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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.

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

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