XTC's Blogs


Last Updated:
Aug 24, 2008

Monday, September 15, 2008


Andy discusses ‘You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful’

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, "You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful," is from 2000's Wasp Star (Apple Venus, Vol. 2).

The Film Extras (Extra unspecified, but we suspect it's the drummer) were the winners of this week's "Guess the Next Song" contest ... well done, lads. We'll be back in two weeks with an interview relating to Todd's recent move.

TB: Let's talk about "You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful."

AP: Is this the grooviest thing we've ever recorded?

TB: It's a good groove, that's for sure. I love the way Chuck [Sabo] plays on it.

AP: Before then we weren't getting it. We just couldn't get it.

TB: So, you'd tried this song with Prairie?

AP: We'd recorded it with Prairie, yeah. He's a great, great drummer, but for some reason he had a blind spot about this rhythm. Dave Mattacks? Great drummer, can't do a shuffle. And he'll be the first one to tell you! He had enormous problems with "The Disappointed." Prairie? Great drummer, but could just not get this kind of snatched Arabic groove.

We recorded it, and it just did not sound right. Then we made the mistake of getting Haydn Bendall to try to edit what Prairie had played into a groove, and do you know what, it made it even stiffer -- even worse. You know, we were editing individual beats and sliding them around, and I could hear it wasn't working. I knew that, unfortunately, this was a blind spot for Prairie. Hayden spent days and days editing this, and the studio atmosphere was getting shittier and shittier, and it was sounding worse and worse after each edit, and so finally it was a matter of "Oh, please," you know?

TB: Yeah, a groove like this has to be organic. It has to have a live feel to it.

AP: It has to come from your spine, yeah. I don't know what Chuck's blind spot is, but this is not it! He sat down in Idea Studios and just grooved. I remember having to get my pudgy ass off the sofa at the back and dance around. It was so good. It was like, "Oh, this is it! The switch has been thrown. There is electricity going up my spine now. This is the groove." After the horridity of Haydn trying to edit a not-great performance into something that ended up being even worse, I felt so relieved!

You know when somebody plays something so well you just have to smile? You can't stop smiling? Any great artist -- sometimes they're so good at something, you just break into a grin and you don't know why. Well, this was very much the case for me when Chuck sat down and hit this.

There's a counter backbeat drum rhythm from verse two onwards, and on the outro, which is Chuck drumming a pattern that we've distorted out of all recognition. You can hear it from verse two onwards -- it's a backbeat, like a rolling snare drum, but it's all screwed up and distorted, almost like dirty soundpaper. But it's Chuck drumming a counter-rhythm against his Arabic, bright, tight snare drum. He's got this baggy, very distorted snare drum, and he plays a rolling rhythm with a big back beat on it.

Is this the sexiest drumming that we've ever had on an XTC record? It may well be!

TB: Well, we'll have to have the fans comment on that, and see what they say. Because, you know, different people think different things are sexy. Some people might think Terry Chambers going BAP BAP BAP BAP is where it's at.

AP: That's true. That's a little more brutal, though. But some people think brutal is sexy! I know that's true, given some of the sites I've seen on the Internet! [laughs]

TB: This song has always stood out for me as one of the most transformed, from the demo to the studio version.

AP: I think that we transformed it into something very attractive, but en route we did drop a few things that I liked. They seemed to be elusive, and we couldn't seem to find them again. But that's a kind of demo-itis thing -- it's the chance you take when you demo something. You'll catch something in the demo, and then you'll go on to do a finished thing in which you'll catch something, but for what you gain with the polish of the studio, you can lose some of the magic of the demo.

TB: What do you think you lost?

AP: Well, for example, the whole groove of this came originally from this rather awkward-sounding conga loop that I put together at home. There were a lot of clumsy-sounding triplets in the conga loop, and you can hear that in the demo -- there are a lot of those falling-over-themselves triplets.

TB: You do have a corresponding track on the studio version, but it's not as prominent.

AP: That's true, plus it's not as falling-over-itself. I sat with Haydn, and I said, "Look, I really like this loop I've got at home. To me, this is quite a lot of the spine of the groove." The spine is made out of three things, really -- it's that tricky, pushy, triplet-y conga loop; it's that Arabic thing between the bass drum and snare drum pushing against that; and then it's quite simply the organ doing its figure. It's the tension between those three -- that's the groove.

TB: It's interesting that you point out the organ, because I've always thought the guitar would be the third thing you'd mention there.

AP: No, the organ to me was much more -- and this is not a naughty word! -- seminal. [laughs] Much more important to the growth of it. The organ riff -- and I've mentioned this a few times in the notes of the various things we've put this out on -- made me think of Africa, and I can't tell you why. It's almost as if that little three-note figure is almost sort of [David Attenborough-style voice], "And here we see wildebeests sweeping across the Seregeti."

I sat with Haydn, and he said, "Oh, I've got much better-quality samples than that -- let's put together something you like." So when we did the version with Prairie, for him to play to a loop that he could kick off against it, we tried to almost reproduce the home-demo thing. But I don't think we got it as attractively awkward-sounding. Nicer sounds, and we added things like rattling shells and other unusual sounds, but not quite there. I think we put it together in my Shed, actually -- he brought down a load of stuff, and we put the loop together for Prairie to play to. That's the only thing that survives from that session. You can hear that exposed before the outro piece.

But when Chuck sat and played it, it was completely, "Whoa, this is it! This is what's been missing" -- that snap, that kind of Arabic funk in it, is great.

TB: Did you guys already have other instruments down on a track that he could play along with?

AP: No, we just funked along with him, with probably a guide vocal. I think Colin and I played in the control room, so there would be no spillover. It was just the good sound of the kit out there. That was one good thing about Idea Studios -- the drum kit did sound beautiful in there.

TB: Yeah, I remember him telling me it was one of the best rooms he'd ever played in.

AP: Yeah, he said that to us, and I'll tell you, we were so chuffed, because for a pitched-roof double garage -- which is what it was originally -- we put wooden floor down and plaster walls, and stripped the beams -- it sounded great for percussion in there.

TB: There are some other things that you added on the studio version that aren't on the demo. For example, there's the horn part after the solo that wasn't on the demo.

AP: Yeah! That was something that Colin came up with. I was saying, "It would be nice if we came out of that guitar solo section, and there was an addition to broaden it slightly." And he said, "Well, why don't we put some parping horns in there?" We'd done a session with a flugelhorn player, Simon Gardner, for "Church of Women," and it was like, "Oh, damn, why didn't we get him to play this while he was here?" But rather than the expense of getting him back again -- because I think we were well into the red by that time -- it was a case of, "Well, why don't we do it with samples?" So I'm ashamed to say we did it with sampled horns, but they don't sound too bad. That was the E-mu Proteus II, for the gearheads out there.

TB: Another difference between the demo version and the studio version is -- well, the whole ending!

AP: [laughs] The whole ending! The ending was still a mystery, even in the studio. We said, "Look, we'll just play this little coda section, and we'll come up with something." And what happened was, we blundered into this backing-vocal thing where every four rounds, it changes to a different chordal kind of thing. Let me see if I can remember what it is [picks up guitar] -- the main groove is the two different types of the F on the guitar [plays them] -- that's just two inversions of F. There's "F1", to "F2," and F2 is made of, in ascending order, A, C, F, C, D, G. Then, over the end, much dictated by the vocals, we fell into a D-flat seventh, I think. That was a happy accident -- it was a matter of, "Ooh, let's work that in. That's a really nice twist." So that just fell out kind of by accident while we were rehearsing the backing vocals.

TB: How about the other guitar parts?

AP: I'm trying to think of the chords -- there's that F1 and F2; then it's B-flat; then you put an A on the bottom; then, like, an E-flat2, F, then it repeats. Then, [sings] "no matter what the" G7; then I don't know what this chord is, but it sounds medieval -- I'll tell you what the notes are: F, B-flat, F, B-flat, C, F. Then you move the whole shape over a string, and the notes are B-flat, E-flat, B-flat, D, F. It goes from medieval to rather flowery.

TB: That's funny, that you'd just take a chord shape and shift it over a string.

AP: Yeah, it seemed to open it up enough to make it work. Like I say, I don't know the names of a lot of the chords I play, but they seem to work instinctively, so I'm not going to question that. I'll leave the theory to the other folks.

TB: Let's talk about the bass part a bit.

AP: I think Colin plays masterful bass on this. Do you know what he's done? It occurred to me yesterday, listening on headphones -- he took the feel and implied notes of that demo conga loop, which we never had on the finished thing, and he turned it into a bass line! If you listen to it, the bass is playing a musical version of that conga loop from the demo. It's really astute. I don't think I even twigged that even when we were doing it, but it certainly hit me between the ears when I was listening to it yesterday.

TB: Then, the other thing that's really different between the demo and the studio version is the guitar solo.

AP: It is! That was going to be Dave's thing.

TB: Is that why you left it blank on the demo? You didn't even want to suggest anything?

AP: I thought, "Well, I need something here, but I'm not sure what it should be, so I'm going to give Dave totally free rein there. The only guidance I gave to him was, "I want it to sound rainy." He had worked up this whole thing involving delay, to have this tumbling solo that then harmonized with itself by the time the echo caught up with it -- so, it was like Brian May out of a showerhead [chuckles]. I thought, "Wow, I could have never actually played that." That's the sort of thing Dave's good at -- he sits, and if you provoke him enough, he'll come up with something quite splendid. Like, for example, the solo on "That Wave." After his first solo, I said something like, "Dave, that simply is not good enough!" And [chuckles] he came back, and played that killer solo at the mix!

But he came up with this marvelous, tumbling rain thing, but of course was not in the band by the time we did Wasp Star. The thing about him not being there is that it made me have to be a better guitar player. Because I suddenly had to try to be as good as Dave, to fill in the holes! Dave's good at one sort of thing, and I'm good at another sort of thing. I can shoot from the hip and grab something instantly and make that work, where Dave has to sit and plan it all, and he can play it to perfection. Completely on the other end of the spectrum from me. But without Dave, I had to become a better guitar player. Parts of me had to become more like Dave's playing.

I didn't know what to do, so I just grabbed this thing from the hip where I played the melody, and then ended it with a little seventh, and thought, "Ooh, that's so cheeky, that's got to stay." Because I've no idea what I'm playing, to be honest. It comes out like musical vomit, and if there's a good bit, well, we'll keep that bit. But I never planned it like that.

And we did a thing where we had a straight guitar on one side, and then we treated the signal so it came out tremolo'd, and then we panned the tremolo, so it's like one guitar, and then a moving, misty guitar that moves between the speakers.

TB: Was the solo a single take?

AP: Oh no, we took about a quarter of an hour to get that solo. What happens is, if I don't get it in the first couple of tries, I then get more and more frustrated and angry with myself until I get to a point where I get so angry, something good comes out! So, I get through the barrier.

I remember that, after a quarter of an hour or so of trying to get it, I was really annoyed with myself, and then something quite fine fell out.

TB: Is it all one take throughout -- not that it was your first take, necessarily -- or did you build it through edits of a series of takes?

AP: It's hard to remember, but I think it was probably done in a couple of bits. Because Dave wasn't around, I was thinking, "How would Dave approach this?" So, the latter part of the solo is quite Baroque, with lots of notes falling over themselves, which is the sort of thing Dave would have done. But he probably would have worked out something a little bit more melodic, and sit and read it from paper.

TB: Let's talk about the lyrics. I had always thought this song was about Marianne, but it occurred me, listening today, that it might be related to the scene that you described to me when you were talking about "2 Rainbeau Melt," where you and Erica were having a fight, and suddenly you saw this beautiful double rainbow -- I thought maybe this was a metaphor for that. You know, "No matter what the weather..."

AP: No, it's pretty much about Marianne and the fact that [chuckles ruefully] that I could see our marriage falling to shit. I'm trying to be gracious about it, and say, "Well, look, you're still a beautiful woman, dammit!" Is there a tad of misogyny in that? I don't know.

TB: Well, I never really thought you're talking about only physical beauty in the song...

AP: I guess I'm also referring to previous girlfriends. I have a history of being dumped, and you have to say, "Ah well, they may have treated you like shit, but it was still beautiful while it lasted."

There's lots of mundane everydayness in a song like this -- I would put out the cat every night, like Fred Flintstone. And then I'd usually have a little five-minute reverie -- I've got a split stable door on the kitchen, and I'd open the top section, and after I'd thrown the cat out of that, I'd lean out and look up at the stars for five minutes, and kind of set my head. It's almost like I had to regulate the universe for five minutes before I went to bed -- giving the stars a spin to make sure they're turning. Completely non-astrophobically!

TB: That's right! You're beyond that now.

AP: I'm beyond that now! I'm on to new phobias! [laughs] I'm working areas of phobias that not even Woody Allen could dream up.

TB: [laughs] One thing I like about these lyrics is that you take a personal subject, and move bank and forth between considering it on that level, and on a much larger stage -- for example, first you talk about "people who will scratch / and spit and kick and fight," and then you make the issue bigger, saying you "see nations war about whether / right is left and whether wrong is right." Beyond that, there's the pun there between "whether" and "weather," and with the "right is left" and "wrong is right" parts -- so all that's working on three or four levels.

AP: Yeah, that brings my brain to a halt! I felt like, "Wow, I've got to put that in there." This is my attempt to stop the Earth spinning by using the power of words! [laughs] I like doing that. I like to think that, like Superman, I can momentarily stop the world spinning, but I can do it using a couplet.

TB: After that, you bring it back down to a personal level, saying, "And I know storms inside your head / can amplify the plight" -- so, in other words, sometimes it might not be as bad as you think it is...

AP: Sure, but then you start kind of paranoically saying, "Oh, what's happening here," and before you know it, though it's quite nice weather outside, it's not inside.

TB: People bring their own biases to any sort of communication -- I mean, all we can see when interacting with other people is their behavior, which is really only a small part of the equation. We can't ever truly know their intention, so we tend to fill in that gap with our own imagination. So, based on our own motivations, we tend to read all sorts of implied intent into their actions that might not even exist. I like the fact that you're saying, "It seems worse that it is, but you know what? You and the clouds -- you're still beautiful." It's simple and immediate.

AP: Well -- thank you! [laughs] And who shall I sign this to? "You can just make the check out to me."

TB: [laughs] Talk to me about "And every Troy with wooden horse / I take to peaceful waters / But can't make him drown." I know it's partly the "you can bring a horse to water but can't make it drink" thing...

AP: It's that, and I'm questioning my own intention as well -- maybe my intention is not peaceful. Maybe I want to storm this city and take this, and make it mine.

TB: "And every Bastille / that gets storm-troopered"...

AP: Well, it's the storming of the Bastille -- but I take that up a notch. It's not just stormed, it's storm-troopered.

TB: "Hail to the chief comes raining raining / raining down."

AP: Yeah, that to me sounds typically American. Hail to the chief comes raining down -- that's bad weather! It hurts, that weather!

TB: And then you once again bring it to a personal level -- here you say, "I've seen people conduct lightning / down to a summer's day" -- so you're saying, again, people bring their own pain to a place where it doesn't need to be...

AP: Right. It's lovely, beautiful weather, and somebody's going to spoil it by bringing some sort of shit and ruining the cricket match here!

TB: "And I see nations playfully hurl / snowballs packed with stones and clay:...

AP: Yeah, playfully hurl snowballs, but there's stuff inside them! Ow! That hurt! That's supposed to be playful. And, you know, that was typical of our arguing when we argued. Arguing was not about resolving anything, it was about hurting the other person. You think it starts out as snowballs, but they've got stuff in them!

TB: One of the first things couples need to learn about is how to argue.

AP: Right. You need rules for arguing.

TB: Then, you bring it back to the personal level again, saying, "And I know rain inside your head / can seriously put a stop to play"...

AP: That's the cricket match part of it. Rain stops play, and so you often hear that, "There's not game, there's no sport, because rain has stopped it."

TB: Then, the final verse has jokes in there about "flying saucers, flying cups and flying plates"...

AP: Well, that was actually the chorus of a song I'd had some years before, which was called "Flying Saucers and Flying Cups." It was about throwing crockery around, which we were kind of both guilty of. It's not so much that we'd throw it as each other, as at the floor, or at the wall, or at the ceiling. In fact, for years, I'm ashamed to say we had a huge stain on the ceiling where, my ex-wife was winding me up so badly one breakfast that I just threw my bowl of Coco Pops straight up, and it hit the ceiling, and we had this brown, Jackson Pollock-like stain on the ceiling for several years...

TB: [laughing] And you left it there on purpose to remind you not to do it again?

AP: Well, no -- I was just lazy about getting it painted over, you know. But every morning, or whenever, you'd look up and think, "Ooh, shit, that was one bad argument." [chuckles]

TB: "And as we trip down lovers lane" -- there's the pun there in the way you use "trip"...

AP: Yeah, you're tripping down lover's lane -- you're gaily dancing...

TB: Right, because you can trip the light fantastic, or you can trip and fall over.

AP: Exactly -- tripping is also falling over and hurting yourself.

TB: "We sometimes bump into the gate."

AP: Is there a gate on lover's lane? Do you not see it because it's dark, and you're gaily tripping along, and then ouch! You didn't expect that -- that hurt!

TB: The unintended consequence.

AP: Exactly.

TB: Then once again you bring it to a personal level and say, "And I know thunder in your head / can still reverberate."

AP: And it was great fun just to hit that tremolo chord at that point! "Can you put more of that tinny-sounding reverb on that, Nick?"

TB: Then, the other thing I really like about the ending is that you're saying, "So let it rain." You're accepting the fact that this is part of a relationship.

AP: Yeah, trying to be philosophical about it, you know. Let's do it and get over it.

TB: And that you can't expect it to be sunny all the time. In fact, if it were, things wouldn't grow.

AP: Nothing would grow. There you go -- good metaphor, sir.

TB: Thank you, sir!

AP: [Military voice] You, sir, are a good metaphorist! A metaphysician!

TB: I'm not a metaphysician, but I play one on TV!

AP: [laughs] On a soap opera! A really intelligent soap opera. "The Metaphysicians in Love."

7:16 PM

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