“At first when we met, he was Gavin Harrison the world-famous drummer, but since then he’s become a mate." The Pineapple Thief take a big step up

The Pineapple Thief
(Image credit: Joe del Tufo)

If any band has got off lightly from the carnage wreaked on the music scene by Covid-19, it’s surely The Pineapple Thief. Their new album Versions Of The Truth was finished shortly after coming off a successful first tour of North America, before lockdown came into force, and while other bands ended up unable to share a rehearsal room or studio, let alone stage, this band’s MO of remote songwriting collaboration didn’t require any adjustment.

“We’ve been really lucky,” admits Yeovil-based singer-guitarist Bruce Soord. “The process has always been me and Gav [Harrison, London-based drummer] sharing ideas online, so we just carried on doing what we’re doing.”

He also says the fortuitous timing of tours meant they had natural breaks in writing and recording to recharge creative batteries. So could it be that this is a band whose fortunes have permanently turned since the middle of the last decade? That was when they first began setting their sights a little higher than carrying on as something of a subsistence-level, cult concern prog band, and began working with guest musicians such as Caravan’s string arranger Geoffrey Richardson, Godsticks’ guitarist Darran Charles and, most notably, King Crimson and former Porcupine Tree percussionist Gavin Harrison. 

“I see this as our third record,” Soord admits, “I don’t think of it as the 13th album. When Gavin joined, then things really started to happen. It seems weird to talk about keeping things fresh and keeping developing with your 13th record; it seems ridiculous. But since Gavin joined it’s felt like a new beginning.”

The Pineapple Thief

(Image credit: Kscope)

Yet it might well have been the end. Prog asks Soord how he feels about the inability to play live in the current climate, given that he once suffered from crippling nerves playing live, which TPT did only sporadically anyway. And it opens up quite a revealing story about the watershed moment this band went through a few years back. 

“The reason I felt the stage fright, and I wish I could go back and tell my past self, was because the band just wasn’t good enough. We didn’t rehearse enough, didn’t play enough. Of course the catch-22 is that it’s very difficult for a band when you’re not making money, still have to hold down a day job, play odd shows here and there, straight from a rehearsal room, so it often doesn’t go particularly well.

“Because of that I was always thinking: ‘Oh God, how is this going to go?’ I had to drink stage fright away, which is certainly not recommended. One show, I could barely focus on the strings on my guitar. It was at that moment Jon [Sykes, longtime bassist], who saw me wobbling around the stage, said, ‘I want to quit, I don’t want to do this anymore.’”

He changed his mind, but doubts continued, even through the early part of the last decade. 

“We were doing okay – playing in Europe, doing small shows – but generally the shows were losing money. And then I remember saying to Jon when we started [2016’s] Your Wilderness, ‘This will be our last record – we’ve done well, the band has done good things. No regrets…’

“Then Gav came in as session player, Your Wilderness came out, and things began to take off. It felt like a rebirth.”

It would be over-dramatic to say it sounds like one, too – that would be to do a disservice to a strong back catalogue of work The Porcupine Tree have built up since their 1999 debut. But they’re clearly on a roll, and new album Versions Of The Truth is their most conceptually coherent, melodically captivating record to date. 

Setting the theme with the slow-burning unease of the opening title track, it centres around the decidedly contemporary notion that everyone has their own jealously guarded reality, and their truth is as good as yours.

“There was conflict with someone who’s very dear to me,” Soord explains. “He said to someone I know, ‘I don’t know which seven versions of the truth Bruce is telling you, but…’ When I was told what he’d said, I thought, ‘Ah, that’s such a profound statement.’ 

“It made me realise what we’re going though is really horrible, but it’s real. What he’s going though from his perspective is real and from my perspective it’s real, but we’ve come to a point with no resolution, where it was always going to end. And that really informed the record.”

That theme lends a dark, sometimes vengeful feel to some of the songs, such as Break It All, which tells of an errant love, friend or public figure (depending on the listener’s chosen interpretation):  ‘You don’t get to break it all/And break the rest with someone else.’ 

Demons adds: ‘You should know/You put them in me/And I will not let them go.’ Driving Like Maniacs, meanwhile, asserts witheringly, ‘I gave you so many chances to ruin what we had.’ Then Leave Me Be recalls, ‘You said, “We’re coming to get you…”’ but ‘What you told me was a lie.’ Then it vows, ‘Whatever is left of me, I’m coming to get you.’

“I wrote so many songs about that,” Soord admits. “Trying to write songs from different perspectives, understand versions of the truth that aren’t mine.” 

Naturally, national and global events also chimed loudly. 

“When I began writing, conflict over Brexit was still raging. I’ve never been political but it was so traumatic, so polarising. One side has this truth and the other side has this truth, and there’s no sharing of those truths even though there were probably reasons on either side. It’s horrible.”

The Pineapple Thief

(Image credit: Joe del Tufo)

That open-minded attitude reflects a man whose approach to making music has also tried to accommodate others’ input since Harrison and other TPT members began playing a more active role in the shaping of the band’s songs. 

Prog is full of multi-instrumentalist songwriters who are only too keen to keep a tight grip on all areas of making music, but Soord is happy to collaborate, particularly since Harrison graduated from a session drummer role to a full-time band member on the last album Dissolution

“When I write now, so often I deliberately stop early, despite the urge to finish it, and send work in progress to Gavin, to see what he does with it. There’s a real element of trust there.”

Harrison, for his part, has also found this an agreeable arrangement. “Bruce is actually the easiest person to work with in the world because whatever I suggest, he’s pretty much up for trying it,” he says. “He’s got a very open mentality.”

Harrison can also see the benefits of providing a different set of ears: “When you write a song, it’s very hard to be objective. But when Bruce sends his stuff to me, I can think, ‘Where would I like this song to go? What’s missing? What should it do now?’ It seems to be that my speciality is writing middle eights – Bruce doesn’t seem to write them that much!”

And of course, a healthy dose of ridicule can also keep egos in check, as Soord explains.

“At first when we met, he was Gavin Harrison the world-famous drummer, but since then he’s become a mate, and we take the piss more. Onstage he’s very naughty sometimes – he’s got this weird little bell in his kit, and if I ever make a mistake he rings it. Ha, ha!”

“It’s a Japanese bicycle bell someone gave me as a present,” Harrison confirms. “Bruce is a very creative person, but he’s got a slightly chaotic mind, and he gets himself in a bit of a mess onstage occasionally. He’s picked up the wrong guitar, he’s pressed the wrong effect on his pedal board or forgotten the first chord, you know? So one night I started ringing it every time he made a mistake and it made him laugh… which actually made him make more mistakes!”

Meanwhile, in other unforeseen circumstances, Harrison can take a more central entertainer’s role.

“On tour, when things go badly wrong, like equipment breaking down, I’ve got this magic trick stuffed away in my drumstick bag. I think, ‘God, we could be sitting here for, like, five minutes of silence. I better come out and do the magic trick.’”

Trouble is, unlike his regular role in the band, where he rarely repeats a turn, this one is starting to lose its surprise factor…

“Yeah, I’ve been doing the same magic trick for the last 10 years – everyone’s probably seen it now. So I’ve actually got a few more tricks lined up for the next tour… If we ever get to play live again!”

Somehow Prog can’t imagine conjuring getting much of a look-in during Harrison’s other day job, as one of King Crimson’s three-drummer line-up.

“Oh yeah, it’s very different,” he says. “It’s got to be really disciplined and organised, otherwise there’d be chaos.”

No room for rogue bells and bum notes on planet Fripp, then. But while that’s the kind of prospect many an instrumental maestro would relish, Harrison’s ability is wedded to a team mentality. So working with The Pineapple Thief didn’t just appeal to him as a technical challenge. 

“When Bruce wrote to me, I knew who The Pineapple Thief were, and we’re on the same label [Kscope],” says Harrison. “And I immediately thought, ‘I like these songs. I think I could do something interesting and creative for this.’” 

Harrison also insists he has no desire to show off to his paradiddle-happy peers. “I don’t try to impress drummers – that’s a big mistake, I think. I try to make the music and the band sound good. Of course, I try to play things that I personally find interesting, but not at the expense of the song or the show. Just so a handful of drummers in the audience might notice.”

His role, however, continues to expand, and he played a key part in creating some alternate reworkings of the songs (“Kind of what you used to call 12-inch remixes,” he explains) for the second CD of the deluxe version Versions Of The Truth.

“I played a lot of marimba and I played a lot of the Nord Drum, which is a kind of synthesiser that makes these weird synthetic percussion sounds. I reimagined all the songs, sometimes changing the chords, sometimes playing over modes or taking the harmony away.

“I did Break It All this way and then I remembered Peter Gabriel did a similar thing with his song Steam. It was quite rocking, and then as a B-side he did a thing called Quiet Steam. So that was sort of a blueprint for working on the other songs.”

His eerie reboots of songs such as Demons and Leave Me Be are dotted with sparse percussion which wouldn’t sound out of place on an early 80s Japan album (interestingly, Harrison mentions Richard Barbieri as someone who can create “fantastic unique textures”), and make for a haunting alternative vision of these tracks. 

If The Pineapple Thief ever get to play these songs live (surely the rescheduling of dates to autumn 2021 isn’t too ambitious?) gaggles of drum geeks will be gathered up front, watching Harrison as carefully as ever, but the rest of the band will still be enjoying the continuing rise of The Pineapple Thief Version 2.0. 

“We’ve carried on writing in lockdown,” Soord admits, “but we’re old school – we don’t want to put out another album until we’ve toured this one. And I can’t wait – I look forward to our shows now. 

“Somehow we came out of those depths of despair where our shows could be disasters to where we are now, where it’s a full time job, we’re prepared, we’re rehearsed, and I can go out knowing it’s going to be great. What’s the difference now? Well, it sounds obvious, but… We’ve got better at what we do.”

This article originally appeared in issue 113 of Prog Magazine.

Johnny Sharp

Johnny is a regular contributor to Prog and Classic Rock magazines, both online and in print. Johnny is a highly experienced and versatile music writer whose tastes range from prog and hard rock to R’n’B, funk, folk and blues. He has written about music professionally for 30 years, surviving the Britpop wars at the NME in the 90s (under the hard-to-shake teenage nickname Johnny Cigarettes) before branching out to newspapers such as The Guardian and The Independent and magazines such as Uncut, Record Collector and, of course, Prog and Classic Rock