spacey feel. But who knows? Maybe they’ll pick up on this one. Sounds like a good plan. Now, is there any possibility of you doing live shows with Jon?
Edwin: We certainly hope so. It’s something we would really like to do, and we’re thinking of it. We’re discussing it quite a bit at the moment and the idea would be to expand it to a trio so we have a live drummer or percussionist and the two of us. In fact, Jon and I are working together on another project that hopefully might see Jon coming to Europe this summer. If that works out, we may make the most of the opportunity and do some gigs around that. There’s a lot of percussion on this album; you certainly would benefit from having a live percussionist.
Edwin: Yeah, I think it would be interesting perhaps to have live drums because live drums are more exciting than electronic drums. I love the idea that we’re using electronic beats but I was very, very glad that we had Jerry Leake, because he humanized a lot of what went on. I didn’t want to make a fully electronic thing. I’ve got a slight OCD tendency, so I love programming. But at the same time, it feels a bit one-dimensional if you don’t take it somewhere, so Jerry really added a bit of depth to the stuff, having his percussion along with it. It’s good having that human feel.
Edwin: Yes, it makes such a difference, it really does. I find electronic stuff is almost too perfect, so you tend to switch off, unless the switching off is part of the music, but generally it’s always better to have a human (laughs). It sounds ridiculous as I said that. No, not at all … especially not considering that you play with one of the best drummers in the world, Gavin Harrison, in Porcupine Tree.
Edwin: Yes. I have to say I’m spoiled there. What other projects have you been working on lately?
Edwin: I have a few things. With Jon, I’ve been working with a band from the Ukraine—it’s actually a couple of female vocalists. I went to Kiev about a year ago to do a concert with a duo I have called Ex-Whiteheads, which is myself and a flute and saxophone player called Jeff Lee, and we’ve made about six albums together. Jeff and I did a concert in Kiev and I got introduced to this music, Ukrainian folk music, which is something I’ve really had no idea about. But, I’ve been fascinated by the music because it has really interesting harmonies going on and it’s rhythmically quite interesting, but at the same time it’s very accessible. It’s hard to describe. I’m not really a great listener of folk music from Eastern Europe, although I have to say some of it’s quite interesting. But I’ve ended up doing a collaboration with them—and I’m hoping that’s going to see the light of day pretty soon, and that will hopefully get Jon over to Europe as well. So that’s taking up a bit of my time. I’ve also, last year, done an album with a band called Metallic Taste of Blood. Great name!
Edwin: I really love the name because it fits the music really well, and it was suggested by the drummer who’s a Hungarian guy called Balázs Pándi. He’s a very interesting character. He plays a lot of free, improvised noise stuff and he plays a lot of grindcore stuff, he’s very, very eclectic in what he listens to and what does as well. He said the album is unsettling music in a way, there’s a dark ambient thread going through it. It’s instrumental again, so having something that described it was quite tough, but we had this idea that the metallic taste of blood is unsettling but at the same time it’s satisfying. So we tried to do that. I have to say, the music is hard to categorize—we’ve got elements of dub, elements of jazz, elements of rock music of course. I’m quite pleased with the album, because I think we’ve managed to find our own sonic space. So I’m very happy with that. We’re doing our first gig this year in Poland, we just confirmed a festival in Poland and I’m really looking forward to that. Any chance you’ll do anything in the states?
Edwin: Well I hope so, yeah, yeah. It’s a tricky one to get over, because harder than you might realize. There are a lot of things that have to come into place—there’s the work permits and everything else. We’re looking to do a lot more gigs. We’ve just hooked up with an agent, so I hope we can make it happen. Good! The name is very compelling, and I’m sure the music is as well.
Edwin: Yeah! If you want to check it out, we have a Soundcloud page and a web site ( and it’s all up there, and the album is now on Rare Noise. I’m going to put in a word for Rare Noise, a really interesting label. They do a lot of interesting stuff, and I’m going to be working with one of their others signees next week in fact, a bass player called Lorenzo Feliciati, and we’re doing a bass duo together in London. It’s going to be cool. You are keeping very busy lately.
Edwin: I like to keep myself busy. I like to think creativity is like a muscle, and the more you use it, the easier it gets—the easier it gets to come up with things, the easier it gets to do things. I have to ask: What’s the current status of Porcupine Tree?
Edwin: Porcupine Tree is not doing anything for the time being, so we’re on a sort-of hiatus really, that’s all I can tell you. There’s no timetable to do anything else just yet, and of course, the live album has only just come out late last year, so there’s nothing on paper, there’s no plans at the moment. I’m sure at some point we’ll get back together. Do you think it will be a different style when Steven (Wilson) comes back to it?
Edwin: Well, I wouldn’t like to speculate, but I think it’s necessary to develop and there’s always been a development in the sound. I think there are two kinds of bands, really—there’s a band like AC/DC that can make the same album over and over again. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s them, that’s what they do. You want to go and see that kind of music, then you go and see AC/DC. I mean, that’s their thing. And then there are other bands that change over time. So I like to think of Porcupine Tree as being the latter, and I think it’s been the case that we’ve changed a lot over the years from early psychedelic stuff and elements of metal and then moving on. I’m perhaps a bit too close to judge it, but that’s always been a part of the band, really­—we’re all curious people. We like to try different things. That’s part of it, really. I’m assuming you’ve heard Steven Wilson’s new work, The Raven That Refused to Sing. I was wondering what you thought of it?
Edwin: Yeah, well, it’s not a surprise for me that’s he’s done that, because it’s very, very prog-influenced. It’s a good album, for sure, yeah. Tell Magazine is primarily about technology. So when I talk to musicians like yourself, I like asking, what kind of tech are you using—gadgets, cell phones, computers, that kind of thing?
Edwin: I’m a devotee of Apple, I guess … most musicians I know of are, so very rarely a day goes by that I don’t do something with the iPad or my laptop. For my main music setup, I use a MacPro, which I’ve had for a few years, which is very stable, very reliable and still has a lot of processing power. They haven’t updated the MacPro for a while, have they? But I’m a big Logic (recording software) user. I love Logic. I really, really think the iPad is a fascinating thing. There are so many amazing apps for music—there’s a thing called ThumbJam; it’s a musical instrument app, but the sounds are really good, and it’s very expressive. You can tilt the iPad and you get the same sort of effect you get with bending a string on the guitar. You can do all that kind of stuff. It’s really good with the touchscreen, the way they’ve actually utilized it properly. There’s a thing where you can slow down audio so if you want to hear what’s going on in the track you can slow it right down and put loop points in; that’s really, really useful for working out bass lines or hearing things that I haven’t listened to for a while. … It’s very good for working out funny time signatures in Ukrainian folk music (laughs). I can slow it down and hear it properly—things like that. Of course, I’m an iPod user as well, especially when I’m traveling. That’s a great, great thing to have. Do you find you’re using some apps as compositional tools?
Edwin: Yes, I’ve got a couple of things that are like audio manglers. With Burnt Belief I used a Boss slicer pedal, but there are other apps I used. You can put a piece of audio in and you can play with it and maybe get some interesting textures and interesting sounds. There’s a Korg app where you’ve got a Kaoss pad on that. So it’s good sometimes if you want to do something creative and you want to have a kind of random input, it’s quite nice. I’ve got an app called Chordbot where you can put in a chord sequence, so that’s quite handy because mainly playing bass, I don’t really play chords in the same way as a guitarist. I play a bit of guitar, but I have to confess I’m more of a noise guitar player, so I like making noise with feedback. But I can put Chordbox on and just play with the sounds of different chords. You can make a sequence and have it arpeggiate, and then you often get some really interesting ideas from that, even if you end up ignoring what you’ve made and it takes you somewhere else. But it’s great to have that option. I couldn’t hire a piano player to come sit in my studio and just play chord sequences over and over again. But it’s great for that kind of thing. You mentioned that you’re working in Logic on your MacPro. Is that how you did your stuff on Burnt Belief?
Edwin: Yes. I do a lot of remote sessions as well, so pretty much all of the time I’m using Logic. Very occasionally I use Reason (recording software) just because I’ve got a workflow with Logic and I like to disrupt it just to see if I come up with something different. People say Reason is very, very easy to use, but I don’t know, maybe my brain works differently from everybody else—I find it a bit confusing. So sometimes, I’ll purposely pull up Reason—and of course now you can do overdubs quite easily—I’ll pull it up just to fiddle with it. In fact, “Semazen” (off Burnt Belief) came out of me fiddling around with Reason—initially, anyway. That’s a good track. Colin, what kind of basses are you currently using?
Edwin: Ah, well, I’ve amassed a bit of a collection, I have to say. With Burnt Belief, I used a Spector fretless, a USA Spector fretless, quite a lot on that album. It’s an instrument they gave me last year, and I know that I’ve been playing a Wal fretless for many years, and I think they tried quite hard to spec it a bit close to a Wal, because P.J. who works at Spector, he kept saying to me, “I’m going to make you a really nice fretless, you’re going to love it,” and they lent me a couple before, which I have to say were great instruments. But there’s just that little thing that you want sometimes that I didn’t quite feel and I’ve been playing their fretless basses for years. But this one turned up, and I was very, very happy with it—it’s a very expressive instrument, and I wrote to him and said, “Thanks very much, you’ve actually managed to get me away from my Wal for a little while.” (laughs) But it’s a great bass and I’ve actually been using it a lot. I also use a double bass on Burnt Belief, on the last track, “Arcing Towards Morning.” So I like sometimes to have the organic feel of an instrument that you don’t plug in, it’s nice to have that. But the double bass is a very unforgiving instrument. You get blisters if you don’t play it every day, basically. So it’s a full time job to do, and sometimes I have to spend a few days just playing it to get back to where I was. I would imagine so. Did you play double bass growing up?
Edwin: I started playing electric bass, but there was a time when I did take the double bass very seriously, and I did do a lot of practice and a lot of practice with the bow. But it just so happened that I wasn’t really getting a lot of work playing the double bass, and I was getting asked to play electric bass a lot more. So I’ve kept the phrases—a double bass player is called a “doubler”—but I’m more of a dabbler (laughs) instead of a doubler. There was a time for maybe for four or five years where I took it very seriously. I practiced with the bow every day, which is really hard work, a very big commitment. I’ve never really been able to do it regularly enough to be happy with calling myself a proper double bass player. But it’s definitely informed a lot of my playing, because it has a quality to the sound that shapes the way you play it, or it certainly has for me, anyway. There’s a thing with it where you can play one note rather than playing four. It’s a very expressive instrument with fewer notes. So a lot of electric bass players treat the bass guitar more like a guitar, whereas I definitely think more like a double bass player, I guess, especially … I love the fretless, and that’s the closest thing you can get on a bass guitar to playing double bass.

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