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May 18, 2008

Sunday, June 15, 2008


Andy discusses 'Scarecrow People'

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, "Scarecrow People," is from 1989's Oranges and Lemons. Kim and Don Device were first out of the gate two weeks ago with virtually simultaneous correct guesses about this week's song, followed in short order by some other annotators, but hey, we're all winners with this one, right?

We'll be back at in two weeks with an interview about a song that contains some of Andy's most stinging rebukes of Pop culture ... and the song that convinced bassist, shoutist and music journalist extraordinaire Dom Lawson that XTC are, in essence, a Metal band. Suck on that, Metallica.

TB: So, this week's song is Scarecrow People...

AP: My favorite of the songs from the Oranges and Lemons album!

TB: It's still your favorite, eh?

AP: I'm still partial to it, but I don't know what key it's in.

TB: Take a guess!

AP: Well, the actual opening chord, and the melody that goes over it, really aren't very related! Because the notes of the vocal melody are just way out of whatever chord it is. Somebody out there with a big musical brain can tell me what key this is in, but in the verses, the notes, in ascending order, are D-flat, E, B, E-flat. You have that bottom note of D-flat, and you alternate between that and an open A. No idea what that chord is. But most of the notes of the melody are not in that chord!

TB: What notes is Colin playing in the bass?

AP: Ooh, off the top of my head, I think he's probably doing the D-flat to A. Because that's what the whole song grew out of. For years, I'd been trying to write a song with either the title of "Man of Straw," or just "Straw." And so infatuated was I with the word "straw" that for quite a long time I was set in my mind that Mummer was going to be called "Straw." I even drew up some artwork, which I nabbed from an old '50s book jacket with the word "straw" in these torn-out letters. But it wasn't to be -- the Mummer concept sort of jumped in and took over.

TB: Why were you so infatuated with the word?

AP: I can't tell you! I was scared by a Pink Floyd B-side called "Scarecrow," I think, as a kid. [laughs] I love that song -- very convoluted structure to it, but that's Syd Barrett's brain, you know?

But for a few years I was crazy about this phrase -- either "Man of Straw" or "Straw" -- and then I stumbled on whatever this weird chord is. I was pedaling it along, and it has this horsey rhythm -- very oblique, modern, pop-art horse, actually. I was sat playing it, thinking, "Ooh, I wonder if I could fit the straw thing to this, because it makes me think of the countryside."

But, though it's got the "Gee-up Neddie" clip-cloppy rhythm, the chord itself sounds bigger and a bit more empty and windblown. It's more like, "We're not in Kansas anymore"! I think just that connection of those two things made me think of scarecrows. The song then fell out along those lines.

TB: So, talk about the development of the lyrics from that idea, because it turns out to be a pretty vicious indictment of mankind.

AP: Oh, yeah! This is where we're going, because we seem to value the trash above worthwhile things. It's the whole thing of, "I don't want anything natural to eat -- I just love those chemicals. Gimme that GM. Gimme that meat all full of hormones." We seem to be unconcerned with the fact that we're becoming deader.

It's like scarecrows. We're still shaped like human beings, but there's no thought process going on. The warm human emotions seem to be getting pushed out -- the sense of community, morality and [pauses] taste! The way we should be behaving. The way we should be being nice to the land, and nicer to each other.

So, I wrote this as if the scarecrows were a race of people who had their own country, and you're visiting them. You've flown in to Scarecrow Central here [laughs], and "We're trying to ape you -- we're trying to be just like you are. All our food is gas and chemicals, and we like the idea of warfare, which you human beings do so well, so we're going to start a war with those scarecrows in that field over there, which are a slightly different shape from us."

The scarecrows are admiring the crasser, more stupid things about human existence. And they're aping the wrong things! Instead of aping the good parts of humanity, they're aping all the stupid things that we do. I was hoping to hold this mirror to the worst aspects of human behavior. Who would admire all those worst aspects? Somebody who was shaped like a human, but had no emotion or thought going on in its straw head.

TB: Yet at the same time, there's someone saying, "If you don't start living well, you're going to wind up scarecrow people, too." Whose voice is that?

AP: I think that's me. I'm cutting in. I'm the narrator there. The film's going on in the background, and I've pushed the fader up and am saying, "If you don't get aware of this, you're all going to end up the living dead! It's going that way now -- c'mon, stop it." Why do we seem to admire all the crasser, stupider things?

TB: It's one of those vicious circles, I think, where the Media caters to the lowest common denominator, and so everybody sees that as the standard of culture, causing the standard of culture to sink lower, then the Media caters to the lowest common denominator, and it sinks lower still.

AP: I think you're right. I'm shocked at how naive I am in some cases. It was only about a year ago -- and this is really kind of laughable, but I have to tell you -- that I twigged that the purpose of all television is to keep you looking to see the ads! I'd never realized that before. How stupid is that?

TB: And of course they've taken it even farther nowadays, where there is product placement throughout TV shows as well. You don't even have to wait for the commercial!

AP: Oh yeah. And in films. It's been that way forever, but it was like some little personal revelation about a year ago for me. I thought, "Jesus, the reason these shows are successful are because they keep more people looking, and the more people who are watching this 'successful' show means that there are more people who watch the ads, so the advertisers can pay more money to place their stuff in that slot." It's that horrible vicious circle just to sell you more crap that you don't really need! Here I am, a big, hairy-assed lummox of my age, and it was only about a year ago that this little 4-watt bulb went off for me. [laughs ruefully]

TB: Let's talk about the lyrics a little bit more. Is this one of these songs where you worked out the music and lyrics at the same time?

AP: I started with that clip-clop thing, which is quite sing-song, and I think the verses came quite quickly. I realized that I had to step out into some other place -- let me see. [plays verse] Those other chords, by the way, are that "Roads Girdle the Globe" D-major, then a G-7, then back to whatever our mystery first chord is.

[plays chorus] That's interesting, because it goes up to a D, but the vocal is an E. That's not very related, either. I don't really unpick these songs, but when you get me doing it, I start thinking, "Hey, that shouldn't work!"

TB: But it's kind of an aural metaphor, because this a strange scenario you're talking about here. There should be a rub in the music.

AP: Yeah, it's a land of scarecrows. That ain't right! [laughs] That's against Nature, dammit!

TB: So, when did that twangy guitar pattern come into it?

AP: Oh, right! I wanted something really something kind of "cartoon hoe-down." And I thought, "I don't want it to be an acoustic guitar, because that'd just be too fucking clip-clop horsey-horsey, so I'll just do it on an electric guitar. I'll stand it on its head, and we'll have a little Blues-y motif." So I got Dave to play it, on acoustic guitar. I remember thinking, after I'd done it, "Whoa, is that a bit like Prince's "Sign of the Times"?" It's very kind of cartoon Blues, you know? It's definitely a motif that's wearing an overall -- a denim bib and brace.

And then the chorus is kind of when it gets more conventional corny Country. It could be Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison or something.

TB: Then, what about the bridge -- where did that come from? Because it's got quite a different feel.

AP: Sure. That was really just an excuse to cram a lot more background and story in, without going through the verse/chorus section again. I like that -- those tom-toms sound great. I think Ed Thacker is one of the two best engineers we ever worked with.

TB: Yeah, you've talked about him before...

AP: Just a brilliant engineer -- him and Barry Hammond were the two best-quality engineers we ever worked with. They could make a drum kit sound like a million dollars, you know?

TB: That said, let's talk a little bit about the drums on this song, because there are lots of little percussion pieces in the verse and chorus, and then when the bridge comes in, there are those heavy toms.

AP: It goes boom-dada-boom in there! Again, it's the "Don't Stop the Music" rhythm -- that's one of my pet rhythms. I really wanted that funky roll to the drums, but let's keep the hands rolling around something delicate, like brushes, and we'll have that funky foot doing that "boom, buh-dap boom-boom, buh-dap boom-boom."

I said to [producer] Paul [Fox] and Ed, "Although we've got a basic conventional drum kit, with bass drum and brushes on snare drum, let's mix it so that all the stuff on the snare drum goes off to one side of the stereo, but we'll anchor it with the funky bass drum in the center." Then, we got some flight cases and laid a load of cloth and padding on them, and went out and found an assortment of percussion bit and bobs for Pat [Mastelotto] to hit.

And really, if I think about it, I think it's probably related to "Shake You Donkey Up," where you've got a conventional drum kit, and you've got farm machinery/junk percussion along with it.

TB: That's funny, because that song has a kind of Country feel to it, too.

AP: There you go -- I guess I'm predictable like that. Maybe I just think of the countryside as rusting farm machinery! And if you hit it, what's it going to sound like?

So, we've got the rolling brushes, and the "Don't Stop the Music" funky bass drum, and then in the other half of the stereo we've Pat hitting whatever stuff he found in his garage, his kitchen, stuff we found around the studios -- anything that sounded good when you hit it.

TB: Did he come up with some kind of a regular pattern for playing those pieces, or did you guys just do a bunch of takes and see what sounded good?

AP: I've got a feeling it was just improvised over the steady rolling brushes and funky bass drum. We recorded all the drums and a lot of the percussion in the beautiful-sounding Ocean Way room. Fantastic room for drums. They zing in that room -- nothing sounds harsh or offensive or nasty, it's just a perfect complement for percussive sounds.

TB: Did you only use that studio to track the drums, or did you record other parts there as well?

AP: I think we did some other parts, but I seem to remember mostly to get the drums down, because it just sounded so good, and so it was a case of, "While we've got this great space, this is really going to flatter the kit and the percussion and all the percussive, transient sounds, so let's record them in here." Then move to the much-smaller Suma Studio, which was pretty tiny. I mean, the control room at Suma was about the size of the back room that I'm in now, and the playing area was smaller than my shed! That's where a lot of guitars and all the vocals were done.

TB: And that's because you were going direct with the guitars?

AP: Exactly, though we did record some guitars at Ocean Way, because I remember David Byrne was in town, and asked if he could come by the studio. We played him what we were working on that day, which I think was "Poor Skeleton Steps Out," and he was very impressed by the tabla feel on that -- he asked if it were a real player, and I told him no, it was a sample. But he liked the guitar textures as well, because I'd threaded some paper through the guitar strings to make this kind of banjo-y guitar sound. So, obviously, there were some guitars and other things recorded there, because we were playing him these tracks.

TB: So, you would have taken advantage of the room and played guitars through amps there?

AP: Yeah, though amps, and through mixes of DI. And if we wanted a special sound, it'd be, you know, my favorite trick of, "Can you put the mic on the electric guitar and then split the signal"?

TB: Let's talk about Dave's parts on this.

AP: Dave is the real star of this song, you know. Pat is very funky, but Dave's playing has such precision on this song -- I think he's perfect on it. I mean, his solo almost had me in tears of joy, it's so perfect.

TB: Yeah. And I love that long climb toward the end of the second bridge.

AP: Yeah, where it's a few more bars long than you think it could be, just to pile on the pressure! "Okay, they're going to release now!" "Oh no -- they're not, they didn't!"

TB: "He's going to run out of guitar neck!"

AP: [laughs] I think Dave was worried about that, actually, because he used just about every note going to get up there. But he's the real star of this one. His solo is just wonderful -- that cascading [imitates solo]. You know, all those 16th notes cascading -- oh, it's so good.

I also like the guitar sounds on this song, and on the whole album, generally. We tried to get the guitar sounds to leave spaces for the other sounds, if you see what I mean -- they were quite narrow and quite selected. "Okay, that's got to be a fat tone, so we'll have that one thinned out to accommodate it," and, "That one has got a lot of that frequency in it, so we'll scoop out that one there that's around that." Very, very careful engineering and shaping and consideration for what was being recorded.

TB: How about the vocals?

AP: This was my favorite track on the album, and I couldn't sing it when we got to Suma. I just couldn't get it! I think it was the pressure of it being my favorite song -- I think that made me nervous.

TB: It's well within in your range, right?

AP: Yeah, but listening to it yesterday, I thought, "God, my voice is quite croaky in places. I'm really pushing it in a few places."

TB: So, you're using a lot of throat?

AP: Yeah. I remember, when I came to do the vocal, I was really upset, because I couldn't get it. It was the first time, I think, ever that I had to give up and say, "We'll have to do it another day. I can't get it." I was leaning on it too much and messing up. It's that thing that, when you consciously don't want to mess up, you do. It's the power of negative suggestion [laughs].

TB: Was that toward the end of the album? Because I know you were having some legal problems back at home, and other distractions.

AP: Oh, yeah. We were trying to get out of our management contract, and it was coming to a legal head in London while we were in Los Angeles. My marriage was slowly disintegrating, and then my family went home, and I was there on my own, hitting the sauce. I was drinking whiskey every night, and I don't drink whiskey! I'd be stood up at four in the morning swearing at right-wing preachers on the TV, drunk out of my brain on whiskey, so something was coming undone, you know?

TB: So, were you doing the vocals at this later point?

AP: Yeah, the vocals were later on, and then it went straight into mixing. I was there for about two-thirds of the mixing, but then I just had to get back to try to get a handle on all this legal shit with the management.

I had enough faith in Paul Fox and Ed Thacker by that point to leave them with a long list of requirements. I knew they were going to do a good job if I gave them a template for what was required in mixing. And Dave stayed on, so I knew there was a good musician there with a handle on things -- the best musician in the band was there to oversee things.

TB: But Colin didn't stay, either?

AP: No, his family went back as well, so me and him flew back together.

TB: Let's talk about Colin's part a little.

AP: It's that Epiphone Newport ersatz upright, you see. It blends nicely with the clip-clop horsey guitar. Instead of going thump-thump, it's bjorn-bjorn -- that soft, acoustic-y, rubbery upright sound. It's to do with a faulty mute, which makes it sound like that.

TB: I didn't realize that it was faulty!

AP: Yeah, when you flick it on, it doesn't quite come up enough to mute the strings, because the felts are very worn. So it's like when you dangle the arm of your jumper over your guitar as you're playing -- if you dangle it just right, you get a sitar-y sound. It's that process -- you flick on that faulty damper, and you get this kind of sitar bass, or upright acoustic bass.

TB: It's funny that a defect creates such a fantastic effect.

AP: It's a lovely sound, yeah!

For fans of stereo, I'm on the left on the guitar, while Dave is playing mostly the stuff on the right. And the violins that kick in about three-quarters of the way through? Well, by that point, Virgin were saying, "Look, we're going to pull the plug on this album. You've overspent." Every few days, I'd be ringing up Virgin, saying, "Please don't pull the plug! It's sounding great." That's why they get thanked in the album sleeve -- it's for not pulling the plug.

So, it was, "We've overspent, we've got no money left, but I would love some kind of hoedown violins," so Paul Fox, who was originally a session keyboard player, had lots of samples and great patches on synths. He had some violin samples, and did his session keyboard gig! He played, using the pitch wheel on the keyboard, those sampled violins.

TB: Ah, okay -- I was looking for credit for a violin player, and I couldn't find one, and now I know why.

AP: It's Paul Fox. He did a great job, and they're far enough down in the mix that you can't tell. I mean, now that I've said that, everyone's going to say, "Oh yeah, of course they're keyboard!" [laughs] But, you know what? Nobody has ever said to me, "Those are keyboard violins." Because Paul does it so well, he knows the intervals to play, and he works the pitch wheel to be like a sliding, hoedown violin, it worked out great. He saved our organic bacon there.

TB: I wanted to ask about the different versions you have of this -- you did this on MTV, right?

AP: Oh yeah, during the Unplugged years. I hate that phrase, "unplugged," because they just stole that whole concept from me. I'm going to sound like a bitter old queen if I go on about it. [laughs]

TB: [laughing] Well, let's just say your problem with MTV about this is well-documented. I mean, you guys were pioneers with this concept, and they turned it into a series, a phenomenon in and of itself.

AP: I think our segment was successful enough that somebody must have said, "Hey, this is a great idea! This band is really exposing themselves by just playing acoustically down one microphone. Why don't we get every band to do that? Let's see what they're all made of." And then suddenly, it was like, "Unplugged! Yeah, isn't that great!?"

But I only did it because I didn't want them to fuck up our sound -- I'd heard what they did to Was (Not Was).

TB: I thought it was just a matter of not wanting to do the whole dog-and-pony show involved in an electric set.

AP: No, they said, "Would you come and play on MTV? We have a show where we get bands to play live." I said, "Can you send me some examples of what you've done?" One they sent over was Was (Not Was). I thought it looked okay -- not great, but okay -- but it sounded horrible. I thought, "Who the hell mixed this? This is MTV's idea of recording a band? How can we play it where they can't fuck it up? I know -- if we're just acoustic guitars down a microphone, they can't mess that up." So, I said, "We'll come and do this show, but we're just going to play acoustic."

TB: And that was in line with what you guys were doing at the radio stations to promote the album anyway, right?

AP: Well, it prompted us to do the radio station thing. It was a matter of, "While we're going there to that, why don't we do some radio stations as well?" So I think the MTV thing came first. I may be wrong. Maybe Dave can remember.

TB: Was Colin playing a bass?

AP: No, I wish he had done. I wanted him to buy an acoustic bass, but Mean Mr. Moulding, he wouldn't do it. And he's a little ham-fisted and noisy on an acoustic, because he still hits like it's a bass. So he's slapping and banging away, and twice as loud as Dave and I put together.

TB: He was playing his bass part on a guitar?

AP: Sometimes. Sometimes he'd be just thickening the chords. But yeah, we played this in quite a few radio stations, and I think we probably played it on at least one of the MTV shows, if not two of them -- or three of them. I can't remember how many we did!

TB: I thought you'd only done the one! I thought it was all filmed at once.

AP: No, there's stuff online from two or three different shows. But we did the same kind of medleys of songs around radio stations as well. I just loved playing "Scarecrow People" live, as a stripped-down acoustic version -- how it was written in the first place.

And by the end of that little tour around the radio and TV stations, I was singing it so much better, it was like, "Oh, can't we go back so I can re-do the vocal?" [laughs] Too late!

TB: You also did a version of this for the BBC.

AP: Yeah, for their sessions for radio shows. But we did it with programmed drums, because we don't really know a drummer that can just sort of drop things and come along. I mean, even when Ian Gregory did the Dukes things, he had to get holiday from work!

TB: Does anything stand out for you about that version?

AP: Well, apart from the fact that Dave nearly died...

TB: Well, there's that, I guess!

AP: Yeah, he was in a car smash on a way up to the studio.

TB: Was it a bad accident?

AP: It smashed the back of his car up, and busted up the drum machine, which he'd spent ages programming all of Pat's parts into! But thankfully, it still worked. So [laughing], "Is Dave alive?" "Just enough to hand us over the drum machine." "Okay, now he can go to hospital and we'll get on with it."

But I'm not incredibly proud of those sessions at the BBC, because they really are that quasi-mechanical reproduction of the album tracks. They don't have the groove and the soul of the album versions. I much prefer the acoustic radio and TV performances in America. They had something quite refreshing in them.

I'd heard that people had played acoustically at radio stations in the '20s and '30s -- they'd turn up and play the piano in the studio, or strum a guitar and sing their hit in the studio with the DJ.

TB: Was that your thinking with this?

AP: Yeah, I loved that idea. I thought, "Wow! I can play live, but I don't have to worry about thousands of people ogling at me, and I don't have to be fantastic, because I'm not playing an electric guitar!" I guess it was a way of tricking myself.

TB: Why do you think you don't have to be fantastic if you're playing an acoustic? What if you'd been living the studio playing an electric?

AP: Then I would have worried, "Are they getting it to sound right?" But you know the acoustic guitar is just going to sound like an acoustic guitar.

TB: Okay, I see what you mean. Was this mini-tour a response to Virgin pressuring you guys to get out and do something live? What was the reasoning behind it?

AP: There was a bit of pressure from them, and it was also because I'd thought of bringing back the whole thing of strumming it live to millions down a radio, just like in the '20s and '30s. So, I was a big champion of it, I guess. Silly and vain, but it did work.

TB: It was a good way of getting you out in front of the public again.

AP: Now it's old hat. You know, somebody turns up at a radio station with an acoustic guitar, and it's, "Oh, ho-hum." [laughs] They've done it for the last 20 years, so it's not new anymore. But it was very new in the late '80s, during a time when everything was synthesizers and samplers and keyboards and programmed and fake.

TB: Yeah, because the pendulum had really swung to that side at that point.

AP: Yeah, it couldn't go much farther. And in fact it did start to slowly come back around then, toward more-natural sounds. Thankfully.

6:17 PM

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