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Last Updated:
Oct 16, 2007

Sunday, October 28, 2007


Andy discusses 'Chalkhills and Children'

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, "Chalkhills and Children," is from 1989's Oranges and Lemons. (In a late entry in the "guess that interview song" contest, Per has knocked former champion Kim out of the winner's circle ... for this week. But who will triumph in the coming weeks, as speculation runs rife about which song is next? Tune in, turn on and, um, do something else that starts with T as the battle begins!)

We'll be back at in two weeks with an interview about a defining song in XTC's early career. In the meantime, given that Halloween is this week, you might want to check out the new four-song download-only EP by Monstrance. (Hey, live improv can be scary!)

TB: Well, the next one I want to talk about is one that I've heard Dave say is one of his favorite songs by you.

AP: [cod German voice] Jah, the hills of chalk! Und the little children...

I know whose favorite song it is, but I can't remember his name -- synthesizer fellow from the '80s -- Howard Jones.

TB: Really?

AP: One of Howard Jones's favorite songs. And I know this because I think Dave was working with him on some project or other, and Howard Jones told him.

TB: Interesting. Well, I know it's one of your favorites, too, right?

AP: Yeah, I'm pretty proud of it, actually. Although I do make an ass of myself by not understanding what the word "nonsuch" meant. I thought it meant "a non-existent thing" -- a thing that was not there at all, and I liked the alliteration of "nonsuch net." But I got it wrong, because it doesn't mean "no such net," it means "incomparable net."

TB: You mention alliteration -- let's talk about that a little bit. Is it a device that you purposely use sometimes in your lyrics, or is it a happy accident when it happens?

AP: No, I work it until I'm sweating blood.

TB: And alliteration is something that you like, that you'll go for?

AP: Oh, I love it. I really love it. I love that almost sort-of Doctor Seuss tongue-tripping way it affects words. It just makes it more pungent if you have lots of L's in a row, or lots of S's, or sounds that sound similar between one word and the next, and the next, if possible. It becomes its own little internal kingdom -- it's lovely to do.

TB: Do you think you did more of that after you stopped touring? I could see how it could possibly get in the way sometimes, singing and projecting live.

AP: Well, in the very early stuff, the lyrics were pretty shamefully rotten. They were probably chosen for the sound that cut through shit PA's -- you know, "O" sounds cut through, while "E" sounds didn't. But as far as actual words go, I guess I started to become a half-decent songwriter at some point, and you can sort of see that I start to use more word games and alliteration and the odd pun or two. But I love alliteration. It seems to shake hands with itself, and it seems to be like a little infinity loop, perfectly completed. I like that in other people's work, too.

TB: What inspired you to write this song? It's very dreamlike, but did it actually come from a dream?

AP: No, it didn't come from a dream, apart from the fact that occasionally I do dream that I can fly. I'm sure there's somebody out there who knows all about dreams, but it's usually a similar scenario -- I'm out in the street, and I'm telling people, "Look, I can actually will myself up into the air!" They're saying, "No, you can't!" And I say, "Yes, I can -- watch." And I sort of strain, and then, in a standing-up position, I levitate about three or four feet off the ground.

And they go, "Wow! You really can! Is that as high as you can go, or can you go any higher?" And I sort of strain a bit more -- I can feel myself straining in the dream -- and up I go, about 20 feet. And they ask again if that's as high as I can go, and I will myself up to 50 or 100 feet or so, and then I then wave to them -- "Bye, I'll be back in a bit!" -- and then I travel across the hills around here, in that standing position, about 100 feet in the air.

TB: I have flying dreams, too, and from what I know about them -- I was a psychology major for a while at university -- a lot of psychologists see them as "reward dreams."

AP: What do you mean?

TB: In that, if you're feeling good about yourself, or you're feeling a sense of accomplishment about something that you've done, you'll have a flying dream, because usually flying dreams are freeing, and liberating. It's interesting to hear about the way you fly in your dreams, because in my flying dreams, I have a feeling of swimming through the air.

AP: So you're laid-down and sort of swimming?

TB: Yeah! And there's always a feeling of, "Why didn't I realize before that I just had to move like this to be able to fly?" There's a certain feel to the stroke -- it's almost like a breaststroke or something.

AP: With me, it's not like doing a stroke -- I'm standing, slightly leaning forward, and straining. But yeah, it's a dream I have every now and then.

I can actually tell you what inspired the song -- I was sitting with my relatively new keyboard I had at the time, a Roland D-50, and I bought a little thing that you plumb into it via the MIDI, I think. It was a little box where you could move all these sliders and things, and build up tones. I noticed that I could tune a second note to go against the note I was playing.

TB: So it was like a harmonizer?

AP: Kind of. I had this organ tone, and I set this control so that each note had another note on top of it, a fifth higher. I came up with that funny little [sings pattern from intro of song] -- but, because it was all fifths, it sounded really medieval. It sounded like the hills. Because, in Swindon, we're surrounded by these hills -- the Marlborough Downs, these chalk hills.

I thought, "Ooh, that's the countryside around here." I guess I started to associate the hills, and maybe I'd had a flying dream recently, and I just remember playing these long, languid, very simple chords, but because they had this automatic fifths tuned into them -- I don't remember thinking, "Wow, these are very musical, swish chords," but Dave said to me, "God, this is so well-composed. These chords are fantastic! How did you find them?" I don't remember them being a strain -- I just remember being guided by what sounded right, with this automatic fifth tuned in. I mean, they were probably three-note chords, but because there was a fifth dialed into each note, they were like six-note chords, you know?

I think I was still Mr. Cardboard Hand at the time -- if I found a good shape on the keyboard, I would cut out a cardboard hand to remember it! But once I started playing this very dreamy thing, I started thinking, "I'm floating over the hills -- why am I floating over the hills? I'm dreaming, and whole career has been like some weird dream," and I just started to associate from there. I mean, the whole essence of the song is, I feel uncomfortable with the whole star thing.

TB: And this was almost at the height of your fame, because by this time Skylarking had hit big...

AP: And everyone was saying, "Wow, what's the next one going to sound like?"

TB: Yeah, a lot of notoriety with that album. You had seen both the light and dark side of fame, what with all the hate mail you got over "Dear God"...

AP: Yeah. And there was that internal wrestling over that I loved making and recording music, but I was disgusted by the fame it seemed to bring. I wanted the music to be famous, but not me to be famous.

TB: Yeah. The "reluctant cannonball."

AP: I'm the reluctant cannonball, fired from some weird circus thing. With no safety net -- or that's what I thought I was saying! So I do apologize for to anyone who was confused by me grabbing the wrong word for that.

TB: Oh, they'll get over it.

AP: Yeah. And they think that's why the Nonsuch album was named that, but it's not [laughs]. Pure coincidence.

TB: Given that Skylarking was so successful, I assume you were given a fairly solid budget in advance to do Oranges and Lemons?

AP: Oh, we went well over budget on this album. They said, "Look, we're going to pull the plug fellows, we can't afford for you to finish it off." I think we'd run up a quarter of a million pounds.

TB: Is that because you decided to do so many songs?

AP: No, a lot of us was just us living in LA, in this rather wretched apartment block. But, you know, everyone was living there with their families, and we were paying session musicians, and [engineer] Ed [Thacker] and [producer] Paul [Fox] weren't cheap, and the studios weren't cheap -- plus, you know, we spent a hell of a long time out there.

TB: Well, after the experience you had in Woodstock, you wanted your families with you, right?

AP: I was also really stressed at the end of this, because we were fighting our original manager legally, and I was really coming unwound, and drinking far too much. I was drinking whiskey, and if I'm drinking whiskey, there's something very wrong.

So, funnily enough, we end the album with a song I wrote in honor of being rather ordinary, and being glad, ultimately, to have my feet on the ground, on these hills. And the flying over it -- being up there in the sky like a marvelous thing -- was, in fact, just a dream. As the majority of the career had just been a dream.

TB: Right. Now, the "chalkhills and children" image...

AP: Well, that's another bit of alliteration. What do I see when I look out my window? Chalk hills. What do I see when I look down in the kitchen, or look in the garden? I see children. They're real things. They're the real countryside around here, they're the reason you're responsible old dad -- it's the stuff that keeps your feet on the ground. It keeps you level -- there's no fakery involved. You can't be fake for the kids -- I mean, okay, you can dress up like a space monster from the Planet X and scare the shit out of them by chasing them around the garden, but that's not fake -- it's not like show business. Show business is all fake. Being a father is not fake, and the hills around here are not fake.

TB: So, why did you bring up Ermin Street? Was it the ancient quality of it?

AP: It's the ancient quality, and the fact that it's only a few miles away. You know, it runs right past Swindon. In fact, I think there are two of them in England -- but Ermin Street is an ancient trackway that Iron Age man would have trodden along with his horse or his cow. It just seemed to have a feeling of real permanence. There it is, in the chalk, up on the hill, trodden for thousands of years...

TB: Whereas fame is transitory.

AP: Fame will last you five minutes, and will not buy your groceries.

I still wrestle with that now. I know that what I do makes fans, but I don't want them to be fans of me. If anything, I just want them to be fans of the music that I do.

TB: Right. You're facing the quandary that a lot of artists face -- the difference between themselves and their art is obvious to them, but some people don't see the difference -- they think that that the art is the artist. I've read interviews with Joni Mitchell where she talks about this. She says, "No, this is me being an artist -- I have personas, I'm telling stories about different people, but people assume they know who I am because they know my music so well."

AP: [sighs] That's a tricky one. Because the music is one thing, and the person that's written the music, or made the music, is another thing. The music does exist outside of that person.

TB: While there is some of you in the music, obviously...

AP: Yeah! There's big dollops of me. And then there's not -- I get to be very truthful, or I get to be a big fat liar. You get to do all those human things in your music. You get to pretend to be other people, you get to be yourself. You get to wear disguises, you get be stripped naked. But people shouldn't assume that they know, because they like a piece of music that you've done. That's a big mistake.

TB: So, back to the dreamlike quality of the song...

AP: I associate the sound of dreams with an organ -- if there's music in my dream, it's probably an organ. I remember when I was much younger, hearing about a record called "Escalator Over the Hill," by Carla Bley. I've never actually heard the music, and I sort of don't want to, because I remember, after I heard the title, that I went and fell asleep and dreamed what the music would be like. I know I would be incredibly disappointed if I ever heard the real music, because in the dream it was these multi-layered, multi-colored organ pieces. Probably more akin to some things that Philip Glass or Steve Reich or Terry Riley have done.

So, I associate organ with dreams, and as soon as I started to play this organ with the added fifths, I was in medieval time, on the land, and it was a dream, and it all tied together, you know? And, funny enough, this song about reality and having your feet on the ground was recorded in the very cardboard bowels of fakedom!

TB: [laughing] Los Angeles.

AP: Which everyone knows, in Spanish, stands for "City of Lying Bastards"! [laughs]

TB: [laughing] So that's how it translates! Interesting.

Let's talk about that recording process. You have Pat Mastelotto on drums...

AP: This is Pat, and the first thing we recorded for this track was the straight cymbal.

TB: I was going to ask you about that, because I think I'd read in an interview with him that he couldn't play that straight eighth-note pattern on the ride cymbal while playing the kick-and-snare pattern that you hear on the album.

AP: No, I wanted that -- it's on the demo. I wanted the tension between the straight cymbal and then the swung-played kit, inherent with the jazz feel of the piece.

TB: Had you ever intended him to play that part?

AP: Not at once, because I know he's not an octopus! But the first thing we recorded was that straight cymbal.

TB: And that's him playing? That's not a machine?

AP: I think that's him. It could be a loop, but I think it's him. And then, in Ocean Way, where we did all the drums -- beautiful-sounding room -- we did the whole kit playing along. But the kit is played in this very lazy, swung jazz feel.

I liked the tension of the swing jazz feel against the very straight ride cymbal -- it's the same sort of tension that's in the music of "Summertime Blues" by Eddie Cochran. You get [mimics beat and chord pattern] -- part of it's straight, and part of it's accented. It's the slightly dotted feel against the very straight feel. The tension between those two feels, against each other, is marvelous. And that's what I wanted with this. I wanted the tension of the straight cymbal against the dotted jazz-feel cymbal.

TB: I love how he throws in the hi-hat crash on the "and" after "two."

AP: Yeah, he just lets it ring open and wobble.

TB: Yeah, kind of using it as a crash almost, but the two cymbals continue -- I would say beating off each other, but that doesn't sound right...

AP: [laughing] Well that's a certain sort of instructional DVD, isn't it!

Actually, somebody just did a jazz version of "Chalkhills" -- I don't have the CD right now...

TB: Oh, that was Anthony! Anthony Setola.

AP: That's right! There you go. And it's Mike Keneally playing my vocal line on guitar.

TB: Yeah. You know, Anthony's a -- well, Mike's a monster, but Anthony's a monster player, too.

AP: Yeah, that's a beautiful-sounding record, actually. So, when you see him, tell him how good it is! Very flattering to have a track like that covered.

TB: Yeah, I know him through Rob Cosentino, the guy who originally started up the XTCfans MySpace site, and who owns Nonsuch Productions, that studio in Bowie, MD, where I've done a bit of recording.

Actually, Anthony plays bass on that version of "Holly Up on Poppy" that Harrison [Sherwood] and I did, where I arranged the song as if the '77 band were playing it. If you listen to the bass line on this, Anthony does this really crazy line that only he could have played. We originally went in, and I played drums and keyboards and sang, and Harrison played guitar and bass, but Harrison's bass part was very straight. Anthony said, "I have an idea for this," and we heard it, it was like, "Yeah! That works."

AP: [laughs] Yep, sometimes that's the way things happen!

TB: So, back to the song -- I like the way Pat stretches out at the end of the song.

AP: I just said he could go wild, but within the rhythmic feel of the rest of the playing. I wanted the end to really fall apart into this droning, dreamlike thing, where parts of the lyric come across, and there's lots of repetition. Everything's sort of smashing together, like you're trying to frantically grasp for bits of reality in the dream, you know?

TB: Very well-recorded -- great stereo separation as he goes around the kit.

AP: Yeah. I mean, Ed Thacker -- when he records tom-toms, they stay recorded! [laughs]

TB: What else about the arrangement of the song?

AP: Let's see -- the wind chimes are Paul Fox's. You know, the part where it builds up to a title line that's not there? [at about 2:30 in the song] Where I sing, "rolling up on three empty tires, 'til the..."

TB: Yeah, then it's just keyboards there.

AP: And Paul Fox's wind chimes. They were hung outside his apartment, and I thought we should put them on there as an homage to "Wind Chimes" by The Beach Boys, which I'd only heard two years earlier.

TB: Right. And this is song does have a Beach Boys feel to it...

AP: Yeah. I felt a bit tricky about that, because they were a big influence on me, especially since I'd starting hearing their albums, from about '86 onwards. I was only aware of their singles before then, but once I started hearing their albums, I realized they'd gone in deeper than I thought. I could see that this song was kind of coming out Beach Boys-like, and it was a case of, "Well, just try to rein it in a bit, but if it wants to come out like that, don't be too ashamed of it."

TB: Sure. It's not like you were doing the "ah-ooo" background vocals or anything...

AP: No, there's no "bap da-dooby-dooby" stuff in there. But I thought the wind chimes would be a great little texture, and a little nod from me toward "Wind Chimes."

TB: So, what's up with the line about "three empty tires," anyway? I've always wondered about that.

AP: Well, that's me, Dave, and Colin, you know. How the hell we got there, I don't know. We're just three empty tires rolling along.

TB: [laughing] That's funny, I never even thought of it that way, but it's obvious once you say it.

So, Dave's playing keyboards on this song...

AP: Dave's playing keyboards -- and there are a lot of them. There are a lot of different keyboard textures laid over each other. You can hear some that are a bit like voices, some that are kind of wheezy and reed-like, some that are more Hammond organ-like. And there's rather a lot of them. But that's sort of what makes the patchwork of fields you're going over, if you know what I mean.

TB: I do. Colin has a nice bass tone on this, too.

AP: Yeah, very placid-sounding. It has to be, because you're floating over hills. He also plays a bass line that echoes the singing -- echoing the "Even I never know" part.

TB: And what are you playing?

AP: I'm not actually playing on this track at all, apart from singing. I'm not playing any instruments.

TB: So there's no guitar at all? I thought there might be some acoustic mixed in there.

AP: No. There's nothing. Not that I can remember. I just get to be the sleepy nightclub singer on this.

TB: How many different vocal lines do you have going on at the end there?

AP: Oh, sheesh, there are all sorts, you know, that have to be faded up and faded back. It's just meant to be a real dreamlike mash. I mean, really, given what we did there, we just had to finish off the album with this song.

6:53 PM

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