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Sunday, July 19, 2009


Andy discusses 'Human Alchemy'

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, "Human Alchemy," is from 1983's Mummer.

No "guess the next interview" winner this week -- 'bout time we got one past you lot. So, basking in the glow of victory, we will stretch this yellow-jersey-wearing period out for a week by dropping the next hint one week from now. And you thought the Tour was full of drama?

One more (very important) thing -- let's all wish Terry "Lord Wackingham" Chambers, who turned 54 yesterday (18 July), the happiest of birthdays! Hope it was a festive one, Mr. C.

TB: Let's talk about the side-opener -- back when records had sides -- for side two of Mummer.

AP: Or "Murmur," as a kid told me once. "I really like your album 'Murmur'!"

TB: [laughs] Yeah -- wrong band. Still had three letters in their name, though.

AP: I think that was because they liked our three letters. So did INXS, and so did U2...

TB: But you were there first, dammit!

AP: I should have got royalties on the dry sounds!

Hey, I played the demo of this song for the first time in a long time, and it brought back a lot of memories.

TB: Well, let's talk about the song's genesis and why you did this demo.

AP: From Genitals to Revelation! [laughs] That's the kind of sermon I want!

Do you know, I didn't remember until today, when I played it, that it started as a little instrumental theme on the monophonic Korg synthesizer that we had. [sings main melody line] I'd take that little keyboard home with me to my little flat and sit on the floor, and I came up with that little melody.

But I don't remember at what point the lyric came. I've got a funny feeling that the lyric was a bit of a poem that got nailed together with that melody, probably in Terry Alderton's Tudor Studios -- or "Fatty's," as we just used to call it. I'm sorry Mr. Alderton, but you were rather large.

I think he had a bit of a deal going with our ex-manager, where we used to get cheaper rehearsal space there, and then every time we'd go in the little recording studio part, we'd see another bit of our stage equipment plumbed in to their studio! You'd go in there and you'd find your amps getting used, or you'd find part of your PA in there, or your space echo or chorus machine.

TB: But it wasn't permanent? Were they just borrowing it?

AP: They were just borrowing it.

TB: Oh. Did you ever get the stuff back?

AP: Yeah, but -- you know, "wear and tear"! I guess we had a deal where we could get the rehearsal space cheaper if they could kind of pilfer our gear for any sessions that they did. It was a pretty terrible studio. Great space, but they just didn't know about the gear -- they had no idea how to record stuff. So the recordings down there were pretty awful quality, as you can hear from that demo.

TB: I don't know, I've heard worse demos from you guys.

AP: I guess it was better than anything I'd been used to at that point. I'd just gotten a Portastudio, a four-track cassette thing, so the whole world of dubbing yourself on top of yourself was starting to open to me.

But this was all done by me down there -- that's me drumming and playing the bass and murmuring and overdubbing the toms.

TB: Is all the drumming live, or is there some drum machine on there, too?

AP: It's all live. I probably did my foot first. And then I've got a funny feeling I did a sort of timekeeping thing, because I can hear some bits and pieces of it, leaking through the headphones. Then I think I played a lot more toms and "buttoned them out" on the desk. Or, I used the thing I played to keep timing in my headphones, and then just went and played very disparate, disconnected toms. I can't remember which one it was.

TB: The bass drum was so dead that I thought maybe it was a drum machine.

AP: No, it was Terry Alderton's drum kit. He was a drummer, and the band that he and his wife had were called Green Steam. Very psychedelic band name, actually. He had his drum kit set up there permanently, and that was the nicest mic'd thing in the whole studio. They used to make guitars and basses and keyboards and everything sound awful, but the kit sounded half-decent!

I just went in one day and said, "Look, can I have some time in there? I've got an idea I want to try out." In the same session, I also did another thing called "Jacob's Ladder," which is on Fuzzy Warbles, Vol. 5. It's a very quiet, delicate-sounding ethereal thing.

But for "Human Alchemy," I had this melody idea, and I think I probably came up with some lyrics quite quickly before this session, maybe a day or two before, and sort of nailed them on at the time. So there's a great degree of improvising and sort of bodging it all through, you know? And god, it goes on for far too long!

TB: [laughs] It makes sense, though, if what you were trying to do was get all your ideas down.

AP: Yeah, I suppose. And, of course, it was the kind of studio that had one reel of tape, and you couldn't say, "Well, let's edit." "No, you're not touching that tape! You're not getting a razor blade anywhere near that." [chuckles]

TB: In terms of the songwriting cycle for Mummer, when would you have been doing this?

AP: This would have been after the aborted US tour for English Settlement. I was in the process of moving -- I think I actually recorded this before I moved up to where I am now. It was a case of trying to get back to normality after the whole thing had gone wrong -- the whole valium-withdrawal thing, and all that -- so it was a case of, "Let me see if I can lose myself in some work. I better start writing for another album."

This one was probably in the middle of writing the songs for that album, and I didn't know whether it was going to work as a song or not. In fact, by the time we did get to record it, I did straighten it up quite a bit. The only thing that remains is the skeleton of that melody, and the idea that it should be rather Dub-by, which happens at the end of the recorded one.

I found a lot of real heavy-duty Dub music rather frightening and nightmare-ish. I wanted to capture an essence of that, which I think we did on the finished thing, especially during the end section -- which was actually a hell of a lot longer. We cut out quite a lot. [Producer] Steve Nye said, "Should we chop some out? Do we really want all this?" And I thought, "No, maybe it's best that we make it a little more succinct."

I guess I was also going for sort of an African/Indian feel -- [mimics drum pattern]. It's almost like a slow Indian accent, but sticking with tom-toms, so there's a tribal suggestion behind it. And Pete Phipps is always great with tom-toms.

TB: Let's talk about the drums a little bit, because the part on this song is particularly great. Did he do any overdubs? The lower toms especially are so powerful that I was wondering if they were special drums that were overdubbed, or if they're just regular drums that are processed.

AP: You know, what I noticed today is that on the bass drum, there seems to be some sort of drum synth. But I can't remember him having one.

TB: Was Terry's Snyper still around? Did he leave you with that equipment?

AP: Do you know, I think that might be the case! I don't think he used it with Dragon, so it might have been around. It's something like that, because you can hear a bending electronic note that's triggered by the bass drum.

I remember that when we mixed it, we wanted to go "another floor down." We were in AIR Studios, so Steve Nye spoke to George Martin, who was around, and said, "George, have you still got your sub-octave device?" So George Martin brought this shoebox-sized thing in with a couple of controls on it, and got it rigged up for us. It generated another octave below the bass drum, way down at 20 or 10 hertz, or something like that.

TB: Colin is also going along with the bass drum, playing sliding notes.

AP: Sure, he's playing this [imitates descending sliding note]. And on the more active bass part, he's playing with a more dotted feel, where I played it quarter notes on the demo. But while he's doing that -- when he's not playing and sliding down with the bass drum -- you can still hear the descending note, so I swear it's a synthesized bass drum blended in there.

I don't remember Pete Phipps having an electric kit with him, but I guess that's a possibility, so maybe we even used that.

TB: I'd be surprised if it were an electric kit. It sounds very acoustic to me -- it sounds like someone hitting drumheads hard -- but I could be wrong.

AP: He does some great playing on the song -- some great fills. I love the one right before the first verse starts that goes "boom-chop boom boom-boom boom-boom."

As far as the sound goes, the drums were recorded in the stone room at The Manor -- a stone room they'd added on, like a dungeon conservatory or something. [chuckles] And that's what it sounded like -- you got that big, thunderous sound. So, you'd go in there with Pete's beautifully tuned tom-toms, and he's whacking seven shades of shit out of them -- that's what it's going to sound like.

TB: It seems to me there are no cymbals other than him chicking along on a hi-hat...

AP: I don't think there are any cymbals. I think it was a case of, "Let's keep it dark and tribal."

TB: And leave some sonic room for things like bells and tambourine...

AP: Exactly. When the tambourine gets added, in the B section, it really cuts through, because there's absolutely nothing on the top.

You know the sound at the start? The pulsing bit?

TB: Yeah, I wanted to ask about that.

AP: We'd just bought the Mellotron, so it was the toy of the moment. One day Dave played a chord, and was showing me that, with the tape selector, you could have three different sounds. So, he was holding a chord down, and began flicking the selector. So we came up with the idea of playing this intro chord, and it goes [sings] "one-two-three-two-one-two-three." That's the three positions of the switch going through three sounds. To go back to the first sound again from three, you have got to go back via number two.

TB: Sure -- you're clicking the head across the tape.

AP: Yep, you're clicking the head across, and it's doing that pattern.

We were also still pretty enamored with the Prophet-5, which is on a lot of this -- we used that to play the fake string sounds, and the reed-organ, bottle-y sound. Dave's playing all the keyboards.

TB: Were you playing all the guitar? There's not too much on here.

AP: No, there's not much guitar. Just a rhythmic thing.

The biggest sound is probably the "slave chorus" -- that's real voices and Mellotron.

TB: Ah, okay -- you anticipated another question. I was wondering about that.

AP: Yeah, there are real people blended in there as well, to humanize it a bit.

TB: Speaking of octave units, did you use something like that on your voice to get it down that low?

AP: I love the split-octave vocal thing, but George Martin and his octave unit were not needed. I can sing pretty low. We maybe sped the tape up a bit, so I could get even lower, but it's all me.

TB: Okay. I thought maybe you showed up first thing in the morning to sing that part!

AP: [laughs] Yeah, exactly! Before I'd had my coffee.

But yeah, I love that effect, the split vocals. David Bowie does that quite a bit.

TB: Peter Gabriel is a fan of that as well.

AP: Really? I hadn't clicked with that. But I know Bowie does it, and it's very effective. It seemed to suit the song as well -- you know, the terrible tragedy of slavery.

TB: Let's talk about the lyrics and what prompted them. Were you thinking about the fact that you had been a slave to the music industry for years?

AP: No, it was probably just white liberal guilt by the bucket load, I think. But I didn't want to just say, "Hey, I'm sorry we were bad to you black folks all them years ago," because they haven't cornered the market on slavery. I mean, historically there probably have been more white slaves. You know, the word "slave" comes from the word "Slav" -- that was a whole race of people who were considered to be fit only to be human chattel. All colors were slaves -- I mean, Britons were slaves to the Romans, and taken away to Rome and other parts of the Empire.

But, you get it hammered into you at school, so I guess I fell for the whole "slave equals black man" thing. Still, I wanted to do a new take on it -- I didn't want to say, "Look, we're really sorry. I've seen "Roots" and I know what it's all about." I wanted to add that human greed is all behind it, and that people became slaves to the concept of selling other people and converting them into gold. That's the alchemy -- you're converting base, ordinary lead people into gold.

I wanted to take it to another angle and say there are two sides of the story -- there are two sets of slaves: the people who are being rounded up and sold, and the people who were doing that -- be they Arabic or white shippers or plantation owners -- who were equally caught up in that system. Their greed means that they're slaves to it as well.

It's a bit facetious, because obviously anyone can know which side they'd rather be on, but I'm trying to take a new look at it.

I was more fascinated by the soundscape of the song -- you know, trying to make a picture of people in misery, in music -- the tribal drums and the mournful vocal refrain, and the dark, scary emptiness of especially the last part of the track.

TB: This song was one of the songs that was remixed by the band and Alex Sadkin and Phil Thornalley. Why is that?

AP: Was it remixed or did we use the Steve Nye version?

TB: The liner notes say that this was one of the remixed ones, along with "Wonderland," "Deliver Us from the Elements" and "Funk Pop a Roll."

AP: Do you know, I've got a funny feeling -- and I don't know how I could verify this -- that this is a mistake, and that it's actually the Steve Nye mix. I seem to remember thinking at the time, "Oh, damn -- they got it wrong on the album." Because I remember doing the edits with Steve Nye in AIR as well. I think that's the Steve Nye version and that's a mistake from the original album artwork -- unless Dave or Colin can tell you any different. Poor Alex Sadkin can't, because he's dead.

And I'll tell you what I also remember about mixing it at AIR -- this was the one above Oxford Street in London -- was that we were in a studio in the right-hand side, and in the studio on the left-hand side were the group Japan. I came out of the door of our studio -- you know, we'd been mixing this for hours, and I probably needed a piss or something -- and as I opened the door, three or four members of Japan fell in! They were outside, with their ears against the door.

TB: [laughing] Checking up on the competition!

AP: [chuckling] Exactly. They must have been very embarrassed. Because I pulled the door open in a rush, to run out and have a piss, and they literally fell in!

They were the sort of band that had this slightly high-falutin' art reputation, and a rather aloof coolness, and to catch them ear-balling the competition so blatantly as that was quite amusing. [laughs]

TB: You guys made a video for this song.

AP: Which Dave refused to wear makeup for! [imitates Dave] "I'm not putting that muck on my face. Bloody hell -- how embarrassing." Plus, I asked him could he not wear his white trainers -- could he wear something that was a little more subtle, like a dark shoe. "No -- these are comfortable, and if I'm trudging up and down bloody hills, I'm going to wear my trainers!"

So, if you watch this rather poxy, cheap video that we did for the "Play at Home" series, Dave Gregory does not have makeup on his face, and will not take his trainers off. [chuckles]

TB: Where did you guys film the video?

AP: Just on the old chalk hills around the corner, really. I drove around with a film crew and found a nice tree on the horizon -- it looked rather desolate and sad and slightly scary -- and I asked, "Can we find out whose land that is, and would they mind if they wandered up and down their hill near their tree for a few hours?" They found out whose land it was, and the farmer said it was okay to wander 'round and shout at his tree. [chuckles]

As far as concept goes, I said, "Look, I think it would be great if we're at least the Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse. We could say one's got the flu or something." [laughs] Yeah, Pestilence has got the swine flu! So, War, Famine and Death have turned up, but Pestilence is feeling rather poorly. He's moved to Australia to recover!

So, I said, "Let's hire some reaper-esque costumes, and see how many thousands of black dolls we can get for the money." You know, we had something like £300 or £400 to spend for getting the props for this video -- which, of course, is nothing. Michael Jackson spends $7 million on a video, and we've got £400 to blow.

We couldn't find enough black dolls quick enough, but they could get reasonably cheap white dolls, so I and the film maker -- I can remember his name now, shamefully -- spread newspaper out here in my back garden and painted these dolls brown. Hundreds and hundreds of them -- as many of them as we could get for the money.

We spread them out over the hills and wandered around. You can see in the video, as we're wandering about, there are little dark-brown dolls everywhere. We're gathering them, like a crop or something, then melting them down.

The whole film's very "Stonehenge" by Spinal Tap, really. [chuckles] So, do forgive us there. We made awful videos.

Although, the video for "Funk Pop a Roll" was made during the same week, and again, for no money spent, I think that came out really well.

Do you know, I've got a funny feeling we never picked up those dolls! They were probably left in those fields.

TB: Not the best thing for the environment, eh?

AP: They're plastic -- they're going to last for millions of years!

TB: Now people need to get out there and start searching for this valuable XTC paraphernalia!

AP: [laughing] When future archeologists are combing these fields with plastic detectors, and they come up with these -- "We've found a horde of about 500 painted brown dollies! What could this mean? Was this a cult? The Cult of the Three Horsemen?" [laughs] "And we found a pair of trainers! I'm sure it all ties together."

TB: [laughing] "Follow the dolly!" "No! Follow the trainer!"

AP: [laughs] Yes.

TB: So, anything else about this one?

AP: You know, in a perverse sort of way, I was actually thinking that I would have loved this to be a single, but it never was going to be, because it's too odd. Can't see it getting played on mainstream radio, you know?

TB: No. But obviously, given that you started the side with it, you must have felt that you achieved what you set out to.

AP: Yeah! I was quite happy with the finished product, especially given the fact that it grew from this funny little theme and that funny, Dub-by demo version that was all Dub and no song.

11:47 PM

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