XTC: Rockers in a Dangerous Time

Fairfield County Advocate
November 7, 1984

A phone interview conducted with Andy Partridge by Brett Milano.

An exclusive and revealing discussion with the band's eloquent frontman

By Brett Milano

Every era of rock and roll has its unsung heroes, the bands that make superb music without gaining widespread recognition. And of all this era's unsung bands, XTC may be the most heroic. Over a string of seven albums, Andy Partridge and company have brought modern rock to rare peaks of creativity and intelligence. From the giddy experiments of 1978's Go 2 to the pastoral beauty of last year's Mummer, XTC have seldom sounded like anyone but themselves. And their singles — to name three, "Senses Working Overtime," "Life Begins at the Hop," and "Great Fire"—rank with the past decade's most individual pop (for the uninitiated, seek out Waxworks, an essential English compilation of their A-sides).

But it hasn't been an easy road for the band. Two years ago, a commercial breakthrough seemed possible on the heels of their English Settlement album. But Partridge suffered a nervous breakdown early in the tour, causing his decision to retire the band from live performance. The Mummer album had a troubled history, nearly staying unreleased due to its more experimental sound.

Still, the band remains active and optimistic, XTC—now a trio of Partridge, bassist Colin Moulding, and guitarist Dave Gregory— have just released The Big Express (Geffen), their seventh album (original working titles were Coalface, Shaking Skinheads, and Bastard Son of Hard Blue Rayhead). After years of struggling, they've seemingly decided that commercial success doesn't matter, that it's enough to make music with your heart and soul behind it. This new resolve speaks well for XTC's future; perhaps it will even backfire and produce the long-deserved hit.

This interview with Andy Partridge was done by phone from the band's rural English hometown of Swindon, Wiltshire. It was XTC's first American interview after the release of Mummer.

Advocate: I believe you're in the studio right now?

Partridge: That's right, we're working at Crescent in Bath, a little cottage industry of a studio. We commute from Swindon every morning jump in a car and head out. We've been working on the album for three weeks, so it's really just the tip of the iceberg—or else we're brushing all the sand away from this little pointed thing, and hopefully there's a pyramid at the bottom.

A: Is there a theme to the songs you're writing now?

P: Right now it's difficult to say. I can only think about the songs after the album's been out for some time. Then it's cleared from your system, you've flushed it away, and you can say "well, it's that shape, but I couldn't see it while I was inside it." We've started work on about 16 tracks. Let's see, there's "Reign of Blows," about totalitarianism, trying to explain that there's not much difference between Britain's empire, America's empire, the Nazi empire. There's "I Bought Myself a Liarbird," a little song about our manager.

A: You said recently that the next album would be a more r&b record after Mummer. Did it turn out that way?

P: I think so. We're conscious of wanting to get away from the English Settlement/Mummer sound. I think we get bored over a period of two albums, and want to move away. I don't think you'll hear any acoustic guitars this time, or any particularly multilayered things. I think it'll be quite a tough record.

A: How do you spend your time, now that the band doesn't tour? Do you stay on your own and write songs?

P: Mostly, yeah. I'm a hermit, really. I don't like the glare of publicity—it's a horribly corny phrase, but it's true. I get embarrassed if I get recognized in the street. Teenage girls will rush up and it's me blushing, not them! Unless I keep away from that music-biz stuff, I don't think I could write any songs. I tread a fine balance between just about liking music, and having 99 percent distaste for it. I think that if I spent any more time in the music business, I'd lose that little one percent.

A: Does that make it harder for XTC to stay intact as a band?

P: In a sense, we're not like three or four fellows plugging into a wall and saying "yeah! Here we go!"—the Hard Day's Night-ness of it, you know what I mean? It's impossible to be that anymore, because now we're just three friends and a mercenary on drums. The visual group identity has ceased to be. We're all pretty mundane-looking anyway, we don't wear makeup . . .

A: No hair down to your nose . . .

P: Well, maybe I'll grow the hair from inside my nose, and tape it to my chest! But really, we've got no high-level visual thing to keep up. For me, music is all—I'm not that crazy on video presentation of music, and locking it too much with visuals. I'm not happy with the videos we've done—we were just the butt of filmmakers' concepts. When you've got three minutes to make an impact, all you can do is be kooky —you start jumping around saying "love me, love me." It looks pretty crass, I must admit. I suppose we'll have to start making videos again, just to keep in touch with the public, but I'd like to redress the balance and do some good ones.

A: What kept Mummer from being released here for so long?

P: Oh, loads of things. When we first finished it, we took it to Virgin and they said "oh dear, this is not commercial at all. There's no singles on it." We said "well, er, we did our best!" and they told us to go away and write some more tracks. So I, very despondently, came up with "Great Fire." Which they loved, they said it would be a big-selling single. So they put it out, and it flopped.

After that, we remixed four songs, because we hadn't gotten along with (producer) Steve Nye. He kept trying to "produce" us, and we don't need "producing"—all we need is someone to capture it. He kept telling us "that's a lousy line, go play something else"— and we were getting depressed about it, someone was breaking our music up right before our eyes. So we put the album back together, took it back to Virgin, and said "look, we're very happy with this—please put it out." So they sat on it for another six months, and reluctantly agreed to let it escape. It came out to a flurry of non-promotion.

A: Even though the first reviews were very positive . . .

P: Oh yes, the critics tend to love the shit out of us. And we were so despondent, because Virgin didn't promote it at all. Meanwhile Epic in the States said, 'well, you're right Virgin, this certainly isn't an album to release in America'—and they promptly dropped the band. It took us this long to find somebody who'd release it. A tough old road!

A: Does it get frustrating, to get so acclaimed and not do well on the charts?

P: Incredibly frustrating. I keep thinking 'hell, what's wrong with us? They're playing the most banal stuff in the world, and yet they won't play us.' I have this suspicion that's been increasing over the years—you know, that maybe someone's got it in for us.

Advocate: Some of the old XTC songs were revelling in pop culture, like "Radios in Motion"—and on Mummer, "Funk Pop a Roll" is a complete turnaround. Have you gotten disillusioned with rock and roll?

Partridge: It'll sound like a loser if I say yes—but if I say no, it'll sound like a loser trying to lie. Sure, it's frustrating, but then again, I can see why we're not huge. We hide away, we don't play by the same rules most bands play. We don't wear the right clothes, we don't go out to nightclubs to be seen.

I think the last time I had hope for music to be saved—the last time I was stupid enough to think it would be—was with the punk thing. And it got leapt on by the media, and turned into their way to sell things to the kids. I felt so let down and so cheated. At the time, I felt like, 'look, music shouldn't be so precious—let's all do it, and revel in it.' Then the media took over.

A: Whether you're huge or not, it seems that XTC's fans tend to be really strong admirers.

P: And they usually find us in some obscure way, like hearing an old B-side on college radio. And people write the most amazing letters to us—I mean, we read these letters and we're almost in tears, because they're so fond of us. We get most of our mail from the States, about 90 percent of it—and we can see peoples' frustration in trying to impress us on their friends!

A: Why do you think people respond so strongly?

P: I suppose it's for the same reasons I used to discover bands—I'd hear a track on the radio or something, and that little piece of elastic in my head would snap. I'd think, 'waah! That was marvelous! I must have dreamt that track up, because it's just everything I ever wanted to hear!' I'd feel that I owned the band, and start championing them to my friends. So I suppose we must touch that off in some people too.

A: Do you ever miss performing?

P: No. Not at all. I'm kind of a small entertainer—if people come around for the evening, it's always me that winds up entertaining, telling long tales. I'd be great if I had kids. But I'm just not interested in being onstage a half-mile away, under a spotlight shaking my fat around, running on pure nervous breakdown.

A: And yet, when I've seen the band live, you seemed very much at home.

P: Not at all—I was scared into performing. You're up on the stage and there's this threat of torture, making you tell all. I suppose the hour onstage could be just about bearable, but so much around it was unbearable—like the travelling, being thrown from one van to another.

A: Was it always that way?

P: No, I liked it initially . . . it's a different thing, you enjoy playing small clubs. You set your gear up, play to 50 or 100 people in a club the size of somebody's living room. You're all shaking hands with them, they're shaking hands with you, and there's a sort of communication. But you never have that in those astrodomes where we ended up playing.

A: Which brings us to what happened to the band a couple of years ago if it's not too hard to talk about . . .

P: No, really—you name it, I'll answer it.

A: Okay. First of all, there were some wild rumors going around . . .

P: Oh, there were some great ones—like that I'm dead! Peter Blegvad told me that one, he's the chap I produced an album for (The Naked Shakespeare) several months back. I had a meeting with him, and he said, 'part of the reason I wanted to use you, is that my friends thought you were all dead.' Well Pete, explain! He said there'd been obituary shows in the States, where they'd play a load of XTC tracks back-to-back, very solemnly with no talking. There was a general rumor that we'd stopped our tour because I'd died off, but there were all sorts going around—the band split, Andy's fired everyone, Colin's terminally ill—all sorts.

A: What really happened?

P: I literally couldn't take it anymore. We'd finished English Settlement, and I'd sort of resigned myself in my head, that I really enjoyed touring and didn't like playing live. We went out on tour around Europe, and I wasn't eating any good, I wasn't sleeping any good, it was becoming the last straw. We did a gig in Paris, where I just ran out—and through not looking after myself, and through getting phobic about audiences—I just passed out, in front of the entire audience. Which really scared me. The audience started going round at 78 rpm. I just had to leave the stage. It made me feel like I was trying to tell me something.

We decided we'd still do our tour of the States, but I needed a while to recover. So I went to see doctors, and hypnotists even, who told me that I was fantastic, I was king of the world—that I should just run out on stage and say 'hi, it's me, king of the world.' So we got to the States, and I did one gig, and the same thing happened—I was just getting so phobic about audiences, and making myself do something I didn't enjoy. The next gig, we'd sold out the Hollywood Palladium, and before the show I said 'I can't do it. Get me on a plane, I'm not going anywhere near a stage.' And I literally cracked up, went to pieces, I had a real attack of the Brian Wilsons, I guess.

A: How did the rest of the band react?

P: Terry Chambers, the drummer, literally refused to speak to me. He borrowed some money from somebody straightaway, and went to live with his girlfriend in Australia. When he came back to work on Mummer, he said, 'look, I'm sick of struggling, I think your music's gone really weird, I don't like your songs these days.' He gave 1,001 reasons, but he'd just had a kid, so he went back to Australia.

Colin, I think, was secretly glad that we stopped touring. He's a family man, got a couple of kids, even though he's the youngest in the band. He had problems on tour, he used to get involved with women, so I think he was glad when we didn't have to do it anymore. As for Dave, I think he missed it purely from the tourist's point of view—he used to go off with his camera while I was doing interviews. But generally, I think the overall feeling in the band is 'phew.'

A: Is it harder now to survive as a band?

P: Not financially, because we used to lose such large sums of money on tour—we've never made any money from music, so there's not much to lose. The only hard thing is the visual aspect—people must think 'oh, XTC, do they still exist?' But musically, we're even more together than before.

Advocate: In some of your songs—like "Melt the Guns," maybe—you picture America as large, powerful, hard to come to grips with. Is that the impression you got from touring here?

Partridge: Oh, very much so. It's not even an undercurrent of violence that we saw, it's more of an over-current. I think when you live in England, you can't get used to the fact that you'd go into a hotel in Texas and there's an armed guard walking behind you with his hand on his gun—or that your hotel in Detroit has double-thickness bullet-proof glass. When you live in a place like Wiltshire, the States are like Sodom.

A: What do you hear when you listen back to the early XTC albums?

P: I heard White Music (the first XTC album) in a restaurant yesterday! I think one of the waitresses recognized us and put it on her tape player. And I just died of embarrassment! I mentioned how I felt being recognized on the street—and this was being recognized in a crowded restaurant, and having your wares thrown back in your face. I think White Music's not only enough to be historically alright, it's our first gropings on vinyl—it's like seeing yourself at your spottiest, your most teenage-y. It has its good points, I suppose— it's violent and sort of exploratory—but I've got to get away from it further, give it a few more years.

A: How did you choose the name XTC?

P: We started calling ourselves that around 1975. We've been in existence—myself, Colin and Terry plus revolving fourth members—from 1973 onwards. The original form we took was kind of punky, because we wre crazy on the New York Dolls. We were called the Helium Kids, and we used to do our darndest to look like the Dolls, and act like the Stooges. We chose XTC because we thought it would be a marvelously easy thing to see in print. Which it is—people always do put it in capitals—they're forced to give us respect! It was kind of like the music, short and sharp and hopefully with no unnecessary crap in it.

A: Aside from being a pun.

P: And think about all the other puns there've been! Think of how the Beatles must have felt, being called that! That's a terrible pun! We've since discovered all these other things that have been called XTC. We've found it's a contraceptive in the States, we've found them in garages—we'd go into the gents, and there'd be a tin on the wall saying, 'XTC.' I brought a pack home as a souvenir—don't think I'll ever use them though . . . they're probably too old by now.

A: What are your hopes for the new record? Does a lot hinge on whether it's successful or not?

P: I think that if we got really famous, we'd probably disappear. We'd cease to exist. But I don't know—I almost don't have any hope for records, because I've been kicked in the groin artistically so much in the past. I just have to fire these wild punches out, see if they connect—and if they don't, I'll just have to fire another out. But what we put out does have our heart and soul in it, and we're as truthful as we can be with it.

A: What's the best song you ever wrote?

P: Lately I think it's "Beating of Hearts," if only for the lyrics. There's nothing too special about them, but I really do mean every single syllable. Be they naïve statements or not, I really do believe them.

A: Was the title Mummer meant to be a rejection of rock glamor?

P: In a way. This part of the world is especially renowned for mummers, and mumming performances; it's quite a tradition. I liked the fact that they were very ordinary people—which we are; that they did this kind of thing once a year—which we do; that the songs are usually strange little songs that people don't always grasp the meaning of— which we do; they like to disguise themselves and hide away—which we do; that they don't have any pretensions to show business or star quality—which we don't. I just felt parallel to this kinky English tradition of coming out once a year to do plays and songs.

A: Any message for the XTC diehards in the States?

P: Yes . . . don't go away. I know our stuff is quite a while coming, but there's another big bunch on the way—so look out!

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[Thanks to Robert Stacy]