Why Pendulum Are Back After A Decade In The Wilderness

After 10 years away, Pendulum are back with a bang! We head into the studio with Rob and Gareth to find out where they've been, why they're back and what's to come...

Why Pendulum Are Back After A Decade In The Wilderness
James Hickie

In the studio of Rob Swire and Gareth McGrillen’s north London base of operations you’ll find a very special pair of speakers – mighty hunks of tech that reach from the floor to ceiling, flanking either side of the glass panel of the control room. They’ve long since been shipped over from Australia, the work of a former NASA engineer who wanted to find out if it were possible to design audio equipment sophisticated enough to make the recording of someone playing a sound indistinguishable from the original performance.

While it’s unclear whether that experiment was a success, those speakers are given a different kind of test today, blitzing Pendulum’s new double A-side single Driver and Nothing For Free, the Aussie drum and bass outfit’s first new music since third album Immersion a decade ago. “We’re back,” grins Rob afterwards, proud of these new creations, which were inspired by everything from black metal to '80s synthwave.

“Even all through the hiatus when we were working on Knife Party stuff,” says Gareth of the electronic house project he and Rob began in 2011, “we’d hear things that would inspire a potential Pendulum song, so we’d put it away in a folder to come back to later.”

Pendulum have been back on live duties since 2016, of course, most recently with the Trinity project, which saw them joined by Paul ‘El Hornet’ Harding and headline London’s South West Four festival last year. And while, sadly, future touring plans are in the hands of the gods at present, Pendulum recently filmed a spectacular live show at Spitbank Fort, a former gun placement off the coast of Portsmouth, that they plan to stream this Friday (October 2).

With so much exciting stuff afoot, we caught up with Rob and Gareth, who were on candid form, to find out more.

How does it feel to be sharing new Pendulum music with the world?
Rob: “Intimidating. I didn’t expect it to be, but it is. I think a lot of that comes from the fact we had this Knife Party remix we did for the Pendulum track Blood Sugar for the remix album [2018’s The Reworks] a while back, which we had to smash out, and instantly when it came out people said: ‘What the fuck is this shit? It sucks!’ Even my mum was contacting me saying, ‘Have you seen the YouTube comments?’ It was right in the middle of us making new music, so it was a bit of a blow.”

Gareth: “A precursor to Pendulum coming back with new music was doing a compilation of remixes. We weren’t supposed to be doing the remix, someone else was, but it wasn’t good enough and neither was the replacement, so with the deadline approaching we had to do it.”

When did work start in earnest on the new music?
Rob: “I guess it was 2016. We’d had ideas since then, many of which panned out into the music we’re releasing now, like Nothing For Free. We had the vocals and the melodic section for Nothing For Free before we had anything else, trying a million things to get the heavy bit in place, some of which was awful but thankfully we got through that. Other ideas are as recent as the beginning of this year.”

Where did Driver fit into that?
Rob: “Driver was super-recent. The reason for coming out with these two is that one of them, Driver, is more drum'n'bass influenced than the other one, Nothing For Free. I liked the idea of doing something that’s what people might expect, then something else that causes people to go ‘What the fuck?’ It’s a good balance.”

What’s your plan for releasing new music?
Rob: “It’ll be two tracks at a time, as EPs, peppered throughout the year. Apparently that’s to do with a way Spotify does things.”

Gareth: “If you release 12 tracks, maybe one of them will get a lot of attention, while the rest will be buried in the ether. But if you put them out gradually you can focus all the attention on one or two and stagger them out.”

How do you feel about the way you release music being dictated, in a way, by streaming platforms? That’s a fairly big change since last time around, presumably…
Rob: “I feel about that the same way I feel about coronavirus… perhaps I should explain that. With the guidelines people are saying ‘Stay out home’, which is fine with me as I like staying at home. In the same way, if someone says we can’t deliver a whole album but should just release a few tracks that’s fucking great because I hate doing albums – they’re too much stress!”

Gareth: “The album as a concept’s not dead – you can call it whatever you want – it’s just the chronology of its release. It could be staggered or it could be all at once.”

Rob: “If you were dead set on albums, I think it would feel very restrictive. We love concepts, and each of these EPs is going to have a little concept, but if we dealt in bigger concepts – like Steven Wilson – it might be tough to have someone telling you how to put it out.”

What are the concepts you mention?
Rob: “While Driver is a straight up drum'n'bass – we’re back, fuck you – track, Nothing For Free is about conflict in general, mainly about relationships in the eyes of two superpowers.”

Is it political?
Rob: “Only in the sense of the politics of relationships. The superpowers are a metaphor.”

It’s fair to say you guys had grown disillusioned by the time Pendulum went on hiatus in 2012. With the benefit of hindsight, what were the main factors contributing to that?
Rob: “There was a little bit of exhaustion and burnout, but if you remember back to around 2009, 10, 11, 12, there was that whole wave of US electronic music – EDM or whatever – that was bubbling up, kind of led by Skrillex. We saw this whole party happening across the pond and we were thinking, ‘Fuck this is right up our alley but we’re stuck at a different party’.”

Gareth: “Fast forward a month or two and we had Skrillex sleeping on the floor of our live room in our last studio, telling us that he’d been completely inspired by Pendulum. I just think we had this mad FOMO that was the nail in the coffin of being burned out and feeling locked into drum'n'bass. We didn’t feel we could take it anywhere else at that time.”

You felt like you’d painted yourselves into a corner, then? Was a stylistic shift not possible at that point?
Gareth: “We couldn’t have turned Pendulum into EDM.”

Rob: “We’d had a stylistic change before – we started off very drum'n'bass – and I mean very fucking drum'n'bass – but quickly realised we were bored and wanted to add some instruments, which united the scene against us a little bit. We were comfortable with that, though, because we liked playing live.”

Did you think that would be really be it for Pendulum?
Rob: “We didn’t really know. People were telling us ‘This is a terrible idea guys’ because we were at the top of our game and no one knew what this new project Knife Party was. That’s what we wanted, though, the excitement of no-one caring and us having to make them care.”

What was the impetus for coming back, initially?
Rob: “The whole live thing was triggered by Adam [Russekof] from [Miami electronic music event] Ultra Music Festival. I was still in the headspace that I didn’t want to do it, but Adam, who’s always been a Pendulum fan despite the fact we never really took off in The States said, ‘What have I got to do to get you motherfuckers to play live at Ultra?’ I didn’t want to do it so I immediately said the dumbest shit I could, asking for a main stage slot with Pendulum and Knife Party headlining together. And he said ‘Done’.”

It must have been gratifying at that point that someone had that faith in your pulling power?
Gareth: “That’s what it took… it took someone of that high stature having that much enthusiasm.”

Rob: “Especially in The States where it would have been a bit of a risk because [Pendulum] had a cult following there around the time of Immersion but it was never a thing like it was in the UK.”

How did it feel to return to playing live with Pendulum?
Gareth: “One thing that was great was when we left Pendulum it was a very high risk, high stress live performance because we were so strict on being 100 per cent live. Coming back to it, however, the technology had moved so quickly during the period we were away that it made things so much easier.”

Rob: “It was fucking hard back in the day! We enjoyed coming back a lot. It’s completely different from a DJ set in that you’re not stressed trying to find new music. It feels more rewarding. Even though we love Knife Party and it’s been amazing, it just doesn’t feel quite as much of a spectacle as the live thing. When we’re with Pendulum, that’s when we’re in our true element.”

What was the idea behind Pendulum Trinity?
Gareth: “Historically, in the lead-up to an album we’ve always done a mini tour with the material in various states to test it on audiences, so Trinity was that in a way – the difference being that it was me, Paul and Rob doing something we hadn’t done since 1999. Obviously, more recently we’ve not been able to do that as Paul is trapped in Australia, so we thought we’d hybridise it by bringing Perry in [guitarist Peredur ap Gwynedd] since he’s playing on the tracks anyway.”

How soon after coming back did you start thinking about new music?
Rob: “There was a lot of upheaval after we started playing live, with non-music related shit, which was a bit of a whirlwind. When we could eventually think about music we were asking ourselves: ‘If we were fans of Pendulum would we think it was good? Would it make sense in terms of progression or would people think what the fuck is that? So we had to sit on it for a while to get our headspace right, which brought us right up to this year.”

Given how long it’s taken for things to fall back into place again, it must have been a blow when coronavirus arrived to derail things?
Rob: “I’ve got a little to-list calendar out there [he points to the kitchen area through the door] that’s got snakes and ladders drawn on it, so that at any point you could hit a snake and go down again. And let me tell you, coronavirus has been one big fucking snake!”

Gareth: “But it also enabled us to find a positive – allowing us to sit on things a bit longer so we could ensure it was as good as it could be, though it removed our ability to test it on audiences.”

Tell us about the stream you’ve filmed at Spitbank Fort.
Gareth: “We filmed it the other day. It was the most socially-distanced you can get, in the middle of the fucking sea! The place we filmed originally used to be a fort to provide another line of defence against any ships that made it through. There was no way we were going to do something unless it was grandiose and on a fucking fort.”

Rob: “We’ve seen 99 people do the live stream thing shittily and one where you think ‘That’s cool!’ Our manager kept throwing out ideas, like doing something on the roof of the Australian embassy, but then we came to this idea and we were thought it was amazing. It’s a fucking spectacle from the footage we’ve seen – with drones flying above the place and lots of pyrotechnics. The navy had to set a cordon of 300 metres around the fort.”

What would you say now to introduce Pendulum’s new music to those who were harsh about the Knife Party remix?
Rob: “Fuck you – is this alright, you c**ts!”

Pendulum's live set from Spitbank Fort is streaming on YouTube on October 2 at 12pm UK time.

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