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Last Updated:
Oct 12, 2008

Monday, October 13, 2008


Andy discusses 'Mermaid Smiled'

Song of the Week -- Andy's take

Part of an ongoing series of interviews, posted every two weeks, by Todd Bernhardt with Andy Partridge about the songs we feature each week on MySpace. This week's song, "Mermaid Smiled," is from 1987's Skylarking.

Andrew was the sole fool who pulled his trousers down -- oops, wrong song reference -- I mean, the one person who got this one right. One mermaid smile is headed his way. We'll be back in two weeks with a look at one of Andy's angriest songs.

TB: Let's talk about "Mermaid Smiled." I seem to remember that you've said this came from a poem you'd written?

AP: It didn't come from a poem -- the poem was actually written, I think, in parallel with the music. If you listen to the demo [on Fuzzy Warbles, Vol. 5, there is no lyric.

It's a D6 tuning -- low D, A, D, A, B, F. Then it's sort of a Raga-type thing. [plays a bit]

TB: Ah, I see -- so, you've got lots of open strings ringing out there...

AP: Yeah, a lot of the D's ringing out.

TB: That's purty.

AP: [laughs] Purty! It's got a purty mouth.

TB: I've always loved this song -- I bought the album when it first came out, so this was on it, before it got replaced by "Dear God" -- and the song stood out for me right away because of that very compelling guitar pattern.

AP: [plays climbing melody/motif] It does sound aquatic, doesn't it?

TB: Absolutely. I can see why it would evoke those kinds of thoughts. And the arrangement you guys came up with -- it's so unusual for a Pop album. I think that's one of the things that made this song stand out for me. In some ways, it's unlike any of the other songs on Skylarking.

AP: It is sort of related, arrangement-wise, to "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul."

TB: Yeah, if I had to choose one, that'd be it.

AP: We're going through the Bobby Darin zone, at that point.

TB: Yeah, with the muted trumpets and things like that, but then you have all this crazy, almost Indian percussion...

AP: Yeah, old Mingo Lewis's crazy percussion stuff.

TB: There are tablas in there, right?

AP: Yeah, the low drums are tablas, and I know there were some bongos, but otherwise I'm not sure, because there was so much dope smoke in the room while he was doing that [chuckles] that I had to go into the control room. I couldn't be in there.

TB: [laughs] I remember you telling me about that -- didn't you say he couldn't really get it going unless he had a smoke?

AP: He was really nervous, for some reason. I don't know why. Maybe because we were English? Who knows, but he couldn't get it. I remember wandering off somewhere for a coffee or a sandwich or something, and when I came back, he was in full flow. So, once he got really stoned, he could get it.

TB: Had he worked with Todd before?

AP: Yeah, I think they knew each other. Prairie as well.

But yeah, though this song originally came up as a piece of music, I had this poem, or parts of a poem, called "Book Full of Sea." As a child, as a holiday gift -- I think it was a holiday from school, we weren't going anywhere -- for a treat, they bought me this board book, and all the pages were die-cut, so you could see through the pages. Each page was like a frame, basically. At the back of the book, on the back inside cover, was a packet of water -- a thick, plastic packet of water -- [chuckles] pretty much like a condom, actually! -- that had little plastic fish floating in it. You'd sort of squish it and poke it around, and these fish seemed to move.

Then, you'd look through the frames -- you know, the first page would be like the porthole of a diving bell or something. You could put your finger through and press the water, and make the fish move. And then the next one would be kind of an underwater cave, and the next would be the splintered hull of an old shipwreck. There weren't many pages -- maybe four or five -- but I was fascinated as a young child by this book with sea in it! So, I wanted to write this song, or this poem -- I don't remember what it started off as -- called "Book Full of Sea."

Around the same time, I came up with this Raga-esque piece of music, and I thought, "Ooh, wait a minute -- maybe the intention to write this song is going to go this way," you know? The only kind of word that I had that seemed to fit was the "smiled" bit, which you can hear on the demo.

So, I'd found this D6 tuning -- I was messing around with a lot of tunings at the time, and stumbled upon this "Fool on the Hill" D6 tuning. And then I started to throw my hands around the fretboard and discovered some great-sounding stuff -- all simple chords. They're just straight barres or real simple shapes.

It just sort of said rock pools and mermaids and breakers crashing. There's a lot of my childhood imagery caught up in this. The Rupert Bear Annuals -- do you know Rupert Bear?

TB: No.

AP: I think Paul McCartney now owns all the rights to Rupert Bear, but it's a charming English strip -- still going, I think. For many years, it was done by a woman called Mary Tourtel, and when she died, an artist called Alfred Bestall took over, and carried on drawing Rupert for many years. It was a newspaper strip, and then every year you got an annual -- a book on it. He wouldn't sign it for years, because he didn't want children to think Mary Tourtel still wasn't doing it. How sweet is that?

One of these Rupert things involved Neptune and all his seahorses -- the seahorses were the white foam on the waves, and that image stuck with me. There's lots of that kind of stuff in there.

TB: So, you get "Borne on foaming seahorse herd"...

AP: Exactly. That's from a Rupert annual. There's a helluva lot of my childhood imagery and the romance of the sea, as a kid, for me in this song.

I was talking to Dave yesterday -- I said, "Dave, am I remembering correctly? I don't think we did any of this recording over in Woodstock. I think this was done totally in San Francisco."

TB: Really? Even your parts? Because for this album, you recorded most of XTC's parts in Woodstock, right?

AP: Yeah. I don't remember recording any of this in Utopia Sound -- [laughs] the most inappropriately named studio, if you saw it. I think we waited until we go to San Francisco. Dave said that he couldn't remember doing anything before San Francisco. He remembered that all he played on it was Todd's Fairlight -- a sample of some vibes.

TB: Interesting -- that's a great sample. I thought it was real vibes.

AP: In fact, if you listen carefully, someone mischievously turns the mod[ulation] wheel at the end of one of the sections, so you hear [imitates melodic line, with wobble at end]. You know, somebody's pissing around with the mod wheel there, you can hear it's not real. But it's a very good sample. That was Dave's contribution -- he was doubling up the motif line with the vibes.

TB: I was wondering if he played any guitar on this. I knew you played the main part.

AP: Yeah, I'm doing the Raga-mama-Raga guitar. I said to Todd, "Look, it doesn't sound watery enough. What can you do to make it sound more watery?" So he put a sort of fast, chorus-y wobble on the guitar.

TB: The vibes contribute to the watery feel as well.

AP: Yeah, vibraphones to me just say, "rock pools." You hit a vibraphone, and, "Okay -- that's a picture of a rock pool." That's all it is. It's something being dropped in still water. Pebble ripples in still water. There's something about the contained-ness of it -- it doesn't suggest a lake or a pond. It's a rock pool.

So, we did all of this at the Sound Hole studio -- the aptly named Sound Hole. Prairie is showing off his jazz chops, and Colin really shocked me, because Colin's not a jazz fan at all, but do you know what? He just sat into the whole jazz thing just perfectly. He's got that faultless walking bass -- Colin has a great jazz future, if only he liked jazz! [laughs] He doesn't, but if he did, he'd be there, because he's got it on the nose.

TB: He must have soaked some up along the way -- I mean, the popular music you were listening to growing up had a lot of jazz elements, right?

AP: That's true. Although I was a closet jazz fan, you see. My dad would leave his albums laying around, he's go to work, and I'd get them out and -- [kid's voice] hee hee hee hee! -- try not to get fingerprints on them, so he'd know I'd been playing his albums.

TB: He was a jazz drummer, right?

AP: Yeah! So, Prairie's doing great jazz chops and Colin's following him in perfect form -- the pair of them are melded together perfectly. And Mingo, stoned as he is, really got it, too. He had to get out of it get into it.

TB: [laughing] As Frank Zappa would say!

AP: [laughs] Exactly!

TB: Are the horns real horns?

AP: Yeah, they're real. Todd arranged this song very, very quickly, and did a great job -- he took that guitar motif, and you can hear, in stereo, how he layered some muted trumpets on the left, and some on the right. I'm guessing we overdubbed our little horn section -- and they sort of cascade from left to right with each note in the motif, if you see what I mean. I think they were done in two passes, so they have this piling up effect, you know. Which is beautiful -- really nice.

TB: It's interesting, though -- I don't see horn players actually named in the credits, so I was wondering if these were samples, too.

AP: Really? No, it was all real players.

TB: There's the Beech Avenue Boys on backing vocals...

AP: Yeah, that's all of us...

TB: There's Prairie, Mingo, and John Tenney on violin. And mention of Todd, of course, but that's pretty much it.

AP: Ahhhh. Well, there were brass players -- muted trumpets. I'm not sure what else. Maybe they weren't credited! But yeah, those are real trumpets, and Todd came up with that arrangement very quickly. We said, "Look, can we go a bit more Bobby Darin with this?" I was well up for that. Because we did talk quite a bit about how these songs were going to be done -- we tried to nail the character of them. So, "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul" was going to be like Beatnik-spy music, and we got that nailed pretty good, and this one was going to be this kind of Raga-stopping-off-in-Las-Vegas feel, and we got that pretty good as well, I think.

TB: Yeah, let's talk about the lyrics a bit, because the imagery in them is really lovely.

AP: Sure! I don't have them with me, so we'll need to do the vaguely embarrassing thing of you reading me the lyrics. Because, you know, I can't keep any of this stuff in my head.

TB: Well, you have to make room for new things, right? That's one of the reasons to get it on paper, and then on tape, or hard drive, or whatever.

AP: Yep. You've got to crap it out and move on.

TB: Exactly. So, "From pools of xylophone clear"...

AP: Well, there you go. A pool of clear water is a xylophone, or vibraphone.

TB: "From caves of memory / I saw the children at heart / That we once used to be."

AP: That's pretty self-explanatory.

TB: "Borne on foaming seahorse herd," which you've already talked about.

AP: Yeah, that's the Rupert annual -- Neptune and his seahorses visiting the shore.

TB: "Compose with trumpeting shell"...

AP: Maybe that's where Todd got the idea for muted trumpets!

TB: That would make sense. Plus, you're talking there about Neptune with the conch shell, I'm assuming.

AP: With a conch shell as a trumpet, yeah. I think that occurred in that Rupert story, as well. That was how he summoned the horses.

TB: "From lines across their hands / A song as new as new moon / As old as all the sands."

AP: Yeah, because I thought that the lines on your hands kind of look like the stave for writing music. I've got unusual lines on my hand -- you know how you have a heart line and a head line?

TB: Yeah...

AP: I don't. I just have one line. My heart and my head are all one thing.

TB: And that explains the complexity of your music, then, doesn't it!

AP: It says it all! If anyone says, "Oh, I'll read your fortune!", for a bit of fun, I'll show them my hands, and they go, "Whooa!"

TB: [laughs] That's funny -- I don't know if you ever mentioned that to Harrison [Sherwood], because the first line of the liner notes in Coat of Many Cupboards is, "Let us now consider the Head and the Heart." And then he talks about how you guys bring the two things together so well.

AP: Well, I've got just one line there, like some sort of android chimp. [laughs]

TB: [laughs] Well, now we know your username on the various forums and other places you go online.

AP: There you go. Android Chimp. But yeah, the rest of the lines you mentioned are very Hollywood poetic, I suppose.

TB: "Shrank to stagnant from Atlantic wild / Lost that child 'til mermaid / Smiled."

AP: Yeah, you know, you can really shrink down to a stagnant little pond. Kids have got all that wild imagination, and wild joy about everything, and you lose that when you get older. You just sort of dry up into this little stagnant pool of gunk. Yet when you were a kid, you were an ocean of emotion and potential and joy.

TB: When you talk about "mermaid smiled" here, are you using that as a metaphor for something else? Are you thinking that romantic discovery can bring the childlike wonder back to you again?

AP: It's basically about getting back in touch with the child in you. And the key to that is something as frivolous as a smile on a mermaid.

TB: So, you're not using the mermaid image as a metaphor for romance?

AP: I'm thinking more that she's the spirit of lost childhood. Something darting, fleeting, and then -- oh, it's gone again. It's getting in touch with the child that most people, unfortunately, lose. I think that's a sad thing. It's getting a glimpse of that child again, represented by the smile on a mermaid.

TB: The second verse starts, "Summoned by drum rolling surf / As laughing fish compel"...

AP: Little fishes sometimes do seem to laugh, don't they.

TB: "The young boy woken in me / By clanging diving bell."

AP: It's all that aquatic longing. I mean, the sea scares the shit out of me -- still does.

TB: You and I have talked about that before, but these images are so joyous -- you're talking about how being down by the seaside or looking at a seascape can bring out the child in you again.

AP: Yeah, totally. It's all that stuff of summer holidays -- of rock pools, of shells, of that tumbling, thundering, scary surf. It's the essence of pure unbridled childlike joy.

TB: "Breakers pillow fight the shore"...

AP: They do, don't they! You know, these big white things seem to having this childish fun -- big white boofs! and bash! -- it almost sounds the same when the pillows are clashing around your head.

TB: "She wriggles free in the tide / I'm locked in adult land / Back in the mirror she slides."

AP: Yes. You see, that's your spirit of childhood escaping. It's going.

TB: "Waving with comb in hand"...

AP: Well yeah, they have to!

TB: [laughs] Of course, yeah. "I was lucky to remain beguiled / Grown to child since mermaid / Smiled."

AP: Again, sort of self-explanatory.

I'm getting funnily emotional talking about those lyrics. Getting a little moist around the ocular regions! It's sad to lose the child. It's sad to lose that little radio set tuned to pure joy.

TB: It's funny -- as you get the older, the options start to disappear.

AP: The arteries harden, the vistas narrow, you're shrinking down from a big, foaming sea to a little stagnant pond. Yeah, it's not good.

TB: I guess that's why you're an artist -- I think, better than most people, you're able to tap into that. It's also a reason to keep pursuing it, because it does help the pool from being stagnant. It does broaden your vistas a bit.

AP: Sure, creativity is good -- because it's the child that creates. The adult edits; the child creates. If you can get back in touch with that child -- it's still there; you just have to get back into the child zone again. That's where creativity is.

You know, a lot of it is associated with embarrassment and making an idiot of yourself, by adult standards. Creativity is wrongness, and creativity is making an idiot of yourself. Putting things together that shouldn't go together, like you do as a kid -- "I'm going to put my mom's shoes on top of this pile of bricks, and it represents granddad in a pile of monkeys." You're expressing this joy through "wrong thinking" -- that's creativity. Adults tend to forget how to think wrong.

TB: One of the great things about being a kid is that it doesn't have to make sense.

AP: Yeah, it's the joy of just doing it.

12:41 AM

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