XTC: "We Were First"

Original interview by Serge Simonart.
Translated by Tim Van Holder

This is an interview which appeared in the Belgian magazine HUMO a few years back, when Nonsuch was released. I [Tim] tried to keep the original feel of the interview, so the translation isn't always the most elegant one.

From the English town of Swindon, Andy Partridge still works on his ambition: to become rich and un-famous. Partridge is a quiet but busy chap. If there isn't an XTC-album out, he doesn't seem to exist, but in reality he's active on twenty fronts. He draws cartoons. He has his own radio show on BBC Radio 1. He has designed several games. He collects toy soldiers, with which he re-enacts historical battles in his attic, but he also designs those toy soldiers, and one type has even been christened 'XTC' by the manufacturer.

XTC, because that is what we are interested in here, were the conscience of Virgin-mogul Richard Branson: XTC didn't earn any cash, but the loss was good for his image, because they were a prestigious group. Now the roles are reversed: XTC does sell, and Branson had to sell Virgin to the multinational EMI.

HUMO: I hear you bought Virgin?

Partridge: (laughs) "I had a firm that sold dung, and now I sell albums. There's no difference, they're both weapons. (farts) Seriously: it is a rather disconcerting thought that XTC is now part of a company that also produces guided nuclear missiles and other weaponry. Because EMI is one half of Thorn-EMI, and Thorn makes weapons and guided systems. So XTC is on the same label as cruise missiles. I just hope we don't have to tour together."

HUMO: What do you do on the BBC radio show?

Partridge: "I play an Agony Aunt, or rather an Agony Uncle. An Agony Aunt is usually an argumentative old bat who has one of those love columns in a woman's magazine. I imitate such a person in my own love column. I constantly improvise, based on a few words I picked up on the trainride to London. The eerie part is that I have been getting real letters recently, from people who aren't wise to the fact that the show is a parody, and send in real problems. Really pathethic and bizarre cries of despair, up to threats of suicide. The BBC is now conducting an investigation to discover how many real desperates have hung themselves because I didn't take them seriously in my show. (laughs)"

HUMO: Do you realise that XTC's influence is much greater than your album sales show? One out of every two rock bands we interview appear to be fans of XTC. INXS, for instance; their first two albums were cheap copies of XTC.

Partridge: "Well, I can't agree with your remark without appearing pretentious... but it is correct. (laughs) I'm surprised they admit it, because for mega-stars like them it is very uncool to openly admit they were influenced by little mortals like XTC. Of INXS I know it, because when we were last touring in Australia (1983), they were still rather unknown there. And I remember their girlfriends constantly talking to us to tell us how great INXS was, and how great they thought we were. Those girls also handed out pictures and badges of INXS everywhere - including our concerts! So I invited Michael Hutchence's girl for a more detailed explanation in my trailer. Sorry Michael! It does go to show just how a band like that gets through the first stage: thanks to the tenacity of their girlfriends, who are prepared to campaign for their boyfriends day and night. Now the boys from INXS don't need that anymore... and have other girlfriends. I, on the other hand, have been with the same woman for ten years, and I'm still poor. So the moral of the story... (laughs)"

HUMO: Typical of the music business is that holes in the market are filled immediately. If Lenny Kravitz, who's with Virgin, is a big success, you can count on the other firms to have a Kravitz-style act within a year. And when a group splits, another starts playing that type of music to fill the hole. When The Police split, several bands sprung up, selling Police-ish pop. Ever since Terence Trent D'Arby started to live like a hermit, we've been passed by a dozen Terence-clones. In the case of XTC, it strikes me that several XTC-ish bands have formed in the past ten years, some of them having more success than XTC.

Partridge: "Yes, but again: I can't agree with that without seeming full of myself. You give an example."

HUMO: Crowded House. 'Into Temptation' could have been an XTC song.

Partridge: "Err... I don't know that song. Mmmm... i have heard other stuff by Crowded House, and it seems to me like they have more of a Rubber Soul complex. Compare the Beatles' Rubber Soul album to their albums and you can hear where they got their inspiration. XTC has more of a Sgt. Pepper's complex."

"I constantly get sent demos by bands who claim to be big fans of us. And I am immediately prepared to assist them if they're any good. But when I listen to them, I hear they only copied the green bits of the strawberry, and left no trace of the strawberry itself. There are lots of bands in the U.K. that copy the sound of our first two albums - also our worst albums. Just those albums I'm ashamed of, on which we desperately tried to please the audience. Or groups who get stuck on gimmicks: they heard our song 'Grass', and then make something called 'Lawn', while grass is a hippie term for marihuana. Or they cram a thousand chords into the song, but forget the song."

HUMO: Most popsongs are one-dimensional: the message is 'I love you' or 'I hate you', but that's it. But you put so much information into XTC songs that they can usually be interpreted in ten different ways. Including nine wrong ones.

Partridge: "Yes, I must admit that the B-side of our previous single, (speaks English with a heavy German accent) 'Death to Jewish Scum, the Nazi fatherland will rise again!' was prone to misinterpretation. (laughs) All our songs are misinterpreted. But that's the beauty of pop music: we have written our songs... (We are sitting on a terrace. An ambulance drives past, with blaring sirens. Partridge adjusts immediately and starts yelling in unison.) BEcause WE misUNderSTOOD (he now yells in counterpoint) Other SONGS. It's incredible to see how listeners can come to the wrong conclusion. I've received letters from America, in which crazy yanks ask with indignation why I wrote a song about them... As if I had access to the CIA computer and thought 'Hah! Today I'll write a song about Joe Steakbone from Looneyhole, Mississippi!' (laughs)"

"Everything, is relative, isn't it. In America they called our 'Dear God' a 'controversial' single. Controversial to whom? To some Extreme Right-Wing Intolerant Militant Guerrilla Commando Of The Jesus Freaks Of Fundamental Hell maybe, yes. One American radiostation got a bomb alert after playing 'Dear God'. I suppose it's our own fault, since both Colin Moulding and I like to use metaphors. And an American then says: "Yeah, but you say 'world war' when you mean 'a small difference of opinion'. Then damn well say 'a small difference of opinion'!". And it doesn't help to say: "Yes, but err... we like to make it more interesting, less linear and commonplace, that's what art is all about, isn't it?" I don't simply say "I Love You", I'd much rather say "You're the wish, you are, I had". It's more original. I think, that when I write a song called 'Pink Thing', which is about both my penis (a pink thing) and the product thereof (a pink baby), I'm being pretty clever. But an American farmer reasons: "Is this about your dick, Partridge? Then say DICK, for fuck's sake!" Sorry guys, but I am fond of details, of frills, of original ways of looking at things, of structure, of the construction of a song..."

"Most rock 'n' roll songs are a pile of bricks, but we prefer to build little XTC houses. I amuse myself by inventing new words. 'Morgasm' for instance, a contraction of 'more orgasms'. or I sing "Make your Shakespeare hard" insead of "Fuck her". Or I sing "... your bonzai" while I mean "... your bum's high". On the other hand, you shouldn't make things harder than they already are. In "The Ugly Underneath' I say "It's okay to cry". That song is anti-macho, and I didn't feel like watering down the message by taking it too far."

HUMO: Sting once told me that he thought 'This is pop' was the best XTC song. I replied that you had made plenty of better, more original and more charming songs. "No!", sais Sting, "'This is pop' says it all: those three words say it all, it's a simple, but strong message." Then I thought: maybe this is the key to the secret why Sting is a millionaire and XTC isn't.

Partridge: "Well... (sarcastically) All I can put forward in my defense, your honor, is "De Do Do Do De Da Da Da... Iiiooooh, iiioooh iiioooh iiioooh!". Someone who wrote lyrics full of baby-chatter like that for the police, has to think 'This is pop' is our best song. (laughs) Now, I like Sting. The Police took XTC on a tour of South America back then, and I appreciate what he has done for Amnesty International and the Brazilian Indians. They call him the 'School Teacher', but "they" are silly critics who don't do a thing."

HUMO: Isn't XTC the kind of band with fanatical fans, who construct far-fetched theories around XTC songs, or subject them to extremely close analysis?

Partridge: "Oh yes, I get a box full of letters like that every day. But I don't mind that. It's even flattering, and on top of that I like to see my imagination stimulating others' imagination. The listeners' imagination sometimes really runs wild. When we recorded the first Dukes Of Stratosphear album, stories emerged in the American press about 'Recently Discovered Beatles Tapes!', because noone knew it was us. And later we got letters from XTC fans who though Colin Moulding was dead because he assumed an unusual pose on the cover of 25 O'clock. Like there were rumours about Paul McCartney being dead, because there were so-called clues in that direction on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's. Oh, if you look long and hard enough, you'll find clues on every XTC album that show I'm really a toad in disguise, and that the other two don't really exist. I once got a letter from a nut who thought I had murdered Terry Chambers: the proof of that statement was supposed to be the line "... freed from a love more like murder" in 'Me and the wind'. Ah well."

HUMO: Your new album's called Nonsuch. What does that mean?

Partridge: "It's archaic, ancient English that's not used anymore. I used to think it meant "something that doesn't exist anymore". But an professor from Oxford pointed out to us that it meant "there is nothing greater or better than this". (quotes with Shakespearian diction) "That which no equal has in art or fame, Britons 'nonsuch' name." Unfortunately, the covers were printed already by then. (laughs) I could have known, because I had found the word on a print of one of Henry the Eighth's palaces, that nut who had his wives decapitated one by one, and he was an egotistical bastard. From there the modest name for his palace, which has incidentally been reduced to ashes already."

HUMO: You always have the most insane working titles for your albums.

Partridge: "Yes. The Big Express was to be called 'Big [sic] Blue Rayhead' at first. Then it became 'The Son Of Big Blue Rayhead'. And after that it was 'The Bastard Son Of Big Blue Rayhead'. Eventually it became The Big Express an analogy with 'big expression', since an album is our yearly main form of expression.

HUMO: What were the alternatives for Nonsuch this time?

Partridge: "'Balloon'. I think that's such a lovely, round word, and it evokes associations with relaxed traveling, and that's how I see our music: exploring the world without any tribes being slaughtered or exploited. Then it became 'The Last Balloonride Home'. Then 'Milk'. Because Colin likes to bathe in ass's milk. And then it became 'Milkfloat', and after that 'The Last BalloonMilkFloatRide Home'. Absolutely mad."

HUMO: Absolutely mad. And Freudian, as more XTC lyrics and titles. Do you have a thing with psychiatry?

Partridge: "More than I would like. As a kid I had fits of temper, that were 'cured' with heavy doses of valium since I was thirteen, and later with several visits to a series of psychiatrists. My mother was on drugs too, by the way, but she did it for fun. (sarcastically) But only on those days she wasn't in the madhouse. Yes, I'm serious, she was... err, rather unstable. And when I was twenty-four we did our last XTC tour, and I went crazy. I went to some psychiatrists then too, who had me talking about entire tours, while I was just trying to forget that hell. I lay on the couch with psychiatrists, while I was on pills and valium. It was a dangerous combination, but that only showed when I crashed completely. Then the girl who is now my wife threw the whole lot into the toilet and flushed it away. I was furious, and I married her as punishment."

HUMO: You still don't want to tour?

Partridge: "(shivers) No. We did a few accoustic sessions for American radio stations, and that just went OK. But I had said to do the same in Europe, and I had to cancel. Nerves. Horror. Colin doesn't want to tour anymore either, but Dave Gregory does. We told him that as far as we're concerned, he can tour with others as guitarist. He doesn't get get sex in our marriage, so you can't blame him for going to the whores."

HUMO: Last time we met you were involved in a lawsuit. It was about ten million of XTC royalties your ex-manager had run off with. So?

Partridge: "We won. But the case dragged on for eight years, and the lawyers' fee was ten million as well. (laughs) Then we had a guy called Tarquin Gotch managing us for a while, but he dropped us when he got an offer to become a film producer. With a name like that you can't blame him. And now we manage ourselves. 'We handle ourselves', as the joke goes."

HUMO: I still don't understand how a band like XTC can let itself be swindled like that.

Partridge: "You know what they say: "Isn't this a face you can trust?". Well, I could say: "isn't this a face you can swindle?". Because "CHEAT ME!" is written in large letters across my mug. The worst part is that everyone thinks we're millionaires after ten albums, and unfortunately we're not. Last week I heard someone say behind me in the street: "He sure doesn't dress like a millionaire...". (laughs, and points to his attire: a worn overall, over that a worn fisherman's jacket without sleeves, but with 101 little pockets. "To keep bait in", he says later, as he fishes a crumb out of one of the pockets and throws it at a beautiful girl.)"

HUMO: In all my innocence I used to think you did completely what you wanted.

Partridge: "Forget it! This time we had trouble with Virgin's A&R man. A&R stands for 'Artist And Repertoire'; they're the talent scouts of a label, who also work as sergeant. The A&R can decide, for instance, that the songs for the new Stones album aren't good enough, and he has the contractual right to send 'em back to the studio. Now the Stones are a bad example, but at least he has the right to send us back... and that's what happened. We had 32 songs ready for Nonsuch, but Sir didn't think they were good enough. That was the same guy who once cut every fourth line from the single version of 'Life begins at the hop', to "increase the commercial potential". He just cut one line in four out in the final mix... so nothing rhymed anymore! He also told me that if I couldn't guarantee that Nonsuch had at least five top ten hits, it would be our last album. A week later, he was gone from Virgin... probably got promoted. (laughs)"

"In the music business, A&R men are called 'A hmmmm R' men, because they can never decide, and also never clearly voice their opinion; it's always "Hmmm... no idea", or "Hmmm... interesting question". If you ask an A&R man how many A&R men it takes to fix a light buld, he's bound to say "Hmmm... no idea. What do you think?".

HUMO: I once heard one A&R man describe his job as "It's my job to convince Squeeze to use less chords". In other words: Squeeze songs are always just-not-hits because they're a bit too complicated.

Partridge: "... For the charts, yes, so the A&R guy wants to make them more simple and common. Something like that doesn't work, I would swear to that. If Squeeze becomes more common tomorrow, they have lost their old fans, without getting new ones. Now I'm not stubborn either. I know we need an A&R man to pick the single. I'm the guy who once screamed that 'Senses Working Overtime' was a bad single choice... and it became our biggest hit in the UK. I didn't even put 'Dear God' on Skylarking because I thought it was a failure.. and it became our biggest hit in the US. So..." "The producer for Nonsuch is Gus Dudgeon, who produced several Elton John albums. Originally we were to work with Steve Lipson; Lipson was the engineer on all Trevor Horn albums, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and so on. But I sent Lipson a demo of 'Rook', and he called me: (imitates cymical cockney tone) "Hey, those lyrics have to be changed completely. And to be honest, so does the melody. Those lyrics! 'Rook, rook, gaze in the brook...' What does a thirteen year old girl want with those lyrics? You don't get wet knickers from that, you know. Do you want to sell albums or what?!". The worst part is that, in a way, he's right. Ah well, through the years we have had to swallow tons of good advice. From "why don't you write something like Simple Minds, you can do that, can't you?!", to "Say, a single like that ZZ Top hit, isn't that something for you? If you can parody sixties groups, can't you imitate ZZ Top?"."

HUMO: In 'Humble Daisy' there's a line that, IMHO, perfectly sums up XTC: "I'll sing about you if nobody else will." That's XTC: you make your music because nobody else makes it.

Partridge: "Yes. Quite right. The other day someone asked me about my 'kindred spirits'. He wanted names of groups and pop stars I got along well with, or of whom I thought they made music that comes close to ours... And I couldn't think of anyone. (laughs) Nobody! (pretends to burst into tears) All alone in the world!"

HUMO: XTC songs are always positive and full of life, but never stupidly cheerful. It's not easy to stay on the right side of the line.

Partridge: "Yes, before you know it you sound like a crazy positivo who thinks a god of fertility. But it's true: I'm an incorrigible optimist, I'm 'high on life'. Too bad, because dark doom groups make more of an impression in these dire times. It's like Woody Allen says about films: "You can't make something great from a comical approach. It's always the dark, violent dramas that win Oscars."."

HUMO: Are you one of those doubters who keeps on tweaking songs, or is 90% of the work done when the demo's finished?

Partridge: "After the final mix they have to put me in a straightjacket, or I shoot off to the mixing board to hack in some 'last minute improvements'. 'Then She Appeared' was originally a psychedelic joke, a Dukes-type thing with crazy lyrics. That was tinkered with for months. The same goes for 'The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul': the first version of that could be described as "Leonard Cohen on speed with Can as rhythm section"."

HUMO: Since a few years, 'XTC' has become world famous, but in the guise of the drug: ecstasy. Does it disturb you to share your band name with a stupid drug like that?

Partridge: "It leaves me cold, because there is no connection. But it does cause odd side-effects. When extacy was just emerging, we got phonecalls from people from the press, who thought it was a promotional stunt for us. Recently in America there was a silly reporter who bluntly asked why we had named ourselves after a dancefloor drug. He thought Nonsuch was our debut! Another journalist remarked that he liked Nonsuch, but not as much as our previous album The White Album (by the Beatles)! That same nut had heard that Dave Gregory played with Yes since recently. Now who is on drugs here?"

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[Thanks to Tim Van Holder]