From Apples to Asses With Andy Partridge Exclusive

John Srebalus
Los Angeles, CA

"The idea of reproducing music over and over again is rather ludicrous"

From Apples to Asses With Andy Partridge
Good for laughs and for tears, the voice of XTC is all heart

You'd be hard pressed to find a finer all-around human being than XTC's Andy Partridge. Since the dawn of punk rock, he and his band have blessed our ears with some of the richest, most enduring pop music in existence. To know XTC is to love XTC, and I was recently afforded the chance to discover that the same applies to their main man himself. With a brand new album -- Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2), sequel to the majestic first volume -- on the shelves, Andy took time to reflect on a vast and still-vital career, injecting his famous wit among pearls from his personal past. Not unlike his music, Andy's conversation enlightens as it entertains.

I read that the process of making Apple Venus 2 was one of the least difficult.
It flew out like a greased banana. It really did.

As opposed to Skylarking, which was one of the most difficult.
There was no Todd Rundgren, which is why it wasn't difficult. I shouldn't be too down on Todd, because I've made a kind of career of kicking the fellow, and he did a fantastic job on Skylarking, I have to say. I don't know how the hell he does it. He's truly gifted, but he's just one of the most difficult people in the world to get on with. And, of course, you don't find that out until after you've worked with him, and then you meet all the other bands that have worked with him and they say, 'What? Did he do that with you, too? We hated that. Oh, no.' You never know who you married until you're divorced from them, really. He did a fantastic job. He really brought together those songs beautifully, and his arrangements were very in tune with what we wanted to do. But I had to get a year or so away from it, because the experience of making it was very unpleasant, very dark. I've never worked in a studio with somebody who was purposefully so unpleasant.

Does your orchestral type of work, like on Skylarking and Apple Venus 1, result in your approaching the guitar differently?
You probably still write the songs on the guitar, and then what you have to do is to pull them to pieces. Like, for example, on "Easter Theatre," the verse section of that was composed on my daughter's little school guitar, which I really like playing because it's so unimportant. If someone gave me a diamond-encrusted guitar, I wouldn't want to play it and I'd feel really intimidated. But this thing is made in Rumania or whatever home of great rock and roll. I played the chords on that and then undid all the notes in the chord, then suggested that we do it with woodwinds, because they would have the right kind of breaking-up-through-the-earth connotations of life coming through soil. Woodwind to me has this soil connotation. I don't know if I'm blathering like an idiot, (laughs) but when I hear woodwinds...higher woodwinds are leaves and thin branches, and lower woodwinds are roots and soil, decay in the forest.

Do your ideas about architecture apply to this as well?
Yeah, all the best songs are like great architecture. You can walk around inside them, and you know they're not going to fall down. They all have balance, and I don't mean necessarily the kind of Palladio balance, where you take the architecture and fold it down the middle, and it's the same both sides. I mean there's an internal balance: there's a big tower there; there's a small, low area there that offsets that; if there's a sweeping curve there, then there's something that undercuts from the other side that pulls. And there's enough detail for you to see as you approach it. And I think good songs are like that. You can see there's detail in there, but it's not fussy.

Apple Venus 2 has a very upbeat, youthful sound. Has it signified a kind of rebirth?
That's a weird one, 'cause I hadn't thought of myself as dead (laughs).

Maybe emotionally?
It's certainly that all the material that has gone to make up these two Apple Venus records was written during a time of extreme emotional highs and lows, or to put it the other way, lows and then highs. Just about everything bad that could happen to me happened to me, short of my limbs falling off. And then a lot of great things happened to me, and the roller coaster started going up, and I felt relieved and free again. So I think that this material was written during times of personal extreme. Illness. I went deaf for a while. Woke up one morning and found myself divorced - that was a painful one. Drinking a bit too much. Depressed because I was writing what I thought was our best ever material, and I was in legal limbo and could not record it - that felt very bad. I was seeing psychiatrist type people to try and unravel all the confusion in my head about marriage and career and problems. And then I fell in love, I got a record deal, and suddenly, WHOOM, the rocket took off. So, yeah, these things are put together in the most extreme of times.

Do you want to talk about your decision not to play live?
Sure, I'll talk about anything. I'm not one of those people that ... Somebody told me they interviewed Todd recently and said, 'What was it like working with XTC?' Not only did he read the newspaper all the way through the interview, which is extremely rude (laughs), but he said, 'Next question.' He wouldn't talk about it. I'll talk about anything. Playing live? A) I don't see the need to play live. B) I think it's best done by young kids for young kids. I think the best rock and roll bands are probably about the age of 20 and they're in a gang, which is what a rock n' roll band is. Instead of knives they have guitars, and they're all going to go off and see the world and drink it dry and f**k all the girls and deafen all their dads. That's what any 20 year-old kid wants to do with his friends, and that's what rock and roll music largely is. And other kids of that age want to see them doing it. They want to rub all that essence all over themselves by being in the audience. As these young, virile gods are pissing onstage, the kids in the audience want to rub that magic piss on themselves as well. And then the years go on, and you don't want to be in a gang anymore. You want to be yourself. You want to look inside yourself and start pulling out stuff from deep inside, and other people can't help you do that.

Another reason is that I think the whole idea of reproducing music over and over again is rather ludicrous. Other art forms don't do it. You don't applaud a sculptor as he re-chisels - he does a 70 date tour and goes onstage with a block of stone every night and a chisel and hammer and says, 'This is how I made my famous statue, Vase of Flowers.' And there he chisels away for an hour and a half under changing lights, and the audience is applauding as bits get revealed. Or an author comes on with his typewriter and his little camera over the typewriter so you can see the page, and he types away, "Chapter Five," and the audience goes (imitates applause) because they recognize chapter five: "It was a dark and stormy night." (more applause) For some reason there's no value to music for a lot of people until it's live. Does music not exist until it's made in front of your face?

Was there also an element of stage fright?
There was stage fright. My life was out of control. I spent five years touring with no time off. Any time off you got was time to write the album. Six weeks later you'd have to have an album ready. Time off was considered to be in the studio making it. I was addicted to Valium from about the age of 12 or 13 to my early 20's, and I came off of that unwittingly. Over the months I started to think deeply about the world and about life, and I didn't want to tour, and I found myself trapped. And then my brain started to protest, and every time I went onstage I had panic attacks, which are really horrible. You think you're going to die, but in front of 5, 10 thousand people, which is ultra-embarrassing as well. I thought to myself, 'If I don't stop playing live, I'm going to run away from doing this. I'm not content doing this. I want to work in the studio. I want to write better and better songs and make better and better albums. I don't want to be trapped on this live treadmill.'

You've had some things to say about tribute albums?
(laughs) Not very complimentary ones. We did a tribute disc, a track for Captain Beefheart in 1987. I think the whole idea of tribute records was rather new then, and anything new is, 'Oh, yeah, let's try that.' Of course, we did that, and once a week somebody would get in contact with us: 'Can you do a Kinks tribute? Can you do a McCartney tribute?' And it got like ... all we'd ever be doing is working at other people's songs for the benefit of somebody to make some money. And I just turned them all down. The Beefheart one was very personal and made sense at the time, but I think that tribute albums are pretty daft, I have to say.

From Apples to Asses With Andy Partridge

"Not so much a tribute as giving us a f**king good kicking"

I imagine an XTC tribute has been proposed?
There was one. What was it called? I can't even remember. It had Joe Jackson and Sarah McLachlan and Crash Test Dummies and Verve Pipe and all sorts of people on it. Some of it was good. A lot of it was really crappy -- not so much tribute as giving us a f**king good kicking, actually (laughs). And then there have been almost a half a dozen or more unofficial tribute albums that people on the Internet put together, 'cause you know how rabid they are.

Speaking of tributes, do you think the term "Beatle-esque" is overused in describing rock bands that use melodic hooks?
Yeah. I think it's very lazy journalism. Very lazy, because what did they say before the Beatles split? They never called anyone "Beatle-esque" while the Beatles were around. It's melodic music, usually with a heavy guitar content, and kind of parodying sounds used by the Beatles -- the Oasis or the Rutles kind of thing ... Liam and Noel Rutle. It gets flung at us a lot. We have been influenced an enormous amount by the Beatles, but an enormous amount by other people too, and an enormous amount by ourselves. I wouldn't say that that was the main reason for everything. You weren't going to use it, were you (laughs)?

Many of your songs read like small works of fiction. Is it difficult for you to write more straight, confessional stuff?
It's tricky to be naked. It doesn't always make great entertainment. Entertainment, f**king hell, I hate that word. It doesn't always make good art or good reading. It's tough to be naked, because you know you're going to get burned. Over the years, I could get more and more naked, but I tended to keep a mask on, so you couldn't see it was necessarily me. I would use words like they and you and she, but I was talking about myself, largely. That was the mask I could put on while the rest of me was naked. But over the years, the recent years, I think I've felt braver and said, 'Come on then, come and twist my nuts. I'm completely naked here.' But that comes with experience. And it does tend to connect with people more. It does tend to reach their nakedness. The fictional element is probably fact with masks on. It is tough to take all your shields down and say, 'Here it is. Come and beat it up. Come and do what you want with it. Come and set fire to it.' So what you do is expose just enough to make the song work, to make the idea connect.

From Apples to Asses With Andy Partridge

"They chop it off and over-amplify this serious thing"

You've also incorporated a sense of humor into your songs. Does it turn you off when artists seem to take themselves too seriously?
Absolutely. I think it's amazingly childish, actually, that they are only serious. As a person, they laugh, they cry, they tell jokes, they get sad, they get angry. Yet when they do their art, when they write their books, do their sculpture, write their songs, a lot of people suddenly just go (snaps fingers) serious. That's only 1% of their makeup, so why do they cut off artificially the other 99% of their soul, their human makeup? They chop it off and over-amplify this serious thing. You know they tell jokes. You know they fart. You know they drop things. You know they cough up stuff. Why not allow all of that into what you do? We allow this stuff into songs. If some lines sound a bit funny, why not? If some songs are really depressingly miserable, why not? If some songs sound like you fell over on your ass, why not? It's very juvenile to expect people to take one tiny facet of your personality and assume that's how you are, full stop. Teenagers go for seriousness. They're at a point in their lives when they don't think anyone takes them seriously, so they go and coat themselves. They read serious books. They coat themselves with serious music. They think they'll be dripping with seriousness, and their elders will say, 'Well, I finally take you seriously. I can see you're covered in seriousness.'

You still live in Swindon. What's it like? Have you distanced yourselves from the London scene?
We never were involved in the London scene, apart from in the mid to late '70s. We never went to the parties or knew the people or associated with that kind of thing, because it wasn't of interest to us. There never was a Swindon scene. I think, rather pathetically in the early '60s there was a Mersey sound and then Thames Beat, you know, and every city had the sound that was connected with the river that ran through it. I think for five minutes there was an attempt to start Ray Beat. The river Ray runs around the edge of Swindon. It kind of sounds cosmic, "Ray Beat." Yeah, that was pretty pathetic. Swindon has never had a music scene. Swindon is a non-place, really. It's been an enormous set back to us in the eyes of the British public, because it's a joke town. Tell me an American joke town.

From Apples to Asses With Andy Partridge

"10% can be really fabulous and rich, but the other 90% is my ass in a wig"

So, if a band comes from Cleveland, they're never going to get taken seriously. We come from Swindon, and therefore in the eyes of the English, Swindon being a joke town, we are a joke band. I remember that our careers kind of went parallel with the Talking Heads at one time. We played quite a bit with them, and we were always being spoken of in the same breath with each other. But whereas they came from New York -- very heavyweight, very worthy -- we came from Swindon, which was a joke town. So we must be worthless, and they must be worthy.

You've mentioned oranges, lemons, limes. Do you have a thing for citrus fruit?
(laughs) But I've also mentioned cherries and apples, so I guess it's fruit in general. Must be a pet theme. Yes, there is nothing wrong with fruit. We all need to sh*t.

Maybe it's a U.S. thing, but we don't hear a whole lot about Mummer and The Big Express. Do you know why that is?
No idea. The Big Express, I think, has got some very good material on it. Mummer was put together at a time when I was rather depressed and confused by all this stage fright, [and] wanting to retire from that world, generally. And then came Big Express, it was kind of, 'Yeah I want to reclaim something here for myself.' I think it contains a lot of strong material. It's all kind of tough, almost a blue collar pride thing. And Mummer, the previous one, was put together in a more confused atmosphere. Originally it was to be called Fruitful and from the Garden -- there's another fruity connection there. That's a more gentle, back garden sort of sensation, whereas the train seems to rumble through industry by the time it gets to Big Express. It seems to be passing factories and train yards - more of an industrial landscape.

You seem to have weathered many trends and kept your musical identity intact. Was there a musical trend that you found particularly appalling?
(laughs) I find all of them rather appalling, I have to say. I know that, by the time that we came to the public, we were lumped in loosely with punk, but I can see how that was. We were at an age where we were playing fast, noisy music. I suppose we were riding on the back of that to some extent. I think it's best to stay away from trends, because they'll only drag you down. They're largely the manufacture of the industry. Most of them don't seem to come up from the roots. They seem to be enforced downwards from the industry as a way of selling stuff. At any given period in history, I think 10% of the music that's being made is wonderful, and the other 90% is just cat sh*t. That goes for any hero or any trend, whether it's punk, new romantic, power pop, post-punk, Britpop, hip-hop, trip-hop. I bet 10% or so can be really fabulous and rich, but the other 90% is my ass in a wig.

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