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Partisans: Never the Same Way Twice

John Kelman By

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The group is somewhat—and uncharacteristically, given most bands bring the music in and it's generally played as written—brutal about how it allows written music to be dissected and, sometimes, completely torn apart. "What instantly springs to mind is 'Overview,'" says Robson. "There was quite a lot of written material on that tune, and in the end some of it didn't get used. Not that it wasn't great written material, but some of it, in order to keep the nature of the band—which is to have this really open feeling for improvising—became a little constricted, so it could almost have been another tune. So that's the kind of thing that happens; but equally, it's also possible that another time it could be reintroduced in some way."

Julian interjects, "I think it's like there were three possible outcomes written and we were just happy to have one of them that worked out [laughter]. The great thing about working with this band for so long is that there's a trust in the guys, that the process of rehearsing and improvising will significantly affect the sound of the music."

"If I get a real idea in my head, sometimes I will write out whole bass parts, even if they don't ultimately get played, just so they give a kind of flavor," Robson continues. "I find that useful sometimes, but really it varies a lot. For example, I've been listening to a lot of this strange kind of voodoo drumming stuff from Haiti, and wanted to write something that had some of that feeling. But, of course, Gene is playing drums the way he plays them, and I'm not going to ask him to play some kind of authentic Haitian drumming. Still, I'd become fascinated by it, and wanted to write something with that flavor [Swamp's title track]. The tune is quite sketchy, basically, with two grooves. The coda melody is actually one of Julian's melodies, from another tune, that I just fiddled with to make it fit the groove I'd already written, so the very end minute is actually Julian's melody."

"Phil rescued it," Siegel interrupts, laughing.

"But that's an example of how additional written material can actually fit in somewhere, in kind of a humorous end to what is really quite a dark tune," Robson concludes.

Elsewhere, the music is more defined. "This is all very abstract," Robson says, "but with 'Thin Man' I was playing around with these shapes—these quite dissonant little shapes—on the guitar, and somehow there was something kind of scientific or geometric about them. So when I was looking for a title, trying to find something that was in some way connected to that feeling—which is what I try and do with these things—I was reading some things about [J. Robert] Oppenheimer, the man who made the atom bomb and who is kind of an interesting character, and the title became a reference to him [one of his nuclear bombs was code-named 'Thin Man'). But the actual origin of a tune varies: sometimes it's a melody; sometimes a bass line; sometimes it's other things. But this one had a real shape and something about it that felt kind of like a scientific formula that had to be unwound or deciphered.

"Sometimes the written material is quite dense," Robson continues. "'Icicle Architects' was definitely a sketch, although I had a strong opinion that it would have a certain feeling to it. But that's one that got helped by the other guys in terms of the groove. Originally I had very open chords at the end of it, in terms of the time. And Thad suggested that we use a groove thing for the final riff and put those chords to them. Originally that would've been floating chords over a kind of pulse, but what Thad did was to tighten the whole thing up and make it fit with what was going to happen afterwards."

Partisans is a band that's clearly about relationship and collaboration, but it goes even beyond the four musicians. For the last three recordings, the engineer has been Phil Bagenal, who Robson says, "is not a producer, but he certainly does play a part. In addition to being the engineer, we've bounced ideas off him, and he's been really, really helpful." Additionally, the cover art for Swamp, By Proxy and Max (Babel, 2006) has been Bron James, who Siegel explains, "is part of the [ex-anarchistic punk band Crass] Crass Collective under the name Eve Libertine. All the covers for all our albums have been produced by members of the Crass Collective—either Bron or Gee Vaucher, who goes by the name of G Sus in the band. It's really nice that we've also got a visual history, too."

With the North American tour looming, the band is already excited at the prospect. "I just did a tour in Scotland with [singer] Christine Tobin and it's amazing, the connection with Canada there," says Robson. "We're very excited about going; we've never been to Canada before."

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