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Interviews

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.

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.

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