Interview with Steve Freight/Author Voyage 35: Porcupine Tree

It is hard to imagine, in this era of everybody being permanently connected, that there was a time not so long ago when it was hard to find out information on your favorite band, especially if they were not on the charts. Hence the advent of fanzines, which were bloody hard work for those involved (I ran Feedback for 16 years, more than 80 issues and 11,000 pages of print), yet they are now an invaluable source of information for diehard fans and researchers alike. Those who were dedicated to just one band often gained massive access and contain information that has never been made available elsewhere. Such is the case of Voyage 35, a fanzine dedicated to Porcupine Tree. Between 1995 and June 2001 Steve Freight put out 14 issues dedicated to his favorite band, and he has now lovingly collated these into a book that has just been released by Gonzo Multimedia. He made the decision to collate the fanzines, so each issue appears as a separate chapter, with the cover art and images which appeared within. However, he made the call not to include reviews and items which looking back add no value, so what we have here is a distilled version, which for fans of the band is indispensable. I was asked if I would like to interview Steve and jumped at the opportunity as there were way too few people running fanzines, and those who have taken the time and energy to now make them available in book form even more so.  

When did you become interested in music, and what bands were important to you at the time and why?

My mother had a large selection of classical 78s and from an early age around 2, I was allowed to play them. Whilst I could not read I used to make up sounds to go with the music and could recognize the tunes from the labels and the shapes of the words.

The radio used to be on most of the time and growing up in the 60’s I was lucky enough to be exposed to all the pop songs the BBC would play (not much due to needle time) on getting my first radio aged 7 (1963) I found Luxemburg and listened via my headphone (just the one for one ear) under the sheets. This reminds me of visiting a great aunt who asked my mother if I had a hearing problem as she thought my trannie and headphone was hearing aid!

The first real influence was….

Cliff Richard. From there I liked Buddy Holly, and then the Beatles. She Loves You was hanging on the tree for me at Christmas.

The first single I bought with my own money was Legend of Xanadu.

Up until senior school, I was probably into more pop-orientated music but even in those days, this consisted of the Beatles, Stones, The Who, The Moody Blues, and Pink Floyd who have stayed with me to this day and helped forge my musical tastes. I was also lucky that bands I got into released singles in those days. Bands like Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and The Doors were all chart entries too. Heaven.

Then a truly remarkable single assaulted my senses. Hawkwind’s Silver Machine. Loved it and bought it, but a strange thing then happened. I was more captivated by the B side, 7 by 7. Intrigued a friend and I went to see them at the Edmonton Sundown on 29th December 1972. Little did I know that I was witnessing history in the shape of the Space Ritual tour. The next day I went out and bought Doremi Fasol Latido with my Saturday job money and I’ve bought everything released since.

As to what I listen to these days, it’s an eclectic mix of 60’s pop when the radio is on, Hawkwind, Pink Floyd, Charlie (Love Terry Thomas’s sense of humor in the lyrics – check out Popstar), Moody Blues, The Beatles, Fish on Friday, The Who, Free, Bad Company, Ozzy, Alan Parsons, The Doors, Meatloaf / Jim Steinman related, Glen Campbell, Lindisfarne, Yes, Rumer, anything with Paul Heaton (my wife’s favorite) and early, pre In Absentia, Porcupine Tree.

How did you discover Porcupine Tree yourself?

There was a shop in Southend, where I was working, called 99th Floor that I used to visit during my lunch hour and chat with John and Tom. They would always be playing records by bands I had little knowledge of, and one day Tom said he had something he was sure I’d enjoy that had just come in. It was the Voyage 34 single. I bought it on the spot and also On the Sunday of Life

What made them stand out for you?

I think it was the sheer variety of genres that was attempted on “Sunday” that made it a joy to listen to. It covered so much of the music I had grown up with and was a throwback of sorts, but with a “progressive” twist. I later said in the fanzine that we should call it Evolving Rock. And then when Radioactive Toy came on when listening for the first time, wow what a song.

What was the scene like back then? Were you interested in other progressive bands, how did you go out about discovering information?

Trance and sampling were big things then and Voyage 34 seemed to fit this mold quite well. Until I spoke to Steven on the phone for the first time, I always assumed that the start was a Pink Floyd sample from The Wall and he seemed surprised by this and said it was all him. He said that if it was reminiscent of The Wall it was purely unintentional. I was going to many concerts back then, mostly rock orientated, which I was enjoying more than Prog at that time.

Prog was though, very derivative, and I tended to stick with what I liked, such as Floyd and Yes. It’s a cliché, but so many bands wanted to be (early) Genesis, but I found them hard to get into, so the subculture of Genesis clones didn’t do a lot for me. I used to rave about the early Porcupine Tree albums to anyone who would listen to me, and Guy Thomas was one of these.

The lucky so-and-so was able to go to Porcupine Tree’s first live gig at the Nags Head Wycombe and as someone who has videoed a fair number of Hawkwind concerts over the years, he contacted Richard Allen and was able to get a pass to video the concert officially (yes a full video of this gig exists). For me, this led to my introduction to the band members.

Why did you decide to write your own fanzine? How did it come about? How big was the first issue (pages) and how many did you print?

I had been helping Doug Smith (Hawkwind manager) to promote the Alien 4 album, by taking flyers and posters around the local record shops in my area. My reward was a backstage pass to the Brixton all-nighter.  Porcupine Tree was also on the bill and had an early 30-minute slot. Somehow, our (mine and Guy’s) backstage passes morphed into access to all area ones (don’t ask)!

Guy had transcribed the Nags Head gig onto a broadcast-quality videotape, and he wanted to get this to Steven. We negotiated the corridors of the Academy looking for the band’s dressing room. Finding this we went in and had a chat with them. I remember mentioning Steven’s bum note played on the Radio One Session for some reason, but Steven said these things happen and he wasn’t worried by it and that if he was he wouldn’t be putting it out on record. All four were pleasant even though we had crashed their dressing room and I then thought I’d contact Richard Allen and see if anyone had approached the band regarding a fanzine.

At the time my wife worked evenings, and once I’d put our daughters to bed I listened to music or tinkered with making my own mash-up videos, nicking bits from films or TV shows and overlaying them with Hawkwind music. I used scenes from Bladerunner and set this to It Is The Business Of The Future to be Dangerous, Legend I set to Magnu and Danger Man (US Secret Agent) to Secret Agent, among others. I sent copies to Dave Brock and when I met him years later at the Take Me To Your Leader launch party he asked if I was the guy who had set Danger Man to Secret Agent. He’d have liked to have used it, but it was a copywriter’s nightmare!

With all this free time I felt I could produce a fanzine and Richard agreed if Steven was OK with it. He said he’d get Steven to call me. He did but I wasn’t expecting the call at 11:30 at night! We spoke for around 30 minutes and some of this I recalled in the first issue. Putting it together was not easy for the first few issues as I used my trusty writer program on the Atari, and these were initially printed out on my Dot Matrix printer. Before they went to print though I found thanks to my work IT department, they could convert this to Word Perfect and master pages were printed.

I then had to cut and paste the photos into the required places and then photocopy and reduce them from A4 to A5 master. Very time-consuming. Then came the photocopying.  I used my work resources out of hours on the first couple of issues and then my in-laws said I could use the printing facilities at their church for a charitable donation, which was how the later issues were done.

The first issue was 24 pages and I sold them at concerts and gave many away to promote the fanzine and the band. 99th Floor in Southend had a supply they sold or gave away. In all 14 issues were produced, but by the last issue around 30 were produced on a print-by-order basis, as the fan base now got their information much quicker via the internet. 

What were the reaction of the band, label, and other fans?

Richard Allen was pleased with the fact he had something to help promote the band with. He sent out flyers with his Freakbeat mail order business mailouts and I got a very good response from this too and had a mail list of over 100 for issue 2. Steven found a couple of minor errors in the first issue and offered to proofread all future issues and agreed to himself and the other band members being interviewed for future issues. These are all in the book.

How did the book come about?

The book came about by accident. I had not intended to publish it. I had however thought about consolidating the articles and interviews into one document for my own benefit and to pass on to anyone who was interested. I’d seen some old Voyage 35’s selling on eBay for over £20 an issue, so thought there might be some interest as a historical document in the early days of the band. 

Rich Wilson, Charles Beterams, and Guy Tkach, had all contacted me for information for their books on Porcupine Tree and this gave me a push to provide this to them. 

Coincidentally, my wife was in the process of leaving her employment and with very little to do took on the task of typing up the articles from the early issues I had no digital files (those produced on the Atari or which had been on floppy discs). I made a conscious decision not to include reviews of the albums including my own as there were many reviews out there and most are personal opinions. Once I’d consolidated the articles I sent this out to friends and some contacts I still had from the old Fanzine days. This included Jon at Gonzo.

Jon felt this had potential as a published book and he would run with this and do the necessary, which is where we are at today. The one thing I wanted though was the Mutant Baby inspired by Radioactive Toy and drawn by John Chase as the cover illustration.

The book still has very much a fanzine feel, including being broken by issues. The approach works very well but why did you choose this format?

It just seemed logical to keep the issue approach as it gave a sense of historical progression on the evolution of the band at the time. I thought that anyone wanting to see what was being said about saying The Sky Moves Sideways at the time of release could easily find the references within the book.

All music reviews are subjective to a lesser or greater degree, and given that, yours would have captured a moment in time do you regret not including them?

Not really. I did as said, consider including them but in the end, decided to leave them out. Maybe in hindsight keeping them in would have added to the historical nature of the book that I intended.

After Voyage 35 did you still write, or did you put that behind you?

I occasionally did reviews for other fanzines such as Brian Tawn’s HawkFan, Hawkeye, and Wondrous Stories, and did a booklet, primarily for my daughters, but it has gone a bit wider over the years, on my memories of Ventnor on the Isle of Wight, covering my childhood years. I’ve not written anything for some while now though.

Apart from Hawkwind, who really excites you musically today?

There is not a lot of new music I get overly excited about these days. Fish On Friday is probably the “newest” band I really enjoy listening to, along with Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds (never really that keen on Oasis though). Other artists I have gotten into seem to run out of steam quite quickly and get derivative or lose their way. It’s as if they have a lot of good ideas and put them into one good debut release. I’m forever donating CDs to charity shops that have disappointed me. Most CD purchases (and yes, I prefer to own the music and I think they sound better than streaming) these days tend to be remastered or new material by bands I collect.

I see you have covered Steven’s output other than Porcupine Tree. How did you track down these bands?

Once I did the first issue Steven’s past came to light from various readers, including a live tape that Steven didn’t have in his possession. These readers had been lucky enough to live in Steven’s area and had seen previous bands he had played in. Also, Steven had issued tapes with these bands.

No-Man was of course already well known and a number of people who were fans of this band transitioned across to Porcupine Tree. It was always my intention to cover Steven’s offshoots and one issue became a No-Man special, covering a timeline and all known releases up to that time. Phil Harwood helped with the discography whilst I researched the history as best I could. 

The only time I deviated from the straight Issue approach in the book, was in bringing forward a letter from Tim Bowness that I published in the next issue as I felt it better to keep the No-Man info together.

What are your thoughts now that Porcupine Tree has reformed for a new CD and Tour?

I’m pleased for them (although disappointed for Colin (and Chris) that they missed out on this stage of the band’s popularity). They went out on a high with the Royal Albert Hall gig, but that was also tainted as there were obvious tensions within the band and they just faded away. Personally, I didn’t enjoy the latest album, and having seen the set list there wasn’t enough from the early years to satisfy me, but again, I’m pleased with the recognition they have finally achieved from all corners of the press, even those that ignored them in the early days. 

Playing to sell-out crowds across the globe justifies the direction Steven eventually took, even though it left me (and others) behind. I am proud of the part I played in those early formative years in helping promote the band and pleased Richard Allen (the band’s first manager) took the time to write the forward to the book for me. 

I hope people who buy the book find it an interesting testament to those early days and will be inspired to revisit the early albums and see what inspired such loyalty from the fans at the time in Porcupine Tree.

What’s next?

Who knows? 

Steve’s book is available at all good outlets, and can easily be found on all Amazon sites – here is the link to the UK, https://www.amazon.co.uk/VOYAGE-35-Porcupine-Steve-Freight/dp/1908728957/

BUBBLEMATH – SUCH FINE PARTICLES OF THE UNIVERSE – INDEPENDENT

I was chatting to keyboard player Kai Esbensen recently and mentioned I had never heard their 2001 debut, and he said he would send me a copy. I demurred, saying a download would be fine, but he was keen for me to have a physical version and as soon as it arrived I could see why. The rear cover shows the periodic table, but some are missing, and by running a finger over it one can feel that it is not that they have not been printed, but rather they have been cut out. Turn the digipak back to the front and there are the missing elements making up the album title, and again when running a finger over the name one can feel they have been added, while the band’s name is also embossed. I was impressed and I hadn’t even opened it yet, let alone listened to it! A huge amount of work has gone into the booklet, with each page containing the lyrics but very different in style to the rest and if this amount of work had gone into the presentation what on earth would the music be like?

The line-up in 2001 was exactly the same as it is today, namely Jonathan Smith (vocals, xylophone, guitar, flute), Blake Albinson (guitars), Kai Esbensen (keyboards), Jay Burritt (bass) and James Swensen-Flagg (drums), and even though this was the debut they were already demonstrating the ridiculous amount of talent they have, while also showing that progheads have a sense of humour (honest!). The throwaway “She’s No Vegetarian” is a blast of fun at less then 3 minutes long (and is not the shortest song on the album), taking us into the late Sixties yet is very much the only song of that type on the album as though they refuse to settle within any one area for too long. Musically they were already demonstrating their love of experimentation and pushing boundaries in a way associated in the US with the likes of Zappa while in the UK we would look to Cardiacs, whose classic ‘Sing To God’ came out only five years before this.

However, Bubblemath are a band who have resolutely stuck to their own musical path and have continued to do so to this day, even though this has impacted on their output, and we have only had three albums in total in more than 20 years. But when music is as fine as this then who are we to complain? One never knows what is going to come next, but with songs generally quite short (there are 12 songs on the album which is only 45:23 in length and only one is longer than six minutes), one knows there is not too long to wait, and that intricacy will be involved. The music is complex, complicated and incredibly intricate, yet at the same time it is an album which can be enjoyed the very first time of playing with hidden depths being uncovered the more one listens to it. The arrangements are unreal, with musicians going off at tangents only for it to all make sense later, the result being both experimental and adventurous. Undoubtedly this will frighten off those who want their prog to be delivered in a carefully manicured Genesis/Floyd manner, but those who want their music to be running straight past any perceived boundaries would do well to give this a listen.
10/10 Kev Rowland

3RDEGREE – FROM A TO XANADU – INDEPENDENT

There is no doubt in my mind that one of the most under-rated and under-appreciated progressive rock bands around is America’s 3RDegree. Over the years they have been incredibly consistent, and while I have not heard the debut album (so consequently have not reviewed it), I have given all the other five maximum marks, so it is safe to say I am a fan. There is something about their commercial progressive sound with wonderful harmonies which really gets to me and many others. The first album of theirs I heard was 2012’s ‘The Long Division’, and I was blown away by a sound which reminded me so much of City Boy – that review got the band to check them out as they had never previously heard them, and it also made sense to them! I also need to thank fellow beer aficionado and bassist/keyboard player Robert James Pashman for instilling in me a love of trappiest ales.

So what is this compilation, and why does it say it covers the years 1990-2020 when it starts with a recording from 2011? That song, “The World In Which We Lived”, originally appeared on their debut album back in 1993 when they were a trio with some guests and Robert provided the vocals, and was then re-recorded in 2010 with George. It is the commencement of a journey in chronological order, with virtually every song remixed, taken from all their releases over the years. The set also contains three hidden tracks, which cannot be streamed but are part of the download, and these three replace three other songs on the CD if the physical version is purchased. It is safe to say that one of these is the finest bringing together of two songs which share the same title I have ever heard and will be guaranteed to bring a smile to anyone who knows them.

With their two most recent albums being their most successful, and both of them being concept albums with the second being a continuation of the first, it does mean there is a certain lack of continuity within this compilation, but there is no doubt it is a wonderful collection of songs and a great way of finding out about one of America’s finest commercial crossover prorgressive bands who have an innate sense of melody to combine hooks with intricacy in easy to enjoy songs which are always fun and full of life.
9/10 Kev Rowland

BABAL – Who Will I Be When I Leave – Melodic Revolution Records

Babal are back with another album which refuses to conform to what anyone thinks progressive rock should be like, with a worldview which puts them in opposition to the majority and they are just fine with that. Although they have a guest who provides additional bass on a couple of tracks, Babal are a close-knit trio who have been following their own musical path and destiny for some years now, staying away from anything which could be deemed to be trendy and instead walking a path less followed. In Jon Sharpe they have a drummer who is never content to sit at the back and just keep time, but rather he needs to be heard and injects himself into the music to be a key part of the arrangements. Rob Williams is a multi-instrumentalist who appears to be at home with whatever he touches, and then there is Karen?… Karen is the ultimate performer living her roles, which are very much part of her, destined to be the center of attention.

With both Rob and Karen suffering cancer in recent years, there was a very high risk that Babal would have to fold, and as it is they have unable to play gigs for quite some time, but there is nothing which will stop the guys channeling the music which is in their blood, and here they have come up with one of their most uncompromising albums yet. Think Talking Heads mixed with Beefheart, experimental Zappa and some punk ethics (as opposed to musical) such as Crass and one may just get close. There are elements of free jazz alongside prog, an edginess which refuses definition and a solid desire never to be pleasant and restful but rather be angular and sharp. This is music which will divide opinions among progheads as there will be plenty who will feel there is too much angst and general weirdness going on while there will also be others who feel this is cutting edge which takes us back 50 years to a time when anything was possible and being progressive meant being different as opposed to rehashing what had come before.

I have become used to Babal by now and knew I would not necessarily enjoy this the first time I played this, even before I put it on, and possibly not even the second, but by the third, there was a smile on my face as Karen, Rob and Jon have yet again delivered something out of the norm and very special indeed.

4/5 by Kev Rowland

The Steve Bonino Project – Pandora – Melodic Revolution Records

When I was young, I was fascinated by myths and legends of ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt and I was given a book, ‘The Story of Greece’, which had belonged to my mum when she was a child herself. With lots of colour plates I was fascinated by the stories of Achilles, Hyacinthus, Apollo, Arachne and many others, including of course Pandora. Many people will have heard the term Pandora’s Box even if they do not know the myth from which it was taken. Although the story has been retold many times in many ways, the base is always the same in that Pandora opened a container as she wondered what was inside, releasing many evils into the world and although she attempted to close it quickly only one thing was left behind, often referred to as hope.

Steve is a multi-instrumentalist, and although Eric Johnson has assisted with a guitar solo on one song, he does everything else himself apart from the female vocals, where Shimmer Johnson provides the lead on “My Name Is Pandora” and C.C. White provides additional vocals throughout. Steve is no stranger to concept albums, with the two excellent ‘Stargazer’ albums behind him, but it is very different indeed to work on an original story as opposed to a well-known myth, how to make it relevant for the modern day? Quite easily in his hands it appears, as he mixes it with the story of Eve and Christianity, bringing it right up to date when someone at a garage sale come across a jewelled box they cannot open and asks for advice, only to regret it when they get inside.

The lyrics are thoughtful and at times quite deep, making us think, but in contrast the music is light and full of hooks, so they combine together in a manner which is both fascinating and intriguing, making us curious to investigate further, much like the protagonists in the story. The idea of bringing in a singer to take on the role of Pandora herself makes total sense as here she has a voice and is able to explain who she is, and in Shimmer Johnson, Steve has found the perfect vocalization of his ideas. I can see them working together more in the future.

As well as the songs, there is a spoken word piece called “Origin Story”, where we hear the story of Pandora according to the original legends, explaining to those who did not grow up reading Greek myths (which is most people in fairness), all accompanied by an underlying keyboard piece. I also ought to make mention of the drums, as although they are programmed it shows that when someone really knows what they are doing then they can become a valid instrument. It really feels like there is a human driving the sound as opposed to a computer.

The end result is an album which is deep, wanting to make us think and also investigate the story further, while also being thoroughly enjoyable on a musical level. Complex, and complicated, it is a delight the first time it is played and that feeling only deepens the more one gets inside.

By Kev Rowland