May 2000
Artist of the Month

Andy Partridge Talks To
“We're not trying to play dumb or play smart - we're just doing ‘us.’ I just wish people would take it for what it is...”

By James Marck

Most pop bands with a 20-plus year history have entered the public consciousness by sheer endurance. XTC is a most notable exception. XTC is the embodiment of anti-star rock.

Prolific, poppy and delightfully accessible, the British band (for the sake of brevity let's just say the longtime songwriting duo of guitarist Andy Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding) is known to their fans alone. They have virtually no profile outside of their dedicated following and they don't really care. They like what they do, are generally happy with the results and are able to make a living at it because they make the kind of pop they like, not something generic or made to measure. And that makes the people who appreciate XTC feel special in spite of, or perhaps because of the fact that they are part of a big club.

“I think we're honest,” says Partridge on the phone from New York where he is doing some promo work for the band's forthcoming CD, Wasp Star. “We're not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes, we're not doing this for any weird reason. We're not trying to play dumb or play smart - we're just doing ‘us.’ I just wish people would take it for what it is - music. Actually I just wish people would take it. The biggest frustration is getting it heard. I'm convinced that if more people heard it, namely if radio would deem to play us, more people would like it. We're being kept at arm's length. We can't afford to pay them enough to bribe them to play us on their stations.”

Partridge jokes, but the humour is decidedly dark. Wasp Star, part of a collection of material they have been developing for some time now, is XTC at the height of their power. The songs are melodious, wry little statements packed with subtle sonic tricks that create almost prototypical pop sketches. That the band is most often compared to the Beatles is doubly ironic because the interplay of melody, harmony and crisp, classic guitar takes, does recall vintage Beatles. But decidedly unlike the Beatles, XTC has never been able to sustain interest from hit radio. And while Wasp Star, like other XTC albums, has enormous commercial potential, there is no history of the band being able to cash in on it.

“It wasn't made to be ‘commercial,’” Partridge says of the album. “We just made it and that's the way it came out. We never sit down and say ‘Let's design this one to be really quirky and artily obtuse, or let's design this one to give N-Sync a run for their money.’ We just write the songs that we write and see how they come out. It's almost subconscious.”

So why does inspired, intelligent pop go so manifestly unheard by the masses? Well...

“Maybe people want some sort of music that fits a certain boxed-in lifestyle,” Partridge suggests. “Maybe people are leading a ‘speed-garage, ambient, opera-billy’ life and they want nothing else - they want a kind of sonic wall paper to their existence.”

Partridge admits that their very lack of mainstream success is a blessing of sorts and, while he's not holding his breath, he feels (once again) that this record might be the one to break through.

“It was a great recording session. If nobody dies it's a good recording session. And the industry has seemed to take it very well. Of course we've always been pretty well received by people who get their records for free.

“And lack of success has been really great for us. It's been the biggest spur to keep going. If we were suddenly successful we'd probably explode into some horrible khaki-coloured jelly. The lack of success has been helpful - I know it sounds perverse, but at least I'm being honest here. It has helped us stay ‘un-backed’ into a corner. It's helped us stay hungry, to need to communicate our ideas, to feel fearless and dabble in different things that we wouldn't do if we thought we had a set audience or certain ‘style.’ We don't feel shackled.”

The band certainly felt “shackled” by their former label, Virgin Records. Partridge is very candid about his feelings for XTC's longtime association with the marque. After fighting to dump their contract for years, Partridge and Moulding simply “downed tools” and went on a recording strike.

“We never made any money from the sale of our records when we were on the Virgin label,” he says. “We slowly woke up to the fact that we did have an appalling deal and we would never make any money with Virgin - just the way the deal was structured, the way we were permanently living on negative equity. We had borrowed money in our own name with previous managers - we borrowed huge sums of money which of course you have to use to make albums with, to pay for videos with --all that sort of stuff. We were kept in the red permanently for about 20 years.

“Then around about 92 we saw Nonsuch get released to complete and utter apathy by Virgin. And at that point, we thought Nonsuch was the best record we had ever made and I think the frustration just got to us. We said ‘Look, we're not going to make any money with this label, they don't know what to do with us - we're not fulfilling a specific role that they want us to fulfill.’ I don't think they knew what that was but they certainly didn't want us to be ‘us.’ They wished we were something else. So we decided to withdraw our labour. Anytime we went into the studio they would have owned everything we recorded for perpetuity. So we said we're not going to record for you, you have to let us go. And they wouldn't for five years, they just sat on us. So all we could do was store up songs of which Apple Venus and Wasp Star are the best of that bunch.”

XTC, for a variety of reasons, (not the least of which is Partridge's refusal to tour) has become known as a difficult act for record companies to promote. Partridge remains unmoved.

“I think that record companies would like us to sell more records for them. By touring, by doing the rock and roll game, the tours, the parties, the whole nine yards. But we don't like that kind of thing so we don't figure that's us. Our ‘art’ for want of a better word, is making records - writing songs and making records. I think we do that better than most other people. But we don't do tours great and we don't do videos great and we don't do the party thing great - there's people who do that a whole lot better than we do. So trying to be realistic about where we are on the scale, as far as record makers go I think we make quite good records.

“It's continually an upwards ladder. You get four or five rungs up and you think that'll be your whole career. 25 rungs later you think ‘maybe I'll go another four of five and maybe that'll be all I've got.’ But it's like a never-ending ladder - you seem to be going up all the time. The goals change, the view changes, what you expect from yourself changes, what drives you on to some extent changes.

“I honestly think that we haven't got worse - there's no sense of degradation. As musicians, as record makers, as songwriters, whatever. I think we've actually improved. I've been lucky enough to stumble on some new things. Sometimes you think ‘Shit I'm never going to write any more songs’ and then you stumble on something like Stupidly Happy. It's a very stumbly process. You're continually hobbling along stubbing your toe on stuff and if you brush away the dirt you see there's something down there.

“I know what drives me and it's almost pathologically nutty. But it's the desire to climb higher up and somehow exorcise all the people I thought were great when I was growing up - the Ray Davies, the Brian Wilsons - to lay away their ghosts by moving toward writing songs that would be better than theirs. I still feel like an apprentice on that front. But it's still a kick in the ass. I look at it like ‘Ray Davies, I wrote that song for you.’ I feel like I have to win. I suppose it's kind of childish but I feel like I have to win this game.”

Wasp Star/Apple Venus V2

Apple Venus V1

Fossil Fuel

Drums & Wires

Black Sea


Oranges & Lemons

English Settlement

Go back to Chalkhills Articles.

[Thanks to Trevor Millett]