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Mar 24, 2008

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Andy discusses ‘Rook’

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, "Rook," is from 1992's Nonsuch. (The battle between Per and Kim continues, with the latest round going the Swedish insomniac. Kim still has a lead in superdelegates, but he's gaining fast ... oh, wait, maybe that has to do with something else.)

We'll be back at in two weeks with an Andyview about a song that was a hit for a duo other than XTC.

TB: Let's talk about "Rook," the "first song from Apple Venus Vol. 1," as you've sometimes called it -- that, and "Wrapped in Grey." In terms of the songwriting cycle, when you were writing songs for Nonsuch, where did "Rook" fall? Was it one of the later ones?

AP: It was about in the middle. I looked at the track sheets this afternoon -- I've still got the track sheets from my home demos -- and I saw that there was a three-month gap where I didn't write anything. I was recording some bits and pieces with Peter Blegvad, making this thing for him to sell his album, King Strut and Other Stories, called "Peter Who?", but otherwise I wasn't doing any stuff for myself. I think the only thing I did was "It's Snowing Angels," which was for the Strange Things Are Happening magazine.

I couldn't find a song -- I'd sort of dried up, you know? I was getting really worried, because it was three months, and I was rather concerned that I couldn't find anything.

TB: Was the album scheduled and looming on the horizon?

AP: Well, people were saying, "When are you going to go in? When are you going to be doing this album?" And I seemed to have ground to a halt in the songwriting. I wondered, "Whoa! Have I written my last song?"

It wasn't like today, where I'm writing lots and lots of little bits, but I'm just in a funny state of mind where I don't want to finish any of them off. It's about 350 at the last count.

But back then, I was in the state of mind where I was desperate to write songs, but couldn't. Then, one day, I found this chord change on the guitar -- I don't know where it came from -- and I thought, "Oh, that's really nice. That almost sounds like a piano. Hey, let me work out what the notes would be on the piano!"

TB: I didn't realize it had started on guitar.

AP: It started there, yeah. I started to -- I don't know where the words came from, but I started to sing "Rook." And I was in floods of tears! In fact, I got really quite moist under the peepers when I was listening to it on headphones today -- sort of tapping into that emotion again, you know?

TB: Well, I think you're not the only one. It's one of the reasons people respond so well to this song. The emotion really comes through.

AP: But for me, it was also that this broke this dam -- where I had thought, "Oh, well, I've written my last song, then. That's it. This is what happens -- you just run out of songs." And then, after three months, out fell "Rook." And not only did it fall out unexpectedly, like rain from heaven when you're in the desert, but it also scared the living daylights out of me! There's something about the chords and the melody -- that rather doomy Folk-song melody, over these bell-like, summoning chords. It really gives me the shivers now, even talking about it.

And it did at the time. I remember thinking, "Where did this come from?" It was like I hadn't thought of it. It was like I'd been delivered it by some suggestion of a genie or an angel watching me. I don't believe in all that shit, but it kind of felt like that.

TB: There are lots of musicians who've talked about how sometimes it seems as if you tap into a great channel where Music is. You become the means of conveying it, rather than the creator.

AP: Yeah, you're just digging away, and you go through the last few inches of soil, and suddenly, bwooof!, you're covered in the most sparkling, clear water. And you think, "Wow, was that there all the time?" I don't feel like I wrote this. I'm not saying that I stole it, but I'm saying that it feels as if it was written for me, and dictated quietly into my ear or something.

TB: Tapping into the collective unconscious.

AP: Yeah, I had my head switched inadvertently to Radio Wonderful or something.

TB: So, how fast did the song write itself?

AP: Pretty quickly, I think.

TB: Over the course of an afternoon, or several days, or what?

AP: Oh, it would have been several days. But certainly the idea of the rook, and those chords, came quickly.

TB: When you talk about the chords, you're talking about that beginning pattern?

AP: Yep. The next section, the faster part, I wrote on piano. [laughs] I couldn't have found that on acoustic!

I really like that second section as well -- to me, that says "moderne," with an "e," composer -- the sort of thing you would hear on the soundtrack of black-and-white films in the '50s. You know, a couple would be up on the moors somewhere -- in fact, there's the instrumental version of "Rook" that we've got somewhere, and it just sounds like Basil Kirchin or somebody, or something like you'd hear in a movie like "A Taste of Honey."

So, yeah, it really frightened me, and I don't know why I was so frightened. I sort of feel like I had a weird glimpse into mortality or something.

TB: That comes through in the lyrics, certainly. Did you write the lyrics and piano parts together?

AP: Certainly, the "rook, rook" part came with the chords. Those chords made me think of the moors, and it was a matter of, "Oh, what's up there? There are birds, there are crows, there are rooks -- that's even better." Then the rhymes started to fall out from there, rather quickly. But it was the scenarios from the second section that took a bit longer. I think that comes from my desire to fly -- I do have that desire, which comes in out in a few songs.

TB: Sure, like "Chalkhills and Children."

AP: Exactly. There's this thing about "Take me up there, but I want to see down on the rooftops, I want to see those chimney pots and washing lines all flapping away." I'm garbling a bit here, because this is tricky to talk about. It does tap into some funny, dreamlike, glimpse-of-your-own-mortality stuff for me.

TB: Was there something specific going on in your life that might have even caused the block, and then allowed the floodgates to open? Is there some reason you were storing up this psychic energy up?

AP: That's a bloody good question, and I don't think I have an answer!

TB: Maybe with hindsight, you can look back and see something. I mean, we've talked before about how Nonsuch contains a lot of foreshadowing of the demise of your marriage.

AP: Yeah, sure, I'm predicting it's all going crap. With this song, I think it was my age, and it was a matter of realizing, "Hey, I'm going to die." [laughs ruefully] There's no limit on how late you can realize this, but I think I was realizing it then. And thinking, "Well, hell -- and I've never even flown! I've flapped my wings and flown in my dreams, but perhaps when I die I'll get to fly somewhere. Perhaps this nice little bird here will take me up -- my little soul will be on his back, and I'll get to see the tops of the roofs and such." Nearest I can get there now is Google Earth!

TB: When I first heard the song, the first thing I thought of was John Donne. Are you familiar with his poetry at all?

AP: Not very, no. I think we have some in the house here, but it's not a matter of [chuckles], "It's Friday night -- crack the beers open and get the John Donne out!"

TB: [laughing] "Crack open the mead!" But, you were familiar with the poem with the phrase "for whom the bell tolls"...

AP: Oh, sure.

TB: Was that kind of concept consciously going through your head as you were writing this, when you were saying, "Is that my name on the bell?" Or was it something else?

AP: I'm not sure about the concept about having the name on the bell. I think I must have made that up, since it's not in Donne. I like the scary proposition of the bell ringing, and it's got your name engraved on it. That's like more than permanent -- there's no doubt then. That's you. It's your funeral, buddy.

TB: I don't know if you've read any Carlos Castaneda, but the other thing that struck me was the imagery you used of the bird as the carrier of your soul.

AP: Yeah, I think somebody gave me one of his books when I was at college or something.

TB: He talks about the idea of reaching a mystic state where you can become the crow, or hawk, or whatever your spirit animal is...

AP: Oh sure, that's very common among those who worship nature.

TB: Suddenly the secrets are revealed to you, and here you are, in this song, saying, "Rook, show me the secrets. I know you know."

AP: Yeah, I like the idea that animals have secrets and they know things that we don't. That's not really a new idea. That's Cro-Magnon or earlier!

TB: Back when we were more in touch with nature.

AP: With flint! "Our Man Flint" meant something totally different! [chuckles]

TB: Let's talk about the recording of the song a little bit. Dave plays beautiful piano on this.

AP: Beautiful -- that's the piano in the Chipping Norton studios. He does a very nice job on this. And how he handles those B sections with the faster playing is beyond me. That's tricky stuff.

I do remember that the song began by not coming out well. At the time, while we were making the album, this was my favorite of the songs. It wasn't going right for some reason, and Gus Dudgeon made the glib remark of, "Oh, just bin it, then."

I was furious. It wasn't like, "Well, let's see what it is that we need to get right, to make this work for you, because I know this is your favorite." All he said was, "Oh, let's bin it."

TB: He knew it was your favorite of the songs?

AP: Well, I think I made that quite clear to him! But this flippant remark was just one more reminder that he was just not quite the right producer for that record. I was so upset. That was quite a slap in the face for me.

TB: What did you do to save the song?

AP: For some reason it wasn't working, and I can't remember the exact reason why.

TB: It was during rehearsals?

AP: No, it was during the recording process.

TB: So, you guys pretty much knew what you were doing -- it was just a matter of execution.

AP: I think it was just getting the right feel. I can't remember whether if the vocal was not quite right, or the piano was not quite right, but I guess Gus felt, "Oh, they've got loads of songs, we'll just not bother recording this one."

TB: Do you remember the order in which the instruments were put down? I'm assuming piano was first.

AP: It would have been piano to a click track.

TB: Then strings next?

AP: Well, we had a small string quartet, because that's all the budget would stretch to. So we got in contact with Stuart Gordon, the fellow who did the violin on The Big Express, and said, "Can you get together three other players" -- you know, two violins, viola and cello -- "and we'll track you up and put you on this album."

He came down and took me to one side [chuckles], and said, "Look, I couldn't get the cello player I wanted. This girl that's on cello is not very good." And she was pretty awful, I have to say. We tracked them up a few times, but it was a little sour-sounding, and I think Stuart felt a bit difficult about this. So we ended up putting fake strings under them, to bolster them up. I'm not sure what percentage the fake strings are used in the mix -- was it 50-50 fake ones and real ones, or the fake ones a little bit more dominant?

Come to think of it, maybe it was the strings going wrong that put Gus off. Stuart's a fantastic player, but when you just get people out of the book and put them together, you don't know who you're going to get.

TB: And then you had Guy Barker on this, too. Who shows up later on Apple Venus.

AP: That's right. And I think on the same day, we probably did "Omnibus." Any flugelhorn or trumpet you hear on Nonsuch would have been done by Guy during that mad rush. All in one day, I think. And then he shows up on Apple Venus, yeah. Does that lovely solo on "The Last Balloon."

TB: You and Gus are both credited with tambourine, and you play shaker as well?

AP: Usually I get the percussion jobs, because I've got a pretty good sense of rhythm.

TB: Let's talk about the lyrics a bit more.

AP: I'm very proud of the lyrics on this, actually. The B sections are about the everyday. I'm talking about all the stuff that made a big impression on me as a kid, like is the washing on a line, or the puffs of smoke coming out of chimneys, a signal or code or something?

TB: It's funny -- you get glimpses of this song on "Chalkhills and Children" and even songs like "Red Brick Dream," but I think you do it particularly well here. You're talking about the everyday, but in such a spiritual context. Even as you're soaring above the earth, you are talking about very down-to-earth things.

AP: Sure. You get a new take on it, because you're seeing it from another angle.

TB: The line where you say, "My head bursting with knowledge 'till I wake from the dream" -- you're there, you have it. Everyone gets that feeling in a dream where they're omnipotent, or it all gets revealed to them, and then they wake up and feel it slipping away.

AP: See, I'm being a real doofus here -- you're talking to me about these lyrics, and I'm getting emotional! How stupid is that? This song pushed so many buttons for me.

TB: It's understandable, and it comes through -- again, I think that's why so many people connect with this song. I know the first time I heard it, I thought it was something really special.

AP: Have you heard the a capella version? There's a group called +4db who've done a version of the song.

TB: Let me find it. [Both listen a bit to the a capella version.] Now, how can you not get emotional when you realize you've created a song like this? It's beautiful.

AP: Well, I don't feel I wrote it. I feel like somebody whispered it all in my ear, and I just had to write it down.

TB: Even there, I would give you credit for feeling emotional about this, because if I were you I'd feel privileged to have been the conduit.

AP: The sewage pipe of such beautiful waste!

TB: [laughing] Oh, c'mon now, take credit where credit's due.

AP: Yeah, alright. You're right. I'm very proud of it. Like I say, I was very excited to think that this was my favorite track off of Nonsuch. And it still might be my favorite track off the album! I think it's the first track off of Apple Venus, as we said.

TB: Because it set you off in that direction. Now, Colin plays nothing on this...

AP: I think he might be doing background vocals...

TB: He's not on the credits. Was that an oversight?

AP: Oh, I guess he wasn't on it, then! It must be me doing the high background vocals. Which, I have to say, is something that affected me as a kid. On the record "I Can't Let Maggie Go," by Honeybus -- wonderful record, a real piece of "chamber Pop music" -- they actually do this nice little section in there, with this high, semi-tone harmony. I gently borrowed it. That's a wonderful song -- if you don't know it, you should find it. It's really warming. I hope they can forgive me for stealing two notes.

TB: Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery...

AP: But, like I say, this song almost didn't get recorded. Gus was okay, he was good fun in a "one of the boys" kind of way -- he was great with fart gags, and lots of interesting tales of Rock and Roll madness. But he did have this strange, headmaster kind of mode he could click into, where you felt like if you sang a bum note, it'd be, [stiff-upper-lipped voice] "No! Come to my study. Receive six of the best across your taut buttocks!"

He did tell me, when I did this high harmony vocal in "The Ugly Underneath," that [veddy posh voice] "That is the most ludicrous harmony I've ever heard! Elton wouldn't have done a harmony like that!"

TB: [laughs] To which you said, "Precisely!"?

AP: [laughs] Exactly. But what else about this? I don't know -- like I say, it's a tough one, this. It's trick for me to talk about, because I don't feel that I wrote it. I feel that it wrote itself, and gave itself to me in some way.

TB: And you gave it to us.

AP: I guess so. Don't shoot me, I'm just the massager!

7:17 PM

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