Q&A: Ex-Porcupine Tree Bassist Colin Edwin on New O.R.k. Album, 'Screamnasiam'
It might be tempting to call O.R.k. a supergroup, as two of its members have played in a couple of the biggest groups in the history of progressive rock: bassist Colin Edwin was formerly in Porcupine Tree, and Pat Mastelotto is the drummer in King Crimson. And singer Lorenzo Esposito Fornasari (A.K.A. LEF) and guitarist Carmelo Pipitone have released music outside of O.R.k., too. But Edwin is quick to push back on what can often be a term to describe a side project.
With its fourth album, "Screamnasiam," the band has created something the bassist says they've been striving for since they formed.
Ben Province: The single, "As I Leave," is about trying, unsuccessfully, to form deeper connections with others. Is the song's meaning autobiographical to you or anyone else in the band?
Colin Edwin: I hope this doesn’t sound like a cop out, but I always prefer not to be too explicit about lyrics, as I [recognize] that the most powerful interpretation will be the personal one that the listener attributes to something.
But I think for most people, the scenario of having certain relationships fall by the wayside, or collapse without any explicable, obvious reason is more common than we like to admit. Sometimes things are only clear long after the fact, or perhaps never.
Province: The song sounds to me like a confluence of progressive rock and classic alternative, with LEF channeling Chris Cornell at times. Is that a fair way to describe the song and album?
Edwin: That seems like a reasonable description! But O.R.k. is a broad church, and despite LEF’s classical influence, which sometimes come to the fore, I find it difficult to think of us as having too much in common with classic prog rock. The occasional odd time-based song notwithstanding, we generally don’t do long-form, extended-length tracks, or rely too much on keyboards, and in truth, guitarist Carmelo Pipitone is really our secret weapon; he’s a very unique character and total one-off as a guitar player.
I’ve had "Screamnasium" described to me as almost pop-rock, which I don’t necessarily agree with, but for sure, it’s easily our most direct and accessible album.
As for LEF, I guess any strong male vocalist will invite comparisons, so I am sure he is quite happy being mentioned in the same breath as Chris Cornell, but he’s definitely his own man. Our shared past involves a band called Obake, [where] LEF sang and growled in a brutal no language format, which was very different.
Interestingly, the reviews of our first album back in 2015 ("Inflamed Rides") often mentioned David Sylvian, whom I know LEF was totally unfamiliar with, but he can also croon when it suits.
Province: Given the success members of this band have had prior to forming, do you like the term "supergroup" to describe O.R.k.?
Edwin: Honestly, the term “supergroup" has often suggested to me some sort of lazy, self-indulgent hobby band type affair, and I can tell you none of us have ever thought of O.R.k. as some kind of filler vanity project. We found very early on, perhaps surprisingly and quite effortlessly, that we have a great chemistry together and all the gigs and recordings we’ve made have been an attempt to explore it as much as we can. With every album, we’ve always managed to exceed our own expectations, reach more people and write better material, so that’s how we’ve been able to justify continuing.
Province: What's the biggest similarity between your work with this band as compared to Porcupine Tree? And what's the biggest difference?
Edwin: The biggest and most obvious difference for me is that I am much more involved in the lyrical content, which is something I did a long time in the past but never with Porcupine Tree. Despite playing a lot of instrumental music, I’ve always been interested in lyrics, but it was something I just let drift until LEF and I started writing together.
Bass playing aside, I can feel that there is a similar atmosphere and artistic sensibility in some areas of the music which is perhaps a common thread, but it's too difficult for me to pinpoint exactly. I am probably too close to it to give an exact answer anyway.
Whilst there are some darker elements with both bands, I do find O.R.k. generally has a more uplifting take on things, and live it’s a very different beast, with a greater scope for spontaneity.
Province: How does your interest in various genres outside of progressive rock, like jazz, world music and electronica, impact your playing style?
Edwin: In recent years, I’ve definitely learnt a lot more about the relationship between bass and voice by working so closely with Ukrainian vocalist Inna Kovtun, creating new song interpretations by stripping things back to pure melody and bass and then building arrangements up from there. But everything feeds everything else in the end, and overall, I’d say that bass playing shares common traits across many genres. Sometimes it’s only after the fact that I [realize] I might have got a bassline idea from listening to Fela Kuti or something.
Province: A few years ago, O.R.k. collaborated with System of a Down's Serj Tankian on the song "Black Blooms." What was that like?
Edwin: The whole thing came about through Bill Laswell, who connected us, as he felt LEF and Serj would be a good match, and he was certainly right about that. “Black Blooms” wasn’t just a guest vocalist situation but a proper collaboration with Serj, who also co-wrote the song and developed the vocal arrangement with LEF. I have to admit, [we] offered Serj a choice of several of the "Ramagehead" songs [2019 O.R.k. album], and I was very surprised he chose to work on “Black Blooms,” but in retrospect, he probably made a much bigger impact to that song than any of the other possibilities.
Interview was conducted by email and has been edited for clarity and style.