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Nov 9, 2008

Monday, November 10, 2008


Andy discusses 'The Last Balloon'

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, "The Last Balloon," is from 1999's Apple Venus, Vol. 1.

Gathering Moss was rock-solid with its guess, and the first of several right guesses from the fans, about this week's song. Just one more good thing to come out of Chicago this week! (Yes, we love the sound of the words "President-Elect Obama" here.) We'd give you a hint for the next interview, but quite frankly we don't know what it is yet -- we'll tell you next week. There may be a surprise in store!

TB: So, let's start this one talking about the demo. If you listen to the demo and the studio version, some of the instrumentation that you chose is pretty different. For example, in the demo, the harpsichord is more prevalent...

AP: Well, on the demo, it's actually a sample of a nylon guitar. The sampled sound of a harpsichord just didn't sound right to me.

TB: Interesting, because on the studio version it sounds more guitar-based to me.

AP: No, the keyboard on the demo is a sample of a nylon-strung guitar, and the studio version features a Baldwin electric harpsichord, which has a pickup. We recorded it through that, but it was so muddy and fluffy that Haydn Bendall said, "You know what, I'm going to put a plate mic on the plastic top -- the Perspex lid -- and pick up the vibrations coming from the plucked strings." When he did that, the blend of the two of those sounded fantastic! Sounded like a real, 3-D, world's-biggest harpsichord. It was gorgeous.

The song was written on a nylon-string guitar, but balloons to me mean harpsichords, which is why, when I did the Orpheus record with Peter Blegvad -- what's the track where the lyric is "Blow him up like a balloon"? "The Blimp Poet"? That's a harpsichord sample, but it's actually a harpsichord playing the sequenced backing track to "Omnibus."

TB: So, you wrote this on Holly's guitar?

AP: Yeah. An Italian musician -- I can't remember his name now -- came to see me and asked if I'd play on a track of his. I said, "Okay, fair enough, very flattering. Get me the track." So, he got me this track, and all it was was a bunch of chords. He said, "I want you to come up with a melody." So, I came up with this melody [sings the vocal melody] over the top of these chords, and I thought, "Do you know, that's a really good melody!"

Then, he started asking me to introduce him to Peter Gabriel, and asking if I'd come to Italy and play all over this record he had, and I thought, "Hang on a minute, he's really using me here. He wants me to come up with the melodies over these chord patterns that he's come up with, and I suspect that's what he wants me to do over the whole of the album." So, because I started to think I was being used, I decided to drop out of the project, but I had come up with a really good melody that I liked. I changed the chords under the melody, so that it was me coming up with the chord pattern and the melody. That's the genesis of the song -- the melody came first.

It sounded like some sort of placid balloon ride to me. The working title for the Nonsuch album was The Last Balloon Home. Originally, it was just going to be called Balloon, but then it became The Last Balloon Home. I talked to Dave and Colin, and said, "Look, it'd be great to do a sleeve around the concept -- we can make it like a '50s musical. Like, you know, the sleeve for South Pacific -- one of those big, overblasted color photos. What we do is, in the photo studio, we mock up a hanging basket from a hot-air balloon, and we're in Victorian gear, but really bright-colored -- sort of pastel colors, like lilacs and pinks -- with top hats and frock coats and stuff. We're climbing in the basket of this balloon, and there are ladies in parasols around, so it looks like an outtake fantasy sequence from My Fair Lady or something." I said, "We'll give it all the trappings of a musical on the cover, and maybe even put a fake synopsis on the back, and a dozen or so large-format photographs inside 'from the film,' so to speak, done in this overblasted color effect, so it really looks like a sleeve from a musical film that never was."

And then Dave said, "I'm not putting on stupid clothes and climbing in a basket!"

TB: [laughing] "You've already had me in a schoolboy's outfit, in train worker's gear, and wrapped in newspapers..."

AP: [laughing] Exactly. "A diving outfit" -- and then they came up with the idea that I was the organ grinder and they were just monkeys, and they weren't going to get into any stupid outfits. Although Colin initially was up for it -- he was really into it, because he has a love for musicals as well, so he was into the concept of the album being a fake musical.

So, unfortunately, the title The Last Balloon Home kind of fell by the wayside, because Dave wouldn't do the concept -- he wouldn't put on the lilac-y frock coat with a pink top hat on, and climb in a basket.

TB: He didn't want to be Phileas Fogg, eh?

AP: No. I thought certain songs could fit the concept -- "Omnibus" would have fit the concept really well...

TB: Sure. "Bungalow."

AP: "Bungalow" would have fit the concept well, yeah. It'd be sort of a concept album without really being one. But it was not to be, and that's when the Nonsuch thing came up. I found a drawing of Nonsuch Palace, and I thought, "Wow, that's great." I read about it, and thought, "Okay, we'll call the album Nonsuch. I've got to get out of this whole balloon thing."

That said, I had really liked the title The Last Balloon Home. When I found myself with an orphaned melody and some orphaned chords from this aborted Italian project. I thought, "Well, what does this sound like? It's sounds like a balloon -- ooh, 'The Last Balloon'!" And that's really what triggered the whole thing -- and that's my rambling explanation of it. [laughs]

TB: When in the cycle of songwriting for the Apple Venus and Wasp Star albums did you write this? When I was getting the demos from various sources for these albums, I'm pretty sure it was one of the later discoveries for me. Does that reflect when you actually wrote and demo'd it?

AP: I'm trying to remember -- if I went to the Shed and dug out the DAT with all the original mixes on it, or got the track sheets, I could show in what order it came out. I seem to remember that it came out reasonably early. I think the earliest stuff was, oddly, some things that ended up on Wasp Star. But when I got into "River of Orchids," "Easter Theatre," and things like that, "The Last Balloon" seemed to hang in with all that.

TB: Another big difference for me between the demo and studio version is the trumpet patch you have in the demo -- you're being Miles Davis, as opposed to Guy Barker.

AP: I didn't have a nice flugelhorn patch!

TB: If you had had one, would you have demo'd that?

AP: I actually prefer flugelhorns to trumpets. Trumpets are yellow, and flugelhorns are a slightly brown-y/orange.

TB: And on the demo, you made the trumpet even yellower by putting a mute on it.

AP: Yeah. It was kind of a case of, "Let's just make the demo work as a demo. I know what I'll ultimately want." But god, didn't Guy Barker play a beautiful solo?

TB: Yeah, it's gorgeous.

AP: That's the best of two-and-a-half solos, which were done at about 2:00 in the morning. It was at the end of the orchestral day at Abbey Road, where we did the strings and brass for all the other songs. We started with a full orchestra, and when we'd finished with those, we sent them home, keeping the brass section. Then we did all the brass bits, we sent them home but kept Guy Barker on. By that time it was 2:00 in the morning. So, we knew we wanted a flugelhorn solo, but were all falling asleep, with the faders pressing in our foreheads on the [recording] desk!

TB: That's actually kind of the perfect situation for this, because it's got this great, late-night jazz-club feel. You can see the smoke hanging in the air, almost, as he's playing this

AP: It's perfect, yeah. You know, we're trying to throw Phileas Fogg out of the bar! [chuckles] It's a beautiful solo. I think it's mostly one take, with a few phrases from another take dropped in. The way he got the transition between the voice and his solo is wonderful. Lovely.

TB: On the studio version, it sounds like Colin's playing two basses. One bass that sounds like a double bass...

AP: That's his Newport, with the mute on. Yeah, he is playing two basses, which we give two different reverb treatments, so that one is much farther away. He plays the root stuff on a drier, closer-sounding bass, while the more melodic stuff sings off with the reverb, into the distance more. The two basses kind of weave through each other. And, you know, this is some of his best playing, I think, on that album.

TB: He played the Newport for both tracks?

AP: Yes, I think so.

TB: And is there a keyboard bass in there as well?

AP: I don't think so. I think it's the two tracks of real bass, and the keyboard would have been the electric harpsichord, the Baldwin -- which goes down pretty deep -- and the string things from the Mellotron and the Proteus. They would have been that more deep, brown, mid-sounding stuff. So, I think you're hearing some lower stuff from the electric harpsichord.

TB: On both versions, you have a ride cymbal going throughout...

AP: Yeah, that's me playing the ride cymbal. Prairie had a deal -- I can't remember the cymbal maker -- where, when he was recording with us, he rang up his cymbal sponsor and said, "Get me a bunch of stuff -- what have you got that's good?" They trucked up a load of free cymbals for him, and at the end of the session, they never bothered asking anyone to get them back to them. Prairie didn't want to have to ship them back to the States, so we took them with us. We had all these beautiful cymbals hanging around in the corner of the studio, so it was a case of, "Well, let's get the cymbal up on the stand there," and I just stood with a stick and tapped that out.

TB: What starts the song out? There's a little ding-ding-ding-ding -- it sounds like something electronic to me, or maybe a triangle.

AP: It is a triangle.

TB: And then, later on, the third time you go into singing the verse...

AP: Yeah, I know what you're going to ask -- I tried to make a wristwatch.

TB: Ah, that's what it is!

AP: What it is, it's two different-pitched stick sounds...

TB: With a triplet feel...

AP: Exactly. Because I wanted it to sound like a wristwatch, as in, "Time's running out."

TB: "You'd better get onboard."

AP: In fact, I had that in my notes here, because I'd forgotten all about that, but you play it on headphones, and all this stuff is revealed! That was just two little samples of sticks tuned and tweaked to sound like a wristwatch ticking on.

TB: How did you get that "boom" after the "Drop us off" line?

AP: That's just a white-noise sample, shaped with filters.

TB: There's a lot of low end to it.

AP: Yes, there is -- we played it way down on the keyboard, and plus there's reverb. So it sounds like you're throwing something big and heavy overboard [chuckles] and it's hitting the ground. It just happens to be in rhythm. Sandbags -- or people! You know, older people -- it's us being thrown off the balloon.

TB: Let's talk a little bit about the lyrics a bit. You had this melody, you had these chords, and the lyrics kind of fell out from there?

AP: Yeah, they came pretty easily. It was funny -- the more I changed the chords to make them my own, the more oblique the melody got, and the sadder-sounding it got. It was actually more pleasing to me. It was a very convoluted way of arriving at a song, but it did seem to pay off.

TB: Did something prompt you into the melancholy feel of the song?

AP: Well, kids'll do that to you. It's just that hope for the future, for your children -- for them not to make the same fucking mistakes as you! You know, surely your kids aren't going to mess things up worse than you did, and your parents did. You look back through history, and you think, "Wow, we can't have World War I again!", and there it is -- World War II! You know -- the sequel! [laughs, adopts cod German voice] Adolph Strikes Back. "Jah! Ich bin your father!" "Neiiiin!!"

So then we had World War II, and you think it can't get any worse, but then we have this nuclear standoff, and then 9/11, then Iraq and Afghanistan, and -- come on!

TB: I admire your optimism in this song, because I understand what you're talking about when you say having kids does this to you. During the darkest hours of the night, I sometimes have real despair wondering -- especially with what's been going on with the economy and the environment lately -- whether things are going to be better for my kids. But you seem to manage to hold on to a certain amount of optimism here.

AP: But it's a optimism that says, "You have to throw us off if you're going to learn. Don't make the same mistakes as us -- don't listen to us. Because if you do, you're going to make the same mistakes."

TB: You and I have talked about how you, as a young man, actively pushed away the past.

AP: Oh, yeah. I think everybody does. You know, if you don't hate your parents at some point, you're not normal! These families that say, "Ooh, I love my parents" -- I didn't! I wanted to murder my mother with an ax! And I was afraid of my father -- he was competition!

I think that's a healthy way of being. Now, I'm different, of course -- you move beyond that, beyond the anger and frustration and resentment that they said "no no no" to things. You move beyond that teenaged or young-man thing, and can say, "Yeah, I can see why they were like that."

I don't want my kids to make the same mistakes that I made. I think of my daughter, getting into the Pop music industry, and I think, "Oh no, she's going to have to sign this, that, and the other, and it's going to turn her inside-out, and I don't want her to have to go through what I did." And I don't want Harry, who's really getting into animation in a heavy-duty way now, to sign rights away to stuff and make the same mistakes as me. I want them to make a better world for themselves and for others.

I sound like I've just won "Miss Nebraska"! [chuckles] I actually think that, given the competition, I'd probably stand a good chance!

TB: We've got to get you in that swimsuit, though.

AP: [laughs] Yeah, a swimsuit with a nice pair of y-fronts over the top, so there's nothing hanging out.

TB: You recorded some of this at Colin's house, correct?

AP: Right. We did the vocals, and the bass, and some of the other keyboards at Colin's house, in what would have been his front room on the left, as you look at it. The harpsichord was done at the studio that Haydn was renting, but the Proteus, and triangle, and vocals and the basses were done at Colin's house. If you have a nice enough desk, and a nice microphone, and a nice compressor, and stuff, you know, you can record anywhere.

TB: I knew that you had done the acoustic guitar for "I'd Like That" and vocals there...

AP: We did a hell of a lot of that album in Colin's front room! He did save our bacon, offering up his two front rooms -- they were being decorated, so it was a case of, we've run out of money to afford studios, and seeing how the two front rooms of his house were a mess in any case, it was like, "Well, we might as well do it in here, because they can't get any messier at the moment."

TB: The ending of this song is particularly beautiful, with the solo and the slow fade-out.

AP: I wanted a really slow fade, because it's got to be that the balloon is flying slowly away. I said, "This is not right, if the balloon flies away straight -- the wind's going to take it," so if you listen in headphones, the fade goes off to the right, as if the wind is taking the balloon. I thought, "Yeah, that's really pictorial." The balloon is drifting off to the right there.

I do like the pictorial imagery of that-- doing this is really big for me, really important. You have to have the "picture in the sound." The stage setting has got to be right. The lyrics are what the actors are saying, and the scenery has got to be just right, to give you the right feel.

1:02 AM

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