"There’s certain prog fans who just want the comfy old slippers. That’s got its place and that music is timeless but they can’t accept anything new." How Pendragon proved they weren't "comfy" with Passion

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Samples, grime and rap? Something was stirring at Pendragon HQ back in 2011 when the band told Prog about their surprising and gritty new album, Passion. There’s no refunds, either!

To be honest, there was only one fan who didn’t like it. It was a guy in the US who sent the album back to us and we didn’t even give him a refund,” laughs Pendragon frontman Nick Barrett, recalling the reaction to 2008’s defiantly contemporary Pure album. “The only criticism you can throw at it is that you don’t like it. A bugbear of mine recently is that there’s a certain section of prog fans who just want the comfy old slippers. And that’s got its place and that music is timeless with bands like Genesis, Camel and Pink Floyd but they can’t accept anything new. It’s almost like the relief of ‘Thank God for that, they haven’t done anything different’. It had just become so safe and I really don’t want to do that.”

Certainly Pure was anything but safe. The band might have developed a sound that had become reassuringly familiar over the last 30-odd years, but by adding a metallic edge, Pendragon were completely revitalised. From bassist Peter Gee’s perspective, it was a change that had even been demanded by some of their fans.

“We had some criticism, particularly of the Not Of This World [2001] album and people were saying that the last three or four Pendragon albums all had the same stylised kind of cover artwork and the same style of music,” he admits. “I suppose from our point of view, Nick has always written from the heart and it’s just what comes out. I think he was conscious with Pure that there are different phases in a band’s life and that we needed to move on to the next level. Pure represented that. Nick has started to use a lot more samples which immediately gives it a more modern feel rather than traditional washy keyboard sounds which we used a lot in the past. The new Pendragon direction is a lot grittier and far more modern.”


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That new bearing has provided the band with an opportunity that few bands of their vintage are fortunate enough to have. By removing what they deemed to be claustrophobic, constricting limits on how their music was “supposed” to sound, they’ve given themselves a freedom to experiment with entirely fresh influences, something that Pendragon have continued on their latest release, Passion.  

“I think I had come to a bit of a brick wall musically and I really felt like I needed a change and discover something new,” reveals Barrett. “I started to think about how I was when I was 16 when I really consumed music without much thought. I liked most things and I didn’t have this reticent attitude to listen to stuff which people seem to have when they’ve got older. So I thought I wonder what it would be like if I adopted that kind of attitude again, and instead of just pooh-poohing stuff I wouldn’t normally listen to, I started to try and get rid of those prejudices and listen to more stuff. I was actually quite surprised at what I ended up seriously liking. My kids are now all teenagers and they’re into stuff like Avenged Sevenfold, Black Eyed Peas, grime and rap music. So I’m getting to hear a lot of what kids are playing today and it’s very interesting and trying to incorporate that excitement into our music has kept me interested. There’s no reason why you can’t take any kind of music, as long as it’s not contrived and it has emotion, feel and it works.”

Undoubtedly though, there will be those who will be shocked by the wide range of influences that the band have bravely integrated into their new album. Although the music retains the vitality displayed on Pure, the mere thought of the band including drum loops and even a fleeting rap section will have a sizeable portion of their fans nervously shuffling in those “comfy old slippers” Barrett refers to.

“Yeah, there are going to be a couple of things on the new album which will definitely sort the men from the boys,” says Barrett. “I think that people will be shocked by the rap on the track Empathy. There’s a section on there where we would normally have put a long guitar solo but I was listening to it and thinking that a rap would go really well over the top of it. I immediately came up with a couple of lyrics and thought it just worked really well. It was like the Eminem approach where the background music was very melodic and I think that carried it. So that’s going to be a bit of a surprise for people. 

“Generally speaking, I think 99 per cent of people who listen to Pendragon are up for the challenge,” he continues. “I put a note about the rap on our forum and thought I’d sit back and wait for the storm, but there was nothing negative at all. The way I wrote Passion was to start with something surprising and then as the album progresses it becomes perhaps a little more retro. I was thinking ‘What is the strangest thing we could start the album with that we haven’t done before?’ So we’ve started it with a sampled drum loop that’s almost like a hip-hop loop. It’s pushing the boundaries for us and I’m sure some people will think ‘What the hell is that?’ But it fits with what we are all about because the melody is there.”


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With Barrett writing a majority of the music, you might imagine that the other members of the band might raise more than just an inquisitive eyebrow at the idea of adding something as alarming as rap into the Pendragon sound, but Gee reveals he was far from perturbed.

“I think the wisest artists are those who embrace a lot of influences,” he says. “We’re open to all kinds of influences and when Nick came to me and said he had a rap section, I knew it would be great. I know whatever influences we bring into the music, it’s always going to be Pendragon because of the sound that the four of us create. It’s always going to have a distinctive flavour but it’s nice to shock people and give them some different at the same time. We knew we were taking a risk with Pure as it was the heaviest thing we had done. The new album is similar in that there are dominant guitars, modern keyboards and it’s a gritty sound but also the old Pendragon is in there. You’ve got to move with the times.”

That decision to progress was one which also saved the band from extinction. With album sales falling due to net piracy, the band were in a declining financial position and only the success of Pure and a change in the way the band operated prevented them from disappearing.

“I admit that around the time of [2005’s] Believe I couldn’t see how it was going to come good,” says Barrett. “But one of my philosophies is that when you’re absolutely up against the railings and you think that there’s no way out, you’re usually on the verge of some breakthrough and with Pure that really happened. The special edition and the fan conventions we started saved our bacon. Our career has been a rollercoaster with some tough times. After we put the Not Of This World album out, there was another hiatus of four years because I had really bad financial problems. I was hanging on by my fingernails.”

“Nick and I always say Pendragon are the band that refused to lie down and die and joked to ourselves that we only keep going to spite our critics,” adds Gee. “There are new avenues but we just keep doing what we need to. With Pure, Nick was thinking things we going so badly that he even put a note inside the album begging people not to upload it to the Internet.”

Unlike many of their contemporaries, Pendragon never quite managed to land a record deal with a major label, which during the 80s and 90s possibly hindered their progress. Yet in hindsight, that lack of major label involvement ensured that the band retained full control over their back catalogue, avoided having to make any contractual obligation albums or suffer studio visits from over-enthusiastic A&R men clumsily trying to encourage the band to write hit singles.

“Oh, I couldn’t bear that. I just wouldn’t do it. I’d tell them to fuck off out of the studio,” laughs Barrett before thoughtfully pausing and declaring “I’d go back to farming. . .”