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Jan 26, 2008

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Andy discusses 'River of Orchids'

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, "River of Orchids," is from 1999's Apple Venus, Vol. 1.

It seems we flummoxed the fans during the latest round of Guess the next Andyview with the clue "a song that should pluck at the heartstrings of Jan Svankmajer fans everywhere." What ... too obscure? Run right out to your local butcher and start exploring Mr. Svankmajer's catalog today. You won't be sorry.

We'll be back in two weeks with a look at an early song that's full of hot air.

TB: Alright, so -- keeping the watery theme going from last week...

AP: [gasps]

TB: [laughing] I gots to do my segues, man!

AP: [laughs] You've become like a DJ! Or, not DJ, because it's not disc jockey -- you're an e-J!

TB: Or a hard-disk jockey. I like the idea of that. I'm a hard man, you know.

AP: [laughing] There you go.

TB: So, [Casey Kasem voice] it's time for a blast from the past -- actually, the fairly recent past -- let's talk about "River of Orchids."

AP: Oh, I don't know if it's that recent! I mean, Jesus! It's getting on nine years now. C'mon. For most bands, that's four times their career!

TB: When exactly did you write this song? According to the notes for Homespun, while writing Nonsuch, you had a Proteus sound module...

AP: That's right, yep. It was a Proteus One, I think. An emulator.

TB: There's not an actual date of when you did it.

AP: It was very early on in what would be the material for the next album -- about 1990, I think. I was going toward the whole orchestral thing because I got very excited by "Rook" and "Wrapped in Gray" on Nonsuch. To me, those two songs are the first two Apple Venus tracks.

TB: I can see that.

AP: You know, just like "Funk Pop a Roll" is the first Big Express track. That's because there's never a dividing line, you know? Bands just write stuff and work on stuff and record stuff, and you find that there's never a clear demarcation on how it gets apportioned into being on this or that album.

TB: Was it the pizzicato string sound that first got you going on this?

AP: Some days you just sit there and noodle on the guitar, which I do constantly, or you noodle on the keyboard, which I do less, because I'm not such a good keyboard player. Any keyboard noodling from me is naive and primitive, to say the least. But with a sequencer, which was a relatively new addition to the arsenal, it was great. Because previous to then, I had to drop in everything one chord at a time, or just not play keyboards very much. With a sequencer you can run around and around, and build up the layers that you want until you almost sound like you can play!

It was those beautifully recorded pizzicato sounds in this emulator -- I just had a little two-bar pattern going around, with a pushed double-bass line. That's the thrower. That's the thing where people think, "Wow! What weird time signature is this in?" Well, it's 4/4, but the bass plucks are all on "a-one." They're all pushed. People tend to think of the bass line as being on the "one," but it's not.

I built up this little two-bar pattern of plucked bass, plucked violins, plucked violas, plucked cellos -- plucked chicken! -- and some little trumpet "parps" -- little balloons of sound. Rhythmic balloons. It's the close clusters of the trumpet that I thought were sort of exciting. You know, they're seconds and close intervals like that. They really grate in a nice way.

I just let this two-bar loop go around and around. I was really excited, and thought, "God, this is so rhythmic." I actually remember dancing to it for quite a while. I started to improvise vocals, thinking, "I wonder if I've got a lyric that would somehow fit this." I went back through my notebooks, and there was something I'd written in my notebook while we working on recording Nonsuch -- it was the phrase, "A dandelion roared in Piccadilly Circus."

I like the silly juxtaposition of "a dandelion roared" -- a dandelion isn't an animal, it's a flower, a weed. And it can't roar. And where do lions roar? In a circus, but Piccadilly Circus is not a circus! And there are no weeds in Piccadilly Circus! So, it was a circular chain of events contradicting themselves into a perfect circle.

I started to scat this out over what I thought was an intensely dance-y kind of rhythmic thing. But it wasn't the usual thing you'd think of as a groove -- like a beefy drum groove with a funky bass and a choppy rhythm guitar -- it was plucked strings, and little offbeat parp-y trumpets. It's all very percussive in its way, but it's not standard instrumentation.

I took my shoes and socks off and was jumping around my shed -- as you can -- there's not much room to jump -- you've seen it. This phrase just seemed to fit perfectly, and that was it. That opened the floodgates -- I started thinking about London, and traffic, because of those little parping horns suggest cars. Like irate people stuck in a traffic jam or something.

Plus, there's something about pizzicato strings -- the shorthand for them in my head is raindrops, or water drops. So it was [fast] "London, water, the Thames, river -- river of what? River of traffic! Oh no, that's awful! Wouldn't it be nice if it were a river of ... orchids!" That's the sort of sound and word association that led to that conclusion.

TB: With the thrust of the song being to replace the river of traffic with something natural.

AP: With a river of flowers, yeah. Either going through London floating on the Thames, orchids and pond lilies and lotus and all that around you, or -- quite literally -- stopping the traffic on all the roads and motorways, and planting them out with flowers. So, that was the rather convoluted way that I got there.

TB: Where did the line about wanting to walk into London on your hands one day come from?

AP: Do you know, I've no idea! I guess it's because you wouldn't want to put your hands on the ground in London as it is. But you might want to if it were soil with flowers. Plus, you wouldn't get knocked over, you could appreciate the smell of the flowers -- it's like a free-spirited, acrobatic gesture, where you're freer -- you can walk on your hands through London. It's going to smell nice, it's going to feel nice, and hey, you don't have to worry.

But I can tell you were the line "a Peckham Rose" came from.

TB: It's from the Jan Svankmajer short, right?

AP: It's the Svankmajer shorts, yeah! Mmmm ... lovely! "Eat my Svankmajer shorts." How's that for a Czech surrealist Simpsons line? [laughs]

TB: [laughing] "Man." You've got to say that at the end of it, right?

AP: [laughs] Yeah, he's writing it on the blackboard. And then, when they rush to the sofa, they're all pieces of meat! One's a severed tongue, one's a steak, one's an eyeball -- oh, c'mon, how did they miss that? [laughs]

So yeah, I was watching Jan Svankmajer's short, "Punch and Judy," and when they're lighting the candles because the Judy character -- or, it's more of a harlequin character; I think the English translation of Punch and Judy is not quite right -- has gotten killed, and Punch lights some candles with Peckham Rose matches.

TB: Yeah, I remember when I was watching it, thinking, "Oh my god, there they are!"

AP: That's where it came from, yeah! I thought, "Wow! That's lovely. A Czech has used an area of London, and the name of a flower, in this little film." Then I thought, "Ooh, but wait -- we have matches in a few of our other things." We have "England's Glory -- a striking beauty" in "Senses Working Overtime," and we have the front of ship matches on "Wait 'til Your Boat Goes Down." So I thought, "Yeah, we have to have Peckham Rose to complete the trio of match references." Wait! There're matches in "I'll Set Myself on Fire"!

TB: There you go. So, it's a quartet.

AP: It's a quartet of match references. Now you've got me thinking -- are there more?

TB: There probably are. We'll have to get the fans enlisted in this quest.

AP: So, are there more than four match references? Let us know!

TB: Plus, the match reference is a joke -- it's the same thing as a dandelion roaring in Piccadilly Circus, right? Because you're pretending it's an actual flower...

AP: Yeah. Do you know, it might be! Google it -- is there a Peckham Rose? I just associated it with matches, and I thought, "Well, that's a great metaphor for London -- a sulfurous-smelling match."

TB: Let's see -- you come up number one! [pauses while reading results] Oh, that's funny -- there's a woman named Rose Peckham, who was born in 1930!

AP: [laughs] Is she a striking beauty?

TB: [laughs] Well, she's sloughed off this mortal coil, so not anymore! There's a bed-and-breakfast in Peckham, there's a pub with the name, but most of the references come from your lyrics.

AP: I feel bad about that, because they obviously are a match company or brand...

TB: Maybe not anymore.

AP: That's a shame! You know, I love matchbox art. I've been trying to get that sort of tidy graphics approach into our stuff for a long time.

TB: Which you were able to do, with stamps, with Fuzzy Warbles.

AP: I did stamps instead, but do you know, I still fantasize about matchcover art.

TB: Well, that's the next CD cover then, right?

AP: Oh yeah, with free matches, to encourage pyromania!

TB: The demo for this song is quite detailed.

AP: The demo -- it's all there, really, apart from the fact that it's not a real orchestra.

TB: So, as you built it out, you came up with different counter-lines and things...

AP: I was thrilled by the fact that it never changed. I do like repetition. You know that, for me, repetition is immensely inspirational. It's been through our work right from Day One.

I felt like a modern composer for the first time with this song. When I finished this song, I was so thrilled to have done something that was unlike any structure we had ever done, unlike any instrumentation we'd ever done, unlike anything we'd ever done -- I just wanted to it again. I guess it's tapping into the spirit of yourself at that time, and for me, I'd hit -- well, I can hardly say paydirt, because it didn't make a lot of money...

TB: Artistic paydirt.

AP: Yeah. I'd found my little soul perfectly, at that time. I was so thrilled that I wanted to go further into that. I don't know if I did. I mean, some things on that album got near it -- things like "The Last Balloon," or some bits of "Easter Theatre" -- but there's something about the purity of that repetitive pattern. I mean, there's less movement in that then there is in a Philip Glass thing. Because in one of his songs, you at least get things mutating or changing or a sudden switch of gears.

TB: But I think you do that, with the vocals.

AP: I do it with the vocals, but the music is unchanging.

TB: But don't you actually grow the music throughout the piece? You do build it up in complexity and layers.

AP: At the beginning, you get the surrogate river being built from drips of water. Which is not on the demo, but after I'd finished the demo, I thought, "Ah, damn, it would have been great to have had that build." So I sat with [producer] Haydn Bendall, who came down to my shed, and we mapped out how the track would build from one pluck and one drip to be that cyclical riff. We decided the best way to do it was to have it all in time -- all the plucks and ploops and stuff -- but have them come in in a seemingly random way. They're all in exactly the right place, but it's only pieces of them at first.

TB: Right. It's just as if you have a piano roll, but the holes are not all punched in yet.

AP: Exactly! You know where they're going to be, because you marked them out with pencil, but you haven't actually punched them out. So, I don't know if people have figured this out yet -- I'm sure some have -- but all the plucks and ploops you hear are exactly where they're going to be by the time the whole orchestra doing its bit.

TB: That's one of the really fascinating things about the way it builds there -- you can actually hear the way the song is constructed.

AP: It's starting to become rhythmic from the first drop.

TB: And you also put the listener on notice about the production quality -- I remember listening to the demo and loving it, but when I heard Apple Venus the first time, and that double bass comes in at the beginning of the song -- it knocked me out. It's big.

AP: Well, that big plucked bass -- I mean, you get a plucked bass in Abbey Road Studio One, in England's most beautiful orchestral room -- you just get BOOM. All the natural ambiance around that hall is -- oh, it's sexual.

I remember when Colin and I went to New York to do some press stuff for this -- we were asked by a magazine to review some top-end stereo systems. They wanted us to hear some tracks from our album on these two or three swish systems -- you know, more expensive than my house! We sat in this room, and just to hear "River of Orchids" with the depth and clarity on these top-end stereo systems was really exciting. It was almost as good as being in the room while the orchestra were playing it.

TB: Speaking of which, let's talk about recording the orchestra.

AP: It was a hell of a lot to expect this 40-piece orchestra to stay in a perfect, mechanical groove for the whole of the song, so we cut out the best sections, and reproduced them -- if they lost the groove at all, it'd be, "Okay, cut that bar out," or, "Those few bars are brilliant -- can we have a few more of those?" We pieced it together from the best bits. But hey, that's the nature of orchestral performances. They do that with the great classical recordings -- they take the best bars from here, there and everywhere. It's always a Frankenstein.

Then, to give it a little more mechanical spine, we took the original demo sequence, which was the template, and said , "Hey, what's it like if we feed the 'fake' stuff in under the live stuff?" It did make it sound stronger and more robust.

TB: So, the demo's on the album!

AP: Yep. The demo is underneath the orchestra really playing it. And that goes for the plips and plups that make up the intro, too.

TB: Let's talk about the vocals a little bit, because, as we were saying, this is where you do build complexity, and you have variety. I know one of the things that really impresses me about this song is how layered and dissonant you get, especially toward the end.

AP: It's that sexy thing of, "It all works." That's the sexy bit -- you can stack up this many oiled asses. Some of the best porn I've ever seen is where they get two or three women to lay on top of each other, and you can just select from one to the other. [laughs] I mean, is that every man's fantasy or what?

When all these pieces lay over each other, it's so thrilling. You know, J.S. Bach knew that, and a lot of other great composers knew that. I was just late stumbling into this thing and finding out the joy of getting a piece that works when you lay it over another section.

With this whole song, because it's just built on two bars, you're sort of governed by what you can use. If you've done it well, it's all gonna fit! And, in this case, it does. Because the actual melody is sort of a jazz nursery rhyme, if such a genre could exist. Oh, I've said the word "genre" -- I'm so sorry! [laughs] I'll rewind and de-Frenchify myself there. "Type" -- this type of music. There you go. God, I hate myself when I say the word "genre."

TB: "Type" is much more Saxon of you.

AP: Exactly. "Genre" is so effete! It's so pretentious!

TB: [laughing] At least you didn't say "oeuvre"!

AP: Ohhhh. I always think of "egg" when I hear that! "That's my egg. That's the type of egg he does." [laughs]

Where were we? It's a nursery rhyme, and the vast majority of it is in that jazzy triplet feel --which I can't leave alone.

TB: Well, as you say, it works.

AP: It works, yeah. And it especially works over that pushed bass line and the offbeat string plucks.

TB: The vocals on the studio version are much more complex than on the demo.

AP: They're also split in stereo. If you listen, a vocal will be on one side, and a distorted reproduction of it will be on the other side.

TB: A distorted reproduction of the original vocal, or did you sing the part again?

AP: It's the same vocal, but reproduced and distorted so that it comes seemingly from two tonal places at the same time. One's sharper and more distorted, and one's more natural. On headphones, you can hear that easily. You hear one vocal, but it's been split and processed in two, totally different ways, to give it this unusual, faux stereo thing.

Then, you get all those different, crossing patterns as well. And there's the rather placid and Thames-like part in what I guess you would call the chorus section -- there are no choruses, because it's not a conventional song structure by any means -- but there's that section of [sings], "River of Orchids, winding my way." That's very placid, and it does actually make me think of the Thames. There's something big and flat about it, with a slow, placid pace leading up to the faster triplet part -- which is more scurrying feet and scurrying traffic.

TB: Sure. If you think about the subject matter for each of those parts, your approach there is perfectly appropriate. When you're talking about the River of Orchids, the place you want to get, you are more placid. And when you're "complaining"...

AP: [laughs] Having a good jazz moan!

TB: That's when it's more staccato, and you're doing the triplet thing.

AP: Sure. And I'm pushing the undesired car off of the road.

TB: When you were adding these additional intervals in the vocals, did you chart it out, or was it a matter of going through and saying, "Oh, if I add a second or a seventh here, it'll sound good"?

AP: I might not be as -- how shall I say -- smart as that, actually. I just feel things instinctively.

TB: Well, then, you are as smart as that. You're just doing it without writing it down.

AP: It's just animal, as opposed to mathematical. I mean -- I knew that, to make the "chorus" section more placid, I should split it into two octaves, so it's got a thickness to it. The Thames has a depth.

TB: Right. That's the sonic metaphor there. And again, when you go back into the other part, not only are you more frantic rhythmically, but you have the dissonance in there, with notes rubbing against each other, and there's the tension that you create that way as well.

AP: Mmm.

TB: How about Colin? Was he involved in the vocals on this, or was this all you?

AP: He's on those chorus sections, because it's a whole crowd of us singing sedately. Other than that, the poor sod is kind of locked out from this track.

TB: I was going to ask, is there a bass part that he plays?

AP: Because it's a double bass in the studio, being plucked, the poor devil was somewhat locked out of this. He does play on some of the other songs on the album where there is double bass -- he plays either a counter line, or a higher, sort of more tenor line on the bass. But on this one, I think he had to go get a few cups of tea in the Abbey Road canteen. It's a bit of a difficult situation -- you're sort of juggling egos, but you're also thinking, "The song is greater than me, and it's greater than him, so what does the song want? The song wants to be like that, and there's just no room for an electric bass guitar in this one."

5:13 PM

©2008 by Todd Bernhardt and Andy Partridge. All Rights Reserved.