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Sunday, March 29, 2009


Colin discusses 'Frivolous Tonight'

Song of the Week -- Colin's take

Part of an ongoing series of interviews by Todd Bernhardt with Colin Moulding about the songs we feature each week on MySpace. This week's song, "Frivolous Tonight," is from 1999's Apple Venus, Vol. 1.

Fabulous fisherman Per guessed right right away. Impressive, young Aronsson. In fact, we'll need a week to figure out a hint that even your encyclopedic knowledge of XTC cannot immediately penetrate. (In other words, because of scheduling uncertainties and the death of Todd's recording/transcribing machine -- thankfully, after today's interview had finished -- we still haven't figured out what the next song will be. Check in next week for a hint.)

TB: So far, you and I have about four songs spanning your career. This last one, "Frivolous Tonight," seems like a good choice for the Apple Venus sessions because it seems to encapsulate, for me anyway, your later writing style. You seem a little more introspective now, focusing on domestic issues more in your lyrical content, and looking back in musical styles.

CM: Well, possibly -- you know, you are the sum of what you've learned, I suppose. As a songwriter, in the early days, I thought you had to write songs with a very earnest kind of sentiment, for your songs to be taken seriously. I couldn't get my head around writing about anything that was remotely frivolous, because I felt [chuckles] no one would take me seriously.

But as you get older, you think, "Well, that way of thinking is all wrong." I began to focus on the sort of songs that I like -- say, Cole Porter's "Let's Do It" -- it's a great song, where a lot of the lines have a kind of playful way of putting things over. It seemed to me as though I'd been thinking about songs in completely the wrong way. So, for that particular album, I thought I'd try to write some songs in a lighter vein.

TB: So it was a conscious choice on your part?

CM: I wouldn't say it was a strategy. I just kind of drifted into it. I'd been reading a lot of Noel Coward, and listening to some of the early show tunes -- Rodgers and Hammerstein, and that kind of thing -- and I just thought I'd like to have a crack at that style of writing.

We'd been on the strike from Virgin, if you remember rightly, and a lot of water had gone under the bridge. During that period I think I'd listened to a lot of "My Fair Lady," and "West Side Story," and other show tunes, and it came about through listening to those records by other people. [chuckles] That's chiefly how things do come out, for me.

TB: Was this a style of music that you'd heard a lot when you were younger, as well?

CM: I hated that style of music. It was grown-up music, which I had no interest in. How does that tally with Black Sabbath's Paranoid, you know? [laughs] It's just not heavy enough!

TB: [laughing] Exactly. But I bet some of it probably seeped in without you even wanting it to.

CM: To tell you the truth, I like all that cheesy stuff now.

TB: When did the turnaround happen?

CM: It was just a growing thing. I think when you get into your 40s and 50s, you don't worry so much about being judged about what you like. To hell with it, by then. You admit to liking some pretty weird stuff. And you do like it -- you're not just saying it to draw attention to yourself! It's stuff from way back that your old man probably used to listen to on the hi-fi.

My father was a big Bob Dylan fan, and I remember him listening to The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan when I was just a toddler. I originally thought that music was just for squares, you know. And the show tunes -- we used to hear those on the radio quite a bit. As you say, you listen to it, and it goes in, deeper than you think, and it comes out later.

TB: Do you remember what prompted you to write this particular song?

CM: I suppose it was a little bit of that Julie Andrews song, "My Favorite Things." There's also a Noel Coward tune called "I've Been to a Marvelous Party." Those kind of domestic scenarios -- nobody writes about that kind of thing now. Nobody's interested in it. I don't know how I hit upon it, but these songs, and "Happy Talk," or something like that, had a lot to do with it.

TB: Do you remember sitting down with a guitar and discovering the chord sequence, or was this one where you thought about lyrics first, or did everything come together?

CM: I don't like to hum a tune and then to try to weld the lyrics to it later. I like it if they grow together. I think that's a healthier thing. And I think this one did -- once I had the [sings] "let us talk about" -- come to think of it, it almost sounds like "Happy Talk" -- it's got that same interval in it!

Anyway, once I had that line, things grew from there. Your imagination just kind of flits to the next thing, you know? It's a process of word association, almost. They grow together, as a natural process.

TB: I was listening to the demo of this, and you obviously wrote this on guitar...

CM: Yeah.

TB: The demo is a little harder-edged than what you ended up realizing in the studio.

CM: I knew it was going to be a piano song, from the beginning. I had the descending bass line, and I just knew this wasn't going to be as good on guitar. It would need a strident, big-sounding piano to get the right vibe.

You do that occasionally -- I think Andy wrote "Ladybird," an early song of his, with the expressed intention it should be played on piano. I don't play piano myself -- that's hard to do. And, as every musician knows, it's not that easy to make the transition from one to the other, and get the intervals right, the voicings.

TB: So how did something like that typically work? Dave did a lot of work on this song, correct? Did you sit down with him and say, "Look, this is the type of feel I'm going for here"?

CM: No, I just sent him the tape of the demo, I think, and said, "I'd like it played on piano." I think he set to work on trying to make it happen. So, a lot of the voicings, I have to say, are down to him. The melodies were all there, so he knew what not to step on, but give the lad credit -- he done good, you know? [laughs]

TB: There's a lot of chorus on the final product -- I guess you guys did that to get that big sound you were talking about?

CM: We tried several pianos. We were working in Kent, down at Haydn Bendall's studio. Andy had gone off to America to see his girlfriend, and maybe drop in at TVT [Records] to see how the American deal with going. He said, "Go ahead and work on your songs. " So I took a couple of weeks out with Dave -- we had a lot of fun together, with Haydn. Really, when Andy came back, there wasn't a lot for him to do. He put some guitar on the two tracks that I did on that record, but we could have probably left it off. Otherwise Dave and I pretty much played all the instruments.

The piano sound was a sample that Haydn had. I told him I wanted a piano that was a bit larger, because that's the drive of the song -- it's piano-driven. So, I asked, "What can we use? We don't have a piano that we can make that big." He said, "I'll see what samples I've got." So it was actually a sample that Haydn had in his computer. It sounds pretty fizzy at times, but it does the job. It's almost slightly ice-rink and fairground-y.

TB: I thought maybe you guys had found an old upright somewhere and processed the signal.

CM: It's definitely a processed signal. It sounds kind of like an old-fashioned film, like it's playing in a big cinema or something.

TB: And it was the sound you wanted?

CM: I wanted something that was pretty jaunty. He went through several samples, and I had to yell out when I heard something that I thought was going to hit the mark, you know? When that one came up, it was a matter of, "Yeah, that's the one!" Everybody jumped in the air. [laughs]

Dave worked hard on the part. Some of the notes that I sing are actually not in the chord -- they come very close to forming a Devil's harmony.

TB: Speaking of Black Sabbath!

CM: [laughs] Indeed! Where the bass root hits, and then I sing a note that's almost directly a Devil's harmony to the bass root, but because of the way the chord is voiced, it dissipates the effect. We had to work on that, to make sure it didn't sound too discordant. And, as I say, Dave did a pretty good job on choosing the right voicings.

TB: Yeah, the piano part is great. Dave's a very underrated keyboard player -- everyone gives him credit for being a great guitarist, and he is, but he's done some really nice keyboard parts, too. He seems to do a lot of keyboard parts on your songs in particular.

CM: I think where Dave shines is that he has a sensitivity to what you're trying to achieve. That's a blessing for any writer. Very often you don't know exactly what you want, so you come up with these weird expressions to describe it. I think he's very good at being an interpreter of those expressions.

TB: You were talking about the bass part a little earlier, and I wanted to ask about that, because another difference between the demo and the finished product is a little quote you put in there on the Apple Venus version, from "With a Little Help from my Friends." Was that intentional? "I'm going to put a bit of McCartney in here"?

CM: [chuckles] Well, maybe, yes.

TB: Do you know the little lick that I'm talking about?

CM: Yeah, it's a skip, isn't it. Funny enough, Haydn pointed out another Beatle reference in the song -- a change in the chords that he likened to "She's Leaving Home." Where it goes [sings] "She's leaving home, bye-bye." There's a similar drop -- [sings] "We're all so frivolous tonight." I hope I don't get sued! [laughs]

TB: [laughing] No no, it's the sincerest form of flattery!

CM: Well, it's wasn't a hit, so I don't know what they'd get from me! [chuckles]

TB: I thought that maybe it was an intentional musical pun, because there you are talking about sitting around with your friends, and you're quoting "With a Little Help from my Friends."

CM: Oh, I see! Yes. I used to pick up on all sorts of things like that as a fan of other people, and very often [laughs] it had nothing to do with how it came to be! That's the case here -- I hadn't thought of it. But there's lots you can do with that Beatle-y kind of tromp. There's probably some "Good Day Sunshine" in there as well, you know? [laughs]

TB: Do you remember which bass you played on this song?

CM: Yeah, it was the Vox. An old-fashioned Vox Apollo.

TB: That was the bass you got from T-Bone Burnett?

CM: Indeed. I love it. It's got real old-fashioned bassiness.

TB: It really punches through nicely on this song.

CM: I'm not sure "punch" would be the appropriate word -- for me, it's "balls of bass," you know? It's not got any bark about it, which a lot of active-circuit basses and modern basses do.

TB: I guess that's what I meant by "punch" -- it's a very round-yet-forceful tone.

CM: Yeah. I love that McCartneyesque "Rain" sound, or the sound he gets on "Paperback Writer." I think that's one of the best bass sounds ever. Nobody's topped it yet.

TB: Given that, have you ever thought about getting a Rickenbacker? Have you ever had one?

CM: I wish someone would give me one! [laughs] My son is a fan of The Groundhogs. He talks to the drummer of that band quite a bit, and I always loved the sound of the bass player, who had a Rickenbacker. His name is Pete Cruickshank, I think. I said to Lee, "Ask the drummer if Pete's still got that Rickenbacker bass, and does he want to sell it?" [laughs] So I'm still waiting on that one.

There are different types of Rickenbacker basses, of course. I think Paul McCartney had an early 4001. Of course, there are subtle differences in the later ones that came out, so it's not that simple.

TB: Chris Squire is also famous for using a Rickenbacker, of course.

CM: Indeed! That guy sold more Rickenbacker basses than any bugger! In the '70s, everyone wanted one after hearing "Roundabout."

TB: Talk about a distinctive sound....

CM: Exactly. He used to have a lot more bark on his. Another player was Dave Paton, from the band Pilot. You don't know Pilot, do you?

TB: No, I haven't heard of them.

CM: They're an English group that had some really good Pop singles in the '70s. Have you heard "Magic"? [sings] "Oh, oh, oh, it's magic"...

TB: Oh, sure! Of course.

CM: That's Pilot. They had a follow-up called "January," I think. Very good guitar player, as well. I always liked the bass sound that Dave Paton got, and he had a Rickenbacker as well. Of course, Maurice Gibb also used to also play one on those disco hits. That sounded great as well.

TB: Besides the piano part we've talked about, the other keyboard part I hear in this song is a Mellotron. I was wondering, given that you guys had access to the orchestra you used on this album -- there is obviously real brass on this song -- why did you choose to use a Mellotron when you could have used real strings?

CM: It didn't occur to me, to be honest. With the Mellotron, the strings are a bit more removed, almost film-ic or dreamlike, as if you're listening to an old Hollywood soundtrack or something. It was always going to be a Mellotron, for me. It never really entered my head, to use real strings on that part. Although I wanted real brass on it -- that was definite. But the Mellotron -- Dave had one in the studio, and came up with a part, and it suited it.

We scored out the brass part between the three of us -- me, Dave and Haydn.

TB: I was going to ask who did that -- I was wondering if it was Mike Batt [who arranged other orchestral parts on the album].

CM: No, it was the three of us just kind of suggesting lines and mocking it up between us on a keyboard, with samples. Hayden recorded it, then Dave wrote the parts out. Then we took them along on the big day to Abbey Road, and got these great players to play the parts. It was a thrill.

TB: I can imagine. When you hear it, you can tell there's something big and real and acoustic right there. It really takes the song up another notch.

CM: It does, yeah. There's a kind of fanfare royalty about the horns. The sound was amazing, and Haydn said, "Well, why don't you go into the studio and conduct them? You can be in amongst the sounds." So I did. I went into the studio and conducted them -- whether they took a blind bit of notice of me, I don't know. I just waved me hand about in time, when they should come in, and all the rest of the things that I thought you're supposed to do when you're conducting. But I think there's a lot more to it than that! [laughs] It was a big thrill. We were like kids in a sweet shop, really.

TB: Yeah, it's always fantastic to hear the full realization of something that just started out as an idea in your head.

CM: Indeed. And, of course, being at Abbey Road, in the large room there. Just perching yourself amongst the orchestra while they're playing -- you're on a magic carpet ride. It just kind of lifts you up. It's a big sound, a tremendous sound. It was a great day.

TB: Prairie is doing the drumming on this, and it sounds as if he's using brushes. Is that how you remember it?

CM: I do think it is brushes.

TB: Do you remember talking to him in any particular way about a feel that you wanted, or how you wanted the drumming approached?

CM: We made one pass at it, I think, and it was in the can. Then, I think a couple of days later, we got playing it back, and I said, "This is really not happening for me. Let's have another go at it." I can't think why it was, but I wasn't really happy with it.

Sometimes you're kind of bamboozled into liking stuff, because people say, "Oh, that's good, that's a good take." You go along with it, but then you listen back later, and you think, "I'm not sure that is a good take. It's not quite what I had in mind."

Anyway, I think it was the last take of the session, and I said, "Can we have another go at it?" I strummed it along, I think, and Dave thrashed along on keyboard, and we got the drum take. And it was a lot better.

I think on the first one, we didn't pull out the drums on the last verse. Do you know what I mean? Plus, it just didn't have that kind of swing that I wanted. It was a bit too thump-whack, thump-whack -- a bit too on the beat.

Of course, being in the studio, you're spending money, and you feel a bit pressured to accept something that maybe you shouldn't be accepting. So, on reflection, a few days later we re-did it -- I think it was the last drum track we did at Chipping Norton, before we went to Haydn's.

TB: I was wondering about the order in which you did things. So, you worked with Prairie to get the drum tracks, and then you worked with Dave on building up the rest of the song?

CM: Yeah, I think Prairie went home after the drum tracks were done.

I think Prairie would probably say about his contribution on those songs is that he was pretty much just "stirring the milk," you know. Meat-and-two-veg, doing what he had to do. It probably didn't stretch him that much.

TB: But as you say, even on something relatively simple, it can be hard to get just the right feel.

CM: Yeah. If you don't get the drums right, you're buggered. Getting the speed right and the drum take right is absolutely essential. The more you get into this game, the more you realize that's true. So I was very happy we did go back and do that other take.

TB: I was listening to the lyrics on both the demo and the finished version, and on the demo you have a couple different lines in the first verse -- on the demo, you say, "Like who did what at the office do / They say she was covered with paper and glue" instead of the lines, "Pour ourselves a glass of stout / And let our Rael Brook shirts hang out." I was wondering if you remembered why you switched those lines out.

CM: I do my demos, and they are kind of sounding boards, to hear it coming back at me. They're not always going to be right, but you do them because you want to make sure everything works together, as much as you can. Sometimes when you hear some lyrics coming back -- I've done this loads of times -- you think, "Well, that's not quite right." And really, it's never done until it's done, you know? You've got a few weeks to make corrections, and all that. I don't look at those demos as being something I want to thrust forward as being in any way perfect. They're sketches. I've changed a lot of things from my demos, because I just kind of bang them down.

I think the way Andy does his demos, and the way he thinks about them, is completely different. When he does them, they're almost templates for the real thing. But I don't think that's a good way -- not for me, anyway. It's nice to have something in the studio that happens on the spur of the moment, that gets everybody jumping up in the air.

I don't think I'd like to be in the position whereby I would dictate exactly how it's going to be, from the demo. I think chasing demos is not a good pastime. The demo can have a magic about it -- I believe that's quite right. But I think you've got to leave that magic aside and say, "Well, let's make a different kind of magic now."

But, having said that, it's good to find out whether things work together. If a lyric needs changing, then you change it for the real thing.

TB: I would think these lyrics spring from your own experiences, of you having or attending dinner parties -- just you picking up the lyrical paintbrush, and saying what you remember about a scene. Is that right?

CM: About lads having fun together, and drinking parties -- the sorts of things lads say together, and the sort of things that women say together. They're the same, in a kind of a way, but different in others. I just thought it was quite humorous to touch on that.

TB: You've got some good puns in here -- the "hip hooray" line comes immediately to mind, about the "poor chap who put it on display."

CM: [chuckles] Well, there's always somebody who goes too far, isn't there. You know, when you have drinking parties, there's always one who not only wants to talk shop, but actually goes too far with what he does. Takes his trousers off and walks around with his dick hanging out, or something like that. [laughs] There's always somebody who oversteps the mark. That's the nature of a good party, I suppose!

TB: I love the sentiment behind this, too -- that there is a time for trivia. You don't always have to be serious.

CM: Yeah, I agree. I think people have kind of lost touch with that type of song being written. It seems like you have to write these crying-in-your-beer types of songs. There's a kind of earnestness in the industry now, which is unattractive, I think.

TB: Maybe it goes back to Bob Dylan and the popularization of the singer-songwriter. Some people want to be serious artists, not so much just performers or entertainers.

CM: Yeah. I would never class myself an entertainer, but you can write a sentiment that strikes home with somebody, but it needn't be a sentiment of isolation or tears or anything like that.

It's surprising what sort of song does bring one to tears. If one analyzed it, it's probably not a sad song. It's probably a realization of a dream long wished-for coming true. I think that's what makes me more tearful than a sad song. A sad song can make me miserable, but what will make me cry is more a realization of something achieved after so much heartache. If you examined what brings you to tears, and what really moves you, I think you'd be surprised.

TB: Do you feel as if you accomplished what you set out to do with this song?

CM: Yeah. On that score, it's probably one that's hit home with me more than any. From what it started out being, and what I hoped for, it fulfilled its potential, I reckon. As I say, I think those two or three weeks that we spent together -- Dave and I and Haydn, recording what we did -- were probably some of the happiest of my recording career.

5:29 PM

©2009 by Todd Bernhardt and Colin Moulding. All Rights Reserved.