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Monday, January 12, 2009


Andy discusses 'Across This Antheap'

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, "Across this Antheap," is from 1989's Oranges and Lemons. Javier Tenaz continues to impress with his acuity in guessing which song is coming up next, getting it right right away. Enhorabuena!

We'll be back at in two weeks with an interview about a song with a title that matches the name of a club/restaurant right around the corner from two places where Todd used to work in D.C.

TB: So -- "soldiers, workers, slaves and farmers"...

AP: "Nurses, queens and drones." All types of ant.

TB: Where did this song come from?

AP: As a child, I was fascinated by ants. I remember reading a story illustrated by Jack Kirby -- who is possibly my favorite American comic illustrator of all time -- where this fellow goes inside an anthill, an antheap. If I remember correctly, he might have even had a helmet he could use to control the ants -- or am I thinking of Ant Man? I may be getting this one-off story mixed up with the genesis of Ant Man -- who, when you think of it, had a limited use, actually, because how dangerous can ants be? You know, if you're going to defeat an evil supervillian, that's one fuck of a lot of ants you'll need, to even make a dent!

There's no wonder they changed him to Giant Man after a while, because it'd be like, "Well, he's only the size of an ant, and he can control ants. Yeah, then what?" You know, is the supervillian even going to notice that there's a trail of ants on the floor, being led by a little fellow with a crash helmet with a special microphone that can talk to ants?

Anyway, we're getting off the beaten track here. So, reading this story that Kirby illustrated got me thinking, from then on as a kid, about the similarities between ants and humans. Then Beefheart came up with "Ant Man Bee," and I thought, "That's somebody else who's recognized that similarity -- bee communities, ant communities, human communities." I guess that lay dormant in my head for many years.

I originally wrote this around the time of writing the songs that were going to go on Skylarking -- there are two demos of this song on the Fuzzy Warbles series -- the earlier one that got sent up for Skylarking, which is more swampy-sounding, and the later one, which has more of a groove that a band like War would have put with it. I really liked "Low Rider" by War. I think I wanted to get a bit of that Latin market, you know. [chuckles]

I had a guitar tuned to the chord of E, and was messing around and found this pattern that I thought sounded good. Then I just sort of blurted out one of those vocal percussion things -- [quickly] ziggedy zig zag just look at 'em -- you know, it's almost like you're improvising. It's just brain shit: "Just look at, just look at -- what? Oh! Ants! Wait, I'm writing a song about ants, and humans -- this is it! This is my moment! My moment in the sun -- this is my moment to have that kid put a magnifying class over me and focus it on my back , and AH! I'm exploding!!" [laughs]

How many times did you do that?

TB: I actually didn't do that much! I was more the empathetic, [mincing voice] sensitive type...

AP: [laughing] There was a man holding a magnifying glass on your back! Burning you!

I'm afraid I was a bit of an ant Dr. Mengele. I did explode some, yes.

So, yeah, I found myself strumming this open E tuning, and pulling this funny little [sings main vocal melody] -- this little swampy-sounding thing. Out it came, with all the ant/human similes. And then, when it got rejected for Skylarking, I still liked it and didn't want to let it go, so I worked on it a bit more, and stirred in more insomnia.

TB: Was that something you were actually going through at the time?

AP: Yeah, you got that whole section -- that can't sleep section...

TB: The "screaming sky"...

AP: Yeah, and the whole intro -- [sleepy voice] "soldiers, workers, slaves and farmers." It's got to sound like it's 4:00 in the morning and you haven't slept, you know. Because I do have racing-brain syndrome, I think they call it. I just can't shut my brain off. Erica's just constantly cursing me for this, because I can't stay on subject.

TB: These lyrics, to me, also spell out a lot of disillusionment about who we are and what we're doing.

AP: I don't know if it's disillusionment -- it's just sort of about the human inability to communicate. No more than these ants can communicate. Perhaps human beings need some special magic helmet to talk to each other! It's all about non-communication, and yes, there is a very cynical eye being cast on the human race.

TB: We're not who we think we are. We, of course, think there's a universe contained within us, and that we're totally important.

AP: Oh, we're getting on some big subjects, now -- yeah, it's the vanity of human beings, where we even think that God must look like us! Why can't God look like a seahorse -- in a dress? There's no reason why God should look like human beings -- what makes us so perfect?

TB: I'd asked, when we talked about "Millions," which channels you and Dave were on. Who's playing which channel in this song?

AP: Dave plays sort of sporadic little bits throughout the song. I'd have to put my headphones on to tell you who's in which channel, but I'm playing the bluesy guitar part under the vocal line, while Dave's doing some dissonant tumbles, with a highly chorused guitar.

The main thing in this song is percussion -- I programmed all of the percussion here. I had the LinnDrum just over on the carpet down there in the corner, and I programmed a part with congas and sidesticks and cowbells and all that sort of stuff. We used that to trigger off some nicer samples, and got Pat [Mastelloto] to play along.

TB: Ah, I'd thought you'd used the Linn as an inspiration, but that all the other percussion was live. So, a lot of it is triggers and samples?

AP: A lot of it is triggered and sampled, and Pat plays a lot of punctuation -- snare and cymbals and bashing bits. Later on, we'd filled up all the tape with percussion, and didn't have any tracks left. But I said, "I'd really love the full kit to come in later in the song," so we had to do it in mono!

TB: Yeah, I'd wanted ask you about that, because sure enough, at the end, you can tell there's a drum kit in there, and the whole kit pans between channels.

AP: Yeah, it gets swept around with a pan, probably an auto-pan, but we did it all mono because there was no room left to record a full kit. So it's just basically a couple of mics either routed to one channel, or just one mic heavily compressed, and that's the sound of a drum kit that gets added in. And was just right -- it was just the right sound, after all this very swish-sounding, beautifully recorded percussion stuff.

TB: There are also keyboards in there.

AP: Yeah, I was not happy about the keyboards! [Producer] Paul Fox thought this song was a single, and he said, "I want to use a kind of tacky, brassy-sounding keyboard," which I really didn't like, but he said, "Yeah, it's so awful, it's almost ironic!" I just found it awful-sounding. I did fight him a little bit on this, but he said, "Oh, let me just try a few things," so, you know, he's doing these [chuckles] rather LA session-sounding kinds of things. He was adamant that this was going to be a single, and that this was helping it along. I thought, "He's had some good decisions as we've gone along so far -- maybe he's right! Maybe I've just got a personal distaste for the cheesy, synthy brass sound."

TB: So that's him playing, not Dave.

AP: Yep, that's him.

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

AP: It's excellent! It really is -- I'd forgotten all about it. Just great bass playing. The bowed bass at the front is a sample, because Paul had massive banks of samples -- almost anything you could want. We wanted to do this "4:00 in the morning, haven't slept yet" kind of thing, so it had to be a bowed double bass. But Colin's bass playing throughout the song is really excellent. The whole basis of the song is the Latin percussion, my swampy, pulled Bluesy guitar, and Colin's burping little bass, and it all sounds great!

TB: Yeah, and he works the holes in the song really well, I think.

AP: Oh, yeah.

TB: Do you remember what bass he was using on it?

AP: It was probably his Wal, but you should ask him and see.

TB: Why the choice of trumpet?

AP: I love trumpets -- I'm trumpet-obsessed. If I could play trumpet, I think I'd like to, but I don't want to end up looking like a frog. [laughs]

TB: [laughing] So, you don't want to look like Dizzy Gillespie?

AP: Dana Gillespie, maybe! God, let them play trumpet! [laughs]

But seriously, I just love the sound of trumpets. If you ever want some bright splashes of yellow crayon on a track, grab a trumpet. Plus, I just love that late-night thing. The sound of late night is a little muted trumpet, or a little delicately played trumpet. It's a sort of cheesy signature for loneliness.

TB: Although this trumpet gets pretty strident.

AP: Yeah, at the start of the song, it's very muted, four-in-in-the-morning, can't sleep, woe-is-me trumpet, and then in the rest of the song he's really blasting and blatting. He also gets to play what I've termed "mosquito trumpet," where it kind of buzzes in and out of your field of hearing.

He had an electronic pickup on his trumpet that was MIDI-powered or something, and he put it through a whole load of electronic fuckery pokery, to mess it up. He was doing something, and I said, "Great! More of that!!" And then we wrote in this "mosquito trumpet" where needed -- you know, it's 4:00 in the morning, you're trying to sleep, and then suddenly a mosquito appears. It's that trumpet that you hear later in the track, flying right across your head. That's the last annoyance you need at four in the morning.

He did a great job. He was recommended by Paul. I said, "I'd love to get some trumpet on a few of these songs," and he said, "Look, I know Mark Isham."

TB: Had you known about his stuff at all?

AP: I'd known of him -- did he do the soundtrack for "The Moderns"? He was a fellow who had a fearsome reputation, a great reputation. And deservedly so, because he's a very tasteful player. You know, he could do whatever you want -- "I want you to really go for this [mimics high descending pattern from bridge of song], really attack this here, or play like a mosquito, or quietly," or whatever. So that was a great recommendation. Paul Fox recommended Pat as well, so he obviously knew his players.

TB: That was one of the reasons you guys hired him, correct? For him to be that kind of a steward in LA?

AP: Yeah -- what a midwife! He can not only help you with the birth of the baby, but he can recommend a few great nurses along the way that'll make it a hell of a lot easier! [laughs]

TB: Let's talk about the lyrics. There are lots of funny little images throughout, as well as some dark humor -- "a bed is creaking as the new messiah comes."

AP: [laughs] There you go. Arf, arf.

TB: How did you build these?

AP: I remember tweaking them quite a lot. Let me check my lyric books, to see if I've got these tweaks -- here's a book that covers most of Oranges and Lemons, but I've probably only got the neatly written, finished thing.

TB: I remember looking through those notebooks with you, and you had a mix of works-in-progress along with the finished ones.

AP: Let's see -- wow, look at "Poor Skeleton Steps Out" -- so adjusted. You know what, though, I've got a feeling the lyrics may be in the book that covered Skylarking. No, I can't find it -- I can only find what I've labeled as "last part of Antheap." So, I don't know where the first part would have been written.

TB: Meaning the final draft, or just the last bit?

AP: "And all the world's babies are crying still" -- that bit. "While all the police cars harmonize with power drills / As jets and kettles try to drown out screeching gulls / Accompanied by truncheons keeping time on human skulls."

TB: Oh, so that's a bit different. Because the final is, "As jets and kettles form a chord with screeching gulls."

AP: Ah, interesting. Last-minute change, that. But I must have written it somewhere else -- I'm missing the whole first rush of notes on this.

But overall, I'm proud of the lyric. Sort of the acceptable face of smartass, I think. [laughs] Or the acceptable ass of smartface!

One of my favorite lines is, "Doesn't matter what color of cat you are, there's no dogs allowed."

TB: One of the things I like about the lyrics are how rhythmic they are. I mean, even what you were just reading -- [emphasizing rapid-fire syllables] "Accompanied by truncheons keeping time on human skulls." It's like machine-gun fire.

AP: Yeah, all the syllables are very clear.

TB: And then, if we go to the first verse, I like the juxtaposition of these two lines: "The cars are crashing and the bacon is hacked / The coffin's lowered and the lunches get packed." So, there's death and life at the same time.

AP: It's all meat. I'm sorry.

TB: [laughs] It's all meat, yet you're looking at the different stages of it, right? Here's death, and food, and life goes on. It doesn't matter that the cars are crashing and the coffins are being lowered.

AP: It's all the same thing. You know, [laughing] you've just killed a cow, and you've hacked it up and your putting it in your husband's lunch pail, and there's people riding along in mobile lunch pails -- they're meat, waiting to meet their end, you know.

There's nothing better than meating your end. What a hobby of mine! [laughs]

TB: [laughing] So, "Still segregating 'cause we insects are too proud / Doesn't matter what color of cat you are there's no dogs allowed."

AP: Yeah, that's all pretty obvious.

TB: "War planes go over but no wages go 'round."

AP: Everyone complains that there's no money for themselves.

TB: While there's always money for defense.

AP: It doesn't stop.

TB: "A sign goes up to say, 'Hey! We're twin-towned'."

AP: Oh, that was such a big thing when I was a kid. All this fuss about, "Oh, there's no facilities in the town -- we haven't got an arts center, there's no roads, but yeah! We've spent all this money saying we're twin-towned! We're twinned with another town somewhere. Oh, that poor fucking other town!"

There were all these signs that went up in the '60s. It was "Swindon -- twinned with Saltzgitter!" Which is in Germany. It seemed like a whole tacky industry -- trying to persuade you how great it all was. I used to feel sorry for Saltzgitter, if they were anything like Swindon.

TB: [laughing] Have you ever gone there?

AP: No, I think they used to send school kids there, on an exchange thing, but I don't think my parents could ever afford it.

TB: [laughing] Did they ever come back?

AP: [laughs] Yeah, Saltzgitter's processed-meat industry took a big leap forward in the late '60s! [cod German accent] "Ve sink you vill like this flavor!"

TB: [laughing] Speaking of which, "The dough is rising but no bread will be baked / The fur is genuine..."

AP: "...but the orgasm's faked." Yeah.

TB: "We're spending millions to learn to speak porpoise / When human loneliness is still a deafening noise."

AP: It's the same thing as before -- all the money's going to the wrong things. C'mon, where's your humanity? How much have you spent to try to unscramble what dolphins might be saying to each other? Just go and look at the soup kitchens and bread lines. How much money to get to the moon? Think of what you could have done with that money! What do you want to put two fucking jerk-offs on the moon for?

TB: Because it's there?

AP: Pah. Really. Priorities.

TB: So, the first verse is the set-up, saying it's all meat...

AP: It's all meat [tired posh voice], it's all useless -- sanity, dear boy, sanity!

TB: It's creation and destruction, and then in the second verse, you're talking about priorities -- the fact that we have all this money, but we're not spending it on the right things. And then we get to the verse we were just talking about in your notebook.

AP: Yeah, that's more of a insomnia thing, where every noise is too damned loud.

TB: And it's just not going away.

AP: Yeah, those upsetting noises that go on and on and on -- the widows who'll weep and the lovers who'll leap. In fact, I notice I had a big list of rhyme lines for that -- weep, leap, seep, deep, creep, and so on. And it'll carry on as long as human beings will carry on. That's the folly of mankind.

TB: And that's kind of the musical metaphor you guys get into at the ending of this song as well -- things get very circular.

AP: Yeah, it just keeps going and going, without end. That's the idea. That we'll do the same foolish things -- as long as people are around, they'll do foolish people things.

TB: On the vocals at the end of the song -- are you doing a call-and-response with yourself, or is that an electronic echo?

AP: I think it's all three of us doing the "on and on and on." Because I can certainly hear Dave in there and, really straining, I can hear Colin.

Absolutely everyone, including tape ops and whoever was around or passing the building, got to do those shout things, like "Work! Live! Die! Eat! Love! Drive!" -- you know, all those kind of human-condition buzz words. I think Paul's in there, and all the band are in there, and probably a few people who might have visited us that day are in there.

TB: River Phoenix is in there...

AP: Those sort of people, yeah. Neville Farmer, Chris Squire, all these people who hung out at the studio. We've just got these words written on a piece of paper -- someone would point to them, and we'd just shout the words out.

But, I was listening to it yesterday on headphones, and I thought, "Jesus, those are good lyrics!" I'm not supposed to think that about my own stuff!

TB: That's okay -- hey, you're allowed to look back and say, "Yeah, I accomplished what I wanted to on that."

AP: Yeah. And I'm glad we waited, because I don't think it would have been right if we'd rushed it through for Skylarking. Todd could hear that it wasn't fully baked, if you know what I mean. But it has something for me, and kept nagging at me -- "Finish me off. I've got something to offer." And, like I say, Paul thought it was a single!

TB: Was it ever put forth to Virgin as one?

AP: I don't know. I think he probably had meetings with them after the record was finished, but they didn't -- [laughs] it was more a matter of, "Oh, okay, what has Colin written?"

TB: [laughs] But "Mayor" came out first, didn't it?

AP: [laughing] It did, yeah. The timing wasn't so good, because we didn't get asked to be on David Letterman, but we did get asked to be on Letterman by the time "King for a Day" came out.

TB: Would you have played one of your songs on Letterman? I thought that was the whole point -- that you agreed to play live because it was one of Colin's songs.

AP: Maybe. I felt kind of better that I wasn't in the limelight. But we were in the middle of that acoustic tour, so I was pretty relaxed by that time. Maybe it would have been the right time to have done "Mayor" or something else, but we knew Geffen was promoting "King for a Day," so stuck the handsome fella with the hair out in front! [laughs]

TB: [laughing] But I liked your top hat!

AP: Oh yeah. I tell you who came over and stroked my top hat -- I was at some radio industry-type function. I didn't know what the fuck I was doing there, but I had my white straw top hat on, and Neneh Cherry came over, stroked my top hat, and said, "Man, I really like your hat! That's fantastic." That was quite nice.

1:42 AM

©2009 by Todd Bernhardt and Andy Partridge. All Rights Reserved.