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Last Updated:
Jan 21, 2007

Sunday, February 04, 2007


Andy discusses 'Little Lighthouse'

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, "Little Lighthouse," is from 1987's Psonic Psunspot, later re-issued on Chips from the Chocolate Fireball.

TB: Let's get psychedelic and talk about "Little Lighthouse." I want to make sure we talk about the Dukes occasionally...

AP: Aha! Well, this was not originally a Dukes tune.

TB: I figured this would be a good way to talk about Fuzzy Warbles as well, since the demo for this song is on there.

AP: The version you hear on the Warbles was written for Skylarking. We didn't do it in [Todd Rundgren's studio in] Woodstock, which was where most of the tracks were mapped out. Todd already had the order of the album worked out, so I think it was sort of a sop to me -- "Oh, alright, if Andy keeps pestering me to record some of the songs I haven't already chosen, I'll give him a day in San Francisco, and we can run through them with a live drummer."

So, there is a version we recorded in San Francisco.

TB: I've heard that. Did Prairie [Prince] ever lay down drum tracks on that or is that a machine?

AP: There is a machine, because I quite liked the idea of having distant industrial noises, in the same way that we did with "The Meeting Place," so it could sound like a factory, or some sort of coastal shipbuilding installation or something. And then I think we have a real track that Prairie put in there. So we did actually work on it, but I don't know, it was dying a death -- I don't think Senor Rundgren was going to let it go any farther.

After Skylarking, we said, "Oh, c'mon, we've got to do another Dukes, it was so much fun." Then we thought, "Well, we've got 'Little Lighthouse,' which, hey, if we just play it as a band, it's going sound like Moby Grape or somebody."

TB: You say the Dukes were so much fun, but 25 O'Clock was quite profitable for you too, wasn't it?

AP: Well, I wouldn't say profitable. I don't think we saw any money directly, but it helped to wipe out the debt that our first manager had left us in. It sold very well, so it did help to wipe out some of the misery, the wretched kind of feudal debt, that record companies let you get into, that they encourage you get into -- but not out of.

So, yeah, it was a case of "Yeah, let's do 'Little Lighthouse,' and let's really turn on the psychedelia on it." But, like "Little Lighthouse," several of the numbers on Psonic Psunspot were not intended to be Dukes numbers.

TB: And quite frankly, you can tell. The two albums feel very different to me.

AP: They do, yeah.

TB: I think one of the reasons is, the songs are almost a little too good. You're not taking the piss as much as you did on 25 O'Clock.

AP: No, we did a lot of overt, way over-the-top psychedelia on 25 O'Clock, but when it came to Psonic Psunspot, it was like we were mutating back into XTC, there's no doubt about it. I'd say that Psonic Psunspot was a missing XTC album.

TB: I can see that. What was the original inspiration for "Little Lighthouse"?

AP: People often ask how I write songs, and I tell them, "Well, I might find a chord, and it might remind me of fog, and then I'll start going on about fog," but this is actually a case where I found the chords, and they did make me think of fog! And I did think of foghorns, and ships, and lighthouses and how they enable people to see in the dark in some way, you know. Then I took it to the next step, to this beautiful vision that enables you to see things more clearly -- it's about my daughter, basically.

TB: Really?

AP: Yeah, my baby daughter. She's the one with the "skin of rubber marble." Because that's what I thought baby skin was like. And she had the red dress, and she'd stare at you, and you'd think, "Whoa! I can see what life's about now." It was quite a deep little song, lyrically.

TB: That's funny, because I could see that you were saying how a woman can enable you to see, she provides the light for you to see things you couldn't see before.

AP: Sure, but then it's also about my daughter, and about having a child. Suddenly you see what you're there for, and things become clearer. It's one of those moments in life, when you give birth to kids -- suddenly you go through a door into another place.

TB: Absolutely, I know just what you're talking about. I remember driving out of the hospital parking lot, and thinking, "Wow, suddenly the world is a much more dangerous place."

AP: Oh, yeah. That's why I wrote "Terrorism," which came out at about the same time. But "Little Lighthouse" is basically about Holly appearing and suddenly showing me what it's all about now. That's the lighthouse shining and revealing things.

TB: In this song you're starting to stretch out lyrically -- you say this wasn't originally written as a psychedelic piece, but you're using a lot of wild imagery in it.

AP: Yeah, the lyrics are kind of psychedelic, which is why I was saying the Dukes were mutating into XTC and vice versa. The Dukes' masks became a little too welded to our own faces, and became part of us. You know, it became a case of, "I can't get the mask off, but hey, it feels kind of comfortable." The lyrics do get a little psychedelic, but they weren't psychedelicized intentionally for the Dukes, that was how they were written.

TB: Well, I think they're ornate, and that you were giving yourself more leeway than you normally did in your other XTC songs. But in later lyrics and poetry that I've seen by you, you allow yourself to use this kind of imagery more often.

AP: Yeah, I guess at that point I was dipping my toe in and getting into it more. I was starting to get more proud of the lyrics, and hoping they could stand alone as good pieces of poetry. Certainly, in "Man Who Sailed Around His Soul" I had that in mind -- I wanted that to stand alone as a piece of poetry if needed. And to some extent, big chunks of "Little Lighthouse" do that as well.

TB: So, you came up with these chords, and it made you think of fog -- tell me about the parts of the song, and how they came together. There's the guitar at the start...

AP: The guitar at the start, the rather triangular melody -- I don't know where that came from. I just rather liked the idea of this melody floating in from nowhere, you know? If anything, although I'm not trying to copy it, I had in mind the way that [Robert] Fripp plays the guitar in "21st Century Schizoid Man." That very long, sustained tone -- it almost sounds like an electronic trumpet or something. Dave plays that part on the recording, and though I didn't mention this to him -- I didn't need to say it, because I could explain it well enough to Dave for him to play it just right -- I had this kind of template in the back of my mind, that it was vaguely related to the solo guitar on that song.

It's kind of convoluted chord-wise, this song. There are a lot of chords with subtle internal collapse-into-themselves kind of shifts. A lot of the chords in it, I'm not actually sure what they are. In fact, I don't even know if I can remember how to play it! I think I can remember how to play the basic F# rhythm-verse piece, but there are these shifts where the chords seem to collapse in on themselves. I don't know where the hell they came from.

TB: Did the chords just suggest themselves to you as you went along?

AP: I kind of make clusters with my hand until it feels right.

TB: You hear it in your head, and then you search around on the fretboard for that sound?

AP: Yeah, you kind of say, "No, that's not right, let me move just that finger, and I'll keep all my other fingers in the same place ... no, that's not it, let me move it to one other fret ... ooh, that's right, now something's not right down on the bottom, so if I keep those other fingers there, and move this one..." I don't know exactly where I'm going, but it ends up sounding right. And the only way I can remember these things is sort of pictorially -- the pattern of what your hand looks like.

TB: Let's say you're practicing or messing around, and you come up with something you like -- do you write down patterns, or do you always record them?

AP: I slam them down into a cassette so I don't forget them. Sometimes I explain into the cassette what the chords are, if I know, or I might explain to myself, "It's kind of like the opening chord to 'Hard Day's Night,' but it's up a tone, and I'm using an open B." If they're really outrageous, I'll have to draw a little picture in a sketch book -- draw a little diagram of what the chords are.

TB: Let's talk about the song structure. The beginning is very atmospheric...

AP: I can't say exactly which band and album, for copyright reasons, but a certain well-known psychedelic record from the '60s by an American band, whose album has a vaguely nautical concept to it, supplied the foghorn sounds.

TB: Well, that'll get the readers of the blog going, trying to figure that out!

AP: [laughs] Right, let them chew on that one! I think we threw in some BBC sound-effect foghorns as well, which were apparently "sounds of San Francisco."

TB: Given that that's where you recorded one of the demos, that's appropriate.

AP: Oddly enough, yeah! That's where we first sort of sketched it out to do it, and when we lifted sound effects to put on the finished recording, we captured some San Francisco sounds. And some of those foghorns are just in great keys! Pure accident. As for the guitars, of course, you've got to have lots of tremolo, for that 60s "what are we going to do with this guitar sound?" kind of thing.

TB: I like how the drums are very driving and regular on this song.

AP: Yeah, the drums have a kind of real tin-can sound to them -- kind of garage-y, if you know what I mean. And Dave's sprinkling little arpeggio twinkles everywhere, along with a helping of backward guitar.

TB: And then there's the trumpet, of course...

AP: Yeah, that was kind of a further nod to the West Coast psychedelic thing. A lot of those records have that Spanish influence, especially the stuff that crept up from LA. That's a very good sample. I can't remember the name of the keyboard that we used, but it was a little metallic gray thing -- it may have been an E-MU. And Dave's playing that pattern. It's a great sample -- once we put a little reverb on there, you couldn't tell it was a fake.

TB: You talk about the West Coast thing -- I know you have a great love for psychedelia, but I had always assumed that you were more steeped in British psychedelia than American.

AP: Yeah, but again, it's down to the set design. Because we're tip-toeing around the West Coast here, we have to have the correct stage setting, you know?

TB: Did you only learn about the West Coast and American psychedelia later, or was it something you also heard growing up?

AP: I heard it, but generally it wasn't as appealing to me, because I thought the players tried to be too flash, and you could hear they didn't have the skill. Bands like Quicksilver didn't have good enough guitar players. Iron Butterfly sounded clumsy. Whereas English bands tended not to do so much solo stuff...

TB: It was more the band as a whole.

AP: It was the band as a whole, and in the service of the song, whereas the American thing was less about the song and more about the supposed ability of the players. Like, Jefferson Airplane were very clumsy-sounding players. However, I really liked it when those bands did click in with great songs. For example, Jefferson Airplane never bettered "White Rabbit." But that's a song.

TB: The walking bass line in "Little Lighthouse" -- it's on the demo, right?

AP: I think it is, yeah. But Colin did a very good job. He probably played slightly better notes than I did.

TB: And then you've got the "19th Nervous Breakdown" quote there at the end of the song, on the bass...

AP: Yeah, nicely spotted. I asked Colin, "Can you do that '19th Nervous Breakdown' thing here," because during that time the Stones were going for that West Coast sort of garage-y sound as well. I wanted it to sound as though Dave Hassinger had engineered it.

TB: He was an engineer for the Stones?

AP: Yeah, and he did "I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night" -- you know, the Electric Prunes. I really wanted it to sound as if he'd engineered this whole song. So, it was a case of, "Yeah, let's stick the '19th Nervous Breakdown' bass riff over the end."

TB: The song has a very live feel overall.

AP: It's quite "band-y" -- the only things that aren't band-like on it are the trumpet and the backward guitar. And everything else is kind of, there we are doing it. Because it's the Dukes, you've got to get it in first or second take.

TB: Was that a rule you guys had?

AP: Yeah! Yeah. It gave the songs a great urgency, and gave them a real fire. I sometimes think, "Hey, why the fuck didn't we do a lot more stuff like that?" But that was the Dukes rule -- a lot of the Dukes stuff was first take.

TB: You can make a song sound quite bloodless after you've been doing it five, six, seven, eleven times, or whatever.

AP: Oh, yeah. There is a point sometimes where, if you're worried about a performance, you can -- and this was Mutt Lange's thing, with "This Is Pop" -- you know, he insisted on cooking something like 50 takes out of us, to the point where we really didn't care by take 50. Then he said, "Great, you've got the groove. You now don't care about it, and you're not worrying about it, and you're not playing tense."

TB: Right, it's kind of like what I was saying when you were talking about being worried about Colin's wife Carol coming through the door during the take of "I'd Like That" -- when conscious thought enters into it, you're much more likely to make a mistake.

AP: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. So, yeah, the Duke thing was first or second take, and if anyone made a mistake, it was a matter of leave it or cover it up with a funny noise, you know.

5:29 PM

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