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May 18, 2008

Sunday, June 29, 2008


Andy discusses 'Travels in Nihilon'

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, "Travels in Nihilon," is from 1980's Black Sea. Crestus was first with the correct guess for this week's song, backed by several others (and don't worry, those who guessed "Funk Pop a Roll," we'll get to it).

We'll be back in two weeks with a look at a song that is more full of wonder than any of Andy's other songs. Take that, guessers!

TB: Let's talk about "Travels in Nihilon." Where did this song come from?

AP: Well, the title came from the title of a book by Alan Sillitoe, which I bought in the mid- to late-'70s. I was still reading novels at the time, and this is a novel about a nonexistent vaguely Communistic-type dictatorship somewhere deep in Europe called Nihilon, which was run by a fellow called President Nil.

TB: Here comes President Nil again!

AP: There you go! So, I borrowed two things from the Travels in Nihilon book -- the actual title, which refers to nihilists and nothing, and I nabbed the title of President Nil for the Oranges and Lemons song.

If I remember correctly, you never get to see President Nil. Whenever a photograph of him is put in the paper for some reason, it's always a different person, and/or sometimes an animal, like a gorilla or something like that. [chuckles] You never really know what this supposed President Nil looks like.

So, it was a great book, but the actual song isn't about the book -- the song is really about traveling through the land of nothingness. It's a song about a con -- that enormous con of Pop Culture and the con of religion.

TB: What brought that out of you? Why were you feeling bitter or betrayed?

AP: I was at an age where I did rather get swept up in the whole Punk/New Wave movement. I foolishly thought, "Hey, this may be the turning point for music! Maybe this is truly where everyone can be involved -- it's like a democratizing or Year Zero thing -- everyone can make music if they want to. There are no preconceptions, you don't have to be a great musician. Fashion is blown out of the water because you can wear anything you want."

It was the last time I think I truly got swept along by my optimism. It wasn't the optimism of the movement as such. It was a time in my life where my optimism was being mirrored by these new possibilities. I was in a band that was starting to go places, the world was looking up for me, I was at a good age, I was experiencing a kind of a movement where I actually felt like this might be my gang, you know?

And very, very quickly, I could see that people were using it for the same old reasons! The same old, selling-you-the-dumb-clothes thing. Punk was about you making your own clothes, but very quickly it became about how you had to have just the right thing to wear, and the right thing was expensive. I don't know, I saw through a lot of the fake political stuff, too -- which is one reason I never got into The Clash. I just found them hokey on the politics front. At least the Sex Pistols were just having a mess about, they were just having fun -- but with The Clash it was just this forced street politics, and I never took to that. I'd much rather have a band like the Ramones, which were more like a happening or something. That's not the right word, but you know what I mean.

So, this was at a time where I did actually get swept along with it, and I quickly saw that it was extremely cynical, and it was exactly the same as what it was supposed to be replacing. There was too much industry involved -- too fake, too controlling. It was so commercially driven.

So, I actually think this song is about my enormous disappointment and my feeling that it was all a con -- the music, the fashion, and hey, let's throw religion in there as well, while you're at it! There's no Jesus come and gone! [chuckles] There may not have been one in the first place. It's just a con, and it's time for us to wake up.

TB: You remind me of the old saying, that "A cynic is a disappointed romantic."

AP: [laughs] Yeah, there you go! I've never heard that before, but that's bang-on.

TB: Looking at the lyrics here, and at the last verse in particular, is there any resolution to this? Or are you leaving it open on purpose?

AP: I'm leaving it open on purpose. It's a real heavy disappointment of a song -- it's an oppressing feeling, and I wanted the music to feel oppressive as well. Which it is. I think it's the most bleak thing we've ever recorded. [laughs] It's a sort of negative "Tomorrow Never Knows." But tomorrow does know, it's just going to be more con! You've just got to be alert to that. But yeah, it is the bleakest thing we've ever committed to recording. It even includes our own loop of "monks" going [deep guttural tone].

TB: How did you first write the song and present it to the band? Did you demo it at all?

AP: Yeah, I did actually! Because I didn't have multi-track facilities of any description at home -- I couldn't afford them, I was well and truly on the bread line and below it -- I went to this small studio, which a couple of people we knew in the town had set up in the basement rooms of Swindon Town Hall, the old Victorian town hall in the New Town. It was a little room that had terrible acoustics -- it was just a little tiny box of 8-by-8 or something -- and then in another couple of rooms down the corridor they had a load of cables trailed to a four-track tape machine, a little mixing desk, and I think they had a Vesta Fire spring reverb, which is about the cheapest-sounding spring reverb you've heard. Literally a bed spring in a box, and that's it!

One of the fellows down there was called "Bubble." I don't know what his name was, that was his nickname -- needless to say, it was because he had a very silly perm -- and there was a local musician who's still on the scene now called Dave James. We originally went down there to demo some material -- the whole band, squashed into that 8-by-8 cube -- that went on to Drums and Wires.

TB: All four of you? Plus instruments?

AP: [laughs] Yeah. But later I went down there on a few occasions on my own, just to improvise. Just to see if I could vomit out any ideas in a multi-track facility, much like I now do at home. One day I went down there, and I stumbled on this riff -- the basic ascending and descending riff of the song. I improvised this idea over the top, based on a lyric I'd been thinking of called "Jumping the Gap." It was supposed to be about the synapses in your brain, and signals jumping the gap -- you know, when you get a great idea. But I never used the demo -- I umm'd and ahh'd about putting it on the Fuzzy Warbles, but the quality is so awful that I thought it was too bad.

So, I had this thing tentatively titled "Jumping the Gap," which was the "Travels in Nihilon" riff, but I didn't like the lyrics. They were just improvised, they weren't very good, and I wasn't crazy about the subject matter. But we started kicking it around in rehearsals for Black Sea, just playing it round and round, and suddenly, very quickly, this idea about the con spewed out. I think it was the oppressive nature of the way we were playing -- Terry with that continuous, rolling rhythm...

TB: Tell me where that drum pattern came from.

AP: Do you know, I can't remember! The version I demo'd had a really nasty old pokey Hammond organ rhythm box -- [imitates cheesy beat]. The essence of it was a rolling rhythm, so I guess I asked Terry to just roll around the tom-toms to establish a pattern that fits the guitar part. So he's playing "a-lump a-lumpy-one a-lumpy-one AND lump a-lumpy-one." And then he does different amounts of snare hits -- one, or two, or three.

God, I listened to it on headphones yesterday, and those are some of the most compressed drums I think I've ever heard! They're totally punching themselves out. Which I never knew at the time -- I just thought, "Wow, they sound great!" But now that I know what compression is, I can really hear that.

But I love that rhythm, and do you know what, I've got a funny feeling that might have been one take.

TB: Was this one of those situations you've told me about, where he would just tell you to go away, and he'd just focus and do the part?

AP: Well, he didn't usually use the phrase "Go away." [laughs] I think this was just a case of us just riffing it around until we had enough, because we didn't know how long the song was going to be -- we knew there were X amount of verses in it and X amount of other little pieces, but it was a case of, "Well, let's just keep rolling this around and use it by the yard later."

TB: Right, because it fades in and fades out.

AP: Exactly. And Terry does a great job! His timing's pretty immaculate on this. He never drummed to a click track or anything like that. It's a great-sounding, brutal, rolling thing. And very dark. But if you're talking about the con and how you've been taken in by it, it's not going to be jolly, is it? It's "Tomorrow Never Fucking Knows!"

TB: So, you'd demo'd this, and brought it into rehearsal, and it fell together from there.

AP: Yeah, the lyrics came pretty quickly, I think. I felt much better that this dark, rumbling riff and drum groove -- oh yeah, that's the sound of rejection and disappointment and betrayal. I just felt betrayed by the whole musical movement that we were on the edges of.

TB: Funny that this song is on the same album as "Burning with Optimism's Flames."

AP: [laughs] Yeah. Same coin, two opposite sides. Though "Burning with Optimism's Flames" is a personal optimism, whereas this is more "the Organization has had you." It doesn't matter if it's the music industry, the fashion industry or the religion industry -- they've had you in the ass with a steel pineapple. Sideways.

TB: [laughing] Okay, there's an image I won't lose anytime soon.

Let's talk about the arrangement, then...

AP: I was trying to pick out who was doing what. I know a lot of the melody is underpinned by me sliding around octaves on the guitar.

TB: Yeah, plus you do the solo on this, right?

AP: Yeah, that's me. It's all based on that drone around E. There are a lot of dissonant intervals. Do you know, I can't remember what the hell Dave's doing. He's probably playing the Korg, our little monophonic synthesizer, but I can't remember what's he's doing on guitar. He might even be just doubling the riff with Colin.

TB: I think he's also doing some clashing chords in the background as well.

AP: Yeah, I'm doing the octaves that are chasing the vocal melody -- some of the intervals against that E are great. For example, "travels" is B and C, then it goes down to B-flat, which is pretty funky against an E.

TB: Right, you're getting diminished there.

AP: It's a sinister-sounding combination. Real "Indiana Jones and the Crystal Guitar." [chuckles] "The mystery of the lost Guitar of the Covenant." You open up the guitar case and all those roadies' faces melt!

TB: [laughing] In the beginning of the song, is it just drums and the drone?

AP: Yeah. The actual drone is me just going [holds low note].

TB: Is there any keyboard behind it?

AP: There's probably some Korg keyboard in there. It also comes in during the second chorus, like an octave up. Plus, we could set it up to do these great white-noise sounds, so we programmed this whip noise. I thought, "Well, if we're going to be slaves to the pop industry, fashion industry, religion industry, we've got to have a whip in there somewhere." I think this one of two songs we have a whip in -- there's one in "Shake You Donkey Up" as well.

TB: But no other instruments come in until the first chorus of the song?

AP: Drums, and drone, and vocals. And the whispered vocal is very important.

TB: I wanted to ask about that, because it starts off just in the chorus, but then you start bringing it in during the verses as well.

AP: Yeah, more and more. It's the "nagging paranoia" voice. "Am I making a mistake here?" [evil whisper] "Of course you are!" It's that little demonic voice in your head.

TB: Did you guys ever play this live? I don't think I've ever heard a live recording of this.

AP: I don't know if we did! It was like, could we get that giant drum sound live? I don't remember playing it live. Of course, now somebody's going to say, "I saw you in Belgium, in the Sports Hall -- bootleg, don't ask me how I got it!"

TB: That'd be great if they did!

AP: It would be, yeah. See, I don't remember playing "Life Is Good in the Greenhouse" live, but we did, because somebody sent me a recording of it.

TB: I also wanted ask about the "world's longest piss" at the end of the song.

AP: [laughs] Well, there's a story behind that!

TB: I thought there might be!

AP: Because we've got the Korg doing its desolate wind at the end -- "the bleak landscape of disappointed youth" -- I thought, "Okay, we need some rain." There was not tape library of sound effects there, so it was a case of, "Well look, why don't we make our own rain? How hard can it be to make the sound of rain?"

So we plugged in cable upon cable upon cable, 'til we got hundreds of yards of cable, with a good-quality mic on a boomstand, and we put it in [producer] Steve Lillywhite's room, which had a shower in it. We recorded his showerhead spraying water on to the shower curtain. And it sounded nothing like rain! We got it, and were playing it back, and people were saying, "That's nothing like rain." Then somebody said, "It just sounds like somebody taking a piss!" And I thought, "[gasp] That's even better! This is the industry -- the Pop industry, the fashion industry, the religion industry -- pissing on you, in contempt, for being such a dolt and buying into all their shit!"

We could have gone to a tape library and gotten some proper rain, but it was a case of, "No, that is even better. The fact that it sounds like somebody pissing on you is perfect." [laughs]

TB: That's funny, because I thought it was an aural metaphor for your life going down the drain.

AP: No, it was just the realization that these industries have conned you, and how bleak and desolate and lonely you'd feel.

TB: In a way, this song is like "River of Orchids," where there's a lot of repetition, and it gets thicker and thicker and thicker.

AP: Oh yeah, it's a repetition song, like "Battery Brides" or "River of Orchids." It's the sort of thing that radio stations would never play -- it's just too desolate sounding. Too dark.

TB: A good friend of mine, a guy who writes for Kerrang! magazine, among others, has told me that this is the song that convinced him that you guys were, in essence, a Metal band.

AP: [laughs] Well, we were pretty metallic, certainly on that album! There's a lot of cranked-up guitars and drums.

TB: But at the same time, one of the things that drew me in, as someone who loved Progressive Rock, and Jazz, and Classical music, was the fact that you guys weren't just a New Wave or a Punk band with simple little melodies and arrangements. There was a lot more to it -- the lyrics were deeper, the sounds were more layered and complex...

AP: Yeah, I think I would have been bored if we'd have just stuck with one type of music. I think that's for the brain-dead.

TB: You guys always seemed to be trying to do something more, and this song is, I think, a good example of that. Again, if you listen to the way each verse, each chorus, gets a little thicker and more substantial than the one before...

AP: Sure, there's more layers. And also, it's the clash of those notes against the E drone. You know, you're not supposed to put some of those notes against that drone! It just sounds a bit ouch. It sets up one scale and then grinds into another area.

TB: So, was there any question at all that this would be the album closer?

AP: I don't think so. I think it was a matter of, "Well, follow that." [laughs]

6:11 PM

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