Pravin Thompson is a trained Jazz musician who has just released his debut album A Thoughtful Collapse that immediately grabs attention through a combination of technique and naivety. In many ways this is what Modern metal seeks to be but lacks any of the depth or the sentimentality this record possesses. Though meandering at times and focusing a bit too much on lesser ideas, Pravin shows an interesting take on Jazz music informed by a combination of academia and pure passion. Pravin also shows great discernment in understanding music and aspects that are for the most part closed to the metal world and contrary to the ideals espoused by Extreme metal.
Judging from the complex nature of your music it is obvious that you have had extensive training in the field, please tell me about your musical education.
Yes. I went to school for guitar at New Jersey City University with a concentration on Jazz studies. I graduated in 2014 and began freelancing in NYC full-time until 2017, then I took a year and a half break from music being my main source for income. In that time I finished writing my album A Thoughtful Collapse, Recorded it in 2018 then just released it on March 27th.
Most musicians never take lessons in such a formal environment, how has it changed the way you perceive and compose music?
I believe my training in Jazz has given me a lot of flexibility in how I perceive harmony, and a lot of harmonic as well as rhythmic freedom on the guitar. With being forced to study this harmonic language (that is also centered in groove and rhythm, Jazz and blues) It has allowed me to hear and navigate harmony differently. I was obsessed with Metal, Prog-Rock, odd time-signature based music all throughout my teens so that aspect of my writing is coming from that language but the training has opened me up to sounds that aren’t normally found in that world.
A lot of times writing is determined by playing ability, if you are self-developed, you create your own voice and way of playing pretty early on, which is awesome! I have learned a lot from those type of musicians and music. But being forced to adapt your voice in other musical contexts is something jazz has taught me, and my professional career has reinforced that.
You said that playing ability is largely influenced by ability but now with tabbing software like Guitar Pro it’s easier to write very advanced music independently of playing ability. What do you think this has done for music?
I think that has made it easier to learn a lot of the guitar tricks! Sweeping, Box shapes, Major scale shapes, harmonic minor shapes, tapping. I have had students who can play some of these techniques better then myself. but in terms of sound and melodic content, I generally get kind of bored. The harmonic voice leading usually doesn’t feel developed (and again this is just my taste), but guitarist and metalheads like Randy Roads or Jason Becker who play these incredible lines but have studied Bach quite extensively tend to have stronger and more interesting lines, and play with a type of conviction that is only achievable if they are really hearing the music. A thing I make a lot of my students do is sing a melody then immediately play it without searching for too long to tell if you are playing the guitar or if the guitar is playing you. These programs are awesome and have helped a lot of people learn quickly, but I get skeptical if someone is unable to do that. The training has helped me hear music in a very specific manner, so I can identify what I want to play. There are people with a natural talent for that, or figured out how to work on it early on. I wasn’t one of those, and definitely benefited from school!
Many people are fascinated with music at different levels but few study music in an academic context, could you give us a short summary of what you learnt at university and the different types of classes?
In my general classes I studied 4 part Harmony (how to write music for a choir in the contexts of Bach) and ear-training (being able to listen to a melody and write it down, identifying intervals, sight-singing). Jazz specified classes I transcribed a TON of jazz solos, sang solos, learned how to create melodies that weave through harmony and keys. I learned a lot about voice-leading on the guitar and studied the work of Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Charlie Christian, Grant Green. In the context of jazz I generally gravitated towards none guitar music.
I learned a lot about groove and trying to have precise yet grooving rhythm then I took some arranging courses and learned how to write for large ensembles (My final for one of those classes was writing an 18 instrument big band chart.) These courses were great and taught me a lot, but i think the best thing I got out of school was playing with people as much as possible, and learning how to gel in a lot different ensembles and styles.
You have mentioned rhythm a few times here, what are your thoughts on the utilization of rhythm without melody that has become very popular and a case of rhythm for the sake of rhythm as shown by bandds like Meshuggah?
I personally like having harmonic movement with rhythm, though what those bands do is so cool. I am a huge Tool fan, and I love how they utilize rhythmic layering, but are for the most part staying in the pentatonic world harmonically. I was super influenced by the way they played rhythm.
I always thought that they just took from jazz in a very obvious way and the whole standard modern metal has now is jazz especially in the tech death world. “Iron heart” has rhythms I have heard in Djent bands. Do you feel that metal trying to out jazz jazz music ruins it or it’s just the natural evolution of things?
Definitely the latter! I love that people are broadening there influences. And I love listening to those rhythms in a different context! I think I’m doing a lot of 5 over 4 in “Iron heart” and that is a popular rhythm in the metal world as well I would love to hear the harmonic element of jazz transfer over a bit more. it has in small ways!
What is immediately noticeable about your music is how it’s based around a lot of motifs that constantly evolve and change while metal still revolves around the riff how do you compose in such a style and does the lack of order obstruct you or give you more freedom?
When I’m in writing mode I try not to over analysis what I’m doing. I try to think of myself as that same 16 year old guitarist who just loves music and playing guitar, and just write from that mindset as much as possible. I believe since I spent so much time analyzing different types of music and asking myself certain questions like, “why does this song feel different in the chorus vs. the verse. What is musically happening. Oh woah the Melody note is not actually in the harmony, so it makes it sound floaty and weird, or the rhythm constantly shifting is making me feel this way.” in the context of analyzing classical music and jazz I have to be so specific and really understand whats happening from a micro aspect..
I remember I spent so much time in college checking out melodies by Maurice Ravel. The way he played with motifs throughout an entire piece was genius the melody in the beginning of the piece always felt like it went on this huge journey, and by the end of the piece it may sound completely different BUT is 100% related to the beginning of the piece. And you find that in also a lot of different types of music. So I have spent a lot of time studying different music, digesting it. and not to be too cheesy, I just try to write from the heart haha. With a song like “Iron Heart”, I wrote that relatively quickly, and had a few drafts, but pretty muche wrote 80% of it in one sitting.
What do you seek to convey in your music and do you feel that your academic background impedes your expression? Many musicians are capable of playing complex but it’s harder to communicate?
I would like to convey something very honest to me. Music that is a combination of everything I grew up listening to, and music I have studied more formally. My music can be complex but I would like the complexity to be more in the background. I would like people to be able to get lost in just the sound at first, and then upon further investigation notice things like “wow I didn’t realize they were in odd time signatures or weird chords.”
I do feel at times my academic background impedes expression.
I write something that may at first be simple, from the heart as i said, but then I go into mad scientist mode and thing, “Oh what if I change the chord this way or add this thing here,” sometimes I get something closer to the emotion i’m trying to convey. but a lot of times simpler was truer. My bandmates tend to call me out on that stuff which is great! good to have an honest band behind you! With my debut album “A Thoughtful Collapse” I definitely feel like its the closet I’ve come to expressing myself as honestly as possible. especially with songs like “Iron Heart”.
Your music explores a lot of polyphony and a sense of harmony completely unknown to metal apart from a few bands like Eucharist, early Darkthrone, early At the Gates etc. How do you use it in your compositions and how do you believe it can be integrated into metal?
A lot of the harmony I’m using I learned from studying jazz, R&B, and observing how they are used in that context. I will let it digest for awhile, and then write using those concepts, and improvise a lot using those concepts.
The tricky thing with metal is a lot of the chord voicings I’m using would not work well with that much distortion. But you can implement that type of harmony in different ways! You can apply it more in guitar lines and melodies and something i would love to hear! I applying it more to basslines. Orchestrating the harmony among three instruments (guitar 1, guitar 2, bass) would be an interesting approach but where a majority of my harmonic voice is coming is a lot of Jazz and a lot of R&B. Bill WIthers and Stevie Wonder can totally get metal if you let it!
Take “aint no sunshine” By BIll Withers. Dark and bluesy Harmony, yet simple. I hear a lot of minor chords in metal, honestly a lot of similar chord progressions as “Ain’t no Sunshine.” To me what gives that Bill Withers song such great harmonic movement is the bluesiness helps break it up and not feel to stuck in this minor drone. Or how stevie wonders chord progressions are always moving, but never feel out of place or too much. Those are interesting things to observe. those tendencies, and though that music is clearly not Metal, you can take little things here and there and try to apply them.