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Sunday, December 20, 2009


Andy discusses "When You're Near Me..."

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, "When You're Near Me I Have Difficulty," is from 1979's Drums and Wires.

No one to call out for guessing the song correctly, because Andy and Todd didn't line this one up until just a couple of days ago. So, we'll throw you a softball on this one (though maybe it's not that easy, given how many great lyrics Andy has written). The next one -- the first of 2010 -- will be about a song containing some of Andy's favorite lyrics.

Happy holidays, everyone!

TB: Let's talk about "When You're Near Me I Have Difficulty." I listened to it this morning, and realized I had almost forgotten how much fun this song is.

AP: It's sort of sophisticated and silly. It's "sillyphisticated." [laughs] Sounds like something gay clowns might do!

TB: [laughing] Ouch!

AP: Wow, crossing a few genres with that one! "He just wants some cream in his face! Keep the paper plate to yourself."

Anyway, my first thought in the notes was, "Appropriately goofy."

TB: It is goofy, but as you said, at the same time it's kind of sophisticated. One of the things I first wrote is, "The whole song is a great example of the whole guitar dynamic between you and Dave, and what Dave brought to the band."

AP: Oh yeah! In fact, I played this a few times today, and I remembered that three-quarters of all the guitars on here are in fact Dave! The majority of the guitar orchestration -- I don't mean "orchestration" at the Brian May level -- is Dave.

TB: He's in the left channel?

AP: I'm on the left channel, and Dave is doing the skanking guitar on the right, but then on the other parts of the song, all the guitar parts are Dave. So, I'm barely on this, playing-wise.

TB: Interesting! I thought you were doing the skanking part on the right side. Do you play the solo?

AP: Yeah, that's me. God, do you know, I never even registered that in my notes! It's kind of a repeat of the intro, if you know what I mean.

TB: And, throughout the song, you're also playing that ascending hook that links the chords under the verse's couplets?

AP: Yep.

TB: If someone wanted to muddle through this, do you remember what the basic chords are?

AP: I was trying to play it earlier on, and I don't remember it all! [picks up guitar, plays] I think it's something like C6, D6, G, Am7, then it goes to B-flat, F, then Fm, descending to Fm7, then back up again -- shit, I've forgotten the chords! That's most of them. Do you know how I said I could remember everything we played live? Well, we played this live thousands of times, and I'm damned if I can remember it! [chuckles]

TB: Hey, you can't give it all to them! They've got to figure out some on their own.

AP: Exactly. It's all easy stuff -- you know, I'm the laziest guitar player in the world. You think John Lennon's guitar playing was lazy, you've never seen mine.

Anyway, as long as you've got enough to write the song, then you've got enough. And also, there's the thrill of finding chords where you think, "No one's ever used this." They probably have used it, but maybe it was some obscure Jazz thing, where they used it as a passing chord between one nice one and another one -- you just sort of slip in a nasty one. I, on the other hand, would sort of accidentally stumble upon the nasty one and write a whole song around it!

TB: And that's the difference -- you write the song around it, rather than just using it as a flavor.

AP: It's a whole meal of pepper! [laughs] With a side of mustard.

But we did play this live quite a bit. There's some film of an Australian gig in Melbourne, and I think we're certainly playing it on that. You can see it on YouTube, I think. I don't know who owns all that stuff! I'd like to get the use of it. I'm sure we could clean the sound up and get a better picture quality -- that might be a nice disc to get together. Because there are quite a few things coming together this year, in terms of our catalog.

TB: Yeah, some people have been asking me, when are the Virgin reissues going to come out?

AP: They should have started last June, but I don't know what happened -- they never appeared. So I'm guessing sometime mid-year in 2010. They're starting with English Settlement, Skylarking, and Oranges and Lemons.

TB: Was there ever a demo of this song?

AP: If there was a demo, it would have been me just playing into a little mono cassette machine, probably with a little Hammond drum machine bonking along, if that.

TB: Do you remember working with the guys and rehearsing or arranging this?

AP: I don't remember rehearsing it, but I remember recording it, because it was done in a terrible rush -- as, in fact, all of the Drums and Wires album was, because we spent a languid week recording "Nigel," and spent the other two weeks cramming everything else in. You know, literally, just a few takes for each.

I didn't notice at the time how incredibly out of tune the guitar intro is! But it really is.

TB: You must have thought it was okay at the time, though.

AP: Well, I guess it was a case of, "That'll do." But hearing it back now, you say, "How the hell did we pass that? That intro is so out of tune."

TB: For the single version, you fixed that.

AP: Yeah, we went into DJM Studios, owned by [imitates him] Dick James, the Beatles' publisher. We went in there because Virgin said, "Oh, we need another single, and it could be one of these few tracks." So, we went and tinkered with a few tracks, and repaired things that we thought weren't good enough, or added things like percussion or backing vocals or whatever.

TB: Listening to the two next to each other this morning, and the arrangement of the two is pretty much identical. The differences that I heard were really more in the mix than anything else.

AP: I think some of the guitars were replaced, but I think we kept the bass and drums, and we probably replaced Dave's and my guitars. We may have redone the vocal -- I'm not so sure. I should have played it, though, because I can't remember!

TB: The big thing I heard that was different in the guitars is at the end, where Dave seems to be adding another rhythm guitar that gets more and more dissonant as you fade out. Or maybe that's you doing that?

AP: I'll have to check that out. If it's dissonance, it probably is me. Dave tended to stay away from dissonance -- he was the honey, and I was more the vinegar. You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar, as the old phrase go. If you should want to catch some flies, that is! [laughs] If you really want to have a lot of flies flocking to you as you play guitar, honey's the way to go!

So yeah, after all that fuss and expense and messing around with it, Virgin played the re-done version from DJM, and said, "Ummm -- no." So the songs never got released.

TB: Do you think they were looking for a "This Is Pop" treatment, where the song was radically different and bulked up?

AP: But we really didn't have time to do it, because I think we did all the re-record things in one evening. We did "Real by Reel," "Helicopter," and "Difficulty," replacing quite a bit of stuff on them and remixing them, trying to beef them up. But there just wasn't time, you know -- when most people would take a day or two or longer, to make a single -- and "Nigel" took a week -- to find a follow-up in a third of an evening is a tall order, you know?

TB: Going back to the guitar parts, you don't remember sitting down with Dave and working that out? It sounds pretty intricate.

AP: A lot of it was innate -- if one person's doing this, the other one stays away. Or, if one person's playing languid chords, the other one's chopping. If one person's chopping on the beat, you chop on the off-beat. It's sort of the idiot's guide to orchestration and arrangement -- it just feels better to play between the holes.

And there's a little bit of ego involved, of course -- "If he's playing there, then I'm going to play on the offbeat to that, so I can be heard, dammit! I'm not playing the same as him, because people won't know who it is!" There's some of that every time a bunch of blokes get together to play -- "Hey, wait, I want to be heard!"

It's the bane of the mixer as well, to have the band around. You know, young band in the studio -- "My my instrument the loudest!" "No, my instrument!" "What about mine?" So, the smartest engineers or producers give the band members a DFA fader -- the member of the band who is protesting about their instrument not being loud enough sits at the desk during the mix with a DFA fader, riding it up and down between two carefully drawn marks about half an inch to an inch apart, until they say, "Yeah, that's the one!" They never think to ask what DFA stands for -- "Does fuck-all." [laughs] But they swear that that mix sounds so much better when they're sat there with their DFA fader...

TB: [laughing] It's the placebo effect!

AP: [laughs] Exactly. Most producers know this trick. It's like, if you can't get a take out of someone, you say, "Okay, that last take -- brilliant. That's the one, that's great, and I'll tell you what -- now that we have that as a safety net, just go ahead and bang one out. Have some fun." And that next take is usually the one you get.

TB: Sure -- when everybody relaxes.

AP: Yeah. "We've got it now. Let's just muck about. Who gives a fuck, we can just play around now." And that's the take.

TB: Let's talk about the bass and drums a little bit. Is there anything in particular you remember when these parts were getting created? Terry's drum pattern is great, of course. I love the little double-hit pattern he does.

AP: It's an unusual pattern, and I can't remember how we came up with it. Maybe I was asking him for a twist pattern or something, and he got it wrong. But I like the way it moves, especially during the B sections.

I also was listening to the little percussion bits in the "iceman" section, and you know that "fzztzztzzt" sound? That's our little Korg!

TB: Really? I thought that was like a güiro or ratchet or something.

AP: We built a little percussive sound, using high-pitched sounds and an extremely fast wave, to create that effect. No one had their bike with them, or their best bubble-gum cards [chuckles], but we wanted an icy version of that effect, so we did it with the Korg. And the Korg also does the jellyfish sound effect.

TB: I was going to ask about that -- figured it had to be the Korg.

AP: Yep, ol' Kenny Korg, doing his best jellyfish impression.

I tried to figure out what this song was about, after I'd finished listening to it, and I thought, "Jesus, I think this is about my first big crush, at school!" A girl called Vanessa Kearley, who was a funny little thing. She was very skinny, with glasses, but so was I. You wouldn't say she was the most beautiful thing on earth, but she did have a fantastic energy. You know those people with really, shiny, strong, positive energy? She was just great to be around.

But when I got within about six foot of her, I'd just become useless -- just a bag of jello! My legs wouldn't work, and my arms would just hang like two strings of sausages by my side. I couldn't do anything! When I was near her, I had difficulty doing normal things.

I think the farthest it ever went, the deepest depth of that crush, was walking home from hanging out together outside of an off-license on the council estate -- you know, like, a liquor store -- I think I got to hold her hand, back to her house. That was as far as it went, but it was something!

TB: How old were you?

AP: Let me think -- "Man from Uncle" was at its height, so I must have been about 12 or 13. She had a real crush on David McCallum, and I did my darndest to make my hair go like his, and whenever I was near her, I'd try to wear my black, polo-neck jumper, because I wanted her to think I was the nearest available David McCallum on the estate.

I even made matching triangular UNCLE bands for her and me. I couldn't find one in the shops so I cut out some white cardboard triangles and put a safety pin on the back, and then in best ballpoint pen, tried to draw the UNCLE symbol, the silhouette of the man in front of the world.

TB: How'd she like that?

AP: I guess she was reasonably impressed. I got to hold her hand!

TB: So, when did you write the song?

AP: Just before we started the Drums and Wires album, but it was about my first teen crush at school. I think it was my first main crush that I actually got to talk to, as opposed to crushing from afar. Because there are different levels of crushing. There's crush from afar, crush when you get some communication with them, which this was, and then there's crushing of the third degree, which is divorce. [laughs] Yeah, there's all sort of levels of crushery and crushification.

TB: You was crushified!

AP: I was crushified by the crushificators!

TB: Let's talk about the bridge. You've got reverse reverb going on in the vocals...

AP: Yeah, you're right...

TB: And the lyrics strike me as your first use of the "Snowman" metaphor.

AP: Ooh! Hadn't thought of that. Though, I'm an iceman -- I'm [northern accent] harder than a snowman.

TB: Ah, yes. A harder man. Do you remember working with [producer] Steve [Lillywhite] and [engineer] Hugh [Padgham] on how to present the bridge in the best way? Why did you guys decide to do that?

AP: I think I remember asking if there was anything we could do to make the vocals sound icier. I knew that when you put them through a chorus, it sounded icier, because we'd already done that with "This Is Pop." But one of them -- it may have been Hugh -- said, "Let's try reverse reverb." You turn the tape backwards, and print the reverb, then turn it the right way around so the reverb is printed on another channel, but in reverse. You hear the reverb before the vocal arrives, and it gives a frosty layer of sparkle over the voice, which I thought was perfect.

Colin does all the harmonies -- you can hear him doing the "uprights" and all that.

TB: Does Dave sing on this at all?

AP: I don't think he does, no. I can hear Colin, but I couldn't hear Dave, unless he's mixed in there very subtly.

TB: Tell me about the ending. You guys have a cool thing going on there -- it's almost like a round.

AP: Yeah, there's the five-beat vocal thing over the four of the music. Terry's playing in four, Dave's doing his arpeggio thing in four, and Colin's part is also repeating in four.

TB: Do you remember how you came up with this?

AP: Probably just an improv, and I thought, "Oh, that's good! Keep going." You know, I tended not to plan that stuff out quite so much in those days. I might plan it more now.

TB: I thought it might have been something that you developed in the studio.

AP: Oh, it definitely would have come up in the studio -- not in rehearsal. But I might be proved wrong -- maybe someone has some cassettes somewhere that shows we worked it out then.

TB: Were you not playing this song live before you recorded it?

AP: I don't think so. After we recorded it, we played it live, of course, and it did develop into something more -- it got quite slick live. But I don't remember working on it live until we recorded it, so it was brand-new by the time we recorded it.

And then of course you start playing a song live, and it starts growing -- you get more confident with it, and you think, "Damn! Why didn't we do it just like this?" I mean, even by the time we were playing this song at DJM Studios, we were probably playing it better.

TB: The guitars certainly sound more confident on that version.

AP: Sure, you're rehearsing it for tour, or whatever, so it gets better. That's a constant thing -- if you don't play the song live first, there's going be that further discovery of any song as you play it live. Which is a nice thing, but you don't always have the luxury of playing it live before you record it.

11:52 PM

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