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Sunday, November 22, 2009


Andy discusses 'My Brown Guitar'

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, "My Brown Guitar," is from 2000's Wasp Star (Apple Venus, Vol. 2).

Tommymac adds another winning string to his Rickenbacker with a correct guess for this week's song. Who will guess the next interview correctly? It's anyone's guess at this point, since we're still working on lining the next one up. Guess away -- at this point, one is as good as another!

TB: Let's talk about your "Brown Guitar," shall we? This song made an appearance before Wasp Star.

AP: I wrote in the notes to Homegrown that it was John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants who contacted me and prompted me to write this song, and "Prince of Orange." So, I dug out my track sheets for these today, and I was totally wrong! He contacted me after I recorded them.

TB: I was wondering if this song was somehow associated with your Bubblegum project, because the vocals on the demo sound very much like some of the vocals on the Bubblegum songs you've played for me. You've kind of got this nasal tone to your voice and, like so many of the Bubblegum songs, it's got a strong sexual undertone...

AP: Well, on the Bubblegum things, I was trying to sing like Cartman. [Todd laughs] Have you ever noticed that? All Bubblegum singers sound like him.

But let me take you way back to the beginning. Precisely, we're talking August '94. I was looking for ways of generating songs that were different than my usual approach. You know -- instead of starting with a title and trying to look for the "chord atmosphere" of the few lyrics, or instead of having a poem and squeezing that into a piece of music that suggests the lyrical content of the poem, I decided to do "automatic writing," or so it says here on the track sheet. I call it that, or "ah-beep" -- Holly and I were watching some Jan_Svankmajer -- it may have been the Punch and Judy one -- and part of the soundtrack was a choir going, "Ahhhhh ... bip!" Holly was saying, "Daddy, why are they singing 'Ah-beep'?" I thought, "Wow! That's great -- I love that phrase."

So, these automatic writings, or ah-beep recordings, were a matter of me just jumping in. I'd sort of done it before, with "Blue Beret," but this time I really wanted to make a conscious effort to see if I could do a whole album's worth of this approach, where you start with a tempo and you immediately start sketching out chords with no idea of where you're going, no idea of what it's about, what the atmosphere is, any lyrical thing -- you jump in and just grab the first chords that come to mind, and they don't even have to be harmonically related to the next one. "Okay, I'll do four of these, then I'll do two of this chord, and then I'll do eight of that chord, then one of this chord, then back to doing four of the first chord I did."

It's like panic buying -- you just grab music with no preconception of where you're going. It doesn't have to make harmonic sense -- you don't have to stick within the accepted frameworks of, "Ooh, this chord sounds nice when you put it next to that one." Forget all that.

So, I put a tempo down, and I'm grabbing chords, and throwing in lyrics that make no sense, apart from commenting on the previous line. You grab a line -- "Where the lions" -- and though you might want to complete that by saying something like "majestically move across the plains," or whatever, instead you say "wear the right tie" -- "wear" versus "where," and all that.

I'm thinking, [talks fast] "Lions -- Lions is a famous rugby team. Rugby team ... rugby shirt ... shirt and tie!" So, it became, "Where the lions / Wear the right tie." It's no more than instant running-down-the-rabbit-hole lyrics, if you see what I mean. They make no sense other than the immediate connections in my brain.

TB: Sure. It's word association.

AP: It's lyrical word association, yes. The previous line sparks off the next, and so on. I was looking for a way to kick-start my writing process, because maybe things were going a bit slow.

Let me have a look at the track sheets -- we're talking August '94. On the 3rd of August, I started "Prince of Orange," and on the 8th of September -- oh, that's interesting. I already had "Prince of Orange" by the time John Flansburgh phoned up on the 12th of August. He called me to ask if I would give them an EP of songs that nobody had heard, for their Hello record club. I was thinking, "What have I got? Ooh, I've just written this thing called 'Prince of Orange'."

So yeah, he called me up halfway between these two automatic recordings, so I'll adjust what I said earlier. He called me on the 12th of August, I already had "Prince of Orange" from the 3rd of August, and then on the 8th of September, I started "Some Lovely (My Brown Guitar)." I've written "automatic writing" again, next to it. So, maybe I thought this was a way of finding another song for the Hello record club, quickly.

TB: How were you able to give him songs when you were in the middle of a strike from Virgin Records?

AP: I was thinking that myself today! I was wondering, "How the hell did I do that?" I was being rather illegal, I suppose, because it was contract bucking, to say the least. And, why did I not think that putting out a CD in a public forum would not mean that people would copy it and distribute it among themselves?

TB: Well, that was still kind of new back then -- I can understand you not knowing about that.

AP: Yeah, people still used to tape stuff then, I suppose, as opposed to CD burning.

I think it was a mixture of my naivety on that side of it, and also I thought -- maybe it was vanity or something -- I could get some things out to the public, through the "underground." But I shouldn't have done it -- legally, Virgin owned all those recordings, and they still do, actually.

TB: So, you have discussed this with them? These songs that you made, during your interregnum...

AP: Oh! Good word! Between your regnum! [Dramatically] "Oh, open your regnum and let me get in there."

TB: [laughing] They are owned by Virgin?

AP: Yes. In fact, Virgin owns everything -- if I am remembering our first contract with them correctly -- that we did even before we signed with them!

TB: But you must have negotiated something with them for you to get the Apple Venus material back, right?

AP: Sure. We came to the agreement where they let me have the use of the demos back, which is why I have to thank them in all the Fuzzy Warbles. They let me have the use of the demos back if I'd collaborate with them on compilations and stuff like that. And also give them the use of any of these tracks if they wanted them.

TB: But not ownership?

AP: No, they keep the ownership strictly. I can use them. They own everything, basically, from our time with them, which went up to '97, I think.

TB: So, any song you wrote during that time, even if it ended up on Apple Venus or Wasp Star? I thought you'd gotten ownership of those songs back.

AP: We didn't start Apple Venus until '98, so they own the demos -- they own all recordings up to that point. They don't own the finished version.

So yeah, it was a bit naughty of me to let the Giants have these. But like I say, I think I just wanted to get some recordings out to the public in some way, and this was a good enough excuse.

TB: Did you make any money off of these?

AP: I think it was a couple of hundred dollars, and that was it. I've got a feeling it was a one-off fee. I have no idea how much they made from it. It might have been more of a labor of love than anything else. You had to pay a subscription for this stuff every month to them, so I'm guessing that's largely what financed the pressing of these things.

But I didn't mind at the time. Like I say, I kind of liked the illicit, underground thing of it -- "Ooh, I've done these recordings at home and I'm sneaking them out to the public! Hee hee!"

Do you know, the song I wrote after "My Brown Guitar," two weeks later, was "The Last Balloon." On the 21st of September, I started the demo on that one.

TB: So, you'd started this experiment of automatic writing -- why did you abandon it? Or, do you still use it as a technique?

AP: I do -- it's that thing of tricking your brain. The problem with me now is that the editor's too firmly in control. It won't let me be very creative. We've spoken before about this -- you grow your editor to have an opinion on the child-like, nonsense creation stuff that you do, and once he's gotten pretty at knowing what to keep and what to throw away and what to trim back, it's a good thing. But when the editor gets too powerful, he won't let the child create.

It's kind of like this giant, man-eating plant that you're growing. You're feeding this thing, and at first it's amazing -- "Wow, this editor is helping me make great decisions on trimming this stuff and what to do with it." But then, you can't stop feeing this editor, and it becomes the size of a city block...

TB: It's "Little Shop of Horrors."

AP: Exactly. It's stopping you from creating, because it's destroying even these little, embryonic ideas of creation. So, I have to find a way of slaughtering this man-eating plant that I've grown to enormous proportions.

TB: Maybe it's time to go back to automatic writing!

AP: I'm kind of doing that, down at Stuart's! You know, he and I will just start off with a tempo, and then we'll throw some things at it. I was down there just yesterday -- the previous week I had a little guitar figure that sounded something like "Shortnin' Bread." I was playing it in the key of A, then I said, "Tell you what -- let me play it in the key of B, then D, now E, now G," and we kept all these takes and were cross-fading them, so you had combinations of two or three keys simultaneously, fading in and out across each other. It was very dreamlike. Not at all what the editor would approve of! The editor would say, "No, you're starting in this key, so now you've got to go to this chord next," and all that.

So, I did this the week before at Stuart's, and then I watched this documentary on TV a couple of nights back about the early days of commercial aviation. There was the great word -- "aviatrix" -- a female aviator. Brilliant word. So, yesterday, down at Stu's, I just improvised four lines of vocal over a bunch of these things in about eight different keys simultaneously. I knew I just had to put the word "aviatrix" in -- and it was more automatic writing. The lines never made any sense -- they were just sort of me commenting to myself on the previous line. So I'm still doing it, as a way of sneaking past the editor.

Jen Olive is really getting into the spirit of this as well -- Stu's going to send her this track in a day or so, and we'll see what she comes back with, which gives you more stuff to shape and play with.

TB: I've been listening to a lot of Lighterthief lately, and it occurred to me that, when people ask what you're doing musically nowadays, and asking why you don't put out a solo album, the answer is, you're kind of in a band now.

AP: I'm kind of unofficially in a band, yes! With about a dozen other people.

TB: I was listening to all the songs that Stu has released, and that you guys have sent me, and it's a really interesting collection of songs -- very groovy and atmospheric.

AP: And there's some great stuff coming up. "My Dream Sea" and "Racecar" -- there's also one that Barry Andrews did called "Mothmen." That's an interesting one. It's sort of like Tom Waits / Beefheart territory.

Stu's just in the final stages of mixing and mastering his next EP, which is called Hard Listening. There's three more songs to go, and then in the new year we're going to be putting out the album, which at the moment is called I Am Disco. It'll be a combination of some of the things that have come out on EP, and some different things.

TB: You're going to release it as an actual album, rather than download-only?

AP: Yep.

TB: Well, there you go, folks -- Andy Partridge's new band will be releasing an album in the new year.

AP: [laughs] Well, don't turn up at Lighterthief gigs expecting to see me on stage pulling rabbits out of hats, though!

TB: So, getting back to "My Brown Guitar," let's talk about some of the word associations in the lyrics. So, "Where the lions / Wear the right tie" -- you have the where/wear pun. Then we're back to "where" again with "Where the gems roar." Obviously, "roar" refers back to lions, but where does "gems" come from?

AP: I cannot remember! I mean, we're talking, how long ago is this, 15 years? It made sense in my brain that day, and looking back on it, I can see the "roar" bit. But why gems? I can't think of why I made that connection at the time.

TB: Then, in the next verse, there are the lines, "Where the ocean / Wears the shore down." Looks to me as if you're getting into sexual territory there.

AP: Reading these lyrics yesterday, I realized it started out as pure nonsense, then it starts to get more and more, "I'm a rat with a nest [Andy's been battling rats in his attic lately], and I'm trying to lure Erica to come and live in it." Because we'd just gotten together at that time. In fact, looking through my diary today, to find when John Flansburgh called me up, I saw that my diary is sort of peppered with hearts and loving things written throughout it.

So yeah, "where the ocean / wears the shore down" almost makes sense...

TB: Yeah, that's a very coherent couplet.

AP: Dammit! I'm making sense.

TB: "Where's the on switch?"

AP: Don't ask! Again, I sat and read these yesterday, and thought, "What the hell was I thinking about?" Did I once own a vibrator by the Shore Company? Who knows?

TB: [laughs] Let's step back for a second -- where did you get the "There be lovely" line?

AP: It's like "There be monsters" -- you know, the medieval maps where, if you go beyond the known world, there are some badly drawn mountains, and then it'll say something like, "There be monsters." I thought, "What's the opposite of that? Come here, come live with me, because 'There be lovely'." By the end of the song, I'm making this little nest and saying, "It's all gorgeous -- come and be in my nest, because there be lovely there."

TB: So, then we go into the choruses, about how you can play every day together.

AP: Yeah! You can mess around on my brown guitar. And it is brown -- and it's a guitar, it's not anything else! [laughs] If my penis were brown, I'd be in the Guinness Book of Records, being an extremely white man.

TB: In the next verse, your thought process is a little more obvious -- "There be inchworm / There we football / Take my yardstick" -- you're obviously progressing.

AP: Yeah, it's getting bigger and bigger.

TB: Of course, you are bragging a bit with the "yardstick" line...

AP: Oh, sure. It could be my brown guitar, yeah! It pretty much gets into unmitigated filth, but, you know, pretty much everything I touch turns into unmitigated filth.

TB: Dirty boy.

AP: I was an only child! What else are you going to do?

TB: You got to play with something, right?

AP: You've got to keep yourself abused!

TB: [laughing] Then, in the next verse, there's the logical color progression -- "There be green grass / There be pink skies / There be blue birds / Come and nest there."

AP: Yeah, I'm saying, "Come and live in my nest, let's have some fun." You know, we'd just gotten together, it was brand-new love, the birds were tweeting for me, and I think I'm writing "Stupidly Happy" in a few weeks' time.

Let me check my book -- oh, after "Last Balloon," it was "Church of Women," then "My Land Is Burning," then "Dame Fortune" -- or "Dame Fortune Smile," as it's written here -- then it's "Greenman," then it's "Bumpercars" -- wow! Do you know, I never sit and read these things. Then it's "Your Dictionary," "Playground," "The Wheel and the Maypole," "Ship Trapped in the Ice" -- ooh, then I did "Paper Snow"! You can see the thought process -- "Ship Trapped in the Ice," then "Paper Snow." Then "Harvest Festival" -- you can see that the two albums [Apple Venus and Wasp Star] are totally interlinked.

TB: So, you would write and demo a song right away, just to get it down and out of your head?

AP: Unless it was automatic writing, I'd get it all to work -- you know, one instrument, usually guitar, and my voice -- get the whole shape of it right, decide in my head what the atmosphere is going to be -- the stage set -- and then try to make that musical stage set. But with the automatic stuff, you just crash in, and you say, "Okay, I'm just going to finish this, but I don't know where it's going, or what it's about -- there's no reason as to why I'm picking these chord changes."

TB: Let's talk about the music of this song, because it seems to center around guitar and drums.

AP: Yeah, because the first that would have happened would have been that I picked a tempo.

TB: And that's that drum pulse that runs throughout the entire song.

AP: That's the pulse -- in fact, we kept that on the actual recording. Prairie played a live kit, and then would sit out and stop when we programmed that pulse, that heartbeat that goes through the album recording. That was programmed. Prairie played around that on the studio recording.

We kept pretty much everything the same as the demo, because the nature of it was, it came out like that, and that is the song. We had a heartbeat pulse on the album version, like the demo, and I said to Prairie, "You're the wild drummer that's on the fringes of this. You do the stuff this pulse doesn't do. The pulse is the heartbeat, and you're doing all the wild stuff in the corners of this."

So, he does all those big tumbling rolls on the front, and then he kicks back in on the choruses.

TB: And he's so great with those tumbling rolls.

AP: Yeah, he does a great job with that. If you say to him, "I want a roll that sounds like two knights in armor falling upstairs," he can do it. He's roll-gifted. He's roll-enabled.

TB: He plays the roll of a lifetime.

AP: He's got roll in his soul. He is the Roll Royce. [Todd groans] Sorry! I can't help myself. He puts the Roll in Rock.

TB: [laughing] That's good! We've got to see if he wants to license that.

He talked a little bit about how you built these drum parts when you were in the studio, and that you were doing them in pieces, and making sure it was right. Do you remember how long it took to get the drum track to where you wanted it?

AP: Not too long, because there weren't any problems with tempo, since that was set by the programmed pulse. So, there weren't any questions about what speed we should be going, or variations in speed. Because the pulse went all the way through, we didn't have to worry about "carrying coal" -- you know, the weight is carried by this set-tempo pulse, so you can be freer and not have to worry about the donkey work of keeping time.

I think it came relatively quickly, this one. And it was done at Chipping Norton studios -- from the otherwise, pretty aborted sessions at Chipping Norton. I don't think much was kept from those sessions other than the drums.

TB: Tell me about the guitar parts.

AP: Well, it's me playing an approximation of Dave -- since he'd left the band by this time -- playing an approximation of my parts from the demo, I suppose.

There are a lot of guitars, a lot of different textures. There are two guitars on the demo -- one is marked "electric guitar" and the other is marked "brown guitar." [laughs]

TB: By "brown guitar," you mean the lead parts?

AP: I'm guessing so. Maybe one just sounded brown to me, and one sounded more electric. But in the studio there are quite a lot of subtle, different textures. There's that rhythmic, dirty guitar on the fadeout -- like a brown guitar, but done with a crayon -- very broken and gritty.

TB: And there's a skank part on the offbeats...

AP: Yeah, and there's an a steely, twangerous, sort of Indian Country guitar, on the intro -- it's a little bit [cod Indian accent] "Harri Georgeson." So there are lots of little textures of guitars, but I think that helps the disparate, dreamlike quality of it. It's like you're opening little doors up -- "Ooh, what guitar's behind this little door?" "That's a little steely guitar that sounds a little bit Indian." "Let's open up this little door up." "This one's a little grungier." "What about this one?" "That one is chime-y."

And all these little compartments and doors, where it shunts from one section to another, just like in a dream -- you know, you step through one door and you're in the Sahara, then you step through another and you're back in your kitchen.

TB: Did that present any challenges when you guys were mixing?

AP: [pauses] That's a tough one, because you kind of heap them all on poor old Nick Davis -- "There you are, Nick -- here are a dozen guitars, make them sound right."

TB: [laughing] But you were sitting there with him while he was doing this, right?

AP: Well, you don't sit there all the time. That's too intimidating. He says, "Look, give me a couple of hours to get the backbone of this up, and I'll give you a call, and you can come and criticize, give me some direction."

So, then you come back and it's, "Okay, that bit's great. Ooh, I don't think you've got that -- it's a bit echo-y, that sounds too far away, can we make it sound nearer?" And, "I like what you're doing with that guitar, but that one there is too thin -- can you make it sound thicker?" So, you're traveling up the pyramid to the sharper and sharper point, if you see what I mean.

TB: Yeah, it's more editing and guidance than anything else.

AP: Right. Then you'll go away for another hour, and he'll give you another ring, and you'll come down and refine further. And so on and so on, until it gets to the point where you're there all the time, and you're microscopically tweaking things with him. It's good to let mixers get in and shape out the big stuff in the sculpture as much as they can themselves. It's easier for all when that happens.

TB: Did he do the mixing at Idea Studios?

AP: No. We kept Prairie's drums from Chipping Norton, and we kept the programmed heartbeat, and I think most of my guitars were redone at Idea.

TB: And the vocals, and Colin's bass?

AP: Yes. So, really, it was largely recorded at Idea, and then mixed at Rockfield Studios, in Wales. So, you kind of go for a walk, or go read a book while he's doing his work -- in fact, I can tell you the book I was reading was Painted Books from Mexico, by Gordon Brotherston, which is where I saw the title Wasp Star. I was having conversations on the phone with TVT Records [makes sound of spitting]...

TB: [laughing] Your favorite label...

AP: Who've gone bankrupt! Yay!! Owing us all our royalties! Boo....

Yeah, so I was having phone conversations with them, and they were saying, "Look, we don't want to call this Apple Venus, Volume 2, it's too [starts speaking slowly and stupidly] confusing for our buyers and people who buy discs in shops."

TB: People are stupid, aren't they?

AP: Doesn't the word "two" help?

TB: "No no no, our customers are morons."

AP: Exactly! Basically, that was what they were saying. So, I was reading this book, and this fellow was talking about the Aztec word for Venus -- because I still wanted it related to Venus -- and that was "the Wasp Star." What a fantastic phrase.

TB: Not easy to say, but a fantastic phrase.

AP: No, it's really difficult on borrowed teeth! [laughs] But I thought it was a great phrase, and I began to look at Venus, in the sky, very differently. You look up and you think, "There it is, there's the Wasp Star."

So, it was TVT, largely, who were sort of forbidding us to call it Apple Venus, Volume 2.

TB: Let's talk about the bass part a bit. Is there anything special that you remember about that?

AP: I can't remember much about it, other than that Colin was obsessed with this Vox bass at the time, which was the one that T-Bone Burnett gave him. He just [laughs] had to try to get it on everything. It was very difficult to get a satisfying sound on, because it sounded like a soft fart. There was no weight to it.

TB: Did you want a little more punch for the bass in this song?

AP: A little bit. In fact, I wonder if we used two different basses, for the choruses and verses. We'd have to listen to the master recording, to find out, but certainly the Vox bass did seem to suit the "brownness" of the pulse in the verses, so maybe it was a good choice after all for this song. But I know that he was virtually sleeping with this bass at the time [chuckles] -- he was obsessed with it.

TB: Was it because he loved the feel of it, of playing it? Or was it because it was new?

AP: It has a narrow-scale neck, which is good for his hands -- he prefers that. And he just seemed to love that soft, old-fashioned '60s tone of the instrument. And, like I say, it did seem to suit the verses of this, with that throb, you know?

TB: How about backing vocals and things like that? He's obviously the one singing, "Lying waiting naked for you."

AP: Yeah, and we're both tracked up doing all the harmonies you hear throughout the song.

TB: When you guys do this stuff, do you typically give him the higher parts?

AP: It just sort of naturally congeals into what comes out. We don't think about it too much -- it's just sort of grabbed, if you know what I mean.

TB: Will he claim a part, or will you assign him a part, or what?

AP: Sometimes I assign him, but sometimes he'll say, "But how about trying this line?" I don't care who thinks up what -- if it feels better for the song, in it goes. I'm not precious, ego-wise, when it comes to that -- "Ooh, I want my part, and I must have my part sung or played." If someone else plays or sings something, and I think, "Wow, that's so much better," then in it goes. If it's not better for the song, it's not going to go in -- it doesn't matter who's playing it. You know, Mike Jagger in the studio, playing his electric spoons, and if it's not right for the song, it's ain't going in! Which, I think, Brian Jones found out to his dismay when he tried to play piano on "All Along the Watchtower" for Hendrix. It doesn't matter if it's Brian Jones, [laughs] it still sounds really wrong!

TB: Tell me about the little audience bit, before the last "You want some lovely"...

AP: You know, I knew you were going to ask me about that! Where the hell did it come from? I've got a feeling it was some sound effect that Matt Vaughan, the chap who did a lot of the drum programming for us on the album, came up with. He had his computer system set up in the back of the control room at Idea, and I think we were saying, "Wouldn't it be great if we had some sort of raising roar, and then it cut off" -- instead of a backward sound piling up to a stop, it was a sound that was naturally growing, and then it stopped. I think I suggested an audience, and he had a sample of that, but I don't know where it's from.

TB: On the demo, toward the end, you do kind of a drum solo, but on the finished version you decided not to do that. Do you remember why?

AP: I've got a funny feeling that there was some stuff from Prairie, but we didn't use it, because we all really liked the sound of that brown-crayon guitar, and the throb. Colin was really pushing, saying, "Oh, that's great, just the sound of that -- you should just go out on that." And he was right, because it made this wonderful, minimal psychedelic landscape -- just that brown-crayon guitar and the throb. It didn't actually need anything else. And, like I say, if somebody comes up with something better for the song, and it's proven to be better, yep, we'll go for that.

11:25 PM

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