Stella, stellaaaah (podcast)
Here’s my first music theory and Interpol podcast! Below is my musical transcription of Stella, followed by my analysis of the song’s form, and then a transcript of what I say in the podcast. Cheers!
Click here for my transcription of Stella (update 2017 April 7: this is an updated version of my transcription; Chris pointed out to me that one of the lines at the beginning I was hearing in the bass is actually played by the guitars reminding me once again how fickle ears can be!)
Intro 0:00-0:17 (8 measures) D natural minor
Vs1 0:18-0:52 m. 9 (16 mm.) D natural minor
When she walks down the street…
(0:36 m. 17)
She once fell through the street…
Pre-Ch 0:53-1:12 m. 25 (8+2 mm.) F lydian
Ch1 1:13-1:40 (12+1 mm.) D dorian
She was all right ’cause the sea was so airtight she broke away…
Post-Ch 1:41-2:07 (12 mm.) D natural minor
She broke away broke away…
Interlude 2:07-2:39 (16 mm.) D natural minor-ish
Stella is a diver…
Vs2 2:40-2:57 (8 mm.) D natural minor
Bottom of the ocean she dwells…
Pre-Ch 2:58-3:18 (8+2 mm.) F lydian
Ch2 3:19-3:45 (12+1 mm.) D dorian
She was all right ’cause the sea was so airtight she broke away…
Post-Ch 3:46-4:12 (12+1 mm.) D natural minor
She broke away broke away…
Transition 4:13-4:37 (12 mm.) D natural minor
“Catatonic” section 4:38-5:02 (12 mm.) D natural minor
Well she was my catatonic sex toy love-joy diver…
“Right on” section” 5:03-5:35 (12 mm.) D natural minor
“Say goodbye section” 5:36-6:09 (16 mm.) D natural minor
There’s something that’s invisible…
Outro 6:10-6:28 (4+1 mm.) D natural minor
This episode I’ll be analyzing the music of Interpol. Let’s start with a couple of reader questions I received a while ago…
Christopher wrote to me to discuss the range of Paul’s vocal melody in All the Rage Back Home, suggesting that this song would sound good as a chord melody on the guitar.
“I’d like to call out the range in Paul’s vocal melody [in all the rage back home]. Most modern music vocal melodies span, what? 3 notes? In the intro alone Paul sings 5 notes over a range of 6 notes and then nails the missing “A” in the chorus am I correct? Impressive. This is tune, due to the moving melody and interesting voicings would be cool to arrange using chord melody on a guitar.”
So I learned a thing thanks to Christopher’s comment: there’s a term for when a guitarist plays both the chords and the melody simultaneously and it’s called “chord-melody”, and there are a gazillion guys on the internet who want to teach you how to do it, at least according to Google. So yeah, I totally agree that a chord-melody arrangement of Rage on the guitar would be awesome, as Paul’s vocal melody really is quite gymnastic in this song compared to how he usually sings. Let’s look at how his melodies are constructed:
In the intro he sings in a low baritone range, spanning an entire octave between G2 and G3. In the verse he jumps up into a tenor range, sort of hovering just above and below C4 (also known as middle C). In the chorus he moves into a high baritone range, spanning almost a complete octave from middle C down to D3.
There is definitely a sense of arrival on the note A in the chorus, like Christopher mentions, which is interesting because the chord that surrounds that A in the vocals is D7, which is the dominant seventh of G major. So we “arrive” on A in the vocals thanks to the contour of the melody (C – B – A), but harmonically we’re propelling forward thanks to the two tendency tones in the D7 (the leading tone and the chordal seventh).
Anyway, it’s cool how Paul sings low in the intro, high in the verse, and midrange in the chorus, it creates a nice double-neighbor macro-contour that contributes to the chorus feeling like the culmination of the song.
First of all, I’d like to thank HoldenCaufield (if that is your real name) for bringing up this song because it contains the line that I named this podcast after. One of the reasons that line “sound meets sound” appeals to me is because Paul is singing the seventh of a major-major seventh chord, which is a chord I LOVE. In fact, the whole song is full of MM7th chords, which is why I think it sounds dark in spite of generally feeling like it’s in a major key.
In case you don’t know, a major major seventh chord is a major triad with a major seventh from the root stacked on top. What I love about it is that dissonant major seventh that’s just aching to be resolved up to the root of the chord, making it a stable major triad again. And Paul plays with this tension by singing a TON of minor seconds, which is the inversion of the major seventh.
Another thing I think that adds to the dark sound is those high guitar notes that swell in and out at the beginning and in between sections and also that synth sound that kind of cuts through the air like a knife, playing a high A. The overall texture of the song is jagged, like those aggressively staccato piano chords in the verse.
That’s my shortish take on why No I in Threesome sounds dark, but I will definitely be doing a full analysis of it at some point. It’s always been one of my favorite Interpol songs.
Ok now for the main event. I’ve been keeping a list of songs that readers asked me to analyze. The next song on my list is Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down.
The form of this song is interesting because the first 4 minutes are cyclic (meaning that the sections repeat in a pattern or cycle), while the last two minutes are almost like a totally different song. Really, the song could technically end at 4:12, but instead we get a guitar transition that ushers in three new sections that are not cyclic.
This way of constructing a song is pretty common in Interpol; we often get a “bonus” mini-song at the end that puts the length of the song over the 5 minute mark, which is an unusual thing for most rock songs. To my ear it signifies the band’s overall willingness to get experimental without ever veering into prog-rock territory (don’t worry I’m not bashing prog rock, I admit I have a soft spot for the band Yes). You can go to my blog to see how I’ve analyzed the formal divisions of Stella.
As usual for Interpol, the key is not immediately recognizable in the intro; eventually, it becomes clear that the song is D natural minor. You can see my transcription on the blog. Carlos repeats F-F-D-A, which is the D minor triad starting on the third of the chord, moving down to the root, and then down to the fifth.
Above and around him Daniel is repeating the fourth E-A, briefly dropping the E down to D to make the fifth D-A. I like this textural move by Carlos, to play so high up on the bass that his notes overlap with the guitar. In fact, at first I thought Carlos’ notes were actually being played by the guitar, until I heard the little rhythmic ornamentations that are characteristic of Carlos’ bass playing.
Four measures later Paul comes in and it becomes a little easier to identify the scale being used for this song, which is D natural minor; I say natural minor because of the C-natural that the guitar plays beginning in measure 13. Normally a minor key contains a raised 7th scale degree to create the leading tone (in this case it would’ve been C-sharp), but again, Interpol likes to eschew the leading tone in their songs, particularly their songs in minor. The leading tone would send too clear a message about what the key of the song is, and Interpol often like to maintain a certain level of ambiguity about that.
The progression from the Pre-Chorus to the Chorus to the Post-Chorus has always felt really powerful to me; the Pre-Chorus sets up a feeling of anticipation, which pushes through during the Chorus, and then we finally get this really nice feeling of release in the Post-Chorus, which aligns nicely with the lyric “she broke away”. What’s really cool is how the key shifts during these three sections. In the Pre-Chorus one of the guitars introduces B-natural, and considering that the bass is arpeggiating an F major chord, I hear this section as F lydian (lydian being a major scale with the fourth scale degree raised).
The B-natural persists in the Chorus but this section sounds more minor than major to me, which means this is D dorian (dorian being a minor scale with the sixth scale degree raised).
Then, in the post-Chorus, B-flat is back with a vengeance and we’re back in D natural minor. I think it’s this return to D natural minor, combined with all of the guitars playing mostly octaves with each other that make the Post-Chorus feel like a big release of tension.
The bonus mini-song that begins at 4:13 is through-composed and all that tension and release of the cyclic part of the song is gone and we are left in this dreamlike stasis for the final two minutes. I think it feels static to me because the four measure guitar part that begins at 4:13 repeats over and over right to the end of the song. The other parts change around it but that 4-bar pattern keeps repeating. And not long after this pattern first appears the other guitar starts its own pattern, which is D and F on beats two and four, and this pattern also repeats to the end of the song. Also, starting with the “right on” section, Paul only sings E and F for the rest of the song. And can I just point out that Carlos plays a low D in the “say goodbye” section, which is not only extremely gratifying to my ears but also kind of backs up my thesis that the overarching key for Stella is D minor.
Overall, I think the reason Stella is such a compelling song and an enduring fan favorite is because of how elusive it is. The narrator spends a lot of time describing Stella and her struggles against the world but in the end she finally manages to break away, waving goodbye to the narrator even though he seems to want to hold on to her. The music likewise does everything it can with its notes and texture to resist a clear harmonic interpretation and pushes and pulls at the listener with this ambiguity. I don’t know about you, but I’m always happy for Stella that she gets to break away from the hostile world and slightly creepy narrator of the song (what is with Paul and his penchant for creepy narrators??).
Ok, that’s it for today! Next on my list is “C’mere” from Antics. Let me know in the comments if you like the podcast format, or if you think the written blog or the video blog format is better!