Interview: Bruce Soord
The driving force behind progressive rock outfit The Pineapple Thief talks about going solo and finding inspiration in a supermarket
Bruce Soord is the frontman, guitarist and creative force behind British progressive rock band The Pineapple Thief. Formed in 1999, the group have continued to evolve and refine their sound over 10 studio albums, building up a loyal fan-base across Europe and gathering interest from a wider spectrum of alternative rock followers.
Having wanted to make a solo album for several years, 2015 saw Bruce take the plunge and explore the softer, dreamier side of his songwriting. Inspired by his childhood memories and local town, the self titled long-player was recorded during the summer in his home studio. As our recent album review concluded, it’s a “beautifully contemplative debut” that is “bound to surprise and delight in equal measure”.
Bruce Soord has also collaborated with other artists on his label, Kscope, joining forces with Katatonia’s Jonas Renkse on the 2013 Wisdom Of Crowds project and joined Katatonia on their acoustic European tour. Bruce also flexes his production and mix engineering muscles on various other projects, such as creating 5.1 mixes for TesseracT’s album Polaris and remixing Opeth‘s album Deliverance.
Songwriting caught up with Bruce at home in his studio, just before the solo album was released, to reflect on his songwriting past, present and future…
Why the solo album now? And why did you start The Pineapple Thief rather than go solo straight from the off?
“That’s a good question because The Pineapple Thief was effectively solo anyway. But, as we got bigger and got a following, all of a sudden 10 albums in and The Pineapple Thief becomes this ‘thing’, this entity, and it evolved into a sound of its own. Even though the band has progressed and changed, there was something I wanted to do that I knew I just couldn’t do with the band. And also, I really liked the idea of doing something where I didn’t listen to anybody else’s opinion. So I thought, let’s go into the studio and do a solo album – the kind of album that was based on the songs and music that I love.”
Were those old songs that you’d held them back, or was it all new material?
“It was a completely new session and also I knew I wanted to do something that was softer. I’ve been getting into music that’s kind of Greenman Festival, singer-songwriter, acoustic style… It’s probably something that’s dominated by female singer-songwriters, but there are quite a few male singer-songwriters that I look up to.”
“Number one would be Beck, when he’s doing his melancholic stuff, and people like John Grant who you featured – I’ve seen him about four or five times and he’s quite inspirational. Also people like Father John Misty – I saw him play recently and he’s outstanding, and if you put his album on, it flows and it’s soft, even though it’s quite edgy in places.
“A lot of the time, when I’m doing The Pineapple Thief, I’m thinking about songs to play live and rock the crowd out, and how we’re going to give them loads of energy. Whereas, all of that was irrelevant when I wrote this record. I wanted it to be something that was – I hate to say – an ‘evening’ record. That was the aim.”
Did you approach the writing process in a different way?
“Looking back on it, I still did the same thing: it always starts with an acoustic guitar, my iPhone on record mode and humming. So I come up with an idea, or something will inspire me, and I’ll pick up the guitar and I’ll see what happens. The only difference with doing it solo was, because there was a deadline, I was under different pressures. With The Pineapple Thief, I always used to say that, ‘Songwriting is all about waiting for some inspiration to be dished out from the cosmos and you can’t rush it…’ But now I’m wondering if that was actually bullshit, because it can be an excuse to be really lazy – you can pick up the guitar and go, ‘Oh I’ve got nothing’ and you’ll put it down and wait. But with this, I’d pick up the guitar and something average would come out and, instead of going and coming back later, I would take 10 minutes and come back and go, ‘Right, that wasn’t good enough! Now let’s try something else.’ It was a different approach and actually quite refreshing because, for me, it worked.”
Did you avoid the weight of expectation that normally surrounds the band, or did you find there was actually more pressure because this album just has your name on it?
“When I spoke to Kscope, my label, and I said, ‘Did you know, I’ve got these songs and we could do a solo album, if you like?’ I was actually kind of lying because I didn’t have any songs, they were just ideas! They said, ‘Yeah great Bruce, we’ve got a slot actually. Can you get it done by…’ and, in my slightly arrogant songwriter mind, I thought it would just be so easy and I could write this soft, acoustic solo album in a week. Of course, it didn’t happen like that – the songs I did were okay, but they just weren’t good enough. Then all of a sudden the expectation hit me: if I’m going to put out a Bruce Soord album, it’s got to be decent. You can’t be nonchalant about this thing. I kind of had a bit of a meltdown and in a way, that was the thing that gave me a big kick up the butt, and made me realise I’m not the world’s most amazing songwriter that can write a record in a week. You can’t do it, you need to get off your butt and work at this, and put all your energy into it. I think I spent eight to twelve weeks writing and recording it – it was really intense.”
Do you usually know what an album is going to be about, before you start writing it?
“When I sit down and start to write, I have to have a goal. Not like a concept album or something like that, it’s normally about what I’m experiencing at that time. If you look at the 10 Pineapple Thief albums, it’s almost like a biography of my life, whereas when I did this solo album I looked back on my entire life and that’s how I got the inspiration. So when I sat down to write the first song, I knew I wanted the album to be a journey that went through these sentiments that, I hope, are universal.”
Tell us about that first song?
“The first one I wrote was Field Day about a time when I was 11 years old; I was changing schools and I was left in this hideous moment when I was totally alone. The song speaks about feeling the breeze and how beautiful it was – at that moment, I knew that I had a path that I had to take. That’s why it’s split into two parts: me singing to myself when I was a 11-year-old and me now singing to my eight-year-old kids.”
Lyrically, does this all come out in a stream of consciousness and then you make sense of it afterwards?
“It’s always a tricky thing because I think what can turn people on or off, is your lyrical style. I’m fairly abstract and simple, and they’re personal, but I try to make them universal. My motive for writing songs is to share them with other people, so I can’t make them too insular. I know some people prefer a long, ‘storytelling’ lyric, but that’s something I’m not very good at, so I never do that. But the more songs you write, the more you realise that there’s a real knack to writing a hook and getting that catchy way that you form the words and the melody needs to be just right.”
You do all the production yourself – do you tinker with beats and recording during the writing process?
“No, I get the song in a skeletal form. So before I go into a production mode, I’ll have a verse and some chords and, more importantly, a hooky chorus that I’m happy with. Even though I don’t exist in the pop world, it’s still really important for me to have a hook. Once I’ve got them, I’ll go into production mode. But I wouldn’t spend ages getting it right, because I do like the process of taking it into production and seeing what happens. That’s the fun bit!”
Did it also help having a deadline, to keep you focused?
“Maybe, yeah. I know what it’s like when you come up with an idea and you spend ages playing with it and making it sound really cool, without the song being finished. But one of the things I find is, when you get that fresh excitement, when you pick up the guitar and it works, you’ve got to ride that wave and finish the song. For me, one of the worst things about songwriting is when you’re deep into production and you’ve played it so many times, that instant magic goes. I hate to lose that.”
Do you like to hide in the studio away from distractions, or can you write in a noisy environment?
“I like it being locked away, but sometimes you hit a wall so what I quite often do is go out into ‘normal’ world – I’ll go for a run, or go on my bike or take the kids to the shop. I’ll be in a supermarket looking like an idiot, ‘la-ing’ or humming into a phone, so I don’t forget that hook! Similarly, if it comes to you in the middle of the night – and it drives my wife crazy – you have to pick up the phone or whatever you’ve got by your bed and get that idea down. I do that all the time.”
What’s the most bizarre place that you’ve had an idea for a song?
“I remember once I was just standing at Clapham Junction Station and this melody and a guitar riff came into my head. As soon as I got off the train, I came home and went in the studio and just played it out. I didn’t forget it and I called the track Clapham. So it can even happen in a busy place where there are loads of distractions – in a way, that can help the process.”
Can you remember the first moment you were compelled to write a song?
“Oh yeah, I can. I must’ve been 14 or 15 and I’d just bought my first guitar. It was like a £40 Spanish guitar, it was a terrible thing and it took me ages to tune up. I’d just learnt how to play some chords and all of a sudden I did this chord progression – I didn’t even know what they were, I was just moving my fingers. All those angsty, 15-year-old feelings made me think, ‘Oh I’ve got to write a song’. It wasn’t that terrible, but I remember putting it together and my sister’s boyfriend, who was a guitarist, heard me doing it and said, ‘That’s really good’. I always remembered that. I never thought I was ever going to reach a point where I’d released 10 albums; I just thought it would be nice to write a song. Once you’ve got the bug, it’s difficult to let it go.”
Your first band was Vulgar Unicorn wasn’t it?
“Yeah, that’s a prog rock name for you! It’s actually named after a pub in some fantasy book. That was with Neil Randall and he was always the talented songwriter when I was a kid and I was the guitarist. I think I learned a lot from writing with him, but he just got disillusioned because we didn’t get success straight away and he didn’t want to play live. That was the big thing, because if I’m going to do music, I want to play it and people to hear it. It’s a bit weird if all you do is a studio release because you never get to ‘feel’ what people actually think of it. The thing I love about playing the songs live is you get to experience other people enjoying your music, which is such a weird thing and such a privilege. That’s why I did The Pineapple Thief: I needed to do something that was myself and I also had this urge to write more songs.”
So why didn’t you go solo at that point?
“I didn’t want people to think it was a solo album, even though I played everything back in the early days. For a lot of people, it’s a bit of a turn-off and they don’t want to latch onto an individual. So many people who love The Pineapple Thief probably don’t have a clue who Bruce Soord is, which is a good thing.”
Apart from the Wisdom Of Crowds, you tend not to collaborate and co-write. Why do you think that is?
“I think the only reason that I haven’t done it as much as people may think, is that I’m a bit scared! I’ve always done it by myself. Even with the Wisdom Of Crowds, someone would give me an idea and then I was left alone to work with it and finish the track, then Jonas from Katatonia would come and sing. For the next album, Jonas is going to come over to my studio for two weeks and I’m shit scared! What happens if it doesn’t work? But you never know.”
Is it also because the songs you write are very personal to you? Or is it that you don’t co-write enough to feel comfortable with it?
“Yeah, I think it’s a bit of both. With the solo record, it’s so personal to me, so when I get an idea it’s only in my head and no-one else’s, so only I can spurt it out into a song. Having said that, I don’t mind collaborating when it comes to production, and even though I write the songs, the band is very involved with production and will say if they think a song is too long, or if there’s a section they don’t like. I like that kind of thing because it takes you out of your comfort zone. But with the first part of the songwriting process, I think it needs to be a solitary experience.”
Are you already thinking about the next album?
“I’m really lucky that I’ve got a label like Kscope that can put it out, but I’ve got no expectations. I’m really happy with how the album has come out, but I’m not arrogant enough to assume that people will buy it. If they don’t, then unfortuantely, the way this business works, means it’ll be very difficult to do another one. But if they do and people like it, then yeah I’d love to do another solo.”
What are your thoughts about performing as Bruce Soord live?
“Doing it with The Pineapple Thief would be a bit too weird, so I think I’d have to keep them separate on the road. But also I’d like it to be a completely different experience and play seated venues. Maybe because I’m getting old, but I do think it’s a better listening experience. So I’d love to do that, get a band togther and reimagine the songs a bit. We’ll just have to wait and see – if people want to come and see it, then I’ll do it, definitely.”
Interview: Aaron Slater