It’s The End Of The World As We Know It…

The Pineap­ple Thief are back with al­bum num­ber 12, one that per­fectly en­cap­su­lates their style. Bruce So­ord and Gavin Har­ri­son talk dark lyrics, ‘cy­ber jam­ming’ and bat­tling demons…

Prog - - Intro - Words: Polly Glass Im­ages: James Cump­sty

If your first im­pres­sion of Bruce So­ord was his lyrics, you’d ex­pect a deeply trou­bled man. For nearly 20 years he’s spe­cialised in beau­ti­ful angst, paint­ing soul-search­ing vignettes that tap into some of the dark­est re­cesses of hu­man strife. At times this has been in­formed by per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, as seen in the in­tro­verted ag­gro of his ear­li­est works, as well as the pain of los­ing a child in 2006’s Lit­tle Man.

To ac­tu­ally meet him, how­ever, is to meet a dif­fer­ent per­son: an up­beat lead­ing light in al­ter­na­tive mu­sic (both as a mu­si­cian and multi-chan­nel mixer with Opeth, Anath­ema and Gong among his cred­its) and the hap­pily mar­ried fa­ther of twins. A pretty happy guy, es­sen­tially.

“I still love ev­ery day, I savour ev­ery mo­ment!” he beams from his Yeovil stu­dio, in cheer­fully ac­cent­less tones. “But I think it was when the la­bel emailed me and said, ‘We need the lyrics,’ and I had them on pieces of pa­per, and I read over them and was like, ‘Oh my God, this is pretty bleak even for me.’” So… are you okay? “Yeah peo­ple do ask me that a lot,” he grins, slightly guiltily. “‘How’s your fam­ily? How’s your wife?’ We’re fine, we’re fine! But I guess it’s just look­ing at the world around me. I haven’t turned into this ni­hilis­tic kind of ‘we’re doomed’ guy. I don’t think that. I still think hu­man­ity is won­der­ful.”

So­ord is in a good mood. Look­ing re­laxed and mag­nif­i­cently tanned, he’s just opened his pre­ferred end-of-day poi­son, a bot­tle of Du­vel beer, and is ready to talk about Dis­so­lu­tion, his 12th al­bum with The Pineap­ple Thief. It’s gone down very well, com­bin­ing the hooky, con­tem­po­rary-sound­ing tune fo­cus of 2014’s ‘pop­pier’ Mag­no­lia with the gnarlier, more sprawl­ing im­pact of his clas­sic prog and rock in­flu­ences. With tunes rang­ing from sharp four-minute hits to the 11-plus min­utes of White Mist, it’s per­haps the most com­plete rep­re­sen­ta­tion of all the band’s epochs, from the at­mo­spheric, twisty prog of 1999 de­but Ab­duct­ing The Uni­corn through to the present.

And So­ord ap­pears no worse off for the re­mote, in­ter­net-based process that led to its cre­ation. Not that the irony of mak­ing an al­bum about the de­struc­tive ef­fects of so­cial me­dia and 24/7 com­mu­ni­ca­tion – via What­sApp, Skype and the like – is lost on him.

“It’s a bit of a con­tra­dic­tion isn’t it!” he laughs. “Per­son­ally I took a step back and un­plugged my con­nec­tions and re­plugged them in just for the peo­ple who mat­tered.”

Still, in the wake of re­cent head­lines – when we speak, Face­book over­lord Mark Zucker­berg has re­cently lost al­most $17bn in an hour – the al­bum’s the­matic fo­cus feels pleas­ingly top­i­cal.

“I think in cen­turies to come, the pe­riod we’re go­ing through now will be recog­nised as a mo­men­tous time, not in a good way,” he says. “I think peo­ple are real­is­ing that it’s gone too far.”

Fam­ily and friends aside (his wife is ex­pect­ing their third child in Oc­to­ber), the peo­ple he’s cared about stay­ing con­nected with are the other mu­si­cians that com­plete The Pineap­ple Thief. There’s bas­sist Jon Sykes, who So­ord has known since he was 18, long-time key­boardist Steve Kitch, col­lab­o­rat­ing gui­tarist Dar­ran Charles (also of heavy pro­gres­sive types God­sticks) and drum­mer Gavin Har­ri­son.

It’s dif­fi­cult to be im­mersed in the pro­go­sphere with­out com­ing across Har­ri­son. The goa­tee-ed sticks­man from Mid­dle­sex has be­come one of the most in-de­mand drum­mers on the scene. Fol­low­ing years of work as a side­man to var­i­ous megas­tars, he grad­u­ally moved into a new niche: giv­ing es­tab­lished pro­gres­sive acts a new lease of life. First it was Por­cu­pine Tree (his ar­rival, for 2002’s In Ab­sen­tia, saw them ef­fec­tively ‘break out’), then King Crim­son – with whom he’s on tour when we talk over the phone for this piece – and most re­cently The Pineap­ple Thief.

Fol­low­ing an in­tro­duc­tion via their mu­tual la­bel Ks­cope, Har­ri­son was ef­fec­tively ‘parachuted’ in to help fin­ish ar­range­ments for

2016 al­bum Your Wilder­ness. This time, now an of­fi­cial mem­ber of the band, he was in­volved with song­writ­ing from the be­gin­ning, lay­ing down drum parts from his own Tardis-like stu­dio in Lon­don. Even ‘cy­ber jam­ming’ ideas, as they did, it still felt like an or­ganic team ef­fort, com­pared with ear­lier records for which Bruce would demo up tracks very thor­oughly be­fore show­ing them to the rest of the band.

“We bat­ted it back and forth like that, and that was the big dif­fer­ence,” So­ord rea­sons. “Peo­ple au­to­mat­i­cally think, ‘Oh my God that’s such a ster­ile en­vi­ron­ment, cre­at­ing this al­bum with some kind of for­mula,’ but it wasn’t like that at all. It was like be­ing in a sweaty re­hearsal room, but 200 miles apart!”

“I haven’t turned into this ni­hilis­tic kind of ‘we’re doomed’ guy. I don’t think that. I still think hu­man­ity is won­der­ful.” Bruce So­ord

For Har­ri­son this ar­range­ment felt com­pletely nat­u­ral. It’s how all the Por­cu­pine Tree records he was part of were made, and how he does most of his record­ing these days.

“Even with The Pineap­ple Thief we could’ve af­forded to go in a stu­dio and do it all to­gether,” he says. “But you do get used to the idea of hav­ing no pres­sure, so if you want to spend three days work­ing on a drum track, that’s fine. You haven’t wasted any­one’s time, you haven’t wasted any­one’s money. It’s a dif­fer­ent story when all of the band mem­bers are sit­ting in an ex­pen­sive stu­dio in Lon­don and rack­ing up thou­sands a day – there’s much more pres­sure.”

If So­ord is the warm, chat­ter­ing face of The Pineap­ple Thief – flit­ting be­tween artis­tic con­fi­dence and de­cid­edly British self­dep­re­ca­tion – Har­ri­son is some­thing of a straight-faced coun­ter­part. As an in­ter­vie­wee, he’s not un­like Steven Wil­son. Se­ri­ous but will­ingly talkative, he speaks clearly in full sen­tences, and with his un­com­pro­mis­ing ded­i­ca­tion to mu­sic, you can see how the pair got on well in Por­cu­pine Tree.

“There has to be an amount of pri­vacy, I sup­pose, to a cer­tain de­gree,” he says thought­fully of the record­ing process. “It’s a bit like tak­ing all your clothes off in pub­lic: you’re re­veal­ing a quite in­ti­mate part of your­self when you’re record­ing and try­ing to ex­press your­self in a very mean­ing­ful way. You’ve got to strip off all your ex­cess things.

“You’ve got to get to a place that you might not feel com­fort­able with,” he con­tin­ues. “You’re go­ing to make an idiot out of your­self some­times and you don’t want every­one stand­ing around while you’re do­ing it. I don’t feel that way per­son­ally on the drums, be­cause I’ve come from a time where I used to do lots of ses­sions in stu­dios with quite an au­di­ence.

The very first Por­cu­pine Tree al­bum I did was like that ac­tu­ally; all the band, all the record com­pany, and the en­gi­neers, and the man­age­ment were all in the con­trol room.”

A nat­u­rally “co­or­di­nated kid”,

Har­ri­son went to bal­let school as a six-year-old (be­fore dis­cov­er­ing the drums) and watched his jazz trum­peter fa­ther play ses­sions at the BBC. Since then he’s strived to pro­duce unique drum parts, whether it’s for a com­plex pat­tern or a stan­dard 4/4 tempo, as shown on the dex­trous yet re­strained fills and rhythms on Dis­so­lu­tion. It lends it­self well to the mix of od­dball edges, melodic eu­pho­ria and bit­ing pro­gres­sive mood­i­ness in high­lights like Try As I Might and Threat­en­ing War.

“Be­fore, in The Pineap­ple Thief, it [the drums] was there to serve a pur­pose,” says So­ord, “it wasn’t re­ally there to be cre­ative. It was more about hold­ing down a beat. I think Gavin’s ap­proach to drum­ming is so much more con­sid­ered and so mu­si­cal.

“The way he uses all his drum kit, his toms and these tiny cut-down cym­bals, no one else re­ally sounds like that,”

So­ord con­tin­ues. “It just in­spires you to do stuff… and our bass player Jon, as soon as he heard it, all of a sud­den he sounded like a bet­ter bass player. It made me re­alise ac­tu­ally how good Jon is be­cause he was there play­ing and in­ter­act­ing with all these re­ally del­i­cate el­e­ments that Gavin brought in.”

A multi-in­stru­men­tal­ist, as well as a drum­mer, he also plays a vin­tage wurl­itzer on the mid­dle sec­tion of one track, Far Below. Not that Har­ri­son seeks to over­whelm with vir­tu­os­ity, he says.

“I al­ways think an artist should hide their tech­nique, it shouldn’t be on dis­play,” Har­ri­son rea­sons. “It’s like your un­der­wear, I don’t want to see what un­der­wear you’re wear­ing. I hope you’ve got some on, but that’s not the artis­tic point. It about what you’re say­ing. Ob­vi­ously you’re us­ing tech­nique to ex­press your point, but it’s not the main thing.”

When he joined, So­ord said that Har­ri­son (to­gether with gui­tarist Charles) gave the band “a new lease of life”. Did they seem like they were a band in need of a gear change, or help?

“I’d heard a cou­ple of songs on a pod­cast and thought they were good,” Har­ri­son says. “When Bruce con­tacted me I was very open to the idea and happy to do it. But I wasn’t mak­ing a de­lib­er­ate ef­fort to change the sound of that band; that’s how they re­acted to my sound. So it be­came a new-sound­ing group.”

While Har­ri­son’s CV can be heard in Dis­so­lu­tion (the Por­cu­pine Tree side es­pe­cially), the full al­bum em­braces wider pro­gres­sive ter­rain. The afore­men­tioned White Mist in par­tic­u­lar in­di­cates a re­turn to So­ord’s prog­gi­est roots. As a child he lapped up records by Pink Floyd, Su­per­tramp and the Alan Par­sons Project, the in­flu­ence of which has trans­ferred to his present-day ap­pre­ci­a­tion of more psy­che­delic jams. There were cer­tain cor­ner­stones of clas­sic prog that didn’t sit so eas­ily, though…

“I re­mem­ber when my mates were lis­ten­ing to Yes and they lent me Close To The Edge, and I thought, ‘Oh God, what is this?!’ I hated it,” So­ord re­mem­bers. “And af­ter the fifth time, I was like, ‘Al­right, it sounds okay now, I’ll keep play­ing it,’ and I must’ve had to keep play­ing 20 times till I could un­der­stand it and get into it. So even though I love that pe­riod of Yes now, at the time I found it re­ally quite im­pen­e­tra­ble. I was al­ways more into the more melodic side of stuff, which is ob­vi­ously why peo­ple like Floyd and Su­per­tramp were up there.”

In the late 80s and 90s he turned to the grungy likes of Nir­vana, be­fore swerv­ing through the Red Hot Chili Pep­pers, Liv­ing Colour, Ra­dio­head, early Biffy Clyro in the 00s and many oth­ers. Pick­ing up tones and tricks along the way, it’s made for a “weird mix”, but one that’s res­onated with scores of fans. Not that there hasn’t been some re­sis­tance along the way. “If some­one [on so­cial me­dia] wants to take a shot at you, you have to take it,” he says, hark­ing back to the lyri­cal themes of Dis­so­lu­tion. “You’ve got to have a re­ally thick skin. And in the mid-pe­riod of The Pineap­ple Thief I didn’t have a par­tic­u­larly thick skin. I used to get re­ally up­set and couldn’t sleep ’cos I’d be think­ing about these things that peo­ple were say­ing. It doesn’t bother me now… okay, maybe a tiny, tiny bit, but in my old age I think I’ve con­quered that.”

For all the home stu­dio per­fec­tion­ism of Dis­so­lu­tion, the live show prom­ises to be a lively af­fair: “No shoegaz­ing!” So­ord chuck­les. “And I’ll be stick­ing my gui­tar in the air and run­ning around…”

As a unit they seem more con­fi­dently placed for tour­ing com­pared with ear­lier tours – dur­ing which So­ord, crip­pled by stage fright, would get drunk ev­ery night to get through it all. He con­cedes he’s since had to “clean up” his act.

Have you over­come those demons now?

“I have put those demons to rest,” he nods. “It took a long time. I think a lot of it is to do with hav­ing a band that is so good and to know that I can step on­stage and it’s gonna be great. Whereas in the old days I’d be so ter­ri­fied of the whole process. But now that we’ve got to where we are…”

He pauses and smiles, slightly dis­be­liev­ing: “It’s only when you ask me ques­tions like this that I think about how far we’ve come, es­pe­cially over the last four years, that I re­alise that I have over­come my stage fright. Which is good. I’m pleased!”

Dis­so­lu­tion is out now via Ks­cope. The Pineap­ple Thief tour comes to the UK on Oc­to­ber 4, 5 and 6. See www.pineap­ for more in­for­ma­tion.


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