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Monday, February 23, 2009


Andy discusses 'Dear Madam Barnum'

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, "Dear Madam Barnum," is from 1992's Nonsuch.

Bill (he of the strangely arresting gaze) came from behind to score a late win in the "Guess the Upcoming Andyview" contest. Well deducted, Mr. Holmes!

So, what are we going to run in two weeks? We have no freakin' idea! Check in next Sunday for the clue. And now, ladies and gentlemen, heeerrrre's Andy!

TB: So, "Dear Madam Barnum" -- tell me about that buzz-roll snare intro.

AP: Well, it's the circus orchestra, isn't it? Half a dozen blokes up in a box above the entrance to the ring. They're all playing multiple roles. But these days, it's different. I think the last couple of circuses I took the kids to when they were younger, they just had recordings playing, which is a shame, because I like the idea of a Tom Waits-like, rickety circus band.

But [drummer Dave] Mattacks and I had quite a long conversation on the rhythm feel for this song. It's a very straight, old-fashioned structured song, so I said I wanted him to play with a real straight backbeat, but I wanted him to put a little skip-and-drag in there that fell somewhere between dotted [time] and straight, because we both agreed that we liked the tension where you get dotted vs. straight, and straight vs. dotted.

So, instead of going boom-dah, boom-dah, he's going, boom-boom duh-DAH, boom-boom duh-DAH -- those little dotted mini-hits before the back beat. And once he started doing that, it was like, "Yep -- that's it! Don't stop -- that's the rhythm."

TB: And you do other things to give it that feel, too -- the tambourine, for instance.

AP: Yeah, that [imitates pattern] -- which was fucking really difficult to do!

TB: Did you do that?

AP: I did that, yeah.

TB: Did you play it with your hand or a stick?

AP: It's shaken -- it's jinken-janken, jiggy-jiggy-janken. Don't know how you're going to type that!

TB: [laughing] Are you saying you were getting jiggy-jiggy-janken with it?

AP: [laughs] I was! And what a great German expressionist actor he was -- Jiggy Janken. Or "Yiggy" to his friends. "Jah, dat guy Yiggy -- he's got such a groove!"

So, it was great, because he just fell into the place that I was dreaming he would fall in. We did try it quite straight, but it wasn't happening, so it was a matter of, "Remember 'Summertime Blues'?" You get the straight vs. swing tension. I love all that. So, he said, "Ah yeah, now I know what you mean! You mean something like this." And we said, "Yeah, that's it!"

TB: Did he use any special drums for this?

AP: I think at the time he had something like 50-odd snare drums...

TB: Yeah, he's got quite an arsenal.

AP: And I think he's got more now. He brought about 20 to the studio. He would have them all lined up against the wall, and we would have a conversation before each song. He'd say, "How do you see the bass drum on this? How do you see the snare? What kind of thing do you want?" Then we'd talk in terms of other people's records. I'd say, "I want the snare like that Wailers album," or "I want it really papery -- you know that old Soul record with the really papery-sounding snare?" And then he would go over to this selection of 20 snare drums, and he'd say, "What, like this?" And I'd say, "Yeah, not bad -- you got anything more tinny?" or "anything with more thwack?" -- whatever the requirement was, you know?

And he'd rotate the snares -- he might go home at the weekend and take five snares with him, and bring another five down. But there was always a choice of 20-something snare drums to pick from.

We'd also talk about whether we wanted the bass drum dead, or we wanted it open, or semi-open, or really flappy, or use a tom-tom for a bass drum -- you know, things like that.

TB: Sure. I thought that perhaps on this song you might have used a larger bass drum, to match the circus-band feel.

AP: I think we had it reasonably flappy, because we wanted people to think of a bass drum on your chest.

TB: Obviously he's playing with sticks, did he also add some overdubs with brushes, to give it some more breathiness?

AP: No, I think we used a lot of the underneath mic on his snare drum, for that beany rattle.

TB: Ah, okay. You really hear the snare wires.

AP: Yeah. I love that. To record a snare drum, and not have a lot that wire mixed in there? I think that's sacrilege. That's the character of the drum, you know?

TB: The next thing you hear after that roll is acoustic guitars. That's you and Dave?

AP: It might be me and Dave. It's certainly me. I know Dave's doing all the electric guitars.

TB: I could tell there are at least two acoustics, if not more -- that's why I was wondering if maybe it was the two of you playing against each other.

AP: It may well be. I hadn't clocked that today, listening to it, but it's certainly me playing away. And for those of you with a musical bent -- please straighten it out! -- it's a [plays] full open C; then it's an F with a G ringing; then it's E minor with a C on the top' then it's a G.

TB: Let's talk about the electric guitar a little bit. As I was listening to it today, I realized that some of the parts that I'd thought might be keyboard were actually electric guitar.

AP: It's quite an orchestration from him, actually. There are a lot of subtle little bits and pieces, lots of little arpeggios -- you want an arpeggio, Dave's your man. In fact, I think he should change his name to Mr. R. Peggio [laughs]. He's a friend of that expressionist actor we spoke of earlier! The Italian director, R. Peggio.

We did almost a Brian May-esque little orchestration of different flavors of guitar here. But Dave also plays the Hammond organ...

TB: In the bridge, right?

AP: Ah -- in fact, I'll come 'round to that in a second, because there are two bridges. They're different -- different chords and different melodies. They're in the place where you'd have that traditional middle eight, as they'd call it, but when it comes around again, it's completely different.

TB: Okay. I was thinking the bridge was [singing] "You tread the high wire / between truth and lies"...

AP: Yeah, but when that first one plays, the chords are different, and the melody's different.

TB: What part is that?

AP: [singing] "You said I was the master of all that I surveyed..."

TB: Ah, okay! Interesting, because I never really saw that as a bridge.

AP: They're classically where your middle eights occur. I mean, that's the sort of Beatle-y classical "there you put the middle eight," but the radical thing is, they're both different.

TB: So different that I didn't even associate them with each other! I guess I thought it was an alternate chorus or something.

AP: Ah ha! You saw that as the phantom middle eight! [laughs] The middle eight-ball.

TB: Talk about that a little bit. Was that a conscious choice you made when writing the song?

AP: Well, let's go back to the very beginning. This song was written for the film "The Crossing," which was Russell Crowe's first big starring role, I think.

It was 1990, and I was in RAK Studios -- I can't remember what the hell I was doing there. It may have been [producing] The Mission -- I can't quite remember. I don't think it was [to produce] Blur, because they were a few years after that.

Anyway, I was there doing something, and Al Clark, our press man at Virgin, called me up. He was getting more and more into doing film music, and said, "Look, there's an Australian film called 'The Crossing,' with a young actor named Russell Crowe in it, and I'd love you to write a song for it." I asked, "What scene is it for?", and he said, "It takes place in 1965. They're in a bar or diner, and one of them puts something on the jukebox, so I want it to sound like a piece of music from 1965."

So, I thought, "Hmm, what does 1965 say to me? It says 'Folk Rock'." You know, at that point, Dylan is starting to influence just about everything, from the Beatles downwards. I thought, "Well, I'll come up with something that's got a Beatles/Dylan/Byrds, acoustic-driven shuffle to it."

TB: [chuckling] And you didn't want to try to sell them "My Train Is Coming"?

AP: [laughing] Hadn't even been rejected at that point! I was still working toward that particular rejection then.

So I wrote this song, and I think they liked it, and then I can't remember why it didn't get in the film. I think there was no money on offer, so it was a case of, "Oh, I feel a bit fed up about that -- I've just written you a song and you want it for nothing." So it didn't get recorded -- because they would have had to pay for studio, and all that.

TB: Sure, you're not going to make that investment for nothing.

AP: Yeah, and I had no great-shakes stuff to record it on myself. I think at that time I was on eight-track cassette machine.

So, the song never got recorded then, but when I was writing it, I thought, "Well, it's got to have an old-fashioned structure -- the sort of thing they would have had on a Folk Rock single from 1965." So that's why it's got that structure -- that's where the middle eight would have been in the song. But just to give it an extra twist, when it came around again -- that point in the song to traditionally have that part -- I thought, "No, I want to have a little mischief. I'm going to change it, and make it different chords, different melody." So, it reminds you of the one earlier, but it's not the same.

TB: When you came up with this, did you write the music first for the film, and do the lyrics later?

AP: No, I just came up with the whole thing reasonably quickly.

TB: This was 1990, so it was not that far in advance of Nonsuch.

AP: Yeah, it was one of the first things that was put up for Nonsuch, because the song already existed by then.

TB: I was going to ask about the lyrics, because it's another of your "my marriage is in trouble" foreshadowing songs, along with "Crocodile" and "The Disappointed."

AP: Oh yeah, sure. My marriage was going off the rails -- I can see that. I think I was part blind to it, and partly it was coming out subconsciously that I could see it.

TB: The other thing I wanted to ask you about was the funny juxtaposition of the very happy, bouncy music along with this rather dark subject.

AP: Oh, you have to do that! If you have miserable music with miserable lyrics, it often doesn't work -- it's "too much miserable." It's like the ingredients are out of balance. But if you have quite-light music with a sad lyric, it can be really poignant. And vice-versa -- quite miserable music with a happy lyric.

There's a great sweet-and-sour poignancy to those things, whether it's in books or films or music. You know, you mix the happy and the sad together, and it's somehow more effective than just, "Okay, let's lay on the sad with a trowel." It's too much sour -- "Bleargh, I can't eat that." But if it's just got enough sugar in it that you think, "Ooh, this is nice," then suddenly, "Oh ... my ... god!"

TB: So, why did you pick this theme? Why the circus conceit?

AP: Because I'd always wanted to write a song about a clown! It's Dave Davies who's responsible for that -- his "Death of a Clown" single. Which is a bit of Folk Rock again.

TB: Of course -- I can see that being the grandparent of this song.

AP: Exactly. And also, the other grandparent -- on the mother's side! -- is probably "Star" by Stealers Wheel.

TB: Oh, I don't know that one.

AP: You don't know "Star"? Wonderful! I can't even begin to play it for you, because of all the multi-layered harmonies and things, but find it out, and you'll go, "Jesus, this is good!" It's got that kind of Folk Rock jug-band thing going through it.

TB: That ties in to another thing I wanted to ask about with "Dear Madam Barnum" -- all the complex harmonies you have on this song. Did "Star" influence you on that?

AP: Probably, yeah.

TB: The vocal approach you take on this is a good example you emphasizing the lower harmonies, which is something you guys did especially later in your career.

AP: That was a thing I read years ago -- I think they were interviewing George Martin, and he said, "You should try not to put the harmony above the lead vocal in terms of pitch, because the human ear will be drawn toward it, and the melody line will become less important." So, if you find out what your harmony is -- a fourth, or a third, a fifth, or whatever -- then pitch that under. You still get the same effect, but the ear is drawn to the top line -- the melody.

When I read that, I thought, "Wow, he's so right!" Another good trick is, if you must have a harmony higher, then re-state the vocal melody an octave higher again, either with another vocal or an instrument, so that your ear is still drawn to the main melody.

TB: Or, as you do in this song with the [sings] "Dear Madam Barnum," you do a high harmony, but it's a countermelody.

AP: Yeah, at that point, it's kind of okay, because it's another melody entirely.

TB: I think another benefit of the lower harmony is that it makes the song richer, because when you keep pushing the harmonies higher and higher then it tends to get a bit strident.

AP: Yeah. Barbra Strident. [laughs] Her really mouthy sister!

TB: [laughing] So, the keyboards in the song -- only the organ in the second bridge?

AP: Well, it's the Hammond organ -- there was a very well-kept one at Chipping Norton Studios. Dave plays that. There's also a little calliope. I think it's the Proteus in one of the "blown" settings, like a blown bottle or something, so there's a lot of air in the sound.

I remember getting Dave to -- I think we agreed -- to play it a little bit out of time, so it sounded like we'd spun it in, for almost a sort of "found" circus ambience thing, a slightly psychedelic effect, you know? So yeah, that was Dave playing that as well -- he was our keyboard player in residence.

TB: So the rest of the droning and arpeggios in the verse...

AP: Yeah, they're all guitars -- "Electric Guitars by Dave."

And that's [producer] Gus [Dudgeon] being the circus barker.

TB: Why did you guys decide to use him?

AP: Because of his headmasterly voice. It's almost a fake upper-class thing -- a cross between an RAF commander and a headmaster. [imitates Dudgeon] "C'mon chaps!" That was his whole thing, to "keep the naughty band in check."

So, right at the end of the session, we got him in there to do his thing. And after his bit, there's a huge crowd roar, which is John Lennon coming onstage on Madison Square Garden with Elton John. Gus had originally taped it -- he was the engineer, or one of the engineers, recording that show. He had the master tapes, which included the crowd roaring in appreciation, so it was a matter of, "Well, let's use that, then. That's great."

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

AP: Oh, the bass is so ludicrously melodic on this!

TB: Yeah, it's fantastic -- so fluid. I've not heard the demo of the song -- I don't have the Gribouillage CD...

AP: Oh yeah -- that's French for "scribble." It's funny, you can't say "gribouillage" without sounding like Winston Churchill clearing his throat! After his first few bottles of champagne for breakfast...

TB: [laughing] A brandy and three cigars. Did you lay down a bass part on that demo for Colin to play, or did he figure this one out on his own?

AP: You know, I don't remember! I knew I should have played the demo today! Someone's going to have to play the demo and tell us, "Yes, Andy, you did," or "No, Andy, you didn't."

TB: Do you remember talking with Colin about his approach?

AP: I think I did probably do something on the demo, because I had that eight-track cassette machine, which would have left me a track to do a bass. But the bass is extremely melodic on this. You can never fault Colin's bass playing.

TB: He had talked to me recently about how he plays with a pick, that he started doing that mostly because of "Mayor of Simpleton," because he just couldn't handle that song with his fingers.

AP: Sure. That one took a lot of playing, that song.

TB: I think he started liking it. You can tell this song is played with a pick, too -- it doesn't have the kind of muted aspect that you sometimes get playing with your fingers.

AP: Yeah, I think that's true. Now that he's on board with these interviews, you might have to ask him. Then we can cross-pollinate.

TB: [laughing] Cross-Colinate!

AP: [laughing] There you go!

12:40 AM

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