A Few Words With...Jon Courtney
Interview by John A. Wilcox
Pure Reason Revolution is one of the most exciting new bands to hit the scene in recent years. Their album, The Dark Third, is a combination of the contemporary and the classic - melding hip rhythms with plush harmonies and spacy landscapes. Band leader Jon Courtney sat with Progsheet for a fascinating conversation...
PS: How does the US release of The Dark Third differ from the UK version?
JC: So you have Nimos & Tambos and Intention Craft.
JC: Ok, on the UK album, there's no Nimos & Tambos & there's no Intention Craft. Intention Craft was on a mini-album and Nimos & Tambos we just decided not to put on.
PS: What songs did they replace?
JC: Exact Colour and The Twyncyn/Trembling Willows. We did a whole bunch of tracks with Paul Northfield, he was our producer. You've heard of Paul?
PS: Yes. Since the Gentle Giant days.
JC: There you go, he used to work with Gentle Giant, lots of Rush stuff, Courtney Love, Marilyn Manson. Anyway, we did a whole lot of stuff with Paul, say...9 tracks. So we had the finished record, which is the one that actually came out in the states. But then, Sony UK were like, "well we'd like to do a mini-album." So we used some tracks from what we'd done with Paul and actually added one that we'd produced ourselves. Rather than just release the same tracks but with a few added for the full album, we decided to do a couple of new tracks with Paul. That's how it differs.
PS: How did Paul become part of the picture in putting the album together?
JC: We'd done lots of demos and University recordings ourselves. Self-produced. Michael, our A&R guy, he said we don't want a producer to come and stamp his trademark all over your sound, because you've already got a sound and you've already accomplished a lot with your recordings. We met a few different guys but Paul was one of these people that was happy not to stomp around, but just help us out where help was needed. If we wanted to get on the computer and dig into doing some programming, or do a bit of mixing ourselves, he was happy to sort of sit back. But then also give that knowledge that he's got from working with Emerson Lake & Palmer, with Gentle Giant, with Rush. How to mic up guitars properly, and how to get a fat sounding drum kit. It was cool - we kind of went into it as novices and totally na´ve and Paul helped us out a lot.
PS: What did you come out with, that you didn't go in with? What did you learn from him as a musician, as a player?
JC: Various techniques like mic-ing up amps and how and why things don't work. Also, I'm one of these people that if I were in the studio I could fuck around on an album for 2 years or something, but Paul would say "we have to move on now." Paul was good at managing...when to stop.
PS: Looking back was there any specific song, any event in your life that made you say "I want to be a musician"?
JC: I can pinpoint that to an exact point. I think I was 11 years old. Previous to then I'd been sort of into music. I think... my 1st concert was Def Leppard, with Ugly Kid Joe supporting and it was rock music and I liked it. I was into rock music but it was just kind of a casual at that. Then I saw Nirvana on the MTV Awards I think in '91 or something and just heard Lithium and then from that point on it was like "wow!" - I was transfixed by the TV - "this is what I've got to do, there's no question." The next day I was just hassling my mom for a guitar. I have to play guitar and then I started a huge obsession with Nirvana and the whole grunge scene. So that's definitely a strong turning point for me.
PS: What about them was the attraction?
JC: It was the passion in the music and the passion of the audience's reaction to the music. I think it was a style thing as well, which was completely alien to me. Having just seen the rock bands that were around at the time, it was so distant to what else was around.
PS: I know you're a fellow Brian Wilson fan. When did you first become aware of his music?
JC: I think it was my brother. He once made a tape for the car. He had some kind of Beach Boys, I can't remember what it was - I think it was some of the surfing stuff. I could really hear it before a bit subconsciously from Dad's record collection. But I just really listened to it and I was like "wow this is wicked!" I could listen to all the harmonies. All the stuff I'd listen to before was very much one vocal. The vocal was incredible. Then I'd just started dipping into his record collection. Picking up the Beach Boys - best of the surfing stuff. I was a huge fan of the surfing stuff for a long time and didn't really like the Pet Sounds stuff and the post - Pet Sounds stuff. But then started getting into Pet Sounds and the albums around - that is what I like today. Summer Days, Summer Nights and then discovered the whole Smile stuff and became kind of obsessed with that as well. I've mention that word obsessed because I kind of have obsessions with bands.
PS: I do the same thing.
JC: Good on you! I think one of my university lecturers once called me a completist. That was quite good, because I am. You get hold of something and you want more, like what were their noodles in their bedrooms, when they were just playing guitar or stuff? It's just getting a hold of everything, isn't it?
PS: Sometimes I say "am I ever going to listen to it all? Do I need to hear when Brian burped near a microphone?"
JC: Yeah, I know what you mean. There's so many nice beautiful bits of music. Good Vibrations, Heroes & Villains as well. Lots of little bits of Smile. I think the one they released was really good.
PS: I enjoyed that. When Brian recently finished Smile, I thought it was wonderful. But I still go back and listen to the Smile session bootlegs. You get a glimpse into how everything was built.
JC: I just view them as different things. I see that as a different thing to the Smile he did recently. I'm just glad they didn't do a horrible production on the new one and make it sound really kind of glitzy. In fact they used some nice instrumentation. They kept true to the same textures they were using then.
PS: If you had to describe what Pure Reason Revolution is to someone who has never heard of Brian Wilson, Pink Floyd, progressive music, what would you say?
JC: I think certainly about PRR we don't set ourselves any boundaries. We're not labeled prog-rock or things like that. But there are a vast amount of influences. In the studio it's not like we can't use a string section because we need to sound like Yes. There's no restrictions - whatever we want to do, we do. Maybe that is because of the Brian Wilson thing as well, that we kind of pioneer stuff. We just want to make contemporary sounding records without any restrictions. If that means that if a song's 20 minutes long, then it's going to be 20 minutes long. If it's going to be 2 minutes long & radio friendly, then it is. It's never sort of contrived to come out of something specific to fit in with radio or to say we're a prog band or anything.
We get the prog label now & again. I think lots of people generally don't know that progressive music background. If it's anything other than what is that kind of lots of 3 chord punky guitar stuff over here at the moment. If it's anything different to that, then it's quite a revelation. It's like "wow they're using synthesizers and it's not the 2 minute, 3 chord song about going out in Camden!"
PS: I can see a little Floyd-iness here and there, but I see something very new. I really don't see any kind of box or genre to put you in, which is a good thing.
JC: We absolutely do not want to do a pastiche of any of the prog bands before. We're not good enough instrumentalists anyway, if it's to be compared to Emerson, Lake & Palmer. But maybe on an arrangement level we could be compared with, like the Floyd. We take our inspiration from arrangements the Floyd did, and lots of lyrical content from the band stuff - to all of Roger Waters stuff as well. But, I think, we do struggle with being given this prog-rock label. Sometimes the journalists don't know what they're talking about.
PS: What was he inspiration for what I see is a very dark lyric - Trembling Willows?
JC: The Twyncyn / Trembling Willows. The Twyncyn, it was a walk I used to go on when I was a child. It was just this really ominous forest here, it's up in Wales. Its stands for Twyncyn Small Hill. It was just me sort of reminiscing at these snapshots when we use to go on these walks and when it would be getting dark. There were dogs around and stuff like that. Then going into Trembling Willows. A lot of time I write these extremes down in a journal I have. It was just me putting together all these various snippets to form a track really. I guess there are some sort of dark sections, it's just how it came out.
PS: Correct me if I'm wrong. Not that any one album has like a centerpiece, but I think that The Bright Ambassadors Of Morning comes close to being that for the album. Take me through the process of that song.
JC: I think the melody from that bit - I was in my car. I think I was driving back from practicing. I just kind of had the melody, but for some reason I was singing Floyd's Million Bright Ambassadors, the vocals. When it came down to singing it in the studio, sounding out the lyrics, I didn't really want to change the lyrics because it seemed to work with this melody. It's a little reference and it's a nice little nod to Floyd I thought.
PS: Please tell us 6 CDs you never get tired of listening to.
JC: 6 CDs - this is a difficult one. Pet Sounds is the first one.
Dark Side Of The Moon.
Smashing Pumpkins -Mellon Collie & Infinite Sadness.
PS: One more!
JC: DJ Shadow.
Thanks to Roz for the transcription!
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