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Last Updated:
Nov 12, 2006

Sunday, November 12, 2006


Andy discusses "Harvest Festival"

Song of the Week -- Andy's take

The third in a series of interviews by Todd Bernhardt with Andy Partridge about the songs we feature each week on MySpace. This week's song, "Harvest Festival," is from 1999's Apple Venus, Vol. 1.

TB: Tell me about "Harvest Festival."

AP: Well, it started on the guitar, with that F# chord where you leave the B ringing open, and you get that sense of spilling out, sort of like a cornucopia spilling out its contents.

TB: That's interesting, because I would have thought that it was a keyboard song.

AP: No, it started on a guitar. I must have made the cornucopia connection, and then started writing about the harvest festival. And then after a while, I thought, "No, this does not have the stage setting." For me, that's really important. If you're starting to get the script, at the same time you've got to think of the set design -- what scene it is, what the flats look like, what the backcloth looks like, if there's a special curtain, whatever.

I started to come up with these lyrics about the harvest festival, which was a thing we did at school. I realized it had to be that school-assembly piano, which is usually played in the very brown octave in the piano -- you know, about two-fifths up -- and as soon as I moved over to the piano and tried the chords there, I thought, yep, this has the "school assembly in the morning with the hardwood floor and this very brown-sounding piano throbbing out and reverbing around the hall and the kids singing hymns, looking at this display on the stage with sheaves of wheat" type of feel.

Changing to piano was the stage set that helped me finish up the lyrics. By fleshing out the stage set, the rest of the script could be written more easily.

TB: And you were able to take the lyrics and transpose them into the adult point of view.

AP: Yeah, from the adult point of view, you start to remember what it was like being in that situation. You know, looking at that girl across the hall, and her looking back, and me thinking, "Oh god, that's my harvest festival. That's my ego fed, that's my tin of peaches for the year. The song also contains some of the lines that I'm the most proud of ever having written, lines that kind of internally tumble into themselves.

TB: Yeah, like a garland or wreath.

AP: Yeah. "See the children with baskets/See their hair cut like corn/neatly combed in their rows." Am I talking about the children and their hair, or the corn? I was really proud of that.

TB: It's both.

AP: It's both at the same time, yeah. Or you can roll from one image to the other in whichever order you want to see them.

TB: Was there any sort of event in your life you were thinking about when you make the transition in the lyrics to the adult point of view, and there's the "invitation in gold pen" that comes out of nowhere?

AP: Not one event. It's sort of a conglomeration of all sorts of bits and pieces.

TB: Adult longing, or...

AP: Well, you'll see somebody that you went to school with, and you usually think, [sotto voce] "Jesus, she's aged badly!" [laughs] But, every once in a while, you think, "Ah, god, I had such a crush on you! And look what you're doing now, you're working at a department store at the fish counter," or whatever. You think, "If you hadn't slapped my face and refused to go out with me, [emphatically] you could be my wife now!" Do you know what I mean? You have all these past potential avenues.

TB: Of course. That's the funny thing about it. One of the reasons I love these lyrics so much is that, there's the feeling of, you know, potential -- the "what if" -- but there's also the longing for what's gone.

AP: Yeah, it's the longing for the girls you fancied at school, and it just happens that the background for it is the harvest festival ceremony. Back then, if you were lucky enough, you were picked to take the baskets around to the old people's houses with the girl you fancied, and your hands might touch while you're holding the baskets, or you get to talk to each other, stuff like that. And, when you see someone later and think, "Wow, I really had a crush on her," or "Look what happened to her, she married that asshole who ended up going to prison," you end up with that weird tying and untying of threads all at the same time. You tie some ends up, and you loosen up a whole load of others.

TB: Yeah, exactly. Tell me about the music.

AP: I was very proud of the sort of empty quality of the music. When the acoustic guitar joins in on verse 2, all the way through recording that and mixing it, [producer and engineer] Nick Davis would turn to me and say, "That's the Beatle moment." He would say that every time! [laughing] It got to the point where the guitar would come in, and I'd just look at him, and we wouldn't say anything, but I knew he was thinking "That's the Beatle moment."

And you know, the snare drum, the sort of continuous rolling snare drum, that's me.

TB: Really?

AP: Yeah, that's me, overdubbing about half a dozen snare drums in [producer] Hayden Bendall's lavatory. Because the lavatory had this metallic sort of standing-wave sound in there.

TB: Oh sure, the best reverb you get is in bathrooms and stairwells!

AP: [laughs] Yeah. So I sat in there with a snare drum in my lap, on the lavatory, with a microphone hanging over the snare drum, with me doing a half dozen passes of "rat tuhtuh tat tuhtuh tat tuhtuh tat tuhtuhtuh tat" -- the sort of slow, military continuous roll that's going on there.

TB: You'll need to update the credits on the album accordingly! Let me ask a lyric-writing question that this conversation reminded me of, because I was asking if there was an event in your life that triggered the "out of nowhere, an invitation in gold pen" line, when you shift perspective. Even when you're were in a happy place in your relationships, you're still able to write lyrics about longing -- "You're the Wish You Are I Had" for example.

AP: You're talking to the most dumped man, you know -- I was just thinking today, every female relationship I've had, I've been the dumped.

TB: Or the "dumpee."

AP: Exactly! They've been the dumper, I've been the dumpee. That causes a lot of anguish.

TB: I think a lot of lyric writers feel the need for immediacy of an emotion to be able to express it. But you seem to be able to digest it, and ruminate about it, and pull it out at times when it doesn't seem so immediate. But are you saying that these feelings come welling up in you and so you feel compelled to write about them?

AP: Actually, it's the other way around. They come welling up and I try not to write about them. Which is unusual, but I kind of think, "Ehh, who wants to know about this?" Or, "That's too banal, I can't say that," or "If I really must express this, is there any way of expressing it that's a new way of expressing it?"

So, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the emotion will come up and I'll go, "Watch it, that's been done a thousand times before, maybe even better than you're trying to do it now, so be careful." I know that cliches are kind of like vocal oil, if you know what I mean -- but it might be nice to start a few new ones, rather than just keep trotting out the old ones.

But as the dumpee, I have a well of rejection that I can [laughing] happily draw on! A well of poison, and never-ending spot with pus in it that I can squeeze, a never-healing scab I can pick at...

TB: [laughing] Yeah, but it seems like you have feelings of longing, in a more romantic and nicer way, too -- not just "Oh, I've been hurt, poor pitiful me."

AP: Yeah. But that's the cliche, see, so you've got to be careful. "Poor pitiful me" -- you know, most people feel that at some point, but you can't just say "poor pitiful me." You have to find a new way, find a new language for saying that.

TB: I brought up "You're the Wish You Are I Had," but "Seagulls Screaming" is also a great example.

AP: Oh, there are dozens of those kinds of songs! "You're the Wish" is a longing one, where I think "Seagulls" more of a "damn, you idiot" missed-opportunity one.

TB: It's just another type of longing, right?

AP: Yeah.

TB: The picture you paint there -- "I say I like your coat/Her thank-you tugs my heart afloat" -- is so evocative. So simple, yet full of complex emotion. I think that after you guys stopped touring you became more mature as a lyricist.

AP: Oh, I agree. I had time to think about the songs. I didn't have to bang them out on the back of napkins and hotel bills and stuff. I mean, the last time I did that was the lyric that became "Ladybird," which was written on the back of a German hotel-restaurant bill. All my previous lyrical ideas tended to be on scraps of those types of paper, where I didn't really have time to think them through. And then when we came off the road, or when I mentally came off the road, even approaching the stuff that became English Settlement, I think the songs became better.

5:57 PM

©2006 by Todd Bernhardt. All Rights Reserved.