The Rhythmic Redesign of Porcupine Tree: An Interview with Gavin Harrison
Porcupine Tree drummer Gavin Harrison talks with PopMatters about the long and complex process that went into his creation of the big band album, Cheating the Polygraph.
In his Oscar-winning turn as a tyrannical big band conductor in last year's Whiplash, J.K. Simmons plays a man with a simple utilitarian justification for why he so horribly mistreats his students. When explaining his process to drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a student he subjected to plenty of abuse, Simmons' character Terence Fletcher says, "I was (at conservatory) to push people beyond what's expected of them. I believe it's an absolute necessity."
Although to a far less brutal extent, Gavin Harrison similarly pushes himself into challenging musical realms. (If anyone has ever thrown a chair at his head, he's not telling.) As a member of Porcupine Tree, arguably the pre-eminent progressive rock outfit of the '00s, he displayed chops that balance virtuosity and simplicity, pulling off that all-too-rare feat of being technically sophisticated without giving into overly cerebral composition. Porcupine Tree went on hiatus in 2010, but that hasn't stopped Harrison from continuing to build upon his already impressive legacy in drumming.
From playing with prog titans King Crimson to being one of the greatest sources of drum education out there now through his drum clinics and instruction books, Harrison has proven himself to be one of the most formidable drummers of the modern day. His latest project, the big band LP Cheating the Polygraph, just might be his most audacious yet. The record finds Harrison heavily re-interpreting selections from the Porcupine Tree catalogue to the point that in some circumstances, only slight traces of the original songs can be heard. He also stitches separate tunes together into a dizzying menagerie of rhythmic jumps and leaps, as on the dazzling highlight "Hatesong/Halo".
Cheating the Polygraph is as compositionally intense as Whiplash is psychologically taxing, but unlike Simmons' merciless Fletcher, Harrison sounds like he's having a blast, finding the fun in what are extremely tricky pieces. He pushes himself to rhythmic levels of the kind that Fletcher wishes to do to Neyman in Whiplash, but Harrison's version of big band is even more inventive and compositionally nuanced than that film's concluding drum epic, "Caravan".
I couldn't help but make these comparisons to Whiplash when I first heard Cheating the Polygraph, as the film -- one of 2014's best -- sears itself into the viewer's mind with its sheer intensity in a way not unlike Harrison's rhythmic designs do. Both represent distinctive takes on the big band format, Harrison's especially so. I spoke with him over the phone not long after the album's release, wherein we talked about the process of making the album at length, which is fitting, given that it was no small investment on is part, in both time and money.
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How long did it take Cheating the Polygraph to come together?
Do you have any experience playing in big bands?
Yeah, when I was younger; certainly nothing I've done in a very long time. In the early part of my career, my formative years, I dabbled in big band playing with my dad, who was a professional trumpeter. It's a sound I've always loved, and I knew one day that I'd want to make something out of it.
Was the music of Porcupine Tree the starting point for the album, or did the music emerge out of a desire to do a big band record?
The starting point was to play a piece by Porcupine Tree arranged for big band with the Buddy Rich Orchestra. I chose the most unlikely piece -- well, they're all unlikely for a big band -- which is called "Futile". In the Porcupine Tree world, that's probably the most metal thing we ever did, and it seemed like the most ludicrous candidate to take on for that project. This was arranged my good buddy Laurence Cottle.
Now, unfortunately, that didn’t happen, because the event got cancelled at the last minute. But we made a recording of it, a demo, and I really liked it. I do a lot of drum clinics, and a piece like that arrangement works perfectly to play at a clinic.
The second piece we did was "Cheating the Polygraph", but we took a different approach than we did with "Futile". When "Cheating the Polygraph" came out really well, I thought to myself, "We could do a whole album of this." They would all be Porcupine Tree pieces, to give the music a cohesive theme. These aren't meant to be "covers" of Porcupine Tree songs; in fact, if you've heard the record, they're a long way from covers. Sometimes they go way out into a world of their own. Once I realized I could do this, it was a mountain of work.
What was it that made "Futile" an "unlikely" piece? Was it something in its composition, or is it the fact that it's a metal tune now being performed by a big band?
With all of the songs, I wanted to do radically different versions of them: reinventing, rather than re-arranging. I don't think many Porcupine Tree fans would be whistling along to these versions.
With a project like this, it's good to have source material that's interesting; it's also good to have something that holds the whole project together.
"Futile" was a piece that I wrote with Steve (Wilson) shortly after I joined the band. He introduced me to the music of Meshuggah, the Swedish death metal band. I loved it. I hadn't been very much exposed to that kind of music, but I absolutely loved it. The rhythmic design that Meshuggah does is so beautiful. Whether or not you like that kind of music or style, it has a very impressive design from my point of view.
I think I can see past a lot of the genres or genre elements of any music to find the beauty in any well-composed, well-arranged idea, whether it's reggae, country/western, metal, or bebop. I'm looking for some beauty in the actual ideas; whether they're played on distorted guitars or clarinets is kind of irrelevant to me.
So I said to Steve way back in 2002, "Listen, I do a lot of drum clinics; do you fancy writing a piece with me, inspired by that kind of rhythmic composition?" We ended up writing it, and it was initially just going to be something I would play at drum clinics, in a kind of math-metal style. But then Steve really got into it and said, "Oh, I want to sing on this." He went home and wrote some melodies and lyrics. Then we showed it to the other two guys, Richard (Barbieri) and Colin (Edwin), and they loved it too. It wasn't really a typical Porcupine Tree piece of its time.
Were the reasons you chose "Futile" similar to your reasons for choosing the other tracks on the album? Did it have to do with rhythmic design specifically?
Not always. The eight (tracks on Cheating the Polygraph) had the most successful ingredients out of the many I tried out. Some ended up working well together, which explains the songs that are two in one. (See "Hatesong/Halo", "The Sound of Muzak/So-Called Friend", and "The Creator Had a Mastertape/Heartattack in a Layby".) I knew that with an arranger as good as Laurence, things would never sound like a patchwork quilt. You'd never see any stitch marks or nailings. So if I said to Laurence, "Look, I'd really like to do a ballad, but I'd like to start with this screaming guitar intro from the song 'The Creator Had a Mastertape. I want to stick that on the front of the ballad, which is 'Heartattack in a Layby,'" I knew he would be able to do that successfully in a way that's sympathetic to both songs.
You really start dealing with the molecules and DNA of music when you get to the level of arranging, which Laurence is more than capable of handling. Both of us had similar ideas; we had quite a few meetings and discussions about what direction to take the music in, both for the album and each individual song. The idea became eight mini-movies inside a big movie.
It ended up being such a mountain to climb in terms of the necessary work for each song that we needed to have a very clear plan about where it was going to go. If, say, you had all the brass players come in and record, and after that you go, "Well, I don't like this," you've wasted a lot of time and money by that point. We had to be really sure, which is why it took so long: it was months of going backwards and forwards between me and Laurence, fine-tuning all the separate parts of the arrangements.
You mentioned that you tried out other tracks before narrowing it down to eight. Did others resist this style of playing?
Well some of the ones I tried rearranging are more about atmosphere. That's fine, too; music should have atmospheres. Some Porcupine Tree songs don't have a lot of melody, chord sequences, or chord changes. Those tunes are harder to manipulate into another format, or to re-imagine, because there isn't a lot of meat and potatoes to work with. That's not a criticism of any of the pieces I tried; it's just that some Porcupine Tree pieces are built around a vibe, rather than you being able to play it on a piano and whistle the melody.
Photo: Lasse Hoile
Did any of the songs that made it on the album surprise you in how well they took to the arrangement?
I had a gut feeling about a few of the songs. I would spend days listening to the back catalogue, playing the songs on the drums in different ways, whistling and humming to myself to figure out how the melodies could work with different rhythms and tempos. Quite often, the first draft would be me on the drums and singing into a microphone. I'd do that to figure out how the melody or bassline would fit in with the rhythm, which would sometimes be drastically different than the original. When you play the original against the version on this record, you can see that there are miles between each piece.
Were the tunes that are structured as two songs in one originally conceived that way, or did they happen to come together?
Well, take a track like "Hatesong". I thought that would be a good one to do, and as I started working on the arranging, Laurence would hand me versions of the piece that he had arranged to a certain degree. I then went home and played along with both versions and chopped them up on my computer. When I did that, I said, "You know what, I keep having this feeling like I want to go to another song."
I don't know why, but I just thought of "Halo". It's a different tempo, a different key, but they aren't songs that you could really just slip into each other; they aren't similar in many ways. But I had a feeling we could make it work with some clever arranging techniques, metric modulation, and clever harmonies. With those we could seamlessly go from one tempo into another, and into a completely different vibe; then we decided to get out of that and go back into "Hatesong" for the outro.
Some songs I listened to and just thought, "Yeah, I'm feeling like we want to do something else here. There's a kind of hole here, and I want to put something else in." That's when I would start suggesting things that we could manipulate into the arrangement.
Could you see yourself doing a project similar to this one again, albeit perhaps not with the music of Porcupine Tree?
I don't think so. This isn't part one of a series. (Laughs) Even after we finished the second song ("Cheating the Polygraph"), we still weren't thinking that this would be an album. But around that time, I did start thinking that this would be a dream album, a kind of a bucket list recording for me. It's gonna take a long time and a lot of my savings, but I don't care. This is what I was put on the planet to do. At that point, I had a strong feeling that I wanted to do this record.
Now, so far it's been well-received and well-reviewed, so I imagine some people might start asking me questions like, "What are you gonna do next?", or "Are you going to do another big band album?" At this point in time, I don't know what I'm going to do next. Probably something completely different. I don't like being pigeonholed.
Given how distinctly different the tunes of Cheating the Polygraph are compared to the Porcupine Tree originals, was there any trepidation on your part in thinking that people might not understand or recognize these versions?
I honestly didn't make the record for anyone except myself. I could have picked much more popular Porcupine Tree songs; I know from having played so many concerts with the band that there are more popular picks than the ones I chose. So if I had wanted to sell more records or please more Porcupine Tree fans, I could have picked a set of songs that are more popular.
Some of the songs I picked are actually pretty rare B-sides, from things like the Nil Recurring EP. "Mother and Child Divided" was only a B-side to one of the Deadwing songs. "Futile" only ever came out on a special disc we did in 2003; it's never been on an album.
The choice of songs was not because they were popular songs. I really liked them because they had some good musical ideas in them that would translate to the big band.
When you were making the album, did you show any of the pieces to your bandmates in Porcupine Tree? If so, what were their reactions?
Well, because this took such a long time, I was working on the "Futile" arrangement when the band was around my house at the time we were rehearsing some acoustic pieces for our shows at Radio City Music Hall (New York) and Royal Albert Hall (London). I played them my version of "Futile" and they really liked it. Subsequently, any time Colin, Richard, or Steve were around my house during the last five years, I would say, "Oh, listen, I've done another one!" Sometimes I wouldn't tell them what it was to see how long it would take them to figure out. In some cases they recognized it straight away; other times it was two or three minutes before they heard something familiar.
What's next for Gavin Harrison?
King Crimson are getting back together. We'll be touring in September, and right up to the end of the year. There's a lot of work ahead of us, lots of rehearsing and arranging to do before that begins. It's a band with three drummers, so there's a lot to deal with there.