Big Express Promotional Interview

[source unknown]
circa 1984

Dramatis Personae
Andy Partridge (AP)
An interviewer with some sort of middle-European accent (Swiss, maybe), Ray Bonichi (sp?) (RB)

("Wake Up" plays, fades out)

Ray Bonichi: Hi, this is Ray Bonichi and I'm talking to Andy Partridge of XTC about this beautiful album called The Big Express on Geffen Records. Has it been a year since the last one, Mummer?

Andy Partridge: Uhh, about 18 months, so - whoo, took a lot of writing, lot of rehearsing.

RB: Why The Big Express?

AP: Uh - actually, this album had so many titles along the way - it's been everything. It started out as Hard Blue Rayhead, for no other reason other than I liked the words, then it was The Son of Hard Blue Rayhead, 'cause it changed a little and mutated, and it mutated so much that it became The Bastard Son of Hard Blue Rayhead, and then it was Coalface for a couple of weeks, which we thought was a nice expression, and then The Big Express was chosen partly because of the railway connotation, and we live in a railway town, and it is our yearly big expression, it's our big express, we're expressing ourselves. . . (smarmy voice) Our thoughts, our hopes for the future. . . So it's the express with two connotations, a railway connotation and a connotation of expressing yourself.

RB: The very first track you've got there is called "Wake Up," a very appropriate track to listen to in the morning when you're half asleep.

AP: Yeah, Colin gets the opener again on this one. It's a Colin song, he's the photogenic one - damn him! (laughs) And this is his paean to people who don't seem to live their lives other than in a sleepy state and don't notice things going on around them. As we were recording this, Dave came to know this track as "Colin's Folly" because we were rapidly running out of tracks, and the amount of instruments that were going on and we were deciding "Shall we use this instrument or not?" Shall we use this 60-piece choir here or not? Shall we use these five pianos or these cellos and things? So we were piling this stuff on and the identity of the track was continuously changing, but the version that's now been fixed is like one of a million possibilities of what it could have been. The choir, actually, is all one person, it's a singer called Annie - Huckrack or Hushrack, I never knew how to pronounce her name, and the choir was the suggestion of David Lord, he was the producer that we worked with. I didn't envisage a choir on it, and I don't think Colin did, and the suggestion came up and we sort of looked at each other a little askew and said "OK, we'll give it a try," and I think it worked out lovely, because it has that kind of half-awake half-asleep feel, that celestial porridge floating through your head - beautiful girl voices. And I think it suits the track lovely, so we left it all on - which was just as well, because it took a hell of a lot of work getting her recorded about sixty times or whatever, bouncing around.

RB: "All You Pretty Girls," now, that's the current UK single, and now it's going to be the US single as well - it's a mixture of modern folk music, if you want to call it, with pop music, with the usual potpourri of ingredients that you put into XTC. I believe the credit goes to you on this one?

AP: Yes, I'm the - the strange squeaking noises, by the way, are nothing to do with any of my bodily orifices, a lovely leather chair I'm sat in here. . . Yes, "All You Pretty Girls" is - the few people who've heard the track so far, because it's not been officially released yet, but the few people who have heard the track so far have told me everything from, "It sounds like a whaling song or a sea chantey," and two people said it sounded like a Western theme song, you know, something like Bonanza or Cheyenne or one of those kind of television cowboy shows. Somebody else said it sounded Chinese, somebody said it sounded like some real cool jazz, so - (laughs) If you haven't heard this track, you're going to have to do a lot of imagining, 'cause I suppose it's got all those pieces in it. The song was written - I was playing around with an echo chamber and a guitar, and just tapping around with my foot and chopping away with the guitar and using the echo to supply the backbeat, you know - (imitates rhythm of "Pretty Girls") - and it had that nice rolling feel, and I kept thinking of the sea and this continual rolling - (imitates rhythm) - and the actual chords that were played were very simplistic, almost, as you say, kind of a folk song structure, and it sort of married at the back of my head, folk song/sea, and you get this kind of - it just grew into a chantey based on forever leaving, forever going away, whether you're touring in a pop group or rapping [?] around the country, or whether you're traveling from someplace to another, continually leaving home - you know, you think, is this going to be the last time - am I ever going to see it again? And so it's got that "Am I ever going to see any of this again?" thread to it, but it does have this quasi whaling song or the Oriental percussion in it, which is probably why someone said it sounds Chinese, mixed with a sort of everybody's folk bass line, which is probably why it sounds like a cowboy theme song or something like that. And the chord structure in the verse is very jazzy, it's very kind of cool jazz chord structure. So it's a hell of an insect, this one!

RB: At this point I must ask you, because I'm very very confused now, where your real love of music lies - I mean, you love pop, folk, jazz, whatever -

AP: I like most things, and I must be truthful - if I like it, and it sets something off in the back of my head, I'm not particularly interested in its origins. If I like it, it doesn't matter where it comes from, whether it's something from classical music or something from blues or whatever, it's there for the taking - if it does that to me, I feel the right to take it, and use it, if you see what I mean. So I'm not proud about nicking styles from different sorts of things, if they set me alight and if I can use them, then that's fine. I think that's the same with most things, it goes for the world of clothes or painting or writing or whatever, if certain styles set you off, then you shouldn't be afraid to grab them 'round the neck and say "I'm going to have you, I'm going to use you! Come here, you've set me burning internally, now I'm going to use you and you're going to serve me!" You have to grab these styles and be unafraid and say, Yes, I'm going to use this. I mean, that's why it does sound like a Chinese sea chantey with cowboys riding through, in berets and dark glasses and goatee beards! It's a strange tropical mix of those things. But they're the particular elements that arose while the song was being put together. It's an enormous junkyard. I think the whole album is.

RB: Hmm. Are you talking about pretty, Californian girls, or lovely. . .

AP: (laughing) I wish they could all be Caledonian girls! No, it's - basically it's got a lot of male boasting in it, you know, if I'm going to die, the ones that are going to remember will be the ones that have loved me and the ones who I've - you know, the ones who I've captured their hearts. . . It's kind of lots of male boasting in it, but then, us males do boast!

RB: The next track we've got here is called. . . Well, you better introduce it, 'cause I really. . . the title is brilliant.

AP: OK, I forgive you if you didn't get it right. It's "Shake You Donkey Up," and if you see the sleeve, there aren't spelling mistakes, the lyrics are really written in kind of pidgin English and the wrong tense and things like that. It's intentional, it's not a mass of spelling mistakes, but it's "Shake You Donkey Up." Yeah - one for the "Yee-hah" fans, this. . . We did this and I brought it round to my wife and said, "What do you think?" She listened to it, she said (distastefully), "It's too bloody 'yee-hah'!'" (laughs uproariously) So if you're not into a bit of yee-hah, it's just too yee-hah! Yeah, it's very simple story-line, it's just the tale of one person treating another one badly and the other person getting the last laugh, and in the process of getting the last laugh, the first wrong treater turns into a complete jack-ass for being so cruel, for being so nasty in the first place. And it's about somebody who's basically blurred into being - is he a man, is he a donkey, and it's got lots of man-donkey imagery in it. And it was kind of put together very quickly, it was like the last track written for Mummer, and I didn't like it when I'd initially finished it, but the other two said "It's great, we must do it," and so we followed it through in rehearsal, and as I say, it's all written in a kind of pidgin English, all the wrong tense and whatever, just to get a kind of - not an ethnic feel, but a sort of timeless countryless feel to it. There's a friend of the band's playing violin on it, called Stuart Gordon, and he's a great violin player - in fact, he's on a couple of tracks on the album. He was around Bath at the time that we were recording and he just kept dropping by the studio and we'd see him with his case under his arm, he'd be going to a gig or something, and we'd say, "Before you go, can you just. . ." And we ended up using him quite a lot, unintentionally - it just kind of happened off the cuff. He's the one doing this incredible Cajun-style scraping all the way through this, and what sounds like a biscuit tin, or shed being constructed, is actually a biscuit tin, it's a Peek Freen biscuit tin. Pete Phipps is drumming on a biscuit tin, folks. The inner paper liner as well, which sounds - it sort of goes "chung!" The lid goes "whack!", the base goes "wock!", and the inner liner goes "chung!" So it is a biscuit tin.

RB: That must be the first. . .

AP: A first for us - our first biscuit tin, we've used other things - we've used lampshades and filing cabinets, um. . . on "All You Pretty Girls," the previous track, there's a few ashtrays and waste buckets and stuff like that. I think if things sound good you shouldn't be snobby about if they're not musical instruments - play them. . . But um. . . it's too yee-hah! (laughs) It's a boisterous one, this one. Pete more or less stuck to the original intention - the drum pattern is kind of one backbeat, one push beat, so it sounds like a donkey coming and it's sort of pushing and pulling, and I always thought the drums sounded like a donkey kicking a tin bath or something, so that was part of the desire to use biscuit tins and things like that. So it's that push-pull, one backbeat and one push beat - "boom BAM boom, BAMboom BAM boom" - it's continually - the donkey's head is continually being tugged, this stubborn character. . .

("Shake You Donkey Up")

RB: Do you watch lots of cartoons that's on?

AP: I used to, as a kid, in fact, I used to be a total cartoon addict. I haven't seen any for ages - I think I've more or less got it out of my system, but. . . I was just crazy on cartoons, I could name all the characters and all the trivia about them, I knew all the artists, and - cartoons on cinema and televisions, plus cartoons in comics and papers. In fact, until quite recently I had an enormous collection of American comics, and in the last house I lived in, they took up one whole room, they were just in piles of anything up to a foot high to three or four feet high, all over the floor of this room, there was nothing else in there but comics. I couldn't go in there, they were just all over the place. And I went away on a particularly long tour, and come back and we'd had something like a plague of mice, and all the lower layers of this comics had been a banquet for these mice! So it was a real shame, I had some marvellous American comics, and they were just fodder for these mice, so it broke my heart, but I had to get rid of the remaining ones, 'cause I felt like I'd had - not a collection ruined, but you know, when you collect something, you come back and it's been eaten (laughs) you feel a bit crestfallen!

RB: As you probably notice, I'm trying to connect the track to cartoons, 'cause it seems like you've got this visual - this cartoon visual, when you're actually writing the song, like you know, you actually imagine this donkey - it's very much out of the cartoon.

AP: Yeah, that's the way the songs are built. I once described it as "set-building," you say to the others, "I want a Western scene here, and I want rickety barn things in there," it must have lots of people blasting off guns or whatever, to make a good Western scene - it's like set-building, you have to describe the scene that you want in the songs to the other one, and the scene I described with this one was continual swampy guitar riff that goes throughout, no matter what are the other chord changes, there's one guitar stays in one key, playing one riff throughout, and it's got that kind of drone-y, swampy thing thread - (imitates guitar riff) - it sounds like the equivalent of a guitar that's mated with a Jew's-harp, it's just one long drone-y thing. And then it's got, as I said, this push-pull stubborn donkey drum pattern, which I sort of insisted on.

My life's kind of - quite untraumatic at the moment, so I think what's happening is lots of childhood and teenage traumas have now - they're coming back, and I can reflect on them, because I'm far enough away for them for them not to be embarrassing or - I'm not stuck in the middle of them anymore, and now my life is pretty - it's not dull, it's just much more - I feel much more tranquil in myself, so I can look back on these things and say, "Of course! That's where I went wrong! I did hesitate, I didn't take my chances then," or "I was particularly cruel to so-and-so," or whatever, and these things are going into songs now, because I'm far enough away to - I've got them arm's length, they no longer can hurt me because I've got them far enough away so I can put them into songs.

RB: Do you find yourself reverting to, say, older albums or old singles when you're actually in the studio, wanting to get a specific sound that you said - you talked earlier about Jimmy Custer [?], is it, were you talking about?

AP: Yeah. . . Jimmy Custer, yeah. Well, I think there was more of a challenge then, because there weren't synthesizers, and you had to make your sounds and - you had to get your specific effects on instruments or whatever, using much more inventive ideas. I was crazy on the Move, I remember things like "Fire Brigade," just whoohhh! Wonderful! I was a lot younger then and didn't know how they did all that - you know, how does he make his guitar sound like that? or which one does the bell, or whatever. . . I love the Move and the Kinks especially. There was an English producer who I really rate, he had some strange personal problems but I really rate him - I think he killed himself in the end. . . His name was Joe Meek, and he was around - he was very popular in the early Sixties, his production techniques. And he got the most amazing sounds - but he wasn't afraid to take chances, he would put a mike in a dustbin if it gave the vocals the right ring, if the singer had to sing into a dustbin, or he would have the singer sing down a long kitchen roll tube or something, or - he would do these things that were possibly embarrassing to do, or were so idiot-strange, but they had the right effect. And it's very easy, I think people - synthesizers have made people rather lazy about getting different tones in their music, 'cause they think, Well, you know, we want - I can hear a sound in my head, and it might sound like cutlery rattling or something, and instead of going and finding some cutlery and rattling it - oh, I'll sit here with a synthesizer and try and make it, and you never get that - it doesn't connect, it doesn't ring true, so I'm not a big fan of synthesizers.

RB: It seems to me like you've spent a hell of a lot of time in the studio experimenting with these things.

AP: Ahh, we did this time 'round, I suppose we - well, we knew we were going to spend a long time because the studio that we picked to do it in was relatively cheap, so, it's kind of licensed to be able to waste paper working up your sketches, you know - OK, so the paper's going to be cheap, here you are, use this big pad, use all the paper, as many pencils as you want, it's OK, it's pretty cheap, so it was good because we could work up sketches of things and if it didn't work, throw it away, start again, so. . . it was a nice - quite a lot of freedom in this cheapness of the studio. I found that we were using that a lot. We were coming in and saying, Don't like what we did yesterday, let's try it again, rather than, Oh my God! This is costing X million pounds a second, we'd better leave it as it is. There was a lot of sculpturing, you'd go back and pull that piece of clay off - no, don't like that, let's stick another bit on - yeah, I like that. . .

RB: So obviously for that reason, you must be very content with the final result.

AP: Yeah, I'm immediately much more happy with this album than I have been with - well, I don't want to degrade Mummer, but it wasn't so much fun recording it because we didn't get on too well with the producer - the initial producer on Mummer, so I suppose I have memories of making the album that weren't happy - plus I was feeling a bit crazy at the time, you know, very phobic about going out in public, intensely painfully introverted at the time. So, I think Mummer's a good album, but the situation that it went through to come out was rather painful. This one was a much happier situation, plus I think the songs are slightly better in any case, and I wanted to make an album that was boisterous and rraaahh!! You know, it's shouted out - there's not an acoustic guitar within a thousand miles of this record, and all the sounds are kind of basic and hard sounds. I wanted to make a record that shouted.

RB: "Reign of Blows" features you on harmonica, is that right? Or is it the next track?

AP: No, that's right, "Reign of Blows" has me vamping away. I love the harmonica and I don't really give myself enough chance to play it - I mean, I'd hate to turn into the Jake Eules Band [?] or something where you've got a harmonica playing, you'd better find a spot for it. But I do like the sound of the harmonica, and especially those kind of real bluesy, overwound harmonicas, it sounds like they're playing them through a little tiny amp and the amps go screaming to be released - "Yeah, don't play me so loud! RRRRR!" You know, that marvellous buzz-saw harmonica sound. And we did, I played the harmonica through a little amp and turned it up until it was screaming for mercy. And actually we put the singing through the same amp as well, so the singing sounds very - it's got that kind of - you know, like Howling Wolf records sound like they're so badly recorded and he's really close to the microphone and sort of grunting into it, and it all sounds distorted and the harmonica sounds distorted, it's that lovely primitive sound. I had a few arguments with the others who thought it was rather over the top that we should not only fuzz the harmonica but the vocal as well, which just shouldn't be done, you know - it's not done. But I threw a tantrum and said, Look, that's how it's got to be, because I want the track to sound violent - it's about violence and I want it to sound violent, I want to describe it as it should be described. There's so much violence about that you just cannot escape it, and I want to say that I'm sick of having to escape it, and let's just stop. It's quite a simple statement - let's just have no violence, there are other ways, and as I say, violence is when it all fails.

RB: The next track - "You're The Wish You Are I Had." Great. Makes lots of sense.

AP: (laughing) It does, actually! If you look at it. . . You're right, "You're The Wish You Are I Had." How the hell can I explain this one? I think I'm rather stumped on this one myself. Uhh, maybe I'm not far enough a way to understand what it's all about myself.

("You're the Wish You Are I Had")

AP: It's a wishing song. I think I'm rejoicing in the fact that I actually got somebody I wished for - all right, let's be plain, I married her, and - everybody has wishes, you know, everybody wishes - I really wish I had this, or I wish I was there, and - wishing is such a big part of life, you know, everybody's wishing all the time, and it's just a wishing song, and I'm just saying I actually got the person I wished for, I'm in love with that person and we're together. It's basically a happy song, but I just wanted to say, "You are the wish, you are" - confirming it - "I had." I had the wish of you and now I have you, it's a rejoicing song that I've done it! I've possessed! Sounds greedy, doesn't it, when you've possessed somebody, but. . . [Oh, dear - ed]

RB: What about the tune itself?

AP: It's got a smattering of Beatle in it, only because of that "dung-dung-dung" piano, but I mean - loads of people use that "dung-dung-dung" piano - the Velvet Underground did a marvellous "dung-dung-dung" piano on "Waiting for the Man," my favorite "dung-dung-dung" piano. You know, that kind of banana-fingers - "dunk-dunk-dunk-dunk." So I just stole that feel and. . . I wanted to make a straight pop song, but I got waylaid with the Indian structure of the verse.

RB: Why have your tunes. . . your self-penned tunes have got this touch of Eastern promise, may I add?

AP: I don't know, they take more chances with melody, I think they probably understand melody better because Western music - the best Western music is not restricted, but the worst Western music is very safe, melodically and rhythmically. It's got very safe pockets that you have to fall into to be accepted by a majority of people in the West, and a lot of Eastern music doesn't have those pockets - they can skate around, they can go all over the whole rink - where do you want to go? Someone in the West might say - (sings major scale) - they might sing a scale like that, but in India they might go - (sings Indian-style melisma). You know, they'll ornament it, and they'll sink down through semi-tones and quarter-tones and it'll bend and it'll sound beautifully fluid, and it's got loads of things to teach the West, because why restrict yourself to twelve notes when you can have thousands. . .

RB: Am I right in assuming, then, that the album was co-produced with David Lord, because obviously he had his own say.

AP: Yeah, he'd - well, it's always the same, I don't think - if ever we've used a producer or an engineer, I don't think they've ever had fully their own say. I would not trust anyone to describe how I feel - I know how I feel and I know the intentions behind the songs, so I just could not allow someone else to say, "OK, do with me as you will," because they would initially - they might find it in the long run, but I mean - they usually get it wrong. The song is everything - we try to put personalities out of the way in the band. The song is the ruler. If it's not good for the song, then the song is crying under the weight of a bad suggestion - we've got to lift it off and - the song is really the one you must pray to and adore, because that is what you're making.

RB: Do you find that the pressure - the so-called "pressure" which has been well-publicized in many papers and radio stations in the past - that musicians, and artists in general, face, could be in any way diluted, as such, so that the artist won't have to face what you faced a few years ago - putting it politely. . .

AP: No, no, there is a - I suppose if you do a lot of anything, you get the pressure from it. You know, if you do a lot of skiing, or if you do a lot of wicker-work basket-making and somebody says, Look, can you make a thousand of these by lunch time - (makes horrified sound) - I can't handle that! It's - whatever your chosen expressive job is - "job" sounds terrible - "the job of sex" - sounds terrible. . . Uh, whatever your particular bent is, I think that if you do a lot of it, and too much of it, it starts to turn into this kind of cancerous pressure thing. And I think we were doing too much touring, and too much - for me, too much being in the public eye, and I'm an intensely private sort of person, and it just got to me, I just went (clicks fingers) kling! I just snapped, and - I don't want to see these crowds anymore, I don't want to see those cameras, I don't want to have to talk to people. This record does have boisterousness, there's no doubt about it, it's very electric-sounding and very up, and that's the way I feel right now, I do feel very electric and up, and that's going to go into the music, and so The Big Express and English Settlement are neck-and-neck for my favorites. People in North America generally write the most marvellous letters to us, where they've discovered us, and we feel like jewels or something, 'cause they say, "Ahh!" - I don't know how much of this I should say, but - "the only music since the Beatles that I've really felt was passionate and real," or "I'm so sick of all this stuff I hear on the radio over here, then all of a sudden XTC comes along, it sounds fresh" [Yeah! -ed], and it makes you feel wonderful, because you're connecting with somebody. It doesn't matter how they find you - is it an accident or is it planned, as long as they find you, and when they find us they do tend to stick with us, which is a nice feeling.

("I Remember the Sun," and fade. . .)

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[Transcribed by and thanks to Natalie Jacobs]