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Monday, February 01, 2010


Andy discusses "I Can't Own Her"

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, "I Can't Own Her," is from 1999's Apple Venus, Vol. 1.

Javier Martinez won yet another edition of "Guess the Next Andyview" -- he's getting right up there with Per and Kim. We'd give you a hint for the next interview, but quite frankly we don't know what it is yet -- we'll tell you next week. There may be a surprise in store!

TB: So, I was reading the liner notes about this song, and you said that you didn't originally think this was going to make the album.

AP: No. I thought it was a little square, and a little wet.

TB: Meaning...?

AP: I don't know, it's little bit, "Oh, listen to him whining there and being a bit too lounge-y." [imitates lounge singer] "Ayyyye own this ri-ver -- thankyouverymuch ladies and gentlemen." Polite ripple of applause after the first line, you know. [laughs]

TB: [laughing] Viv Stanshall would have done a great job with it.

AP: Exactly! So, I thought, "Is this just too fucking lounge-y?" If it wasn't for [producer] Haydn Bendall pushing pushing pushing to record this, I think I would quite easily have dropped it.

TB: How did Dave and Colin feel about it?

AP: I think they were okay about it. I don't remember getting a huge rush of, "Wow, yeah, we've got to do this one." So, maybe they weren't so keen on it. But certainly Haydn said it was his favorite thing on the record, potentially. "We must do this song."

TB: Interesting. I didn't know he was that passionate about it.

AP: He loved it. And, hearing it again yesterday, first time in ages, I give all the credit to Mike Batt, the part-time Womble and arranger.

For me, the arrangement is the core of the song of the song. After Dave left the band, Colin and I just looked at each other, then looked at Haydn, and said, "Well, what the fuck are we going to do now? We're supposed to be doing the orchestral volume of this record, and we don't have the arrangements for this." You know, we only had my sketched-out stuff from the demos.

Haydn kicked in, and said, "Look, I know a great arranger, and he owes me some favors, because I've done a lot of bits and pieces for him over the last few years. It's Mike Batt."

TB: Had you been aware of him anyway?

AP: Sure. He kept cropping up on various projects -- the Wombles was only one of them. So, he called Mike, and said, "Look, we've got Abbey Road and an orchestra booked, and we haven't got the arrangements for these few songs. Can you do something?" And [chuckling] Mike obviously knew he owned Haydn some favors, so he said, "Sure! I'll do them."

I spoke to Mike a couple of times on the phone, and sent him the demos, and he worked a little bit on them. He'd call me up, and I would sit with a guitar on my lap and the phone under my chin, while he was sat at the piano at his end with the phone, and he'd play me what he had.

With this one, I knew that I wanted the "swirling sky" to be very passionate -- I wanted it to sound like a sped-up film of boiling clouds, and at the same time I wanted it to be like hair in water, swirling and dancing around. He'd be playing me some things, and I'd be saying, "Okay, when you do that run-up, can you make that bit more whatever," and he'd say, "Okay, how about this?" And I'd say, "Good, now try that." And together, we worked on these things on the phone for an hour or two.

And then he'd call me back and say, "Okay, is this more like it?" And I'd say, "Yeah, that's good," and he'd say, "Well, imagine this hand here is what the woodwind is doing, and this line here is what the cello is doing, and this line is the violins," and all that. So, I had to imagine it from him playing it on the piano down the phone. It wasn't until we got to the one mad day at Abbey Road, to do all the orchestral stuff for the whole album, that I actually got to hear the arrangement. And I can say that my socks were well and truly blown off!

TB: Of all the arrangements, I think he really put his mark on this one.

AP: He really did. This is a master arranger at work here, taking your chords and your pictorial sentiment -- "I want it to be all gray there, and that's got to swirl, and then there's got to be a release at that point, and I still want a heavy suggestion of this hanging note here. He did a phenomenal job -- I was almost in tears, listening to this orchestra playing this stuff. I was just so thrilled.

TB: I can imagine. Even now, as many times as I've heard the album, I still get a thrill at the base of my spine when they do that "swirling sky" swell...

AP: Oh, it's phenomenal stuff! And I really felt unworthy. I thought, "This is my wretched body, dressed in the nicest material, the best cut of cloth" -- do you know what I mean? It's velvet and ermine and jewels, and it's just my stinking carcass.

TB: [laughing] Oh c'mon, despite what they say, clothes don't make the man. You still need a solid person underneath.

AP: I just felt so humbled, that my basic little idea of a song had this phenomenally pictorial arrangement, which I'd only heard little sonic glimpses of down a telephone. To me, he made this track happen.

And he didn't even hang around so we could thank him! After we did the largest orchestrations, which he conducted, he then ran off, because he had to catch a plane to Germany. So, he just came in, waved his baton around a few times, and ran out! [laughs]

TB: [laughing] Who was that masked conductor?

AP: [laughing] And why was he waving his baton at me?

Yeah, totally and utterly fantastic job he did. And if ever he needs a favor out of me, he should call me, because -- damn, I owe him one for that.

TB: Let's talk about some of the instrumentation, and the changes and choices between the demo and the recorded version.

AP: The demo is so lumpen, I think. I found a patch on the keyboard that is a piano mixed with some strings, so when you hold a note down, the piano dies and the strings kind of swell. And, of course, every note you play is exactly the same on the piano and strings. So, it has this rather lumpen, porridge-y kind of quality -- like a big wedge of plasticine or something. The arrangement ideas are not fully fleshed at all on the demo.

TB: I don't know if I'd totally agree with you on that. Like I said, the body of the song is there, and that was what everything else was built on. The melody and the sentiment behind it are more or less unchanged.

AP: Yeah, I guess so, but I didn't feel worthy of that arrangement, really. But also, Haydn kicked in with some great suggestions. We were talking, while we were putting this track together, arrangement-wise, and when we got to the title line, I said, "Isn't it great the way that Brian Wilson would do things like using different-range harmonicas, specifically bass ones -- isn't that a lovely texture?" Haydn had some beautiful samples that he'd probably made of bass harmonicas, and said, "Well, you know, I've got some, so let's try it!"

Just talking about how some other people approached similar things really prompted some good ideas, and he had the tools to back it up. Like, if this was a big show tune, wouldn't it be nice if that little counter-melody that I've done with some twinkly sound on the demo, wouldn't that be lovely if that was a harp.

Haydn had a beautiful Celtic harp, which he'd made recordings of, into his own sample set, and they were just stunningly gorgeous. It was like, "Oh, that is so sensual, and so beautiful -- please, let's have that." Actually, I think the harp belongs to quite a famous player, but I can't think of his name. It's somebody with a French name. Haydn recorded him, and got him to make this beautiful set of samples with him. As soon as he played these things, it was a matter of feeling like you're inside that sound. It's all around your head, beautifully recorded.

TB: One of the questions I have here is to ask what instrument is in the left channel during the chorus -- I thought it was some kind of a horn or keyboard, but you're saying those are the harmonica samples?

AP: Yeah, there are bass harmonicas vamping on that part. They've all got that very dark, huffy timbre. "Fool on the Hill" has got the same sound, as well as some Brian Wilson things.

TB: Do you remember some of the other instruments that make up the orchestration? I know I hear flute and woodwinds. There's an oboe, certainly.

AP: There are some beautiful woodwinds. In fact, there's a lovely section at the end that we refer to as the "ducks" section. We'd always be saying to Haydn, "A little more -- can you turn the mic's up over on the woodwinds stuff? A little more of those ducks, please." Those quacking woodwinds are over that suspended-moon section -- the F-sharp over the C at the end.

But otherwise it was something like a 40- to 50-piece orchestra. It was the kind of thing where you do the full arrangements earlier in the day, then the people you don't need anymore go home. You know -- "Okay, all the woodwinds can go home." And, "Okay, now the strings can go home, and we'll just keep the brass and the double-bass, or the cellos." Then, "Okay, now we'll just keep the brass," and, "Okay, all the brass can go except for you, Mr. Flugelhorn Player -- you're still playing on 'Last Balloon'." See what I mean?

Because Haydn was a master at recording orchestras, he knew these wrinkles that I wouldn't have thought of.

TB: Right. The most efficient way to do it.

AP: Yeah. Don't pay for the whole orchestra all day. You use the whole orchestra, then a lesser part, lesser part, right down to one person. That one person's got to be here all day, because he's part of the brass section, but you don't keep the strings and woodwinds hanging around while he does his solo bit.

Another reason we worked with Haydn is because he had this reputation for making orchestras sound beautiful.

TB: And he did. It's a beautiful-sounding album.

AP: It's stunningly recorded. But it was not what Dave wanted to do, and he wasn't going to hang around while we spent the budget on an orchestra.

TB: It must have cost a pretty penny to get all those people in Abbey Road.

AP: Oh, yeah. Jesus. It was £20,000, just for one day, with the orchestra and Abbey Road. Might have been more than that, but that figure seems to be hovering in my head.

TB: Plus you had had the problems with the album anyway, where you'd burnt through some cash that you hadn't intended on spending.

AP: Well, we'd made both albums, pretty much, and had to scrap them because the tapes were stolen by Chris Difford. But that's a long story [see the first Q&A].

TB: Speaking of that, though -- one of the biggest differences between the demo and the recorded version is that there are drums on the latter. Let's talk about that. Prairie must have recorded all his drum parts at Chipping Norton in the absence of any of the orchestra, correct?

AP: He did the drums just to the piano and guide vocal. It was a case of, "Well, the drums don't need to be all the way through -- that'll just be too ponderous. But I would like this kind of tribal throb at certain points." And he did great. He just clicked into this groove, and it was a case of, "Stay away from those cymbals. Let's just use that tom and that tom, and use felt beaters instead of sticks." He did just what was required. I think anything bigger would have been obtrusive to the sentiment.

TB: I agree -- the drums are basically on the chorus, and on the end part. I love the end part, too, where he's doing those melodic runs down the toms. You guys must have worked together on the tuning of the toms, to make sure that they fit right in with the rest of the music.

AP: That was the sort of thing that I was keen on, at that time and on the previous couple of albums -- getting the drums tuned to the track. I think that that pretty much started around the time of Skylarking, when I was awakening to the fact that drums could be very musical, as opposed to just going bonk-bonk-bonk.

But, of course, this was being done even before I was even aware of it, by people like [Mummer producer] Steve Nye working with Pete Phipps on things like "Me and the Wind." You know, getting the drums musically tuned to be in with the track. Nonsuch was probably the apogee of that for me. There's Dave Mattacks drumming, and us saying, "Can you tune the snare so it's a seventh of the scale," or, "We're going to add this sample with the snare, so it'll be a third," or something that's in musical relation to the music going on.

TB: And I'm sure Dave Mattacks was into that, given how musical his drumming is.

AP: Very much so. Because if the drums are musically conversing with the other instruments, as opposed to just making knocking noises, it makes the drums much more part of the track.

TB: Well then, I think what's left to talk about are the lyrics.

AP: Ooh, I knew you'd say that! You're going to put a little pin into my coiled winkle of manness.

TB: [laughing] I think this is an important thing for any man -- or any person, for that matter -- to understand. You can only be with another person. You cannot possess them.

AP: Yeah. No matter how emotionally attached you are, they're not a chair. They're not a book. You can't say, "Yep. That's mine. I own that. I bought it, that's mine. I can sit on this chair, I can take this book anywhere I want." You can't do that with people -- it doesn't matter how fucking attached you get to them!

TB: And that realization ultimately makes relationships stronger, because you realize you can't take people for granted -- you have to constantly work at it, because it's always a mutual agreement.

AP: But when they pull that stool from under you, when they pull that carpet from under you and say, "I'm off," whoa!

TB: And we were just recently talking about "Me and the Wind," so...

AP: Exactly! It's kind of weird that you should pick these two next to each other, because they're not too dissimilar a sentiment.

It's the fact that one person who you thought was with you for life is going, and you're left with that realization of, "Oh my god, I didn't own them! I couldn't possess them, I couldn't keep them forevermore, despite the whole [adopts over-important voice] Judeo-Christian marriage thing." And here comes a new person into my life, and I realize I will not be able to own them, either! You know, my third eye has been opened here, and I've now been rudely awakened.

TB: Which, again, only makes that relationship stronger -- it's both edges of the sword.

AP: I guess so, because you realize that all the shit like wedding rings and vows and all that kind of stuff don't mean anything.

TB: It's all a choice.

AP: It's down to human foibles. A kick in the foibles!

TB: And a sense of commitment and dedication and work...

AP: Yeah. Making it work.

TB: Too many people, I think, get caught up in the whole fairy-tale aspect of "Til death do us part," and "They lived happily ever after."

AP: I think I was, until this kick in the foibles that I got. And suddenly I realized that you do not own people, despite whatever ceremony you did. That's a tough feeling! That's a painful awakening.

TB: Not too long ago, we were talking about "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul," and you were talking about existentialism, and this is kind of a flavor of that, isn't it.

AP: Yeah! I can't remember the brand of cigarettes, but in the '50s there was an ad where there's a fellow wandering by the Thames in his mac -- you know, lonely man with his cigarette, being all very French and Left Bank, looking at the river -- and I sort of imagined myself as this existential actor caught between two scene changes. Here I am -- I can look at the river and say, "Yeah, that's my river. I live in this country, that's my river, I can own that if I want. But I can't own that person. This is my town, but I can't own that person!" The closest people to your heart -- they're going to run off, or they're going to die.

TB: Exactly. You can fool yourself -- you can say that there is a god, you can say there is an afterlife, or that there is an enduring love, such a thing as "happily ever after," but in fact there's not.

AP: There's not. And that was a real slap in the face for me.

TB: Do you remember sitting and writing this? Did the music and lyrics come together? Where the lyrics prompted by the chords you'd discovered, or by that keyboard patch you mentioned?

AP: I think I was messing around with it on guitar first of all, because it's this interval [picks up guitar] -- it's a C with a F-sharp. To me, it's a sort of a moon hanging on a string, and you can reach and reach and reach for it, and you can see it, and it's lighting you up, but you can't get it. You can't own it.

TB: You're the moth that's always flying toward it and never getting there.

AP: Yeah. To me -- because chords do this to my mind -- that C with that F-sharp hanging over it is that moon hanging on a string. It might not even be the real moon -- it might be a fake moon in a play. You can't reach it.

So, it was that interval -- which I'd been trying to put that into a song for a while -- and then finding that rising figure [sings melodic intro to verse vocal], just sitting at a keyboard, with this piano-strings patch, that got me going. And then I fell into being Left Bank cigarette man.

TB: Did the song come quickly, or did you build it over time?

AP: I think it came reasonably quickly. I'm not sure, though. The process of writing this is a little unclear -- as in, maybe I was trying to detach myself from this awkward feeling whilst it was being written. I know that sounds contradictory. I was sort of proud of it, but I didn't want to be proud of it.

I don't know why it seems I've got this screen in the way of remembering -- some sort of embarrassment about my weakness in the lyric, in that I'm showing vulnerability. I've still got some sort of wall up about it. But hearing it yesterday, in headphones, through three or four times, I thought, "Wow, this is very beautifully arranged!"

TB: Colin's bass playing is great on this.

AP: Oh, totally. Totally sympathetic to what's required. He does that beautiful, kind of bubbling counter-melody. Plus, he and I did things like sitting and listening, and I'd say, "You know, when it says 'Winos sliding down,' can you turn the key of the bass to wind the note down?" He did that, and you end up with that great aural metaphor.

I think we were quite sensitive to the arrangements of the counter vocals as well, in the middle section -- which I'd forgotten all about until I played them yesterday, and it was like, "Oh, that's not half bad!"

But, it's a funny old song for me, because I did feel that, unintentionally, I did give too much of myself away. And it's still a little bit raw because of that. There's a lot to this songwriting shit! [laughs]

TB: [laughs] You didn't know you were working so hard, did you?

AP: No! Almost broke into an anal-cleft sweat!

TB: [laughing] I thought there was just a treble and bass cleft! I didn't realize there was that one, too.

AP: [laughing] The anal cleft! That's the one that does all the clenching when you realize you're playing wrong.

12:43 AM

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