What He Has Sown: A Conversation With Bruce Soord of the Pineapple Thief

The Pineapple Thief mastermind delves into the making of Magnolia, the [un]fair criticisms of fans, and the joys of modern Opeth, among many other topics.
Pineapple Thief

Founded in 1999 by English singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Bruce Soord (who’d already established himself well with his previous project, Vulgar Unicorn), The Pineapple Thief currently resides not only as one of the best, most popular acts on Kscope, but as one of the top groups in modern day progressive rock overall. With gems like Variations on a Dream, Tightly Unwound, and Someone Here is Missing, it’s easy to hear why.

The band’s latest opus, Magnolia, is yet another magnificent blend of emotionally rich (and catchy) songwriting, multifaceted rock arrangements, and luscious orchestration, and it will likely wind up on many “Best of” lists come the end of the year. I recently spoke with Soord about the creation of Magnolia, the frustration that comes with critical feedback, and the joys of spending time with Jonas Renkse (Katatonia) and Mikael Åkerfedlt (Opeth), among many other topics.

Your album titles are often cryptic yet poetic and visceral, so the simplicity of Magnolia is striking. What made you decide to use that as the title for this new record?

Oh, you know how when you find out where things come from, it kind of ruins them? Well, anyway [laughs], it’s literally about a magnolia tree in my garden. It’s come to symbolize love and loss. We planted it in memory of someone we’d lost and we count on it as a symbol for that. The other thing about a magnolia tree, and I’m not sure if you know this or not, but a magnolia tree only flowers very briefly. But when it blossoms, it’s incredibly beautiful, but it’s also very short. It’s sort of like our existence, I guess.

That’s where the title came from. I actually wrote the song “Magnolia” before we decided that the album was going to be called that, and the song was inspired by something that happened with the tree.

Oh, that’s sweet. It’s a great song, and I think that the cover art is incredible, too. It does a nice job of representing the sentiments of the music.

Dan [Osborne], our drummer, discovered [the artwork], and when the rest of us saw it, we were amazed. It’s a beautiful image that makes you question what you’re looking at. You don’t know whether or not this person is alive or what kind of emotional state she’s in, and it was perfect. As I had written a song called “Magnolia”, I just thought it was perfect for the record. It was done by a French artist named Patrick Gonzales, and when I got into contact with him he told me that he loved the music, so it was a great match. I’m really pleased with the cover. It’s striking.

Absolutely. It’s gorgeous. Now, are the songs on the album connected in any way? Is there a story that’s being told or a central theme, for example?

Well, I suppose I can’t deny what it’s about, which, like every album, is about what I experienced during the time I wrote it (about two years ago). The one thing I do when I sit down to write an album is wait for inspiration to come from wherever it comes from, like the cosmos or wherever, and when it does, you write a song. That’s why I leave an acoustic guitar in the house. I’m not very good at putting things into just words, but I like to think that I’ve learned how to do it in song over the years. That’s what I did over the last two years.

One of the major things that happened during that time was that a very good friend of mine, Steve Coe, passed away. I’d known him for about ten years and he used to help me with things like production and songwriting. He was a contracted songwriter in the ‘70s and he had a lot of success in the ‘80s with a band called Monsoon. After that, he collaborated with a world music star named Sheila Chandra.

Anyway, we became very good friends and he was very excited about the progress The Pineapple Thief has made. I sent him early demos of this album and he really liked it. He was even coming to me with all of these ideas, but then he died very suddenly.

Oh, wow. I’m sorry to hear that.

Yeah, thanks. It was incredible shocking, but that’s an example of some of the things that have defined this album. Tracks like “From Me” and “Bond” I wrote “From Me” shortly after I returned from his funeral, actually, and then “Bond” has that lyric that goes, “All I have left is what you gave me”.

He gave me so much over the years, and he taught me so much, but at the same time I didn’t want the song to be horribly dark and nihilistic. I wanted it to be cathartic, with light and hope, which is why the album closes with a feeling of, I don’t know, like the lyric with “clutching it hard” and “taking it forward”. I’m taking what he gave me forward, which, I guess, is what everybody does in their lives, like when they have children. You have to pass things on.

I’d hate for anyone to think that I’m miserable about life, ‘cause I’m not. I love life. It’s just that those are the things that dictate the output, I guess.

Exactly. It’s unfortunate that those things have to happen, but then again you get such great inspiration from them.

Yes, right. And it’s not like any of these situations that inspire me to write are particularly extraordinary, you know? Shit happens, and then you get older and more shit happens [laughs]. It’s just like that.

I think “Bond” is my favorite song on the album. It’s a stunning way to end.

Thanks. The funny thing is, in talking about songwriting, that every other song on the album came together relatively quickly, while “Bond” originally had a chorus that just didn’t work. I sent it to the band and they agreed that something wasn’t quite right with it. They wanted to ditch it, but I couldn’t. I just knew that there was something there, and I had to rip out the original chorus, not lyrically, but melodically, and make a new one.

It’s an exceptionally difficult thing to do as a songwriter, because you have it already ingrained in your head, so it’s hard to change it, but I’m glad I did because we all agreed that the new one worked better. It was one of the rare occasions where working really hard at it made it come out really good.

Would you say that “Bond” is your favorite song on the album? Do you have a favorite song from it?

It’s so varied. I think that some stick out to me because I’ve never written a song without guitar before, and those just have vocals, piano, and the string arrangement, which are excellent. I’m also really proud of “A Loneliness”, because making a song work with the most basic drum beat you can imagine and the same guitar chords all the way through—it’s all about the vocals on that song, and people have picked up on that.

Yeah, I can definitely hear that.

One of the things I’ve learned working with Jonas [Renkse] from Katatonia, as well as from playing live, is that my voice has become an instrument. In the early days—well, not necessarily the early days—I regarded myself as a songwriter and a guitarist who had to sing. I didn’t regard myself as a singer. All of a sudden, though, I realized that I could sing, and I was on stage during solo vocal parts for the opening of “My Debt to You”, for example, and I realized that I could sing.

So the thing I did with this album was develop the vocals more as their own instrument. I think “A Loneliness” is the one that I’m really proud of in that way.

There seems to be more of an emphasis on falsettos and harmonies here.

Yeah, that’s just it, and there’s also more maturity in terms of the vocal melodies, although maybe people may not see that far into it. You know, like, in the early days I sang like a thinner Billy Corgan or something [laughs]. I was quite influenced by The Smashing Pumpkins in the early days, and it took me awhile to develop my own vocal identity.

Your performance seems to be more punky and antagonist on, say, Little Man or What We Have Sown.

Yeah, or even in the really early days, on 137 or Abducting the Unicorn, which hasn’t even been reissued yet. The vocals are underdeveloped. But you do what you’ve got to do. That’s the thing about being a songwriter—you develop.

Yours is a good example of a voice being integral to the band. It wouldn’t be The Pineapple Thief without it.

I think that’s why, when people ask if I’ve ever thought of getting guest musicians in, I can’t because it’s all too personal. We’ve been doing it this way for too long to change it. I could certainly do that with another project, like Wisdom of Crowds with Jonas. Or if I did a Bruce Soord solo record, I could have a lot of fun getting other people in, but The Pineapple Thief would always be me in the forefront.

Of course. So speaking of Wisdom of Crowds, how did that collaboration come about? Are there plans to work with Jonas again?

I’d always been a fan of his voice. I remember that when I joined Kscope, they gave me loads of CDs from not only Kscope, but also Peaceville Records, and when I heard Katatonia, I was like, “Wow, who is this guy? He’s singing in a metal band but he’s got such an angelic voice. It shouldn’t work but it does.” I remember emailing him back in 2007, and he replied very graciously.

Years later, when I’d had the Wisdom of Crowds project on the back burner for, maybe, four years, co-writing it with someone who works for the label, we didn’t have a vocal, and Kscope wouldn’t release it until we sorted that out. All of a sudden, Jonas became available for about a week and management said, “Yeah, he can come over,” and Kscope flew him over to my studio, which is in the attic room of my house. I’d never met him before but he got on so well.

The sessions went incredibly well, to the point that we spent a lot of time just drinking and cooking and listening to music. It was a really nice week, so we’ve been really good friends since then. Like, I filled in on the Katatonia “Unplugged & Reworked” tour earlier this year because they’d just lost their guitarist (Per ‘Sodomizer’ Eriksson). So yeah, they’ll definitely be another one, but obviously the priority for Jonas is Katatonia. He’s just finished another Bloodbath album as well, and I know that that’ll sell a lot of records. But we’ve been talking about it, and he’s already sent me a couple of ideas.

Oh, that’s awesome. I’m sure it’ll be great.

Yeah, that’s the hope [laughs]. The good thing about the next LP will be that Jonas and I are going to work together as a songwriting partnership, so it’ll be interesting to see what comes out.

It’s interesting to me that you had the project ready but you know that you didn’t want to sing on it.

Exactly! So that’s an example of me not wanting to sing and thinking of myself as just the songwriter. I just enjoyed watching over the production and the performances.

In my review of Magnolia for Rebel Noise, I noted how some fans and critics of The Pineapple Thief have been complaining that your newer music is less progressive, experimental, and abstract; they think that the songs are now too short and commercial, I guess. I don’t agree with that opinion, but I do wonder how you respond to it.

I’ve had to tackle this issue for a long time. People feel really passionately about it. There are fans who are really quite angry about how the direction has changed from the early days, like on Variations on a Dream days, for example, where it was more dreamy and lengthy and progressive. It’s very strange, though, because if you look and read opinions about it, it’s impossibly polarized. You have people who want us to be what we were in 2004 or 2005, where it was more traditionally progressive.

When Someone Here is Missing came out (2010), it was a turning point for us commercially, which turned off a lot of our old fans. They said, “They died for me when that album came out.” But then other people feel that that Someone Here is Missing finally saw us mature. It was the kind of album that they really wanted. And then with the next one, All the Wars (2012), I mean, it was okay. I’d rank it somewhere in the middle, but some people now are saying that Magnolia doesn’t reach the triumph of All the Wars, whereas other people think that All the Wars was a disaster and the worst album we’ve done. It’s really quite strange.

It must be nerve-wracking to have to deal with that.

In a way, it is. And then you other people who adore Ten Stories Down the most. I don’t know whether to take it as a good thing or not, the way you can look at the catalogue and see that each album will rank as someone’s favorite. I’ve had to answer a lot of a questions about how it be considered “progressive” if it has no long songs. “Can you still call yourself a progressive rock artist?”

When I wrote these songs, I didn’t sit down and say to myself, “Alright, I’ve really got to cross over. I’ve got to get out of being on the edge of the underground, so I’m going to write some short, catchy, commercial songs and that’s that.” That’s not how it went! I went into the process as I always do, but for some reason none of the songs wanted to be any longer than they are.

You can only produce what comes naturally. Don’t force complexity.

That’s just it. For example, if I’d written “Bond” in 2004, it would’ve probably been eight minutes long. I would’ve made the middle section a few minutes long and then, when the euphoric outro came in, I probably would’ve built that up for a few more minutes. To be honest, I didn’t want to do that because I’d already done that. I wanted to hit people hard with these various instrumental sections and end it. If people thought, “Oh, why has he ended it? I wanted to hear more,” then they can play it again and get more from it.

So yeah, it’s a weird thing. We’ve always alienated and polarized our fans with every release, which I guess is a good thing in a way.

They say that if you’re pleasing everybody all the time, you’re doing something wrong.

I would have to do the same album over and over again, like doing Variations on a Dream each time. I want to push myself and try new things. The other thing is that when people complain about the shorter forms of the songs, I wonder why, because when I first listened to it all the way through, I realized that it was one of the most progressive records I’d ever written. It goes through many different themes and styles, from incredibly heavy and edgy to utterly fragile.

Our use of strings has evolved tremendously too, and we’ve been so lucky to work with Andrew [Skeet] on that again. For me, it’s the culmination of ten albums’ worth, or 15 years’ worth, of learning.

Totally. Magnolia is probably the most confident and balanced album you’ve done. It’s so well produced and arranged and structured.

Thanks. Yeah, even though I knew in the back of my mind, like, “Oh shit, we’re probably going to anger some fans,” like you say, you’ve got to go with your gut.

Tightly Unwound

I always laugh when I see people on the internet complaining about what a band does. I feel like saying, “Well, it’s not your band, it’s his or her or their band. For example, I see that happening a lot with Opeth, whose new album, Pale Communion, is incredible. It’s the best thing they’ve done in a decade by far.

It’s great. It’s the one album I’m listening to at the moment, actually. When I was out in Stockholm with Jonas a while back, we went out with Mikael [Åkerfeldt]. He’s just so nice and generous and funny. He basically took us all around Stockholm. Jonas was telling me these stories about how, when Mikael stopped doing the growling and moved onto the more,I don’t know how to describe it, like folk/prog/songy stuff, people reacted with such brutality! These people claimed to love Opeth, yet they reacted awful.

Of course, Mikael doesn’t really give a shit because he’s selling more records than ever before, but still, it’s crazy. People were apparently burning all of their Opeth records on Youtube. It’s mad.

It’s completely ridiculous.

I have to deal with similar things. I wouldn’t say it’s hatred, but it’s definitely resentment. How can you describe fans who go online to say and do these things? I remember reading someone online who wrote, “I’m liking Bruce less and less. Every album I hear—,” as if I’ve gone into his house and assaulted his family. It’s weird. I don’t think some people realize how it feels to see that as an artist. It’s not nice.

Absolutely. I remember asking Mike Portnoy how he feels seeing such negativity on the internet about his departure from Dream Theater, and he said the same thing. People don’t really consider how artists, like actors and athletes and anyone in the public eye, are just people underneath it all. We’re all human.

There have been many bands who, at one point or another, changed directions and lost me. All I did, though, was stop listening to them and continue to enjoy the catalogue that I liked. I would never dream of going online and having a rant about how this band or that musician should be “doing this because they’re shit now”.

The appropriate reaction would be, “Well, if you were in the band, you could do that, couldn’t you?” The only band I’ve ever been vocal about criticizing is Genesis. I adore what they did in the ‘70s and dislike what they became as a trio, but that’s just my opinion. I’m not going to bash them on forums.

But as a journalist, I think that’s different. You’re entitled to have that opinion because you know more about it, I suppose. I mean, if it’s an informed opinion and it’s intelligently written, I don’t mind it being negative. I’m perfectly happy with anyone’s opinion if it’s informed and constructive and all that. It’s when I read someone’s complaints and they just go on and on without any reason or maturity; that, I think, is silly.

Also, there have been reviews for this album and for All the Wars from people for whom it was, you know, just clearly not their thing. Instead of just saying, “Okay, it’s alright but it’s really not my thing,” they’ll destroy it because it’s not their cup of tea. That’s when it gets bad. I think that’s why I sat down to write Magnolia without really caring about that stuff. I knew that it would alienate some people, but after ten albums and fifteen years, you do grow thicker skin.

You’d have to. At the end of the day, it’s your band, right? End of story.

The worst that could happen is I’d end up selling no records, or one record to myself.

I think one of the biggest problems with the genre is that so many bands think that virtuosic playing and lengthy suites are the key to good music. I mean, I love complex music and heavy, lengthy songs, but the songwriting is always the key to good music.

It really is.

I think the title track to All the Wars is a great example of that. Sure, it’s a short song with a simple chord progression and simple accompaniment, but it’s got a great melody and great lyrics. It’s a great song, no matter if it’s not avant-garde or flashy or 12 minutes in length.

If I were doing a lecture on songwriting—and believe me, I’m not saying that I’m in a position to do that [laughs], but if I were I would use that song. The thing that I’m most proud of with that song is that it is a simple chord progression, yet it switches from a 4/4 time signature to a 7/8 variation. I’m not sure many people would notice that. It may be one of the proudest things I’ve ever done. That’s the way to make a song a bit more edgy and “progressive” without it being all about “Hey, look at me! I’m doing this amazing, technical section.” With “All the Wars”, doing that one thing made it a more interesting track.

It’s much more important to have quality songwriting than to be a band that’s focused almost solely on abrasive trickiness.

I try not to do it, but whenever someone mentions that style of progressive music, I always think of Dream Theater. I only saw them once, on the tour for their first album, and of course they’re a very different band now, but I’d love to see them now because it’s like watching athletes performing at the top of their game, right? I’d be awe of watching them do it, but as far as the songs are concerned, I don’t think I can really connect with what they’re going for. It’s a completely different end of the progressive spectrum.

I can definitely see that. Last year, I went to New York City for a press listening of Steven Wilson’s The Raven that Refused to Sing, and we spoke about Storm Corrosion and the reaction that people had to that. It was very mixed, and in the end he basically said, ‘Hey, this is what Mikael and I wanted to do in that moment and we did it. Like it or leave it, it was our project.’”

When I heard that record, I just knew that they didn’t give a shit, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. It was like the idea of Mikael and Steven working together made people expect so many different things, and what they actually released wasn’t for everyone. I must confess that I laughed when I heard it because it’s like they were in a position to do whatever they wanted and they did. It sounds pretentious, but that’s true art. That record is true art.

It really is. I told Steven that I wasn’t in love with the record, but I respect what they did with it. I like it a lot and I respect the artistry and autonomy it represents. It’s their album. It’s like some fans think that these artists owe them something. Just be happy that you have all this great music and stop complaining.

Oh god, yes [laughs]. It can be irritating, that’s for sure.

So I’ve read that your new drummer, Dan, had an integral role in making Magnolia what it is.

He came in about three-quarters of the way through the songwriting process, but what he brought was a lot of energy and attention to detail. Maybe I would finish a song and then he would come around and suggest better ways to do certain things. I’ve just listened to the back catalogue and there is a lot more guitar on this new record and more slide guitar solos and layers. You can attribute that to Dan; he pushed me to work a bit harder, I think. I think that I forgot that I was a guitarist so I worked harder on that. He also introduced us to Adam Noble, who mixed it and made it sound really, really professional. It sounds like a very expensive record, which is because of his mixing skills.

It does sound amazing. You’ve said before that your quest in music is to raise people’s spirits and connecting with them. How do you go about doing that? Do you think it’s an artist’s duty to do that?

If you’re going to go on stage and charge people to come see you, you’d better connect with them. If you don’t, they’re going to leave a bit pissed off. It’s not something that I consciously think of, like, “Okay, I have to do something that will connect with the masses or the audiences.” I do something that means an awful lot to me, and I think I put my heart on my sleeve on stage, and if I connect with people and they understand it, great. If not, fine. I know from playing live and from the feedback that I get, that people who do get it have got a real connection with me. That has to be a major motivation and reason for doing it.

It’s good that you’re so humble and appreciative about it. So many artists, like Kanye West, these days anyway, are known for acting so superior to their audience. As if the audience and the fans are lucky to be in their presence. They don’t seem to appreciate their position.

Yeah, and we’ve seen it before with Roger Waters (ex-Pink Floyd), in which he’d have this hypothetical war between he and the crowd. It’s not something I can really understand. As far as I’m concerned, yes, I write music because it’s therapeutic and peaceful for me, but I ultimately want to share it with people.

That’s the magic of music. It can express so much and make things better. Going back to your vocals, do you have any favorite vocalists? Were you inspired by anyone particularly, besides Billy Corgan, of course?

Um, yes, I suppose. As a guitarist, I’ve always just followed guitarists more than singers, so it’s only recently that I started following singers. When I was listening to a lot of prog in the ‘70s, it was the more melodic bands that I responded to. Like Supertramp, for instance. Their vocal lines were outstanding. I’m a big fan of Beck’s songwriting style, more so than his hip-hop side. Sea Change is one of the most influential albums I’ve heard. I wouldn’t say that there’s one individual about whom I’d think, “Yeah, that’s the vocal I want to do.” I just view the vocal as something like a guitar, something that I need to develop and make the most of.

That makes sense. I really like Camel and Caravan, in terms of melodic music from back then.

Yeah, yeah. They were a big part of it, too.

Moving onto the 2014 tour, are you playing with anyone?

No, we’re headlining, but we haven’t decided who the opening act will be. It’s only a short European tour, and we know that we have fans in the states, but it’s very hard to get out there and to make it financially viable. Where would we play, and how? It’s the same case for Mexico. Promoters in Mexico are probably going to fly us to Mexico next year, but it’s still very difficult to make it work without losing money. So even for us, after 15 years and the sort of rags to success story we’ve had, it’s still very hard to do it.

I’ve heard that from a lot of European bands. It’s still financially problematic even though they’ve become so popular.

I’m sure we’ll be back there at some point. I hope, anyway [laughs].

Me too, naturally. So do you have a favorite Pineapple Thief album and/or song? I suppose that’s the inevitable question.

It’s really tricky because every one of them exists in a special place and time. Variations on a Dream was special for me because it’s when we really emerged. I was just learning and experimenting on the first two [Abducting the Unicorn and 137], but that third album allowed me to find my confidence as a songwriter. I’m also very proud of Little Man, and to be honest, I think Magnolia is up there too because of how it sounds and the fantastic string arrangements on there.

Going back to the criticisms, I don’t see how people can be critical of albums like Magnolia when they have such great combinations of orchestration and songwriting. So what if it isn’t especially complicated musically?

Yeah, I don’t get it either.

What are you listening to these days?

That’s the trouble when I’m writing; I become, like, a self-obsessed idiot that doesn’t listen to anything else. I’m only focused on my own songs, so it’s only now, when I’m finished, that I can do that. As I said, the one I’m really listening to now is Pale Communion by Opeth.

If you could work with any other artist, who would it be?

I’d say that at the moment, it would have to be Beck. Sea Change is one of the most impressive albums I’ve ever heard. Vocally, I’d love to work with Colin Blunstone [The Zombies]. When I was a teenager, I listened to all his solo albums. We’d go around the record shops and pick up his stuff, like One Year and Ennismore. I adore those two. Really, the more melancholic side of Magnolia is influenced by those two records. It’s quite acoustic and has those gorgeous strings. And he’s still touring, so maybe I’ll get to finally see him live.

A lot of people in the prog rock realm cite Odessey and Oracle as a major influence. It’s very popular. I have to wonder, considering how busy you are with music, what you see yourself doing if you weren’t a professional musician.

Oh, it’s so hard to think about because I can’t imagine not doing what I’m doing. When I was in Stockholm, we went to a famous cemetery, where all the big death metal bands hung out. Entombed did their famous cemetery photo there, for example. It’s just this huge place and Jonas said that he’d love to just retire and just cut the grass or something. That’s the kind of thing you’d do because as a songwriter, it’s so intense, so I’d probably just join him and drive up and down, cutting the grass and looking at the sky and listening to the birds.

What I enjoy the most when I’m not writing is soccer, or football, which might be taking off in the States due to the World Cup. Of course, I also love cooking. I find cooking to be very creative. People tell me that I’m a good cook, but I don’t know about that. I don’t ever use a recipe; I just create things, so it’s sort of like writing a song. The only downside about cooking is that once you cook it and serve it up, people eat it and then it’s gone. With music, you dish it up and then it’s there forever.

Of course, if you dish up a stinker, then that is out there, right? So there are a few of those that I wish weren’t out there [laughs].

And if people are critical of your cooking, at least it’ll go away quickly.

Yes, exactly. The bad music will be on Youtube forever.

Well thanks for taking the time to speak with me, Bruce. It’s always a pleasure, and congrats again on Magnolia. It’s one of the best records of the year.

Thanks, Jordan. That’s nice to hear. We’ll probably speak again in two or three years, when the next one comes out. Cheers.

Splash image of Bruce Soord from The Pineapple Thief.com