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Mar 15, 2007

Sunday, April 01, 2007


Andy discusses 'Jason and the Argonauts'

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, "Jason and the Argonauts," is from 1982's English Settlement.

TB: Let's look at "Jason and the Argonauts" this week.

AP: So, you want to talk about "Jason and Chintzi," as it became known in the band.

TB: [laughing] Why was that?

AP: Because there was a porn magazine floating around in the van that had a middle-aged couple who were pretty grotesque -- Jason and Chintzi -- having sex. He was fat and mustachioed ... and so was his wife! So, it was like, "Where are we going to put Jason and Chintzi in the set tonight?" Or, "You messed up that change in Jason and Chintzi." [laughs]

I was playing the song recently -- haven't heard it in many years -- and I'd forgotten the little intro with all the cymbal work. It's like a musical equivalent of the sunshine sparkling on the sea. Just all those different cymbals tinkling and glittering -- and of course it's on the outro as well, because the intro becomes the outro.

I think I never got over "Tales of Brave Ulysses," by Cream. I thought, "If they can do a song about Greek myth, then so can I!" [laughs]

TB: Did you read mythology as a kid?

AP: Not so much, no. I used to get a comic called "Boy's World." There was a fantastic artist called Ron Embleton who drew a strip in the center that was a lot of Greek mythology all sort of mashed up. The drawings were so beautiful -- the illustrations were just so good -- that I couldn't wait to see it each week.

Then, as a kid, of course, one of my favorite films was "Jason and the Argonauts."

TB: The Harryhausen film.

AP: Yeah. Most people's favorite scene in the movie is when the hydra's teeth become the skeleton army. That wasn't my favorite, though. My favorite bit is when they go into the base of the huge bronze statue of Talos, and steal stuff from in there -- you know, they grab something they think is a javelin, but it's actually a gold pin or something, or what they think is a shield is actually a gold button. Of course, Talos knows this, and comes to life.

But they really mess up the scale, because sometimes Talos is about 40 feet high, then in a few scenes he's about 100 feet high, and then in a few other scenes he's almost 1,000 feet high. It's like, "C'mon, how big is he, fellows? Get your scale right!"

But I love that film, which I originally saw in the cinema. It's one of those films you can watch again and again.

TB: Absolutely. So was that your basis for the song?

AP: Well, I'll tell you what started it. The actual song came out of finding the main, propelling [sings ascending/descending guitar pattern], which just fell into my hands. It was almost like a twitch -- it just fell into them so easily.

I mean, it's just a one-note figure, with another note in constant harmony, and it felt so good. I thought, "Wow, that's almost like the sound of traveling across the sea." And then of course, it's, "Who traveled across the sea? Jason and the Argonauts!" And bleagh! this whole idea came out.

TB: As you are wont to do.

AP: I've said many times that you can play a little figure or a chord, and as you're telling yourself what it sounds like, that frequently becomes the lyric. This little figure just sounded like traveling across the sea, and then for me it was a very short step to Jason and the Argonauts.

You know the actual motif of [sings, emphasizing the high note in the pattern] "Jason and the ArGOnauts"? I took a long while to find that, because I wanted something that suggested antiquity. And I'll tell you where my brain was headed -- the music to that film with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis called "The Vikings." The theme for that movie has, you know, [sings dramatically, going up and down] big leaps in it!

It sounds like something being blown by a distant horn, summoning you. And I thought to myself, "How can I find a motif with a big leap in it?" Not that I wanted it to sound like the music in "The Vikings" -- I just had that in mind -- "Yeah, that sounded archaic and summoning. Why did it sound like that?" It's the big dissonant jumps. It's almost like somebody blowing a ram's horn or something.

TB: And I imagine that the lyrics were driven by the fact that you guys were touring your heads off.

AP: We were touring our heads off. You do get to see a lot of stuff that you've never seen before, and you start to try to want to make sense of it. And you start to see people behave differently as well.

TB: You sound very disappointed with people in this song. It's a very cynical song. Was that a result of touring, or was that something that was building up in you anyway?

AP: I think it must have been something that was building up in any case. I guess it's one of those life metaphors -- it's the journey of life. Not specifically journeying around the world -- I mean, it is about journeying around the world, but it's also about growing up and journeying through life, and the stuff you see while doing it. It does make you cynical.

TB: You seem to be a bit prescient in your lyrics sometimes. All throughout Nonsuch there are songs containing lyrics that made me wonder if your marriage was breaking up then -- songs of jealousy and rejection -- but in fact you didn't find out about your wife's infidelity until later.

AP: Much, much later.

TB: With "Jason and the Argonauts," it looks like the lyrics are presaging what you would soon be going through with your manager and the music business.

AP: Yeah, I guess it's the process of un-naiving. You know, you're unraveling. This was also written by me at a time where I'd decided I didn't want to tour anymore.

TB: Did you know at this point?

AP: Yeah. I knew that I didn't want to tour. I did actually spend quite a bit of time in the studios trying this concept out on the others -- getting them one at a time and saying to them, "What do you think about not touring this album?" Just testing the depths, you know. But the universal message was, "Oh, it'll be great! Let's get out there."

TB: It was going to be your first stadium tour as headliners, right?

AP: Yeah, it was the one where we finally got our own big bus. We didn't have to bunk up with another band, or travel around in a little van, you know? But yeah, this was written from a perspective where I knew I didn't want to tour. I knew I was not enjoying the treadmill. I was beginning to feel really like a prisoner. And that's not a good feeling, because you're getting to see the world, and you're getting to experience the world -- yet, inside, the bars are closing in, you know? And that's a very strange mixture of feelings.

TB: Although at the same time, the image is, if you are Jason and the Argonauts -- which a touring band could be cast as -- you have this opportunity to go out and do and see amazing things -- as you say, "human riches you'll release."

AP: Yeah.

TB: Is there a paradox here? You felt trapped but released at the same time?

AP: Hopefully you're bringing joy to others, but paradoxically you're feeling more and more trapped each tour you go on.

TB: There is no golden fleece.

AP: No, none at all. "There may be no golden fleece, but human riches I'll release." You can make people feel happy. It's nothing to do with money or riches or anything.

TB: Let's talk about the structure of the song. Anything in particular stand out to you?

AP: I like the little stagger in the melody -- [sings verse vocal pattern, made up of slow and fast triplets] -- don't know where the hell that came from.

TB: Well, it's a very percussive thing. Did you write the lyrics, and then fit them into the "box" of the music you'd created?

AP: I probably had one or two lines. Once I get that, I usually kind of know where that part of the song is going to go, and then can sketch in the "What am I trying to say" part. But the intuitive stuff, which gives you the framework of the song, usually falls out pretty quickly.

TB: So, if you come up with a line that has more syllables than you need to keep going with the rhythmic pattern you've set, you do a fast triplet or something like that, to shoehorn them in?

AP: Sometimes. I also like to tweak things, adding a syllable here, or taking a syllable away, or using an old way of saying something -- an old word that hasn't been used for a while that says the same thing but maybe is fewer syllables. You can plunder any language to make it say what you want to say.

TB: How about the drums in this one?

AP: You know the strange push on the snare drum all the way through this? Terry keeps a steady four-on-the-floor with the bass drum, and plays the snare on the "and" before the one. I seem to remember vaguely at the time liking the spastic propulsion -- and I don't know whether it's a mistake or not on the original -- of "Street Fighting Man." Because during the first quarter of that song...

TB: You don't know where the one is.

AP: Yeah, and Charlie Watts is putting that snare beat on the "and" before the one. You know, it's "push-one." And I really remember liking that sense of dislocation. I think I got Terry to play that because in my head I wanted to use that dislocation on top of the straight four-on-the-floor bass drum. I think it worked great.

TB: Sure, because the steady pulse is already there.

AP: Exactly. You just have that little thing kicking it along -- like kicking a can down the street or something. And, do you know, once he programmed himself to play that rhythm, he played it really well.

TB: Oh yeah, it's like a prototypical song for him.

AP: Yeah. I also like the 1-2-3's on the roto-tom -- we put a little flutter echo on them in the mix, to add just a pinch of psychedelia to them, I think.

TB: The liner notes credit you with keyboards on this....

AP: On the outro, the little monophonic Korg does sterling service as a pretend woodwind. That's buried deep in the mix there, because if you have it too high, you're going to know right away it's a synthesizer.

TB: You were playing a Prophet V on this, too?

AP: I think the Prophet V was the little scrape of tiny bells, in the "all exotic fish I find" part. I think the ersatz woodwind at the end was the Korg. I seem to recognize the timbre of the Korg. It does have a woodwind-esque [makes nasal "hawhhh" sound]. I don't know how you're going to write that noise down! [laughs]

TB: How about the bass?

AP: I think Colin's playing fretless on this.

TB: Really? It sounds very punchy and fretted to me.

AP: Yeah, that's true. I know his favorite at the time was the fretless.

TB: And on other songs on the album, you can definitely hear it...

AP: Yeah, it may be the Newport. I'm going to take that back.

Let's see, what else can I tell you? The big long middle section is that joy of repetition, just a case of, "Okay, well, they're going on their voyage, so let's go on the voyage." Actually, I think we chopped out a section. It was even longer in the original recording. I know that we did some editing on that album -- we took out a big chunk, a couple of minutes, of "Melt the Guns." I think we took out a couple of minutes from the middle of "Jason and the Argonauts" as well.

TB: Yeah, on this album you tend to stretch out in the middle of a couple of the songs. You also do that on "It's Nearly Africa."

AP: Yeah. What we did with this one involved sort of minute differences in the guitar figure -- that ascending and descending pattern. You try to set yourself a little task of seeing how you can play as many little minute differences in that over the space of a couple of minutes, you know? [sings variations on the pattern] Using the same notes, but just trying to dice it a different way each time you do it.

TB: And you and Dave are both doing that.

AP: Yeah, we're both doing that, so it's a case of we're making the ocean surface or something. It's human fractals! [laughs]

TB: Did you double-track as well on that?

AP: I think it's just two guitars, Dave and me.

TB: So you're playing an acoustic guitar with a pickup, and he's playing 12-string?

AP: I think I'm playing the Ibanez, just with a very particular tone. And Dave's playing his 12-string. And then you get those little vocal parts -- I'm sort of fading myself in, plus they're being faded on the desk as well. Little "memories of the song," if you see what I mean.

The whole thing is almost as if you're in an incredibly fast boat, and you're looking over the prow just staring into the sea for a couple of minutes. That's the whole essence of the song, really. It's almost as if the little vocal motifs that come up are like dolphins jumping by the prow or something.

TB: Have you ever been on a sailboat or out to sea at all?

AP: I have, but, being scared shitless of water, it's a different experience for me! [chuckles]

TB: Because, when you describe that, having sailed myself, it is very evocative of that experience -- standing there, and feeling the wind push you...

AP: You've got to eat less curry, if you're feeling the wind push you! [laughs] Well, I was guessing, it's looking over the prow and staring into the water. I try to make our music as pictorial as I can. But you knew that.

And you know the big flange throughout that part. A lot of people out there think that was done the classic way, with a couple of tape machines -- in fact, three tape machines, you have to do it with -- but this wasn't. This was actually done with a tiny little device about the size of a box of cook's matches called a Bell flanger.

TB: Really? I had assumed it was a rack device there in the studio, but nothing that small.

AP: Yeah, it's pretty small. I've read people say, "Wow, that is the best analog tape flanging I've ever heard! They really did it properly, with three machines and all that" -- which we've done in the past! The Dukes' flanging was all classic tape flanging. But this one was, I don't think we had the machines around, so it was a case of let's use the Bell flanger.

It was great, because you could control where you were in the wave. So that's why the wave comes to its conclusion just at the right moment, into the next section. The "manimal" section. That's from The Island of Doctor Moreau. Who wrote that, HG Wells?

TB: I think it was, yeah.

AP: Yeah, the half-animal, half-human creatures he experiments with are known as "manimals."

TB: Speaking of that section, I remember when I was first discovering you guys, I was especially struck by the line about being in a land where men forced women to hide their facial features, and how we in the West do that through make-up -- that's when I knew there was something really going on here with this band, and with the guy who wrote this song -- I was impressed by your ability to use that kind of cultural magnifying glass or mirror, and use it to show us ourselves and reveal something about our attitudes.

AP: Well, in England, we were criticized by a lot of critics for being smart-assed. It didn't constitute observation or astute lyric-writing; that constituted smart-assed.

TB: Why would people think you weren't coming up with a helpful observation?

AP: Because at the time in England, politics, or fake politics, in lyrics was still very much the thing. People seemed to think there was an authenticity in idiot lyrics, or an authenticity in political or politicized lyrics.

TB: A result of the Punk aesthetic and its reaction against overblown music, I guess?

AP: Yeah. I mean, singing about Jason and the Argonauts -- "What are those fellows trying to do?" I was just trying to describe this process of traveling the world, and growing up, opening up, seeing things. The critics weren't interested, though.

9:54 AM

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