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PENDRAGON: Far Beyond The Maddening Crowds

Interview with vocalist/guitarist Nick Barrett of Pendragon by Vera in April 2011

Pendragon has been an eminent magnitude in progrock since ages. After three decennia they are still moving people all around the world. The smooth, sensitive voice and Pink Floydish guitar leads of Nick Barrett will be known by all you readers. Without underestimate the talents of Clive Nolan, Peter Gee and Scott Higham, it was him we preferred to talk to now that their next studio album, entitled ‘Passion’ was about to be released at the 11th of April 2011. It was a very debonair conversation with an experienced musician.

We caught up with Nick right after the double live event in Zoetermeer, the Netherlands had taken place. That was a special happening where the band played twice a show to celebrate the upcoming new album. ‘It was a special event. It was not really two gigs actually. We do slightly different things compared to what we have done in the past. Two years ago, when we released ‘Pure’, instead of doing just a concert, we had a whole weekend, which was a special Pendragon weekend. This was very successful, so this time we decided to do the same thing in Holland as well in the U.K. Two weeks ago we had one in the U.K., now in Holland. It is two gigs, but two completely different set lists. All together four hours with Pendragon songs. Each gig was about two hours and we have played some stuff that we hadn’t played for many, many years. We checked what people might like to hear from our past. We had a kind of event in the afternoon, like a competition where somebody could sing a song and the best person finally got to sing that song with us on stage during the actual concert. That’s quite funny! It is an interesting thing for the fans, because quite often, you know, bands come to town, play the show and then they leave. The purpose of this happening is that the fans can spend more time with the band and talk to them about music and their lives and everything. It is an exciting weekend, not just a concert, but a gathering of congenial souls in the prog scene. They could also get a special ticket including a t-shirt, a tour pass, goodies and the special edition of the new album with the nice media book and the DVD.” Can we get this special edition afterwards as well? “Yes, you can order it through the website and we have them on tour as well.”

There is quite a lot touring coming up pretty soon after this conversation. “Yes, that’s right. On Saturday we set off to Germany, the first show of the full tour starts on Sunday in Oberhausen. Then we are on the road for about one month and end up in Verviers in Belgium at the sixth of May.” Why so many shows in Poland. Are you extremely popular over there? “Well, yeah, in some places it kind of works and in other places it doesn’t work. For example in England you can always get away with one show in the middle of England. People travel from miles around to that gig. But in Poland we have quite a lot fans and it is a huge country. It is a good scene. It is a different kind of approach to the music because I think since 1994, when we first started to go over there, their whole communist shift started to change over in the early nineties. It changed their culture massively as well. I mean, a lot of those kids who saw us for the first time early nineties had never seen a band, let alone a prog rock band. We were one of the first bands to go and established a very good relationship with the Pools. We have a very loyal audience over there.” Even now in Eastern Europe people are still more enthusiastic, because they are not spoilt by the large amount of daily gigs. “That’s true. If you play in Bulgaria, I am sure you get three thousand people. It seems to be that way, yes.” But the European tour lasts till the fourth of June and many of the shows will be supported by Twelfth Night vocalist Andy Sears. Nick knows him for a very long time. “Yes, obviously about twenty-five years. I knew Twelfth Night and met Geoff Mann as well, the original singer. Then Andy came along and we got along pretty well. When Twelfth Night disbanded in the late eighties I did not hear from Andy for about twenty odd years, until the last couple of years. Funny. He went off the scene and went living in Spain and then came back. I hadn’t seen him for a long time.”

When I talked to Nick, the album was not released yet, there were no promo copies. I only listened to excerpts from three songs on their website. That means Nick has to tell me everything about ‘Passion’. Patiently he starts putting his emotions into words. “First of all, when we finished ‘Pure’ and the touring was coming up, I really wanted to bring out another album within the next two and a half years (and we were really busy doing a lot of touring). There wasn’t so much opportunity to do some writing. This means that most of it was created since September 2010. I have a few ideas and snippets of lyrics, but the proper writing started from September on.” He continues: “The album is called ‘Passion’, but it is about misguided passion really. It is about how people put their energy into things that make them sometimes go slowly off the rails. For example there is one song called ‘Feeding Frenzy’ which is all about the ego that takes things over and channels things the wrong way, ‘Empathy’ is about misunderstanding people, ‘Your Black Heart’ is about people that really refuse to change or see anything new: people who are not very passionate. There’s a lot of that kind of feeling in the album.”

‘This Green And Pleasant Land’ – which will be the single – should deal with all the relatives who fought for freedom in the past and that you are afraid that much of that freedom has gone in the modern world. “You see it right. As time goes on, you got here in the U.K., as well as in Belgium, a lot of changes. We had a Labour government for the last fifteen years. People demanded their human rights for things. In the end they demanded things which may be very difficult. We have a lack of discipline in the schools, a lack of respect, we have a lot of trouble. It is kind of true – people should be honest – that even a lot of people who come from other cultures will tell you that this multicultural society in the U.K. hasn’t worked very well. They even talk about introduction of the Sharia law. I am not telling people what to think, I just show them some thoughts, something to think about. What I wanted to say is that my relatives, my dad and my uncles, fought for our freedom and very often now, in England, that has been disrespected, because of making way for other cultures who have been very disrespectful about what our grandparents gave up for our freedom. Everything has to do with the way justice has been changed, the way hospitals have changed in the U.K., the way everything has become very difficult to get empathy or people to understand you. If you phone up to try and get your phone bill sorted out, you get quite often further away from people. You don’t get a person saying honestly: I try to help you, and that’s horrible. This is what I am against. I am against and dislike humanity that we now have. That’s what this song is about. There are a lot of things in the song. For instance: I live very close to a very small town called Wootton Bassett. I don’t know if you ever heard of this place, but it is quite famous because this is where the troops that have died in Afghanistan come back home. It is only two miles from where I live and I talk about that place in the song as well.”

There was mentioned on the website that you wanted to have another use of keyboards. You wanted a more gritty sound. What do you mean by that? “Well, I think in prog music – about thirty years – we had the trademark keyboard sounds which are the mini-moog synthesizer, the Mellotron, the Hammond organ. But in the end things like the ARP Pro Soloist are overused. Tony Banks is a good example of a real pioneer as an ARP Pro Soloist. When Genesis used those kinds of instruments, he experimented so much, he got such great sounds out of them and he was always creating something new. But what a lot of new prog bands have done is simply got a bit lazy. They just used the same sounds without trying to be a bit different or create something new. What I wanted to do was incorporate sounds that were slightly more modern. Some of the keyboards used in trance music are very appealing to me; I really like those sounds and I incorporated a lot of those them in the writing of ‘Passion’. There is a different kind of feel to the music and I like that, because it feels like new and fresh. I like to think that, with prog music, I am trying to create something a little bit different.” That’s the real heart of progressive music! What always amazed me are your magnificent fluent solos. A lot of music is made for ADHD people these days with the faster the better attitude. It leaves you breathless, but Pendragon creates a peaceful feeling. Nick chuckles and says: “Well, that’s nice. It is nice to hear something that is played technically very well from time to time, like Al Dimeola. I love that, but my real passion lies with the guitarists who create something that moves your soul. This is why I like people like Andy Latimer from Camel and David Gilmour from Pink Floyd, Carlos Santana, Jeff Beck, Pat Methiny… These are the people to me who don’t play just solos; they create a World! A dream that can take you into that world. That’s what I try to create as well.”

Nick’s favourite place is the Lleyn (Llyn) peninsula in Wales. I asked him to tell a bit more about that place. “It is very interesting, because if you go to that area… A lot of the people from England, when they go on holidays they go to the Caribbean or Spain, but quite often you forget what an incredible place Britain – or your own place – is, next to your doorstep. It is only four hours drive from here to go to Lleyn peninsula. It is near Swindon, which has huge mountains. You can look at it and think you are in the Alps. But at the same time you have the plains, towards the Lleyn peninsula and you see the sea. So you got the mountains and the sea and it is a very striking area. And the Lleyn peninsula actually is going nowhere, there is no main road running through. It has an extraordinary peaceful feeling to it, because there are not many people. Some little bays and coils, some of them are stunning beautiful. I am very interested in the UK coast and water and I love these little places. To me it is precious, it has a great atmosphere and it is even a spiritual thing, because in the Middle Ages there was an island called Bardsey Island. Thousands of pilgrims used to go to that island to a monastery. It had a very strong spiritual feeling and you can still kind of feel that a bit of it now.” Thus we have the same fascination for mystical things. I ask Nick if he ever visited Stonehenge. “Oh, many times. Where I live is very close to Azebuoy circle as well and Stonehenge is common ground: where I used to live, in Ascot, I used to go surfing down in Devon quite a lot and I tried to pass in Stonehenge every time I went down, so I was sometimes there incredibly early in the morning with mist surrounding it or late in the evening when the sun was setting behind it. It is very beautiful.” Do they still do feasts around midsummer? “Yes, they still do those things there, but most of my interest is in those ancient structures, like in a place way above in Scotland. I went walking there last year. You got lots of circles there, they rise up like pyramids. They never found any bones in there, but there is a place called Maeshowe. One of the songs on the new album is ‘Skara Brae’. That’s a place down in the bay of Skaill, in Orkney, Scotland. It was discovered after a storm. It is an ancient, ancient village and it is older than the pyramids or Stonehenge, about five and a half thousand years old. And the song is about that part of Orkney, because it has an incredibly powerful atmosphere. There is magic surrounding these places.”

Nick tells: “I don’t really write songs about stories, I write songs about feelings and impressions, quite often connected with spiritual things. A lot of the lyrics have to do with philosophy or psychological feelings. I tied them in with songs like ‘Skara Brae’. It is very far way up north. When I went to see it, I thought: “It is very strange, why do people come up from Europe to see this, further than Scotland?” Maybe they are trying to run away from something and escape. The song is also partly about escaping from things that we don’t like in our lives. But I also say in this song: “Sometimes you need to embrace those things” because it is the way that you learn and the way you move forward. So I like little bits of philosophy as well. There is always a kind of theme. The word ‘passion’ comes back quite often in the songs and it is used in different ways to show different kind of ideas of philosophy and spiritual approaches to life.”

Pendragon once opened for Dream Theater. Was that a special thing for Nick? “Absolutely. Fabulous. I think Pendragon would work very well with a metal crowd, I mean, you can put us in front of an Iron Maiden crowd or a Dream Theater crowd or a Muse crowd, even an Opeth crowd or Porcupine Tree. It will work. It was a great experiment, because we went to Portugal and there were five thousand Dream Theater fans, quite young, and they absolutely loved Pendragon. It was absolutely incredible, I would love to play some more shows with them. They were open for our music, really into it. One of the best shows we have ever done.” Sweden Rock Festival was an amazing experience for the band as well. “It was one of the early days of the weekend and now we have a lot of new fans, coming from Sweden. It was great to play over there.” Pendragon never toured in Scandinavia. “It is very difficult to get shows over there. I don’t know why, but we never toured there. Hopefully we are going to do more shows in Scandinavia in future. We are more hardrock than people think. Nowadays our sound covers a lot of different kind of sounds, more modern than traditional progressive rock as well. When people hear ‘Passion’ they will feel kind of strange, because it starts with those hiphop drums. They will think: “What the hell is this?” (laughs) That’s good, It is good to challenge people a bit and try new things. And then it goes into heavy overtones, while later on it becomes more melodic. It is a bit of a journey.”

No band without a story of labels. SPV went bankrupt. “Yeah, we lost quite a bit of money when that happened,” Nick agrees. “It wasn’t the first time it happened and it won’t be the last time, but hey, that’s life, isn’t it? Now we are signed by Madfish, a division of Snapper Music which also includes Kscope with Porcupine Tree and Opeth back catalogue albums. Times have changed for running a record label. Nowadays everything is changed. We do a lot more touring. We do concentrate more on those shows, there is a lot going on during the shows. I constantly write music and will do another DVD soon. There’s a lot going on at the creative side, no time to run a record label anymore (Toff Records – Vera). Nick tells about the upcoming DVD: “It will be recorded at the Teatr Slaski in Katowice, Poland. Why another DVD over there? Just because we can. Recording a high quality DVD is very expensive. If we go to those guys in Poland, we know it is going to look good, it is going to sound good and it is going to be interesting. The difference this time is that it is going to be on BluRay (high definition) and also 90% of the set list is completely unavailable on any other DVD.” What will happen after the tour? “We are going to have a break after the tour. There are not so many tour plans after these 38 shows for a while. Last five years have been busy. We have done three albums in five years and have done four DVD’s plus an awful amount of gigs. You have to know: music is 5% for me, 95% is the organisation coming down on me as well. Me and my girlfriend organize the tour bus, the promotion, the marketing, the photographs, I am writing the lyrics and the music, cover art. After this tour I just want to write some music for a while. I’ve got some ideas already which is great. Besides that I want to go camping, go surfing go fishing, ride my motorbike and take some time off. Quality time!” (laughs)

Geplaatst door Vera op dinsdag 14 juni 2011 - 23:47:14
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