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Sunday, June 14, 2009


Andy discusses "Train Running Low on Soul Coal"

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, "Train Running Low on Soul Coal," is from 1984's The Big Express.

Dave, The Larch (the ... larch) and Don Device all hit the softball hint thrown two weeks ago out of the park (to use an American metaphor). As for a hint for the next song, well, you'll have to wait a week or so, since we've no idea what it'll be.

TB: Well, let's go from you being a 20-year-old sweating and having sex to being a 30-year-old puppy doing what you're told.

AP: I think I was 29 when I wrote this, but I thought, "Nope, by the time I get this recorded, I'm going to be 30, surely."

TB: And certainly, you can tell in this song that you feel a milestone coming up. Of course, this is post-touring, so there's a lot of pressure on you.

AP: Yeah, I wrote this at a time when I was really confused about what I was supposed to be doing. You know, in terms of, "Well, that's my touring career out of the way. I don't want to do that any more. We just made an album that didn't sell very well" -- that was Mummer. "We're about to make another one that probably won't sell very well, and Virgin are getting fed up with us and starting to grumble about potentially not carrying on with us"...

TB: And by then you also realized how deep in debt you were, correct?

AP: Yeah, and we still couldn't do anything about it!

TB: So, at that point, you were still deep in litigation about all this?

AP: No, we'd started to unravel the mystery of what our manager did with "the money." It was very difficult. I think he was still around, although not coming to the studio and not appearing.

TB: Was he still your manager, then?

AP: Yes! Until '85, I think.

TB: Wow, that's interesting. I had no idea. I thought that once you guys got off the road and looked at the books, you gave him the heave-ho right away.

AP: No, he appear, like, once during an album session, and there'd be a funny atmosphere. You just wanted to say him, "Look -- where's the fucking money?!?" And hang him upside-down out of the window or something...

TB: Yeah, right -- empty his pockets.

AP: So he was our manager in name and finances only. Otherwise we were getting on with it ourselves.

TB: So, at this point your only source of income was advances you were getting from the record company?

AP: Actually, our income was two-fold. We were living on a wage, which was taken out of our advances. It was a pretty low wage.

TB: Something like £25 per week, right?

AP: I think it had crept up to £40 or £50 by this time. But it was still nothing. The two writers, myself and Colin, were making a little bit of PRS money.

TB: Publishing money?

AP: No, for radio play. I never made any money on publishing royalties until 1985. So, I was living on our little bit of wage, along with a check for a couple of thousand every six months.

But, you know, from a lot of stations in the States, you never saw any money at all.

TB: Why was that?

AP: It's the way they collect the money. They do a sample -- it used to be once a month. They'd ask the radio station, "What did you play from 12 midnight to 12 midnight on this day?", and then they'd write all the tracks in. If they didn't play your track on that day, but they played it the rest of the month, you wouldn't see any money. So, it was not a very fair system, to be honest.

TB: Well, those circumstances do set the stage for these lyrics, which is what we had started talking about. Do you remember, when you actually sat down and wrote this song, what the circumstances were?

AP: I know that I was messing around with an open-E tuning. Most of the Big Express album is on open-E tuning -- not all of it, but the majority of it. While [producer] Steve Nye was doing his mixes for Mummer, in AIR Studios, in Oxford Street in London, I took myself into a little isolation booth at the back of the control room, which was there for doing voiceovers or vocals or trumpet or whatever. While he was messing with the mix -- I can still see people sat around in the studio, with Steve Nye at the mixing desk -- I took a guitar in there and worked on this song. So, as one album was getting finished, the next one was being born.

TB: Was this one of those things where music and lyrics came together? Or did music come first?

AP: I think the music stuff came up first, and it made me think of a train. I was trying to remember where I came up with the idea for that riff. As I say, it's an open-E tuning, but I've got a funny feeling that I was dicking around with the Rolling Stones song, "Can't You Hear Me Knocking?", which is on Sticky Fingers, I think. It's the lick underneath the title phrase that I think I was messing around with -- I think it's a similar tuning, it's tuned to a set chord, and so when you play the shapes you get those intervals.

I was just moving two strings over at a time, and found something that I though kind of sounded like a train. The fact that it sounded like a train prompted me to spew out all these lyrics about me being the train.

Somebody once said to me about this song, "Oh, weren't you just copying Ray Davies' 'Last of the Steam-Powered Trains'?" No, because I hadn't at that point heard that song. The only Kinks songs that I'd heard on the radio as a youngster were singles, and I didn't hear any Kinks albums until the late '80s or so.

Around then, [laughs] Dave went and bought Holly, for either birthday or Christmas, a couple of Kinks albums, with a note saying, "These are probably the best albums you'll ever hear in your life." I thought, "That's a weird thing to buy a young kid!" But of course I'd borrow them and play them. I don't think I heard Village Green Preservation Society until the '90s! I don't remember hearing it, anyway. I remember hearing certain tracks off of it, but not that one.

Anyway, because of that rolling-guitar riff feeling like a train, I guess as soon as I thought, "Well, I'm the train," then all this stuff sprewed out. This is possibly one of the most autobiographical songs I've ever written. I'm the train and I'm worried about losing my inspiration, I'm worried about losing my steam for the whole thing -- the whole XTC creative process.

TB: And, in such an image-driven industry, here you are getting a little bit older, and you're not on the road anymore...

AP: Yeah -- I'm coming up to 30, I'm not on the road anymore, I want to say goodbye to that and get more into the studio world. I'm just feeling immensely unsure and worrying that I'm losing inspiration.

TB: "All my servants are leaving / Imagination gone packing."

AP: There you go!

I shouldn't say "There you go" -- that's so blithe. Going to have find another phrase, I think.

TB: Exactly. You can say "exactly."

AP: No, that's another one. I do too much of that, too! [chuckles]

But I think this was the first song I wrote for The Big Express. Like I said, it was while we were working on Mummer that this fell out. It sort of set a mental pattern. I think I subconsciously wanted the whole album to be about trains, and me as a train, coming from a town that was all about trains. Although, as more songs came out, it was not totally in the concept -- I guess "Smalltown" is in the concept. In fact, thinking about it, the whole Big Express album is the nearest we've ever been to a concept record.

TB: There are certainly a lot of autobiographical songs on there -- "Liarbird," and "I Remember the Sun" -- one from Colin.

AP: Yeah, I think so. And although "All You Pretty Girls" is not quite autobiographical, it's me fantasizing about being my father, about being in the Navy. Even "Seagulls Screaming" -- that sort of thing happened. So, I guess we're beginning to be a little more autobiographical.

This song is very much so. In fact, during the bridge, when I listened through it today, I got quite choked up. I was thinking, "Whoa -- where did that come from? Why the hell is this making me feel choky here?" I was just thrown back to the time when I wrote the thing, and I was feeling, as you say, that "all your servants are leaving" -- all my faculties were slowly going.

I've written in my notes here that I wanted the song to sound like "a slow-motion train accident." You know, with the sound of all this twisting metal, and steam escaping.

[imitates whiny reporter] "And you've got to tell us, are Dave and Colin the 'empty carriages'? That's what we want to know."

TB: [laughs] Well, you know, quite frankly that question is justified, because I was listening today to the demo [on Fuzzy Warbles, Vol. 3, and one of the few differences in the lyrics between the demo and the finished product is that on the demo you say "me and bunch of empty carriages." On the finished product, you say, "me and a couple of empty carriages." Given that there were three of you in the band at that point, the interpretation is understandable.

AP: At the risk of sounding like a real shit, I must have thought that I was pulling Dave and Colin along, or that we're all on the same ride together. If I go off the rails, so does their career!

TB: Of course -- and I'm sure you must have felt some guilt and responsibility at this point, because you were the one who'd taken the band off the road.

AP: I had enormous guilt -- "Oh my god, have I ruined their careers?" Certainly Terry had a problem with it -- although I don't think that's the reason, ultimately, why he left. I think he left because of the emotional pressure of his new wife, and child, saying, "If you don't come and live with us back in Australia, there are going to be problems."

TB: I think he also saw the change in musical direction.

AP: You know, I've thought about it over the years, and I don't think that's as important as the emotional pressure of a brand-new child, brand-new wife, saying, "We're not going to live in your country, because it's a shithole -- it's rainy and wet and cold, and we've come from surfer's paradise."

TB: Speaking of the Kinks! [sings] "Australiaaa"...

AP: [laughing] That's right! Or [Australian accent] "Don't be a failure, Australia!" There was a series of TV ads that we saw during our two tours of Australia with that as the catch line. I thought, "What a great rhyme -- possible only with that accent!"

TB: So, let's talk about the music a little bit. There's a lot of cutting-and-chopping guitar here -- is Dave playing the jangly stuff, while you're doing the cutting and chopping?

AP: Yeah, I'm going the stuff that sort of sounds like sheet metal being banged, and Dave's doing the rolling riff. It sounds to me like it's on a semi-acoustic electric guitar, and we've put a mic up against it -- it's that thin-guitar trick.

TB: Yeah, I was going to ask about that, too -- especially in the bridge, it sounds like you've got everything going on there -- a 12-string, a regular electric, an acoustic...

AP: Yeah, there's all sorts of stuff. It's mostly Dave in the bridge -- I can hear his 12-string guitar. But in the verses, he's playing that rolling figure on an electric guitar, and I'm guessing from the sound that it's one of his semi-acoustic guitars, but we're using a lot of the microphone on it to give it that thin, rhythmic, "musical shaker" sound.

We used that trick a lot. It's over all of our albums, that sound.

TB: Sure -- it's on "It's Nearly Africa," and you've mentioned it on others, too.

AP: Yeah, it's on there. I don't know any other bands that do this, but it's a great trick for making a very broad guitar with no center to it -- so you can slot it in and use it almost as a musical percussion instrument.

TB: One of the other differences between the demo and the finished version is that the demo sounds a little funkier to me.

AP: It is a little funkier, because it's all LinnDrum on the demo, whereas the finished thing is not all LinnDrum -- it's LinnDrum in the verses, but then the live band kicks in during the "think I'm going south for the winter" parts.

TB: So Pete Phipps is not playing on the verses at all?

AP: No.

TB: Interesting. I thought maybe it was him playing along with the Linn.

AP: No, I don't think so. Plus, I know people on forums have said, "Those sounds you hear at the start of the song are real sounds of a steam train," or, "They're the sound of Andy pushing a wire brush over the rim of a snare drum," or something, and I'm thinking, "Where do they get all this stuff from?" It's just the tuning controls on a LinnDrum, tuned way down to as low as they'll go until they become this broken digital white noise. So, the snare is not "snap" -- it's "shurrrrsh." It's digitally slowed down to become mush -- to sound like escaping steam and grinding metal.

There's also a bass note that is sampled and triggered off along with the LinnDrum bass drum, so they're mechanically dead-on each time. That's why that part is so punchy and ludicrously tight.

We actually got the in-house engineer fellow, Glenn Tommey, to put a speed-control pot with finer calibration on the LinnDrum -- we got him to do a mod to the machine -- that gave it the ability to change the tempo more gradually than it otherwise could. We found that, as we turned the speed up in the beginning of the song, the existing LinnDrum speed control was too rough -- it wasn't fine-enough increments.

So, we recorded the LinnDrum part first, then during the B section, you can hear Pete's big drum kit kick in -- that's live band, basically. Nothing mechanical about those sections at all. That's just played, and Pete plays really well on those.

TB: Oh yeah, he plays great. I love those rolls he does.

AP: Very thrilling. I love those rolls where you start to wonder how many toms he has! I think he's auditioning for Rush. [laughs]

TB: Did you guys track this live together?

AP: We would have played along with Pete to get those sections, and then probably replaced our instruments with better takes and sounds once we got Pete playing really well.

Then, at the end of the song, we play along with the LinnDrum, which is having the speed decreased and all the pitches wound down again until they become digital mush.

Do you know, I heard the track through three or four times today, and I thought, "Jesus, I hate the mastering of this!" I really hope that Virgin will let us remaster this properly.

TB: What don't you like about it?

AP: It's just too thin-sounding at the top. Too many super highs that are not needed.

We were never involved in any of the remastered discs they did 10 years ago. You know that. When they rejig them all this year and put them out as expanded versions, I really want to be involved in the mastering, and make them sound as good as I know they could sound.

TB: I think The Big Express especially could benefit from that.

AP: Yep. I also think the way Oranges and Lemons was mastered is too thin. I know those albums don't sound like that, because we did them on tape! They sound really thick and fat. But we've ended up with "skinny aural dick" syndrome. [laughs]

TB: [laughs] Another difference between the demo and the finished version is that the transition notes between the verse and the B section, right before the words "think I'm going south...", is missing -- you don't have that passing phrase. Do you remember when you added that?

AP: It must have come up in rehearsal, because we did rehearse this stuff a lot with Pete Phipps. We rehearsed it above a music shop that's since been knocked down. It was at the bottom of Victoria Road in Swindon. Upstairs, they had all this storeroom space, and we rehearsed up there -- would come in every day and just run this stuff through and through.

TB: Tell me about your relationship with Pete at this point. You did two albums in a row with him, and so at this point you must have been pretty comfortable with him, since at this point you already had an album with him under your belt.

AP: Yeah, we got on so well with Mummer that it was like, "Well, he's got to do the next one," you know? What was exciting with him was that he could kind of play like Terry, if you needed that, but he also had a much lighter, Jazzy sort of touch, which Terry couldn't do. I mean, Terry was an animal. He'd sit behind that kit, and it was like, "Okay, he's going to start. Duck." [chuckles] He was a Bonhamesque drummer -- there wasn't much finesse to his playing. It was World War III when he got there.

TB: Sure. He would attack the kit.

AP: He would attack it viciously. Pete could sort of do that -- he didn't quite have the animal/killer thing that Terry did, but Pete could also do gentle, if you wanted that. He could do stuff like "Ladybird." Or "Love on a Farmboy's Wages," which Terry was struggling a bit with, because it was so light.

TB: If you had done the album after this, Skylarking, in the UK, do you think you would have used him for your drummer?

AP: Maybe! Yeah. I did like him. Not only was he a great musician -- still is, probably, I don't know if he's still doing music -- but he was very amiable and easy to get on with, as well.

You could always pick his brains for some great stories about Gary Glitter and The Glitter Band, as well.

TB: I can imagine! [laughs]

AP: I think he did tremendous work. In fact, I don't think any drummer that we've picked has let us down. They're all great players. And they've all been great blokes to get along with. I don't think we ever had any ego problems with any of our drummers in any way.

TB: That seems to be one of the common themes that I've found in talking to people who are successful studio musicians. If you're going to get called back, it's because you're easy to get along with. Of course, there's got to be talent there as well, but you could have all the talent in the world, and if you're an asshole, nobody's going to want to work with you.

AP: Sure. That's a big thing. Unless you're some sort of super-duper, unimaginably gifted player, there's usually somebody who's going to be as good as you. If you're an asshole, they'll find somebody as good as you who's not an asshole.

TB: You guys had done a version of this on "Play at Home," which you made before The Big Express, right?

AP: Yeah, "Play at Home" was pretty much made immediately after we finished the Mummer album, so this song was still brand-new at the time. It was just basically the riff, with the idea that "I'm a train, I'm slowing down, I'm losing coal, I'm losing speed, I'm stuck on these rails here." So what you're getting is a little window into a song that's in the process of being written across those weeks, really.

TB: But you must have felt comfortable enough with where it was at the time to play it in front of a camera.

AP: Dave really liked it, so I think it was Dave who suggested we do it for the camera. We did it at the one-third-sized Hollywood Bowl copy that we have in the Swindon Town Gardens. There just happened to be a couple of kids there, sat on the grass there, looking as we did it. They're not related to us in any way, even though I've seen people writing, "Oh, that's got to be so-and-so." We didn't know who they were.

Sadly, you can't wander up on to that stage and just play anymore -- it's all been fenced in, because it got graffiti'd and wrecked too many times. Which is a real shame.

TB: Anything else you want to mention about the recording of the song?

AP: I'm playing my brand-new cheap Squier Telecaster. I bought it to do the album with. It was £150, and made in Japan, but I've got to say, it was better than the American-manufactured ones that the shop had. I think, after a while, Fender actually took them away from the Japanese, because they were making guitars than the Americans were! I bought mine in '83, and the American-made ones were more expensive, but they just didn't feel or sound as good. As soon as this Japanese one fell into my hands, it was like, "Oh, this is fantastic, and oh! It's only £150!" As opposed to £750, or whatever the others were.

I'm the guitar on the left, mostly, playing those sort of sheet-metal things, and Dave's the one on the right doing that rolling figure.

TB: And he's doing those great 12-string strums that introduce the B section...

AP: And that's got reverse reverb on it as well, so it "arrives."

TB: Plus, somebody's swishing a cymbal with soft mallets there, right?

AP: Yeah, that sort of falls in with the other instruments.

TB: Did you play percussion on this song? I know there's a tambourine in there.

AP: It's me on tambourine and shakers, and stuff like that. I seem to get that job all the time, because I've got a pretty solid sense of rhythm. Our drummers would help out as well, of course, because if they haven't got a good sense of rhythm, what were we doing using them? [laughs] But I seem to always get the tambourine or shaker job. That seems to be my thing.

TB: How about bass?

AP: I think that's Colin's new Wal bass. The part itself is quite subtle -- most of it is that triggered bass note that goes with the bass drum. He plays much more lyrical in the other parts. Colin's faultless when it comes to lyrical playing. It's always not only just the right notes, but it's always a great melody you can hum, as well.

TB: And his timing is spot-on, of course.

AP: Timing's bloody good too, yeah.

Dave's doing the guitar "train whistles." That's his little party piece, making his guitar sound like a train. I think he was embarrassed even mentioning it. [mimics Dave] "I think I can make a sound like a train -- do you want to hear it? It's very corny -- you won't want to use it." And of course, as soon as he did it, it was, "Fuck! That's great! You've got to play that!" I think he was a bit embarrassed it was such a hit with the band. [laughs] "That's great! Let's do it every time!" [Dave again] "Oh, really? Oh, come along."

You do it with a whammy bar -- you hit the chord, and then you bend down just the right amount, on just the right chord, and it becomes one of those American train whistles.

I also put down in my notes that it's two songs sonically -- the sampled one, and the played one. A lot of people have still got this thing where they say, "Oh, I don't like that album -- it's all Linn Drum." No, it's not! There's great live drumming throughout this album. That's just how good Pete's timing is! You might think he's a machine.

TB: Some of it also has to do with the drum sound of the time, I think.

AP: Yeah, that's true. But people seem to think that even things that's he's playing live, like "Washaway," are LinnDrum.

I think we just about done this one, but again, I was struck today at how emotional I felt when it got to the middle section. It just pressed some buttons in me, and I had to sort of stop for a while. So, it goes to prove that songs can have this Pavlovian thing for the writer, as well.

TB: I think it also proves that the emotion that prompted the writing of the song was genuine. You weren't just doing it to fill space on a record -- you were crying out.

AP: Yeah, I guess so, because it got bottled up in that song, and every time I hear it -- and I don't hear it often, because the only time I play our material nowadays is for these interviews -- I was back in that strange mental state that made me write the song in the first place. So yes, I guess the emotions are very real.

10:54 PM

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