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Last Updated:
Mar 24, 2008

Monday, April 28, 2008


Andy discusses 'Beating of Hearts'

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, "Beating of Hearts," is from 1983's Mummer.

XTConnoisseur John Relph, the force majeure behind Chalkhills, got it right on his debut guess. Let's see how he does with this one -- we'll be back at in two weeks with an interview about a song that brings a lump to Andy's throat when he talks about it.

TB: Let's talk about the album-opener for Mummer -- "Beating of Hearts."

AP: It's going to be tricky for me to come up with much about this, but you, being the chief inquisitor that you are...

TB: [chuckles] I'll get it out of you. Time to go on the rack! Bring out the comfy pillows!

AP: You're gonna Guantanamo me, baby!

TB: [laughs] Wait, I've got to put on Loverboy at volume 11, to truly torture you...

AP: [laughs] Yeah, put on "The Final Countdown" by Europe. What music do they use to torture the prisoners?

TB: Apparently any Death Metal, or anything that has a lot of bass and drums and sinister, choppy guitars.

AP: Does it come out on the GuantanaMotown label?

TB: [laughing] All the greatest hits!

AP: [laughing] Greatest hits, greatest punches, greatest waterboarding in the world!

TB: Actually, strangely enough, that's a good segue to talk about this song, which is all against violence and talks instead about the power of love.

AP: The power of love. Right on!

TB: Let's start off by talking about the history of this song. This is one of the last, if not the last, songs that Terry drummed on.

AP: That's right. It was a pair that we did as a kind of audition for Steve Nye, the engineer, and also auditioning Genetic Studios, which belonged to Martin Rushent, the producer who produced "Are You Receiving Me?" He had his own studio complex, up in the woods in Reading. He must have bought these buildings off the army or something -- they were these weird bunkers up in the woods.

So, it was like, "Okay, let see what these studios are like -- it might be good to do the album there -- and we'll also do two tracks, because Virgin are talking about a double A-side single." That means they can't decide, and they don't want to upset the songwriters. [laughs]

TB: Talk a little bit about your relationship with Virgin at this time, because this was right after you'd said, "No more."

AP: It was not in a good place. It went very bad from '82 until the late '80s. It was going way down the slippery slopes, because we were getting ready, with the Mummer album, to make the album that would sell almost the least of our career, I think.

TB: Really? I thought The Big Express held that dubious distinction.

AP: I'm not sure. I think it's [laughs] kind of a photo finish! Or no, it wouldn't even be that fast, it'd be a linocut finish with these two poor-selling albums. I think they've sold a lot more since, but at the time, they probably sold about 30,000 or something each, and I think Virgin were very upset, because they wanted mega-millions.

TB: And you were poised for world domination after English Settlement...

AP: Well, we were certainly poised for English domination, because the English Settlement album had been Top 5, and the single was Number 10 -- that's the highest we've actually been in the English charts, disgraceful to say. Until Top of the Pops finished on television, I'd always watch it and see what was at Number 10, because that was supposedly culturally comparable to where we were! God, that's a shock -- some of the shit you've got to share your number in the charts with.

So we were trying out Steve Nye, because we liked the sound of the Tin Drum album -- I didn't like the singing; I actually found it slightly comical, to be honest. It was sort of like somebody taking the piss out of Bryan Ferry. But I love the actual sound of the record -- it was beautifully recorded.

TB: So that's how you hooked up with him -- it was you being proactive?

AP: I think somebody at Virgin gave us the Tin Drum album. "Oh here, try this band, you might like them." Because you used to walk into their offices, and they'd give you stuff.

TB: Right. And then charge the artists for it.

AP: [laughs] Or charge us! We'd be looking for beer in the fridges of the A&R people, or something like that, and they'd be foisting these albums on us that we didn't particularly want.

So they gave me this, and I kind of liked it song-wise, but I really, really liked the sound of it. So, it was a case of "Let's try the potential of a double A-side single, and let's try Steve Nye, and let's try Genetic Studios." It was kind of a gamble, which didn't start very well, because on the first day of the session, I think Steve Nye turned up about 4:00 in the afternoon, and I think we'd been there since about 10:00 in the morning. I did not feel kindly to him when he walked through the door, and was just like, "Alright lads?" It was a matter of, "Where have you been?" He'd failed test number one, which in my book is punctuality.

TB: The engineers, presumably, had been there?

AP: Well, the in-house person from Genetic Studios was racing around trying to get a load of microphones ready, not knowing which ones the Steve Nye would want to use...

TB: Oh, so it's not even like you were filling the time getting a sound or anything?

AP: No! I think we were just sort of jamming, and messing around and saying, "Where the fuck is he?" He arrived very late, and that was a bad start to me. And I think it was kind of an omen about his personality. He's a wonderful engineer, but he's possibly the grumpiest person we've ever worked with.

We did choose to work with him. He did pass the audition purely on the beauty of his recorded sounds, but he was tricky to work with.

TB: I think that, for a 1980s album, Mummer has aged quite well, because of its overall sound.

AP: That's because, apart from rather subtle synthesizers, there's nothing too artificial on it. I mean there's probably more synthesizer on the Abbey Road album than there is on Mummer! But that's Steve Nye. When he records things, they are very subtle and they do have a quality. Even when he records fake things, synthetic things, they do seem to have an analog beauty, or almost a living, breathing kind of quality. That's an amazing talent, you know?

But you'd work with him, and arrive at, say, 10 in the morning, and he'd be hunched over the mixing desk putting a mix together or getting some stuff ready, and it'd be hours before he'd talk to you! He wouldn't even say good morning. It might be two or three hours had passed before he'd say [grunts].

TB: When you've talked about the role of the producer, you've emphasized how important it is for them to have strong interpersonal skills.

AP: Oh, they're midwives! They have to have a great bedside manner, and if they don't, you're thinking, "Well, I don't want to pop my baby out for you to pull it! You're not going to put your hands around the head of my baby! Get me someone else."

But Steve Nye is as grumpy and tricky an individual to get on with as he is marvelous as an engineer. His engineering is truly beautiful. Really platinum-quality recording. I mean, things like the drums on "Ladybird" are just totally three-dimensional. That's how to record a kit, you know?

TB: Even the drums on this song are quite focused and nice. Is there anything that you remember particularly about recording the part? The toms are very tuned.

AP: I think Terry was probably bullied by Steve Nye into tuning them up. I realize now the importance of well-tuned drums. I mean, after you've worked with people like Dave Mattacks and Chuck Sabo, people whose kits are so beautifully tuned that they sound musical when get played, and you think, "Oh, that's a delight to your ears!", you appreciate it. But Terry wasn't like that. I don't think he particularly tuned his drums. As long as they felt kind of tight enough, but there wasn't any particular thing he did. I don't remember his drums sounding particularly musical -- if anything, they sounded kind of box-like. They did sound musical when he played them, though.

But the idea for the drums for "Beating of Hearts" was based on a kind of buoyant Indian rhythm. You know, [sings] boom-badap-bom, boom-badap-bom, boom. I don't think Terry actually plays it as buoyantly as I would have liked. He doesn't quite put those accents in the sort of micro-meter place that gives them the buoyancy that beat has when Indian drummers play it.

TB: Yeah, it was interesting even to hear you sing that, because there is a very subtle difference.

AP: He's a little bit more linear in his approach. The difference is tiny, but important.

TB: Then there's the fast triplet pattern on the high drum...

AP: Oh yeah, that was overdubbed later.

TB: And that was what, a Roto-tom?

AP: Yeah, I think it was, sort of tuned up and played to match the guitar during that one pattern.

TB: And then there's a tambourine on the "one" that was overdubbed later?

AP: That was added later, yeah.

TB: But otherwise, that's pretty much it for the drums, right?

AP: Yeah, it's very minimal! He just cycles 'round that rhythm all the time. Good sense of timing -- I don't think he played it to a click track, because Terry didn't like click tracks.

TB: Yeah, he told me that he never played with a click while with you guys.

AP: He would just sit and get in the groove. It feels good, time-wise.

TB: You were talking about how this has kind of an Indian rhythm -- what prompted you do that? Was this the backbone that you built the song from?

AP: Well, I always wanted to do something with that buoyant, bobbing rhythm, but the whole song really came from the guitar tuning. I'd read somewhere that The Glitter Band had got the sound on their guitars by tuning every string to the same note, which they then played through a distortion pedal with a bottleneck. So, instead of chords, you had six notes [chuckles] sort of overdubbed simultaneously, if you see what I mean. I thought, "Well, that's a fantastic sound! I wonder what it's like to mess around with." So I just tried it -- I tried tuning every string to the note of E. I'd heard that they tuned to the note of A, but I thought I'd try it with E.

So, I was dragging the plectrum across the strings, and it sort of made a rhythm as you played -- drrrr-lang, drrrr-lang. Because it was all the same note.

TB: Right, but slightly different timbres, because you have different weights of strings.

AP: Different weights and thicknesses of strings, yeah. And then you just throw your hand on, in a straight barre, and you're playing -- well, not quite chords, because at best they can only be octaves of each other. So, they're not chords, and their not single notes, what are they? They're something else.

I was just moving my finger around in a straight barre on the guitar [sings "Beating of Hearts" guitar pattern], and very soon a song came out.

That almost chime-like, or bell-like, guitar pattern suggested ethnic instruments to me -- certainly somewhere east of Dover, like India, or the Middle East, or maybe the Balkans or something. And I thought, "Well, if the song is growing the way it's coming out now, we'd have to make the drums fit with that as well."

Then, in the studio, we had the Prophet imitate -- I don't think we knew about sampling at the time, and there was no way to play samples on a keyboard, I don't think -- a kind of orchestral bowed bass and/or cello thing, and we knocked up an accordion patch.

I would actually do that -- I would take the Prophet 5 home, and sit there and build things I knew I might want in the future. It was like a hobby, you know? "Hey, let's see if I can make an accordion!"

So, we fleshed out the east-of-Ipswitch [chuckles] sound, with our fake instruments, Terry doing his curry-flavored best on the drums, and Dave and I, with these jousting, six-stringed, one-note guitars.

TB: I remember reading that one of the ways you got the distinctive sound of the guitars on this song is that you played electric guitars but you mic'd them, and played them as if they were acoustic.

AP: That's right. We did that a lot -- the first time we did it was "Pulsing Pulsing", and I really liked it. I could hear it at home, because I'd have an open mic on a cassette machine or something, and would be just strumming an electric, and I thought, "I like the acoustic quality of when you get the mic near the guitar -- you get these super highs that don't go down the pickups."

So, we did that from "Pulsing Pulsing," which was Drums and Wires time, onwards. It's all over English Settlement, and from then on, really. It's even on Wasp Star.

TB: But on most other songs you'd just use it as a type of sound reinforcement, right? Whereas on this one it's very prominent.

AP: It's prominent, yeah. Usually, we'd have the electric signal go out to the DI and/or an effect or amp somewhere, and then we'd put a mic about a half-inch away from the strings, so you had to sit very close and not move, you know? Then it would capture those super-highs, and you'd blend them in with however you'd process the electric side of the signal, and you either have that as one sound, or you split them across the stereo. You'd have, say, the acoustic side to the left, and the electric, treated side to the right.

A great example of that is "I'm the Man Who Murdered Love." You listen to the rhythm guitar, and it's an electric guitar done in that way. It seems to play across your head, because you have the acoustic side of the electric on one side, and the treated side of the electric on the other.

So, the guitars on "Beating of Hearts" -- Dave's playing a 12-string, I think...

TB: [chuckling] And all 12 were tuned to E?

AP: Tuned to E, yeah. He may contradict me, if you talk to him, but I think it was a 12-string. But we mic'd it up and blended it with the electric side of it, and the same with my guitar.

TB: You were playing the Ibanez on this?

AP: I think so. I'd say the acoustic side of it is heavier in the mix. Because it sounds very thin and brittle. But I love that sound, actually.

TB: It's funny -- yuou've talked to me before about the fact that your guitar chord shapes or patterns are easier than people may think, and this is one of those cases where I thought you guys were doing something exotic.

AP: No, I think they're mostly just straight-barre patterns, but across all those strings -- it's like a rolled R, you know?

TB: So, there's a call-and-response thing you and Dave are doing? Is that how it worked?

AP: I'm playing on the intro, where you hear two guitars, and all the middle sections as well. Then, we're sort of jousting against each other. You know, I play the pattern, then he would do it -- it's sort of like a canon effect.

TB: Let's talk about the lyrics a little bit. When in the process did the lyrics come in?

AP: I can't remember how the musical side suggested the lyrical side. I'm guessing it would have been the kind of -- now, this is really corny, but I'm going to have to say it -- it's probably that, for me, the Indian-type sound equals 1967 or '68, which means love, and that led to the whole thing about the heart being the strongest rhythm -- the human heart being the most powerful thing.

It really is one of those rather corny, "there's nothing greater than the power of the human heart"-type songs. So, like I was saying, it's kind of tricky for me to come up with anything to say about it, other than it's made up of descriptions of the power of emotion -- human emotion and love, good; war and war equipment, bad.

TB: Why did you build the lyrics around the whole concept of sound and loudness?

AP: I guess it's the thing of, however loud you can think of these loud war noises -- explosions, rifles, screaming war lords, tanks, bombers -- you know, the most awful sounds that man can make, probably topped off with an atom bomb -- sure, they can blow people to bits, but human emotion and the human heart makes a subtle, very quiet noise that is stronger than all of those.

TB: So, the difference is inside versus outside.

AP: It's inside versus outside, it's the beating of this little motor that keeps you alive, and helps you make decisions for good, and make decisions not to kill, and not to destroy. It's far more powerful. I guess I'm just a soppy old pacifist at heart.

TB: The lyrics are full of idealism, but the music is kind of dark.

AP: The music's dark, and some of the sentiments -- certainly those that describes some of the negative aspects of human behavior in there -- are rather dark...

TB: "Tanks on the highway" is a pretty grim image...

AP: Yeah, that, and "bombers in flight" -- that sort of thing.

TB: The demo for this is on Hinges, right?

AP: Yeah, I think it is!

TB: You've got a little beat box going on there...

AP: A little beat box thumping away -- poorly recorded. Very badly recorded demo.

TB: Well, were you even using a multi-track recorder then, or just singing into a cassette recorder?

AP: It was a four-track cassette machine. It was the first album that I had any facility to record in multi-track, and I wasn't very good at it yet. I was really learning the trade as I went.

TB: Let's talk about the vocals a bit.

AP: You know the bit that goes "buoya-dada, buoya-dada, buoya-dada"? The bit that sounds like a Popeye vinyl record stuck in a groove? That came from a TV program I saw, where I saw this Indian tabla player explain that they have to learn to sing all the patterns they play during the kind of classical regimen they go through to learn the instrument. You know, "dah-dah dikki-dah dikki-dah dikki-di dahdahdah." That sort of thing.

So that was my intent on that part -- to sound like a tabla teacher. I don't think I pulled it off -- like I say, it's more like broken vinyl Popeye.

TB: Well, I think the intent came through. It's a very percussive vocal part.

AP: But it's a bit silly! Whenever I hear it, I end up thinking that. "Why do you want the sound of an ersatz tabla teacher on your record?" [laughs]

Also, I'm harmonizing with myself on this...

TB: Yeah, I've always liked the harmonies you did there, and kind of had a feeling that it was all you.

AP: I wanted it to be really snaky and tight, and it's difficult for another person to get exactly the timbre and the same melodic line as you...

TB: And to feel the rhythm in exactly the same way -- the same phrasing. You take an interesting approach to the harmonies there, where you split apart, and one part will go down while another goes up, and then you come toward each other again, then split back apart. Was that all thought out, or just an in-the-studio thing?

AP: I can't remember what's on the demo -- if it's on the demo, then it would have been thought-out pretty early on, but if it wasn't, it was a later, "Ooh, let's try that!"-type of thing. Because usually there's at least 10 percent of stuff that rears its ugly head in the studio while you're playing a song, and if you're lucky, even more.

Sometimes when you're knocking a song through in the studio, you can find some things that you just never foresaw, and it can really make a song. And, conversely, it can break one, because sometimes you put a song under the magnifying glass, and rather than magnifying and apparently becoming bigger, the sun burns it [chuckles] and it sort of shrivels and dies.

TB: You were talking about an accordion sound and bowed instruments...

AP: It was a case of, "Well, we can't really afford a bowed double-bass, or a couple of cello players, so maybe we can just knock something up," you know? The sounds are okay, but as I say, they're much saved by Steve Nye's engineering, which is beautiful.

TB: I remember the first time I played this song -- I had a nice, powerful stereo with speakers that had 15-inch woofers, and the first time I heard "bombers in flight," the windows shook.

AP: "Bombers in [sings it very low] fliiiight"...

TB: Yeah, you saw my hint, and I don't know if it is the lowest note...

AP: I think it is, actually! I know that when we were mixing "Wonderland" initially in AIR Studios with Steve Nye -- the mix that we didn't use, because we used Alex Sadkin and Phil Thornally's mix -- that George Martin was hanging around, because Steve Nye had requested an sub-octave device. We were looking for something to make the "booping" keyboard go down lower than the bass drum. So there was George Martin, setting up this sub-octave device for us and dialing that up, and so we got to work with George Martin for five minutes.

TB: Did you get to pepper him with questions?

AP: Pepper him! Hey, nice! [laughs] We Revolver'd him...

TB: [laughing] You Taxed him, Man...

AP: It was taxing, man, yeah. No, unfortunately we only saw him a very short time, and then we ended up not using that mix.

1:02 AM

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