The Fruit of their Labor

Entertainment Today
March 19, 1999
Feature Story

English popsters XTC overcome adversity and bound back after a seven year absence with the lovely Apple Venus

By Michael Jolly

Seven years can be a long time for anything. In the world of popular music it's practically an eternity. The Beatles' entire recording career pretty much fits into that time frame. Movements like grunge and disco lasted less. Yet it's been almost seven years since the Swindon, England band XTC released their last album of original material, Nonesuch [sic] - a frustrating proposition for fans of excellent pop music everywhere. Finally, the duo of Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding have delivered a work, the sumptuous Apple Venus, Volume 1. What have they been up to all this time?

"Me personally?" asks Colin Moulding, the band's bass player and secondary songwriter. "Oh, talking to lawyers mostly," he says half-jokingly.


"For five of the last seven years we were on strike, basically." elaborates Andy Partridge, the band's guiding light and, by the way, one of the greatest English songwriters of past twenty years, "The only way to get free [of our contract with Virgin Records] was to go on strike. We've only been recording for the last year and a half." XTC, who'd been signed to Virgin since their punky, new wavey 1977 debut, White Music, had become increasingly dissatisfied with the company and refused to record even a note until Virgin either renegotiated their deal or let them go. It was the latest business problem for a band that had suffered for years under bad management.

"We've been taking care of a lot of the business side of things to be quite frank," continues Moulding. "It's very boring and very cynical but it needs to be addressed. That's partly why we've had so many problems on that front throughout our career, because we haven't addressed these problems."

Virgin finally relented and released their grip on XTC. The band quickly formed their on label, Idea, and were at last free to get back to the business of making records. Yet it wasn't going to be that easy. Anyone aware of the band's history knows XTC have had their fair share of troubles in the recording studio. Making Apple Venus would be no different. "Well, we had our trials and tribulations, as they say," concedes Moulding. "The album really got spaced out over about an 18 month period. [It wasn't our fault] - we just kept having a lot of bad luck. We lost our producer who after about eight months working on the record said he couldn't spare anymore time and had other projects to move on to. Plus the very first studio that we started to use was in a very poor state of repair and we got into a contractual wrangle over that. In the end we lost about two months of time we could have been recording and had to start again virtually."

Another blow to the band was the departure of guitarist and arranger Dave Gregory, who had been part of the XTC mix for two decades. But he was becoming so miserable that his exit was welcomed by Partridge and Moulding. "We're much better without Dave and he's probably much better without us," states Partridge. "We needed to be rid of Dave. He was unhappy with everything... I was ready to prepare my 'you're fired from the band' speech, but he saved me from that by leaving when he did."

But Moulding adds, "It was quite a sad day when Dave left, really. As a three piece we'd been together for, oh, 20 years. It's quite a long time. But Dave's view of how the future should shape up differed somewhat to ours. But he didn't want us forming our own record company... there's a lot of things he didn't much like about how the future was shaping up. So it was a relief when he actually said he wanted to leave. But it's probably a bit more complicated than that.

"Maybe there was a bit of jealousy there because Dave wasn't a writer in the band," continues Moulding, "I guess you'd call him an interpreter of what me and Andy were doing. Maybe he thought his role in the group was being diminished somewhat. I don't know. Only he knows. Although, I knew him for quite some time, in a way I didn't really know him, because he's a very English sort of guy and very reserved and never really opened up."

Listening to the album, you'd never sense obstacles that the band overcame to bring Apple Venus to your ears. Its lush, pastoral and orchestral sound is a logical step for Partridge, a songwriter who's more influenced by Beach Boys than Beefheart these days. Indeed, Partridge concedes that the band has changed an awful lot since their early days. "The change is enormous. I wouldn't recognize them now and vice versa. The band that made White Music would be appalled at the apparent straightness and complexity of the our music."

Moulding concurred with Partridge on the new direction, feeling that change was necessary: "I think after a seven year period we wanted to come back with something that was a bit different. Certainly, not the usual XTC stuff - those harmonies and guitars and that. So it was kind of 'what can we do now that would keep it interesting for us and perhaps surprise a few people.' Because if we're going to extend our career longer we need to keep constantly surprising ourselves and coming up with something different."

They certainly surprise with the album's first track, "River of Orchids," a song that Partridge dubs an "ecological nursery rhyme." Its evocative lyrics feature cold, hard asphalt transforming into the floral waterway of the title. Andy explains the song's genesis. "I sat down with my keyboard of orchestral sounds and found this cyclical pattern building up. I thought, no, I can't pull the plug on this. It kept me dancing for hours. I thought what can I do to save this. I need a phrase. I checked in a book of lyrics and found the [opening] line 'I heard the dandelions roar in Piccadilly Circus.'"

The delights continue as Partridge and Moulding drape their melodious songs in gorgeous orchestral arrangements. The sweet, wide-eyed love song, "I'd Like That" makes due without drums, its beat joyously slapped out on the participants knees. Others tracks like "Knights in Shining Karma," stand out in stark acoustic trappings.

The new musical direction arises in part from Partridge and Moulding's mutual love for classic show tunes, an influence that, 20 years on, is finally flourishing in XTC's work. "I guess you'd put these songs more in the mood of show tunes that you've probably heard in the past," says Moulding. "I think any song on the record could come from some sort of Rodgers and Hammerstein thing really. I guess it's music that our parents played, those sort of tunes went into our subconscious." Partridge's longing "I Can't Own Her" indeed sounds like a selection from a musical.

Moulding's own contributions, the enjoyably jaunty "Frivolous Tonight" and "Fruit Nut," deal with seemingly mundane matters like good conversation and gardening - therefore probably not his most important compositions. But that's not what he was aiming for: "I had a big think over Entertainment Today these few years that we've had a layoff. I just got to thinking that maybe I'd taken myself too seriously in the past and would like to write something in a lighter mode. I do what most people in this industry do, take themselves too seriously. It's kind of nice to hear songs that are lighter in tone"

This album behind them, the XTC are ready to get on with their career. "I think we've just started a new beginning," says Moulding. "It's very exciting at the moment because we're building our own studio and we hope maybe at some stage, if we have enough money, to sign other acts as well."

A companion album, Apple Venus, Volume 2 is already in the works. "Volume 2 has not been recorded yet," states Moulding, "because when we started this record we were going to record about 21 songs and we got about two months down the line and hit upon the idea of narrowing the palate and doing the more acoustic, orchestral side of it first. So all the electric guitar ones are on the back burner. It's probably a bit optimistic to expect it this year, I would say probably early part of next year," Moulding offers a tad apologetically.

Well it sure beats another seven year wait.

"Absolutely," he concurs.

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[Thanks to Drew MacDonald]