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?
It 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.