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August 29, 2021

Sunday, July 06, 2008


Andy discusses "I Wonder Why the Wonderfalls"

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, "I Wonder Why the Wonderfalls," was written and recorded by Andy in 2003 for the TV show Wonderfalls. It's available for purchase at iTunes.

We had an amazing three-way tie in the guessing sweepstakes -- Jordan Cooper, Thorn Brain, and Erin all simultaneously came to the same conclusion, with J.D. Mack hot on their heels. Great minds, etc. We'll be back in two weeks with a capital tune by Andy.

TB: We were talking about "Travels in Nihilon," and how layered it is, then I listened to "Wonderfalls," and I thought it was a fantastic demonstration of just how far you've come since then. Now, I love "Travels in Nihilon," and think it's a wonderful representation of where you guys where at the time, but with this song you've become a mature, developed artist who knows his craft and the studio -- and you've done all this in your little garden shed! The song sounds big, clean and clear...

AP: It does sound clear and crisp, actually. I was very proud of that. I don't like what the TV company did with it -- they wanted 40 seconds, no more, and I delivered it at 40 seconds, but there's a five-second reverb tail hanging over. Because of that, they sped the whole track up, which was really annoying, because I can hear it. They did it with a computer, and you can hear that "gargle." That's what happens if you speed stuff up in a computer and try to keep the pitch the same.

I said, look just dump it to tape, and tweak the speed of the tape up a bit. Besides, what's wrong with five seconds of reverb? Just cut it off when you go to the ad break -- I don't care.

TB: Let's talk about how this song came to be. Who approached you about this?

AP: I was rung up in April 2003 by a lady called Jacquie Perryman, who works for Fox TV. She used to work for Virgin Records, in the International Department, and I did have a hell of a crush on her! Much to the chagrin of my ex-wife. [laughs] But she was just a crush.

So, it was nice to hear from her, and she said, "I work for Fox TV at the moment -- what have you been up to lately? I've been out of the music loop, and out of the loop of what you're doing, so could you send me some stuff?" I sent her Apple Venus and Wasp Star, and she called back and said, "Yeah, that's it. We're convinced. You've got to be the one to do the music for this new TV series called Wonderfalls.

It was very flattering to be asked, but I had recently turned down some TV stuff where I didn't like some of what I'd seen. So I said, "Look, can you send me a couple of shows?" They sent me the pilot and, I think, the first proper episode, and I really liked it. It was "Amélie USA." I thought, "This is interesting -- they've taken that Amélie concept of conversing with inanimate objects, and doing good deeds and saving people, and taken it Stateside."

So I said, "Sure, I'll do something. What do you have in mind?" The two fellows that came up with the show -- Todd Holland and Bryan Fuller -- they called me in a conference call, and said, "We want the music to be choral but not necessarily a song; we want it to be spiritual."

I sent them some ideas, and actually the first idea I sent them was this song -- "I Wonder Why the Wonderfalls." They said, "Oh no, we don't want a song, we want it more instrumental, an instrumental, choral thing." They sent me an album that what's-his-name from Eels did -- he did it under another name. DJ somebody? It was all vocal samples -- kind of Moby meets Fatboy Slim thing.

I said, "Well, I don't know if I can really do that." So I sent them "Ice Jet Kiss," which made it on to Volume 5 of the Warbles, and which I really like. I'm really proud of that, as a little piece of music. But they didn't like that, and they said, "Maybe it should be voices, a little song." So I sent them "These Voices." But they didn't like that, either.

Then they came back, saying, "We really want the first song that you did." So we went all around the house, back to the first idea. They asked for a long, full version, and a 40-second version for the titles, so I recorded them in the Shed.

TB: Tell me about the writing and recording process.

AP: I recorded it in October 2003, and mastered it in January or February -- in England, because I didn't like their mastering of it. I went to Ian Cooper in the Townhouse, who does a lot of stuff for me, and who got it so I was dead happy with it.

TB: Let's take a step back a little bit -- when you wrote it, did you sit on your couch with a guitar and figure it out, or did you build it piece by piece in the Shed?

AP: I quite fancied doing a Rag! Playing it on headphones yesterday, I thought, "Hey, do you know what? Maybe I was trying to be Leon Redbone!" [plays the song intro, then starts singing in deepened voice, sounding like Redbone] Do you see what I mean? It's Leon Redbone. I just can't grow the mustache!

The first version I gave them was much slower, but then I thought, "No, I'm never even going to get to the chorus by the time the title sequence is finished." [laughs] So, I had to do it faster.

TB: So, the first one they heard was the slower version?

AP: The slow acoustic one, yep.

TB: Then, did you send them the faster version? Is that what convinced them to use the song?

AP: They said they wanted it a little faster, because they wanted some of the verse and, of course, the chorus, before the titles were over. At the time, I wasn't that familiar with sampling and looping, but I managed to get hold of a couple of different loops of brushed snare. One is a kind of a funky, jazzy shuffle, and then I programmed some brushed snare, so the two of them are sort of fighting off against each other. You can hear one in the center -- that's the real, looped brushed snare -- and a programmed one on the right-hand side, so it's slightly contrary to that. I then went and programmed a bass drum, and dropped in cymbals where needed.

TB: It seems to me you're channeling Dave Mattacks on this.

AP: Yeah, I'm trying to keep it simple, and instead of [imitates complex tom roll], I'm just going thump. Because there's that nice big one near the end, after the big long buildup -- there's a Mattacksian thump there. I'm glad you spotted that! [laughs]

So yeah, I'm just playing a rag...

TB: You just sat on the couch and figured it out?

AP: Yeah -- as a matter of fact [laughs], exactly where I am right now with this guitar in my hand. Same guitar, and came up with it.

In fact, the chorus actually uses a couple of the same chords as "Garden of Earthly Delights." [plays some examples, singing lyrics from each song over them, to demonstrate] It's also got those little descending arpeggios [plays example] -- I tried to think like Dave Gregory for that. I thought, "What would Dave do? Ah, he'd do augmented runs, and because it's 'Wonderfalls,' it'd be falling down." So yeah, I'm Leon Redbone in the verses, Dave Gregory doing the guitar over the choruses, but I stole my own invented chords for the chorus!

TB: So, what chords are those?

AP: In the verse -- I don't actually know the names of all these -- it's a kind of G-flat; then a chord where the notes are, in ascending order, E-flat, A, C, G-flat; then another one I don't know the name of, where the notes are A-flat, B, E-flat, B-flat; then another, whatever it is, augmented or diminished, where the notes are F, B, D, A-flat. I'm sorry I'm a bit primitive on chord names, but that's the verse, largely. [plays the part] And the second time around, it ends on a D-flat 7, then goes to a B, then to E7, then repeats, then G-flat 7. Then, when you think it's going to set up to go to a B, it goes to this glorious version of B-flat with the G ringing open, which is the "Garden of Earthly Delights" chord.

Then you move one note down, moving the B-flat in the middle to an A, then the whole chord resolves to an A. At the end of the chorus, you go to F, then G, then A7. So, you've risen out, and everyone thinks, "Great, that A7's going to go to a D" -- but it doesn't. You go back to G-flat. So, it's like a real gear change -- a change of scene, totally.

TB: Which makes sense.

AP: Right, because it's like, "Okay -- scene two!" And in scene two, I get to do a little guitar noodle, and because it's for an American sitcom, I thought, "I've got to nod my head to "The Dick Van Dyke Show." So, at 1:15, I get my Dick Van Dyke falling over the ottoman, and at 2:27, during the guitar solo -- which is sung as well -- I nod to Dick Van Dyke again, but instead of falling on a big tom-tom, it falls on a little triangle.

TB: During the solo, you're singing, too.

AP: Yeah, I had to do it live, with a live mic, because I'm singing the notes.

TB: Oh, you didn't just overdub that?

AP: No, I would never be able to learn it. But if it's just a case of singing and playing, I can instinctively sing whatever I'm playing. That's no problem. I know what note my finger is making.

It's very hard for me to sing and then find that on the guitar. I could do that, because that's how I construct a lot of stuff, but for pure reaction, it's pretty easy to sing the most outrageous things, because I just know what note my finger is going to be making.

TB: People have been asking about the ring finger on your left hand that you damaged, but listening to you play down the phone, it sounds as if you're back to form again.

AP: As far as playing what I could always play, that's fine again, but the one drawback is, it does get very tired, very quickly. You know, before, I could play all day and I wouldn't notice it, but now I can only play for 10 or 20 minutes, and it starts to ache.

TB: Hopefully that'll just come back in time, as you play more.

AP: Well, it hasn't so far. I suppose that's the price I've got to pay for damaging it. And damaged it in such an embarrassing way as well! Hitting it in some way on my antiqued pine French four-poster bed. The French revenge for Waterloo, I guess.

TB: What other parts are on the track?

AP: There's a mocked-up Mellotron, because I didn't have the sampled Mellotron at the time. It's the Prophet synthesizer, and a flute sample -- you de-tune it so it sounds just like a Mellotron. You also take off any decay and release, so it just stops dead, just like a Mellotron -- when you take your fingers off a Mellotron, the piece of tape disconnects from the playback, and the sound stops dead. That's part of the dreamlike, backwards sound of the Mellotron.

TB: That part is definitely prominent during the bridge.

AP: Yeah, and also during the intro. When they offered this track as a download, for some reason they kept the sped-up version, which I wasn't very happy with; they cut some of the guitar solo out; and they totally chopped off the intro! The one you can download just starts off with the Rag guitar, but the one I sent you has got that nice intro, which then makes complete sense of the middle, you see. Because the intro becomes the middle again -- it's an old Tin Pan Alley trick.

TB: You do the same thing in "Respectable Street," among others.

AP: Exactly. I like that technique of playing the -- in fact, I can't think of the word they used to call that. They didn't used to call it the intro, they used to call it something like the chorus, and then the song would get going, and they would call that the verse. But I think they used to call the separate intro piece the chorus.

Somebody might be able to correct me on this, but it's some accepted musical phrase that now means something different. But then -- during the 10s, 20s, 30, 40s -- there was that separate piece on the front of a lot of songs. That separate, slower, free-time intro.

TB: Let's talk about the percussion a little bit again. We talked about you channeling Dave Mattacks and the brushwork, but there is also a kind of a "crack" during the chorus and bridge.

AP: Oh, that's very processed handclaps -- real ones and sampled ones all mashed together, then screwed up and EQ'd. I've also got a little bell tree in there, and I've got wood blocks. I do like contrary percussion. I'm a big percussion fan. I think I've a reasonable knack for doing it, as well -- I always got to do the percussion on our songs, because Dave'd say, "Well, Partsy, you better go in and do it. None of us can bloody do it." So I always got the job.

TB: You've also got pizzicato strings, which are very percussive in themselves.

AP: Yeah! I just love pizzicato strings. I think I was scarred by "Secret Love," by Doris Day, being on the radio a lot. If you listen to that, the horse-trotting pizzicato string section in the middle of it -- I totally and utterly took that style for Martin Newell's "Before the Hurricane." If you hear that, then go and play "Secret Love" by Doris Day, it'll be, "Oh my god, yeah! I see what he means!" That's ersatz Doris Day -- which is lovely, with a bit of milk and sugar! [laughs] [adopts Russian accent] "Da! Ve could not get real Doris Day -- only have ersatz Doris. Vas very cold in Stalingrad, but big helping of ersatz Doris cheer everyone up."

TB: [laughing] So, are there any electric guitars on this song?

AP: Oh yeah, in the chorus, you can hear slowly strummed guitars, with a lot of wobble and echo on them. They're almost underwater guitars.

TB: Then there's that backwards guitar after "some of us trip and damage our heads."

AP: That's acoustic! I thought, "Well, if you're damaging your heads, it's because you've tripped -- it's drugs -- so we better have a drug-reference guitar there. I'll spin it backwards."

TB: I also love the little circus-theme reference you make during "We teeter along on our tightrope"...

AP: [laughs] Yeah, but nobody got the Dick Van Dyke reference! The first time, he falls on his ass, so he gets a tom-tom, but the second time he avoids the ottoman, so he gets a triangle.

TB: What other keyboard parts did you have besides the Mellotron and pizzicato strings?

AP: There's the fake Mellotron, the plucked strings, but I don't think there are any more keyboards in there.

TB: Oh, maybe I was hearing the electric guitars, then?

AP: Yeah, there's that very wobbly, ghostly electric guitar off in one side. Maybe you thought that was keys -- it does sound very aquatic -- very watery. I wanted it to sound Niagara-esque.

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

AP: I think the lyrics are a companion piece to "Senses Working Overtime."

TB: Really?

AP: Yep, lyrically, it's the same sentiment -- it's that joy of life, and maybe the only time you're going to find out what it's all about is when you're on your deathbed, you know? [chuckles] And also the same as "Goosey Goosey."

TB: I guess I was thinking this song was kind of a happy version of "Rook," in a way...

AP: [laughs] Yeah, what would a happy version of a rook be? Budgie! [sings] "Budgie, Budgie, so colorful and..." I don't know!

TB: [laughing] Played faster, of course! But yeah, I did get the whole thing about how sometimes you've got to be close to death to appreciate life...

AP: Exactly. And it describes what happens to us -- "We're bobbing along in our barrel / Some of us tip right over the edge" -- you know, some people do. They're not happy to bob along, they've got to go right over the edge there.

TB: It's funny how you mix in all the Niagara Falls references -- "We teeter along on our tightrope"...

AP: Yeah, what was his name? Blondin, was it?

TB: And then you've got other jokes in there -- "All my life I will be death defying"...

AP: Death defying, exactly. [chuckles] What else are you doing while you're alive but defying death?

TB: Given what I know about your views about religion -- and this is the thing I've always felt, too -- people who put all their store in the "next life" as the Happy Place, they're missing it!

AP: They're missing now.

TB: Exactly! That's why Existentialism isn't scary. What it's saying is, "If this is all we've got, then make the best of it!"

AP: Yeah, totally. I find it very positive. It's a realism.

TB: A lot of people are so put off by the fact that this is it that they run back into the arms of their fictitious god.

AP: I found that when I decided that this was all there was, I felt amazingly liberated. There is only this world. There is no need for another world. Nature has no need for it. Nature is just this hungry factory that needs to keep banging out stuff to replicate itself. So what use would it have for dead stuff? None, except as fertilizer. There is no natural need for Heaven. If Mother Nature needed Heaven for some continual procreative sexual purpose, then there'd be a Heaven.

TB: [laughing] Maybe that's where new souls are made! Maybe that's why it's Heaven, because we're up there fucking all the time.

AP: [laughs] It's one giant sex club! Where all the women look like Angelina Jolie.

TB: [laughing] Yay! Will I look like Brad Pitt when I get there?

AP: I guess so, yeah! [laughs] Yeah, there are no Boy Georges up there.

TB: Unless someone wants to be Boy George, or be with him, right? Let everybody have their own thing.

AP: [chuckles] Exactly. To each his own.

So, yeah, this is about the wonder of life, basically. Why does the wonder of life alight on every one of us? Because we're alive! That's why it's all wonderful. Nothing wonderful about absence of life -- that's completely useless. You're dead, you've done your bit, maybe you've passed on your genes -- go. Nothing marvelous about death, other than the inevitability of it.

TB: You talk about how dumb it is to waste that life, too, in the second verse: "Popping pills is really stupefying / Gets you crawling when you could be flying."

AP: Exactly. Drugs are fucked, so don't bother with them.

TB: Then, "All my life I guess that I'll be dying / Just to know"...

AP: Yeah, a bit of a pun there -- life is a march toward death, but you're also dying to know what life's about.

TB: And you have to die if you want to know if there's an afterlife.

AP: Yeah, but you're going to be in for a rude [laughs] -- well, not even an awakening! It'll be a rude unawakening!

TB: Was this is one of those songs where, because you got a project from someone else, you were able to push the "editor" aside, making it easier for you to write?

AP: Yeah, do you know, I love commissions! I don't get them very often, but when I do, I totally love them. You're not writing for yourself, so the world is totally open to you. You don't have to be real to yourself, and thus -- not having to be real to yourself -- you inevitably are! [laughs] If given the chance to be anybody else in the world, you end up being you, because that's the only experience you've got.

So, I love commissions. I think some of the world's greatest art has been made on commission.

TB: Sure, when you look back on the history of art, absolutely.

AP: The great composers made most of their music on commission. The whole thing of the starving artist in his garret -- [miserable voice] "Oh, nobody understands my art" -- that's an early 20th-century thing. At no other time in history did things run like that. If you weren't getting commissions, who cared?

Also, they used to pay a lot higher in those days. You know, if they wanted a concerto from you, you'd get a stately home, and room and board. But now, Fox TV gives you a couple of thousand dollars, and they want the complete rights for perpetuity!

TB: Were you ever consulted about the video? There's a little image of you toward the end.

AP: They said, "We're doing a video for the track -- it's going to be all animated, and we're going to computer-animate all of the little figures singing. We want the main vocal to be done by an animated you, and how would you see yourself if you were a souvenir?" "And I said, "I want to be a white china cowboy." I did a drawing and faxed it over, and I thought, "Great, they're going to make a virtual model and their going to animate it, and I'm going to be singing the song."

No. The video's just a couple of people out of the show miming my lyrics, and then in the closing show of the video, as it sort of draws out of this cabinet of curiosities, you see a little white china cowboy for a fraction of a nanosecond! I thought, "You fuckers!" [laughs]

TB: What are you saying toward the end of the song?

AP: Oh, that's improvised stuff. Like, "Gonna put some cheese in a rag on a stick on my back / Gonna walk on down the railroad track." I get to be Robert Plant for 10 seconds there. [high Robert Plant voice] -- "Bye-bye, momma, bye-bye." Because it's a fade-out -- you're walking off into the sunset with your little hobo kit.

Everyone needs a hobo kit -- it's a stick, it's a red handkerchief with white spots, and it's some bread and cheese in there.

TB: And then you've got to find your wine along the way. In a hobo camp.

AP: [semi-posh voice] Oh, no! Good gentlemen of the road don't drink wine. No, no, no! They're teetotalers! And they all have a top hat that's rather bent, with the top bashed out. And they have spats [laughs], and for some reason, their face is very grubby except for a white ring around their mouth. That's the hobo life!

9:24 AM

©2008 Todd Bernhardt and Andy Partridge. All rights reserved.