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Last Updated:
Jun 28, 2007

Sunday, July 08, 2007


Andy discusses 'Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her, Kiss Her'

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, "Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her, Kiss Her," is from 1984's The Big Express.

NOTE: Seems these interviews are turning into a biweekly event, and from what I've heard from a number of readers, this is not necessarily a Bad Thing, given the general lack of free time amongst a busy fan base. We'll be back with on the 22nd of July, for some mid-month madness from XTC's early daze. Remember, there's always Monstrance to listen to in the meantime!

TB: So, let's talk about yet another one of my favorite songs of yours, "Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her, Kiss Her." First thing I've got to do is ask you a question that a friend of mine posed. He's an avid bird watcher and protector...

AP: [laughs] You're not going to ask me what sort of seagull it is?

TB: [laughing] No, he wants to know about the role of bird imagery in your music, because there seems to be quite a bit of it, and he wanted to know why that is. You know, you have Skylarking, you have "Rook," you have this song...

AP: They're one of those forms of life that are just everywhere. You know, I sit in my kitchen, and they're wandering around on the skylights. Or I'm sat here at the computer, and four or five feet away, every 10 minutes, there's a blackbird with a mouthful of worms flying into the nest right next to the window and feeding its young.

One of the most appealing sounds is birdsong. They're all over my demos, because the Shed is not soundproofed! You can't hear them because of the other sounds, but if you isolate the tracks you can hear them.

TB: Do birds represent any particular thing to you? Do they represent freedom, or...

AP: Well, they represent a lot of things. They represent dreams, because you imagine yourself as a bird flying over the town, for instance. Or being carried up by a bird in some way -- that's like "Rook," you know. Or Skylarking, the skylark -- which is almost extinct now in England -- is such a representation of the freedom and joy of a summer's day out in the fields. It was also a Navy term for messing about in the rigging -- or "frigging in the rigging," as the song would have it! If I was messing around, my father, an ex-sailor, would say to me, "Hey, cut out your skylarking!" So, that's why that album was called Skylarking -- it's just us messing around.

TB: And there's "Liarbird," of course.

AP: It's a lyrebird, yep. It's spelled differently, that's the pun, arf, arf. "Cheap puns are us." So yeah, there's quite a bit of bird imagery. Maybe my mother was frightened by an archaeopteryx when I was in the womb! [laughs]

Actually, there used to be a woman who lived next door to us when I was a kid, who was so petrified of feathers -- if a bird came near her, or entered her garden when she was hanging out the washing, she would run screaming. If you showed her a feather, she would just freak right out, she had such a bird phobia.

I was just puzzled by this. She'd scream and throw her washing basket down and run away if a blackbird came. I thought, "What's she afraid of? Is she afraid it's going to peck off her nose?" You know, in the words of the nursery rhyme.

TB: Exactly. Maybe she'd been watching too much Alfred Hitchcock, or reading too much Du Maurier...

AP: [laughs] Yeah. Well, you know, birds are the last surviving relatives of the dinosaurs, aren't they. Pluck all those feathers off, and you've got a little dinosaur there.

Yeah, there's quite a bit of bird imagery. But then again, there's lots of sea imagery. And this is a song where they come together. In fact [German mad-scientist voice], let me pull out my notes, Herr Bernhardt!

I've just got a load of random stuff written here, so I'll just dive in. This was my first keyboard composition using more than one figure at the same time. [laughs] I know that sounds laughable, but before then I'd had written a few things on keyboard, but I'd only done them one note at a time.

TB: Such as...?

AP: "Bushman President." You know, it was all done on a monophonic instrument, with the index finger. Or "Somnambulist." That was all monophonic, single lines.

TB: So, the more atmosphere, avant-garde stuff.

AP: Well, I guess our early keyboard stuff. If it was me writing it, it had to be monophonic, because I couldn't get the concept of the two hands obeying, you know. It was too much to think about, for some reason.

TB: So, for example, we were talking about "No Language in Our Lungs," and there's that crazy keyboard part during the bridge -- was that something you wrote? I'd always assumed that it was something that Dave had added to the arrangement, since he was the keyboard player.

AP: I can't remember how it came up. We would talk about a lot of stuff in rehearsals, and say, "Well, we need something to sort of lift that piece there -- a little counter-melody, or whatever." We always had this little monophonic Korg keyboard standing by -- it was the "goofy noise generator," you know. I think Colin's still got it, actually. It's a lovely little thing, a real museum piece now. And then later on, we treated ourselves to a Prophet-5, which could play five notes at the same time!

But, at some point, Dave said, "Look, we've got to get a Mellotron for Mummer." He noticed that there was one was for sale, and the band bought this Mellotron to do Mummer with. You can hear it all over that album.

TB: Oh, sure, yeah. "Deliver Us from the Elements."

AP: And "Human Alchemy." It's all over. We can't wait to get Psychedelic, basically. And the Mellotron is the psychedelic sound machine.

TB: It's interesting to hear you say that, because on those two albums -- Mummer and Big Express -- I thought you guys were creating a new niche that I thought of as "Prog-Pop." What you guys saw as Psychedelic elements, I saw as Progressive, because the Mellotron is all over early Genesis and Yes and King Crimson. I guess it all depends on your point of view.

AP: Yeah, the Proggers tended to have longer, more involved things, with more passages in them, whereas I was still very much a fan of the succinct Pop format. It's like a tennis court, or something. "We're going to play tennis, and it's going to be on that-sized court." We could go to a football field, or an airfield, but that might be a bit stupid, because it would break the tension of the game, which has to do with the size of the place you're in.

TB: Right. It increases your focus.

AP: Absolutely. That's why table tennis is so damn manic!

So yeah, we had a Mellotron, and we finished the Mummer album, and I said "Bagsy the Mellotron!" Do you have that phrase in America?

TB: No. Bagsy?

AP: Yeah. That means, "I'd like that! Gimme that."

TB: Oh, so like "Dibs!"

AP: Yeah. "I got first dibs on the Mellotron." I had a house then -- in fact, the house I'm in now. So, I wrestled the bloody thing up the stairs...

TB: Don't tell me you got that in your attic!

AP: No, not in the attic! It went in the back bedroom, which was empty at the time. It just had one little washbasin in the corner, on which the tap dripped all the time. I remember coming up with "Seagulls" in that back bedroom, with the Mellotron on the bare floorboards and the old dripping basin going there.

It was very, very inspiring to sit and struggle with this thing. And I found that I could actually manipulate three fingers at once! Two on one hand and one on the other hand -- and I had a sort of a semblance of a song going!

For a long time, it remained a little instrumental thing. It was almost like my party piece -- you know, when we'd get into a studio, I'd rush over to a keyboard, and say, "Hey! What do you reckon to this!?" And I'd play it, and it was, "Oh god, Partsy's playing his party piece again." I think the melody was played with the left hand, which is not usually the case with melodies, but I'm not a keyboard player, so I didn't know that, you know.

So I had this little dreamlike instrumental, basically, that reminded me of the seaside, because -- although I think it's a brass tape on the Mellotron -- it has an organ-like on-and-off attack and release. And it has that memory of brass in it, if you see what I mean. So, over time, I started to flesh out lyrics to this little instrumental party piece. It grew from that.

TB: So you had the basic verse structure? That's what came first?

AP: Yeah, because it was the [sings the verse melody], which was the melody in the left hand.

TB: And you put lyrics to that, then the rest of the song grew musically from that?

AP: Yeah. The shape of the song grew from that section. Once I started to put lyrics to that section, it was like, "Ooh, this is good." I figured I'd start the song off with an instrumental and vocal noise version of the melody -- you know, that very screwed-up, phase-y, flange-y vocal sound -- and then repeat the melody with words, but realized that I'd then need something different.

The song has actually sort of got two middle sections, because when it goes into the "And all the flags that flap on the pier" part, that is purely just added in there to break up the reoccurrence of that continuing melody.

TB: Right. It's not your standard chorus structure.

AP: No, it's very oddly structured, this song. And it's rather dreamlike in its structure. It sort of makes sense, but it doesn't, on the first few listens, if you see what I mean.

TB: Sure. It's not your typical A-B-A-B-C song structure.

AP: No, not at all. But to me it made sense, because I was putting that piece in there to stop having that repetition of the verse melody all the time.

Let me look at my notes again. I just put down things as they occurred to me. It's LinnDrum all the way through...

TB: So there's no live drumming in there at all?

AP: No. Because I just wanted the sense of disparate percussion. It's basically LinnDrum bass drum, and tom-tom [sings pattern].

TB: Right. There's no snare until the bridge.

AP: Until the bridge, and then a big, fat, tuned-down rattle-y snare comes in. And then there's also a lot of other disparate bits of percussion that are triggered off by the LinnDrum pattern. On every seventh beat, there's a little composite noise that we made down at Crescent Studios -- we made it with a little thumb piano, and a little wood block or a muted cowbell, and possibly something else, like a milk bottle. But there's definitely a thumb piano and a block.

TB: Yeah, when I play this, I do that sound by playing a flam on the bell of my ride cymbal, but obviously it doesn't sound quite the same. It has way more decay than the sound you used.

AP: Yeah, plus we put some reverb on it.

TB: And you have hi-hat in there as well, a two-note pattern starting on the "three"...

AP: Yeah, that's triggered as well. So yeah, I was LinnDrum mad, but I actually really didn't want anything like a conventional drum kit until the middle section. The whole disparate percussion thing suited it very well.

The euphonium you hear in there is a euphonium [laughs]. It's a real euphonium, played by a real euphonium player named Steve Saunders. We actually recorded his part in London -- we went up on the train with [producer] David Lord...

TB: This is in the days of two-inch, 24-track tape, right? You weren't doing the stuff digitally, obviously...

AP: No, no. We had to lug the 24-track tape with us.

TB: And went into a studio...

AP: Yeah, Odyssey Sound.

TB: Did you have to deal with tape head-alignment issues or anything like that when you were moving from studio to studio?

AP: If we did, it was not the sort of thing that we musicians were party to really knowing about. I mean, I knew nothing of that in those days. I was much more interested in "How can you screw this sound up? How can you make that sound weird? How can you get this to thrill me?" I still have that thing of, "Every sound should thrill -- you know, should be so beautifully recorded, or be out of the ordinary, or be in an odd place.

But as you get older, you understand a lot more about what thrilled you sonically when you were younger. You think, "Oh, that's why it was thrilling me. I know now." Or, it's that effect, or that interval, or it's that release of that chord going in to that one, you know?

TB: You understand how the machine works a little bit more now.

AP: Yeah, which does take some of the mystery out of it, but that's the price you pay for knowledge. When logic and knowledge come in, magic and voodoo go out the window, because you know how it's done! You stop being the audience, and you start being the people backstage doing those effects.

TB: "The man behind the curtain."

AP: Yeah. With a sheet of tin, making thunder! It's not real thunder, folks!!

So yeah, where are we? At the time, I thought I was writing "Marjorine," by Joe Cocker. In fact, it's probably nothing like that song, but I haven't heard it since it came in out in -- what, '67? But in '83, I thought, "Wow, this is just like 'Marjorine'!" So I still don't know whether it is or it isn't. Somebody will have to play that song, and say, "Oh, I can see what he means," or "No, he must have got his wires mixed up there." I may have to go find it myself now, and listen.

TB: That'll be the blog-reader challenge for the week!

AP: [laughs] There you go. What else? I really was very proud of the lyrics to this.

TB: That's one of the reasons why I love this song so much. I remember when I first heard this song, I thought, "He has just summed up the feelings of every nervous boy sitting next to a girl, throughout history." The picture of the couple by the seaside, and him imagining the seagulls mocking him, and the delicious tension of wanting to kiss the girl, and know that she probably wants you to, but if she doesn't, your world will end.

AP: Yeah, you might as well go and kill yourself! While everything else in the scenario is calling you an idiot. The sea is going [whispers], "Fooool ... fooool." That's not just the noises of white noise in the waves! And the seagulls are laughing at you because you didn't do it yet! And the flags are saying, "What's wrong with you?" If they're spelling out any messages, it's what an idiot you are for hesitating!

TB: And the similes and metaphors in here are so great -- the warship-grey sea, and the black coastline slumbering on...

AP: Well, I thought of it as the English seaside, which is so sad and mournful. It is a black coastline, the sea is warship grey. It's not Mediterranean blue. It's cup-of-tea brown, or mostly warship grey! It's the color of steel -- it's the North Sea we're dealing with here, or the English Channel. It's not the Caribbean or the Mediterranean.

And the lifebelts always look like end-of-the-pier minstrels, you know? You accompany your parents as a kid to a show at the end of the pier, and there are the people in blackface, on the stage, with a white ring around their mouth, and they start singing, and it's, "Hey! They're like lifebelts!"

TB: The other great thing here is the payoff -- you're building up, the circumstances couldn't be more dire, and then you bring it down to, "I say I like your coat / Her thank-you tugs my heart afloat." It's the simplest little exchange in the midst of all this drama. It brings it right back down to two little people talking and saying these dumb little things.

AP: Yeah, just stupid stuff, like, "Oh, I like your coat," and she says, "Thank you," and it means the world. "WOW! She thanked me for liking her coat!!" Your heart just explodes with joy at something stupid like that.

TB: So, is this song about anyone in particular?

AP: I think I did write this about Erica.

TB: Was this after -- I know there was an incident somewhere where she tried to kiss you...

AP: Oh no! In fact, I was still putting this song together, and we were in Crescent trying out David Lord as a potential future producer, doing "Thanks for Christmas." Erica was in England, visiting some friends in Oxford, I think. She found out -- as she usually did, because she was a fantastic detective -- where we would be in the studio, and she turned up. I was in the performance area, and there was a grand piano there in a little side room, and I said, "Yeah, I've got a new song, and it goes like this." I actually sat at the piano and played it to her, and tried my best to sing it at the same time.

And she must have thought, "Well, hell -- if he's not going to take the opportunity, I sure am!" And she leaned in to kiss me, sat next to me on the piano seat, as I'm playing her this song, and I thought, "Oh my god!" and just, true to type -- and the fact that I was married, and didn't want to fuck up my marriage -- I leaned right out, scared shitless, and sort of immediately said, [fast] "Oh, well, I've still got a lot of work to do on that, and let's go into the control room, shall we?"

TB: Yeah. And meanwhile, she's thinking, "He was just telling me to kiss him!"

AP: Exactly! I've written a song to her, telling her I'm too chicken to kiss you, maybe you should kiss me, and she tried to, and I just lived out the scenario in the song! And do you know what? Bath, where the studio was, gets an awful lot of seagulls, because they come up the Avon, which opens up into the Avon estuary. So that's one sound you do hear a lot of in Bath.

But back to the song, I think the combination of dream-like, unexpected song structure, and the pride of being the first thing I could work out with two hands on the keyboard, and what I considered to be really, really good lyrics, kept this at the top of the list of my favorite XTC songs for quite a few years. It's been knocked off now -- probably by "Rook" and then "Easter Theatre," actually.

TB: Oh, you mean it was #1 on your list?

AP: Yeah.

TB: So it's still in your top five.

AP: I'd say so, yeah.

TB: Did you do a lot of reworking on these lyrics, or did they come out pretty quickly? Because each line seems very tight and concise.

AP: Tell you what, I've got a big orange sketchbook here with the original things. Let's see -- I've the sleeve designs for potentials if it was going to be a single. No, do you know what, I don't think I have the original lyrics in here. No, in this one, I was designing a video for it, where there were masked people, who had these big flat semi-Picasso-like masks. They were stood in a big desolate landscape near the sea, and a sort of proscenium across the top was constantly scrolling, changing the different images that were either telling the story with you, or contradicting what was going on. And then there was also the opposite of that, a band across the bottom that was scrolling the other way, which was either completing the imagery or contradicting what was going on.

But it never got to be a single, so I never got to use the idea. And I wouldn't have been allowed to use the idea, even if it was a single, given our shit history with videos! So I still have all the designs for the masks -- they're rather odd-looking. But no, I can't find the lyrics in this notebook.

TB: Do you remember really slaving over the lyrics, or did it feel like they came relatively quickly?

AP: I just think I managed to focus. I can't remember how long it took. I did them in dribs and drabs, but it was one of those things where I was able to make that white-hot focus on them. I've done that a few times, where I really> concentrate on the lyrics of something, and try to make the imagery as complete as possible in the least amount of words. It's like you distill your intentions down and down and down until each drop of that stuff is deadly, like 100-proof alcohol.

TB: So, from what you've been saying, it sounds as if you built each section of music and lyrics at the same time, rather than doing one or the other first.

AP: Yeah, and once that was done, there was that joy of getting them to all fit over each other. That's some weird legacy that Bach has left me with -- liking Bach when I was younger, and thinking, "Why do I like this?" I like it because it all fits, like pieces of a great clock or something.

TB: Is there anything else about the music or recording that you remember?

AP: One of the things I remember from the seaside was these almost-random firings of coast guns, either for timing -- you know, "At mid-day, tradition is to fire the coastal gun" -- or whatever. And so I wanted that kind of coastal-gun sound, which goes into the middle -- you know, in between the "he who hesitates is lost" and the "if you want her" part. It's also on the outro. That was LinnDrum tom-toms tuned down, with a fuck of a lot of reverb on them.

And Colin's playing his new Wal bass, which I think was the first bass he ever had with an active circuit in it.

TB: What difference does that make?

AP: An active circuit will give a real sharp boost to the sound, but it usually doesn't boost much in terms of bass -- it usually boosts the higher frequencies. It was very popular with '80s bass players for that slapping kind of playing that emphasized the highs. That was the active circuit actually boosting the higher frequencies in the pickups.

So he got one of those, and [chuckling] he would insist on using it, and of course there wasn't that much bass on it! It was all this high burping tone, you know. And poor old David Lord, I remember Colin saying to him, "Wow, that bass sound is really good, David, how are you doing that?" And David was turning to me, and saying under his breath, "He doesn't realize, I've got six compressors chained up to level-out that sound, to get some bass in it!" Because it was all burp, and no bass.

TB: [laughing] And Dave was playing the Mellotron?

AP: Yeah, he's much more proficient. When I showed it to him, he was like [imitates Dave], "Oh, is that all it is?" [laughs] It's three fingers! Melody with the left hand, and the sort of semi-chords on the top with the right hand.

TB: [laughing] Right, so he added more fingers, I presume.

AP: I think he probably put one or two more in there, yeah. He probably thought what a moron I was for only have two-note chords and a melody line. But to me, that was a big leap, you know.

TB: Now, you guys did some other versions of this song, too. You recorded it at the BBC, and there's the Fuzzy Warbles version, too.

AP: Yep. The Fuzzy Warbles one is the home demo, done in the back bedroom, in which the shape of it is all there -- kind of how I wanted it to go. It was just refining the sounds, you know.

TB: And then the BBC one was the typical routine?

AP: Yeah, you're given a day to do four songs. We had no drummer, and it would have cost us money to find a studio, find a drummer, pay a drummer, rehearse for a week or whatever getting the songs down. And then you had to trust that the BBC engineers could get some decent sounds in an afternoon. You'd get all these songs done and mixed on the same day.

So, what we did was to basically use the same LinnDrum programs that I'd used on the demo, because they really couldn't fuck that up, could they.

But that was in the days when we thought the LinnDrum was going to save us. It was like, "Wow! We've actually become modern momentarily!"

TB: Well, it was the first drum machine, I think, with real sampled sounds. So it actually sounded like drums, even though the feel wasn't necessarily there.

AP: The feel was rubbish, because people hadn't worked out that feel is down to microscopic differences -- differences you cannot program. And they constantly shift and move, which gives you the groove, you know?

TB: Exactly. That's the push-and-pull of the song.

AP: Yeah, that's why, with real drummers, it's alive, and it's breathing, and it's a work of art. Whereas a machine -- it's a dead thing, it's just sort of making these widgets of sound that come out exactly the same every time. There's no passion in that.

5:09 PM

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