Prolific drummer Gavin Harrison has led an enviable career; from stick-man for hire to sought after hot commodity, to joining one of the iconic prog-rock ensembles of all time, Harrison has done it all.
Yes, he's no slouch on the kit. Harrison's resume and featured-list reads like a who's who of the rock world, with recent years bursting with productivity as he simultaneously juggled duties with King Crimson, The Pineapple Thief and the reunited Porcupine Tree.
Ahead of a pair of album releases and dueling tours, Harrison sat down with Metal Injection for a deep dive into the new, re-tooled The Pineapple Thief record Give It Back (out May 13 through Kscope), his love of improvisation in a live performance; the status of King Crimson; Porcupine Tree's reunion, new album Closure/Continuation (out June 24 through Music For Nations/Megaforce Records) and future; his unexpected love of Meshuggah and Pantera, and much more!
To say you've had a busy and prolific career would be an understatement. Does it ever become a juggling act, working in so many different projects? Particularly in recent years with The Pineapple Thief, King Crimson and now the Porcupine Tree reunion.
It does become too much. I mean, life's about balance, isn't it? And in the music industry it's either too much or not enough or too much touring, not enough recording or vice versa. It's very hard to get the balance right. And recently I've been a member of three bands with The Pineapple Thief, Porcupine Tree, and King Crimson. So my time has been stretched there. At this point in my life it's probably more than I would really ideally want to do because I like taking things easy. So yeah, I mean I get offered projects. I get offered albums and recording projects. I've had to turn a lot of them down because I don't like to do things by half. I like to give something my full attention and that sometimes takes a lot of time commitment. And you can just have too many things in your head at the same time.
There are very few silver linings or positive takeaways we can take from a global pandemic, but was that time to maybe assess and get away from the road, whether it be recharge on a project or be a stay-at-home guy for awhile, was that appreciated?
Yeah, although I've got to say I was busier doing recording projects during that time. People write to me and say "hey, can you play on this record?" And I say "well, I'm just about to go on tour and I am going to have to pass this time." And then lots of people realized that I wasn't going on tour. So they contacted me and said "hey, I know you're going to be at home now. You've got a studio at home. Will you play on this album?" So I did some of that. It also gave us the time to finish some other projects with The Pineapple Thief.
You know, we decided to do this streaming show and that took a lot of preparation, that took a lot of rehearsal because we did it as live, although it wasn't broadcast live. We just played one song after another. I think there's one song where [frontman Bruce Soord] broke a string, so we had to make the decision to stop, fix the string, go back, record it again. But we didn't have the time to do multiple takes of each song and we really didn't have the energy to do that either. So we rehearsed a lot. We went into the studio, all the cameras rolling, all the audio rolling, and we pretty much played one song after another. So 2020 gave us that period that we could devote some time to doing it. When we rehearsed we all had to do COVID tests. To be in the same room, it was a lot of effort to be able to do that, but it was great. We enjoyed doing it.
Take me through the idea of Give it Back. I know Bruce gave you carte blanche on your end to go back through the discography and kind of re-imagine a lot of these tracks.
Yeah, I mean Bruce gave me free reign even on the very first session I did for them, which was Your Wilderness. He sent me a song called "The Final Thing on My Mind". A great song. And I said to him, "there's a bit in the middle there, Bruce. It's all in 4/4 and it goes on for a very long time. I could imagine this section dropping into 3 and then back into 4 and then a 3 and 4 and it being a lot more interesting." And he said "oh yeah, I love that. Could you make a little demo so I could hear what you're talking about?" And it happened with quite a few songs on Your Wilderness, a lot more than I would normally do as a session drummer to suggest rearranging the songs. And with some artists you rearrange their song and they hate it. Or if you play anything different than the demo they just can't get their head around it. Bruce was the opposite of that. He said "I love surprises. Do whatever you want." So I did. And [keyboardist Steve Kitch and bassist Jon Sykes], the other two guys, liked it too.
The first time I played live with them, obviously, we played a lot of the songs of Your Wilderness, but also that wasn't a concert so I needed to play quite a few old songs and they said, "look, do whatever you want to them. If you want to change the time signature, change the length of something, play any drum beat you want. You go ahead and do that." And of course, within reasonable taste, I thought I did that. And as the tours went along and then we got onto Dissolution, the next record. I said that I was listening to an old song of yours, and I imagined that we could play like this. And they said "oh yeah, that's great!" You know, the original exists. It's still out there forever. Quite a lot of the early songs were just with the drum machine anyway. So yeah, why not? And then I rearranged a song called "Wretched Soul", where I really changed it quite a lot. And Bruce, Steven and Jon said "We love that. Please feel free to do any of that with our back catalog."
They had, I think, 11 albums recorded before they even invited me to join the band. And to be honest, even to this day, I haven't heard every single song from their entire back catalog. But I started listening through their back catalog and every time I heard a song that I thought "oh, I've got an idea for this one," I'd write the song name down. "Oh yeah, I could play like this, or if it was a lot faster I could play in 3 and it would be completely different and maybe they would change the chords." Or maybe I think it needs another verse. I know the song is 20 years old, but after this section it would be fantastic if Bruce wrote a new verse right here. So I would call him up and say "how do you feel about writing a new verse for the song?" And he'd say "oh yeah, all right." He's a very easy man to please.
So after we'd done a few songs I said I reckon we've got enough here, and there's so much material from the back catalog. We've got enough here for an entire album, and it would be fun to present the people who know the songs a completely different version. People who don't know the songs, this will be the first time they're hearing it and it will give us an opportunity to use these arrangements to play live because as a live band we don't play all the songs that we used to play from Dissolution or all the songs we played from Your Wilderness. And as each album comes along you drop songs and you play stuff from the new album. But it's also fun, especially with a band with a big back catalog, to bring songs forward with a completely different arrangement. So that's how it really started. It was me just listening through their back catalog and purely choosing the songs that I thought I had an idea for.
At this stage of your career, having done so much in so many different projects, how liberating is it to be able to have that collaborative process? Because if we think about these three major entities you've been a part of, let's say, in the last 20 years, we have these guys where it's kind of their brainchild in a lot of ways with Bruce, Robert and Steven.
Yeah, it's lovely. It's lovely. I mean, I'm lucky that I've arrived at a part of my life in my career where I don't need to work at all. I could have retired 15 years ago. So I tend to only get involved in projects that interest me and I enjoy doing, regardless of how big the band is or how much the money is. If I enjoy the music and I like the people then I'm very happy to do it. And I've tended to turn off the session stuff a lot in the last ten years, and it's more of a collaborative effort. I don't need to do sessions just for money. But being a professional musician, that's kind of the definition of being a professional musician. People pay you money and you play whatever they give you whether you like it or not. And probably a majority of the time you don't really love it. So I arrived at a place in my life where I thought I don't need to do that anymore.
So you know, Artist X calls me up and says "I want to do my new album and I want you on drums." I think I don't really like this stuff. No, I'm going to turn it down. There's no reason to do it. Years before that, of course, I was out there trying to earn money. So you never turn that down. That was the difference between just trying to be a working professional where you just have to play anything that's presented to you because that's the only way you're going to make money and pay the bills. But as I said, I got lucky and I didn't need to be in that position anymore. So I just cut all that out of my life. The things I didn't enjoy doing, I just cut it off. There was no point doing it.
Sometimes record companies approach me or sometimes people approach me on social media and say "Hey, will you play on my album?"And I think "well, I've never heard of them." You never know. "Alright, send me your songs. Let me hear 'em!" If I love it, then let's continue talking. But there's no point asking about what's your fee and what's your availability before I hear the material, because if I don't think I can make a good connection to the material then there's no kind of artistic satisfaction in it. It's just working for money and I'm not really interested in that anymore.
So much of the music you've played in your career has that progressive-type element where you have your jazz fusion and there's experimentation. When I think of the live sets they're almost like a living organism where it might never sound the same night after night. In a live setting like that, whether it be The Pineapple Thief tour or these huge arrangements with King Crimson, how important is it to have that experimentation and the challenging aspect of it?
Yeah, there is improvisation going on. Not a hell of a lot in The Pineapple Thief because it's more song based. Although I do change some elements. I do change some rhythms. I do change drum fills. I don't like playing the same drum fills every night and that was very encouraged in King Crimson. For instance, I used to have to play an open drum solo every night and after about three nights after I'd played every lick I've ever worked out, I thought the interesting thing to me would be to play a different solo every night. That's the challenge. Not crowd-pleasing, not my best licks that I've ever worked on, but just a different solo every night. Now I remember what I played last night and the guys in the band know what I played last night. Even if everyone in the audience wasn't at last night's show, I think they can tell when I'm on a knife edge, composing on the spot, completely composing right there and then in that second.
And that was the interest to me in playing a drum solo every night in King Crimson was trying to play a different drum solo every night. And King Crimson shows are really a very different every night because of the amount of improvisation. It's partly true in Porcupine Tree. I would improvise a bit, but the other guys in the band aren't of that mentality. When I joined Porcupine Tree, for instance, the second night I played completely different and they said "Christ, what happened? You play completely different!" and I said "Yeah, that's what I'm going to do every night." And they weren't used to that because the previous drummer played the same fills exactly the same.
There's nothing wrong with that. Plenty of bands who go on stage play the same fills every night and the front three rows are all air drumming along and the guitar solos are note for note the same. There's nothing wrong with that mentality. Some people love to hear the drum fills and the guitar solos the same, but I'm not from that background and I prefer to hear someone improvise a brand new drum fill or improvise a drum solo or improvise a guitar solo. I don't really care that he's not playing the guitar solo from the record. In fact I'm impressed that they can play a completely different guitar solo. It's just a different mentality. It's not that one is better than the other. It's just whether you want to hear the guitar solo and the drum fills off the record, or you like the fact that the guys do it differently every night.
Was there pressure in those early days playing with King Crimson? If we think of seminal prog bands and albums and the improvisation and the experimentation, nobody did it like they did it. And I'm sure you probably grew up with those records. Was it intimidating in those early days?
Well, I didn't know exactly what was expected of me when I first joined King Crimson in 2008. I knew it was going to be a double drumming job with Pat Mastelotto. And luckily, in 1992, I'd already done a long tour with Tony Levin playing with another artist. And so I might have been quite intimidated playing with Tony had I not already met him a long time before that. I didn't really know what was expected of me. Robert always says things like "you can play anything, anything you want in King Crimson, except mundane." Or "play whatever you wanted to play in a rock band, but have never been allowed." So he was openly encouraging to just do whatever you want, but just don't do something really boring and obvious.
One of the funny things that happened was, I don't know if you're familiar with a band called The Shaggs. The Shaggs are a band from the 60s, an all girl band who basically, you could argue, can't play at all. I mean, beyond terrible in a good way, in a way that actually they're playing with all the passion and emotion as Robert Fripp and Tony Levin, but they've got no ability. So they don't listen to each other, and the drummer is really, really funny. I used to do an impression of the drummer where all four limbs are just going off in different directions in a bad way. And I played a soundcheck when Robert wasn't in the room and Adrian Belew said to me "I'll buy you dinner anywhere in New York if you do that tonight in your drum solo."
I mean, it really sounds hilarious. And I thought, "well, I've no idea how Robert's going to react to that." So we got to that part in the show, the drum solo and I started playing my Shaggs impression. And after a few seconds I looked at Robert and tears were rolling down his face. I didn't know he's actually a big Shaggs fan. So yeah, including Shaggs impressions, you can do anything in King Crimson. It's much more of an open blank canvas than Porcupine Tree or The Pineapple Thief. Those two bands don't need that amount of experimentation or improvisation, but it's very much part of the King Crimson ethos, shall we say.
It's been bandied about quite a bit over the last year, but from your perspective as a guy involved, has the last King Crimson show been played?
Yeah, that's a tough question. I mean, Robert looks at things in a different way to the normal person. He looks at things in actually very interesting ways of doing things. So the project began in 2013. You know, I did this little tour in 2008, and the idea was that we were going to go on tour in 2009, which would have been the 40th anniversary of King Crimson. But it didn't happen for other reasons. So the band disbanded at the end of 2008. I heard nothing from Robert until 2013, and he said "I've got this idea for a project for the band. It includes three drummers at the front of the stage. The rest of the guys will be behind on a riser." He could see it all in his mind and the project in Robert's mind lasted from 2013, the time that he actually called us up, we didn't play till 2014, from the moment that he made the first phone call, it completed in Japan in 2021.
And that's how he thinks of it. That doesn't necessarily mean that's the end. It's just we achieved what we set out to achieve. That project completed itself. Now, whether it needs reiteration or it needs to come back or a new King Crimson comes back or King Crimson never comes back, all those things are possible. To just say, oh the band's over doesn't really fit the way Robert thinks. He thinks in projects and he thinks in cycles, like a seven year cycle. He'll work on something for seven years and then he feels like he's completed it. It feels like it has achieved what it was set out to do. And then something else might happen.
It sounds like I'm trying to skirt the question. I'm not, because I don't know whether that was really the last time King Crimson played. It did feel a bit like that when we were there because we knew there were no more projected dates. Normally when we finish a tour we already know in 18 months time we're going to go to the States, we're going to go to South America, we're around Europe or whatever. We normally know a long way ahead because these tours take so much planning and booking. We know a year, 18 months, two years in advance what we're doing. There were no further plans past 2021, and Robert said this band, it's reached a completion.
That's kind of the beautiful thing about Robert is that he thinks outside the box and he thinks in ways that aren't just kind of binary, black and white, it's on, it's off. It's a lot of things. And King Crimson isn't just a band, it's a movement. It's a thing. Even though many, many musicians have been in and out of King Crimson, it's always been King Crimson. But it hasn't always been the same people. It's a sort of idealism in a way that I've never experienced with any other band. Most other bands are pretty black and white, we're finished or we're starting or it's off or it's on.
Speaking of ambiguity and open-endedness, I love the Porcupine Tree album title Closure/Continuation. That's just perfect. Whether or not it goes on for another two decades or whether this is the final chapter, that's a perfect title. Is that kind of how this has been presented to you in terms of this record, this touring cycle? Give it a go, see how it goes, put out this record and tour, and if that spawns the next genesis of this band, amazing. But if this is the last hurrah, that's great too.
Exactly. Exactly that. We don't know. The three of us don't know if we're going to carry on or not. And if it's the end, it's a great way to end. We personally feel it's one of the strongest, if not the strongest record we've ever done. We had no time pressure. It was done when it was done. There was no record company, management, promoter or agent breathing down our neck, saying "We've got to get it out now!"
So years rolled by and we were off busy doing other things and we got to 2019. We'd been writing over a few years and we realized we'd got a really good album. And then when 2020 rolled around we thought actually, now all the tours are canceled, we've got time to finish this properly and then we'll look for a record company. We don't need anyone to tell us a deadline. And by the same way, we haven't got any commitment or deadline to it carrying on or not. It might well be the last thing we ever do, or it might not. We haven't got any other dates planned. I know lots of people ask me when are you going to announce the other dates? There aren't any other dates. This is it. This might be it forever, or this might be it for a few years till we do another record and another tour. But these are the only dates we have got at the moment.
And I think you reach a point in your life when you've been doing it enough that you think, you know what, we should be in control of this. We should be in control of when we work, how we work. I've spent a lifetime of people telling me what time I have to get up, what time I've got to get on the bus, what time I've got to get to the airport, what songs we're going to play, what time we're on stage. I think you earn the right in later life to say, you know, I think actually we're going to call the shots the way we want to do it, not someone else tell us how to do it. "Oh, you've got to do another six week tour. You got to go to South America." No, no. We'll do whatever we want to do. And that's very much something that's come from Robert Fripp in my mind.
Is there anything on the heavier spectrum you've been interested in or tapped into in recent years? I know in 2020 you did a track on a Fates Warning record. Are there any heavier artists or bands or albums you've been interested in?
I remember when I met the Porcupine Tree guys in 2002, Steve gave me a copy of I think it's called Destroy Erase Improve by Meshuggah. I didn't grow up listening to metal music, I grew up listening to jazz, and I played jazz with my father. My father was a jazz trumpet player, so metal music never really came on my radar very much. I'd played heavy stuff. I worked with Iggy Pop in the 80s. I was used to playing, let's call it, punk or heavy, loud, guitar driven punk, but not really the complicated djent mathematical stuff. And when I heard Destroyer Erase Improve … I thought, "wow, I've been missing out on something big time" here, because regardless of what you think of the genre, this is beautifully constructed, beautiful rhythmic design.
Whether you're talking about Frank Sinatra with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra or death metal Meshuggah style, actually really well constructed, well arranged, well rhythmically designed music is fascinating to me regardless of the genre, and I loved it. I listened to that record a lot. I know a lot of jazz musicians, saxophone players who'd come out and I'd say "Hey, listen to this!" and I play them a bit of Meshuggah, knowing that they've never heard anything like this in their lives, and everyone was amazed. A few years later I got to meet Tomas, the drummer, and it was a great thrill. I said "man, I'm such a fan. I really love these records."
You know, I didn't follow all their records after that. I think I bought the next two records and the one I really fell in love with. And the thing that fascinated me about that record was the fact that they would drop out of the kind of metal sound, the heavy djent stuff and Fredrik would play these real Allan Holdsworth kind of chords. These are really quite light, interesting chords, what I would consider Allan Holdsworth chords and then back into this what I would consider heavy mathematic metal, and I thought that was very, very, very exciting. Very interesting. I love that record.
You know, I don't know a lot about the metal genre and I couldn't probably name too many bands, but another time I was standing at a record store in France, and Pantera's Far Beyond Driven came on. I thought "Christ what is this? This is fantastic." I went to the guy on the counter and I said "what's this music playing?" So I bought the CD. The times I have put my toe in the water I've been really impressed and I love the rhythmic design element of it. It really fascinates me.
Pre-order Porcupine Tree's Closure/Continuation here and The Pineapple Thief's Give It Back here. You can also catch both bands on tour at one of the dates below.
4/29 – The Plaza Live Orlando, FL
5/1 – Center Stage Theater Atlanta, GA
5/3 – Cat’s Cradle Carrboro, NC
5/4 – City Winery DC Washington, DC
5/5- Sony Hall New York, NY
5/6 – Brighton Music Hall Allston, MA
5/7 – World Cafe Live Philadelphia, PA
5/8- L’Astral Montreal, QC
5/10 – Palais Montcalm, Quebec
5/11 – Bronson Centre Music Theatre Ottawa, ON
5/12 – The Opera House Toronto, ON
5/13 – The Majestic Detroit, MI
5/14 – House of Blues Cleveland Cleveland, OH
5/15 – Bottom Lounge Chicago, IL
5/17 – Turner Hall Ballroom Milwaukee, WI
5/18 – City Winery Nashville Nashville, TN
5/20 – Gas Monkey Bar N’ Grill Dallas, TX
5/21 – Come and Take It Live Austin, TX
5/23 – Boulder Theater Boulder, CO
5/25 – Crescent Ballroom Phoenix, AZ
5/26 – Belly Up Tavern Solana Beach, CA
5/27 – El Rey Theatre Los Angeles, CA
5/28 – The Glass House Pomona, CA
5/29 – Great American Music Hall San Francisco, CA
5/31 – Hawthorne Theatre Portland, OR
6/1 – Neptune Theatre Seattle, WA [
6/2 – Capitol Ballroom Victoria, BC
6/3 – Rickshaw Theatre Vancouver, BC
9/10 – Toronto, Ontario @ Meridian Hall
9/12 – Laval, Quebec @ Place Bell
9/14 – Boston, Mass. @ MGM Music Hall at Fenway
9/16 – New York, N.Y. @ Radio City Music Hall
9/17 – Philadelphia, Pa. @ The Met Philadelphia
9/18 – Washington, D.C. @ The Anthem
9/20 – Chicago, Ill. @ Auditorium Theatre
9/23 – Irving, Texas @ The Pavilion at Toyota Music Factory
9/25 – Denver, Colo. @ Bellco Theatre
9/28 – San Francisco, Calif. @ The Masonic
9/30 – Los Angeles, Calif. @ Greek Theatre
10/4 – Mexico City, Mexico @ Pepsi Center
10/7 – Santiago, Chile @ Movistar Arena
10/21 – Berlin, Germany @ Max Schmelinghalle
10/23 – Vienna, Austria @ Gasometer
10/24 – Milan, Italy @ Forum
10/27 – Stockholm, Sweden @ Globe
10/28 – Copenhagen, Denmark @ Falkoner Theatre
10/30 – Katowice, Poland @ Spodek Hall
11/2 – Paris, France @ Le Zenith
11/4 – Stuttgart, Germany Porsche Arena
11/6 – Oberhausen, Germany @ KP Arena
11/7 – Amsterdam, Netherlands @ Ziggodome
11/9 – Zurich, Switzerland @ Halle 622
11/11 – London, United Kingdom @ SSE Arena, Wembley