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Last Updated:
Dec 14, 2008

Monday, December 08, 2008


Andy discusses 'Millions'

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, "Millions," is from 1979's Drums and Wires.

We stumped you with this week's hint -- or maybe it was just the excitement of Colin joining the XTCview fray...? In any case, we'll be back in two weeks with an interview about a song that spawned one of XTC's silliest videos.

TB: One of reasons I wanted to talk about "Millions" is that it stands out to me as something really different when compared to the rest of the songs on the album.

AP: The last note I wrote down here was, "It was our stretching-out track."

TB: It's very Proggy!

AP: [laughs] You think?

TB: Yeah! In some ways it is.

AP: I think it's more toward Jazz, actually.

TB: I can see that. But a lot of Progressive Rock has Jazz elements in it.

AP: It has Jazz pretentions! "How do you like our new direction?"

TB: [laughs] It's Fusion, man!

AP: [chuckling] It's Fusion, yeah.

TB: So, I know the guitar part originally comes from a Barry song -- "Things Fall to Bits" -- correct?

AP: It was that thing of, "Okay, I've got to come up with something here -- 'Things Fall to Bits.' What stuff falls to bits? Everything you buy from Hong Kong! Oh, I know, I'll find a kind of quasi-Chinese, 'Ying tong yiddle i po' kind of thing." So, I did, but then we didn't get to do the song, because of the whole thing where I was rather upset that Barry was trying to take over and pull the band in a different direction too damn quickly.

TB: What did Barry think about your part for his song?

AP: He thought it was fine! I mean, he didn't say, "Oh, that's wrong." It was a case of, in rehearsals, he just kind of nodded and smiled, so it was that unspoken thing. I think he realized what I was going for -- that kind of comedy Chinese riff [reaches for guitar, plays parallel-fourth pattern] -- you know what I mean?

TB: Exactly, it's like the beginning riff of "Turning Japanese," that Vapors song.

AP: Sure. It's the vaudeville idea of oriental. But when we didn't do "Things Fall to Bits," it was a case of, "Okay, well, that riff just stays in the brain box with the other riffs that never got riffilated," you know?

TB: [laughs] Never got riffinized!

AP: It never got riffinized! I was riffinizin' it! [laughs] That sounds like...

TB: ...like something George W. Bush would say! [laughs]

AP: [laughs, imitates Bush] "Yes, the riffinilizationess of..." Oh, forget it. [chuckles] Obama would already have a commission to study the riffinization. That's how organized he'd be.

So, anyway, it just got put back in the head, and basically almost forgotten about. Then I came up with this little finger-exercise type of thing [plays backing guitar part] -- that piece. I don't know what it is -- I just throw my hands on the guitar. I don't know what I'm doing most of the time.

TB: What chord are you playing there? It also sounds like some kind of pull-off...

AP: Yeah, and then when I'm sick of that, I start playing the guitar! [laughs] I guess it's sort of an E minor 7th thing. It's tricky to describe -- I'm holding down the E on the A string, then I hit the G string in the D-flat position and hammer off. Then I hit the E again on the A string, then the open D, if that makes sense. It was almost a little, nervous, "what the hell are you doing?" twitch, and I thought, "Hey, that sort of sounds oriental!"

At that time, I was absolutely obsessed with this fantasy idea of China. I was totally and utterly obsessed. If ever I went past a Chinese import shop, or go around Chinatown up in London, I'd always have to buy enigmatic Chinese things, like wooden toys, or those sort of military-looking chess sets with primitive Chinese characters on little wooden blocks -- a primitive drawing of an aeroplane or a cannon or something. I had a bunch of those things around the house.

TB: What appealed to you about all that?

AP: Just the naivety of it! I love naive art, and in the late '70s I was also going through this funny stage of almost pretending to be living in a Communist country, all on my own. I dyed all my clothes gray. I had some white shirts or trousers that I dyed gray. I bought a padded Chinese jacket in gray. Everything I owned, I tried to make it gray. I don't know why that was -- [posh voice] my Gray Period, darling.

It was like urban camouflage or something. I think I just kind of wanted to disappear -- I had fantasies of living in a Communist country, and it being a mixture of me being best mate of Ivan Denisovich mixed with a dash of, "Yeah, that's me, 4 millionth from the right, carrying a donkey up a mountain on the Long March," you know?

TB: Was this a personal desire, or commentary on where you thought the UK was at the time?

AP: It was just a personal thing. This was around about '78 and '79 -- I remember even dyeing some shoes gray -- and lasted about a year. In fact, there's a cover of NME, where we were touring Ireland in '78, with Barry Andrews, and there I am, stood in a field, all in gray, with a big stick in me hand. I do look like one of Mao's mates from 1940-something.

I just read a book about Mao, and what a bastard he was! I mean, he gets top award for cruel dictator of the 20th century. Hitler goes in the third position in the charts. [DJ voice] "Hi, Pop pickers! Number one this week, with a billion bullets, is Mao Zedong! Slipping into second place -- old Cheeky Joe Stalin!" Amazing, that so many people could be so easily snuffed out by these dictators -- emphasis on "dick."

But I was young and naive, and I had a fantasy that all things Chinese was fabulous. Which actually I was cured of by the Tiananmen Square massacre. That was it -- I didn't want to go to China anymore after that. So, the scales fell from my eyes.

TB: Yours, and lots of other people's, I think. So, you had this guitar pattern, it sounded Asian...

AP: I thought, "It's got to sound kind of big, and vast," because China is. And empty. That's why I say, it's kind of our stretching-out song. I remember us knocking it around in sound checks, almost endlessly banging this out in sound checks. As soon as Dave joined the band, it was, "Try this little riff out, Dave." He got the job of playing my little ying tong yiddle i po thing...

TB: Really? I thought it was you in the left channel, playing that part.

AP: Nope, it's Dave in the left channel. He's doing that part, and then we both kind of kick into that "cycling across Beijing" finger-picking pattern [chuckles] -- which it really is. It's the sound of cycle pedals going round.

TB: Where did that bass pattern come from? It's pretty constant throughout.

AP: Yeah, and its heavily chorused as well, so it sort of sings.

TB: That's the Newport?

AP: Did he have it then? Maybe it's that black Fender Precision of his. You'd have to ask him, or Dave would probably remember. But yes, a heavily chorused bass -- it's very nice. Got a sort of singing quality, because of that chorus. One of those Jazz tricks.

TB: Do you remember saying to him, "Look, I just want you to hold down the bottom, and we'll play over it?"

AP: Back then , Colin had this thing where he and Chambers had to lock in completely. They would just spend hours playing the groove of any song, just the two of them together. They got to the point where, with just the wink of an eye or a little raised eyebrow, they'd go into the next part.

And, I mean, Terry's playing -- especially in what constitutes a chorus in this song -- where he does that little bass-drum thing...

TB: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that -- this is one of the most unusual patterns he plays, and that chorus part is really challenging.

AP: It is! And most of those cymbals are all live as well.

TB: That's what I figured, because I've played along with this song many times, but I was wondering if that chorus part was double-tracked, because it's so difficult to play with.

AP: No, it was just live, even that very fast bass-drum thing. I was listening to it on headphones the other day, thinking, "Jesus, that's great! I love that."

TB: I remember reading an interview with Bill Bruford in the early '80s, where there was a little sidebar about which albums he was listening to at the time, and Drums and Wires was one of them. I bet this song was probably one of the reasons for that.

AP: I heard through a friend of a friend that he would have liked to have made an album with us. I don't know why we didn't take that offer up -- we were probably too intimidated, because of his background. But that was very flattering.

TB: Then there's a bunch of percussion in here, too. There are wood blocks, a triangle...

AP: Yeah, there are, like, skulls...

TB: [laughs] Just picked some up off the street, eh?

AP: [laughing] Yeah, we had this kind of voodoo thing going. There would always be plenty of groupies who would never make it out of our dressing rooms! Terry was boiling their heads -- he'd be very interested in girls with larger heads, for pitch, and encephalitic girls for that higher tone, you know.

No, they're kind of wooden skulls -- what do you call them -- temple blocks. Plus, things like finger cymbals, which we recorded through vari-speed.

TB: Ah, so that's how you got that descending sound at the end of the chorus...

AP: Yeah, as the finger cymbals were struck, Hugh Padgham would then flick the speed of the tape machine while it was recording and speed it up, so when you played it back at normal speed, it would appear to descend. Whatever way you hit the speed while recording, during playback it would go contrary to that. It was kind of an interesting technique -- at the time there was no other way of bending cymbals. You could bend a guitar note, or wind down a string with a tuning peg or whatever, but to do anything with percussion, you had to mess with the tape speed.

TB: So, where did this drum pattern come from? From group arrangement during rehearsals?

AP: I seem to remember just kicking it around in sound checks a lot, and I think it just kind of grew homogenously. Obviously, Terry was kicking into his version of oriental, or as close to Stomu Yamashta as you can get if you're drinking beer in the Rodbourne Arms!

I just remember it seeming to grow organically. And like I say, lots of holes in it. It's our stretching-out song.

I was reminded how linear it is in the guitar playing. We don't seem to be playing whole chords during the chorus. Dave and I are just playing two-string fifths, and we're in harmony to each other, so though neither of are playing a whole chord, the four different notes make a whole chord. I as reminded of that yesterday -- I'd forgotten all about that.

TB: Which is further complicated by the fact that you're playing slightly different rhythms, which you wouldn't be able to do if a single guitarist was trying to play that chord.

AP: Could it be deconstructed and played by one player? I don't know -- probably. But you may have to use a tuning, or have extremely wide hands. But it's a very linear, minimal way of playing that means there are no big chord things -- it's all little parts of chord, which make up a whole. That was kind of thrilling, to do that.

I was also struck by the fact that there are no backing vocals, or harmonies.

TB: No, although you do double-track your vocal.

AP: I do double-track in the choruses, but otherwise, it's very empty. There's not trademark high "ooh-ee-ooh" voices, or countermelodies or anything like that.

TB: There's lots of reverb and ambience to it.

AP: Yeah, lots of reverb. It was basically cut live.

TB: You say it was cut live, but did you guys ever play this live?

AP: We did. I don't think we played it as a whole song live, though. Colin used to like to play "Crowded Room," which gave me a break, and also was a chance to make kind of a big noise. Because the speed of the two songs were similar, I think one night -- when we did the kind of "take it down a while before I come in with the last verse" thing -- I slipped into playing the finger-picking pattern, and then Dave fell in with the quasi-Chinese pattern. And I think every night after that, it became a little island of "Millions." You could hear people go [imitates crowd roar] in the audience, when they'd recognize it. So, we'd just mess around it with it a little, and play the intro, and do a bunch of jazzy-sounding riffs.

Is it on Coat of Many Cupboards.? Isn't there a live "Crowded Room" on there?

TB: Now that you mention it, I think there is.

AP: We never used to play it as a whole song -- it just used to get slipped into "Crowded Room," and then extended a bit more every night, so "Crowded Room" got turned into our stretching-out song, because of that.

TB: And you never actually sang of the lyrics, it was just instrumental?

AP: It was just instrumental, yes.

TB: Back to the studio version, can you tell me about the ending?

AP: I'd forgotten all about the very reverb-y, slight return, until I listened to it yesterday. I've no idea how that came about.

TB: Was it a decision of Steve and Hugh, or...?

AP: I can't remember! When I played it yesterday, and heard the end of my vocals, there's a bit where I seem to breathe a bit, which they kept. Then, I thought, "Well, that's where it ends." But then you get that half-volume version, very reverb-y, that carries on. I'm sure Dave can remember how that came about.

TB: You guys do a fairly long intro on this song, and then when you do start singing, there's one of these moments of, "Oh my god, the 'one' is not where I thought it was."

AP: Really?

TB: Yeah -- it's always struck me that way. I was wondering if that was intentional, but I guess you were so close to the song that you've always known exactly where the "one" is!

AP: To me, it always felt like one whole thing -- a whole thing. A-hole? [laughs] It's an a-hole thing I've got going! No, it's a [pauses] whole [pauses] thing I've got going, where I never thought about the "one" being in a funny position or anything.

TB: Some of it has to do with the triplet nature of the vocals, but some of it also has to do with where you come in, I think. And then it all does fall together.

AP: I've never thought about that. Do you feel it's in a weird place? Does it throw you every time?

TB: Not every time, but it can surprise me, especially if I haven't heard it in a while. It doesn't throw me, because I do see what you're doing there. I've always been thrilled by songs like that, that have that kind of little surprise, which is why I thought it might have been intentional on your part.

AP: Do you know, nobody's ever pointed that out -- maybe I'm just too damned close to it. To me, it's always felt that's how it was.

2:13 AM

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