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Jul 22, 2007

Sunday, August 05, 2007


Andy discusses "Greenman"

Interviews and Reviews

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, "Greenman," is from 1999's Apple Venus, Vol. 1.

NOTE: Just a reminder that these interviews are a biweekly event. We'll be back on the 19th of August with a look at one of Andy's more pensive songs. Remember, there's always Monstrance to listen to in the meantime!

TB: Summer's in full swing, so let's talk about the "Greenman."

AP: Yeah, sure. I don't have the notes that I wrote for Homespun -- do you have them? I want to make sure I'm not repeating myself.

TB: Well, in those liner notes you talk about how you grabbed Holly's small, nylon-string guitar. You and I have talked about that before, so everyone knows what it is. You say you were "scrubbing away" on it, and it sounded very archaic to you, so you went out to the Shed, and started building a loop of percussion noises. You combined that with the guitar part, and then put the melody that you'd been humming in as a string sound, and then everything kind of came quickly to you.

AP: Yeah, actually, the thing that really glued it together, which I don't know whether I mentioned in that write-up, is that cyclical woodwind pattern in there. I mean, that really was the baker's yeast for this whole track.

TB: Because that pattern's very percussive, as well as melodic.

AP: Yeah. It's percussive and melodic, and I made sure it worked through all the changes. There aren't many changes in this song, but I made sure it worked in the middle as well, where it goes into a minor key. That was the real big "raising agent" in this song.

But, basically, it came from the most simplistic pattern on the guitar. It's literally like the top four strings. You hold the G note down on the E string, and you hold the D note down on the B string, and you just sort of jangle and drone away. Then you move the note of D on the B string down to a note of C on the B string. But you leave the G ringing there. So it seems to sort of subtly change, but it's still very related to the original G drone.

TB: Right, and then of course the other instrumentation you have there is moving around that.

AP: Yeah, though the woodwind pattern doesn't move, and that's really very central to this song. That gave it the kind of "Greenman in a codpiece" feel -- that pattern is the kind of dildo-wielding evil/benevolent force in this. That's the sound of sex.

TB: And the strings would be more the rolling hills...

AP: Yeah, I once said it was Vaughan Williams with a hard-on, you know. Because it's rather English. I resented it when people said, "Ooh, XTC have done a very Middle Eastern-sounding song." It's not Middle Eastern at all! I don't get that at all.

TB: Maybe because of the woodwind part?

AP: I don't know why they would think that, but to me it's very, very English. I mean, I get pictures of Morris Men, I get pictures of the hills in Wiltshire. Because of the drone nature of the chords underneath, I mean, you can play it as if Martin Carthy were doing it, you know? [sings the first line in a very English-folky way]. It's very finger-in-the-ear, traditional, knit-your-own-yogurt kind of Folk! [laughs]

TB: You know, it's funny, you're talking about the drone of the guitar, and I suppose it all depends on your point of view -- is it a bouzouki, or a lute?

AP: [laughs] Well, truth be told, it's that tiny little small-scale school guitar, with nylon strings.

TB: Right, which is one of the great things about that guitar. It sometimes sounds like another instrument. I mean, in "Dame Fortune" it sounds like a ukulele.

AP: Yeah, and also from another time or something. But, to me, "Greenman" is a Folk song. It's a horny Folk song. It's very sexual. And in fact, my name is an anagram of "Dirty Red Pagan," apparently. [laughs]

TB: [laughing] Why did you come up with these lyrics? Why were you thinking about the Green Man?

AP: When my ex-wife and I had kids, we sinned like every parent -- if we needed five minutes' peace, we'd stick the kids in front of a video, and then nip off to the bedroom or out to the kitchen for a cup of coffee or whatever. And one of the ones that I used to put them in front of -- and I'd end up watching it myself, even when they weren't around -- was this nursery-rhyme video, where in fact Martin Carthy does give a few of the performances of these nursery rhymes. I was struck by the sort of pagan nature of these nursery rhymes. I thought, "Well, they're just five minutes away from complete filth!" It's never far from the surface.

But, I don't know -- I think it was just the drone, and the melody line. I thought, "Ooh, that's English."

TB: Had you been reading anything at the time that could have reminded you of it?

AP: Not particularly, no. It just seemed to pop into my head. A couple of years previous, Peter Blegvad had gotten together with me and tried a poem of his out called "The Green Boy," who supposedly was the son of the Green Man or something. We tried a piece of music out with it, and it didn't really work, but I don't think that was in my head. I didn't store it away, and think, "Wow! This isn't working, but I'll nab that and make a song of it!"

TB: Tell me about the lines, "See the Greenman blow his kiss from high church wall / An unknowing church will amplify his call." What did you mean by that?

AP: The craftsmen who built a lot of the old churches -- which are still standing in England -- would have been pagans. And they carved Green Men into a lot of the ornamentation of the churches -- the face of the Green Man, which is usually made out of leaves, with the branches or tendrils coming out of the corners of the mouth.

The Church couldn't stamp out the pagan festivities, so they subsumed them. It was the same with the people who built these churches. They were, if not encouraged, allowed to add their imagery. I'm sure that a lot of people who turned up to early churches would then go somewhere else and have their pagan rituals. A lot of the churches were built on the site of old pagan groves and things, in any case. They knew that people were going to be coming to that spot to do their worshipping, so, "We'll just nab that spot and build an impressive stone building on it, while everyone else lives in stick huts."

TB: I've always been impressed by the demo of this song, which you can find on the Apple Box, and was almost tempted to put that version up when we post the interview about this song...

AP: Oh, don't do that! Because I was just going to say, Mike Batt deserves lots of credit for the string arrangement.

TB: Yeah, that's the reason why I thought that the version from Apple Venus would be better to post, since this is one of the songs that I think you guys were able to expand and improve upon -- not only Mike Batt's string arrangement, which I think is beautiful, but also Prairie Prince's drumming.

AP: And Colin's bass playing! So, where should we start? Mike Batt?

TB: Sure!

AP: Alright. I really like what Mike Batt did. It was a case of, I did a basic idiot arrangement on the demos, the one you can hear on Homespun...

TB: Although it seems very close, in some ways...

AP: Well, I didn't want it to change too much, because I wanted it kept simplistic.

TB: Yeah. The really new part that you hear in the arrangement is in the fade-out at the end. That wasn't on the demo at all.

AP: Ah, well, I'll tell you about that in a second. But back to Mike Batt -- Dave had left the band, and we had this orchestral session booked in Abbey Road, which was part of the reason that he left -- he thought I was being wasteful with the budget. Dave wanted to do it with samples and so on, but I said, "No, we have to do it with a real orchestra, it's going to sound wonderful," you know? All these reasons came to a head, and Dave left, and we didn't have a more worked-up arrangement of my idea of an arrangement from the demo, if you see what I mean.

TB: Right. Dave would have done that, otherwise?

AP: Dave would have done that, and charted it all up for the orchestra, and so on. And [producer] Hayden Bendall said, "Well, there's my mate Mike Batt, who's a brilliant arranger. He owes me a few favors -- perhaps he could step in quick and rescue us on this one."

On this particular number, I said to Mike, "I want it kept pretty pagan and pretty basic. There are a few corners where you can put in some instrumentation and some flourishes, but I kept it kept pretty linear." And he did a pretty damned good job. The trouble is, when we came to record it, he was rushing off to Germany. He had to go in the early afternoon, and we really raced through the recording of all the things he did the strings for. By far, his best string arrangement was for "I Can't Own Her," which I could have never done in a million years.

I remember, we were rushing through the recording of "Greenman" before Mike had to run off to the airport, and I was saying to Haydn in the control room, "Haydn, there are some real bad mistakes in there! Some of those things are really wrong!" And he said, "Shhh! Shut up! We've got to get this done quickly. We'll fix it with edits."

So, I think we did a couple of run-throughs, just to get obvious mistakes covered, and then Mike grabbed his suitcase and ran. Haydn said, "Look, don't worry, we'll get down at my little studio and put all this in the computer, and see if we can edit-in any bits that aren't happening." So, we did a long editing session. Most of it was good, there were just a few parts that just weren't happening, so what we did was, we took other parts and chopped them in. Then we added a few pieces, with samples, that we thought were good, blending them so you couldn't really tell it wasn't all the orchestra.

And then over the end, I wanted to make more of a psychedelic, pagan "event," so Haydn said, "Oh, I wonder what that little line sounds like backwards."

TB: Ahhhh! I get it.

AP: So what he did was, he took a little piece that the orchestra had recorded, and spun it backwards. And it was like, "Ooh, that's good!" Because you can't really tell it's backwards! Because of the slow attack, and the slow decay, it doesn't sound like a classic backwards sound. It just sounds like another piece of the orchestration.

So what we did was, we looped this little piece of something from earlier in the song, put it backwards, and fed that up over the end. So you get this little counter-melody -- it's literally two 40-piece orchestras battling it out!

TB: Yeah, and it's a true counter-melody! It's the opposite.

AP: It really is. It goes across the rhythm, it goes across the mode slightly. It's very nice and dreamlike.

TB: So, let's talk about Prairie's drumming on this. How much of this is his drumming, and how much is samples that you put in?

AP: It's mostly his drumming. Very cyclical patterns -- not sounding like a conventional kit. I wanted it to sound older.

TB: Was he playing unusual pieces of percussion?

AP: No, mostly it was things like tom-toms, or a snare with the wires off. I think we may have triggered in a few sort of ringing sounds on the bass drum, and stuff. And also, what makes it sound multi-layered is all the extra percussion we put on top.

TB: Yeah, that's what I was wondering about -- was he playing that percussion, or was that samples?

AP: No, he just did the kit. We fleshed it out with other little things -- for example, if you listen carefully, there's a little ruler twanging.

TB: That's a ruler?! That's funny.

AP: That's a little ruler on the edge of a desk. It just goes "twanggg!" We added in a few other samples of things. There's an African flute that Haydn had a beautiful recording of. It sounds a bit like a recorder, but it's got a gravelly trill in it as well. That's in the "lay your head, lay your head" part.

TB: How about Colin's part?

AP: There are two basses in there. There's an upright bass, which plays at the top of the bar, on the "one." That was a sample of an upright, to give it an old-fashioned, earthy feel. And then, Colin really wanted to contribute something, so we went for this "tenor bass," or whatever it is you'd call it, where he's playing this very barky line. It might be his Wal bass. He's playing this sort of counter high line, which comes in a little more than a minute into the song, and is well away on the scale from the acoustic bass playing on the "one."

We also had to do something like that with "Harvest Festival." We did a similar thing, where orchestral bass is playing, and we did a higher bass part, too.

TB: Did you make any changes when you made the instrumental versions of the songs, on Instruvenus?

AP: No, we just took away all the vocals.

TB: That was it? You didn't do anything to make the instrumentals "pop" a little bit more, since there weren't vocals on the tracks?

AP: That was all we did. What happened is, when these mixes were done, it was like, "Well, let's run through the track as an instrumental, in case there's a TV show, and we have to sing it for them." They call them TV tracks.

TB: Do you guys always do that?

AP: Almost.

TB: For how long?

AP: Well, it's just a habit that the producers have. They know that you could get called to perform a song on a TV show, and the shows usually don't want to mess around with getting a live sound, so they just put up a couple of live mic's and play the backing tracks, and you sing live over the backing tracks.

TB: That's interesting. I didn't realize that you guys did this.

AP: Yeah, so in the vaults, there's probably, at a guess, the majority of all the tracks that we've ever done -- without vocals on them.

TB: But of course the Apple Venus albums are the only ones you own.

AP: Yeah, Apple Venus and Wasp Star are the only ones we've got. It's a shame, because if Virgin would work with us, people could get their hands on a "stack o' tracks"!

5:34 PM