To Venus And Back

Entertainment Today
May 19, 2000
Feature Story

English pop duo XTC stings sharply and shines brightly with Wasp Star

by Michael Jolly

Two dapper, middle-aged English gentlemen sit in a comfy West Hollywood hotel suite. One frets over a newly discovered ink stain on his trousers, while the other has just lost his room key. Believe it or not, this is a rock band. More specifically, a great rock band. Even more specifically, this is XTC, among the finest purveyors of pop music anywhere, who exploded onto the English punk scene way back in the '70s.

The man who's misplaced his key is Andy Partridge, a formidable songwriter and all 'round witty chap, while the one with the trouser stain is the more reserved Colin Moulding, bass player extraordinaire and a fine tunesmith in his own right, who's been Partridge's creative partner for over a quarter of a century.

What they're doing in Los Angeles is promoting their perky new album, Wasp Star [Apple Venus Volume 2], due out on May 23, the electric companion to the last year's orchestral/acoustic wonder Apple Venus Volume 1, XTC's first release after a seven-year absence. The week before they were doing press in New York and in a few days they're moving onto Japan. This is the closest XTC comes to touring these days, having retired from the stage in the early '80s after Partridge suffered severe bouts of stage fright. As a result of their low profile, not enough music fans are aware of the XTC's XTC amazing back catalog beginning in the late '70s when they were, in Partridge's description, "smart-assed art punks." In the ensuing two decades on albums such as 1986's Skylarking, Partridge gradually revealed himself to be a classic and very English pop songwriter - one that holds his own against such Brit legends as Paul McCartney and the Kinks' Ray Davies.

The past decade has been a bumpy one for the Swindon-based band, battling ex-managers in court and going on strike from an uncooperative and oppressive record label, the reason for the seven year drought in recording. Then, just as they were liberated from their record contract, longtime member and multi-instrumentalist Dave Gregory exited the band, pairing down the already drummer-less XTC to the duo of Partridge and Moulding. Referring to the woes of that kept them out of the limelight this past decade, Partridge offers in a slightly weary tone, "You know the story. It's very dull and I've said it a thousand times, but we were away most of the '90s. Kind of ironic, really, because that whole Britpop thing [featuring such Union Jack-waving, XTC-inspired acts as Blur and Pulp] came and went in England. We feel largely responsible for siring those kids, as it were."

Where Apple Venus Volume 1 commenced with the gentle pitter-patter of water drops and pizzicato strings, Wasp Star opens with crunchy guitar and pounding drums. What follows is the rockin'-est XTC release in ages. The tracks are bolstered by completely contemporary, direct production courtesy of Nick Davis. While hardly one of the band's most ambitious works, Wasp Star, featuring tunes like "Stupidly Happy," is rather a bright, sunny collection, reflecting the atmosphere in which it was created.

Partridge contrasts the sessions for the new album with the problematic recording of Volume 1. "Really easy, really smooth," is how he describes it. "Nobody left the sessions halfway through, nobody fought with anybody, nobody left the band, nobody ran out of money. It was a real joy to do... It was an easy record. It just seemed to flow out. Before we knew it, it was finished. It's like 'How did we do that?'"

"The material was very straight ahead material, I think," Moulding points out. "The arrangements weren't too complicated."

"That's right," adds Partridge. "There's only a string quartet on one song [the wonderful album closer "The Wheel And The Maypole"] with an oboe and that was the most complex thing to record I think. It was pretty straight-ahead stuff."

Partridge agrees that the album displays a more positive side of XTC. "It's more optimistic, I think," he offers. "Despite there being a few downers, the majority of the material I think is pretty up. But then again I think that was my state of mind when writing it and certainly when recording it.

Leavening the atmosphere was the departure of Gregory, who seemed to be pulling the band down with a negative attitude. "Not to be an ultra-bitch or anything," qualifies Partridge, "but not having Dave Gregory going around saying 'Oh no you can't do that, that's not going to be any good,' I felt liberated, you know, let's try some things out!"

"And of course when you've got your own studio," adds Moulding, "it's our time, our money - you can afford to experiment."

As for the title, Partridge explains its origin. "[It's] Aztec for the planet Venus, they called it the 'Wasp Star.' We needed a shorter, sharper title that was more reflective of that material. I think the lazy way would have been just calling it Apple Venus Volume 2. Also I didn't want to prejudice our chances at radio, because Apple Venus Volume 1 never got played on radio. Just a few stations would begrudgingly put on "I'd Like That" and that was it."

"I think we got a panic phone call from [our record label] TVT," says Moulding. "They didn't want us to call it Volume 2, because they feared it would be tainted in some way."

An important component to the album's perky sound was the addition of distortion added artificially through the wonders of recording technology. Without getting too technical, Partridge describes the distortion-adding device as "a piece of modern, up-to-the-second equipment" which "makes the sound sound like it's more from the '50s or '60s when you had tape distortion, which you couldn't get rid of. Your favorite records have probably got lots of distortion on them if you analyze them in terms of the sound contents of the audio tape," he explains.

"All those Tamla records are just soaked in distortion." continues Partridge, "Fuzzy bass, over-cranked drums, distorted vocals where he's singing too loud and it's overloading on the tape. Fuzzy keyboards where they're playing through an amp and the speakers are breaking up. And they're really exciting. It makes you realize how much distortion plays a part in not fooling the brain, but exciting, titivating the brain. It's like some sort of fur on things. It's a sensual thing. People used to go out of their way to get rid of distortion in the '80s and a lot of the '90s, and now we're realizing it's the thing that makes a lot of sounds vivacious - this fur, this stuff growing on them."

The album's first single is "The Man Who Murdered Love," in which the narrator literally puts L-O-V-E out of its misery. This clever lyrical conceit animates a feeling that most people relate to. "What, the desire to free humanity of all the problems that love brings?" guesses Partridge, "Because it does bring as many problems as it does good things. Well, I thought I'd sort of be a hero and murder him. Well he asks me to, as 'he hasn't worked, and he's been employed for so long.' So I bump him off and free humanity up to be just the cold hearted shitheads that they are and in any case and not feel guilty about it."

XTC seems to be in a very healthy state at the moment, and they've continued to build an impressive recorded legacy. But it hasn't been easy. "We could be richer," admits Partridge matter-of-factly. "We never made any money from the sale of our records until two years ago. So we could be richer. I've actually bought two suits to come away with on this trip, and the only other suit I owned Entertainment Today: XTC previously to that was one I bought in 1984... I actually thought I'd treat myself because I've actually got a little bit of money, but I could do with some cash. That would be nice, some cash reward for 20 years."

While their coffers might not be overflowing, Partridge and Moulding can claim a wealth of music-making talent that shows no sign of running dry. "I think we seem to be getting better," states Partridge without hesitation, "since 1977 onwards. The graph still seems to be going up. I seriously believe that. I don't think you can look at one of our albums and say 'Oh, that was really a bad slip backwards.' There may be some that are slightly better than others, but the graph seems to be generally going up. Who knows, the bubble might burst and we might come up with a load of shit next time, but I hope not. I hope we can still keep the quality. It's important for your state of mind to be the best you can."

The next XTC release could be a box set from Virgin Records or a collection of unreleased demo recordings (working title: Fuzzy Warbles). Apart from that, Partridge isn't sure about the future direction of XTC, and is none too worried.

"I haven't written anything for a few years because we've been busy recording," says Partridge, "I don't know where my head's at... I just don't know what I would like to do song-wise right now. I'm just glad the whole Apple Venus project is finished, and I think, finished well. I'm just enjoying sighing now, going, 'Ahhh, it's done," because it's been hanging in the air since '92. I should imagine it feels like getting a big epic movie out of the way that's taken like five years to plan, and three years to film and make. It must feel similar. So right now, there's nothing on the horizon and I'm really glad. It's blank and I'm loving it."

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Thanks to Drew MacDonald.