A Conversation with Pendragon’s Nick Barrett, Part Two

Continued from Part One.

Among the modern variants of progressive rock in England, Pendragon is a well-established brand. Their sound is built upon the approach of the classic prog acts, but with a decidedly modern spin. Here’s Part Two of my recent conversation with leader Nick Barrett about the band’s new album, Passion .

BK: I thought it was interesting when you — again I’m speaking of the DVD here — when you talked bout melody versus rhythm in terms of which you concentrate more upon. Before, I asked about the recording process, doing essentially the melodic parts first and the rhythmic parts later. So now I’m wondering if this method might in some ways allow you to sort of capture the essence of the song first. I’d never considered that before. What do you think?

NB: Yeah, it’s kind of taking a reverse approach to things. I did have some sort of Jethro Tull -esque guitar riffs, and I wasn’t quite sure how the drums were going to go. I put down some demo [drum parts], but when Scott came in and did the real drums, we spent three days going through approaching how we were going to do it in the studio. What cymbals to use; things like that. And that process, honestly, brought the drums to the music. It’s developed even more today, since we’ve toured.

I think drummers often find this. They say, “Oh, is that what you had in mind? I’d have done something different if I had known.” Doing it this way, it has time to develop. And then they’ve only got themselves to blame! [laughs] It’s been quite an interesting way of doing things as well.

BK: Did you find that as you took the songs out onstage that they changed at all?

NB: They pretty much stayed the same. To be honest, with new material, you’re always a bit worried it going to be not as good live, that it’s going to sound as confident, powerful, big. The odd thing was, when we played “Empathy” and “Green and Pleasant Land” and others, they sounded better than anything else in the set. The power of the songs really came out. I was pretty surprised at that; I felt like there was a kind of magic going on that I wasn’t expecting. But the format didn’t change from what we’d been rehearsing.

BK: I’m new to Pendragon’s music; Passion is the first of your albums that I’ve heard. How would you say your music has changed since back in the late 1970s?

NB: When we started out, there was a fairly naïve — dare I say immature – approach to writing. If you look at chord progressions, they were a little bit forced, in a way. Some people, if they listened to the songs, they wouldn’t recognize that. But the weird thing is – and Genesis might say this about their early albums as well – but to the listener, they’re just as good as the later stuff. Because they’ve still got a certain vibe that people absolutely love. Take a song like “Supper’s Ready.” Tony Banks could probably say, “Oh, we could have done something better on that part,” but that’s all people know.

So I kind of appreciate that, and I wouldn’t really run our early stuff down. It is what it is, and it was what it was at the time. But I think I’m happier now as a songwriter, as a lyricist, as an arranger. I think I create better things now than I did in the very early 80s, for example.

BK: Snapper is a label that’s increasingly known for creating very nice packaging for their artists’ music. In one sense it seems that there are people there who remain sort of steadfastly committed to the idea of the album , as opposed to a collection of songs. Is that consistent with your impression of the label?

NB: Yeah, absolutely. They kind of fit with what we were all about, which was about trying to create something that was more than just a record sleeve. They were very accommodating when it came to the booklet. It’s twenty pages! In previous times, we’d hear, “Ah, we can only stretch it to twelve pages because of the cost.” Record companies [often] don’t want to pay for this or that.

They didn’t mind about that at all. They wanted to do a really nice quality thing. And that’s a really good thing, because the kind of area we’re in, people want the physical, nice-looking end result. That’s something that goes with genre of music we’re in.

BK: Speaking of the artwork, I imagine others have pointed this out before, but the distinctive album artwork is very reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell. Is this a mere coincidence or did you purposely set out to evoke that artwork?

NB: It is a mere coincidence. I mean, I’m a fan of Pink Floyd, and I’m a fan of that album. But I’d pretty well forgotten about all this. Originally the concept was completely different. I saw this picture when we were on tour, and I thought, that wold make a great album cover. It was two faces facing each other – they were sort of Aztec-type faces – and their tongues were coming out, and they were sort of entwined. And I though that went so well with the title Passion. If you look at the back of the booklet, that is the original cover.

But it never really floated my boat; I remember thinking, “I’m not sure this is quite right; it’s not hitting me right between the eyes like it should. And the artist came back with something that was going to be inside the book. It had the sparks [between the faces]. And I said, “That’s it.” So originally the idea was a little farther away from the Floyd thing than what we had in the end. I never even thought of Pink Floyd when we were doing it.

BK: I don’t know that — for me – Passion is necessarily a concept album per se, but it’s certainly a record with thematically and sonically linked and related songs. When you develop and album like this one, do you eventually think of the songs as each part of a larger whole, or are they just, the last eight or nine songs you’ve finished?

NB: It’s part of a larger whole, definitely. As the album’s going along – as it’s starting to take shape – I start thinking, “What’s going to be a good thing to hear next?” It doesn’t always work, but with this one, we started off with three quite rocky tracks, because I wanted to make an impression quite early: an uptempo, powerful rock feel. And then we come in with “Green and Pleasant Land” on the fourth song, and it goes very calm. From that point on, the album becomes more atmospheric.

That was all very deliberately done, and we worked out how people would feel as the album unfolded. The song “It’s Just a Matter of Not Getting Caught” is the perfect thing after “Green and Pleasant Land,” which ends fairly raucously, with the guitar and drums doing fairly hefty workout.

BK: I’ve spoken to a number of British artists and many of them share the same challenge: they have fans in the USA, and they’d like to play for them live. They know if they do, they’ll probably sell more albums here. But getting to the USA — let alone mounting a tour here — is an expensive proposition. Is it something you consider?

NB: We consider it quite frequently. We have been over there, and played in RosFest a couple of times in Philadelphia. Or Gettysburg, is it. Obviously not everyone can come to that. And it would be great to play in other areas, like New York, and the west coast as well. And the Michigan area; we’ve got fans there. Even Florida.

But to actually do a tour per se to cover those areas is just impossible at our level. If we sold more albums, there would be more opportunity to do it. But I’m still always on the lookout for finding ways in. An old friend of mine from England lives in Arkansas, and he’s quite involved in annual bike shows. He was going to have us over to do that, and there was quite a lot of money in the pot to spend, so I thought, “Well, if he can get us over to do that, maybe we could tag on some other shows.”

So there’s always some kind of plan being formulated about how we could do more, but 99% of the time these things fall through and become impractical. It always gets put on the back burner.

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