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Last Updated:
Mar 15, 2007

Sunday, April 29, 2007


Andy discusses 'We're All Light'

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, "We're All Light," is from 2000's Wasp Star (Apple Venus, Vol. 2).

TB: Let's talk about one of my favorite recent songs of yours -- "We're All Light." When I first heard it, I thought it was one of your more modern-sounding songs -- I don't mean that in a disparaging way. I guess what I mean is, it's kind of got a hip-hop flavor to it. Is that something you were thinking of when you wrote it?

AP: Yeah, I wanted something that was really kind of jolly and dancey, and I wanted the rhythm to be somewhere between a syncopated '20s rhythm and a kind of hip-hop rhythm. You know, that kind of [imitates fast shuffle beat] -- almost like a big-band syncopated thing.

TB: And you were listening to a lot of that music back then, right?

AP: Yeah, I really was! I mean, 1920s music makes me really happy, in any case, so I think I was in a happy place when I was writing this. But the actual idea for this song sprang from just scrubbing away on the guitar, in a very high, George Formby-esque way. [laughs] George Formby, for those who don't know, was a huge star in England in the '20s, '30s, and '40s. He played a banjolele, a four-stringed tiny banjo, and he sang these very risque songs. In fact, he was banned by the BBC because some of them were so risque. But he had this great way of playing, this really rhythmic right-hand technique of strumming. So [chuckling] I was sat down imitating George Formby, playing very high up on the guitar, and I thought, "Wow, I can get a great rhythm up here!"

TB: So that's how the song started, on guitar?

AP: Yeah, it was just the delight of going [imitates fast strumming pattern], you know -- just making this really scrubby kind of washboard rhythm. And I thought, "Ooh, let me add a drum part that has four beats in the bar, but sort of falls heavily on half that time."

And to make it more syncopated, I took some little screwed up drum sound, and did this little syncopated clocking sound in between the beats. That was on the demo, but when we did the actual recording, I got Chuck Sabo to tune a little snare drum really, really high, and take the snare wires off. He played it almost like a little bongo or something.

TB: Yeah, and that really constitutes the ride, from the drum perspective.

AP: Yeah, it's that against the more straight beat in the drumming. It locked in with the Formby scrubbing octave rhythm guitar.

But the song itself came from the joy of making something that was a great rhythmic "chunk." I just started to ramble over the top. I was thinking about the phrase, "We're all light," and I just seemed to settle on that.

TB: Why were you thinking of that phrase to begin with? What prompted that?

AP: Do you know, I've no idea! Perhaps it was just the joy of wriggling around the Shed, playing that rhythm with the drums banging away.

TB: The unbearable lightness of playing that groove.

AP: The unbearable lightness of beans. [laughs] Yeah, it was just the joy of shaking my middle-aged ass piece there, my middle-aged tail feather, and just sort of blathering to myself. I was kind of chatting myself up, giving myself all these lame chat-up lines -- you know, the sort of interesting stuff you say at dinner parties or whatever -- "Do you know, the stuff inside you was once inside of a star?" Or, "Did you know your mammalian ancestors ate the eggs of dinosaurs and helped kill them off?" All that sort of [sardonically] "how interesting" kind of stuff.

But weirdly, I'm very proud of the lyrics. They just started off as gibberish, but I worked them through, and tweaked them, and I think it's actually one of my better lyrics. Because of the alliteration -- and because they're kind of truthful, you know? In a blink, in terms of the universe, you're stuff that was in a star, and now you work for some corporation, and you're in some posh building, and they're paging you, and you're in reception. Yet five minutes ago, in the universe's life span, you were a piece of star cough.

But I was really proud of the alliteration, and the way it rolls off the tongue. You know, stuff like "Buffalo Billion" -- rhyming that with -- what did I rhyme that with? [laughs]

TB: "Upon the pillion of Time's bike / We roar on to the stage / and too soon we're dead centre."

AP: Yeah -- I don't know, I was really proud of those lines.

TB: What is a pillion?

AP: A pillion is when you ride on the saddle behind somebody -- you're riding pillion behind them. So, Time is riding his motorbike, and you're there behind him on the saddle, and there on the stage of life, you get into the dead center, but there's Buffalo Bill picking off all the herd. There's something in life that's going to be picking off people just when they come to realize what it's all about, you know?

TB: And then the whole cycle starts again.

AP: Exactly. And don't you know that I just cannot stop writing songs about the life cycle!

TB: [laughs] I was going to say, especially on these two albums. It's all over them.

AP: Absolutely.

TB: The nice thing about this, too, is the bridge -- the "I won't take from you / what you can't take from me" part -- there's a cycle there, too. You're talking about the life cycle, but you're also talking about the fact that two people together create their own little cycle.

AP: Yeah, and it's wrong to take from somebody else more than they take from you. Because then you end up exploiting them, and it's not a balanced relationship. The older I get, I'm not interested in right-wing or left-wing -- gimme that middle of the road! That's the safest place, in the middle.

It's a balanced view of things -- I try to see the balance in everything now. I think that's a kind of a healthy Yin Yang thing.

TB: The Golden Mean.

AP: Yeah. Rather than, "Oh, it's all black" or "No, it's all white" -- no it's not!

TB: It's billions of shades of gray.

AP: Yeah, right down the middle there.

TB: So, after you had the guitar and drum part down, that's when you started writing lyrics?

AP: Yeah, pretty much. But I tinkered with them for ages until I got it exactly how I wanted them. I'll tell you, finding all those rhymes for "illion" is not easy!

TB: [laughs] That's interesting, because having seen your notebooks before, it doesn't seem like you do a lot of revising. It seems as if you write lyrics fairly clean.

AP: Yeah, fairly clean, but I scratch stuff on scraps of paper even before it goes in the notebooks sometimes. Sometimes I'll just write long lists of rhymes on bits of paper. Like "illion" -- Judy Sillion ... wait until yon ... Jack and Jillion -- you know, all the combinations you could possibly use, and then I pick the ones that I really like. In fact, I've done it again with a song I'm working on at the moment, called "Let's Make Everything Love." There are some great good/bad rhymes in it that would make the Wizard of Oz lyricists jealous.

TB: The other thing that strikes me about this song is that the vocals are particularly layered and big and lush.

AP: Yeah, it's the attempt to make things big. You know at the end, where it climbs up and says, "Weeee're alllll liiiight"? I really tried to make the light go on at that point, you know? You've had all these little stars sort of popping off all the way through the track, with harmonies and stuff, but at that point, that's when somebody opens the shutters and the sunlight comes bursting in, you know? It's as if there are so many colors, and so many rays of light in that note. I quite like that moment.

TB: Tell me about that little rap you do at the end.

AP: Oh -- I don't think that was there until I was just dicking around on the fade-out of the demo, and I started singing to myself, "You know where you itch is a little tiny switch" -- and it just all fell out, without me being conscious of it. I mean, it's just all filth, really.

TB: The stuff just poured out.

AP: Yeah! [laughs] I mean, what poured out? Light? Let's leave it at that.

But, thinking about this song, it was one of those demos that, when I'd finished it, I felt terribly guilty, because there wasn't that much for Dave and Colin to really add, or for Mr. Producer to find too much of a way in there. It was just, "Okay, make that, but with better-quality recording."

TB: So, what did change between the two things? Obviously, you had Chuck there.

AP: Oh yeah, the live drums were great. Chuck Sabo does have a good feel.

TB: Yeah -- it's very loose and tight at the same time.

AP: Yeah. How he does it, I don't know.

TB: What did you say to Chuck when you were telling him what you wanted from him on this track?

AP: I have him a few little key words. I said, "Think of a disco propulsion, and any little pushes or pulls in there, think like the Wailers." Because there was something about their rhythms -- especially the Catch a Fire album, or the Burnin' album -- those early Island records.

Actually, when we recorded Chuck for this, I seem to remember that we may have actually slightly quantized his playing. Or, we took several bars that were really good and just dropped in all the rolls and the push-pulls from his live track, if you see what I mean.

TB: I know on this album you guys really tried to take advantage of the digital possibilities.

AP: Yeah, and I wouldn't do that again. For me, doing the Wasp Star album was the apogee of mechanical. The two most mechanical records we've ever done, really, have been Wasp Star and Oranges and Lemons.

TB: I guess I can see that too -- Oranges and Lemons was the first time you had an automated mixing board, correct?

AP: And it was also the first time that we got into the possibility of mechanical sequencing. We touched on it lightly with some of the bits on Skylarking, like some of the machinery noises for "Meeting Place," or the sequencing of insect noises for "Summer's Cauldron." But that was quite light for anything mechanical, you know. But by the time we got to Oranges and Lemons, it was like, "Wow, you mean, we could play this, or we could do it mechanically?" We also touched on bits with Big Express as well, but that was just Linn Drum. Nothing else was mechanized.

TB: Were you looking at that as something that would free you and provide you with a consistent canvas that you could then put down your own live playing on, that you could contrast it against?

AP: I think it's more a case of, "I want to make this as solid as possible in the arena, but I still want it to have life." Because, let's be honest, a lot of mechanical things are not dead -- they kind of have a preserved, freeze-dried beauty. The trick is, if you want to use mechanical things, you've got to have enough humanity with it -- and hopefully we got the balance about right with Wasp Star. But from then, I became uninterested in anything mechanical. You know, my next lot of recordings will not be mechanical. They will be anti-mechanical.

TB: And Monstrance is a great example of that.

AP: It was great to, "Oh, let's undo the belt and braces, kick off the shoes, and just go real -- mistakes and all."

I think I felt as if a lot of the songs on Wasp Star needed to be armored for doing battle with modern-day perceptions of things. Because people's perceptions of what's acceptable or not have gotten very rigid. Their palates have been really trained to expect -- they don't know it's mechanical, but their tastes are tuned to the mechanical, because most of the music they hear on the radio is mechanical.

TB: It's interesting you say this, because there was a discussion on Chalkhills not too long ago about how mechanized things have gotten, and the prevalence of the autotuner in vocals nowadays.

AP: Autotuner! We've never used one.

TB: I didn't think you ever did.

AP: We tried it -- on one word on "Easter Theatre," and I didn't like it.

TB: You can definitely hear when someone applies that effect.

AP: I turn on the radio now, and I can hear it all over stuff!

TB: Oh yeah! It sounds like the person's voice is a keyboard, almost.

AP: Yeah, everyone's turning into Cher! These weird robot Barbie people or something.

So, I wouldn't go any more mechanical than Wasp Star -- that, for me, whichever way you think of it, was either the pinnacle or nadir of mechanical.

TB: So what would you say were some other differences between the demo and studio versions?

AP: Just much better performed. I wanted Colin to play my bass line, because we couldn't come up with anything better than [sings pattern] -- which, again, was like a piece of cod Bob Marley and the Wailers. It's like the bass line for "I Shot the Sheriff" [sings that bass line] -- you know, there are lots of holes in it, and it's like the bass is in conversation with the hi-hat. And I love that, I've always loved that -- where the bass is talking to the hi-hat just as much as it's talking to the bass drum.

I found this little figure where you form a chord on the bass, and drag the plectrum back across it. You know, the little one-two-three figure is the constant, and then you have different little pieces that connect to it each time.

Have you noticed that he switches to a different bass guitar in the middle section? He switches to the Newport, because we wanted a more upright-bass sound.

TB: Now that you mention it, I do know what you're talking about, but I didn't think he physically switched basses. Was anything different in the guitars, between the demo and studio?

AP: Yeah, we added a very distorted guitar being turned on and off with the pickup selector. It's just like a rhythmic grunt. You know, you hit the chord, and you just turn it on and off in time with the music.

Oh, and there's a guitar with a microphone on it, using more of the actual acoustic string blend from an electric guitar. It goes very, very thin on the guitar there -- that's because we've turned down the electrical side of the electric guitar, and we've let the little microphone about a half-inch away from the strings come up in the mix, so it sounds like a very thin, small, almost like a little toy electric guitar.

TB: Right, plus there's a percussive quality to it, because you can actually hear the pick hitting the strings.

AP: You can hear the pick hitting the strings, which you don't hear down the pickups.

TB: How about keyboards?

AP: There's the little almost-Terry Riley continuous keyboard!

TB: Exactly. And the faux theramin, too.

AP: Yep, yep. Actually, it's a real theramin! It's a sample of a real theramin. And at the end, I get to play lead, I get to play a Keith Emerson-esque, or Mike Ratledge-esque organ break.

TB: Oh, that's you playing that!

AP: Yeah. Except we didn't know which take to keep, so we put both of them in. [laughs] It's me playing TWO ORGANS AT ONCE! I'm Rick Wakeman momentarily! And then at some point -- see if you can spot it -- both of them flip backwards. Both of the organs are flipped in reverse, so the second half of the solo is the first half of the solo, backwards.

TB: You and I talked a long time ago about the singles for this album, and I remember saying to you that I thought this song was a strong contender to be a single, because it seems so radio-friendly. You told me then that you really wanted "Stupidly Happy" as a single, but TVT had determined that "I'm the Man Who Murdered Love" should be the single, according to their audience testing.

AP: And that was it. What happened was, they really didn't get enough takers, enough channels playing it -- enough Clear Channels playing it! -- for it to be a real big-amounts-pressed-up single.

I actually thought "Stupidly Happy" and "We're All Light" were much preferable as singles. "I'm the Man Who Murdered Love" is the safest option. To be truthful, it's almost a complete closure of XTC's career, because "The Man Who Murdered Love" is not too different in form from, say, something like "Statue of Liberty." You know, it's a pretty straight pop song -- quite percussive, quite blocky, quite basic. And the melodies are not a million miles separate. [sings] "Ohhhh, my statue of liberty" ... "Iiiii'm the man who murdered love" ... "statue of liberty."

TB: [laughing] Now I'm always going to hear that! [sings] "Iiiiii'm the man who murdered love / Statue of liberty"!

AP: [laughing] Exactly! They're first cousins.

TB: Well, they are both your children, right?

AP: Yeah, they're both my kids. They're out of the same seed box, so what are you going to do?

10:33 PM

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