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Last Updated:
Jan 21, 2007

Sunday, January 28, 2007


Andy discusses 'Love on a Farmboy's Wages'

Song of the Week -- Andy's take

Part of an ongoing series of interviews by Todd Bernhardt with Andy Partridge about the songs we feature each week on MySpace. This week's song, "Love on a Farmboy's Wages", is from 1983's Mummer.

TB: So, let's talk about "Love on a Farmboy's Wages." This is one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite albums.

AP: I'm ready -- I'm sitting here in my old rocking chair. Although it shouldn't be.

TB: Your chair is not supposed to rock?

AP: Yeah. This one's rocking, though.

TB: But is it rolling?

AP: No, it's just the majesty of Rock. No mystery of Roll involved.

TB: [laughing] Back to the song...

AP: Have you heard Fairport Convention's version?

TB: No, but I have heard about it.

AP: Yeah, I only heard about it a few days ago. I haven't heard it, but I'd love to. They're very good players. I'm very flattered that they picked it. I don't know how they're going to grasp the sort of jazz feel of the middle section, but I'm very flattered.

TB: You mention that the middle part has a jazz feel, and I'd go even further and say it even has a slight Latin feel.

AP: Hmmm!

TB: I've always felt, when playing drums along with it, that there's kind of a double-kick pattern -- and-one, and-two, and-three, etc. -- that you can put in there that reminds me of a Samba.

AP: I really enjoyed coming up with the drum patterns on this song. I was really sick of big drums by this time. You know, sick of that massive drum sound.

TB: The whole album seems to be a kind of reaction against where you had been heading as the big touring machine.

AP: Yeah. I could see other people kind of taking off with that sound as well. I thought, "Ohhh, we're being followed here, so I'm going to drop the trail."

I had a funny little drum machine -- I can't remember the name of it, but it was sort of programmable. I liked the smallness of it. It suited where I wanted to go -- I wanted to get away from giant drum sounds, and I wanted to get away from big, noisy ROCK.

TB: The gated toms...

AP: Yeah, the gated ambient sound, cranked-up guitars, and stuff. I just wanted to take a break from all that.

So here we have this lovely little cyclical drum pattern -- which we actually rehearsed with Terry, but he was trying to think of a way of telling us that he was going to leave the band. I don't know if he was purposely struggling with it as a way of vindicating what he was about to say -- "Look, I'm off" -- but he couldn't seem to grasp this pattern, which normally he wouldn't have had any trouble with. I mean, it was right up Chambers Street -- a repetitive little cycle pattern. But he said, "Ah, you know, I'm having trouble getting this. I can't play this, I can't do it."

TB: He actually walked out on this song?

AP: Oh, yeah. It was a case of sticks-down halfway through. The cymbals were still swinging, and he's saying, "Look, I'm off. I've got to go." He couldn't really explain why, but he was getting a lot of pressure from his brand-new Australian wife, who was pregnant and didn't want to live on a shitty, brand-new estate where the rooms were so tiny that they had to put the bedroom furniture out on the landing! They put a double bed in the room, and they had about six inches to walk around the edge of the bed, to get out the room -- and that was the master bedroom!

She didn't want to live in all that mud and filth. You know, it was like she found herself living on the Somme! [laughs] She'd flown over from surfer's paradise, in Australia, and found herself living in a box on the Somme, and being pregnant as well! She may have even had the kid by then, I can't remember. And, understandably, he felt bad for her. He knew we weren't touring, so it was like, "Oh, okay."

TB: How did you guys take that, when he made that announcement?

AP: I felt a little stunned, but not as stunned as I should have been. I kind of knew something was coming -- I knew that his head was in a funny place, because when I stopped the tour at the start of the US leg of the English Settlement tour, and flew home just to think what the hell I was I going to do with myself, he went to Australia to visit Donna. He was there for quite a while, while I was sat in the back garden writing the material that was going to go on Mummer, and I knew that something was amiss. Otherwise, he would have come back to England, and said, "Okay, what are we doing? Let's get into rehearsals! What new material have you got?" But there was absolutely no champing at the bit.

TB: And he normally was like that?

AP: Well, he'd be keen. He'd usually take himself off to go on holiday while you were writing an album, or he'd go work on a building site, or hang around with his friends drinking, or all three. But with this one, he just shot off to Australia, and was obviously soaking up the sun and the 6X -- sorry, the 4X -- over there.

TB: [laughing] Right. The 6X is where you are, right?

AP: 6X is where I am, yeah. They can only afford 4X's. [laughs] So, I sensed something was wrong, you know. And then he made a big palaver of not being able to grasp this new material, which was too ponce-y for him.

TB: I suppose you had the usual band meeting, where you discussed what was going to happen -- you decided at that point that you didn't want to bring a permanent fourth member into the band?

AP: Yeah, it was a case of, "Well, we don't know where our next dinner's coming from, because we're not on tour now." We were still waging ourselves on quite a small amount, and to put somebody else on the wage roll when you didn't quite know what your future's going to be might have been a crazy move. So, it was a case of, "Let's get somebody in who's a good drummer, and they don't have to be permanently waged."

TB: Back to the drumming pattern, which you said was the genesis of the song -- you started with that and an acoustic guitar.

AP: Yeah, I found that little kind of drone-y riff, the [sings pattern] -- the one you hear in the verse. And I had this little cyclical drum pattern going around, talking to it, and that was all the conversation needed, really.

TB: And then we were talking about the bridge and its feel -- why did you go in that direction?

AP: I just wanted to get away from the key. The song's in E, basically, and in the middle section I lifted it up to something like F#, and used open strings, so you still have the droning thing, but it kind of went into a -- I don't know, it just fell into more of a jazz place. I don't know why that would be -- maybe it's the choice of chords or the accents in it, but it kind of naturally felt like it wanted to do that, so it was a case of, "Okay, leave it." Rather than say, "I'm going to stay on the farm here, stay rustic," it just wanted to swing a little bit more in that section.

TB: And was this an instance where Pete Phipps' ability to play that kind of feel further inspired you?

AP: Oh, Pete Phipps was great. I think it was Dave who suggested him, because Pete Phipps had drummed in a band called Random Hold, after being in the Glitter Band.

TB: Right. Random Hold was kind of a progressive band, correct?

AP: Yeah. They'd supported us on an English tour, so we'd be sort of staggering down in these cheap hotels, having hungover breakfasts with Pete Phipps and the rest of Random Hold, and then watching them occasionally in the evening, thinking, "Ooh, he's a good drummer, isn't he? Make a mental note of that." And then Dave said, when Terry left, "I wonder if we can get Pete Phipps' phone number -- track him down, and ask him to come along."

He was perfect. I was a little worried that he was just going to be thump-crunch -- you know, more like the Glitter Band and the more brutal side of Random Hold's thing -- but he had a great light touch. He could really click into a light, jazzy feel, which he showed on things like "Ladybird."

TB: Let's talk about the bass a bit.

AP: Well, in the choruses, I asked Colin, "Can you get any more cow out of your bass?"

TB: [laughing] Cow?

AP: Yeah, in the chorus, where it goes "Shilling for the fellow who brings the sheep in," you have this [imitates bass part] -- it literally "moos."

TB: [laughing] Well, that's appropriate for the subject matter, right?

AP: It's perfect! We wanted someone to think, "Wow, what are they doing there? They're squeezing a heifer there. Squeezing a Jersey." No, it's really the bass, trying to get it to sound more like a cow. It's all down to the stage-setting, you know? You've got to have the correct scenery.

I also really like that counterline he does at the end of the chorus, under the "love on a farmboy's wages" lyric.

TB: Was that something you came up with, and asked him to play, or did he come up with it?

AP: I think came up with that. It's very pleasant. I also like the way the song appears to change key as it moves into the chorus, but it actually just goes to the root key of the verse.

TB: As far as guitars go, you and Dave are both playing acoustic...

AP: Yep, we start on acoustic. And when I start singing, I'm trying to sing like a French horn. I know that sounds a weird thing to say.

TB: No, given the way you fade-in your voice, it makes total sense.

AP: It sounds more English, and more out-in-the-field, you know. Then, as the song progresses into the "we will borrow your father's carriage" part, Dave adds an electric guitar, too, underpinning things. And I think there also may be ersatz French horn in here -- Dave on the Prophet V.

TB: As you move into the bridge, there's more percussion -- wood block, cymbal bells...

AP: The sheep that have entered the picture! [laughs] There's a wood block, and I think there's a cowbell in there as well.

TB: And you've got a vibra-slap in there!

AP: Of course, everyone's vertebrae sound like one of those. If you're going to "do vertebrae," you've got to have a vibra-slap.

The section after the " breaking my back" line -- that's actually the verse pattern, using the same open and closed notes, but the closed notes have been moved up a tone, so the open notes are slightly dissonant against them, if you see what I mean.

TB: I do. Lyrically, this is one of your "Holy shit, I'm not going to make enough money to support my family" songs.

AP: You know, I still worry about that. It's still a big threat for me. [laughs] I'm obviously bitter about not getting the money I thought I ought to deserve or something. I look around, and I see people like Elvis Costello, or other contemporaries, and I think, "Jesus, they're so much richer than I am!" You know -- "I wrote songs as good as he did!" I can say that -- not facetiously or boastfully. I think I've written songs as good as Elvis.

TB: Oh, and from what I've read in interviews with him, I think he thinks that, too! He admires your songwriting.

AP: But when I see him on the Sunday Times' Rich List...

TB: Oh my. I didn't realize he was that wealthy.

AP: Oh yeah. I don't know, I think his last count was something like 20 million. But I never made the money, or a fraction of the money, in this game that I thought I would. And I guess that, even by that age, I was thinking "Grrr, grrr."

TB: This is really the first articulation by you of that, I think. I can't think of any earlier songs where the theme is quite so obvious -- maybe "Paper and Iron," but even that is almost as much of a socialist statement as anything else.

AP: Yeah, and it's also the pride of working -- and the fact that my dad would never let me know how much he made. I don't think he ever let my mother know, either! You know, he gave her X amount per week, and there was no conversation about it.

But, needless to say, I've never really worked on a farm. The nearest I've ever been to it is helping my father out a few times collecting milk churns from farms. He used to work for Latton Creamery, I think, and go around with a truck to pick up these full or empty milk churns from farms. I'd help him do that occasionally. It was tough work, but I have never been a farmboy. It's merely allegorical.

TB: There's something about that subject matter that seems to draw you, though. We were talking about "Senses Working Overtime," and you were channeling medieval farmers in that one.

AP: Yeah, well, you write these little playlets or something. It's the same as if you were writing a script or a book. You have to put yourself in the place, and if you can draw on any of your experiences -- I mean, I did paint pictures, I did carve wood, and the parents of my girlfriend, who then became my wife, did tell me I was no good. In fact, they used to call me a "jumped-up, tuppenny, ha'penny ticket writer"!

TB: [laughing] Really?

AP: They probably called me a lot worse when the doors were closed.

TB: Undoubtedly. What is the significance of that lovely phrase?

AP: My last job I had, before I gave it up to be a professional musician, was painting posters in a department store. That was known at the time as being a ticket writer. So I was a jumped-up, tuppenny, ha'penny ticket writer. And I think her father called me that because he was the owner of a professional sign company.

TB: Oh, I see. Charming. He was a full-fledged ticket writer -- a pound-note ticket writer!

AP: Yeah, exactly! [laughs] And he certainly could not have jumped up, because he was vast and round.

TB: [laughing] Well, one of the reasons I love these lyrics is that there's the whole push and pull between the obvious angst of feeling that you don't have enough resources to support your wife, but then there's the very beautiful yearning of, "We will borrow your father's carriage/We will drink and prepare for marriage" -- you know, you can feel the warmth and the love there, and how it provides a backdrop for the anxiety about finances, about the reality of the world.

AP: [pauses] Yep.

TB: [laughing] So I got it, eh?

AP: [laughing] That is a very Italian-interview question! That's the sort of thing they do -- they spend a quarter of an hour, saying, [Italian accent] "And I feel like-a you are saying ... the metaphor of the ... the allegory and ... the way you are expressing it" -- and then there's a big gap after that, and all you can say is, "Yep! Ya got it, Luigi." They're notorious for those kinds of questions.

TB: [laughing] Thank you-a very much!

AP: It's-a nice!

TB: Well, what was the thought process as you were working out these lyrics? Did you try to do the same thing as you were doing musically -- you were saying you had the little stuttering guitar-and-drumbeat thing, and then you wanted to do something different for the bridge -- do you think about this when you write lyrics? Do you also say, these lyrics are too flat, I need some dynamics?

AP: On this song, the first thing that fell out lyrically was me -- and I do this a lot -- just gibbering idiotically over one of the guitar patterns. I think the first lyric that came along was, [sings] "Shilling for the fellow who brings the sheep in," because that sounded onomatopoeically like what I was playing on the guitar. [sings] "Shilling for the fellow who milks the herrrrd" -- you know, that was where we were saying, "Oh yeah, we've got to get the bass to be part of the herd!" But the first line that fell out was, "Shilling for the fellow." And that really is the byline of the song. If the whole song was a film, it'd be the byline on the poster.

I'm just trying to think of what came after that -- the chorus came first, and then I think I found the verse.

TB: You mean the lyrics?

AP: I think musically as well.

TB: Really? I thought you'd said you started with the verse pattern, with the drum pattern behind that.

AP: Yeah, but now that I'm thinking about it, I think the first thing that came out -- as I start to dig into this stuff, and go back in my brain -- was the "Shilling for the fellow" section. Then it was the verse pattern. So you're going to have to go back and rap me on the knuckles! I've got it out of order there.

TB: That's okay, it's the writer's prerogative. Let's talk about the single of this song. I remember buying this EP.

AP: The single for this song came out in a gatefold sleeve that looked like a wallet -- and it really was my wallet! I came up with the design, and when I talked to Design Clinic, I said, "Look, instead of putting lettering over the top of the photograph, why don't you actually go to one of those places that emboss leather goods, and just get the title embossed into my wallet?" Which they did, and they put a few bits and pieces in the wallet, to suggest I wasn't well off -- there was an old 10-shilling note, which of course was defunct currency by then, and there was a photograph of some cheeky-looking girl -- who everyone at the time thought was my wife, but instead was just a 1950s beauty who Design Clinic selected and slipped in the little clear holder in the wallet.

Of course they sent me the wallet back after the photo session, and I thought, "Oh no, of course -- now I've got this all over my wallet! If I go in the pub and take this out, people are going to think I'm a..." -- you know, why would I have the name of my band embossed on my wallet? And the name of the latest single? So I had to buy a new wallet. [laughs]

TB: [laughing] The sacrifices you make for your art...

AP: Exactly. That cost me a new wallet, that cover session did.

5:02 PM

©2007 by Todd Bernhardt and Andy Partridge. All Rights Reserved.