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.
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/