XTC, the anti-pop star institution

Drum Media, Sydney
May 11, 1999
Andy Partridge interview by Michael Dwyer

Andy Partridge is not, to use Gallagher-approved Britpop parlance, mad for it. The chief singer and writer for UK pop institution XTC is the classic anti-pop star: He has refused to perform live since 1982 and has not made a record sice 1992. He will sooner bend your ear about the "collective idiocy" of the motor age (he also refuses to drive) than the current state of rock'n'roll. And to make a point, he's more likely to reach for The Womens Encyclodedia of Pagan Myths and Secrets than a copy of Billboard magazine.

"The word shut up applies here" he tells his kids pleasantly as he settles into his front room in rural Swindon, near Glastonbury, to talk about XTC's comeback ("actually, can we call it a defrosting?"), Apple Venus Volume 1. It feels very much like starting again," he says, a warm west country accent emanating from the depths of his dressing gown. "When you're in the fridge for seven years a lot has changed when you come out. There's a whole new swathe of young bands, new ways of doing things. Mind you," he adds with a laugh, "I don't feel any less connected than I ever did. It's been consistently alien to me."

XTC's long absence is best explained by the words contractual disaster. Lord knows, Andy Partridge is fed up with talking about it and life's too short for regrets.

That goes for his divorce, too, as summarily exorcised on the new song Your Dictionary, and for guitarist Dave Gregory's slightly bitter departure early in the Apple Venus sessions. Fellow singer-songwriter Colin Moulding is now the only other member of the band they formed in 1977.

"It's totally selfish now," Partridge says of the shift in the duo's creative outlook. "And that does mentally cut people out of the equation. Wheras once I was desperate to be liked, now I don't give a damn. Our distance from the mainstream is totally by design. Some people make a lifetime of going to all the right parties and meeting the right people. Now I feel like people will come to me if they want me. I'm in it accidentally. You're talking to a man who doesn't know the names of most of the chords he plays. But the word amateur comes from the word amour, you know, meaning somebody who loves what they do. So I'm happy to be an amateur."

As a self-diagnosed dilletante, Andy Partridge has amassed a far greater body of work than most professionals. XTC's 12-album history sparkles with jewels such as Making Plans for Nigel, Generals and Majors, Senses Working Overtime and Dear God. From Are Your Receiving Me? to the epic, new single, Green Man, their musical evolution ranges from wiry new wave to cinematic sophistication. Apple Venus Volume 1 represents the first purging of Partridge and Moulding's seven-year backlog of songs. Originally slated as a double album - until the expense of keeping a 40-piece orchestra hanging around Abbey Road got the better of them - it's an exceptionally lush, orchestral pop record: think Sergeant Pepper with a pagan-mythical twist.

"I think we have at least two faces," Partridge says. "There's the straighter, gentler style which this record is then there's the noisier, rougher, more idiot-electric side which is coming out on Volume 2. I don't think this album takes us to a new place, neccessarily, I think it's the same place but the resolution on the microscope has been turned up. We're now seeing it at 2000 times larger as opposed to 150 times. It's the same place, it's just gotten more pure, more detailed."

Since 1982's ambitious English Settlement LP, which marked the end of XTC as a touring entity, Partridge has pursued increasingly warm and elaborate production. Like Joni Mitchell, he has long described his music in terms of visual colour.

"What often happens when a song comes is you can hear these clouds of stuff and all you have to do is squeeze your eyes up and think about what's making that cloud. Maybe that's strings, maybe that bit is something more grunty, like woodwinds, and maybe that more golden...is that a trunpet? You try and get the details, the colours. These clouds seem to hint at what instruments to use. I did most of the (orchestral) arrangements myself, apart from two numbers cause we ran out of time. I got a guy called Mike Batt to do a couple and he was great. He did the Wombles music, actually, but we'll forgive him the furry suit and the ginger hair. He's a great arranger."

With Apple Venus Volume 2 already in progress, XTC fans need not fear another seven year wait. Pared back to a duo, XTC's engine of creativity has been cranked up to peak productivity, Partridge says.

"I'm always threatened when Colin writes great songs! That's the spark for me. He comes around with two or three things on demo tape and says 'I'll leave these with you'. Suddenly I start thinking 'Hmmmm, where's that guitar?' Pretty soon I'm dropping a tape off at his house. Competition for me is a good thing, but it's a friendly competition. The pair of us are in league. We're a conspiracy of two to make good records. We love it. We're addicted to that magical alchemy of making a record."

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[Thanks to Andrew Gowans]