Bruce Soord started The Pineapple Thief nearly twenty years ago, but almost feels like they have become a new band in the best sense of the word. The group has been reinvigorated by drummer extraordinaire Gavin Harrison joining the band as a full-time member, who also collaborates with Bruce on their new material. This has brought new inspiration to the group as a whole. Their twelfth album, Dissolution, will be released on Kscope at the end of August 2018.
Sonic Perspectives correspondent Scott Medina talks to Bruce about the new album, bringing Gavin into the fold and their ensuing collaboration, making the change to being a full-time musician, the past stresses of stage fright and how to broaden his songwriting range. You can stream the audio below, or subscribe to our Podcast in several platforms to download and listen. You can also read a transcribed version of the interview at the end.
Hey everyone, this is Scott Medina with Sonic Perspectives. Today we are going to be talking with The Pineapple Thief’s main mastermind, Bruce Soord. Welcome to the interview, Bruce.
Hey, great to be here, thanks.
So this new album of yours is coming out in a little over a month’s time called Disillusion. To start off, I’m curious: what excites you about this new album?
For me it’s funny, isn’t it…having been doing this for so long – I think I started on my own back in 1999 – but it feels like a new band. We finished the last album, Your Wilderness with Gavin Harrison being more of a session guy, although he’ll admit now that it became more than just a session. And we went off and toured together, got on really well, and then we all knew what we wanted to do. We were wanting to get together, the four of us with Gavin as a permanent member, and write a new record. And Gavin was there from day one and we got on really well as a creative sort of duo. Instead of me writing loads of songs, I would have ideas. I’d send them to Gavin and he’d send them back. He’d record at his studio, send me drum ideas which would send me off in different directions, and it just created this album that I never thought that I could ever create. It was a true collaborative effort. So I’m really excited and we spent so long, it was six months everyday talking, working on it, living with it 24/7 until it was perfect. I mean that was like being in the studio for six months. So, I’m really, really proud of it.
So it sounds like this album, really more than any previous Pineapple Thief album, is more of a collaborative effort. Is the songwriting actually shared or are you still the main songwriter and then the other guys, especially Gavin, gave arrangement ideas?
No, I think Gavin’s input especially went further than just arrangement and he got dual songwriting credits on the album. Obviously I still come up with the idea, the themes and the lyrics and the melodies, but Gavin would then take them and he would chop them around and he would say, “Hey Bruce, now I like that, but it’s getting…I’m getting a bit bored here. Let’s do this. How about taking it this direction?” And he would jam out some rhythmic ideas and cut and paste some of my melodic ideas. And then I’d go, “Oh wow, that’s great, yeah.” And then I would take it back. And some of the songs just took on a life of their own. And I remember just thinking, “Wow, I would never have taken this song down this alleyway if it wasn’t for Gavin having that sort of creative input.” And so for that reason I say that it is a songwriting contribution. And the same with the other two guys, Steve and John, Steve on keyboards and John on bass. I gave them a complete blank canvas and some of the things they came up with was “wow”! They’ve made it so different to how I would have done it. In the early days I was a real control freak. I just did everything and it had to be my way and it must be like that. I feel really privileged actually – I know it sounds cheesy – but I do, I feel privileged that I’m in a band where everyone is on the same page and we all get on creatively so well.
Sounds like you’ve really entered a new phase for the band now. It really sounds fresh.
Yes and that’s what’s so exciting. It feels like just a new beginning.
The theme of Disillusion appears to be about breaking down our society’s interconnectedness, whether it’s in relationship or a disenchantment with social media and technology. Is that fairly accurate?
Absolutely. Thematically, Pineapple Thief albums have been quite similar in that I’m always writing about the human psyche in the context of this society that I’ve grown up in, and in the changing society that I’m growing up in. And it’s really, really changed so much over the last five years, maybe even the last two years, the sort of technological revolution that we’ve lived through. And I think that when history looks back on this time and reassesses what we were doing, what we’re doing right and what were we doing wrong, I think that they will admit that a lot has gone wrong. It’s a bit like an addiction, you know, it’s a bit like a drug, like alcohol, or heroin or cocaine. Nobody really knows when it’s a problem because it’s so new. And it’s only now that big tech companies are talking about addiction, smartphone addictions and the mental health problems that children are growing up with. I mean, it certainly affected my mental health…I’m not saying that I’ve gone crazy or anything, but being connected to so many people, to so many things, to having access to so much information, so many opinions is just unnatural and exhausting. And as a musician, it goes one step further. Because you are connected to all of your listeners. You get an insight into what they think about you, and some of these things are just horrible as well. Some of the lyrics on the record, the very first track, “Not Naming any Names” is specifically about those people, the people that just want to weaponize social media and these connections and cause people harm. So as a musician growing up in these times, you’ve got to have a thick skin and if people want to do what we do and get your music out there, you’ve got to be prepared to take it. To understand that it’s a battleground out there in many ways. But yes, that’s what it is, that’s the theme that connects the entire record.
And to prove your point about the disconnection because of technology, did you guys ever consider recording the album together in one studio rather than relying on sharing files to record the parts separately?
(Laughs) Well, that’s the thing, the irony, isn’t it? You know, here I am berating this technology, when we wouldn’t be here without this technology. So I’ve got to be very careful in what I say. I mean obviously the big thing is that when the technology came along it was great and it did a wonderful thing and it was very positive. And then like anything that’s free-for-all and a bit of an anarchy, there’s negative powers that seem to overwhelm it. And that’s what’s happened. But in the context of the band, yeah, we did it all remotely. And because we had this technology, we were able to talk to each other every day. You know, we would have all four of us on video conferencing, sharing audio and then discussing where we wanted the album to go. But nothing really replaces that traditional romantic view and notion of a band getting together in a sweaty room, getting drunk, writing songs and recording them and having six weeks for a big record deal, and the record company advance to do it. You know, those days are probably over. But I was talking to Gavin actually about it and we were talking about next time and spending a couple of weeks together. I’ll probably go up to Gavin’s place and we would just jam, sit in a room, beat some music out of us and see what happens.
And the album that resulted from this is a good testament to, and a reminder to us, that technology – even though it has all of its flaws and our propensity to addict on it as you’ve been saying – it also is a wonderful resource and allows things to come together. Like now you can record an album in six months in four separate studios.
Exactly. And if you look back even 10 years ago, it just wasn’t affordable at this level of quality. We certainly wouldn’t have been able to do the record with the budget that we had. It wouldn’t have been half the record that it is, if we’d had to have hired a big recording studio and gone there for three weeks…then your budget’s gone. I mean three weeks in a big studio is expensive. And there would have been a lot of pressure and all that kind of stuff. So there’s definitely pros and cons. I mean in many ways we might have had too much time because six months living and breathing songwriting and recording an album is mentally very, very tiring. And I remember right in the middle of the album I was thinking, “Oh my God, am I going to get through this?” Because Gavin was pushing us hard. Everyone was pushing each other hard, you know, I was coming up with some ideas and people were saying, this isn’t really working, you know. You’d go back and try harder. So we pushed each other to their limits and looking back on it, it was hard then, but now it’s easy to think, wow, it was great. But to get that album as good as it was, was tiring.
So you mentioned that Gavin now is a full member of the band and I’m curious, how did bringing him into the fold originally come about?
Well, yeah, after we did Magnolia, that was three albums ago now, the drummer left after that record, he just couldn’t commit because I think like anyone who tries to run a band nowadays, it’s very hard to commit to, in today’s landscape, to make a living out of being in a band. So we were stuck. We were without a drummer. Regardless, I carried on writing and we didn’t know what to do and I had all these demos with programmed drums on them. I spoke to our label Kscope and they said, well, why don’t you try Gavin Harrison? I never really had thought of asking Gavin mainly because obviously he was touring with King Crimson and the Porcupine Tree history. But then when I spoke to him and sent him the demos and you know, he was initially obviously very coy because he has a lot of people asking him to drum. But I think when we got to know each other and he heard the songs, it was quite encouraging to us how motivated he was. And all of a sudden it was like, oh, right, okay, this is going to work. And when he first sent us through his first drum tracks, it’s like, oh my God, this is perfect. Absolutely perfect. It’s like he completely understood where we were coming from, where I was coming from. Obviously we were in the same kind of progressive sphere. So it was on the same label, you know, that Gavin released his o5Ric stuff, not to mention the Porcupine Tree back catalog. So there was a connection. But I think musically it was the fact that we were just on the same page that it just worked. And so the rest is history now; we were connected by Kscope and we just got on.
Fantastic. It’s so nice for him to have a band outlet like this, in addition to the King Crimson material. Really being a full member with you guys is extremely exciting. On a different topic, you were able to leave your “day job” a couple of years back if I’m correct, and now you do music full time. Now that you’re a full time musician, how has that impacted your experience of recording Pineapple Thief albums since that time?
It’s very strange because you go from an existence where you have a day job where you’re really frustrated during the day because you’re not doing what you want to do. You want to make music. And so you come home from the day job and you have so much energy that you run to your studio and you write and you use what little time you have…you just really go for it. And it’s not really sustainable because it was starting to have an impact on my family and on my life because there was no time for the important things, which is obviously spending time with my family and things like that. But it served us well, and it kept the band together and it kept us releasing albums. And you’ve moved from that to waking up in the morning and now I’m walking into my studio which is in my house. It’s in the roof attic room of my house. That’s your job today. My job is to write a song or today my job is to mix this track. It’s a very, very different mindset. I mean you read about the people like Devin Townsend just admitted that he’s not making any money from touring. He toured for 11 months, didn’t make any money and you think really, that’s very surprising. But not really surprising because I know where the money goes when you tour and I know where the money goes when you release a record, you know, when you have all these streams on YouTube and the artist still doesn’t get any money.
So making making it full time is a challenge and I’m really lucky that I’ve managed to make ends meet from doing it. I mean I still mix other bands, you know, to pay the bills. I’m not a millionaire by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s so nice to be able to just say, “Right, for eight or nine hours during the day I’m going to make music. And then in the evening I’m going to spend time with my family.” I’m a very lucky man.
So did that impact this last album? For example, you said it was a six month process and so was it really a totally different experience for you now just being able to focus just on that album for six months and not having the day job, too?
Yes, it was. I think what I realized is that you could then have a mindset that, “Okay, this song is sounding good, but let’s make it sound great.” And to get it to go from “good” to “great” is where you really have to put the hard graft to get ahead of the pack, you know, like the head of the Peloton or whatever it is you need to have that, that train so hard to get that little edge. And that’s what I found it was…it was spending days on lyrics, laboring over them, over the words and getting them as good as they possibly could be. And I think one of the arts that I’ve learned over 20 years of writing for The Pineapple Thief is understanding when things are good enough, when you know that they are good enough.
And quite often it’s very easy for the brain to say, “Oh Bruce, that’s good enough.” But you know, actually deep down…is it really good enough? It could be better. And what I’ve really learned is to not settle for anything less, if there’s a little voice in your stomach telling you that it’s not really quite good enough, it’s not as good as you could get it if you really, really bust your ass doing it. And so that’s what I found I could do. And it is exhausting, I have to say. Especially when you’re laboring over even this one sentence, and the chorus where you know, when you sing it, that it’s not quite right. But when you do get that word, when you get it, it’s like, “Ah! Thank God for that!” But I could spend a week on a song that would eventually end up in the bin. And so to think that you spend a whole week laboring and working on this thing and that ultimately it never cuts it…you’ve got to be quite mentally strong to understand that that’s part of the process and to move on.
How would you say your live audience has evolved over the years?
It’s always sort of grown very sort of gradually, but I think when Gavin came on board and we released Your Wilderness, we got to a whole new bunch of listeners. I think Gavin’s profile as a drummer is huge, but he’s also got an awful lot of fans who just follow him musically. You know, he’s got a lot of drumming fans, but he’s also got a lot of music fans that are interested in what he does. When we went out with Gavin on tour last time, we saw our audience double overnight and so it’s been very encouraging. And again, the tour that we’re going out on this September and early next year, sales again are doubling. Some of the venues are nearly sold out already and that’s two months away from the show. So, after 15 years where we’ve played in big rooms with 20 people in there, we know what it’s like to work your way up from how soul-destroying it can be to go out on the road and to not sell tickets. So it’s nice to think that we finally sort of earned our way up the ladder. And also, you can finally justify touring and coming back without breaking the bank. So yeah, it’s been good.
So what’s a good night for you in terms of crowd attendance these days?
Well, I think now we’re sort of looking at eight hundred people to in the thousands. In Cologne and London we’re looking at over a thousand on the tour. But I think sort of the average gate now is like four or five hundred. And that’s the thing, you know, when you start to get into doubling – the exponential curve – doubling five hundred to a thousand, that’s a massive amount. And doubling a thousand to two thousand. The thing about the numbers game is that there is a break even point and until we get to that break even point, the band loses money. And then all of a sudden when you get past that break even point, every new person that comes to the show is money that (obviously although everyone else is also taking a cut) is actually coming into the band and then the band actually gets paid. So all of a sudden you start to realize that there’s money to be made from touring. Which is why I find it very, very surprising that Devin Townsend was losing money from his tours.
Too big a production!
Yes, too many people, too many people (laughs). Oh yeah, get rid of the projections… Yeah, that’s it.
Yeah. I mean that’s what Steven Wilson says, that he doesn’t make any money touring because he insists on such high quality productions. So he focuses more on making the money through the albums.
He does. I mean, I’m sure he must make money now, as he’s selling out 5,000 seat arenas, like in Amsterdam. So if he’s not making money from that, I’d be a bit depressed. Yeah. I opened for him in America a few years ago, an acoustic show. And you could see that they shipped all their gear, very heavy gear, amplifiers flying across the world and the freight charges were unbelievable. So I can understand how much his touring costs.
I hear you might have some shows playing in the States in the new year, too. Is that true?
Well, we have such a big core of fans in the States. That’s the other good thing about social media is you can actually see where everybody is. You can look on Spotify and see where our listeners are, you look on Facebook to tell where people are coming from and the USA is our biggest market. So yeah, we are planning to come in 2019. Probably just a couple of shows in the east coast, Chicago and then off to the west coast, so fingers crossed. It’s still a bit of a gamble because you just don’t know how many people will turn up. And obviously the thing about the USA is the visas that cost a fortune and things like that and the travel. But I think the time has come. Time has come for us to come to the USA.
Yeah, it seems like a ripe time for it. Is it true that you used to suffer from stage fright before your live shows?
I did and I think a lot of that was down to the fact that we weren’t prepared. You know, everybody was working, and so getting together to rehearse was difficult and we’d end up going to these one or two festival shows that we would have in the summer, these big, big shows and we would just never be prepared. So I’d be terrified because I was thinking if we can get through a song without completely cocking it up, then that’s a victory. And in hindsight, I just wished that we didn’t even bother. What we should have said is, we need take this seriously and everybody takes the time to get the band as good as it could be, and you get rid of personnel who aren’t good enough, no matter if they’re your friends or whatever, or you don’t bother doing it at all. And so I look back on some of those early shows, and to get through I’d have to drink before I went onstage and that impacted the show, and so I learned the hard way, that’s for sure. We did some really quite embarrassing shows in our time in the early days. And so yeah, luckily we’ve kind of sorted out now I’m glad that we didn’t fold and that we actually were able to figure out what we had to.
So how did you overcome that fear? Was it just knowing that the band was really well rehearsed and could deliver?
Yes, I just all of a sudden realized that, “Oh, actually I’m good at this.” And having that mindset it’s also very difficult not to let that overwhelm you and you turn into…well, I can see why people – especially front men – can turn into quite arrogant ego-centric characters because that’s what you have to be when you’re on stage. You have to be that guy where you’ve got a thousand people that have spent money to look at you. You have to be that guy that says, “Yes, you’re looking at me. I’m Bruce Soord, thank you very much.” And as soon as I had that feeling when I went on stage, then everything was fine. I played better and I sang better, and I didn’t need a drop of alcohol before I went on, and the audience responded! As soon as you realize and you feel the audience respond to you being confident and a little bit cocky, then you realize that you just keep going…you just keep going and giving them that. And then obviously I come out of that bubble as soon as I come off stage, because you don’t want to still be that guy! So, that was the difference. And knowing that was a real key to me losing that stage fright.
And it still worked for you when you came home and your wife wasn’t like, “Man, you’re being a real ass!”???
(Laughing) Maybe, yeah…haha…yeah…you’d have to ask her. I probably am. I probably am. Haha.
Yeah, it’s about a week that it takes for you to come down after a tour…
(Laughing) Exactly. “Don’t you know who I am? I’m Bruce Soord!” haha… And then you get, “Do you know what this is? This is the trash can. And you’re going to take out the garbage now.” (Both laughing)
So at this point, do you have a preference for solo headlining shows or how about playing festivals where you aren’t “preaching to the choir”, so to speak?
I think festivals are something that we’re quite excited to do next year now that we’ve established ourselves as a live lineup. We weren’t able to do festivals this year because Gavin was away with King Crimson. So next year I like the idea of actually, like you say, now that we’ve got this confidence, to be able to go out to the masses and say, “Right, check us out.” I like the idea of both.
There seems to be many parallels between your career and that of Steven Wilson. You mentioned him a little bit earlier. Do you embrace that association in the public eye, or at this point would you rather try and distance yourself from it?
No, it’s never been as big a problem as I thought it would be. When I started out, this was before The Pineapple Thief in a band called Vulgar Unicorn, we were even being compared to Steven’s output then. I mean this was early stuff, like Delirium, Up the Downstairs, The Sky Moves Sideways, that era stuff. So there’s been this comparison since day one. And when I started Pineapple Thief, I started to get reviews that were talking about PT. And I thought, “Oh, God. Why have I picked Pineapple Thief because it’s the same initials of PT! So that’s why I changed it to THE Pineapple Thief so that at least we’re now TPT instead of PT.” But then things just kind of never became that problematic. Nobody seemed to really give me a lot of hassle about it and you know, Steven’s been really, really kind to me over the years. He got me signed to Kscope effectively back in 2007. So we’d probably class each other as friends now, you know, we’ve known each other for 12 years and obviously being in the progressive rock world, we cross paths quite a lot. I mean I was surprised when Gavin joined that we didn’t get more flack from someone giving us some grief online but so far that hasn’t really transpired.
Yeah, it sounds like you were prepared for that, but it didn’t materialize, so that’s good.
Yes, it was. I remember saying to Kscope when they mentioned getting Gavin, that was one of the reasons that I said, “Are you sure? Because that will just play into a lot of people’s hands…”, but thankfully it didn’t.
And so you also released a solo album a few years ago. Is this carving out a new trajectory for your creativity, to compliment the material in The Pineapple Thief?
I think that’s exactly it. I mean, now we’ve got The Pineapple Thief as a bonafide band and it’s really defined now. So now I can go off and do the singer songwriter stuff as a solo record and satisfy both of my ego’s. Ha.
And then of course there was The Wisdom of Crowds album with Jonas from Katatonia which was such a creative and progressive collaboration. I really enjoyed that.
Thanks! We’re always talking about doing another one. I was talking to Jonas recently because we both like football and we were talking about the World Cup because Sweden – well England knocked Sweden out actually, so he wasn’t very happy about that! But, we’re talking about doing another Wisdom of Crowds album, but he’s off writing a new Katatonia record now, and just finishing a Bloodbath record and they’re very busy with touring and gigs, so we’re just trying to find the time.
How do you broaden your palate of songwriting techniques so that you don’t repeat yourself or get stuck with familiar guitar techniques or hooks?
That’s a good question! It’s a challenge, isn’t it? That’s why I made a conscious decision to let a lot go with this record. I decided to just come up with really, really basic ideas and then let other people take it forward. Otherwise I think it would’ve just been a Pineapple Thief by the numbers if I had insisted on having too much control. But yeah, it’s difficult. I do sort of basic things like I’ve got a baritone acoustic guitar that’s tuned down to B and C and c sharp.
Oh yeah. I’ve got one of those, too.
It’s lovely. And it just gives you a different tambre and a different feel. And then if you tune it to different open tunings that sort of, for instance when you put your fingers on a chord on your guitar and you’re expecting to play a chord that comes out completely different. It’s just simple things like that that can send you in a different direction. But you’re just pretty much tinkering around the edges of songwriting really when you do things like that. I mean, I think most of it is down to mentally how you approach a new album. And it’s always a massive challenge. One of the most frightening days is the first day of a new album because you think, “Oh my God, what am I going to do?” You know what kind of journey is ahead of you and you know that you’ve got to come up with something new.
Right. After twelve albums, it’s got to be daunting.
(Laughs) Exactly, yes.
I always hear throughout so many of the songs on there, that it sounds like one of your favorite motifs is having a backing track of harmonics. I keep hearing these little harmonics going back and forth probably with the top two strings of the acoustic guitar. It seems you have that layered in the background on a lot of songs.
Yeah, and especially on the last couple of records. With those harmonics, that’s on an open c minor. Like on “White Mist” that’s got some sort of pinch harmonic lines. And yeah, I don’t know why. I’m always attracted to that. I love the sound of a guitar when the natural harmonics are ringing out.
Yeah, and it’s really nice having that consistent theme while the chords change underneath, you know, it’s a really cool effect I think.
Oh yes. Thanks.
So just for a final question to bring it back to the album: what is one quality that you’d find satisfying for a listener to come away with after listening to Disillusion?
I think the main thing for me, and this is what we tried to set out to do – and the one thing that the whole band agreed to at the beginning – is that we wanted it to be accessible, we wanted the melodies to hit people in the first listen, but then for people to go away and go, “Oh my God, I have to listen to that again.” And then for them to get more and more and more from each listen. And that’s a real pot of gold in songwriting that you aim for, especially for me personally. And from the people I’ve spoken to so far, I think we’ve certainly gone some way to achieve that. But people won’t know till they listen.
Well let’s close up with a track from the new album. You’ve chosen “Threatening War”. Do you want to set that up with a context for our listeners?
Well, I picked “Threatening War” because it kind of covers the whole gamut of what The Pineapple Thief is about. It’s very delicate at the beginning, and I was talking about accessible melodies that would hit you first time and I think the chorus does that. And then it takes a little left turn in the middle section and it gives you some meat to get your ears and your brain into. And I think that atmospherically and emotionally it certainly sort of hits the mark for me. I remember when I wrote it, I thought, “Yes!” Talking about that idea of picking up a guitar and humming a melody…when I hummed a verse and the chorus on that, it was one of those moments where you think, “Yes, that’s it.” And then I sent it to Gavin and the rest is history.
Fantastic. So we’ll play that for everyone in just a moment. Bruce, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us. Maybe some of us will catch you here when you come through the States next year, but for now you’ve got a European tour coming up and I just hope it’s fantastic for you and like you said, may the numbers of the audience keep doubling!
Yeah! Thanks very much Scott. Cheers. Bye!