Orchestral XTC

Guitar Player Magazine
April 1999
By Kyle Swenson

Art pop's masterminds return after a seven-year hiatus

XTC fans are a patient lot - they have waited seven years for new sounds from the quirky British popsters. After releasing the acclaimed Nonsuch in 1992, the band became embroiled in legal difficulties with Virgin Records, and refused to enter the studio to track any music. But the long wait is over. Three releases on the TVT label give XTC's music starved fans sustenance. For starters, there's Transistor Blast - The Best of the BBC Sessions, a four CD set of radio performances from 1977 to 1989. A new full-length studio album, Apple Venus Vol. I, should arrive in stores soon after this magazine hits the stands. And scheduled for release this fall is the sequel, cleverly titled Apple Venus Vol. II.

"I have a pet chord shape for every album" - Andy Partridge

During their self-imposed studio exile, band-mates Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding wrote enough songs to spill into the next decade. "By the time we got out of our legal mess and were able to record what we wanted," says Partridge, "we had 42 songs. We planned to put the two Venus discs in one package, but we met with a lot of resistance from the record companies, and then we met resistance from the bank".

Splitting their material into two releases had one advantage: Partridge and Moulding were able to indulge their carvings for acoustic/orchestral sounds on the first album, and then resume travelling their longtime electro-pop path on the second. "I wrote a lot of this new material immediately after Nonsuch," Partridge recalls. "I was in an orchestral frame of mind, so those songs aren't traditional, rock and roll textured things. But after I got that out of my system, I thought, 'Where's the electric guitar? Plug it in and make a horrible rattlegang!'"

Prioritizing the orchestral songs had an unexpected result: Electric guitarist Dave Gregory became impatient and, after almost 20 years with XTC, left the band in the middle of recording Vol. I. "The annoying thing for Dave was," explains Partridge, "is that he left before we made that album he wanted to make. He was much miffed that we always asked him to play keyboards. We'd always say, 'This needs a piano', and then we'd look around the room and our eyes would slowly land on Dave. He got sick of being the piano player by default".

Songwriting Springboards

While Partridge has no intentions of making XTC into a cover band, he does enjoy using other artists' music as a springboard for his own. "Messing around with Hendrix-style playing actually inspired "All You Pretty Girls" [from the '84 album The Big Express]", he admits. "If you listen to people's early work, you can play the structure game. Most early work is somewhat primitive, so you're dissecting a frog as opposed to dissecting a blue whale. Take early stuff from Burt Bacharach, the Beatles, The Kinks, or the Beach Boys - there's pretty much a set pattern to what they do. I enjoy tinkering with a scalpel to create my own patterns".

Sometimes a song just whimpers and lays down to die and no amount of shaking it or slapping it will bring it back to life" - Andy Partridge

Likewise, Moulding - who wrote the band's first hit, "Making Plans For Nigel" in '79 - fiddles with the Beatles, Beach Boys, and jazz songs to inspire his own. "I'll start off with a chord change from one artists," says Moulding, "and glue a couple of chords from another. I'll begin by playing something from West Side Story, and before I know it, I'll be playing my own tune. On "Frivolous Tonight", I was messing about with these Beach Boy chords, and I had this rocking melody which sounded very similar to the theme song from Steptoe and Son, a comedy program in England. I smashed them together, and it worked out very well".

Sometimes Moulding employs open tuning to escape musical ruts. "For Skylarking, I used open E," he says. "If I put the major third note at the bottom of a chord, it rearranged the notes and provoked a different melody in my head. On the other hand, chords and melodies can turn out very modal in open E or open A tuning. A lot of my stuff at that time came out a little folky, and I got tired of that".

Partridge also favours alternate tunings. "About 90% of Big Express was done in open E," he says. "It stimulated my brain because I couldn't figure out what the hell I was doing. Now I'm working with keyboards, because I don't know what the hell I'm doing. When I figure them out, I might have to play bassoon".

Mayor of Simple Gear

Partridge and Moulding aren't tech-heads. "Guitars are a songwriting thing," says Partridge. "I get just as sexed up about a pencil. I wrote 99% of my guitar parts on my daughter's ¾-sized student guitar. I find myself picking it up because it's so little and non-threatening. It's Romanian [affects accent], 'Home of great guitar makers, up there with all the Gods, yes, Fender and Gibson!' It's so crappy and unimportant, it doesn't matter if you smash it in a rage".

Partridge likes this guitar so much, he had an electric version made. "A New York guitar builder named Dennis Fano called me out of the blue one day and said, 'Can I make you a guitar?' So we took the Romanian guitar's proportions and converted it to electric guitar with no cutaways and all the controls on the side. After a couple of months he said, 'Can I come and show it to you?' I thought it was going to be a cigar box with rubber bands, but it was beautifully constructed".

Partridge also plays an early '70s Martin D-35 acoustic: "It's a swine to play. It has really heavy action, but it sounds wonderful. I bought it out of sheer desperation, because none of the Woolworth acoustics I had sounded any good when miked".

The rest of Partridge's gear "is the cheapest I could find". He uses a budget Korg multi-effects box that includes a compressor, distortion, delay and "pretty useless" chorus. Because Gregory left with Partridge's favourite '63 Fender Super Reverb, Partridge now depends on his Award-Session Sessionette 70, an English solid-state amp. XTC spent from '77 to '82 on the road, until mental and physical fatigue - not to mention Partridge's stage fright - caused by the band to swear off touring. One artifact remains from Partridge's live performance days: "I toured with my '75 Ibanez Artist for years, and did so many sweaty gigs, the metal parts on it are totally corroded. It looks like they've been sandblasted. I had all the metal replaced, but the little piece that surrounds the pickup-selector toggle got overlooked. It looks like it's been at the bottom of the sea since Tudor times. But I resurrected the Ibanez, and now it's my main electric again".

The remaining members of XTC are in the process of building a studio at Moulding's house. Included will be an Otari Radar hard-disk recorder and a Sony Digital tape deck. "We'll probably use the Radar for the most of the recording and then slave it to the 24-track," says Moulding, who admits the band won't be depending on his engineering skills for Apple Venus Vol. II. "My demos are so awful that I have to use a chorus to colour the sound of my Fender Squier Telecaster and my late '80s Takamine".

For Apple Venus Vol. I, producer/engineer Haydn Bendall brought in an AKG tube mic, some Brüel & Kjaer mics, a Tubetech tube compressor/limiter and a Tubetech equalizer. "Everything sounds like a million dollars when you use that stuff," says Partridge. "If you're going to start a home studio, you have to get a great mic. It's kind of pointless getting all the other stuff with whistles and bells. Get a great mic and a compressor, and a great EQ, and you're 99% of the way there".

Pickings from the Apple Venus Tree

Partridge's fascination with symphonic sounds began when he wrote Vol. I's opener, "River of Orchids". "The song came from tinkering with orchestral samples of plucked strings. I came up with a two-bar phrase, looped it, and then worked on getting a couple of melodies to lay over each other like a nursery rhyme, or a canon. And where they rubbed together, I got some nice vibrating, moiré effects".

For "Harvest Festival", Partridge wrote parts on acoustic guitar, but came up with a different plan for the final recording: "I wanted the song to sound like a school assembly - when I was a kid, school assembly was conducted with a grand piano. Even though the song came into existence on the guitar, I thought, 'Now let's cast it in the film'. The part must be played by a big, lumpy, woolly sounding grand piano".

English gentlemen - Colin Moulding and Andy Partridge go for the chime and jangle on MTV in May '89

On "Easter Theatre", the Romanian guitar produced exactly the sound Partridge needed to inspire the lyrics. "I used the bottom three strings to form very dense, clustery chords. The ascending figure sounds like something pushing up and growing out - like springtime. The whole meaning of the song came out of the onomatopoeia of these ascending chords".

Transistor Paths

"I apologize for the fake Brian May guitar solo near the top of 'Easter Theatre'", says Partridge. "I thought it was really incongruous, but everyone thought I should leave it. I recorded it using either the Ibanez Artist or the Fano guitar. I used the Korg's compressor and a Fender Tremolux - which made the amp sound smoother - and I blended the Korg's distortion with a little amp distortion. Also, we used the Korg pedal to put a very quick, single delay on the track. I you have a really quick delay slap, somewhere between 10 and 20 milliseconds, you get a little metallic edge. It gives a few teeth to the saw. At the board, we compressed the solo further to make a very smooth, yet distorted sound".

Partridge's favourite reverb sound came naturally - from recording in the hallway at Moulding's house. "'I'd Like That' was my Martin with a valve AKG mic and lots of compression," details Partridge. "I just prayed no one would come in the front door, because they would've smashed me off the chair. The guitar sounded good because the hallway has a tiled floor, papered walls and a hard ceiling. It produced this nice live sound - not too giant, just sparkly enough. At the end of each phrase, where the guitar comes to a halt, we doubled and tripled the guitar to make the little corners thicker".

Admittedly, some of Partridge's tones are happy accidents born of laziness. "The big bronze-sounding electric guitars at the end of 'Your Dictionary' are my Ibanez through Colin's 150-watt Gallien-Krueger bass combo. The amp was plugged in at the time, so I rolled off the bass and said, 'That makes a noise, let's go!'"

"Knights In Shining Karma" features Partridge playing finger-style electric. "I do this pretend finger-picking where I use my thumb and one or two fingers," he elaborates. Partridge ran his Ibanez through the Korg pedal, compressed it, and tracked the sound direct, adding additional compression at the board. He chose his Ibanez because he felt that soft finger-picking would be too obvious on an acoustic guitar. "There's a more powerful intimacy when you have a big sounding instrument that's only using a little of its power," he says. "It's like some grizzly bear being very, very gentle. It's more theatrically gentle than a hamster being gentle".

Hard-core fans will enjoy reading XTC: Songs and Stories [sic], by XTC and Neville Farmer [Hyperion]. This book is packed with photographs, interviews, and history - as well as detailed background info on dozens of XTC songs.

Go back to Chalkhills Articles.

[Thanks to David Oh]