The Progarchy Interview: Pure Reason Revolution’s Jon Courtney

When Pure Reason Revolution’s The Dark Third was released in 2006, it hit like a bolt from the proverbial blue.  At a time when the progressive rock renaissance was still thin on the ground (Porcupine Tree, Neal Morse, Spock’s Beard, and not much else), here was a band that specialized in effortlessly evolving long-form suites, set off by a sweet-and-sour pairing of lush harmonies and aggressive grooves.  Signed to InsideOut after the debut album on Sony, PRR added hardcore electronica to their palette on 2009’s Amor Vincit Omnia and 2011’s Hammer and Anvil, after which band mainstays Jon Courtney (vocals, guitars, keyboards) and Chloë Alper (vocals, basses, keyboards) went their separate ways.

Come 2020, PRR is back with Eupnea (a medical term for quiet, normal breathing) — which gave us the opportunity to check in with Jon Courtney.  In this expansive interview (lightly edited for clarity), Jon talks about what makes a song a Pure Reason Revelation song, reveals the inspiration behind the new album’s lyrics and artwork, and unravels the unlikely tale of the debut album’s out-of-nowhere success.

So, you have a great new album from Pure Reason Revolution!  How did this album happen?

So, If I rewind a little bit … I had this project Bullet Height and that happened after Pure Reason Revolution the first time.  So, we made the record and then we toured it a little bit in the UK and did a few shows in Germany.  And then it got to the time of “well, I guess it’s time to make another record!” And I think sort of around this time I sort of … I took quite a big break from music anyway, cause I wasn’t too sure what the direction was gonna be and exactly what I wanted to do.

So, I took a break for maybe three to six months and then when I finally did come back into the studio and started recording demos, the demos didn’t really sound like Bullet Height.  They sounded more progressive and sounded more like Pure Reason Revolution.  And then as these demos progressed a little more, I thought: “Well, you know, this is definitely sounding like Pure Reason Revolution, and if it’s gonna do something and come out as Pure Reason Revolution, then I need to speak to Chloë!”

So that’s when I sent Chloë a message and said, “Look, I’ve been working on these demos … are you free to meet up and have a talk about them?”  And then she said, “Yes, it sounds like a great idea to do Pure Reason Revolution again.”

 

To your mind, what do you see as making a track, a piece of music, a Pure Reason Revolution track?  What do you think are the essential ingredients?

(Laughs) The essential ingredient is definitely sort of the vocal interplay with Chloë and I. So that’s a big part.  And then, if one of us is doing a lead, then the harmony parts.  That’s sort of an essential part of PRR.

What else is essential with a PRR song?  I think sort of unexpected moments.  I mean, some of the songs do sort of take on a traditional songwriting form, of sort of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, blah blah.   But you’re always gonna get other surprises on an album, where the songs are more sort of journey songs – there’s ups and downs, there’s light and shade, there’s heavy aggressive moments, and then there’s moments of beauty, really, with light piano parts.  So, we always like to take the listener on a journey and have these surprises along the way.

 

As you say, the way you and Chloë harmonize is a core piece of the PRR sound.  What else does she bring to the party?

On this record … the initial demos, it was me sort of jamming away in my studio in Berlin, just with the computer, just recording … I’d come up with some ideas on guitar and piano, then I’d record them in, and then the tracks just developed from there and built and built.

I had Greg Jong, who was the original guitarist from PRR.  He came over to Berlin for a couple of weeks; he’s based actually in Portland in your country, and we collaborated on a couple of tracks.  And, while recording, stuff would get sent over to Chloë.

I think Chloë and I, she did a couple of vocal sessions together; we did a UK session and then a Berlin session on vocals.  But a lot of the vocals were sort of sent via Internet; I’d send her some parts, and she’d have a play around with those, singing those parts, and then send them back to me.  Then there would new stuff to sing, new harmony parts, all that kind of thing.  So, a lot of Chloë and I’s collaboration was not in the same room, if you like, but via Internet.  The main collaboration on the music was when Greg came over here for a couple of weeks.

 

I’ve always found her bass playing to be a very powerful part [of the sound]; it really gives [your music] that low end drive.

On the album, there’s various basses: there’s bass guitar, there’s programmed bass as well.  There’s a brilliant bass module I use called Trillian.  It’s basically a software instrument for all things bass: you can dial up things like Fender Precisions or Stingrays; you can put them through different amplifiers.  But there’s also things from Moog Prodigys through to Prophets to just loads of cool synthesizers – but all sort of based around the bass sounds.

So, I think the album’s a real mix of the bass guitar and this bass module Trillian.  But yeah, the bass is obviously a big part of the music.

 

And it also strikes me that the integration of the vintage sounds with the more modern structures and beats – and then you throw you and Chloë’s harmonies on top – that’s really what makes the whole pudding come together, so to speak.

Yeah, the vintage sounds … we unashamedly have progressive rock influences, be that from Pink Floyd to King Crimson to Yes or whatever.  But through to bands like Air as well, or Massive Attack or whatever.  There’s a real mix of influences in there, from ’60s/’70s stuff through to modern productions now.  And we do take influence from some of these ’70s bands.

But we always want to make it sound like a modern production; we don’t wanna make records that sound like they were made back then.  We take influences from multiple genres and areas, and then it goes into sort of this bubbling pot, and then you get Pure Reason Revolution.

So, your new album is called Eupnea – how does that word portray the album?  What does it say about what we’re gonna hear or what you’re trying to convey? 

I’m not too sure!  I heard this term when – so, lyrically, a lot of the album comes from an era just after my daughter was born.  Because she was born very early.  So, we went into intensive care, ‘cause she came at 32 weeks.  And she needed this stuff to go into the lungs to open up the lungs, and she had these breathing issues.  And this was one of the terms I heard when we were in hospital.

So, yeah, I heard this word and then the album’s lyrical content reflects a lot of the highs and lows we had, the uncertainty that we went through as parents, totally helpless to do anything.  We had this magical moment of her arriving, and then steps forward, steps back.

I think the album sort of reflects these highs and lows, and some of the sort of more heavy, more doom moments reflect the worry, uncertainty and some of the chaos.  And then there’s moments of beauty as well, where a bit more light came onto situations, and we had more hope about how things were gonna go.  And she is now a healthy 2 ½ year old, so we’re very, very grateful for what happened.

 

I’m so glad to hear she came through.  From my initial listen to the album, what you say about the content, that makes a lot of sense; that locks in the emotional content for me.  How does the cover art play into the picture?  Was it just, “Hunh, this is a cool-looking picture,” or is it related to the content?

eupnea coverIt is absolutely!  So, this connects directly to what I was just talking about.  So, one day I was in the hospital late with Jessie and she was in this incubator, and I could put my hands through and just put my hand on her.  I was sitting by this incubator and one of the nurses came over, and she said, “Jessie, she’ll make it through; she’s strong like a little lion.”

And that night when I got home, I was flicking through some social media, just trying to switch off.  And then I saw this painting, and it was by a friend of mine, Jill Doherty.  And so, soon as I saw it, I just thought “Wow!  This connects with this lion thing earlier.”  And to me it was a lion breathing.

So, I then sent Jill a message saying, “Look, I had this experience today, and then I saw your painting, which I think is amazing, by the way.”  And I had a screenshot of this picture and it was in my mind.  But then as the material progressed, I thought, “You know, this painting really connects with the material.”  So then I got in touch with Jill and I said, “Look, Jill, I’d really love to use this for the album.”  And she said, “Yeah!  I’d love you to use it.”  She said it’s actually a lion roaring, not a lion breathing, but that doesn’t matter, and she really loved that that was my interpretation of it.

 

And again, that helps that piece of the puzzle fall into place.  It’s a powerful, dramatic painting; it’s not a take it or leave it circumstance.  And again, it ties in with your subject matter and what you’re trying to convey.

And what I also liked about the painting is that, if you look at the detail, if you sort of scan in on the mane of the lion, it shows real skill, it shows real craftsmanship.  And I really like the way that, with the music — we didn’t sort of record this album in an afternoon.  It took a long time to work on this record, to layer up the harmonies, to play things in precisely, to get it mixed really nice.  I like the way that [the painting] slightly mirrors that; there’s a lot of craftsmanship and you can see there’s time spent on both things.   And that’s what I like.

That’s really been – as I’ve followed you over the years, I feel like that’s been one of your trademarks from the beginning.  Going back, I remember coming across The Dark Third online and just loving it –the prog influence in a modern setting was not nearly as thick on the ground back in 2006 as it is now.  And then I was amazed that a major label had picked it up, and that I could go down to my local indie store in the USA and just buy a copy!  That never happened with that kind of music!  Could you talk a bit about the experience of putting together that album?

The band was born out of a university project; I think it was when Greg and I were at university.  We had a [course] called “Commercial Music” at the University of Westminster, and it was essentially a music production degree.   And one of our projects was to create an EP of music that you could then market to the music industry.  So we did exactly that, really.  We did four tracks, and then we collaborated with one of the video departments at Uni.  Then we sent out some of the demos, packaged up CDs, took them off to the post box, sent them to some promoters in London, some managers, some labels, that kind of thing.

And then we sort of had a few demos – I think maybe tracks like “Apprentice of the Universe,” “Nimos & Tambos”, a few others — maybe even “[The Bright] Ambassadors [of Morning]” in an early form at that time, as well.  Then we got a few others, and then we got a little bit of interest in London and the music industry.  And then we did a single with Alan McGee’s Poptones and then we had a bit more interest, and then finally, the Sony thing came along.

And by then, we’d sort of been recording little bits all while the band was progressing.  So then, when it came to the time of (co-producer) Paul Northfield coming onboard, we already had full demos of songs like “Ambassadors” and “Apprentice”.   Quite a bit of the recording was, “OK, what do we need to replace here?  Let’s have a go at replacing the drums.”  So, we went into a posh studio and re-recorded the drums.  “What else do we need to redo?  Let’s redo the guitars here.”  Maybe we didn’t redo all the guitars, but we probably redid 60, 70 percent of them.  So, we’re improving these demos; all of [the songs] had demos before we finished them with Paul and added the real vocals and that kind of thing.

We co-produced it with Paul; he was a great engineer on the guitars and the drums. ‘Cause we didn’t really have much experience there; we were just in university; the demos we just did ourselves in the computer.  So, Paul was really there as this wise engineer who’d got a great portfolio of stuff behind him. He really knew where to stick a mike on the guitar amps and mike up the drum kit with 18 mike positions, and that kind of thing.

I know that you played at least a show or two over here in the US; was that any sort of culture shock for you?

I don’t know that it was culture shock; it was a good experience.  We came over the first time and  — our initial deal was with Sony in the UK and AllMusic in the US, and AllMusic arranged for us to come over to South By South West, and I think we did a live show there, and then we did a couple of acoustic shows.  And I think there was a New York show, Boston, Philadelphia and then we did Montreal as well.  So, we actually went up to Canada and saw Paul and I think did a little recording session with Paul again.  And then I think a couple of years later we did similar – I think it was just a New York show, perhaps Boston, Philadelphia, and then we did NEARFest as well.

 

I’ve heard the NEARFest show, which is pretty excellent stuff.

Yeah, that was a great, really nice festival.

 

The next time I remember hearing from you was actually in one of the early issues of Prog Magazine,  when Amor Vincit Omnia came out.  And I thought that was every bit as good as The Dark Third, but very different in its atmosphere, kind of this dark, almost decadent romanticismWhere did that change of direction come from?

I think because it was such a long sort of gap between The Dark Third and AVO – I think there was just a lot of new influences came in at that time.  I think I was getting my ears around a lot of this stuff.  There was this big electronic movement from Paris, France; there was this Ed Banger Records, and I was really into stuff like Justice and Simian Mobile Disco, and I think that had quite an influence on me.  So that sort of gave it this electronic tinge.  And I think around that time I was also listening a lot of Smashing Pumpkins’ Adore and this kind of stuff, a bit of Nine Inch Nails, so that influence sort of crept in.  And I suppose, you got less of this – Pink Floyd took more of a back seat, and in came more of this electronic influence.

 

Which was cool, and it really worked!  And Hammer and Anvil to my ears kind of continued that.  It was really blunt and direct – you’ve got that bass drum whomping you in the chest all the time – but also really, really widescreen.  Was that just a logical evolution, or were there new ingredients in the mix?

Yeah, I think it was just a logical evolution from AVO.  I can’t remember if there was any sort of direct thought process that “this is the direction,” it’s just what felt natural at the time.

 

And since then, like you say, you’ve done Bullet Height, and Chloë has had some other projects.  But as you say, you heard PRR music and Eupnea is the result.  Obviously, in the climate we’re in all of a sudden [with the coronavirus outbreak], a lot of things are up in the air.  But what sort of plans might you have for the future of PRR?

In summer, we have a couple of festivals; we have Night of the Prog in Germany, and then the night after that, we’ve got a festival [Ramblin’ Man] that’s in Maidstone, which is a town just south of London.  And then we’ve got a tour that’s just been booked, and that’s gonna be across Europe; I think it’s about 10 shows.

As far as US shows go, we don’t have anything booked, but we’ve had interest from some promoters.  But I think that to come over to the US, there needs to be more than sort of one show.  We will come over and it will happen, but it just needs – if we come for a festival or something, it needs to time with doing a handful of other shows for it to be worthwhile.  It doesn’t help when you’ve got some difficult things like we have at the moment … With this uncertainty [over the pandemic] – it makes it difficult within Europe, let alone going across to the States.

 

Well, that’s great to hear that it’s in the works!  And your live band – that’ll be you and Chloë – and anyone else we might know?

Last summer, for the sort of comeback show, we had Chloë and I plus we had Michael Lucas on drums and Paul Mullen on guitar.  So, we’re planning to use the same live band for the future.

 

PRR B&W 2Is there anything else you’d like to say to the readers of Progarchy?

Just, discover some new progressive rock and give Eupnea a spin!

 

Well, I’m looking forward to hearing Eupnea on CD when it’s released.  And I’m glad to hear that you and your family are doing well.  And I wish you all the best, and thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me.

A pleasure.  Thank you very much!

Eupnea is released on April 3; pre-order CDs or LPs now at Burning Shed.  Pure Reason Revolution’s European tour (co-headlining with Gazpacho) is scheduled for October 16-25.

— Rick Krueger

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