XTC's Blogs


Last Updated:

Monday, January 04, 2010


Andy discusses 'The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul'

Song of the Week -- Andy's take

(Reposted because of MySpace publishing problems with original interview post.)

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 Man Who Sailed Around His Soul," is from 1987's Skylarking.

Tenas and Film Extras became the latest repeat offenders, er, winners in the "Guess the Next Song" game. Well done, lads. Let's see how you do on this one -- we'll be back in two weeks with an Andyview about a song with a main riff that he demo'd on guitar, but recorded for the album with piano.

Happy New Year, everyone! Best wishes for a peaceful, prosperous and healthy 2010.

TB: Let's talk about "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul."

AP: Oh, I am so proud of this song. These are my best lyrics, I think.

TB: Really?

AP: This week's best lyrics, anyway. [chuckles] No, honestly, these are in the top three, possibly number one, lyric-wise.

TB: So let's start by talking about them. On the demo of the song, you don't yet have all the lyrics.

AP: No! In fact, when Mr. Rundgren said, "I want to hear everything," the state of the demo -- which is the one you hear on the Fuzzy Warbles series -- was more of an idea than anything else. The demo is so unformed -- it's just this rather Can-like rhythm in 7/4, and me strumming a badly recorded acoustic guitar and mumbling these lyrics.

It was really him pulling it out and saying, "Yeah, I like this, I think it's going to be track 12 -- have you finished the lyrics up?" "I thought, "Whoa, I better finish these up!" A deadline is really good for me -- I have no deadlines these days, which is part of why I'm stuck in the wilderness, I think -- and knowing that I rather liked the melody and chords spurred me on.

Speaking of the chords and melody -- about a couple of years after we recorded it, I got to hear "Nature Boy." There is a similar feel in the melody. I probably heard that as a kid, on the radio, and it must have gone in. But at the time, I didn't own any Nat King Cole records, and I certainly wasn't consciously aware of it at the time.

TB: Yeah, that song was a huge hit for him.

AP: I'm not sure if it was a huge hit for him in the UK -- I could be wrong. We never had any of his records, but they did play him on the radio a lot when I was a little kid. So, I think it went in when I was very young, and it was that thing where you think you've invented this chord shape and this melody shape, when after all it's not a million miles away from something you probably would have heard hundreds of times as a child.

TB: But that's true of most music that anyone creates, right? Isn't it all some form of something that you soaked in earlier in your life?

AP: Yeah, absolutely. You're either mangling it up on purpose, to get some further juice out of it, or you're smashing together lots of different things -- you know, you're making these songs mate. "I'm going to take a bit of that Beatles song, and a bit of that song by Frank Sinatra, and a bit of that Captain Beefheart one, and I'm going to force them to have sex, until the obscene abomination is born."

TB: [laughing] Then you release their mutant spawn upon the world!

AP: Yes, that evil spawn that leaves a trail of fluorescent snot everywhere it goes!

So, sometimes you do that on purpose, but sometimes it's by accident. You know, so many times in the past I've thought, "Wow, this is going to be great -- this song's wonderful! Oh no! I'm writing 'Hey Jude'!" Sometimes you catch yourself. But with this one, it wasn't until a few years later, when I got to hear "Nature Boy" -- I think it was on a TV documentary or something -- that I thought, "Wow, hang on a minute! That's not too far away!"

But, I did have to finish the lyric up, and I think it kind of goes hand-in-hand with the "Dear God" lyric. At that time, I must have been looking for deeper things.

TB: It seems as if you're rejecting conventional wisdom...

AP: Yeah. It's looking for the deeper meaning. Quite a few lyrics are like that on this album -- "Season Cycle" is another one.

TB: Although, in "Season Cycle," it seems as if you've found the meaning. You're saying it's all right here.

AP: I'm in the process of finding it, I think. Which is why the "Man Who Sailed Around His Soul" lyrics are the way they are, and the others are the way they are. You're showing people that you have found it, in a questioning song, if you see what I mean. You're doing your own interview -- asking yourself the question in the interview, and answering it.

So, it must have been a time in my life when I was trying to find the answers to everything. But I'm really proud of this lyric -- I think I tapped into something good.

TB: Let's talk about where you were in life, because The Big Express had not done very well, but you did have the first Dukes album out, and that had done well.

AP: Yeah, The Big Express had sold about 30,000 in England, while 25 O'Clock had sold something like 90,000! [laughs] It just goes to show that people like nonsense!

TB: And you'd been given an ultimatum by Virgin, which is why Todd was your producer on the album?

AP: Oh, absolutely. That was a very low time my life. I'd been told, basically, to stop interfering with my own records. They were telling me to, "Let Colin" -- let the handsome one, the one with the hair, who doesn't wear glasses -- "let him do more of his sweet songs, and you shut up and don't interfere. You need to have a big hit in America, and so you've got to have an American producer. You mustn't argue with him, and you mustn't try to fuck up your songs by putting in interesting shit! Because if you don't, you're off the label."

TB: So, this feeling must have informed the lyrical content of the album.

AP: Maybe the fear of losing the label made me dig deeper. I was certainly at that point in my life where I was starting to question everything, and finding my own answers. So, the lyrics to "Man Who Sailed Around His Soul" are really of me saying, "There is nothing more -- you die, and you're wormcake." It's sort of an existential idea of, "You're haunting yourself." It's tricky to describe, really. [Cockney accent, aggressively] "It's all in the lyrics! It's self-evident, really." [laughs] That's a bit of an interview killer, isn't it?

TB: [laughing] In a way, though, it's true! The lyrics are very well constructed, and the meaning is pretty damned clear.

AP: I was proud of all the internal rhymes -- the tension and release of the internal rhythm and internal rhyme. But as for the meaning, you're right -- it's all laid out. For anyone who doesn't get it, it's the story of somebody who realizes that all there is to life is your body, with your brain in it.

TB: Hence the resolution at the end: "Now he sits all alone / Knowing flesh blood and bone / Is everything / He found the treasure he'd been seeking."

AP: The treasure you're seeking is yourself, and your own experiences and knowledge. And what you do with that -- that's the treasure. It's not a matter of, "Well, I'll be a complete asshole all my life, and then repent on my deathbed -- because God loves a sinner who repents -- and then I'll go and live for all eternity getting sucked off by angels!" It's not going to work like that. I hope that more and more people are starting to realize that that's not going to be the case.

It's my kitchen existentialism [chuckles] -- which has just been completed with a nice sunroof! There is nothing more than your blood and guts and bone, and when you die, that's all gone. So make the most.

TB: So, let's talk about the music. You had sent over this demo -- it's acoustic guitar and percussion...

AP: And he said, "Yeah, I really want to do this song." He wanted me to finish up the song, so I came up with the rest of the lyric and the other parts of the song, but I don't remember rehearsing it before we left for Woodstock. The only time I remember running through it is when we were left for about a week on our own, in this freezing-cold shed that was Utopia Sound Studios, running through all the numbers before Mr. Rundgren came off of his holidays, or whatever it was he was doing -- he wasn't around, and we were rehearsing ourselves for about four or five days. We were just sat around in a little circle -- "Oh yeah, it's this chord, or that chord, and try it like that" -- you know. We were knocking stuff up between us.

When he came in and we got recording proper, he said to me, "How do you see this? How do you want to do it?" I had in my head that I really wanted to out-do "Mack the Knife" -- the Bobby Darin version.

TB: What turned you from your relatively straight-ahead acoustic treatment of this?

AP: Because it was "The Man Who...", it sounded like a spy film title to me. So I thought, "It'd be great to do sort of a John Barry secret-agent soundtrack thing." I didn't know how to do that, of course. But I was proud of this existential lyric with this kind of Beatnik angle, so if we could do Beatnik/coffeehouse/spy music, that what's needed! That's going to cover all the requirements here.

So, we decided we were going to get Colin playing the Epiphone Newport with the damaged damper on, so it sounded like an upright bass, and we did finger clicks -- which is Colin. We all had to audition our fingers, and he had the loudest click. "Jump to a finger click," as he says in "King for a Day"! Dave and I failed miserably, and I think Todd did, too, but Colin excels at clicking, so we sampled some Colin clicks, and they're played in from a Fairlight, which Todd had just bought, so he was pretty Fairlight-mad at the time.

So, Colin's playing this [imitates Colin's intro bass part, while clicking his fingers] -- and you can just imagine Sammy Davis Jr. kicking in, can't you?

TB: Oh yeah, sure!

AP: Another song I wanted to hint at was "It Ain't Necessarily So." You can see where I'm coming from on that.

So, there's this whole mash-up of stuff I was thinking of, and I said to Todd, "Ideally, make it like a Beatnik existential spy movie soundtrack. Can such a thing be done?" And literally, he went away overnight and came back with charts for this stuff. I don't read music, but he had these ideas mapped out. He said, "Look, this'll be flutes, and this'll be horns, and we'll get a high string line here" -- because I'd said, "Oh yeah, I want that Gershwin, Blues-y feeling." "Dear God" got that treatment, too, so that must have been in our heads at the time.

He did a fantastic job. I think the arrangement on this is immaculate. I think that was his strength -- it's not engineering, and it's certainly not people skills, but as an arranger, he's completely faultless, and he did a brilliant job of making this Beatnik spy music.

TB: Talk a little bit about the chronology of how this song was recorded. The album was done in both Woodstock and San Francisco...

AP: Do you know, I can't remember doing much of this song in Woodstock.

TB: That's what I wanted to ask -- did you do anything with this song before you went to San Francisco? Because there's so much orchestration.

AP: I don't think we did! We probably just booked the tape space with a click track or something. I remember 90 percent of it happening in San Francisco.

TB: Prairie wasn't just playing with a click -- he must have been playing with something else, right?

AP: We may have put the bass on in Woodstock -- certainly we did the finger clicks! [laughs] I remember that. But everything else, I think, was done in San Francisco. Todd got Mingo Lewis to do the bongos on this...

TB: Which is fantastic stuff.

AP: It's great, yeah. But he couldn't play shit until he got stoned, though. He was so nervous! I thought, "Oh god, are we making this fellow feel bad, or is he just exceptionally nervous when he gets in the studio?" But then he got himself stoned, enough to stop a rhino, and suddenly he was fantastic!

TB: I guess everyone has their own way of getting comfortable in the studio...

AP: He probably had enough dope to put the island of Jamaica asleep for the evening, but he was fantastic. And then there's Prairie showing off his Jazz chops...

TB: The drumming on this is incredible.

AP: Yeah, it's great -- lots of punctuation. That Big Band kind of thing.

And, listening today, I was reminded about how good the bass playing was, though it could have done with a little more of the Latin push, I think. Colin's very melodic, but he also puts all of the downbeats on the downbeat, whereas with the Latin bass it's more on the "ah-one" -- it's always pushing the beat a bit.

And Dave plays some great piano!

TB: Absolutely. He also does that low, spy-movie guitar, right?

AP: Right, which we did at Woodstock, after we got back from San Francisco. I said, "Look, we need a little more John Barry in there," and of course Dave came through with this great ersatz Bond guitar. But, for a man who says he's not a piano player, his piano playing is perfect on this! Just the right chords, just the right choice of inversions -- everything.

TB: And his sense of rhythm is perfect on this, too -- the way he punctuates against the horns, and all that.

AP: Oh yeah -- he's got a pretty good sense of rhythm. Always has.

TB: Was the piano done in San Francisco, or later on in Woodstock?

AP: You're really testing my brain on this one -- do you know, I cannot remember. I know Todd had a piano at Woodstock -- it was a big grand -- but I think there must have been a piano at San Francisco as well.

But I'm not playing on this. I'm just singing on this -- I'm doing nothing on the track other than that.

TB: What about the whistling in the song? Is that you?

AP: If there's any whistling, then it's usually me. I'm a bit of a whistle-aholic. In fact, Erica calls me "the whistler," because I'm whistling all the time at home.

TB: That's a sign of happiness!

AP: Or missing teeth. [laughs]

TB: [laughing] You had horn players and string players as well. They all played by themselves, I presume?

AP: Yep -- we did them all in session. We did all the horn parts one afternoon, then all the string parts another afternoon. All of this in San Francisco. And then the flute player came in -- there are multiple parts, but it's one flute player tracked up.

But the arrangement is so good -- it's got just the right sting at the end. It's just what I wanted. I wanted to beat "Mack the Knife" -- because, I mean, look at the pedigree of that song -- it's Brecht and Weill who did the music and lyrics, and that Bobby Darin version -- I loved that as a kid. That was on the radio a hell of a lot. I think I secretly wanted to feel as if I'd beaten out "Mack the Knife."

You've got to feel that you've beaten your influences. You've got to feel that you've beaten your heroes. You have to -- you have to kill them all, and stand on a giant heap of all your influences. They've all got to be dead, because you've written better things than them -- you know, you make a mountain formed of John Lennons, Paul McCartneys, Brian Wilsons, Brecht and Weill [laughs]. "You shall know them by their dead."

TB: Do you feel like you've done that, at least with this song?

AP: For me, I felt as if I had, but no other bastard bought the damn thing, because I didn't have Bobby Darin's charm -- or wig! [laughs]

TB: Well, the album sold pretty well, so some people must have thought you succeeded!

AP: Yeah, that album actually did save our career. Virgin didn't drop us -- phew.

TB: And you guys became college-chart darlings after that, for Skylarking through Nonsuch.

AP: Yeah, that's true. They couldn't scrape us off those charts. So, maybe I should have shut up and let other producers produce me! But the irony of it is that Todd was not like any other producer we've ever had, because he allowed us to be completely English. He did not Americanize us -- if anything, he took the Americanism out of us, because he was a big Anglophile.

TB: Yeah, when I was talking to him, last time they toured in this area, he was saying he was a big fan of you guys.

AP: Yeah, he was -- he had all our albums. Probably had them twice -- I think I saw them in his San Francisco house as well as his house in Woodstock. But, even so, I was instructed to shut up and be produced -- "You need a hit in America, so you've got to have an American producer, and you've got to obey" -- and weirdly, Todd allowed us to be as English as we wanted to be. He just allowed us to be the Dukes of Stratosphear, basically. Skylarking is the great missing Dukes album.

3:19 PM

©2010 by Todd Bernhardt and Andy Partridge. All Rights Reserved.