“Nobody cares if someone says ‘I don’t like that sound’ or ‘Actually play it right next time!’ That last one generally only comes my way”: The Pineapple Thief aimed to escape their comfort zone, and it worked

The Pineapple Thief
(Image credit: Tina Korhonen)

A quarter of a century ago Bruce Soord founded The Pineapple Thief as a solo project. It soon grew beyond his expectations and the quartet’s latest album, It Leads To This, finds them switching things up even further. Prog catches up with Soord, drummer Gavin Harrison and bassist Jon Sykes to find out why the record’s creation turned out to be such a cathartic experience.

There’s a slight air of world weariness about The Pineapple Thief. The band have been in Gavin Harrison’s studio, rehearsing for their upcoming tour to support their new album, It Leads To This, and there’s the sense that it’s been an elongated, potentially mildly frustrating day of missed cues and occasional bum notes.

“Gavin doesn’t sugar-coat anything,” reveals frontman Bruce Soord, referencing the drummer with a knowing smile. “So we’re in the studio now; we play a song, record it and gather around the speakers and listen back. The first time you play it through, it’s quite brutal. We have this dynamic where we have an ordered section and a chaos section, but I’m not going to tell you where the chaos section is.

“It’s an interesting dynamic and there’s a lot of patience with one certain member of the band. It’s quite a nice environment because nobody cares if someone says, ‘Don’t do it like that,’ ‘I don’t like that sound,’ or, ‘Actually play it right next time!’ It’s all fine, although that last one generally only comes my way.”

Such comments could be indicative of a band embroiled in disheartening studio friction, but the lack of animosity between  the musicians is palpable. It’s merely the kind of jovial, lampooning mentality that relieves stressful situations in any collection of close bandmates. There’s also a transparent desire to ensure that their live presentation is as consummate as their evocative recordings. Indeed, it’s startling to consider that this year is The Pineapple Thief’s 25th anniversary, even if there have been drastic changes over that time.

“It’s impossible to think of it as one thing,” considers Soord. “It really feels like three separate entities. There was the first entity, which was just me alone in the studio. Then we signed to Kscope and started to do small tours with the band. I think then this current entity started in 2016, when we met Gavin for the Your Wilderness album.

“So that’s really how I look back on it and compartmentalise it all. That’s why it still feels fresh to me – because this is only the fourth proper studio album that we’ve done with this lot.”

We all have our own studios, which is a little bit of a double-edged sword. You can get a bit complacent and, dare I say it, a bit lazy

That new album is another captivating release that possesses all the classic Pineapple Thief signatures. Perhaps more guitar-heavy than its predecessor, it was assembled using a different writing style. Whereas over recent years the band have digitally exchanged files, this time Soord and Harrison began writing the album together in the drummer’s north London home studio.

“It was like an old-school way of doing it,” says Soord. “I had been so used to working alone, where I would come up with an idea and then send it to the guys. Gavin would send a drum idea back or chop things up and I would just think, ‘Oh well, I’ve a couple of days to faff around with this.’ There was no pressure. It’s hard work when you’re on your own, as you think, ‘I’ll make myself a cup of coffee and do it tomorrow.’

“We all have our own studios, which is a little bit of a double-edged sword. You can get a bit complacent and, dare I say it myself” – looking at the rest of the band – “a bit lazy. When you’re sat there together in a room, it’s a completely different mindset. It was good and a lot of the songs came out of that session.”

“I think that was the first time we were actually in the same room together,” adds Harrison. “Before that, it was an internet love affair, sending files backwards and forwards. You do something but you might not get a response to it for a couple of days, whereas this was in the second. I’d play something and there was instant feedback.”

From the perspective of an outsider, the combination of guitarist and drummer crafting much of the material together, without the involvement of keyboardist Steve Kitch or bassist Jon Sykes may seem relatively quirky. While there is a declared willingness of all four members to convene to write together in the future, Harrison expresses a certain reticence about the idea.

“You can just end up with a half-hour jam in E,” he argues dryly with a smile. “I’ve done it before and it’s very hard because you have three people all trying to contribute harmonically. If it’s just a drummer with a guitarist or keyboard player, then you can change the key, the tonality, change the time signature, all on the fly.

“When there are three people all trying to play chords, asking, ‘What’s that? Is that in E and then it’s a D?’ You know, they’re just falling over each other and it’s not an organic process. It usually works best with one harmonics player and a drummer. It’s a bit easier to manoeuvre around each other and dance around, rather than three people all trying to contribute harmonically.”

“I think there are pros and cons,” suggests Sykes diplomatically. “It gives you a fresh approach and you’ll get something different to what you would have if you’d done it on your own. I think there’s also a benefit to the way we always did it, writing separately, because you get a different type of organic progress.

“Quite often, we’re not even talking. The communication is through files with music on. That must give you a different result to when you are face to face saying,‘What about this?’ I think it’s probably good to mix it up.”

For all the core material created by the Soord-Harrison partnership, the input of the full band has been critical in shaping the sound of the new album. Indeed, Sykes suggests that The Pineapple Thief now feels more like a “proper” group than at any time in their past. “It definitely feels like more of a band project these days,” he says. “There will be a demo base that Bruce will have sent, which might be just a drone sound or something, which gives me a lot of space to develop.

It boils down to just trying to better yourself every record. I’m not saying that it always happens like that; but as an artist, that’s your aim

“Usually, I’m responding to what Gavin has done and it does sometimes change the path of a song or might result in a bigger change to one of the sections. We don’t really talk about references or anything like that. There isn’t a steer to say, ‘Make it sound like this.’ You can just do whatever you think sounds right.”

For all the innate, internal satisfaction with the quality of the album, Soord reveals that its creation was one of the most intense periods he can recall in the band’s history. That was seemingly caused by a combination of an internal desire to ensure The Pineapple Thief don’t stagnate, along with the challenge of playing some of the more complicated compositions.

“I think that boils down to just trying to better yourself every record,” he says. “I’m not saying that it always happens like that; but as an artist, that’s your aim. I pushed myself personally to a higher level. There was a period when the album was coming together when you’re thinking, ‘Right, this is how it’s going to be.’ Then things start to ramp up and everybody wants it to be as good as it could possibly be.

“We’re all pushing each other and we all have ideas as to where we think it should go. Luckily, we’re all pretty much on the same page – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t healthy tension. So it was an intense time getting it finished.

“The good thing about coming to Gavin’s was that I was pushed. There’s one track called Rubicon, where Gavin just had a rhythm that I hadn’t heard before. I was completely out of my comfort zone but in a good way. It’s about pushing in every aspect, playing, writing words, and the sound.” 

The last album was looking at the world and thinking: ‘What’s going on? How can I make sense of it? Then in 2023 you look at it and think, ‘How did it get this bad?’

Those familiar with the band’s back catalogue will be aware that the introduction of Harrison into the ranks has altered their music, frequently adding complex, unexpected rhythmic patterns that embellish their sound. As one of the world’s most technically gifted drummers, do the rest of the band ever have to rein him in?

“No, I didn’t have the genital cuffs on,” says Harrison with a smile. “I try to do something unique, play some rhythms that you’ve never heard before, things that you couldn’t say, ‘Oh, there’s a record just like that with that exact rhythm.’ With music that’s moving into a popular area, you get very limited, everything’s in 4/4 and there’s almost nothing you can do that hasn’t been done before.

“In a more progressive way, you can do things that aren’t technically complicated but are things where you think, ‘I’ve never heard a band play with this rhythm before,’ which at the very least gives us something that’s unique and interesting.”

The carefully crafted musical backdrop is a perfect foil for Soord’s lyrics. Known for introspective tales that reference some of his personal, internal conflicts, the songs gathered together on It Leads To This continue his desire to attempt to comprehend the world. “I remember making a conscious decision about what the theme of the record would be,” he recalls.

“It began in the depths of the pandemic, when we started to write the first track, which was Put It Right. It was a time of reflection because you were forced into this solitary confinement of your house. I was lucky because I had the studio in my garden.

“So that definitely set the tone, but effectively, I feel it’s a continuation of the theme of the last album, which was basically looking at the world that we live in and thinking: ’What’s going on? How can I make sense of it, as it’s all getting a bit fucked up?’

“Then in 2023 you look at it and think, ‘My God, how did it get this bad? This wasn’t in the script.’ That kind of relates to the It Leads To This title, but at the same time, it’s not all negative. It’s a positive message, which is that it’s in our power to change it. Writing about it is a way of dealing with it. It’s tackling it head on. Even now, we’re playing the songs together for the first time as a band, and it feels really good to sing it. It’s a cathartic experience.”