The Pineapple Thief
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2020 Anil Prasad.
Our world is dominated by self-replicating, self-optimized social media algorithms, manipulated news coverage and politicians seeking to undermine societal integrity and democracy for their personal and tribal gain. Those facts are the focus of The Pineapple Thief’s recent output. The British art-rock band’s new album Versions of the Truth and 2018’s Dissolution are both incisive recordings that ask difficult questions and explore the dark, technology-mediated realities of modern life and how they affect day-to-day personal relationships.
Musically, the two albums showcase a significant evolution for the group, first established in 1999 by frontman, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Bruce Soord. From the outset, Soord was determined to have The Pineapple Thief embrace expansive musical constructs, without relying on the clichés of progressive rock. At its core, the band’s output is about melodic, intelligent songcraft embedded within creative, mercurial arrangements and atmospheres.
The Pineapple Thief solidified on a new lineup in 2018, featuring Soord, longtime members keyboardist Steve Kitch and bassist Jon Sykes, and drummer Gavin Harrison, best known for his work with Porcupine Tree and King Crimson. Prior to 2018, Harrison was a session drummer for The Pineapple Thief on its 2016 album Your Wilderness, which yielded a new chemistry and ambition everyone wanted to take to the next level. The band captured the cohesion of its new formation in full flight on its 2019 live album Hold Our Fire.
Soord also pursues a solo career, which has yielded three albums, including 2019’s All This Will Be Yours. The release is a meditative, introspective and more acoustically-focused effort than his work with The Pineapple Thief. It was largely inspired by personal experiences in Soord’s life, including the birth of his fourth child.
This interview is a remix of multiple discussions that began in December 2019 with an extended dressing room session with the whole band conducted before its first San Francisco concert at Slim’s. The dialog continued through Summer 2020, including a discussion of Soord’s solo output.
How has COVID-19 impacted the band?
Soord: We’ve been very lucky. We toured North America and returned just as the pandemic was emerging. I can honestly say COVID-19 didn’t impact the process of making the new album much at all. We all write and record in our home studios and share files online, so we were able to finish Versions of the Truth with very little disruption.
We would usually interact daily using some kind of video call or web chat. That’s not to say the pandemic hasn’t affected us all. But we count ourselves lucky that we have got away lightly. Even so, 2020 has been a really weird year to live through. I often wonder how that impacted the final construction of the album.
I think the only thing we couldn’t do was new band photographs, which isn’t such a bad thing. How many middle-aged men standing looking awkward in a line does the world need?
What do you see as the value of music in connecting and elevating people during this profoundly challenging period?
Soord: Music is more important than ever. I view it from the state of the immediate society I’m part of in the UK and even in my town. It's changed an awful lot with the polarization and Brexit.
Harrison: Unfortunately, I don't think we're going to solve the world’s problems with a Pineapple Thief album.
Soord: No, but I think people need a release. They need something to connect to that can bring some kind of sense to their lives.
Harrison: I suppose it depends on how you consume music. Is it escapism? Is it something that gives you great solace or comfort? Or is it something you just put on while you're doing the housework or ironing? I think there's a period of your life when music means everything—somewhere between ages 15-21, when records kind of define your personality. It might have a big influence on the way you think about the world, the way you dress and the way you do your hair. I'm not 15-21 anymore, but those albums that I did listen to as a kid defined a musical preference and things that excited me. I'd go to my bedroom, put on the headphones, and it would be glorious utopia.
I don't know if people aged 15-21 are still consuming music in the way that perhaps we did, when it meant everything to us. Music on its own was a night's entertainment. We would just sit around a friend's house listening to vinyl and be amazed at a Frank Zappa album or something. I don't know what 15-21 year-olds do now. Are they sitting around gaming? Is music just the background to their lives? Would they find comfort and direction in the lyrics of one of our albums that would make them feel differently about the world they’re living in? I don’t have the answer.
Kitch: In the last year-and-a-half, we've traveled throughout the UK, Europe, US, Mexico, and Canada. The people we interact with are really interested in the music. We see groups of friends and family from all kinds of backgrounds. And those backgrounds are irrelevant at our shows, because everyone’s just there for the music.
Harrison: That's a good thing and that provides for us—as well as anyone else—an important escape from all the things that are going on right now.
What were the highlights and challenges of your first American tour?
Soord: The first and biggest challenge was getting here, because the US doesn't make it easy for musicians to get in. It's quite extraordinary, actually, what we had to go through to get the visas to be in the US. It always seems to go down to the wire. Our sound engineer didn't get his visa until the day before we left.
Harrison: And that was even though we applied six months before. People probably don't realize what's involved. You're looking at somewhere between $8,000-$14,000 US to get work visas. I know from my American buddies, if you want to come over to Europe or the UK, you're looking at spending $50 in your local post office. You walk in, pay it, stamp your passport, come out, and you’re done.
For the US, there’s six months of hell with an American lawyer or someone who specializes in visa purposes working on your behalf. They fill out forms beyond belief. You have to give them unbelievable amounts of information to qualify for what they call an O-1 visa. You need to prove you’ve been on magazine covers and won awards. They want you to print out hundreds of pages and give it to an American lawyer who presents it all to the American government to prove you’re a person of “exceptional ability” in order to get a visa. That’s the reality of the situation.
Kitch: In the meantime, six months before you're even allowed to apply for your visa, tickets will go on sale. So, as far as fans are concerned, the gig's on. The money's being taken from fans and venues are being booked.
Harrison: And flights, hotels and bus deposits are being paid for. Yet, a week before we’re flying out to America, we still don’t know if we’re able to come or not, because none of us have the visas yet.
Kitch: Yeah. You have to look online. They say “Normally, it’s three to nine working days” but in reality, it can take 60-80 days.
Harrison: So, the whole tour could be off.
Soord: Getting the band to the US for the last tour was one of the most stressful moments of my life. The flip side is when we finally got there, there was an audience that was really grateful to see us. When we landed in America and played the first show, the atmosphere and reaction from people was quite uniquely American. They were very happy to see us.
Harrison: There was a lot of warmth.
Sykes: And that was true across the whole tour.
Soord: Even though the audience is probably not aware of the technical nitty-gritty, I think they're aware that it's not easy for an English band to come over to America. Therefore, they're very grateful and appreciative.
How do the band’s songs evolve in a live context?
Kitch: The songs aren’t completely different, but I feel like they become so much better live. We feel it on stage. I sometimes think “This is as good as it’s going to get.” But then, on the next tour, I think “Now, this show is so much better.” You can always put more energy into what you do and it creates more sparks. That’s how things have evolved for me.
Harrison: At the first rehearsal, the goal is to vaguely play it like on the album, and then even from that point onwards to the first gig, things will have evolved. It's got more energy, we’re playing it together, and then sometimes the song isn’t remotely like where we started. If you compare performances from one tour to another, there’s probably been quite a massive change in how the songs are played.
Soord: We have definitely developed how we play the songs. There are elements that change and evolve across tours. I think “I like playing it better this way. It’s better than what I did on the record, so this is how it’s going to be now.” Eventually, I’ll go back and listen to the recorded version and think “This actually did change. The details are different.”
Harrison: Part of it is because we survive as a sort of virtual, remote band when we’re writing and recording. We don’t live near each other. Some bands rehearse together, go on tour, play the songs live for a couple of years, and then record them. So, they’ve been played in. We’re always starting off with a very unplayed-in version—the album version. For better or worse—usually better—the song mutates live into something that finds us all working together in a way we didn’t on the album. That’s just a fact because of how the band is set up. I think this holds true for many bands these days.
There have been several previous Pineapple Thief live albums and dozens of King Crimson ones. What have you all learned about the art of capturing live material and how does that manifest itself on Hold Our Fire?
Harrison: It’s related to what we just talked about. Hold Our Fire is about the band playing together. It’s not perfect. There are mistakes. In fact, there are tiny errors everywhere that we wouldn’t have on a studio recording. We could have fixed it all, but those errors blend together as an organic thing. It’s not a perfect circle. It’s a sort of rough ball. But it’s something much more real than a studio recording.
Nobody really knows what’s on a studio recording. They’ll never know how many edits we did, how many takes we recorded or how we mixed it. A studio recording is an illusion, just like a film. We hope when people listen to a studio recording that they can, in their mind, imagine us at Abbey Road Studios all playing together. But the reality of it is a studio recording today is the equivalent of shooting a film in front of a green screen, and then it’s all pieced together. Sometimes, it comes together in the end, especially if the music is well-written. It can have meaning. But on a real live recording, there are no overdubs. There’s no fixing. It’s exactly what we did on the night.
Soord: The priorities are different on a live album. We’re not aiming for studio perfection. We’re aiming to capture the energy and performance of that night, and how the crowd responded. You’re not thinking about those things in a studio. But a live album is an illusion in its own way—you’re trying to make people feel like they’re with you in a venue, as opposed to sitting in a studio.
Kitch: A live record is still really hard to do. We’re never going to get what it felt like to be in a room on any live record, but you aspire to have a bit of that. You want an element of that ambience in the way it feels.
The band’s trajectory has been a slow, steady one. What’s your perspective on where the group is now and its potential for future traction?
Harrison: I think the pattern of audience popularity is following a similar trajectory to Porcupine Tree. The very good news for us is The Pineapple Thief didn’t start from rock bottom. Porcupine Tree did. We played lots of gigs to 10-50 people. Because of social media and the Internet now—which wasn’t the same in 2002 with Porcupine Tree—the band was able to start quite a few rungs further up the ladder.
Soord: We do talk about the trajectory, but I never like to make any assumptions. If you look at how things have gone since Your Wilderness and us touring with Gavin, things have taken a very upward curve, especially in Europe and the UK. We did our first North American tour last year and it felt like something was happening. We didn’t know how many people were going to show up. It could have been 30-40 people a night, but we ended up doing well across the tour.
Harrison: I should say I don’t really feel the music is the same as Porcupine Tree at all. It’s completely different. Because of that, we’ll ultimately end up with a different trajectory than that band. We’re not anywhere near as prog-rock as Porcupine Tree. It’s a different-sounding band on a different path.
Without the ability to tour for the foreseeable future, how do you see yourself continuing to create momentum?
Soord: Like a lot of artists, we’ve taken to the Web. The band has undertaken some live video chats with fans, which have been great. To have like-minded people from all over the world in one online place has been a great experience for us. Judging by the feedback, it has been great for everyone else, too. I’ve also put on a few live acoustic sets from my studio which have gone down really well. We’re talking about doing a full band live set in the fall. It doesn’t replace touring, but I can see it being complementary in the future. It’s easy to forget how small the world has become, but still so hard to physically get to. Playing online allows us to connect with all the people who would never be able to attend a show.
But touring is a worry. I wonder if people will ever feel the same about standing in a crammed, sweaty venue watching a rock band ever again. I hope they do.
Provide some insight into the band’s chemistry with the addition of Gavin to the lineup.
Soord: Jon, Steve and myself have been together for a long time, but Gavin didn’t know us at all, initially. Now, everything feels very familiar and I think our relationships are quite deep and really quite relaxed. We know each other a lot better, artistically and personally. Dare I say everything is working quite easily?
Kitch: It's not torture. That's for certain. [laughs]
Harrison: It's quite easy.
Soord: I know how Gavin works and he knows how I work. So, we've got this. There doesn't seem to be any friction or egos. It’s very collaborative. Someone’s always saying "How about this? What do you think?" It's quite a purely artistic thing we've got going on.
Harrison: I think that openness is important when you're working the way we do, in which we’re on our own, but collaborating. It would be easy to get into a sort of funk or solo mentality somehow. But you’ve got to stay open-minded and not get egotistical. We have to share ideas as if we were all together. That’s what makes it work.
Soord: What’s exciting is even if I have a fraction of a song, I have no idea where that’s going to lead. The music becomes so much more because of how the rest of the band connects with it.
Harrison: It's much more interesting to collaborate than do everything on your own.
Soord: When we’re on tour, it’s nice to have the chance to talk about new songs, because we don’t actually get that opportunity very often.
Harrison: On the tour bus, we’ll listen to demos and make suggestions to each other about what could happen in the songs. We’ll say things like “Maybe this could sound different. Perhaps we need a middle eight here. Let’s do something weird there.”
Soord: We're on the same page 95% of the time.
Kitch: It's still a relatively new and fresh thing because Jon and I hadn’t met Gavin until Your Wilderness was finished in 2017. We first met at the tour rehearsals for that album cycle.
Soord: For me, it has felt like a new epoch for the band from Your Wilderness onwards. I almost view Versions of the Truth as our third album.
Tell me about the overarching themes that inform Versions of the Truth.
Soord: It's about what's happening around me, us and everywhere. We live in a weird post-truth world that’s very strange. It's a very new thing. I don't think we've previously ever had this kind of world in which truths, half-truths, lies, and manipulation can be used in so many ways and be disseminated immediately.
Thematically, the title says it all. The truth seems to be of little use during these times and that goes right from the top down. It was unsettling when I started writing this album in 2018 and it’s become even more unsettling today. Obviously the concept of truth and its distortions—and ultimate destruction—plays out at all levels of society. But I tend to get my inspiration from the micro level. I’m sure we’ve all been affected by differing versions of the truths in our lives.
Harrison: Yeah. It's a very strange time to be in. Musically, the album has an identity of its own compared to Your Wilderness and Dissolution. It's not like we're doing the same record over and over again. It's important to embrace the idea of progress.
Soord: The main progression has been in the writing. Musically, we’ve focused on the band. We wanted to make the most of the connection we’ve nurtured after four years of touring together, specifically with Gavin. Allowing the band to function as an entity is incredibly important when it comes to creating music.
The process with Gavin is very open and seems to take the songs into new territory, which as an artist makes things very exciting. And allowing Jon and Steve freedom to express themselves just takes us even further into the undiscovered country. It’s quite a different record and continues the development of our sound since Gavin joined. I’m very excited for people to hear it.
Dissolution is also steeped in broad societal observations. Tell me about what you were communicating with it.
Soord: It was quite informed by my kids. They’re growing up now and are digital natives. We had to get them smartphones, because they were the only ones at school without them and were getting bullied. That’s the way they live their lives now and I’ve found it disturbing. It’s a bit like the Wild West. Society hasn’t figured out how to integrate this technological revolution into our lives.
The iPhone came out in 2007 and how it has influenced society is unbelievable. There are benefits to how it connects people, but a lot of terrible things have come with it—specifically, the bullying and narcissistic elements of it. It can completely overwhelm and define people’s lives.
I saw this happening at the personal level. I saw people breaking up because of it. And it’s all playing out in public on social media. People use social media to hurt people in full view of everyone. It’s such an unnatural thing and we’re all living through it.
“Not Naming Any Names” is about the anonymous, nasty comments you see online. It’s a case of “We’re not going to tell you who we are, but we can strike you from wherever we are. We can hurt you if we want to.” Everyone now has that power.
Social media has also played a positive role in propelling the band forward.
Soord: Yes, there are positives and negatives to it.
Sykes: We’re lucky in that way.
Kitch: That’s the thing. It’s not always a bad thing. But I don’t think we’re ready as a society for it.
Soord: We definitely aren’t. We’re still coming up with laws to deal with it. Fake news is everywhere on Facebook and YouTube. They need to do something about it and really haven’t.
Kitch: We're a unique generation that straddled life before and after social media. I think Dissolution asks the question “Has social media fundamentally made our lives better?”
Soord: I’d say no. I think people were happier before social media. But it has certainly helped the band. We’re able to reach out to listeners. In the old days, the only way to reach the market was to get a big record deal. A major label helps that happen, but it costs a fortune. Now, anyone can get to the mass market. But I look at how my relationships have been negatively affected, the trials we’ve been through and I think it was social media that caused some of the problems.
Harrison: Looking back at Porcupine Tree, when I joined the band, we had a big record deal. We blew $400,000 in tour support just touring the States. That’s how Porcupine Tree got from nowhere to break even over a few years. Those record deals don’t exist anymore.
With The Pineapple Thief, I’m reliving the same cycle in a different time, without the old record company promotion method of pushing a band. Now, we have to do it ourselves. Using social media, we can reach an audience. Now, they’re probably not going to actually buy our record, because they’re going to listen to it for free.
Things have been turned on their heads. Now, we use the album as promotion for the tour. It used to be the other way around. We used to tour to sell albums. And yet, most bands make no money. It’s not all bad, but it’s an interesting conundrum.
Kitch: We're still selling physical products and we still see a bit of money coming in. We always joke that if we were this successful in the '80s, we'd be…
Soord: …millionaires. [laughs]
Kitch: The streaming model is what it is. The trouble with bands of our size is that if we ignore streaming, then we don’t get as many people out to the shows.
Soord: It really is a conundrum. The Spotify model isn’t sustainable. Something has to change. We’re hoping the industry will somehow sort itself out.
Let’s explore the band’s creative process.
Soord: “White Mist” from Dissolution is a good example. I came up with the harmonics and the band said they liked the singing at the beginning. I was doing a simple verse. Then the track went to Gavin, who put his drums down.
Harrison: It was also two different songs at first.
Soord: And then you put them together.
Harrison: Yeah. There was a bit in the middle which had a completely different tempo. We realized we could merge one song into the other because they’ve got a very similar vibe. Even though the tempos didn’t match, we figured out a way to stream one into another, and then get back to a part of what was the first song at the end.
I remember there was an exceptional atmosphere and I suddenly had this idea of “What if I play a melody on the drums that everyone could join in on?” I’ve never had that idea before. I played a tom rhythm that was quite syncopated and I sent it to the guys and said “Can you play with this?” So, out of nowhere, the drums start playing a syncopated four-bar rhythm.
Soord: That was a really good example of the collaborative spirit, because Jon came up with another important part from that.
Sykes: I wrote the riff to go over the drums.
Soord: Then Steve came in to put all these bits on that were washing around. When it came back to me I thought “Oh wow, this is great.” I had no idea this little harmonic thing I started off with would result in that. It’s a really exciting way to put a song together.
Sykes: The way it ended up wasn’t part of the initial concept. It was a very organic thing.
Soord: It's a very different way of writing because you deliberately don't take it to the end. I didn’t have a grand concept that said “I think it should be this.” Rather, I said “Right, let’s see where this goes.” I was planting a seed. It’s quite satisfying in that respect.
Since Gavin joined full-time, The Pineapple Thief has focused on the quartet, with minimal use of additional musicians, like the choirs and strings that appeared on Magnolia and Your Wilderness. Tell me about that decision.
Soord: We once had a conversation in which I said "Oh, why don't we try bringing in a little gospel choir in this song or maybe a string section?" Then Gavin said "Actually Bruce, no, because we're so good at what we do, we don't need that anymore. We don't need to dress it up with all these things. It just feels like the four of us have got it. We have what we need.”
Harrison: I feel you lose the intimacy when you bring in a violin player, a trumpet player, a saxophone solo, or an orchestra into it. When you do that, it's the band plus production and actually you sort of lose the sound of the band and its identity.
Soord: It also makes you work harder on the songs, as well. There’s no way of glossing over the core identity of the band. We also want to play the songs live. Live performance is such a massive part of the band now. So, thinking about how we play them live is important.
Harrison: If you've used those extra things, how are you going to play it live? No-one wants to come to a Pineapple Thief gig and see lots of electronic playback of orchestras, choirs and brass sections, which no-one on stage is actually playing. I think we can get away with our sound palette—what the four of us are capable of. It makes us be more inventive, creative and interesting when we focus on the sounds we’ve got. Ultimately, I think that’s better than just opening it up and saying “We’ll just put anything we can imagine on top. Let’s have 10 million nose flute players.” [laughs] Yeah, that’s great, but it doesn’t sound like The Pineapple Thief anymore.
Gavin, you’re outspoken in terms of your perspective on how the rhythmic component of a song informs songwriting—and yet is rarely acknowledged in credits. Tell me about your take on this topic.
Harrison: It's a complex issue because by law, the only things that matter are the melody and the lyrics. Chords, the vibe and the drum beat don’t mean anything. The sounds themselves don’t mean anything to the law.
Now, interestingly enough, in the case of “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, a $5 million judgement occurred against them from the Marvin Gaye estate, because the rhythm and percussion tracks sounded very much like “Got to Give It Up.” Well, maybe that’s good, maybe that’s bad. But people are starting to recognize “Oh, that song has the same vibe as another song. The reason I like that song is the vibe, more than the lyrics and melody.” The lyrics and melody on “Blurred Lines” were not similar to “Got to Give It Up.” But the court ruled there was a similarity.
So, maybe now we’re no longer in the world of old-style publishing from the ‘30s and ‘40s in which lyrics and the melody are the only copyrightable things. Perhaps the arranger who changes the chords or the drummer who contributes a different beat are considered. I think the law as it currently stands is indefensible. There can be something recognizable in a song, including a unique bass line or drum rhythm that’s the hook, that contribute to something recognizable or the composition to the piece. Even the sound of the atmospheres contribute to that.
On a side note, I did an album of big band versions of Porcupine Tree songs called Cheating the Polygraph. The reaction I got from Porcupine Tree fans, Steve Wilson himself, and the band’s crew, was they couldn’t recognize songs like the title track or “Sound of Muzak” because they didn’t associate the chords and the melody as a recognizable factor. They didn’t hear those elements played on guitar or through Steve Wilson’s voice on the album. So, they were associating the sounds as part of the composition. When you cleverly arrange a song with different sounds and instruments, suddenly people don’t know what the song is.
Sykes: When we were making “Threatening War” from Dissolution, when we got to the middle, the time was in seven and there was nothing but the beat. The drums outline that part of the song and we added bits to make it work well. As a bass player, it was my job to try and tie things together.
Harrison: Rhythmically, we were trying to build a narrative in that song. If you think of the rhythmic aspect like architecture, it’s about introducing elements of the rhythm and components that support the rhythm. We’re communicating tempo information and the feeling of a downbeat, before things go full-on when we get to the chorus.
The first part of that track is very minimalist. My dad was into minimalism. I thanked him for it once and he said “It was the least he could do.” [everyone groans] But no, seriously, when I grew up, my dad listened to minimalist jazz players like Chet Baker, Clifford Brown and Art Farmer, rather than screaming crazy trumpet players who played high notes really fast. I appreciate that space is as important as the notes. Sometimes, playing as little as possible can have a much bigger effect than playing really busy. If you’re playing busy from beginning to end, it doesn’t mean anything.
As a drummer, I’m finding an architectural balance in which things are laid out in a nice, orderly way. There’s space and complexity. There are different moods. It’s a sort of rhythmic design. I can torture myself over the use of one bass drum. I ask myself “Should it be pushed? Is it too clever if it’s pushed? Should it be on the downbeat?” I’m trying to make things accessible, interesting and functional. It’s a journey in and of itself.
Soord: Creating songs is a fascinating puzzle to solve. When I’m working on a song, I know there’s an answer in there somewhere. It might take five minutes or 10 days to figure out where it’ll go. But suddenly, you think “That's it. I’ve got it. I like that. It’s starting to sound right.” It’s instinctive.
But then, you have to hope everyone else agrees. Even if you think you’ve found the direction, the other guys might say “Well, actually I don’t really like that.” That can be quite hard to deal with. But it’s also a good process to ensure there’s going to be an honest reaction. All four of us need to be on the same page. Subconsciously, I think we all are. With this lineup, we all jointly know when things don’t sound right or we’re not going in the right direction. That wasn’t always the case with previous members.
I understand there’s a long-term roadmap for this lineup. What can you tell me about it?
Soord: We talk about it. Circumstances can change overnight. Maybe something will happen that makes bigger things happen. But if things stay as they are, that’s fine, because they’re working. We’re making so much progress. We’re looking four or five years in advance in terms of touring Europe and the US.
There’s also an idea of reinterpreting early Pineapple Thief tracks with Gavin. We’ve got such a large back catalog we can go back and revisit. When I made some of those early recordings, I didn’t have a very good studio or drum programming. It would be really nice to take the current lineup and revisit that music. We’re also thinking about doing a Blu-ray from our sold out Mexico show from 2019.
Earlier, we were discussing the negative side of the modern music industry. Let’s invert the conversation. How are musicians empowered in this day and age, compared to previous eras?
Sykes: I think technology has enabled people. If you’ve got talent, you can make it. I’ve got a studio in my house in which I can pretty much do what I used to do in a very expensive studio in the past. It means we can make good-sounding albums without a $100,000 studio budget and that level of technology.
We’re also able to get our music out to people directly. We have lots of people coming out to our shows. Both are because of the time we live in. There’s a lot to be grateful for.
Harrison: We're definitely living in amazing times. When I started as a professional musician, it was the really old analog days. And virtually all video was black and white when I was a kid. Now, you can shoot, edit and publish a high-definition video on your iPhone. And it looks better than videos shot on VHS back in the ‘80s.
For instance, someone shot a video of me playing drums at a soundcheck on an Android phone. It looked unbelievable. The video was sent to me on Dropbox. And then I mixed the drums and synced them on my laptop in the dressing room before the show and sent the video back. That's unbelievable. It wasn’t that long ago that process would have taken weeks of video mastering and probably $50,000 to make happen. It’s an exciting time in that way.
Kitch: Another thing I find useful these days is access to information enables you to develop as a musician. You still have to have a focus and commitment, but if you do, all the material is out there. If you want to learn music theory or techniques, you can do that online. When I was growing up, you would have to go out of your way to find some of this information. The challenge now is to really focus and not get blinded by the volume of information.
Soord: I agree with all of that. I like the lack of gatekeepers. In the old days, you would have to get signed to a label, get a budget or advance, and go into a studio to record. Then you had to rely on certain magazines and reviews appearing in key places. The stars had to align to have even the remotest chance of getting your music to people. But now, you can buy a cheap laptop, stick your demo on SoundCloud or YouTube and get people to hear it. You still have to be good enough. But if you are, you can make things happen with no barriers or third-parties in the middle. That’s something we couldn’t have dreamed of, growing up.
Harrison: Yeah. You can go from your bedroom to Lithuania’s Got Talent in a matter of weeks. [everyone laughs]
Bruce Soord on his solo work and early Pineapple Thief
Explore how having your fourth child inspired your 2019 solo album All This Will Be Yours.
Looking back on it, I remember I consciously decided not to hide from the intensity of the here and now and similarly not to shy away from taking inspiration from it. I would often have my daughter in my studio with me, at an age when she would do little more than smile away in a chair, make a few noises and then fall asleep. I would turn away from my sleeping daughter, close my eyes and write music. I was even more acutely aware of the fragility of time and life in that moment.
Tell me about the construction of the title track, with its creative use of negative space.
I remember basing that track around something incredibly simple—taking a walk with my daughter in her pram and both of us taking in the world around us. It gave me a unique perspective of the world around me, both at a very literal and close level. I saw wandering drug addicts, dilapidated houses, beautiful gardens, and smiling neighbors. I also experienced a more macro level of life and time.
The song was constructed around a minimalist guitar note, droning and washed in reverb. The space between the notes was key to conveying my emotions. I remember that summed up how I could understand my life and the world as it was. And the song followed. When a simple idea works, it’s a great feeling. It feels very pure.
What are you able to explore on your solo albums in contrast with The Pineapple Thief?
I’m much more comfortable writing from the depths of my soul with my solo records. I’m happy to do that, but I realize it’s a bit of a contradiction. I’m writing about things I would have trouble discussing in normal conversation. So, why share it with the world via music? I honestly can’t answer that question, but I find it a rewarding and cathartic process.
Explore the distance you've traveled as a songwriter across 21 years of The Pineapple Thief.
It feels strange to be able to say that I’m still learning and improving after 21 years. Twenty-one years ago, there was a prevailing thought that as the great songwriters aged, so did their ability to write good songs. This certainly hasn’t happened with me. Maybe it’s because I had so much more to learn when I undertook the challenge. The one lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t treat this business lightly. In my early days, I was arrogant and blasé about songwriting, especially regarding the lyrics. Now, I understand how much energy and time is required to get it right—or at least to get it as good as it can possibly be.
Reflect on the early Cyclops label era of The Pineapple Thief from 1999-2007 and the process of revisiting that material for recent reissues.
I recently revisited a session from 2004. It gave me a sudden realization of time passed and progress made—something one easily forgets. Opening an old session, I would solo a vocal track, hear noises in the background, such as the sound of my old guitar amp I forgot I had, miced up with my old cheap microphones, but it was the best I could afford at the time. It made me smile. Of course, I feel that my craft as a songwriter, musician and mixing engineer have improved immeasurably since then. But nevertheless, I have very fond memories of the time. Especially the ceaseless drive I had.
Compare your stage presence in the early days to where you’ve arrived at today.
Now, that is more of an ugly and horrifying memory. I remember in the very early days, I would make mistakes and then apologize to the crowd when the song was over. I was shy and incredibly insecure on stage. Throw in some awful stage fright and you can guess how good a frontman I was.
In hindsight, I now know this stage fright stemmed from not working hard enough. I wasn’t a good enough performer. The band was ropey. I would walk on stage not knowing if we would be able to finish some songs, let alone do any without making a mistake. And because of this I would drink through a gig.
I remember sitting down with Jon Sykes and talking about quitting. Why the hell was I doing something that terrified me? Luckily, we decided that instead of quitting, we would figure out how to do it properly.
I’m unsure how or when it happened, but I went through a fundamental transformation. The band improved and subsequently I became a good frontman. Now when I’m on stage, I’m thinking “Yeah, I’m Bruce Soord!” I love performing now and the stage fright has long since departed. And I don’t treat myself to a beer until after the show.
How do you look back at 2010’s Someone Here Is Missing?
I think this album was the moment when I took my songwriting to a new level That’s not to say the earlier albums don’t have songs that I’m proud of. But this album seemed to be more coherent. With these songs, I couldn’t wait to take them onto the stage.
“Nothing at Best” remains a live staple. It has a fascinating shifting rhythm approach. What do you recall about its conception?
I remember I was fiddling around with an arpeggiator on a synth. All of a sudden, I stumbled upon the main riff and the song just fell into place almost immediately. It was one of those easy songwriting moments I wish happened all the time. It's an especially intense song to play live, not least because Gavin goes pretty wild on it.
You engineered Sheila Chandra’s This Sentence Is True from 2001. Reflect on that experience.
That era, around the turn of the century, was a key moment in my musical life. I had recently dabbled in opening a commercial recording studio, which turned out to be much harder and more complicated than I could have imagined. So, I took the equipment home and put up a few adverts in shops and rehearsal studios. Then a guy called Steve Coe called me and asked if he could come over.
Steve, who was a producer that worked with Sheila, was really excited about the possibilities of digital recording and editing, having exclusively used tape until then. So, we spent months and months compiling drones and musical phrases from bags of DAT tapes he would bring round, many of them from his time spent in India. This ultimately led to Sheila coming over and producing the This Sentence Is True album. I remember her creating all kinds of sounds from her mouth and throat and we would place these over various drones and sounds Steve had edited with me. I felt very privileged to be able to work with both of them.
You were good friends with Steve. Tell me what you admired about his production approach and how he influenced The Pineapple Thief’s output.
Steve and I would go on to work together for many years. We would spend literally hours working on drones, sounds of rivers and static. Everything was fair game where Steve was concerned. It taught me a great deal about attention to detail and learning where things are right or wrong.
I remember spending hours editing the sound of a babbling brook. The sounds of bubbles and stones moving would have a certain note and we would take a great deal of time making sure they happened at the right time and in the right way. I can tell you, five hours listening to a babbling brook can be quite mentally exhausting.
As The Pineapple Thief began to grow, Steve would always help me with my songs and suggest arrangements and other ideas. He was a very important person to me and a good friend. He passed away very suddenly in 2013. It was a big loss for me. I think today how proud he would be of me now.
What are you most proud of across The Pineapple Thief journey to date?
I’m very proud of the way I never gave in. I always had this drive in me to make music. I wasn’t interested in commercial success, but I would take it if it came. And despite having some huge hurdles that would cause most people to give in, I never did. So, when I stand on stage now and look out at the crowds all over the world, I can give myself a sneaky pat on the back for getting there.
Is there a spiritual component to what you do?
I grew up in a typical Church of England Christian household. Nothing too heavy, but nevertheless I had the fear of god in me. When I left home for university, I had a sudden and strong reaction against my faith and spent my twenties as an angry atheist. Now, I’m very relaxed about faith and spirituality. Anger has been replaced with stoicism. Of course, we all live in a universe that we don’t understand and none of us really know for sure why on Earth we exist. And that’s fine with me. It allows me to write about the things I do and still sleep at night.