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Last Updated:
Jul 22, 2007

Sunday, September 2, 2007


Andy discusses ‘Summer's Cauldron’

Song of the Week -- Andy's take

Part of an ongoing series of interviews, posted biweekly, by Todd Bernhardt with Andy Partridge about the songs we feature each week on MySpace. This week's song, "Summer's Cauldron," is from 1987's Skylarking.

This one's going up a bit early, in solidarity with our working brothers and sisters out celebrating the Labo(u)r Day weekend in the US -- Workers of the World, Party On! We'll be back on the 16th of September with a look at an early tune that celebrates the worker and their leisure activities. While you're waiting for that, you might want to check out Monstrance and its sounds of the future...

TB: Let's talk about "Summer's Cauldron." It seems like a fitting way to end the season, plus it's the album opener, so I figured that'd be a good excuse to talk about a bunch of different things.

AP: Right. I remember it being one of the last songs that came up for the record. In fact, there was no demo of it to send over to Senor Rundgren, so we had to get together at Dave's and make a demo -- after, I think, copious tea and biscuits -- in January or something. Definitely not a summer's day. "Dear God" was another late arriver, and "Another Satellite" was the last to arrive. We already had all the other album material on tape before this.

TB: But he hadn't actually put them together in sequence yet -- which you guys didn't know he was going to do anyway, right?

AP: No, I didn't know he was going to chop together all the bits on cassette that we'd sent him into a sort of demo album, as such. I've never heard it, but somewhere in the Rundgren archives, is a tape where he'd taken our original cassette demos, dubbed them over to another master tape, and then sliced out the verses and stuff that he wanted sliced out.

TB: Really?

AP: Yeah! "Oh, that song's too long, that verse has got to go," so he'd slice it all out, and so on. This is what I was told, I'm assuming it was true.

So yeah, this one was the opener. I remember it came from a poem first.

TB: The complete lyrics? Or just the germ of an idea?

AP: The idea and the majority of what you'd call the A section of the song -- you know, the "drowning here in Summer's cauldron / under mats of flower lava" part. The B section is "When Miss Moon lays down / and Sir Sun stands up." But the A sections of the song were taken from a poem called "Drowning in Summer's Cauldron." I was really proud of the imagery -- I think I sort of distilled the summer imagery in the poem really well, and thought, "Ooh, do you know, that'd make a good song lyric. Maybe I can find something to go with that. It's like summer, it's like droning, so maybe if we did something musical that was really droning," you know.

But yeah, it came from a poem first, just like "2 Rainbeau Melt." That was a similar situation -- where I had a poem, and I thought, "Well, that's too good to leave it laying in that book. That ought to become a song lyric."

TB: What percentage of your writing would you say is intended to be pure poetry? Or do you not even think about that?

AP: I just sort of slam down an idea if it comes to me -- which I've been doing less and less lately. I've just been getting really lazy, and kind of feeling like -- you know, "Oh, why do I need to write anymore stuff? There's enough stuff out there." That muscle is starting to kick in with me now, which is not a good idea really.

TB: Is it because you're also distracted by the business side of things, which you didn't have to handle before?

AP: Yeah, I spend a lot of time doing that, and just seem to spend endless time doing everyday stuff. This is going to sound terribly sexist, but it's true -- when I was married, I did nothing. I looked after the kids, when they came along. In fact, it was me that had to get up, if there was a problem at night, because I didn't have a "real job" -- that was the quote, you know. But I didn't do anything -- I didn't wash any clothes, I didn't wash any dishes, I didn't cook any food. All I did was selfishly -- and I think you've got to do this, to be an artist -- concentrate on the music, and on the words, the songwriting. And when I became unmarried, I suddenly I had to do the washing, do my own cooking, do my own laundry, and all that kind of stuff...

TB: It's time-consuming, isn't it?

AP: Yeah [laughs], that takes up a hell of a lot of your day! And then when you've done all that -- you've cleaned around, and taken the garbage out, and cooked yourself dinner, and gone and bought the shopping, and stuff I never did when I was married -- you're less inclined to sit and create something.

My mother would insist on doing everything for me, so therefore, you know, the wife took over that role. I know now it a really chauvinistic way of thinking. But at least I wasn't cruel to my woman, I didn't beat her and keep her apart from the things that she loved! [laughs] At least I didn't do that.

TB: Let's talk about the song's lyrics. There are some really great lines in here. It seems like you're giving yourself permission to really have free reign with the imagery, with lines like "insect bomber Buddhist droning."

AP: Yeah! That works -- you know, Buddhists drone [makes low droning noise], and so does a bomber [repeats noise], and so does an insect [and again]. And what do you hear lots of in the summer? Airplanes overhead. Not necessarily bombers! But airplanes and insects and [laughs] maybe the odd Buddhist here and there.

But, you know, it's a summer sound -- that kind of droning. And what are they droning? Well, it's the "copper chord of August's organ." August is high summer in England, and summer, to me, sounds like an organ -- like someone playing an electric organ. It's the sound of the heat haze.

TB: Right. And there also the pun, of course, in the word "august" -- it's the month, but it's regal.

AP: Yeah, yeah. Like The Times or something is an august organ! [laughs] But the main sort of intention of it was, I always thought the color of summer is copper.

TB: Sure, I can see that. Because of the bright sun and the reflection of it off of things.

AP: Yeah, the reflections off the road, the color of the wheat, the ground drying out -- it seems to have a copper hue. And also, a copper gong -- that's the sound of the sun for me. So summer for me is copper-colored, and it sounds like an electric organ.

TB: Was this lyrical approach influenced by the stop in touring? Maybe you didn't feel like you had to be quite a literal in your lyrics? I mean, the fact that you would shove together "insect bomber Buddhist" to modify the verb "droning" -- that's not your typical rock lyric, obviously.

AP: [chuckles] I dunno, I think you can feel that growing in my writing. There are some songs in English Settlement where lyrics are kind of little more playful and impressionistic like that.

TB: And on Big Express...

AP: Oh yeah, Big Express is a lot more like that.

TB: You're doing your pidgin English on this song, too, like in "Shake You Donkey Up" -- "I'm relax in the undertow."

AP: Yeah, because "relaxed" sounded really clumsy. But "relax" is the perfect intention, the perfect statement, and it's the perfect length, so it's "I'm relax in the undertow."

TB: And because you put the word "in" after it, it could almost be "relaxing."

AP: Yeah. So, instead of saying "relaxing in" -- you don't want "ing in" in a song, you just want "in" -- so "I'm relax in the undertow."

TB: It's funny -- I've seen multiple reviews of Skylarking where different reviewers have said that this song is written from the perspective of a bug drowning in brandy.

AP: [laughing] You said that like Cartman! Say it again, like Cartman!

TB: [laughing] Like a bug in branday! But, you know, they just kind of miss the point.

AP: No, it's not a song about a bug in brandy. That's a simile. It's a person singing this, a human being. You know, when does the sun come up and get hot? Well, when the moon goes down. What goes up? Something that a man has. What goes down? [chuckles] Something that a woman has. So the moon's the woman, the man's the sun. Sun stands up, the woman lays down, and that's how the world gets made. So, no, it has nothing to do with insect repellent or fly strip. [pauses] That's some vaudeville show. Have you ever gone to a fly strip? [laughs] There are little bits of exoskeleton being teasingly taken off.

So yeah, I'm immensely proud of the lyrics, because they took a lot of tinkering. I wrote most of it in the garden, in the late summer. I'd sit out there in this wretched old wicker furniture that had rusty nails poking out all over -- I was forever tearing my clothes on them. There was a sort of bamboo-y table, and a big bamboo-y kind of Indian chair -- I don't know what they call them, but they have these kind of spoon backs, like colonial furniture. I think we picked them up cheap or they were left by the previous family or something.

I'd sit out there with a notebook on that table, and strumming away, and because the lyrics were written on hot days, you know, I think that helped distill the lyric -- or what became the lyric. It helped to distill the poetry.

TB: Right. So, you wrote this on guitar, and brought it to the band. The album starts with sequenced sounds of nature -- did you have ideas about that?

AP: Well, I told Todd that I wanted some sounds that would make a tapestry that suggested the summer. Because he had recently-ish bought a Fairlight, he gathered up a lot of sound-effect records, and I don't know if it was him who suggested doing them rhythmically -- it may well have been, I'm not sure -- if it was, it was a master stroke, because you not only get the chirps and the buzzes and the crickets and all that...

TB: And the dog barking...

AP: Only once, though! And I love the bee -- that's my favorite -- that goes bzzzzz across the stereo field. I think we only had a mono bee, though -- I think we had to pan it.

TB: [laughing]

AP: Seriously! It was only a mono bee, I seem to remember.

TB: It's so hard to find stereo bees nowadays.

AP: You can't get 'em! [laughs] We had an old Phil Spector back-to-mono bee. Little badge on it, you know.

I also wanted an organ, since as I said that's the sound of summer for me. But it had to sound like the heat haze -- when your vision is all rippled, you're looking off in the distance through the heat coming off the road. It looks like it's underwater. So, I suggested screwing up the organ -- it was like, "Have you got something we can put it through that really wobbles it?" We put it through some sort of chorus-y, kind of bend-y thing. I kept saying "More, more, more" until it was kind of in danger of going out of tune, you know? But I like that, because it's very dreamlike, and [laughs] also reminds me of the unnecessary amount of wobble on the organ of "Blue Jay Way." Which is also very dreamlike.

TB: And then you put a melodica over that?

AP: Well, it was going to be a guitar doing that little theme there, but Todd said, "What would you think of a melodica?" I said, "Sure, okay, let's give it a try." He actually played that part. So, we're up in the control room, and we got to bully him! [chuckles] It was great. You know, he'd do a take, and it'd be like the first take, and it'd be perfect, but we'd get on the talkback, and say, "No, that's not quite right. Could you do it once more?" And we'd turn off the talkback and giggle amongst ourselves. I remember it with glee, that we were punishing him like he punished us. "You're going to suffer, Mr. Melodica Man!"

Dave's playing all the keyboards -- he's playing that lovely, overcompressed piano in the B section, the moon-and-sun section. He's playing a straight, almost cello-like organ pad under that as well. I was thinking today, when I was taking notes and listening to the song -- again, first time in ages, because I don't listen to my own music usually, unless I'm paralytically drunk.

TB: [chuckles] And, I assume, you're not taking notes then!

AP: I'm not taking notes, I'm just going, [slurred voice] "Who is this band? They're fucking great!" [laughs]

But I was reminded today that Dave plays all the keyboard parts, and I thought, "Wait a minute! Aside from singing the lead vocal, I'm not on this!"

TB: Really? Because in looking at the demo version that you have on Fuzzy Warbles, it looks like you only sing as well, because Dave is credited with guitar, and synth, and drum programming.

AP: I think I'm playing the lead guitar part line on that version. I thought that I was going to play the guitar doing that theme on the album, but it turned out to sound much more organically summer- and field-like to have it on a melodica.

So, I was playing it today, and I noticed, going across the stereo field, there's a panned -- wandering panned! -- and really, really thinned-out acoustic guitar, which may be me. I can't remember doing it, but you know, that's probably the way I'd think. "Dave's done all those keyboard parts, so I've got to get something on there." It almost sounds like a shaker.

TB: Todd made you record this song and "Grass" as one continuous piece, correct?

AP: That's right, it's not edited. It sounds like an edit, but it's not. They were recorded together, and we played. "Summer's Cauldron" into "Grass," and then we carried on and went back into "Summer's Cauldron" at the end. So it was all one long kind of suite -- there wasn't any, "Well, we'll chop it together later, and see if it works." It was all rehearsed and done like that -- it was a case of, you had to stop your guitar ringing to drop in the next guitar for "Grass" on the same track.

I noticed today that I sing the last line of "Summer's Cauldron" -- "please don't pull me out" -- and he chops off the "out," because something was dropped in on that track! It would have been nice if the echo and reverb could have carried on from the word "out" over the intro of "Grass," but you know, you only get a certain amount of tracks, and they had to be punched in, so something had to go.

TB: Prairie Prince's drumming on this song is fantastic. You guys went to San Francisco to record the drums, percussion, strings and other instruments, then came back to Woodstock and finished the vocals?

AP: We recorded this whole album, starting at, like, song one on day one, you know. We did the majority of the music at Utopia Sound in Woodstock -- or 15 miles outside Woodstock, however far it is. Too bloody far to walk for lunch, I'll tell you that! We initially cut all the songs to a click track. Then we went to San Francisco, and Prairie put the drums on all the tracks. And, on this song, we really encouraged Prairie to get into sort of spastic push-pull rolls.

TB: There's that one triplet roll that...

AP: Oh, it happens at 2:55! We were all huge fans of Clive Bunker, the original drummer with Jethro Tull. Is it "Sweet Dream" where he does that wonderfully convoluted, spastic roll? I think it is, and we were saying to Prairie, "Look, can you put something in that really has got that spastic, dislocated quality?" And he does a wonderful one at 2:55.

So yeah, we were sort of poking him to be slightly dislocated in his playing. It was also a case of, "If you want to drop in beats anywhere, go ahead" -- he drops in beats in funny places, like where he puts the snare, with the bass drum on the one beat. So the whole thing is rather dislocated in its approach drum-wise.

TB: Yeah, and he almost presages Dave Mattacks' playing on Nonsuch , with what you've called the "one-beat roll." He puts in the big BOOM for maximum effect.

AP: Yeah, I know what you mean. It's a prequel to Mattacks!

I made a note here, listening to it today, that with this song -- or, with this album, especially -- we became the Dukes of Stratosphear at last! The psychedelia that was bubbling beneath the surface -- XTC finally turned into the Dukes with this album, especially with this track.

TB: And that's a good thing, in your view.

AP: Yeah! I think so. Because the Dukes were one facet of us that I think we'd hidden, you see.

TB: Right -- there was a lot of irony there, and it was a bit of a joke, but now you were doing it seriously.

AP: Yep. So, if the lyrics were just slightly dafter on "Summer's Cauldron," it could have been the Dukes! You know, we're using wobbly organs, and collages of sounds, and lots of echoes, and melodicas, and that sort of dislocated drumming -- it could be a psychedelic number. So we were mutating into [chuckles] the band we always want to be, I think!

TB: Exactly. How about the bass part? Was that something you came up with and suggested to Colin, or did he come up with that as you were arranging the song together?

AP: Do you know, I can't remember! All I can remember is kicking it around in rehearsals in Dave's front room -- on a very, very cold day! Not at all a summer's day, it was extremely cold. Not that we've had any summer here this year, throughout the summer -- it's been so wet. It's actually the most rain that's fallen in the summer since records began in England.

TB: Have you managed to avoid the flooding?

AP: Yeah, because I live on a hill. It just runs down every side away from me and causes everyone else misery! Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha! Pantomime evil laugh!

But I do like the bass playing on this. Sometimes I give Colin a hard time, but it's lovely playing.

TB: He is one of the best Pop bass players out there.

AP: Oh yeah, he's got a real talent for where to put those notes!

7:21 PM

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