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Sunday, October 04, 2009


Andy discusses 'The Disappointed'

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, "The Disappointed," is from 1992's Nonsuch.

Per added yet another win to his string of guess-the-next-interview victories. Keep on this track, Mr. Aronsson, and soon you'll be more than just the Fisher King!

What are we going to run in two weeks? Um ... well, Andy's been recovering from swine flu, while Todd's been consumed by communicating about it at work. We'll figure out what the next interflu, erm, interview will be about sometime during the coming week, and hintatcha next weekend.

TB: Let's talk about "The Disappointed." This is another one of your prescient Nonsuch songs. Maybe we should start by talking about the lyrics.

AP: It's pretty prescient! Actually, could I just derail you for a moment? Could I start with the video?

TB: Sure!

AP: Which I hate -- hate, hate, hate! You think I'm acting disappointed in that video? [laughs ruefully] I was told when we arrived on the set of this, early in the morning, after all the preparation that had gone on with the director -- I can't remember her name. Somebody Fiennes? She was the daughter of the polar explorer Fiennes. I had meetings with her at Virgin, and I'd brought up books, and I'd done sketches, and we'd gone through what I wanted.

I turned up in the morning, and walked in at this big sound stage, and it was nothing like I'd asked for. And so, I started to say, "Hang on, this looks nothing like what we'd agreed on," when the producer wandered over to me, and said, "Look -- shut up, sonny, we're trying to make a video here." And I just knew the day was not going to go my way! [chuckles] I don't think she had any idea who I was, and why I was saying, "This isn't right," but that was her response. "Be quiet" -- I don't think it was "shut up" -- "Be quiet, sonny, we're trying to make a video here."

TB: Had you intended it to be more like a house of cards -- kings and queens?

AP: Actually, it would have been mostly computer-generated, but I wanted the perspective to be all wrong, as in medieval paintings. You know how we used the "Siege of Jerusalem" picture on the 12-inch of "King for a Day"? I really liked that, and I wanted to go on from that and do a fully fledged, weird-looking medieval-perspective thing, where the towers of the castle are slightly smaller than the people in them -- so, their heads are looking out the towers, but there's no way they could actually fit them in the towers! [chuckles] Or, an arm would come out of a doorway, and fill the doorway. Or, there'd be somebody stood at one point that looked about three inches tall, and somebody next to them looked about 10 inches tall.

It was that kind of medieval perspective, where they used to make the most important things larger -- it didn't matter whether it worked perspective-wise or not. If the king's in the picture, he'd be a foot tall, and everyone else him would be six inches tall. He'd be sat in his castle, and the tower he'd be in would be drawn massively, and the rest of the castle would be tiny. So, it was all that weird, messed-up medieval logic of...

TB: Hierarchy, rather than perspective.

AP: Yes, hierarchy -- which is like a lower-archy, but it's the taller one. The one on the top shelf. Or, it's one where you can't afford your own archy, so you pay the rent on one. "Is that a hire-archy?" "Yeah, don't scratch it!" [laughs]

Like I said, I had a meeting with this Fiennes woman, and I brought up these books of medieval art, and did drawings, and I said, "I want this bit to look like this -- I want the sky to have a kind of grid pattern, like you get on tapestries. I don't want it to look anything like real life, now or medieval -- I just want it to be this totally insane perspective thing."

When I turned up on the day of filming, she hadn't listened to a thing I'd said. They'd gone and built this set, they'd gone and booked these actors that were all friends of hers from some university thing. I felt like saying, "No, I don't want these New Romantic-y looking idiots in my film, please!"

TB: [laughing] I think it was all an elaborate ploy to make you genuinely disappointed.

AP: Yeah -- it was the big thing to get me in character! Of course, then they keep you waiting around all day 'til about 11:00 at night, from something like 6 in the morning, and they say, "Okay, we've got to wrap up now -- ohhh, we haven't filmed the group!" [Todd laughs in disbelief] Seriously! That was what they said. So, they crammed us all in, in about a half-hour at the end.

And that was the most we ever paid for a video. It was something like £45,000, which is the equivalent now of something like £100,000.

TB: And you certainly didn't get the return on your investment -- that was your money -- that you'd hoped for. Did the £45,000 invested in that video sell its equivalent amount in more copies of Nonsuch?

AP: No no no -- I think it was shown on TV a couple of times, and that was it. Nonsuch was a very poor seller in England.

TB: Around the rest of the world it did alright, didn't it?

AP: Don't think so! It sold very poorly in the States as well. And, at the time, I thought it was our best album, by far. I don't think it is now -- I think it's our second-best album. I think Apple Venus is our best.

TB: How did the song come about?

AP: I offered this, in its unfinished state, to Terry Hall, ex of The Specials, now doing his solo career. He wanted to write with me, and I agreed. I offered him this -- gave him a really rough cassette version of me strumming through it, with unfinished lyrics -- and for some reason he turned it down. He didn't like it. Which is a shame, because it might have been a hit for him, who knows? Though, it wasn't a hit for us, so maybe it wouldn't have been a hit for him.

After he turned it down, I thought, "Well, I'll just finish up and we'll use it, if the rest of the band think it's okay." I did a new demo [later released on Coat of Many Cupboards] that is possibly the most finished demo I've ever done of any song that the band went on to do. Consequently, it really shut them out -- which I feel a little guilty about, but I guess if you know exactly how a song has got to go, that's how it's got to go.

TB: I listened to the demo today, and I was going to ask you about your setup in the Shed at this time -- had you gone digital by then, or were you still working with an eight-track cassette?

AP: It was eight-track cassette machine.

TB: Because it is very fully realized, almost at the Apple Venus level. I don't know if I'd say it's your most finished demo, though, because some of the AV demos are at least as finished, if not more. But it's pretty much all there, except for the string parts and some of the backing tracks.

AP: The string thing was more of an idea of a part, rather a finished product. I haven't heard the demo, didn't play it today, but the string arrangement on the final product was one of those committee arrangements that we did with Proteus, which for the time had great string samples in it.

TB: But you have string players listed on the liner notes.

AP: We do, yeah.

TB: You figured it out on the Proteus, then they played their parts?

AP: We figured it out on the Proteus, and got the string players to play it, but they were so fucking out of tune that we put Proteus on and ended up using more of that in the mix than them.

They were good players, all apart from one. I think it was the cello player, who was appallingly out of tune. We asked [violinist] Stuart Gordon to put the quartet together, and he rang up on the morning they were due there and said, "Look, I'm really sorry chaps, I can't get this really great cello player -- he's ill -- so I've just grabbed the only one I can get," and I don't think she'd ever been in a studio before. She just couldn't get in pitch. It was horrible, because it was spoiling the other three players, who were fine. Stuart Gordon is fantastic. But once she started rubbing the rosin across that enormous brown thing clamped between her legs, there was a horrible sound filled the room.

TB: Yeah, I think I remember you saying the same thing talking about "Rook."

AP: Yep. We only had one day to do all the string parts for the album, and the quartet that showed up did not have the cello player Stuart wanted.

Still, they're not as bad as the quartet that turned up for the original Apple Venus recordings at Chris Difford's place. They were truly awful. We'll save that one for another day.

TB: Okay. Let's talk about the lyrics.

AP: I guess they are prescient, yeah. Listening to it today, though, I don't think it's all about affairs of the heart. I think it's about life in general. I think some of my take on the music business in general is in there as well. I don't think it's all affairs of the heart, although that's the framework it's hung around.

TB: I guess that's pretty much the lot of anyone who gets older -- life is bound to have more disappointments by that time.

AP: I guess so, but also if you feel that you've given your all, and it's not been welcomed, it's not been rewarded -- and we really did give our all -- then it's discouraging. But I've got to go careful, so I don't end up sounding like a bitter troll. [laughs]

TB: It's interesting to hear you say that, because in terms of your career, you were in a relatively good place at this point -- Skylarking and Oranges and Lemons both had sold pretty well. But at the same time, you'd been dealing with litigation with your ex-manager, and facing record-company troubles, and...

AP: Yeah, we were only fresh out of that when we were writing this album. So, I think there are big dollops of different things. My marriage, my disappointment with that, is in there. I think the disappointment with the musical career, with not getting the recognition that I thought we were due, and certainly not getting the financial recompense that we were due, is in there. All that genuine disappointment filtered into this.

But I can tell you why I started writing this -- it was from a totally different reason, which I abandoned, because I thought, "Oh, you posey git, you can't possibly know that pain." There was a story on TV about the mothers of The Disappeared in Argentina.

I started to sing [sings to the tune of "The Disappointed"] "The Disappeared"... and so on, and I just caught myself. "I can't write about this, because I haven't had sons and daughters taken, with a bullet put in the back of their heads and them thrown in a shallow grave by a dusty roadside somewhere. How can I write about that? It's not in my experience."

TB: You can imagine the horror of it, of course, but...

AP: Exactly! But I knew I couldn't write about it truthfully. But that is what started the whole song off. I was singing "The Disappeared," because I was seeing this documentary about the protests of the mothers of these people.

I often sit with the telly on and strum a guitar. I read that John Lennon used to do that, and I thought, "How the hell could he do that?" But now I think about it, and a lot of my best songs have come out while I'm sat watching the TV with a guitar on my lap!

I'm sitting there watching this documentary, thinking, "Oh, that is awful, and I'm strumming away, and singing in my head, "The Disappeared." I liked it, but as I worked on it more, I thought, "No, I can't sing about this. It's not my experience."

TB: You and I have talked in the past about how you like to offset the tone of the lyrics with the tone of the music -- so, you put sad lyrics to happy music or vice-versa. But in this case, both strike me as fairly somber.

AP: I dunno -- it's major key, isn't it? I guess it's major/minor-type mixes, so it's sweet-sour, sweet-sour.

TB: And you're moving down the neck, taking people down with you as you talk about the Disappointed and how they want you to do this and that.

AP: [dramatically] I'm descending lower than a Kinks bass line! [laughs] Yeah, I'm going down -- "Next floor, Disappointment!"

Yeah, it's a sweet-sour mix of music. In fact, I remember I was appalled when one reviewer said, "The intro and middle section sound like Fleetwood Mac." I remember thinking, I'm not supposed to like the West Coast Fleetwood Mac, but maybe they're quite good if someone thinks we sound like them!" [laughs] But seriously, that was very far from my mind when we put this song together.

TB: [laughing] Of course. The thing I was going to ask about that part is, I realize that you start with the bridge, and then you go into...

AP: This song is kind of a vhorus!

TB: Exactly! This is a vhorus song -- after the intro, you kind of start with the chorus.

AP: It's the title line -- it's that Bacharach/David thing of, title line / some response to that/ back to title line again / another rhymey response to that -- so, it's well in vhorus land.

TB: Is the bridge, or middle part, of this song one of your shortest? Lyrically, it's only two lines.

AP: [sings it to himself] Is that eight bars? I think it is.

TB: So it really is a middle-eight.

AP: An old-fashioned, Tin Pan Alley middle-eight. A Tin Ear Alley middle eight! [chuckles]

TB: [laughs] You've said before how you like to start songs with the bridge...

AP: It's just one of those little songwriter tricks. You think, "Fuck, where do I go now? I've got myself to this point in the song, and I don't know what to do. Wait! The intro can come back!" Why waste a good intro?

TB: Speaking of intros, where did you guys come up with starting it with the drums like that?

AP: I love that spastic roll he [Dave Mattacks] does. I said to him, I want a really distinctive roll into this.

TB: And he moves up through the drums, from the lowest to the highest tom, then the snare.

AP: He moves up, and he does it on the and's, and it's all flams.

I said to him, "Look, the playing in this has got to be really solid, really regular. There are not going to be many rolls in the song, because it's just got to keep going, so I want a very distinctive one to get in." He really done me proud -- he's playing it backwards, starting it from the lowest tom up to the snare, playing all flams, and playing it on the and's.

In rehearsals, when we started the album, he said, "I'm looking forward to this, as long as you haven't got any shuffles for me to play, since I can't play a shuffle." And not only is this song a shuffle, but it's a shuffle with an offbeat hi-hat. It's an offbeat, triplet hi-hat.

TB: I was just going to say, in Dave's defense, this is an hard pattern to play. The hi-hat part is what makes it hard. If he was just doing your standard, dotted-eight hi-hat pattern you find in a shuffle...

AP: Well, that's what he can't do! He said he can't do your average shuffle.

TB: At least he knows his own blind spot, right?

AP: Sure! So we ended up doing quite a lot of editing with the drum performance on this, because I wanted it really solid. I don't know how many takes we did of him, but this is not one drum take all the way through. It's best bits, you know?

But the poor sod had to play these off-beat triplet hi-hats, because [producer] Gus [Dudgeon] loved that on the demo. It was easy for me, because I could just program a drum machine. But Gus said [mimics him], "Ohh, yes, I love those offbeat triplet hi-hats -- we've got to keep that in! That's such a hook!" And poor Dave had to play these triplets cutting across the rhythm that hit on the offbeat.

TB: It's very, very hard to play well, and consistently, for a long time. I can say that.

AP: And, after that roll! I mean, the man's a giant, really.

TB: Let's talk about the rest of the song -- who is in which channel? Are you in the left channel on this one?

AP: Dave's playing the sort of choppy guitar -- he's also playing the arpeggios. That's his forte, to do those. I'm doing the chuggy guitar, and I think that is over on the left.

What else do my notes say? "Good use of echoes in the mix to double up all the rhythms."

TB: Yeah, the guitars sound very big on this song.

AP: That's all those rhythmic echoes, picking up all the parts. That's the trick.

What else did I write here? I started the demo on this on the 15th of April, '91. The song before it was "Wonder Annual," and the song after it was one I worked on with Peter Blegvad called "Hell's Despite." That's where this fell out historically.

TB: I don't think I realized "Wonder Annual" was a Nonsuchy-era song.

Dave is credited with keyboard on "The Disappointed" -- does that have to do with the Proteus strings?

AP: I think so, yeah. There's also this bendy, echo-y, reverb-y thing at the end that I think is keyboards.

TB: This was one of the singles from the album, yes?

AP: It was, yes. There's this notorious old-women's show that used to be on called "Pebble Mill at One." Pebble Mill was the name of the BBC's Birmingham studio, and they did this kind of "glad to be gray" chat-show thing at lunchtime. [mimics old woman] "Ooh, and we'll have a Pop act on as well!" We went on there to mime the song, and I think that was our only shot at fame with it in England. [chuckles]

TB: Who played drums? Was it Ian [Gregory]?

AP: It's Ian, yeah. He always used to do our last-minute mimes. He'd do it for the drink alone, I think! [laughs] And I do remember we got rather drunk on the way back from doing this. We decided we were going to hire a chauffer-driven car -- we thought, "Fuck it, if we've got to go and play to a load of old women up in Birmingham at a lunchtime show, and do a mime, we're going to get some booze on the way back and have a party."

TB: [laughing] Like proper rock stars!

AP: [chuckles] Like proper rocks stars, yes. So we did. We got some bottles and had some fun on the way back.

TB: Did Virgin tag this as a single, or did you push it as such?

AP: I sensed that they were going to go for this as a single, as it was being written, because it was so sort of solid and, face it, old-fashioned. So, I thought, "Yeah, they're gonna hone in on this."

TB: But it came second, after "Peter Pumpkinhead."

AP: Yeah. But I knew they were going to go for it, as a single. But, again, I don't think it got very high in the English charts -- probably somewhere in the lower 20s or 30s -- because nobody played it. We hadn't bribed the right people. We hadn't even bribed the wrong people! [laughs]

TB: So, after this, "Wrapped in Gray" was the next -- and last -- single?

AP: Yeah, that was it. That was the end of Nonsuch.

TB: And we all know what happened after that!

AP: Then Dave had the idea to go on strike. Which I think he said facetiously, but I thought, "Great idea!"

TB: Well, it worked, right? Took a while, but it worked.

The final thing I want to ask about is how it fades into "Holly Up on Poppy."

AP: Yeah, what a lovely cross-fade that is! That worked out really well.

TB: It does, and I guess what I wanted to ask about involves a larger question -- you guys love to do cross-fades.

AP: I know, and there's someone who gets on the various sites called [name redacted], and obviously these cross-fades have mentally unhinged him, because all he rants about is how much better it would be if there were no cross-fades.

TB: So, let's talk about that -- "In defense of cross-fades, by Andy Partridge."

AP: Listening to an album is an event. It's a film. It's a play. It's reading a book. You wouldn't read chapter nine first, then jump to chapter two -- you read the book the way the author intended you to read it, from page one to page last. You watch a film from scene one to scene end. You hear a collection of music on an album from track one to the last track. It's like saying that there should be one or two seconds of blank screen in between every major scene in a film. No! Some scenes cross-fade. Some scenes are blank. Some scenes dissolve.

It's how you're pulled through the experience. It's the order we want you to hear it in, the way we'd like you to hear it. The fact that one blurs into another -- that's intended! That's not some weird accident that happens at the pressing plant! He must think that it's some terrible disease that has infested all of our records, that we have no control over the cross-fading. No, you fucker! I want it to happen that way!

TB: You can tell -- it's absolutely intentional, because you do so much of it.

AP: With so many of my favorite albums, I am led by the hand from song one right through to the spindle. And that's how I like it. As I say, you wouldn't watch a film watching scene nine before scene five -- you go through in the way that the director and editor and writer want you to see that film. It's the same with an album of music.

TB: We had some friends over last night, another couple, and the other guy and I were out in the kitchen at the end of the night, drinking and bemoaning the death of the album.

AP: That's what all this separate stuff in the digital domain has done. It's turned the film into a bunch of scenes -- it's turned the book into a bunch of chapters.

TB: One of the examples I used for him was XTC -- I wouldn't love some of the deeper cuts on your albums as much as I do if I hadn't been able to listen to them multiple times, in the context of the other songs on the album. They're not all sugary-sweet singles. Instead, they reveal themselves to you over time, and if I didn't have a commitment to listening to an album -- of being led through the album as you'd intended, as you were just talking about -- I don't know if I necessarily would have discovered those songs to the same degree that I have. That's a sad thing -- to know that future generations might not have the joy of having an album reveal itself to them over time.

AP: Well, the album is an art form, as much as the single is an art form. The threads that carry through are what pull you through the whole experience. Nothing in life is ever unseparated, so why should this one art form be totally unseparated? There's not many art forms you can think of where it's not an interactive thing, or there isn't a journey involved.

I'm Andy Partridge, and I love cross-fades!

11:41 PM

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