XTC's Blogs


Last Updated:

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Andy discusses the making of "Powers"

Album 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 -- originally titled "Earthlight" and released simply as "Track 1" -- is the first track from Andy's newest album, Powers, released in July. This is a limited-edition CD of 500 copies that features 12 soundscapes inspired by Sci-Fi artist Richard M. Powers.

And guess what? Below, Mr. Partridge talks about the recording of this album. So, if you're one of the lucky few who have a copy (get yours while you can!), fire up your oscillators, clamp on your headset and follow along!

TB: I'm sitting here looking at this very -- I was going to say attractive packaging, but it's this worn library book of a CD cover.

AP: And you're overdue! That should have been back on the 4th of August, 1959. Do you realize you owe a half-million?

TB: [laughing] That means I took it out when I was four months old!

AP: [laughing] Your dad took it for you. He knew you'd grow into it.

TB: Well, I've got number 62 of 500...

AP: Oh, you got 62!

TB: I did. Is that a special one?

AP: I don't remember specifically writing the 62...

TB: Dammit!

AP: I got a twinge at number 1, I got a twinge when I got to number 100, then 200 -- you know, the round numbers.

TB: So, how are sales?

AP: I don't think there are many left. I'm kicking myself, because I thought nobody on Earth would like this, so I thought if I printed 500, I'd be stuck with a little warehouse of 480 of these left. But they flew out the door, and we had a lot of interest from Japanese importers and from the American side of things. I could have gotten rid of a couple of thousand easily, but I mustn't do that now, because it's a strictly limited edition.

TB: I told you that people were hungry for an Andy Partridge solo album, in whatever form!

AP: You were right. I don't know about "any form," though -- that scared me. I thought, "People are going to buy this, and think, 'Where are the songs? Where is the music? Where's the singing?' or whatever."

TB: What prompted you to start this project in the first place?

AP: There's a shop in London called Gosh Comics. Although I don't collect comics anymore, and thank the lord I don't, because I seem to have rid my blood of that addiction...

TB: You passed it on your son!

AP: Well, yeah! If only I'd have waited and given him my comic collection. He would have loved that -- he certainly could have sold it and made a hell of a lot of money by now!

But I occasionally go in this shop, if I'm in London, and I spotted in there a book by this Sci-Fi artist called Richard M. Powers. I looked through the book, and it was one of those eureka moments. I thought, "Wow! This is the fella who used to paint all the covers of those books that I would get from the library as a kid and stare at! Finally, I have a name to the person who painted this stuff!"

What it did was, it brought back a huge tidal wave of memory of what I'd do as a kid. I'd go to the local library to get books out, which were invariably picture books, because I had a problem, being a slow reader. I was kept back, and had to attend special lessons in school -- you know, with the "thick" kids -- because my reading was so appalling. I just couldn't grasp it. I think I was dyslexic -- large areas of print used to send me into a panic.

I could just about manage comic books, but if I had books with no illustrations in, where I could "crawl up and rest," I just couldn't read. I resisted it. Like I say, I think I was at least mildly dyslexic, because I still have a problem with left and right, and I think that's one of the symptoms. So, never ask me for directions! [chuckles] You'll never get there.

I had to read books when I was older, because you had to take away Prester John or Lorna Doone or any amount of really depressing books. I never understood what the fuck I was reading about. I'd be struggling with them at home, or I'd just go to school the next day not having read it, and ask somebody else in the playground, "What happens in chapter 8, for when we get questioned later on?"

But I liked to go to the library, because I could get out picture books there. I was fascinated by these Sci-Fi books in the late '50s, early '60s. I would get, say, three of them out each week and take them home, lay them on the bed, and just look at the covers. I wouldn't read them at all, for the aforementioned reasons. But I would look intensely at these covers and sort of disappear into them. I'd be in those landscapes, and I'd be kind of hearing sound -- I'd be getting sound from these images.

TB: There's your synesthesia showing through.

AP: Exactly! And, you know, it's only about two years ago now that I found out that the person who painted the vast majority of these book covers was Richard M. Powers.

So, now that I had a name, I got re-interested in that forgotten part of my life -- you know, these sounds that I heard in my head as a kid, while staring at these covers. I thought, "Just as a project, for my own fun, let me see if I can capture the sounds that I heard in my head when I stared at these covers." I was doing it as a sort of home project, with no thought of releasing it.

It got to the point where I couldn't stop doing them. I was really enjoying it. I got about three-quarters of the way through and thought, "You know, I'd like to release this, because I think the best of this stuff is pretty damned good." So, that's how it turned into an album. I found myself having to finish this project up, and felt compelled to get it out -- while sensing that nobody was going to like it. That's just my own lack of confidence, I guess.

TB: You say, "the best of this stuff was pretty damned good" -- does that mean there was more material that you didn't put on the album?

AP: There weren't too many rejects -- the rejects were rejects for good reason, I think. They were probably too musical. I had to do my darndest not to make it musical. I didn't want it to come out like Hawkwind or [too-cool DJ voice] "Cosmic sounds of the universe -- the Zodiac! Pisces!" You know the sort of thing I mean.

TB: [laughing] I know exactly what you mean. But then the funny thing about this is, I find these pieces very musical. Your sense of dynamics and tone and the interplay among the sounds comes through in the construction of each one of these pieces, I think.

AP: Maybe so, but you know it took me a lot of sweat to not make chords, or not make a rhythm or make a backing track with bloops and blurps over it. Any time I strayed into music, I'd just erase it. I think with any given piece that I'd record, I was constantly going back and erasing stuff. You know, it's a bit like squeezing clay or something -- I'd squeeze it into a lump, and think, "No, there are too many fingerprints in that," or "there are too many lumps squeezed out of the sides there, so I'm going to rub all that. I'm just going to keep the first 20 seconds of that sound, and then I'm going to get rid of the rest, because there's no sense of space. It doesn't sound like Richard Powers' art."

If it was too full, and if it was musical -- I mean, standard, accepted musical forms -- it didn't sound like his art. His landscapes and his visions are pretty empty. So, I did get rid of a lot of stuff as I was recording these things.

TB: Well, I think that's part of good creation anyway, where you make something and then pare away the unnecessary parts.

AP: Yeah, but I suppose it's different with songwriting, because if a lyric's not working, you just rewrite it, or you're looking for a lyric in the first place, or you're looking for a structure for this music. With this, I felt like the music was kind of clay and bits of wires and things. I'm putting these balls and blobs and lumps about, hanging this on that piece of wire, and then, with that bit of wire that sticks thin out to the side, putting a glob on the end of it, but the glob has got to have a hole in it, or whatever. Otherwise, pictorially, it wouldn't look like Powers' art, and sonically, in my head, it wouldn't sound like Powers' art.

It's very tricky to describe, because I'm trying to describe music that's not musical, and I'm trying to describe -- in music -- images and colors. It's sort of easier for me to do than to describe, you know?

TB: Sure, I understand. And it's not just that -- you're also trying to describe memories, because it's how you heard it in your head as a child.

AP: Right -- it's like chasing a sensation. Here I am, eight or nine years old, staring at these covers laid on my orange candlewick bedspread, and I'm disappearing into the book. I still do that now -- I love to sit with a book, and go into the image in the book. You vanish into the picture, and it has a sound -- you're hearing sound as you're wandering around in that landscape. What I was doing with these Powers pieces is chasing the sensation I had of the sound.

It's a sensation more than a color or a noise. You're looking for the right gloop of this clay, the right lump. I did it by having a noise in my head, and then looking for that noise.

TB: That's actually a good segue to the next question I wanted to ask -- do you think you could have done this 20 years ago, before you had your own digital studio that you feel comfortable in?

AP: No, if I had been working in a conventional tape-based studio, it would have taken me forever, and it would have cost me a million pounds.

As it was, it took me more than a year to do. I'd go out into the Shed every couple of days, and where at one time I would have been going out into the Shed to work on a song, instead I was going out there and working on looking for this landscape, which was a new thing for me to do.

TB: So tell me about this process. How did you discover these sounds? What did you use as your sources? How did you process them?

AP: Well, needless to say, I bought the book -- The Art of Richard M. Powers, by Jane Frank. I had it on a music stand out in the Shed, and I'd leave it open at a page. I'd stare at a picture and I'd try to get back in touch with those sensations that I had as a kid. Sometimes I could do it, sometimes I couldn't -- and if I couldn't, I wouldn't work, or I'd record a load of shit that wouldn't please me when I came back in the next day or a couple of days later. I'd think, "Whoa, what was I doing? Let's rubble that."

But sometimes I could get in touch with it, and then I'd think, "I need to find sharp little glass-like sounds," and would go searching for them. And I might end up screwing up an orchestral sample of a celesta, or I might end up taking a piano and tuning it way off the scale of a real piano, and messing it with reverb, or bending it so it sounded more flexible or more plastic, as opposed to glass-like.

I'd say the majority of sounds I would find would be orchestral samples -- I have some very good sets of orchestral samples -- but they'd be too musical. They would have the right color -- like, "That oboe has got the right color for the glob or lump that I'm looking for, but it's too damn musical, so I'm going to have to mess it up" -- I'd ring-modulate it, or twist it, or take it slightly out of its natural range, or mix it with something else, so it's not a "50-year-old man playing an oboe" sound.

Other times, I'd have a sound in my head that I knew you couldn't do with an orchestral sample, so I'd go to a synthesizer and mess around with building or altering or screwing up a sound.

TB: There are some acoustic things that you also recorded and processed, correct? I hear voice on there, for example.

AP: It's not my voice! If I tell you want it is, it's probably going to completely ruin any romance involved [chuckles], but it's actually a set of really corny female vocal interjections for Soul music. You know, it's a woman saying things like [sings] "Yeah, bay-bee. Give me your love, baaay-baaay." {laughs]

What I'm doing is dicing them up, melting them a bit, putting them way out of their range. I was looking for an emotive sound -- something that sounded animal, or human. I was checking through all the sample things I had, and I this collection called something like "Soul Shouts." I found that if I slowed them right down and just took tiny slices of them, I'd end up with these funny little emotive bends. It was like, "Ooh, that's it! That does it -- that's the emotional sound I'm looking for."

I used a lot of very straight sounds, but did unusual things with them. I bent them and melted them and diced them up in unusual ways, until I found the emotion of the noise I was looking for. That was the thing -- I'd have a noise in my head, and I'd think, "Okay, what is this noise nearest to?"

Maybe I'd want an electric organ, but didn't want to use one, because it would be too musical. So I'd grab a trumpet sample and slow it way down, take it way out of the trumpet's range -- far too low -- and create a noise that you might think is a low organ but is really a long-held trumpet note played by a classical musician somewhere in some hall, ending up as this long whooshing noise.

But ultimately I'm not looking for a long trumpet or organ note -- what I'm looking for is the line of the horizon, if you see what I mean.

Or, "I want a little tower made out of some sort of bone with a hole in it, and it's got to stand over to the left-hand side. Now, what am I looking for sonically that makes me think of a little tower of smooth bone? Maybe I'm looking for a xylophone -- but a xylophone isn't large enough. Maybe if I slow down a xylophone -- oh no, that's got too much attack on it. Maybe I'll just take the attack off the front of the xylophone, and use the very, very slowed-down smooth body of the sound of the xylophone. That might be it! But wait, I'm going to have to bend it, because it's too linear -- it doesn't follow the flow of this piece of bone tower."

Do you know what I mean? I'm probably talking art bollocks to you right now.

TB: No, it makes perfect sense, actually -- I think you're doing a good job of describing how you turn a visual image into something that's sonic.

AP: I did find myself rapping myself over the knuckles if ever I got "musical" with it. If ever I found myself playing a thing that's chordal, it was, "Uh-oh, no you don't!" There are a few little bits in there that have a slight musicality -- like, there are some slowed-down piccolo flutes, and I'm bending them and playing a line where they sort of intersect -- it's like a little harmony with itself -- but I de-tuned them so they rub against each other. So they sound a little more sad and dissonant, because I wanted it to be like you're floating off into some void somewhere, and "Oh, I feel a bit lonely as I'm floating away!" I did fall up a little bit and get a little bit musical with some things, but mostly I found myself binning anything that was just music in accepted form.

Hey, I'm doing an interview with someone who's doing a documentary about early pioneers about electronic music, specifically a fellow called Fred Judd.

TB: Besides Judd, who were some of your influences were for creating soundscapes like this?

AP: In the '60s and '70s, I had some albums by some musique concrète artists -- François Bayle and Pierre Henry -- and then I found things like Steve Reich, Phillip Glass and Terry Riley -- I loved A Rainbow in Curved Air the first time I heard that, right around when it first came out, in the late '60s.

But I was always interested in sound, from the early days of my first tape recorder. I was constantly looking to make sound landscapes, and the only thing that stopped it being of interest to other people was the fact that I didn't know how to convert the sound landscapes I heard in my head into proper recorded noises, because I was very naive about the use of taping. But I've always done it, right from being a young kid.

TB: And you've always have a avant garde side to your career -- look at the Homo Safari series...

AP: I avant-garde a clue! [laughs]

TB: [laughs] You also have your work with Harold Budd, or even your work with Peter Blegvad.

AP: I've never been able to shake that off -- and I don't feel the need to! In fact, I think the older I get, the more I want to embrace it, to look for new ways of getting inside the sounds. I've got to say, I'm bored shitless with "the song." It's not doing much for me at all at the moment.

TB: But luckily, there are so many other ways of expressing music. It doesn't have to be the three- or four-minute Pop song, right?

AP: Yeah, that's true. I think I've slain my internal heroes when it comes to that. But that could be another long conversation!

TB: Indeed. So, let's go through the album. Why did you initially give each song a title, then back away from that?

AP: I panicked! I thought, "Shit, I'm going to have to title these," because one of them was going on the APE Loves Haiti recording -- which we haven't sold as many of as I thought we would. I thought we'd be able to proudly go to the disaster-fund people and say, "Here's a £1,000," but I think we've only made just under £300. That's certainly better than nothing, and of course I'm not moaning at the people who bought it, but I hoped we'd do better.

Anyway, I was going to put one of these things on there, and I thought, "Shit! They're not titled. They're just #1, #2, and so on in my computer. What am I going to title them?" I looked at as much of Powers' work as I could find, both in the book I've got and online. The titles of the stories might be something like [dramatic voice] "Forbidden Star." So, I'd just take one of the words from them, rather than using the whole title.

But it was a pointless exercise, because to me, they were more like a feeling than working from a title. So that's why, when I came to put them on an album I thought, "This is stupid, because these aren't the real titles -- this is just something I did in a panic." I knew them as track #1, track #2, track #3 and so on, so I thought that's what the public should know them as, too.

TB: Now that you've explained all that, let's go through the songs and reveal what the initial titles were, and talk how each one was built as we have a little listening party.

The first one was called "Earthlight," and I'm going to play it now. [plays song] What I hear here is lots of tuned percussion -- xylophone, marimba, things like that. I hear electric piano, and then later in the track, you've got tuned toms.

AP: Sure, but remember, what you might think is an electric piano might be a distorted guitar sample, or it might be a xylophone that's been messed with. And sometimes it's an electric piano! [laughs] But it wasn't a matter of "which instrument should I use?", but "which instrument makes this sensation -- which is the nearest instrument or noise to this sensation that I'm getting?"

To me, this whole piece sounds like starlight -- bent starlight. That's why a lot of the sounds on it are evocative of the pinpoint nature of bright stars.

TB: You actually get a little musical on this track.

AP: Yeah, that's one of my little failures -- that point right there where there's a little scale. Sorry about that! I'm flagellating myself as we speak. [chuckles] Thank god it's not a Skype interview.

TB: I want to play a little game here, where we each give a one-word description of each track. I think you've already given yours to me, though -- "bent starlight."

AP: Two words, yeah.

TB: The word that I had come up for this one was "pensive."

AP: Pensive? Maybe stars make you thoughtful!

TB: Maybe they do -- you feel small looking up at the stars, and start to consider your place in the universe.

AP: You're talking to somebody who used to have astrophobia, so I know how they make me feel!

TB: [laughing] They make you feel terrified!

AP: You're right -- as a child, if I was out and it was dark and starry, I would run home, sweating profusely, staring at the ground!

TB: So, if that particular piece is about starlight for you, were you trying to evoke that feeling?

AP: No, because I'm over it now. This piece is more about the sensation I got when Powers painted starscapes and distant galaxies and things.

This is actually tougher to talk about than I thought it would be! But "bent starlight" just about sums it up, I think.

TB: Okay, next song -- this one was originally called "Dissolver." [plays song] It sounds as if you have tympanis that you've bent...

AP: Yeah, they're not messed with too much.

TB: But then there's a metal-on-metal scraping -- how did you get that?

AP: It was a metallic sample thing that I messed with, with ring modulation. It's pretty much synthesized sound, from scratch. It's not so much messed with, as a sound that's been built, that's reminiscent of another sound, and then messed with. [laughs]

TB: There's a low hum here, and something that sounds like flies.

AP: This track, to me, is almost as if you're on the outskirts of hell. Imagine there are pools of liquid that are fiery or sulfurous-looking, and there are lots of dark rock formations. But it's a feeling of terrible loneliness as well, with this slightly hell-like vista in front of you. Hell's forecourt or something. [chuckles] "Hell's patio"! The parking lot for the netherworld.

TB: So, what would your one- or two-word description of that be? "Hell's Patio"?

AP: [laughs] I guess I'd say, "sulfurous landscape."

TB: I chose "suspenseful." It seems as if your vibe here came across to me as well -- something's building up. It's ominous.

AP: I feel as if I'm looking across the landscape, viewing this rather methane-y, volcanic-looking scene.

TB: Okay, next song -- originally titled "Outpost." [plays song] You've got some string-like pads in the background, with some bleeps and bloops in the foreground. Maybe an electric piano?

AP: It's an electric piano, distorted. And, because I wanted it to be slightly reminiscent of the '50s or early '60s, when these books were coming out, I used tape echo. I wanted the listener to sort of be thinking of the Forbidden Planet soundtrack, but at the same time, not. I didn't want it to sound like Forbidden Planet, but I wanted certain aspects of it to be a little jog for you, so I used a tape-echo plug-in.

That bell-like sound you hear is a distorted celesta, I think.

TB: In the beginning, it sounded as if maybe there was some processed guitar there, too -- scraping on strings or something.

AP: There's actually no guitar on the whole album. Nothing to do with any guitars -- bass or six-string or anything. I'm sure it was just another sample that I screwed up.

This track has a sort of a sentinel-like feel to it. You're observing something "guarding" -- it could be a building or it could be an individual, but it's alone in the landscape and you have these little Richard M. Powers blobs and balls zooming by you.

As a title, "Outpost" is not too bad, actually. What would I say in my one-word description? "Sentinel-like." But the sentinel could be a building, or it could be an individual -- and when I say that, it could be an individual six foot tall in a cape, or it could be an individual 1,000 foot tall and made out of silicon.

TB: "Knights in Shining Karma."

AP: [laughing] Yeah. Or "Knights in Shining Korma" -- the Indian version.

TB: [laughing] This part sounds as if you've taken some choral samples, maybe, and done something with them.

AP: I did use some Mellotron choral stuff, so maybe that's what you're hearing there.

TB: The word that I'd written down for this track was "restful." It's not as threatening as the previous one.

AP: Yeah, in the previous one, if you put your foot wrong, you're going to go. But this one, for me, it's like something waiting and observing and looking -- either protectively or, potentially, malevolently. But definitely something waiting to be activated in some form.

TB: Okay, let's go to track four, which was originally called "Pebble." [plays song] You've got sounds that are bouncing back and forth between the speakers here...

AP: Yeah, that's the tape echo. This is mostly organs, or other sounds that are stretched out to sound organ-like.

TB: You have these long notes in the background, and then you punctuate it with "sonar pings."

AP: Powers painted a lot of tower-like structures, or semi-architectural forms that were very smooth. I think I was looking for one of those things, but there's something about the metallic quality of some of his things, where these structures look like they could be made out of stainless steel, or a giant roll of BacoFoil or something. I'm searching for a sort of metallic sensation. That's why the long sustained sounds have a grind to them -- it's almost like bits of metal grinding together, or there's a sandpaper-like friction between parts of the structure.

TB: I'll play my hand first on this one -- the word I wrote down was "sub-aqueous."

AP: Ah, you were being guided by the name!

TB: I tried not to be -- I think it's because I heard those pings, and the piece gave me an underwater-type feeling. I'm a scuba diver, and sometimes when you're underwater, you hear the low rumble of the sea...

AP: Sound does travel faster and farther underwater. Air does terrible things to sound.

To me, despite panicking and calling it "Pebble," in this track I feel like I'm observing this metal structure and inside it at the same time. So, for me, it's a liquid metal. You're inside the metal, and you're seeing it.

TB: So, here's #5 -- I think this is the one that was on the Haiti album, as "Transmitter." [plays song] This strikes me as ship-like, almost -- you're hearing the wind running through wires or shaking support beams or something like that.

AP: I think this is the first one I named, when I found the titles. I thought the named summed it up for me -- for me, it evoked some essence of communication.

TB: How did you get those shaking noises?

AP: Ring modulating a synth sound, and getting it to sort of pass through itself again -- it's sort of re-triggering itself. Then, several of those sounds at different speeds are interacting with each other.

TB: There are high, almost bird-call sounds -- where did you get those?

AP: That was a synth sound -- like, a synthetic flute that I bent around and distorted. I wanted creatures on branches [chuckling], looking at you. They needn't be birds, but maybe something on the branches of a structure, staring at you. Those sounds are suggestive, to me, of small creatures.

TB: And then we have some of the voices we were talking about before.

AP: I wanted a human or an emotive quality to that part of it -- like someone is trying to reach you, or something is pulling you in, with an emotive sound.

TB: What I wrote down for this track is that I found it "storm-like." Probably because of the groaning wires and the sense of things moving through it.

AP: I would say that's pretty close to what was in my head as well, at least during the first part of the track. It's as if somebody's trying to communicate during a storm, but then it calms, and there are some kind of creatures in these structures -- it could be trees, it could be some kind of wiry, prong-y hands sticking out of the ground, with these little creatures summoning you.

Then, for some reason, there's this terrible emotive call going out -- either somebody's trying to communicate to you with emotion, or you're making these sounds and trying to communicate back to them. Of course, you're not communicating, but it's got that terrible human thing -- [laughs as he realizes what he's just said] "that terrible human thing"!

TB: That's pretty nightmare-esque, isn't it. I know that sometimes when I have a nightmare, part of it will be that I'm trying to reach out to somebody, and I as if I'm in jello or something -- you can't move your limbs...

AP: Or you're calling, and nothing's coming out -- just groaning noises. And that's what's happening in this track.

TB: The next one, #6, had been called "Hothouse." [plays song]

AP: My favorite Sci-Fi novel. But that's not the reason I chose the title. The reason I chose the title is because it was one of the few words I liked from the panic batch of titles.

TB: This reminds me of bugs dancing over piano wires.

AP: Yeah, it's a lot of small life -- a lot of activity from small, sentient things.

TB: Over the low rumbles that you set as the foundation of the song.

AP: Yeah, sometimes you need to make the "ground" that these things are hovering above, or that these structures are sticking out of. So, that might be a long sustained sound -- that usually is evocative of the ground to me.

I see a lot of this stuff as landscapes, really. Not portraits -- it's landscapes.

TB: This is one of the tracks where the first half and the second half are very different. Where there was all that life in the beginning, you have lonely foghorn-like sounds in the second half.

AP: That's a larger presence, over there. And "over there" could mean 1,000 miles away or six feet way. It's just a larger presence over there, in relation to these smaller, mobile things earlier.

TB: Then the track gets very quiet at the end -- just little pings with a background of white noise-type sound.

AP: That's the sense of floating -- you know the dream-like thing where you're just suspended? You're suspended right in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of lightness or darkness -- I was trying to get over that sense of suspension.

TB: The track ends with a little bit of drama -- what's going on there?

AP: [laughs] It sounds like being trapped in a filing cabinet that's made out of carbon, and it's melting! [chuckles] There you go.

TB: [laughing] Don't think you could get more descriptive than that! The one-word description I have for that track is "impending."

AP: To me, I guess I'd say "microlife." It's a tough one to put into words.

TB: The next one, #7, is called "Star."

AP: Yeah, I was failing at this point to find book titles that would fit these things.

TB: I think this is a pretty descriptive title, actually, because the one-word description I came up with for this one was -- actually I wrote down two -- either "flowing" or "floating."

AP: To me, this one is kind of malevolent. There's evil intent in this stellar object. I think you mustn't get too near this object, which is starry or star-like or heavenly. You should not get too near it or get too influenced by it. Because, out of all of the pieces, this one was probably closest to the sound of my astrophobia.

TB: That's really interesting to hear you say, because for me, this is one of the more comforting tracks -- it's struck me as glistening and floating, with swirling bells...

AP: To me, "glistening" meant threat! It meant sweating and shaking and "don't make me look at them," you know?

TB: Yeah. Glistening with sweat.

AP: Exactly. To me, this is the old Beatles roadie, Mal Evolent. [chuckles]

But there's something quite astral about it -- you're right on that front. It's not a happy astral thing, though. Not for me.

TB: I think the sense of threat comes through more in the second half of the song, where you also have some very cool little tuned drums toward the end.

AP: Those are percussive samples, tuned way up and maybe bent a bit as well. I'm looking for that sculptural texture at this point, but "sculptural" in being almost like a mobile -- you know, like balls and shapes hanging off rods of wire or strands of things. I think there's a lot of that in Powers' art. Imagine a sort of very groovy child's mobile, but from somewhere "out there," and you've probably got this one.

TB: The next one was called "Palace." This is one of the more violent pieces.

AP: This one is like being inside a vast structure, and there are surprises -- not all of them pleasant. You know, things coming in from what might be doorways or openings, and some of them are quite fantastical to behold, while some of them are pretty damned scary. It's the sensation of being involved in a big structure, which is why I think I panicked and went for the "Palace" title.

TB: The word that I wrote for this was "imposing."

AP: I would say this is like being in a large architectural hall of delights, but they're not all delightful.

TB: There are more voices on this track, too -- they're kind of yelps and screams, as well as low moans.

AP: There are some very badly recorded sound effects in the Mellotron, and I remember using them, and messing them up. There things like church bells -- the funny gong-like noises that sound like metallic blobs are screwed-up church bells from the Mellotron. There are human phrases and I think there are bits of applause and audiences yelping and calling out, which I then screwed up. Again, you get this emotional connection of a human noise.

TB: Things are whirring by...

AP: Yeah, you're in a place and this stuff is going by your head and coming out of holes in the walls, which are pretty large.

TB: I would imagine that the mixing of the album was a big part of the creation of the overall sound and feel -- it wasn't just a matter of getting the sounds down. For example, you do quite a bit of panning and other things like that.

AP: After I initially mixed it, I realized there wasn't enough movement in it, because there's quite a lot of movement in Powers' paintings. I used to "wander in" to his book covers, and I wanted people to wander in to these tracks.

So I went back and remixed and re-tweaked to make the tracks more three-dimensional -- to make things appear and disappear, from one side to the other, to make things wander across your vision, to have things seemingly move around the back of your head, or going across the landscape slowly in front of you. That was something that I took much more pains to put in, so you can walk through them, if you see what I mean -- as opposed to just looking.

TB: You had mentioned the iTunes visualization...

AP: People were talking about it on the APE Forum, and I never even knew what the visualizer was! I found it, clicked it on and played a few of the tracks, and I thought, "Oh, I can see what they're getting at. It's kind of painting these vaguely space-looking images for you." But, to be honest, it's nothing to do with Powers' art. They're a nice distraction, I guess.

I think it follows something like Powers better than it follows something like Lady Gaga, but it's sort of a distraction. To be truthful, I'd rather people put headphones on and lay down and wander through each piece in their own minds, and see what images come up.

TB: The next track, #9, had been titled "Monitors." [plays song]

AP: Again, you've got some little creatures...

TB: Lots of echo and reverb here...

AP: Sure. And, in this landscape, the question is, are they beings, are they rocks, are they buildings -- what are they? It could be a zoo, it could be a catalog -- it's like a lot of odd creatures. Maybe a creature that's just a bent tube, another one that looks like a glowing ball of something -- in fact, a zoo would be a better description for me.

TB: I can see that, because this seems very organic.

AP: They're creatures -- they're little creatures, big creatures, but they're not creatures as we would think of them. One looks like a tube, one looks like a big capsule 50 foot long, one looks like a little pink cone with funny black tendril legs or something -- they're almost Miró-like, but then again, I can see the connection between some of Miró's structures and some of Powers' things.

I'm observing a lot of creatures. I don't think they're menacing -- they're just doing what they do.

TB: It's funny you say that this is a zoo, because the one-word description I came up with was "walking." It felt to me as if I was walking through a landscape and looking at different things there.

AP: To me, the things you're looking at may well be living things -- they're not just dead shapes. The dead shapes of #2 -- that sort of hellscape we talked about -- those things are black and dead and burnt, but the creatures here are not.

There used to be a plastic building set called Zolo, and part of me was thinking of creatures that might even look like that.

TB: Track #10 had been called "Rogue." [plays song]

AP: I don't know if that's going to be very apt.

TB: There's some low, marimba-type constant beating, with various accents against it.

AP: There are a lot of shiny sounds here. It could be a little foundry or something.

TB: This almost struck me as being in an alien clockmaker's shop, at the turn of the hour or something.

AP: [laughs] It's like trying to bring life to something that's metallic. Can I make this thing alive? Plus, when you rub edges of metal, they kind of make that sound sometimes.

TB: This track builds and builds, and so the word I wrote down here was "approaching."

AP: Yes, you're moving towards this large thing.

TB: Which kind of fits in with what you're saying about trying to bring something to life.

Track 11 was called "Needle." [plays song]

AP: Again, I was looking for bird-like sounds. If you look at some of the marks and shapes in Powers' pictures, they're almost like attempts at building birds.

I used a lot of sounds from the Mellotron on this one -- screwed up various things -- so you'll hear little bits of bell, or scraping noises. They're little mechanical attempts at birds. A strong sensation of artificial birds. [laughs] This is such a strange interview! "A strong sensation of artificial birds."

TB: There's a drone that provides background on this one, too, that build and builds toward the end of the song. I had written "frustration" and "anticipation" for this, because it builds, builds and then just stops. There doesn't feel as if there's necessarily a release or resolution, at least to me.

AP: And I can't tell you why I did that! I'm going to have to let you down on that one. [laughs]

TB: The last track, #12, was called "Darkness," is very quiet at the end.

AP: There's a bubbling string of echo'd and repeated and very, very delicate noises for about the last minute or so.

TB: At the beginning, there are some background groans here that rise in tone, with punctuation from scraping metal and tiny drums.

AP: There are globs and gloops, like he does in his paintings. He might have a shape that pulls you up to another place, and so there's that sensation in this track of lifting you up to some sort of a plateau. You've been brought up, and when you're left on this plateau, there's not much going on on the horizon, but there's lots of low activity, close to the ground.

TB: It's interesting to hear you say that you're getting pulled up, because the word I had written down here was "leaving." Maybe it's because I know it's the last track, but it does feel like there's a bit of a resolution here, like you're being taken to another place.

AP: Originally, it wasn't the last track, but it was a piece that, with its ending, suggested another place as well. That's why there's the long, extremely quiet "vapor trail" left at the end, which suggests that something has ended and passed by, or you've moved away from it. I wanted you to still have the taste of it in your mouth, or the sound in your ears.

TB: So, is Powers your Pictures at an Exhibition?

AP: [laughs uproariously] I am now speechless.

TB: [laughing] Is Emerson, Lake and Palmer going to want to cover this album?

AP: I want to stick Nazi daggers into a Hammond organ. That's all I want to do. Actually, I want to stick Nazi daggers into Greg Lake!

TB: [laughing] Who doesn't?

AP: [laughs] It's one of the functions he fulfills in life!

To go back to the question, from what I know of Mussorgsky, he's trying to summon up certain pictures, isn't he.

TB: There was a friend of his who was an architect and artist who had died, and Mussorgsky attended an exhibition of his works. It's a very evocative piece -- all these set pieces are strung together by the Promenade theme, as Mussorgsky walks from piece to piece. He turns a visual experience into a sonic one.

AP: It's the same process, so I guess the answer's yes -- [speaking quickly] the answer's Yes, or the answer's ELP, or the answer's...

TB: [laughing] "Going back to the Genesis of the project, my answer is..."

AP: [laughing] You need to 'ELP me on this one, because I'm turning King Crimson with embarrassment...

TB: Oh Andy, you're such a Gentle Giant...

AP: Ooh, you win. You've got more Prog in your blood than I have. [chuckles]

I'm looking to encapsulate the sensations I felt as a child, looking at these paintings. Which scared me, mostly. These book covers actually frightened me, but I enjoyed the sensation of being frightened.

TB: It's like a kid nowadays going to a horror film or something.

AP: Right. There was a safeness to it, because I knew they were book covers, and even though I sort of disappeared into them, I could step out at any second -- I was never in any danger, so I could revel in the frightening nature of this artwork.

And a lot of it is frightening -- it's made up of dystopian worlds, or lonely-looking landscapes with menacing-looking shapes. That sensation, going up and down your spine -- it look me about a year and a bit to find that those sound in my studio. So, I guess in a way, it's like Pictures at an Exhibition, where he's looking to find that pictorial sensation in music. I like to think that mine is a lot crapper than his, though. [laughs]

TB: [laughing] Well, it's certainly less traditional! We'll put it that way.

AP: Not trad, dad.

TB: So, what's next?

AP: I haven't got the faintest idea! I don't want to do the same thing again, or a similar thing, but I do want to create. I just don't want to do "songs."

TB: Although it sounds as if you've come up with a way of approaching the song, through working with Stu and company.

AP: Yeah, I get to do quasi-song therapy or something with Stu. And we get some interesting results! But, to me, I'm not making a song. Maybe he's tricking them out of me! [laughs]

I don't know -- I'm enjoying working with Peter, too. I always like doing that -- he's distressingly talented. His words are phenomenally good, and finding these kinds of soundscapes for him -- you know, trying to translate his words and his sensations into more-musical things -- that's enjoyable.

But as for myself -- I don't know! I'd like to have another happenstance -- you know, like discovering that book and finally putting a name to all those covers I liked as a kid, and then feeling that sensation of, "Oh wait -- there were all those sounds in my head when I looked at those book covers -- what if I try to make those sounds?" That just came from finding that book in a store.

So, it would be nice if something like that happened, but I guess I have to zone out and stumble over an event that might bring some more sounds out.

TB: It's a very Zen thing -- you can't make it happen, it has to come to you.

AP: You're right -- you can't go looking for it. I guess we'll see what finds me next!

10:06 PM

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