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A Tinny Little Sputnik

A NewCritics/Neddie Jingo Exclusive!

Andy PartridgeAndy Partridge, founding genius of popcraft masters XTC, has reunited with his old bandmate Barry Andrews, the leading light of Shriekback, and that band's drummer, Martyn Barker, to create a double-CD album of entirely improvised music. “Monstrance” was released in the U.S., on Partridge's label APE, yesterday.

The phrase “entirely improvised music” may possibly glaze over a few eyes, but I can attest that this record is accessible, very listenable, and not at all the sort of self-indulgent junk that often passes under that rubric. The music ranges from long, but entirely coherent, pieces to shorter, less trance-y, more riff-based tunes.

The real delight in “Monstrance” is how clearly it is possible to hear musicians thinking. It's rather like looking over a landscape painter's shoulder as the painting is being first outlined and then filled in: You can hear the decisions being made in a group context. Partridge compares the process to a “thrilling” conversation, and listening to “Monstrance” gives us a fly-on-the-wall's view of the erudite musical chat among three very fine musicians.

Andy very kindly agreed to let me bounce some questions about the album off him, and about his musical life in general. The interview appears below the fold.

As you read the interview, you might enjoy a full track from the album at Andy's label's website: Listen to “I Lovely Cosmonaut” [offer expired. Ed.]. Thirty-second samples from all the tracks are also available at the iTunes Store.

You can also watch a video of the improvisational process at work, from the same source: Watch the video of “Winterwerk”

And of course, no one will be even slightly upset if you should decide to buy your very own copy of Monstrance.

Monstrance, the band

Monstrance — or “mons-trance” — there's a bit of a naughty pun in that title, isn't there?

Umm, not intentionally, no. Barry wanted to call it something like “Happy Monsters.” And for ages, we thought we were going to call the band “Ut” not realizing there was already a band called “Ut.” That was quite a blow when we found that out, our little world caved in, because we were convinced that was a perfect name for us. I didn't quite like “Happy Monsters” and so I suggested “Monstrance,” which, as you know, is a clear receptacle in which a holy relic, a relic for veneration, is displayed. I thought, well, that's the CD case with the disk in it. So it was a sort of naughty thing of, yeah you can venerate our holy relic! So he was pleased because it had a sort of monster-y word as the title, and I kind of liked the sort of facetious, yeah, “eat our shit,” a holy relic for you to worship. Or not, as the case may be.

Funnily enough, one site, I don't know whether it's Amazon or not, had “Other Links,” and the only other link they put up was a page for a company that sold church equipment — I'm not joking! And you can go and buy a monstrance if you want! A real one!

What does it look like?

Well, they're usually gaudy and see-through, so you can see the supposed bit of the True Cross — if they put all the pieces of True Cross together around the world, the True Cross would be like nine miles by six miles!

And the Holy Tea-Towel of Turin! [Laughs]

Now, Barry Andrews — you parted ways in, what, 1978?

Errrrr, yyyyyeah! I think it was '78. Late '78 or exceedingly early '79. '78 I think — God, who can remember back then? I mean, humankind wasn't even properly formed! We were still evolving! But sure, he wandered off then, took his Krumar electric organ and Lawrence piano with him.

And how did you come to work with him again?

I saw him a few times since then. The first time I saw him again, somebody brought him into a TV studio where I was hosting some show, and they said, “Who would you want to interview?” and I said “Well, I'd love to see Barry Andrews” — not thinking they would bring him in, and they found him. Then, after that, because we had to sort of reunite live on air, it wasn't so difficult, I guess. And then I started to see him in the street here [Swindon], because he lived in London but he would come back here to visit his mother. I would see him in the street, and I would say to him, “Do you fancy doing this improv project?” based on, loosely on — this was about ten years ago — loosely on the idea that Russia had invented rock-and-roll, an they were beaming it down to earth from a tinny little Sputnik and we were all hearing it under our bedclothes at night on crystal sets. Then he said, “Sure, I'll go with that!” Then he caught me up a year or so ago, and said, “Would you play on my Shriekback album?” And I said, “Yeah, I'd love to!” And I played on that. And he said, “Do you still want to do that improvised thing?” And I said “I'd really love to do that,” and so it was just a case of “Let's do it!” There was no kind of planning or anything, it was just, let's see if it's gonna work.

After one day, we thought Hmm, this could be good! So we took two further days when we could get some space in the studio.

And Martyn Barker was in on this from the beginning as well?

Sure. I said to Barry, “Do you know a great drummer who can improvise really well?” Because I didn't want to involve anyone who couldn't improvise. I mean, I know some good players, but they're not improvisers. And he said “Yeah, the old Shriekback drummer, Martyn Barker, is great, he'd love to do it, he comes really highly recommended.” And you know what, he was perfect. He was really in there with very, very tasteful playing.

Where did you record it?

Because we couldn't spend a lot of money in case it was a terrible failure, Barry said, maybe I can get us into the Swindon New College; they've got a beautiful little studio in there — for the kids, for Chrissakes! And they let us have it dirt cheap; the only price I had to pay was my hearing.

Oh — this was when you damaged your ears?

No, it was actually the last day of mixing that my ears were damaged. I was just being overdramatic. [Laughs]

[Partridge is now suffering from a nasty case of tinnitus, caused by a studio accident involving headphones while mixing this album. It is abating somewhat, responding to hyperbaric treatment and diet.]

I've heard you talk at length about the relationship between music and architecture. How does that work in improvisation?

I think that improvisation is nothing like architecture. I think that songwriting and well-constructed, balanced music is very close to architecture, but I think improvised music is closer to conversation. With three players all talking to each other, you find a rhythm, you find the spaces and you find the subject matter — it's like a three-way conversation, three people in a conversation, all shooting good points to each other — “Oh, that's interesting, did you know dah-dah-dah…” I find it's very much like a thrilling conversation. I don't think it's very related to architecture, but I do think that good song structure and good, how shall we say, not necessarily classical music, but sort of well-thought-out instrumental or vocal music is very akin to architecture. This is much more conversational.

Another thing it might be, imagine three people making a clay sculpture simultaneously, with no plans what it's going to be. So you're all squeezing and pushing and prodding, and a kind of an ant-like social conscience comes in. You find the best bits are when you're all tuned to the same wavelength, all squeezing and pulling and making something very gorgeously abstract that you never knew you were going to make. It's almost as if you're communicating in a different way.

Monstrance CD art

I heard exactly what you're talking about in “I Lovely Cosmonaut,” somewhere around nine minutes, you can hear everybody go, Oh, yes — this! simultaneously.

Yeah. And there were no edits in that — in fact there are very few edits in all these things. Mostly what you hear, all these pieces, are how they fell out. When they break down and end, that's when we felt it should break down and end. When we change gear, that's when we all felt we should change gear. I don't think anyone was leaping in the air going “Now, you bastard!” The successful pieces were where we clicked into a higher place.

When you were talking about architecture, you were skirting around a question that I had intended to ask you. There seem to be two extremes to your musical personality. There's the Andy Partridge who can knock off three “Mayor of Simpleton”s before breakfast, and then there's the Andy Partridge that we got to meet more fully in the “Fuzzy Warbles” series, the experimental, aleatory Andy…

Yeah, he doesn't get to come out in public much! He was there right from the start! You know, there are things on “Monstrance” that wouldn't be out of place on the “Takeaway” album, and vice versa. The twin tracks of my musical upbringing are straight-songs-with-funny-noises-attached — and that means novelty songs, which then mutated later, in the Sixties, to psychedelic music, which is still pretty much straight songs with novelty noises attached — or show tunes, that worked in that thread as well, because the only decent thing on British radio when I was growing up was either show tunes or novelty songs, pretty straight-up songs with sped-up voices or too much reverb or a section would break down and there's be some talking or a little backward something or crazy sounds… I loved all that stuff as a kid.

And then, in my teens, I started experimenting with tape recorders — before I could play an instrument, I got into what you would term musique concrête first of all, although I didn't know they did it by chopping up little bits of tape. I would experiment for hours with my tape recorder, and be recording me hitting things and putting them backwards, or turning them at different speeds, or hitting stuff from the kitchen and making it feed back, then punching in other sounds. So it was like making primitive musique concrête as an early teen. I loved all that experimentational side of it.

Then in my later teens, a friend of mine called Michael Taylor — everyone called him Spud, I've no idea why, if you're called Spud your name is usually Murphy — he was a couple of years older than me, and he had a really eclectic musical taste, and a weird taste in literature. He would get me to read Burroughs' books, William Burroughs, or he would recommend Genet or just really out-there literary stuff. And then he would come around and he'd bring Albert Ayler albums, or Han Bennink records, or Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane, or Alice Coltrane, you know, the more out-there stuff — Pharaoh Sanders, that sort of stuff. First of all, I didn't like that kind of thing, because I thought, ohhh, I don't know if I can get into this, I kinda like my own experiments because I'm in control of them, and I don't know if I can take to anyone else's. And then suddenly, the coin dropped and I really got into it in a huge way. And so the other rail of my musical railway was added in.

I brought to “Monstrance” a preconception that it was going to be like free jazz, when it was described to me as an improvisational album. I've always found free jazz to be rather monochromatic in the sense of not many changes of texture….

Yeah, free jazz to me is very little conversation going on, it's everyone shouting. And I find with more of a conversational state of mind — not everyone can do it, you know? And out of the eight hours' worth of recording that we did, we really had to throw away about six and a half hours, because it just wasn't up to scratch. So not everyone can do it, and even the people who can do it can't always do it. It's so elusive.

I was surprised when I listened to it at the variety of textures and timbres that you achieved. Parts of this records are very trance-y, very spacy, and other parts of it you can dance to!

Sure! I don't know why — I don't know why either of those, it just seemed to be the way that the clay was getting squeezed, and if you go with it…. Just the slightest noise can send it spinning off in another direction. That's what conversations do — you can put one word into a conversation, and suddenly Bang! and the conversation goes off in a right angle somewhere…

Which is why I'm sitting here amused at that thought because I'm trying to interview you!

And you're also there in a ballet tutu and [laughs] a Robert Mugabe Fun-Mask!

One thing I noticed about the way these improvisations seem to work, is that one player, and it's not always the same player, takes a rhythmic, repetitive pattern, it might be you, it might be Martyn on drums, and the other two provide the swirling textures around it…

Well, kind of combinations of all sorts of things. For example, the opening four minutes of “I Lovely Cosmonaut” there is an unspoken rhythm, where nobody states it, and all the little bloops and all the volume-control things on the guitar, or the little scrapes and bumps and stuff from the drums, they all skirt around, trying hard not to fall in the holes in this cheese, you know, the holes are kind of rhythmic, Nobody was playing the rhythm, but you can feel this rhythm in it, which generally congeals to a more staged rhythm later on.

Monstrance at the Swindon New College

That's what I was talking about at around nine minutes, when you hear everyone just kick in…

And nobody jumped in the air, or there wasn't an edit made there or anything like that, it just happened. Or, say, for example, the last track, “Priapple,” where for about two-thirds of it I play these two chords, these two sort of wah-wah chords [demonstrates vocally] — I'm the only one regarding the rhythm, and it seems as if Martyn and Barry are sort of attacking me, like two beasts, and I'm trying to keep on that path of walking up that mountain, and that's what creates the tension, that lonely pilgrim with his two chords keeping at it going up that mountain, and these evil demons making terrible noises coming at me! And that's how that one works.

Now, something like “Torturetainment” works because Martyn and myself are in quite a strong rhythm, like you say you could dance to, and then Barry sounds like he's doing the most evil dentistry ever, over the top of that, and that basically comes to a massive conclusion where you can't torture any more, and either the person dies or they stop the torture — and then you have a sort of sublime second half where Barry just drones, and I play these delicate little pieces on the guitar over the top of it. There's lots of ways of — oh, God, I'm gonna sound like a seminar on how to improvise! — there's lots of ways of achieving that conversation… We're not always creating a rhythm — not all of us all the time are creating a rhythm, if you see what I mean. One person can be while the others are doing something else. Two people can be, one can be doing something else. I don't know if there's any important part where we're all creating rhythmic things.

That brings up a good question: Did you have no preconceived notion of what these things would sound like when you sat down to play?

No, we never — maybe foolishly, maybe we should have done! — we never discussed anything like sort of atmospheres or anything, we never sat down and said “Okay, let's do one that's gentle,” or “Let's do one where the first half is loud and the second half is quiet.” There was nothing like that… We never even spoke of keys — or very rarely. I think one of the pieces that we did we actually said “OK, let's try something in C.” And we ended up not even using it. All the pieces that we used, there was no discussion of keys; it was a case of “Is he rolling in there, in the control room? OK, he's rolling, go!” And we just let the music dictate totally. As I say, there was no jumping in the air to say “OK, stop, you bastards,” or “Change!” It was totally a musical conversation.

And when it worked, it worked. And when it didn't, we threw it out. I don't know if an hour and a half out of eight hours is a good percentage for improvised music. I don't know how much music Miles Davis threw away. Dave Gregory bought me the “Cellar Door Sessions” for Christmas; it's like six CDs, and I've got to be honest, not a lot of it works. But the bits that do work, really, really work. Those are the bits that they chopped out to make — was it “Bitches' Brew”? Or “Live/Evil”? I don't remember which album it was that they diced it up to become…. But there's an awful lot of “The Cellar Door Sessions” that don't work. That's the nature of improvised music. When it all clicks, it's — sheesh! — it's kind of god-like, but when it doesn't click, it's just monkeys wandering around in the mire!

I think my favorite piece so far has been “Chain Gang,” which reminds me of some of the more sedate parts of the late Captain Beefheart, “Ice Cream for Crow” or “Doc at the Radar Station.”

Right — probably my guitar tone. It's just a kind of twangorous tone. For some reason, my hand just fell onto a little rhythm thing, I wasn't even thinking about it, it just happened to go in 7/4 time. And Martyn was — because we never discussed it — he just kind of started something up in 4/4 time. The tension is this, you know, this — whatever it is that resolves itself every 28 bars or whatever, it never rests, because he's basically playing fours, I'm basically playing sevens, and it never rests. The two rhythms are constantly looking for each other, there's this seesawing searching going on, guitar looking for the drums, the drums looking for the guitar. They very rarely come together, but it's that continuous chase that makes it exciting. And then over the top, Barry is really just commenting on the chase, like a mother saying “Come on, catch him up, now you tag him,” you know…

Actually, my favorite pieces on the disks are the longer ones that actually go on a journey. The shorter ones, which possibly a little more groove-based, I still like them, which is why they're in there, but my real favorites are “Cosmonaut” and “Priapple,” the ones that go on a long journey and keep mutating into something else.

I noticed in “Pagoda Tailfin,” you're doing something that you've done before, which is to use your delay unit as a musical instrument. There's a point, I don't remember how far in, where you start playing a rhythmic thing, and you've got it set on a very long delay — I don't know if you actually played with the delay or not —

Any effects that we applied are really an amplification of any effects we're using on the floor. So I was playing through a [Line 6] Pod, and I would dial up a long delay. And then in the mix, we actually put exactly the same delay on it again, and then pan it over on the other side, so the guitar has an element of stereo about it. So all those reverbs and echoes were basically happening from the floor.

Yes, so it's me tangling myself, you know, knitting a cats'-cradle of live guitar and echoed guitar.

What's fun for the listener is to hear you not only create that, but to almost be inside your head as you realize that that cats' cradle is possible…

Yeah, you have to really listen out when you're playing with such a long delay, because you're walking on very spiky ground. If you stumble, and play something awfully wrong, awfully not conversational to the other instruments, it's gonna get repeated…and…repeated…! [Laughs] It's like you let a fart escape — it's not gonna be just one fart, they're gonna be really loud, and lots of them, and then all over again, and all over again… So you have to be very careful when you're playing live with a delay! [Laughs] Hey, it makes you want to play the album!

For being made in a small, student studio, it sounds really good.

Yeah, it's a tiny studio, but we actually only used one little half of it, because we wanted to be close to each other, to make sure there was utmost communication; should somebody play something you don't want to think “Oh, I'm not hearing it correctly.” I never played with headphones — I don't think any of us played with headphones; we just played listening to each other because we were all in such a small radius.

Do you intend to carry on with this project? Will there be more Monstrance?

Oh, I'd love to, yeah! I guess to some extent, it's depending on if we make our money back — or if I make my money back. It didn't cost too much money to actually record and mix, but the mastering was expensive because we wanted to take it to a good mastering studio. And of course there's no bass, so you've got to go careful mixing and mastering so it doesn't sound too light and powerless. I guess if we make money back, that'll be nature's way of saying “Do you know, you should do some more!”

Really, I have a fantasy that this will kind of allow me to escape the beautiful gilded prison of song for a bit. Because I think I need to. I think I've kind of built a prison for myself with songwriting. And personally, I'm in a very unusual mental place where I'm finding it difficult to imagine writing better stuff than the material that came out on “Apple Venus.” So it's almost as if I've taken my one rail of my musical influence as far as I can, so maybe I should take the other rail as far as I can.

As I say, it's nothing new. People are going to think [sneering tone] “Ah, he's trying something different,” you know. But this experimental side has always been there, from early teens, and like I say, a lot of the records I really liked were not a million miles away from what I'm doing on “Monstrance.”

And in the interest of making that money back, where can one acquire this album?

Well, it actually gets a domestic release in the United States on the seventh [of April]!

And it will be distributed to retail stores?

Yeah, dammit! We have Ryko/Warner's distribution power behind us, so you should be able to get it in stores, and if you can't find it in a store, don't go in that store again because they obviously have no taste! Go immediately to! Actually the whole APE catalog is coming out in the States on the seventh.

Oh, that's great news!

Yeah, it's the first distribution deal we've ever had in the States. I'm excited, because it'll double the market, and double the amount of people that'll get to hear the APE label, and hopefully make some money for us, because right now it's losing money, and it would be nice if it made some money, because I can't afford to keep throwing money at projects that I really believe in if we don't sell enough to cover the cost of manufacturing them. We want to become a label where people see the APE logo and they say “I know that's gonna be good stuff on there!”

N.B.: This is, of necessity, an edited version of the conversation that took place. The unedited version, complete with all throat-clearings and hems and haws, will be posted at my place tomorrow, when I've recovered from exhaustion.

Reader Comments

Wow Neddie a fantastic and interesting interview - so many things to comment on. Here's one:

Are these “permanent” songs now? Could the band play them again, take them on tour, cut different versions? Do they live on? Could you or I do a cover?

I think anyone who has a band has done this kind of thing to warm up - usually with most basic units, you all into the blues or something close and familiar. And sometimes you do this when half-loaded. This seems very considered.

Are these “permanent” songs now? Could the band play them again, take them on tour, cut different versions?

No more than you'd want to have exactly the same conversation you had three weeks ago, I think. It's an interesting philosophical question, isn't it: When does an improvisation stop being one?

Could you or I do a cover?

I suppose you could play the same notes as you hear on the record. Another interesting question for the philosophers…

This seems very considered.

I get the impression that the three approached the job very determined not to fall into conventional patterns like blues changes. These truly are some of the finest musicians and songwriters around, and they're good enough to know how to avoid a pitfall like that, even playing completely spontaneous music.

Did you listen to any of the samples? It's really interesting stuff. Partridge has always had a rep as being a “musician's musician,” and “Monstrance” has at its core a fascinating lecture on how music is created, where it comes from in the human soul.