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Last Updated:
Feb 15, 2007

Sunday, February 18, 2007


Andy discusses 'Stupidly Happy'

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, "Stupidly Happy," is from 2000's Wasp Star (Apple Venus, Vol. 2).

TB: Recently, we talked about one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite albums -- "Love on a Farmboy's Wages," from Mummer -- but now I want to talk about my wife's favorite song by you: "Stupidly Happy."

AP: "Stupidly Crappy"! [laughs] She likes that, does she?

TB: She loves it! I do too, of course. Maybe it's because it's just such a happy, straightforward love song. So -- why would you write such a happy, straightforward love song?

AP: Certainly, musically it's very straight.

TB: Except that you build and layer things throughout the song to create complexity.

AP: Yeah, it builds and builds. It's like Sting making love! [laughs] It lasts a month.

TB: [laughing] It's your Tantric love song!

AP: [laughs] It's a Tantric of the tale! Yeah, it's a very, very simple construction, because it's that same guitar figure without interruption.

TB: So, why did you eschew -- if I may use that word...

AP: Good word!

TB: ...a chorus and a bridge on this? I know that melodically and lyrically you have these, but what is it that made you decide, "No, I'm going to drive this guitar pattern throughout the entire song"?

AP: It was just so pleasing! When I blundered on to that pattern, I was just messing around, trying to work out something like "Miss Amanda Jones," the old Rolling Stones number -- [sings] "Round and round she goes, Miss Amanda Jones," [sings guitar pattern]. I played something wrong, and thought, "Whoo! That's nice." I'd already thought, "I'm not going to write a song this afternoon, I'm not in the mood," so I'd managed to program a really nice Charlie Watts sort of lollopy rhythm -- a-one te tah, a-one te tah, on the bass drum there -- that I was playing along with. It's the kind of thing he does in "Jumping Jack Flash," and a whole load of others. In fact, believe it or not, this song owes a little to "Jumping Jack Flash," but we'll get on to that in a second.

I'd blundered on this little guitar figure that just sounded like blocks of noise, and it fell into the hands nice to play. It sounded lovely -- these big, square, fuzzy chunks. I just couldn't stop playing it! So I just put down a load of this on to a cassette, and began improvising vocals, just one of those things where you let your mind go.

I must have been feeling happy, because this thing made me feel happy, this repeat rhythm. I just started la la-ing [sings rather tunelessly] "I'm really happy, I'm stupidly happy, because this is a stupid riff going round and round with no end," and it just fell out instantaneously.

The only real piece of arch thought that went into it, I guess, was that once I had the first melody -- [sings] "I'm stupidly happy" -- I thought to myself, as I do with these repetitive patterns, "Let me find another pattern vocally that could go over that, so that if the two ever get to meet, it'll be fine -- they can marry, almost like a round or something."

TB: You tend to do that a lot.

AP: Oh yeah, I love that.

TB: Is that always a conscious choice?

AP: Usually. I must have been scared as a child by some old folk song in infant school or something -- [laughs] my mother was scared by the Swingle Singers when I was in the womb! -- because I just love those overlapping songs. You know, the Frere Jacques thing, where one line will lay over another and so on.

TB: It's a convenient way of bringing closure to a song, too -- you bring back all the players in the play, and let them take a bow.

AP: Yeah, it's great, when you bring back the parts and they talk to each other. They talk to each other separated, and then when you lay them on top of each other, it makes some new pattern, like a moire pattern.

So, I found the "I'm stupidly happy" melody first. And then it was the cascading, "All the birds of the air" piece. Then I came up with the chiming guitar solo piece. And they all work together. So when all of that comes together at the end, whoa! That thrill goes up the back of my incontinence pad, and it feels just wonderful.

And I said we were going to come back to "Jumping Jack Flash" -- what makes that song really tense is the fact that he just plays one note on the bass. I think it's a B. You know, the chords are changing around that, but he's pumping away on that B, and it really keeps the tension in what would be what you would call the verses of "Jumping Jack Flash."

TB: And of course "Stupidly Happy" does the same thing.

AP: Right! I couldn't figure out what key "Stupidly Happy" is in -- it's kind of in E and B at the same time -- so I thought, "Well, I'll try that trick of the tension." And it really, really worked.

TB: Although in the studio version you double-track the bass, right?

AP: We do. Colin's playing a higher B until about two-thirds of the way through, where I sing, "All the lights of the cars in the town form the strings of a big guitar." And then you hear the other electric guitar come in, and that's where we add a second bass part, an octave under his other part.

Suddenly everyone seems to like it from there on. It's like it goes wide-screen, like The Girl Can't Help It wide-screen moment, you know. [laughs, does announcer's voice] "Now let's hear this song in Partridge Vision!" You push it out there, and it suddenly gets really 3-D.

TB: And then you can have your bass and eat it too, because the low bass keeps the constant note, while he starts playing around a little bit on the higher bass.

AP: With the "Devil drove up" pieces -- which, I think, on the demo, I sang while holding my nose. I've got a funny feeling that we might have done that on the album as well. We screwed it up with telephonic EQ, but I still think I sang pinching my nose. Because I like the idea of this part of the song being phoned-in, like advice to you.

TB: Right, he's doing the slides up and down the neck there. But even during the "stupidly happy" part, there are places where the higher place goes off the B.

AP: I think just once or twice he drops in a little riff, during the line, "I roll like a train." I like what Colin does with the "Devil drove up" pieces, where he copies the whooping bass off the demo, but because he thinks more like a bass player, he anchors it on the four, which I didn't think of, not being a bass player, you know. There's a cymbal splash when he does it -- there are only a couple cymbal splashes in this track, and that's one of them. They're important, though.

TB: You can tell they're very considered and placed. The drum part is a loop, correct?

AP: That's a two-bar loop, I think, of drums. It's Chuck Sabo playing, but I wanted it to sound really robot, so we kept only two bars of his playing.

TB: You have some sort of effect on the kick drum, where it kind of "swallows itself."

AP: Yeah. We used the real kick drum, but we also fed in an electronic, gulping kick drum and mixed them together.

TB: Tell me more about the chiming guitar part, which you've said you're proud of. It's got a keyboard part layered over it, right?

AP: Before Dave left, we'd planned to have him play that on a 12-string. But because I didn't have a 12-string guitar, we did it by playing octaves on the guitar, and we added in a really sparkly keyboard, a ring-y kind of chorus-y keyboard, to make it sound like an ultra 12-string or something.

TB: The vocals are layered, too. You sing lots of parts above and below the main melody.

AP: I think the harmony under the lead vocal is really important.

TB: Let's talk about that a little bit, because I know it's something you guys have focused more and more on through the years.

AP: Years ago, I read somewhere that George Martin said that when he talked to the Beatles about doing harmonies, he would try to get them to pitch the harmony underneath the lead line. Because your ear is usually drawn to the highest singer, if you pitch the harmony underneath while the actual lead melody of the song is still the highest pitched thing, your ear stays on the main melody.

After reading that, I thought, "Jesus, maybe that's why a lot of those records still sound very strong." So it was something, I guess I caught years ago, and it's something that we've done a lot of since.

TB: I think it increases the lushness of the harmony, too.

AP: Sure! And, if you want to make the lead vocal line sound higher and wider, you can pitch an octave above it, if you can do it, or an octave below it, or both. In that way, you can still slot an apparently higher harmony, but then if you add an octave above the lead line, your ear is still drawn to the lead line.

TB: Listening to the "dood-n-doo" backing vocals, as a Prog Rock fan, I'd be tempted to say that you were tipping your hat to Yes there.

AP: You know, it hadn't crossed my mind, but I guess an argument could be made that, with my balls in a vice, I am Jon Anderson! [laughs]

TB: [laughs] You know what I'm talking about there -- the way that the vocals layer on each other at the end of the song, and even Colin's approach to the bass there...

AP: Yeah, I can kind of see that. I mean, I always thought Yes were a great pop band that just went flaccid. If you take any Yes track and edit it down to 2 minutes 30 seconds, they would have been great pop singles.

TB: Sure, and this reminds me of when they were still doing that, in the early '70s.

AP: I guess, when I write a song, I sometimes have other bands in mind as a template. Not as a stealing thing, but you're doing your own little Sistine Chapel, and you use bits of songs by other bands as some sort of scaffolding to help you up there while you're doing your own thing. As I said, there's a nod to Charlie Watts in the drumming, there's a nod to Bill Wyman's "Jumping Jack Flash" bass line in the constant-B bass, there's a nod to Keith Richards and "Miss Amanda Jones" in the crunchy guitar thing, and there's even a little tip of the hat to the Byrds with the voices cascading off of each other.

TB: Is there anything else about the recording of this song that you particularly remember? You did this at Idea Studios...

AP: We did this at Idea, yep. It's Chuck drumming away there. He said that the Idea room -- [clears throat] which sadly no longer exists, I don't know what the hell it is now -- was the nicest acoustic room he'd ever been in for his drums. It really flattered his drums.

TB: Yeah, I remember him telling me that. He really liked recording there.

AP: Yeah. In fact, he went around the room until he settled on playing in one corner, because he said he liked the way it threw the sound of the drums out of that corner. That's an old trick they used to do on blues recordings -- they would put the singer in the corner, sometimes facing the corner, because then the voice would bounce off the two corner walls, into the microphone, and you'd get a brighter, harder sound.

TB: How about recording the guitars and bass?

AP: Well, we'd discovered the POD, you see. In fact, it was [producer] Nick [Davis] who turned us on to the POD. He brought one along, and said, "Have you ever seen this thing before?" And he pulled out this red kidney bowl. We tried it, and thought, "Ooh, wow, this is good."

What we did on that whole album, we tended to play the guitar through the POD, and then we'd send that to my Sessionette amp. [announcer's voice] The Sessionette 70! That sounds like a really cheesy kitchen appliance, doesn't it? [same voice] "Are you mixing your bread with the Sessionette 70?" [syrupy jingle] "Sessionettttte, seventeeee!" You know, can you imagine the future in 1970, when everything is an atomic wasteland, but the Sessionette will still be working?

So yeah, I remember on this in particular, I played though the POD, and I got a sound that I liked, and then we shot that out through the Sessionette, and mic'd that up for punch. Because what happens is, the POD is good for modeling the appearance of a sound, but it doesn't have any real speaker punch.

TB: Right. There's no ambience.

AP: No. So, what you do is, you put it through an amp, and you get real speaker punch. And the Sessionette is kind of good for that, because it's rather flat and bland-sounding, so you can push a shaped guitar sound into it, and it won't color it too much. We tended to do that a lot on that album.

I think Colin's going out through -- oh, did he have a Gallien Krueger?

TB: That's a well-known bass rig.

AP: His GK. Or his "G.K. Chesterton," as he called it. [laughs]

TB: How about vocals?

AP: The room was very live and very flattering for drums and percussion and anything like that, but not so flattering to voices. It was too live. So we went out one day and bought some velvet curtains, and put them on a track that stretched across the middle of the room. That cut the room in half, sonically. And then, Colin knew somebody who was clearing out some screens from an office -- you know, partition screens -- so we bought a couple of these screens for a couple of pounds or something. They formed great gobos -- you know, baffles.

So, in the half of the room near the control window, we built a little kind of booth -- making a kind of V shape, and then hanging some cloth and padding over the top. Most of the vocals for that album were done in this little makeshift kind of geometric tent.

TB: Let's talk about the lyric.

AP: The lyric is very, very simple. It's almost like an old-fashioned folk song love song. You know, [sings very dramatically] "The fish of the air do tell me your name!" Fish of the air? You know what I mean.

TB: [laughing] Well, the Dukes would say that, right?

AP: Yeah, they'd say that! Or, "The shiny flying purple wolfhounds would show me where your kitchen roof needed repairing."

TB: It's a very exuberant lyric...

AP: Not many people picked up on the "I'm coming unscrewed" part. Which I thought was great, you know -- get a bit of filth in there. I'm coming, but I'm not screwing! I'm coming, unscrewed! To me that's like the essence of the song, you know? You're so happy you're having an orgasm, but you're not having sex! But it also means you're going a bit crazy, you know? But absolutely nobody picked up on that.

Also, people have said they really like the line of "All the lights of the cars in the town/Form the strings of a big guitar"...

TB: It's a great image...

AP: It's kind of what it looks like, if you watch a long, straight highway from a long way away, it kind of looks like a lit-up fretboard or something. I quite like the idea of picking it up and being gigantic and playing any tune you fancy, you know?

TB: So, how did Erica react the first time you played this song for her?

AP: Oh, she loves it! In fact, she was very upset neither Cooking Vinyl nor TVT nor Pony Canyon chose to service it as a single. I was very frustrated, because I was convinced [dramatic voice] I'd written Number One, in the world, forever! I'd come up with our "Let's Dance" or something!

TB: We've talked before about how this song could even be part of a commercial campaign.

AP: Well, it would be nice to make the money! I mean, if an ad company picked up on it, it would be perfect -- who doesn't want their product to be associated with being stupidly happy?

In fact, something has just popped into my brain -- Jesus Christ, I'd forgotten this! McDonald's wanted to use it!

TB: Really?

AP: Yes. In fact, they sent me a written-up storyboard. They wanted to use it for an ad campaign in Australia. It was not too long after it came out. They sent a storyboard -- not a picture storyboard, but a descriptive version -- for me to see, and said, "This would be the scenario in the ad, could we use your song?" And before I'd had time to mull it over, and think, "Oh god, is this good or bad? What a terrible thing, here I am, some big company wants to use my song, and it just happens to be fucking McDonald's," I never heard another thing about it. So I guess that McDonald's or the ad company changed their mind, or whatever.

Jesus, it's funny you picked that up. I'd forgotten all about the McDonald's thing!

TB: See? And you thought you'd said all you could about this song.

AP: And now you're going to say, "Would you have done it?" And I'm not going to tell you.

TB: [laughs] Would you have done it?

AP: [dramatic voice] I'm not going to tell you!

6:05 PM

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