Bitter Apples, Sweet Cider

Apple Venus Volume One
by XTC

Artists' Picks: Andy Partridge

XTC's Andy Partridge creates beauty from bile.

During the seven years after English modern-pop icons XTC released 1992's Nonsuch, even many loyal fans assumed the band members had unhappily retired into a life of obscurity. But the group's true fate during that time was even more unsettling. Lawsuits, illness, lineup discord, romantic cataclysms--all took their toll on frontman Andy Partridge, but perhaps the cruelest blow of all came from XTC's former label, Virgin, which prevented the band from releasing any material while it waged a bitter lawsuit with the group. XTC are again ready to speak, and they've got a lot to say. But instead of bouncing back with a brassy, boisterous pop album, the band has opted to speak softly (and carry a big stick), issuing an orchestral, emotionally tangled pop disc, Apple Venus, Volume One, inspired as much by the show tunes of 42nd Street as by the Fab Four. contributor John Wiederhorn chats with Partridge about the thrill of classical instrumentation, the joy of thwarting the public's expectations, and the agony of inner-ear infections and an enlarged prostate. Why did you decide to make your comeback album orchestral?

Andy Partridge: It's something that's been boiling up in me for a long while. Near the end of recording Nonsuch, I bought a sampler with a lot of orchestral sounds and I just couldn't stop messing with this thing. It convinced me that I really wanted to do an orchestral record, and Apple Venus, Volume One is the culmination of all those efforts. What's the appeal of working with an orchestra?

Partridge: It allows you to work with different textures. I got really tired of the electric guitar, and orchestral sounds have a sort of pagan feel for me. There's a real sense of timelessness there, so it gave me a much broader springboard to jump off from. The sounds of violins and woodwinds are just fantastic. They can send shivers down your back. Are you at all worried that old XTC fans hungering for new material might be perplexed by your new approach?

Partridge: I don't think the record will make anyone absolutely furious. It's still a pop album, and I'm still writing melodic songs. Of course, it will annoy some people who will say, "Oh, my God, how middle-of-the-road. They're using an orchestra." But that's fine. If it gets up their noses, then perhaps it's time they got off the XTC bus. Part of me is mischievously thinking, Well, I hope some people will be upset by the squareness of it. Is there some perverse part of you that wants to piss people off?

Partridge: No. I don't really want to anger people, but I do want to surprise them. The first thing I want to do is surprise myself and delight myself. If I can't do that, it's really pointless making any art. If you can't surprise yourself and bring joy to yourself, you can't possibly hope to bring that to other people. But it's tough digging deep enough to find something that's going to delight you the first thousand times you hear it. I think good art is made from something that's considered to be very bad in society, which is selfishness. You have to totally and utterly do it your way to get any satisfaction at all. Was Apple Venus, Volume One an easy record to make?

Partridge: Are you joking? It was the result of more suffering than I've ever endured in my life. There were so many obstacles. We were creatively crippled for years because of a legal battle with our old record label, Virgin. During that time, I endured a very painful divorce. I had a dangerous inner-ear infection that I became acutely aware of when I noticed blood running down my neck in the middle of the night. I discovered the joys of owning a prostate. My prostate is still very enlarged. I'm occasionally a cripple. If I drink now, it really cripples me, and I used to drink a lot. I was a borderline alcoholic, so in a way, I think the prostate thing was a blessing. But all that was before we even stepped into the studio. Did your life improve once you started to create?

Partridge: Not right away. We had the first attempt of making the album stolen by somebody who believed we owed him money for his studio. And we believed it was free studio time given to us because the studio wasn't functioning properly. It was not working at all. He said out of embarrassment, "You can take the rest of the time free if you can get anything out of it." Then, near the end of the session, he hit us with a bill. We left that day, and he stole our tape. That was two weeks of material down the drain. Then, halfway through the recording, [bassist] Dave [Gregory] decided to leave the band. Why did that happen?

Partridge: Basically, he was extremely negative about everything. He didn't want to do an orchestral record. He thought we were committing commercial suicide. He didn't want to sign the record deal we signed. He didn't want to simply be a musician while I was the songwriter. He wanted to tour, when he knew I couldn't do that. He didn't like anything we were doing, and we have found ourselves much better off without him. Still no plans to tour?

Partridge: No. The thrill of doing that is gone, and it has just become terrifying for me. In the past we were on the road so much that I felt absolutely trapped, and that's given me very intense stage fright. We never saw a penny from any of those shows we played back then, and we felt like monkeys playing in a cage. Anyway, I think our music got a hell of a lot better when we stopped touring, because we were able to focus on what we like to do best. Is Apple Venus, Volume One a reflection of the bitterness you experienced prior to its creation?

Partridge: Yes and no. Some of the songs are very harsh and scathing, but I didn't want to do something that was solely negative because that's just not me. If I get really down, I might write something comical. Or if I'm feeling really jolly, something miserable might fall out. You do get basic inspirations from joy and misery, but sometimes the opposite emotions can come out when you're writing. It gives access to some sort of balance. Will there be an Apple Venus, Volume Two?

Partridge: Yes, but it will be a very basic rock album with guitar, bass, and drums. Originally, volume 1 was supposed to be a two-disc set, so the second volume will be the material that was left over when we decided to just release one album. After we finished all of the orchestral stuff, I had a real itch to plug in the electric and crank it back up. The new stuff will come out by the end of the year [1999], and it will be moronic and thrilling on a really basic level.

Apple Venus Volume One
by XTC

"Bitter Apples, Sweet Cider"
Artists' Favorites

Andy Partridge

Few bands deserve their cult status as much as English popsters XTC, who've created three decades' worth of music that's been critically acclaimed yet only moderately commercially successful. Too smart to be that catchy and too catchy to be that smart, XTC mystified most listeners by simply being too great for their own good. From the Kinks-inspired tight, tense pop of early albums like Drums and Wires, Black Sea, and English Settlement to the Beatlesque psychedelic beauty of Skylarking and Oranges and Lemons, XTC have always had at their core the duo of bassist Colin Moulding and guitarist Andy Partridge. Known for his debilitating stage fright, Partridge inadvertently contributed to XTC's obscurity by refusing to tour after 1982, when he collapsed onstage with a stomach ulcer. With their attention fully focused on the studio, XTC devoted themselves to crafting their unique brand of wisecracking and smart pop masterpieces, including the wonderful Nonsuch album, only to continue to be ignored by the record-buying public. After a self-imposed exile from the record industry that lasted seven years, Partridge and Moulding ventured back into the studio again to craft the lushly orchestrated and elegant Apple Venus, Volume One. More than most writers of his generation, Partridge knows how to write a fine pop song. We asked him how to recognize one.

What album would you rescue first from a burning house?
Anything by Spandau Ballet, purely for the thrill of Frisbeeing it back in.
What song is better than coffee for helping you wake up?
"Shake Appeal" by Iggy and the Stooges. [Found on the CD Raw Power.]
What song makes you swoon?
Sarah Vaughan's "I Feel So Smoochie." [Found on the CD Time and Again.]
What book has most influenced your adult life?
Barbara G. Walker's Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets.
What song would you play to attract butterflies?
Cal Cacoon and the Monoptera Set's "Come Here All You Lovely Butterflies." [After conducting an extensive global search, we think Partridge made this one up!]
What song would you play to drive bugs away?
Anything by Spandau Ballet.
What's your favorite chill-out CD?
The Huelgas Ensemble's Febus Avant! Music at the Court of Gaston Febus.
What CD has the most mojo working in its grooves?
Dr. John's Night Tripper [material]. [Dr. John's Night Tripper era is best represented on the second half of disc 1 of Mos' Scocious: The Dr. John Anthology.]
What song would you play to get people to dance at a party?
"Baby Come Back," "I Get So Excited," or "Black-Skinned Blue-Eyed Boys" by the Equals. [All of these songs can be found on the CD Very Best of Equals.]
What should be the theme song for the next millennium?
Mooky and the Collective Surgery's "Baby, Grease My Millennium." [Again, after undertaking an exhaustive search, we think Partridge is pulling our leg.]

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