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Mar 15, 2007

Sunday, April 15, 2007


Andy discusses 'Season Cycle'

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, "Season Cycle," is from 1987's Skylarking.

TB: Let's talk about "Season Cycle," which I know is a favorite of yours...

AP: Yeah. Do you know, I listened to it today for the first time in a long, long time. I'm just not in the habit of playing our records.

TB: You and I were talking a while ago about how, when listen back to songs, it sometimes brings back memories of what didn't happen, as well as what did. You also alluded to having a vision in your head of what Todd's studio was going to be like, and what it was actually like -- what did you think it was going to be like?

AP: I thought it was going to be a single-story building, very robust, and I thought it would have large double doors that would open out onto a big patch of green. I could see us sitting on there in chairs and soaking up the sun in between takes. I thought the studio itself would be quite low inside, but lots of bright shiny wood floor, and -- ah, it was nothing like that. [laughs] It was just like a two-story shed!

TB: Really?

AP: It was a really pretty wretched two-story shed.

TB: Did he have room to record drums in there?

AP: Yeah, but we chose not to, because Prairie was over in San Francisco, and Todd said he wanted to do all the live drums over there, rather than fly Prairie and his kit over to Woodstock.

TB: So what was on the two levels?

AP: Downstairs was like a little living-room area, with a loose carpet. There was a grand piano in one corner. The room was sort of cut off by a breakfast bar, which was in terrible repair, and then behind the breakfast bar was a shower unit! And stored around by the shower unit were loads of boxes of tapes. It was in such neglect in there. It was pretty shocking, actually.

And then you'd go up a little single flight of steps, over on one side of this little fake living-room thing, and then perched sort of over -- it wasn't exactly two stories, it was more like one-a-half stories, it was like a mezzanine that had been closed in -- was the control room, which was tiny.

TB: So, where did you track? In the living room area?

AP: We just all sat around in a semi-circle down there. Or, you know, Dave played the piano that was down there. Or the Chamberlin that Todd had, that was rotting away down there, Dave got it working. Cleaned the nest of mice out of it. There was a nest of mice -- there were dead mice, and mouse shit, and nesting stuff. Talk about raising a family in a house full of mice -- it was raising an album in a Chamberlin full of mice! [laughs]

The Chamberlin, if people don't know, is like the forerunner of the Mellotron. I think it had some of the same tapes it used, actually. I'd never seen a Chamberlin before. The left hand had like rhythm-section stuff in it -- it'd play recordings o f a combo just playing, in a set rhythm and a set key when you pressed that key down. Then, with the other hand, you could dial up whatever the lead instrument was.

There's a picture of the studio in Song Stories. You can see, it's just a big rotten shed. It was kind of on the edge of the woods, next to a two-story clapboard house, which was the guest house. And then, at the top of this open field of rising ground, right at the top, was a rather futuristic sort of building that was the main house. We never slept in there or anything. In fact, we only got invited up there once.

TB: For dinner or something like that?

AP: I have to say, we were invited up there for [sighs] -- a solar barbeque.

TB: A solar barbeque?

AP: Yeah, we were all starving hungry, and Todd had bought a solar barbeque. It was supposed to be sun-powered. And, you know, after we waited for two hours, all we had were some lukewarm steaks. [laughs] It was a case of, "Right, let's just go and get a pizza in town," you know. It was some sort of weird fucking hippy idea of [mellow voice] "Wow, it's really healthy, the sun cooks your meat." And you could have fried it better if you'd laid it on the bonnet of a black car!

TB: [laughing] And fry some eggs on the sidewalk while you're at it!

AP: Exactly! You couldn't have done worse. That was the only time we ever got to go up to the house in all the time that we were there. It was very much his sanctuary -- you didn't get to go up there, you know.

TB: So let's talk about where this song came from in the first place.

AP: Do you know, I'm not really sure. I can seem to trace it back more to an intention than I can to one idea. I think the first musical idea that came was just the rolling -- the chords that became the title line at the start [imitates organ pattern that starts song]. You know, there's a nice roll to it. In fact, I think it's A and E, but the E is played in an inversion where the note of A-flat is on the bottom. So it doesn't seem to move too much -- it just seems to rock gently about.

That was the first musical thing that I found. And that suggested the melody, because it's [sings notes from verse] -- those notes are suggested in the chords. It almost fell out too easily, that first line. But I think the main inspiration, the kind of puppetmaster behind the intention to do the song like this, was hearing the Smiley Smile album on a trip up to London in Dave's car.

He said, "Do you want some music on, chaps?" We were going up to a meeting with Virgin, the three of us were in the car, and he put some music on, and I didn't ask what it was. We were sort of chatting away on the journey, and I was thinking, "Wow! This music's great." I could only half-hear it over the noise of the engine and the other cars on the motorway. Because it was not very loud -- we could talk over it, and the quiet passages didn't quite make it through the engine noise or the other cars' noise. I was really getting excited, thinking, "Wow, I wonder what record this is? It's great! All those holes in it, and those empty spaces." And I just had to say, "Dave, what is this? This is wonderful." And he said, "Oh, come on, you're joking. Don't muck me about." "No, no, I don't know what it is! What is it?" "Well, it's the Beach Boys. It's the album Smiley Smile." And I'd never heard a Beach Boys album.

TB: You'd only heard singles on the radio?

AP: I'd heard the singles on the radio, and loved them -- I mean, stuff like "I Get Around" is enormous for me. And "Good Vibrations," obviously. That was enormous for me as well. I bought "Bluebirds Over the Mountain" with my pocket money -- one of the first records I ever bought. But I had no concept that they'd had an album career. I hadn't heard a Beach Boys album -- this was the first time, and it was sort of half-grasped pieces of Smiley Smile.

And because I couldn't hear it all -- imagine trying to grasp what you're hearing if you're listening to this album for the first time, and it's barely audible. It was pretty dreamlike. I think I thought, "Well, if they can do something so symphonic and broken apart, and almost made out of edits" -- because, you know, you can hear edits almost every few bars on that album -- "then I'm going to write a song that sounds like it could have almost been edited every few bars." And that was the sort of big intention behind "Season Cycle." To write something that was -- not symphony-like, but had a lot of parts and holes and sections that were perhaps a little incongruous with each other.

TB: I might argue with you on that, though. I think the song holds together very well.

AP: I think it holds together well because we didn't use such disparate instrumentation, as the Beach Boys might have used. You know, they'd go for, like, four bars of organ, then it'd cut to a brass band playing, then it'd be four bars of guitar and drums, and then it'd cut to just a piano -- do you see what I mean?

TB: Yeah, sure.

AP: It was very disparate instrumentation. But this is the same instrumentation all the way through, so I think that's what the joining thread is. But there's a lot of bowing and taking off of hats to the Beach Boys in this track. But then the Beatles are as well.

TB: Did Todd intuit that, or did you talk to him about that? Because I thought I remember reading that he was the one who came up with a lot of the ideas for the backing vocals.

AP: No, in fact, if you hear the demo on Fuzzy Warbles, the backing vocals are pretty much all there. I think the biggest input he on that was the section "round and round and round" -- it was that descending chord section. We were playing it a little clumsily, and he said, "Why don't you try this chord instead of that one, I think you'll find that'll shift more easily." And it did, you know.

He actually stuck up for me on another section. It wasn't an argument, but I was getting into a bit of a horn's lock with Dave over the section, "Just to repaint summer, they're closing winter down," which is very dissonant. Dave was saying, "Whoa, you can't do that, the scale you're singing doesn't really go over the chord underneath." This has happened a couple of times with Dave in our career, because he likes things to lock in, while I like things that rub a little "ouch" at times, musically. But Todd stuck up for me, and said, "No, we should really do it the way that Andy wants it here, because that's much more exciting -- that dissonant scale over that chord is much more thrilling." He fought my corner on that one.

Do you know, playing it today, for the first time in ages, I thought to myself, "Well, is this my 'Autumn Almanac'?" Is this my song made up of lots of bits?

TB: You could make that argument. As I said, I think the song holds together quite well, but there is section after section after section -- it's quite a complicated song.

AP: But they were not sections from other songs, oddly enough.

TB: Which is what Ray did, right?

AP: Yeah, in "Autumn Almanac" there are about three or four songs nailed together. And you can kind of tell that. But in this one, all the pieces were brought up to be the next piece in the song. They weren't pillaged from other songs that didn't work, or anything like that.

TB: I think in a lot of ways this song was a turning point for you guys in terms of arrangement, because -- and please tell me what you think about this -- it strikes me as one of your more-complex vocal songs, and I think you guys tried to do more things like this after doing this one.

AP: Yeah, I think you might be right. It's sort of like permission to be more glorious. [laughs] I can't think of a better way of saying it, actually! Maybe it didn't come out right, but you know what I mean.

TB: [laughing] Yeah, you've talked about "widescreen moments" before and things like that, and I think you're using "glorious" now in the same kind of way -- you're describing how you're taking it up a notch.

AP: Yeah. It's a little more epic. You know, my favorite bit in it is the section "but to repaint summer, they're closing winter down." That's my favorite piece in the whole song, I think.

TB: Why? Because of the dissonance and the way it works?

AP: Yeah, I was really proud that it worked. The scale over the top of the thing doesn't quite go with the chords, but it makes a beautiful atmosphere.

TB: Are you singing with yourself on that? Because there are several vocal parts there.

AP: Yeah, I think so. I think that's me doubling up. But definitely Colin and Dave get to do a lot of the answering vocal lines on this song. You can hear their timbre quite distinctly. And today, as I was listening to it, I thought, "Hmmm, some of that tuning's a bit dicey!" But obviously we didn't have time to correct it, because Mr. Rundgren would hurry us on -- "Nope! That's good enough. Got to move on."

TB: [laughs] Well, he was getting paid a flat fee, right?

AP: He was getting paid a flat fee, so he couldn't hang around, you know? But he did a good job in corralling our maybe slightly flaccid arrangement. As I said, if you hear the demo, you can hear what I'm aiming for. I couldn't foresee the intro having an organ, though. I don't know where that idea came from. I think it was just a case of, he had a little sampler thing, like an emulator or something, and he said, "Oh, what do you think to these sounds, I just got these cards," and it was like these church organs, and I thought, "Whoa! That's beautiful. Oh yeah, try those chords on that organ sound." So that became the sound of that intro. It was just a case of, he had a new toy, and yeah, it did sound good.

Oh, and at 1 minute, 44 seconds, in the song, there's a mistake where the reverb that gets put on to the "there" vocals gets accidentally left on all over the drums. You can hear the bass drum going into this kind of enormous plate reverb, and he realizes after the first beat, "Oh, that's wrong," and he turns it off. You can hear the bass drum go bo-oom, and you can almost hear him going, "Jesus Christ!" and turning it off. [laughs] I think he'd mistakenly left it on, to soak the vocal, you know. He probably left it turned up on the drums by mistake.

TB: So that happened during the mix?

AP: Yeah, that was probably mix number three -- I don't think he would mix it any more times.

TB: Yeah, I remember -- you guys had to keep sending it back.

AP: I'd left him a book where I'd written loads and loads of notes of how I wanted each track mixed, because he really didn't want us there when he mixed. I didn't like that, and when Gus Dudgeon tried to do that on me, I wouldn't allow it. I thought, "I'm not having that again, I'm going to be there."

TB: Well, I mean, c'mon -- it's one of the most important parts of making an album.

AP: Oh yeah! You've bought the ingredients, and you've chopped them all up -- that's the recording -- and then you're gonna cook them. That's the mix! But we had to go back, time was running out, "Got your planes tickets booked, I don't want you guys here." So I made him a book -- I wonder if he's still got it? -- of notes on what I wanted on each track. A lot of abstract impressions of how things should go. For example, on "1,000 Umbrellas" I wanted all the rain water to go down a plug hole and spiral around, and I drew a sort of spiral with the music kind of going down into it. And did he actually did kind of achieve that on the song. You can hear that part where it spirals around like the rain water into a plug hole or something.

And yeah, I took a lot of stick...

TB: ...for the way you pronounce "umbilical."

AP: Yeah, for "um-bil-like-kul." But, you know, there's worse rhyme bends on the lyrics of Wizard of Oz, so... [laughs]

TB: Is it a British pronunciation?

AP: Well, no -- maybe in some rural areas, but usually it's "um-bill-lick-kul." But Christ, he took the piss out of me something wrong for that. You know, he'd be going around the studio doing a kind of nightclub thing, singing [Viv Stanshall-style smarmy lounge singer voice] "Um-bil-like-kul ... hope you're having a lovely time, ladies and gentlemen." You know, that kind of thing. And I must admit, he even got me doubting myself at the end of the track, because I'm kind of doing my Vegas outro -- "push it, push it, push it, YEAH!" I'm turning into junior Bobby Darrin on the fade.

TB: You guys really had different senses of humor, didn't you?

AP: Oh yeah. Do you know, he was the most sarcastic American I ever met. I didn't know American could do sarcasm like that. He was vicious! You know, he'd look down at you and kind of snigger, and say [petulant American voice], "Where'd you buy your jeans -- Russia?" And then, I'd say to him, "Yeah, same place you got all those Utopia clothes!" You know, all those feathered codpieces and things like that.

TB: [laughing] Exactly!

AP: And he got really upset when I said that! He said [quick American voice], "Well, what do you mean by that?" And I said, "Well, you know, those stupid outfits you wore in Utopia." [serious voice] "They're not stupid. I love them. I still have all of them now!" And he was quite serious. I'd touched a raw nerve there! [chuckles] Very smart bloke, though.

TB: Oh yeah. He's a smart guy. But he does have a reputation as a producer.

AP: Oh yeah -- I didn't know that until after we'd finished working with him. And then we meet other bands or other artists, and they'd say, "Oh, you know what he did with me? He did blah-blah-blah, and I hated it." And we'd say, "Yeah! He did that with us, too!" I'll tell you where his strength really lay, is arranging. He can arrange anything up the wazoo, really quick. I wouldn't say he's a great engineer, because he's not, but he's a fantastic arranger.

TB: And looking back on him now as a producer, do you think he got things out of you that you wouldn't have done otherwise?

AP: Oh yeah. And it was probably at the right time, because Virgin was saying, "Unless you get an American producer, who can find some other side of you, you're not going to sell in the States, and we're going to drop you, because you're not selling."

TB: The Big Express had not done well, right?

AP: Big Express had done very poorly. In fact, the Dukes sold more than The Big Express. 25 O'Clock sold more. I think The Big Express probably sold about 30,000, something like that, and I think 25 O'Clock probably sold about 90,000 at the time. So we were under strict instructions -- well, I was under strict instructions -- to behave and be produced, you know.

TB: Going back to who's playing what on this -- you're playing guitar?

AP: That's me chucking away on electric guitar. Dave plays piano and organ.

TB: There's not much bass on the demo. Colin came up with his part, then?

AP:I think he's kind of playing almost all you can do, if you know what I mean. Because there are so many chords hinted at and passed through that he really just has to hold it down.

TB: He and I did an interview a while ago, and he told me he prefers to add the bass after the other instruments are done.

AP: Yeah. On earlier material, he liked to play live.

TB: But once you guys became a studio-only band, he wanted to add the bass part last because it allowed him to find the most appropriate places to place the notes.

AP: Yeah, I think he heard that McCartney did that. I think that, after '66, McCartney put his bass on later. Colin probably thought, "I wonder why?" Then, "Oh, I know why! He can feel out the most appropriate things to play."

TB: It's obvious where the kick drum is, and all that.

AP: Yep. You know, I do that, too, when I demo stuff. I don't put the bass on first with the drums. It's always the main-spine instrument of the song, and then some sort of drums or percussion, and then later -- after the vocals are on -- you can see exactly where you need to place those bass things.

TB: Really? Even after you do the vocals?

AP: Oh yeah. The last thing, usually. And it was usually the last thing on our later records.

TB: I thought it would be the last part of the instrumental process, but vocals would be last.

AP: No no no. Once you get the song in place, you can really see -- because a lot of bass players tend to overplay. But I don't think Colin was ever guilty of that. Certainly on the later material, he would hear the whole song in existence, and could choose just where to play and what to play, as opposed to that kind of dizzy, "Oh, I better fill it all up, because it's just me and the drums."

TB: Speaking of drums, finally, there's Prairie Prince, the "time bomb."

AP: Yeah, he does a grand job exploding on this. We were told not to credit him with being drummer as such -- there was something about how Todd had had some shit with the unions, about foreign artists and American musicians. I can't remember the whole story -- maybe Dave can remember better than me, but it was something about rates of pay, or certain privileges. It was the same thing with Pat Mastelotto [drummer on Oranges and Lemons], which is why he's credited with "traps." We couldn't directly say that Prairie Prince was the drummer on Skylarking, so we credited him as the "time bomb."

6:35 PM

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