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Last Updated:
Mar 15, 2007

Sunday, May 06, 2007


Andy discusses 'Ladybird'

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, "Ladybird", is from 1983's Mummer.

Note: Due to life's little (and big) demands, we'll be taking some time off in the coming month. Look for an interview every two weeks or so. There's always Monstrance to listen to in the meantime!

TB: Let's talk about "Ladybird."

AP: The idea for Ladybird -- now you're going to laugh here -- I was in a German hotel ...

TB: Tied up, with a large woman disciplining you...

AP: [laughs] And I ran out of money for the vibrating bed! Actually, that was the tour where I think I discovered the vibrating bed. But it's really difficult to lift the vibrating bed up and apply it to the point needed!

But anyway, I was in this German hotel out in the middle of nowhere, and I had a few hours to kill before whatever it was -- the gig, or some radio station, or an interview -- and I noticed that the room had patio doors that led out to a tiny garden area. It was pouring with rain, and the garden was very overgrown, so it was quite magical -- it was just a big green mess out there, with rain dripping through it. I opened the doors, and just looked out. I was feeling kind of musical, and I thought, "This is kind of inspiring, there's something out here that I can write about." And there was a little spider. I thought, "No, I can't write about a spider."

So I thought, "Maybe I'll make it a ladybird!" I also thought that because of the different-sex connotation -- after all, I could be talking to a woman. I wouldn't really be talking to an insect -- I'm not quite Jonathan Richman. So that's where it came out -- trying to kill a little time, looking at the garden at this German hotel.

TB: And then you went back in the room and played guitar, or what?

AP: No, I just literally wrote a few words down in a book.

TB: So, it wasn't even close to the finished version at that point.

AP: No, there wasn't even a musical aspect to it. I didn't have a guitar with me. It was just idea that I should write a song that is just loosely related to the nursery rhyme, and I liked the idea that it could be me talking to a female. It wasn't until I got back and started finding out how to work my brand-new Tascam 4-track Portastudio -- brand new!

TB: State of the art, right?

AP: Yeah, it cost about £1,100, I think. It was the first thing I could really multi-track on at home, and it was so exciting. I put down a very primitive version of the finished song, which is on Fuzzy Warbles.

TB: You wrote the songs for Mummer after you had decided that you were well and done with touring.

AP: I was sick and tired of touring. I didn't know a lot of the physical problems were caused by my continuous addiction to Valium, and the subsequent dead stopping of that.

TB: The withdrawal must have been bad.

AP: Oh, I knew nothing about withdrawal, I knew nothing about Valium addiction, I just knew that I had to take that stuff every day. You know, every mealtime I'd be putting handfuls of that stuff in. I had no concept that I was addicted to it. And, of course, after 13 years of that, you should not stop dead, but I didn't know that. It frightened me, because I didn't know what was going on! All I knew was, I was getting amnesia, I was getting these things where I couldn't move my limbs properly, I was getting panic attacks, I was getting dizzy -- I was going through some sort of weird meltdown, you know?

TB: Well, you were going through chemical withdrawal.

AP: Yeah! Horrible, because, as unattractive as it sounds, I'd been a childhood addict!

TB: The thing is, that wasn't that uncommon back then.

AP: That's right. "Oh, he's upset that his mother's been taken away to a mental institution -- stick him on Valium." And there I remained.

TB: With no guidance on how to take it.

AP: No guidance on how to take it, or stop it, or -- "Oh, he's got to have a repeat prescription of Valium." I just assumed that I had to take that stuff for the rest of my life, and never knew anything about it, you know?

TB: What prompted Marianne to flush them down the toilet one day?

AP: I think she had the willies about it, and thought I was addicted to the stuff, whereas I had no clue. We were in Los Angeles, in the Tropicana Hotel -- which is a really disgracefully grimy rock-and-roll hotel -- and I went out drinking after a gig. She emptied my big industrial-size pot down the lavatory, and flushed them all away.

I came back very drunk, and asked, "Where're my tablets?" "Oh, I flushed them all down." "Ah, you stupid bitch!" And I actually freaked out momentarily. I was incredibly drunk, and it was the only time in my career, I shamefully have to admit, that I smashed a hotel up. I was just so angry that she had just decided to take my chemical crutch away from me. And I must have been just gigging too hard -- mix that with being very, very drunk as well, and you have some shameful behavior.

TB: Oh yeah, everything comes together.

AP: Everything came together, and I smashed a load of furniture up in the room. That's the only time I've done anything like that. I'm not proud of that, but hey, you've got to try it once.

TB: You can't call yourself a rock star without doing it once.

AP: Yeah, I'm almost in the Moon club. [laughs] But I'll tell you what, it was such a bad hotel, they probably should have paid me for room improvement! The place looked better without that furniture.

TB: [laughing] Exactly. So, what happened when you got back home?

AP: I was going for hypnotherapy, I was having tests to see if I had ulcers -- because I was having these terrible pains in my stomach -- that were all brought on by withdrawal! And I never even began to address why I had these amnesia attacks where I couldn't remember who I was, or what I was doing. Thankfully I never had too many of those.

TB: You'd wake up with those?

AP: No, in one of them -- I've actually mentioned this before to a couple of people -- we were traveling around the States in this little seated van, and we were somewhere like upstate New York, with very heavy snow. We were traveling along quite slowly, and I said, "I really need to pee." I jumped out of the van and wandered into this field, and was pissing in this snow, up to my knees, and I thought, "Who am I? Who the hell am I, and what am I doing in this field?" And just got back in the van, not knowing who I was.

TB: And you just kept your mouth shut, and waited it out?

AP: I remember laying on the seat in the back of the van in a fetal position, sobbing quietly, not knowing who the hell I was.

TB: Ah, the glamorous life of the rock star, eh? There you are, sobbing quietly in a fetal position in the back of a van -- good times, good times.

AP: [laughs] It gets to you! I read something about Kurt Cobain once, how someone found him sobbing in a fetal position in a dressing room, and a little tear came to my eye. I thought, "Shit, I know what he's going through!" You do these big long tours, and you just get exhausted.

TB: People keep beating you up about playing again, and they seem to forget this kind of stuff. Robert Fripp talks about the whole vampiric relationship between the performer and the fan, and because he refuses to play the game, he's seen as a difficult person. But he refuses to let the fans suck the lifeblood out of him. It's got to be emotionally and mentally draining to do this day after day after day.

AP: It really is, I can vouch for that. I could take about five years of it, and then I was empty. In every way. Completely empty. I tell people, if I hadn't stopped touring, I think I would have wanted to give music up completely. Because I was that empty -- that worn out.

So yeah -- the good thing was, we'd saved up a little money, because we didn't have to pay rent where we were living. It was a derelict shop that was attached to a little sign-works place.

TB: That her mom and dad owned, right?

AP: Yeah. Part of the property was this derelict shop with a couple of rooms over it at the top. They let us live there rent-free, and of course in that time, we could save up my PRS money, because I wasn't making publishing money, and I certainly wasn't making recording money.

I'd saved up enough to put down a deposit on a house, which is the house I'm still living in now. I had a garden for the first time, so I sat in the garden of this house, in some old cane furniture that I think was left here by the people who were here before, strumming away on an acoustic guitar, and finishing off a lot of ideas for songs.

TB: And that's where "Ladybird" was really completed?

AP: "Ladybird" was really tweaked to perfection in the back garden, pretty much.

TB: So, the song was written on acoustic guitar.

AP: And then transposed to a piano, because I thought a piano would have just a little more gravitas, I think. And it was also a great blend with a brushes on the drums-- we were so fortunate that Pete Phipps was a drummer who could not only tub-thump with the best of them, but he had a great, light jazz touch as well.

I don't know what Terry could have drummed for this song, because Terry just had no jazz chops at all. He was Mr. Rock Rock Rock.

TB: That's a good point. I can actually think of some patterns that he might have played, but I don't think they would have been as effective.

AP: Yeah, probably he would have, in some way, imitated that programmed drum machine of the demo, and done it with a bit of Terry flair, but it wouldn't have been as satisfying as the jazz-brush feel it ended up with.

TB: I could see him playing with those sticks made up of little dowels...

AP: Yeah yeah yeah, what do you call those?

TB: They have different names, but ProMark calls them "Hot Rods."

AP: They're little fasces, aren't they? You know -- the Fascist symbol. Little bundles of sticks.

TB: [laughing] Yeah, that's right! That's essentially what they are.

AP: Except with the Fascist symbol, the bundle of sticks was around an ax -- the idea being that the bundle of sticks is tougher to break than one.

TB: Exactly. The power of the Corporation -- which still has power over us.

I could see Terry doing something like [sings pattern with snare hits on "two-and"]

AP: Yeah, it would have been more like the sort of thing he does on "Ball and Chain" -- which would have been a little too heavy, I think.

TB: Colin's playing his Newport bass, right?

AP: Yeah. I said, "Seeing how we're going in a jazz direction on this, let's get that Newport and make it sound as much as we can like an upright bass." It's got this sort of damaged felt mute that lifts up under the bridge. Colin put that into place, and we put a little chorusing on it, I think, and there you go. It's an ersatz upright bass.

I'm strumming acoustic on the recording. I think Dave does the guitar in the bridge that, almost George Harrison-like, follows what's being sung. I'm doing the acoustic, and I also do the kind of chiming guitar that's from the middle onwards. Quite heavily chorused.

I quite like Dave's sort of Magical Mystery Tour ending, with the twinkly piano. He plays great piano throughout the song. And he says he's not a good piano player.

TB: It's nonsense. He's a great keyboard player.

AP: He's very, very tasteful, and he always used to put himself down, because he wanted to be known as a "dig in and wail" guitar player, but hell, he was a really tasteful keyboard player. Still is, damn his eyes.

I was also very fond of the triangular guitar and vocal in the intro and middle -- the [sings pattern] -- because it's all triplets, you know. That's me singing and playing with it.

Do you know, I think this song is very related to "Humble Daisy."

TB: I can see that.

AP: You could almost butt the two of them up together, and they could become one thing.

TB: Musically that's true, but also lyrically -- they're both a naturalistic view of the world, and love -- it's an organic view of love.

AP: Yeah, it's a sort of an organic, summery sound. There is a fake theramin on this track -- when we sing "gonnnne." It answers that two-note phrase. We did it with the Prophet 5, and its pitch wheel. We just found a really nice little sine wave tone, and pitched it up.

That is the Steve Nye mix that we used. Steve Nye's mixes were very gentle, and for some songs were very unspectacular, and we really had to remix some stuff.

TB: I've always wondered about that, because Mummer seems like a patchwork in some ways.

AP: Yeah, it's because the majority of it was recorded by Steve Nye, who also mixed everything, but we only used a few of his mixes -- more the ones that were sort of organically glued together. Other tracks that needed stronger mixes we did with Alex Sadkin and Phil Thornally. And we also did some re-recording, for "Great Fire," with Bob Sargeant. I think we did "Gold" with him as well. We did "Toys" with Glenn Tommey, a studio engineer from Crescent Studios, and I think we mixed "Desert Island" with him as well. So yes, it is a bit of a patchwork record.

But Steve Nye's mix of "Ladybird" was just right. I don't think it needed bettering, if you see what I mean. We also used his mixes for "Beating of Hearts," "Love on a Farmboy's Wages," "In Loving Memory of a Name," and "Me and the Wind."

TB: What else about this song?

AP: The mid-section of this song, I thought sounded rather Beatle-y, but I was encouraged by Steve Nye -- "Oh, let it go! Of course it sounds a bit like the Beatles! What's wrong with that? They're fucking brilliant." And, do you know, I thought to myself, "He's right! What's wrong with sounding a bit like the Beatles?" So I let it go. I didn't try to change it or consciously take it away from the Beatles, and I think that's the first time in my musical history that I didn't worry about something coming out a little Beatle-y. It was just, "Oh, why not? They're such an enormous influence, it's stupid to keep trying to hide it, or be conscious of it. Just let it go." So I remember that -- it was kind of a turning point for me.

TB: What would you say reminds you of the Beatles in that part? Is it because it suddenly gets really big and positive there, as it tended to do when Lennon and McCartney were writing each other's bridges?

AP: Possibly -- because the gear kind of switches, in a way. And also, the instrumentation -- you get that chunking guitar that comes in, and it get more sort of trompy, almost like "Got to Get You into My Life" or something. But it was definitely a turning point for me. That part of that song was a little "crossing the Rubicon" moment for me.

TB: How about the vocals?

AP: I'm doing most of the harmonizing with myself. I just wanted it to fit really close -- glove-like, you know.

TB: Were there ever any bad feelings created when you would say, "No, I'm going to sing my own harmonies on this song"?

AP: I don't know. Colin never expressed any disgust or anything, but I must say that, later on -- and I don't know if it was Colin's way of getting back at me for doing this over the years -- he kind of locked me out of doing a lot of the things on Wasp Star, where he wanted to finish them, and I wasn't invited to join in, if you see what I mean. So much so that during the recording of Apple Venus I took myself off to New York -- I figured, "Well, I'll go have a holiday and see Erica," because Colin wanted to play pretty much everything on "Fruit Nut" -- him and Dave were working it up. So I thought, "I'll take a couple of weeks out then, and Colin can do that."

I don't think there were bad feelings, but maybe there were. Maybe that's why Colin wanted to take more control of his own tracks.

TB: Obviously when you guys were playing live, you'd have him sing the harmonies on your songs, because you were setting it up to be played live.

AP: Really, I wouldn't do anything out of ego in the studio -- it was for the required tone. If I wanted something contrary to my tone, I'd employ Colin to sing either an answer line, or a different line, or to harmonize, and it was a different tone to mine. Or if I wanted I a high, light, airy tone, I'd ask Gregsy. You know, it was really a choice of whatever color was needed. And if I wanted something to be a carbon copy of my voice, following it exactly, I'd use my voice. There was no, "Ooh, I'm not going to let so-and-so sing on this track." It was, "Is their voice the right tone for what I need?"

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