An interview with XTC by Paul Ducey

XTC has never done things the easy way. Formed in Swindon, England at the height of the 70's punk movement, XTC employed a Beatlesque tunefulness to a caustic guitar and organ attack. Quickly evolving while most of their peers drifted into obscurity or mediocrity, XTC started working exclusively in the studio, making music which often seemed at odds with the times. While XTC's stubbornness in the face of trends, fads and arrogant A & R men may have been their commercial undoing it has allowed them to create at a consistently high level, as evidenced by their now classic Black Sea, English Settlement, and Skylarking records. With the release of their latest record, Apple Venus Vol. 2: Wasp Star, XTC's Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding conclude a labour of love that has taken almost eight years to come to fruition. Because of a lengthy contract dispute with their former label, XTC was unable to record for seven years. Instead of caving in to legal pressures and creative stagnation, Partridge and Moulding kept themselves busy doing what they do best, which is write seamlessly beautiful pop songs. The first batch of these songs finally made it onto last year's Apple Venus Vol. 1, an astounding orchestral song-cycle in which Partridge and Moulding ditched their guitars and drums in favor of symphonic instruments. Wasp Star is the other side of the coin: the long awaited electric twin to Apple Venus Vol. 1.


Paul Ducey: Your new record, Wasp Star, strikes me as a very happy record. What do you attribute that to?

Andy Partridge: I think it's the easiest, most enjoyable record that we've possibly ever made. No producers left the project during the making of it. No band members quit. We had no fights. We never ran out of money, amazingly enough. If Apple Venus Vol. 1 was a team of divers, with lots of cramps and clamps and tugging and pulling--a 25 year labor, this one was like a greased banana. It really shot out fast.

Colin Moulding: It was a real joy to make, the first record we did in our Idea Studio. We thought about building the studio in my garage while we were making Vol. 1, but we didn't get into it until we had finished Vol. 1.

AP: While we were doing Vol. 1 in Colin's living room we thought, "This is sounding great!" and we'd look out the window at his garage dreaming that it was mutating into our own miniature Abbey Road.

PD: You mentioned that you had producers walk on you, you've had problems with producers in the past?

AP: Yes! They would not walk out on us, they would walk on us. Like a chiropractic thing: "Oh yes! Could you just walk on me please." Actually, I was always walking on the producer. He would say, "Oh! My back's broken." And I'd say, "Well, lay down on the floor so I can walk on it." No, we've had producers who had to leave, I don't think through our laziness or super-pickiness, but we've just run out of time and it wasn't particularly our fault. With Haydn Bendall, who worked with us on Vol. 1, he had to leave because he was contracted to work with (filmmaker) Peter Greenaway. I think Gus Dudgeon who worked on Nonsuch was the only one who was actually fired. But he didn't have the album's best intentions at heart, I think it was all about his ego.

PD: You've worked with a who's who list of producers: Steve Lillywhite, Todd Rundgren, Hugh Padgham, David Lord.

AP: We've had them all. All when they were on their way up!

PD: How much do you two collaborate on songwriting?

CM: We write our own songs and sing our own songs and get the arrangements done on the demo. When we get to the studio, of course, the other interjects and makes suggestions but a solid foundation is already there.

AP: Yeah, I don't know if we could explain what was in each other's hearts. I've written with other people and that's a different thing. You tend not to be yourself, but when your writing for yourself you just have to be honest. You can't shut the bedroom door at the end of the day and say, "Hee Hee, I've gotten away pretending to be someone else."

PD: I think your songwriting, particularly Andy's, has become more personal over the years.

AP: It's true. I'm less afraid to be naked now, whereas before I used to hide behind a lot of masks. I'd talk about "he" and "she" and "they" when really I meant me. Now I don't feel too bad about getting naked and pulling my guts out and flapping them on the table and saying "There!"

PD: You two are both fathers now. I can really see that in your songwriting, especially on the new one and the Oranges and Lemons record.

AP: Yeah, I was pretty new to fatherhood with Oranges and Lemons so it was just starting to come out. But you have to be careful with songs about kids or you could end up with that "isn't she lovely" sort of lounge hell.

PD: Songs like "Playground" off Wasp Star and Dear God, where you have written about children or from a child's perspective, are actually kind of cynical and even scary.

AP: Well, a playground is a scary place. Oh, the broken bones I've seen! Fortunately none of them were mine because I ran quite fast. Playgrounds are very intimidating and cruel places where children get their training to be cruel adults.

PD: Another great song off Wasp Star is "Boarded Up", which is a song about your hometown of Swindon being shut down. Is it also about being creatively shut down, not being able to record for seven years?

CM: No, it's really just about our hometown, which seems to be in decline. But more importantly, it's about the bypassing of Swindon culturally. Certain people don't want to go there. Groups, people who tour, poetry readings, you name it. They don't want to go there because it's become more of a joke town. I wanted to make the analogy of a ghost town. Hence, the feet clomping on the floorboards as though it were in a western town to soak up the mood.

PD: Yeah, that's a great effect! So that was just you guys stomping around your studio? I also love the deep, breathy background vocals:

AP: Yeah, that was when we were channeling Elvis.

PD: It's great that you both still live in Swindon. One of the best things about XTC is that you've eschewed the whole rock star image.

AP: We've never gone for the rock star life or rock star trappings, any of them. I think they're all pointless, to be truthful, and very juvenile. Invented largely by people who would wish to be in that business but aren't.

CM: We don't go to celebrity parties or any of that.

AP: No, we never go to those sorts of things. We don't hang out with musicians, they bore the ass off us.

PD:I think that reflects in the consistency of your music. You've never really followed trends, but just kept making the music that you wanted to make.

AP: I know this sounds perverse, but I honestly think that lack of (commercial) success has been good for us. It's helped us stay level, to stay hungry. I don't know what for, but we've always been hungry. I suppose hungry to communicate. We've never been backed into a blind alley by massive success.

PD: Did you ever have handlers with your former label,Virgin, telling you guys "you should do this! This is what's popular!"?

AP:Oh yeah, they'd say things like "You should make an album like ZZ Top" or, in the early 80's, "can you make songs that sound more like the Police" or "perhaps you could dye your hair."

PD: They actually wanted you to make a record like ZZ Top!!??

AP: Yes! There was this guy with Virgin named Jeremy Lascelles and he told us that guitar bands were coming back and that since there were the three of us with guitars why wouldn't we make a ZZ Top type record

CM: Yeah, we could be named ZZ Sputnik!

PD: What are some of your personal favorite XTC songs?

CM: I would probably say "Frivolous Tonight" (off "Apple Venus Vol.1") is the best one I've written so far, although I'm very keen on "In Another Life" off the new album. "Bungalow" (off "Nonsuch") I suppose is kinda alright.

AP: That's my favorite of yours, "Bungalow"! I'd wish I'd written "Bungalow"! You will, Oscar! You will! I guess my favorite would be "Easter Theatre" (off "Vol. 1"). I'm very proud of that. "Rook" (off "Nonsuch") I still like. "Stupidly Happy" (off "Wasp Star") I'm very keen on. It's very light and innocent, whereas the other two I mentioned are much more weighty. "Books are Burning" (off "Nonsuch"), I'm still very fond of that.

PD: I love "Books are Burning". That's a great way to end that record, and I find it interesting that it's the last song on the last record before you took seven years off with the contract problems.

AP: Seven years to do some book burning! "What a lovely library! Here, hand me that match." Yeah, we didn't know it at the time that we were going on strike but I guess it was an inadvertent "bye bye" on our part.

PD: The Beatles and Kinks, of course, are always cited as big influences for you. Are there other influences that you feel get overlooked.

AP: For me, over the last year or so, a songwriter named Judee Sill has been an enormous influence for me. She made two records for Asylum in the early 70's. I don't hold with the sentiment of the lyrics, because they're all heavy Christian lyrics but I think the music is beautiful. The melodies and chord shifts are ever uplifting.

CM: The Beach Boys of course are a big influence.

AP: Yes, they're a big influence for both of us. We didn"t like them so much early on, but we got into them from the mid 80's on. Brian Wilson has been a genius with a capital "G". I would have to say Burt Bacharach and Hal David are the greatest songwriting team in the world. Ever! They write these amazing songs that grab your ear immediately, and are melodically unimpeachable.

CM: A lot of songwriting from musical teams have gone in quite deep. I'm talking about Rogers and Hart, Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, people like that. I think English music hall went quite deep for both of us, as well. Of course, Gilbert and Sullivan are a big influence.

AP: Yes, Gilbert and Sullivan. I'd like to see them duke it out with Bacharach and David.

PD: Who do you think would win if Bacharach and David actually did duke it out with Gilbert and Sullivan?

AP: It would be like the OK corral, except they would have grand pianos in their holsters.

PD: What about current music? Do you like any of the bands going now?

CM: It seems in the current climate songs are taking a bit of a back seat. So what you can pick from, what you may like, is diminished. Supergrass is writing pretty light songs, which I like personally. They don't take themselves too seriously.

AP: Blur have the odd good tune. I think their heart's in the right place. Beck, occasionally, does interesting things. I don't think he's found himself lyrically, but I like some of his musical ideas. I'm not really a Radiohead fan, I think they take it all too serious. They want to be Pink Floyd 1970.

PD: Your Dukes of Stratosphere records ("25 O'clock" and "Psionic Sunspot") seemed to have a lot of 60's garage/psychedelia influences. Was that period of music influential to you?

AP: Those bands made schooldays, whatever age you were at the time, more hopeful and magical and interesting. So when we got to making XTC records it was a case of us saying "thank you" and paying homage to these people. Psychedelic music really only lasted a year and a half, two years. It was a passing thing, a very gossamer thing. But I thought we should say thank you and have some fun with it.

PD: You guys did a great job. A lot of it sounds more authentic than the original.

AP: It was all done in one or two takes, not paying too much attention to the sound as long as you got the mike near enough to the instrument to do it. Which, I think, was the process of the day, as well.

PD: Yeah, it has a very live sound. Were you guys surprised by the success of the Duke's records?

CM: I was a little surprised because it was music that came secondhand to me through the guys. I didn't really get into all the "My White Bicycle" and the "Hole In My Shoe" music of the '60's. That was all more underground music and I was a bit younger. Chart music was the only thing that I listened to through my parents. So I got into it second hand, but I got wrapped up in the guys enthusiasm.

AP: Dave Gregory was a lot of the motor for doing that stuff. He was really keen for all that stuff--it was his favorite era. Doing those discs was one of the few things in life that he was really positive about.

PD: I heard that Dave Gregory might have been back for Wasp Star. Did that fall through?

AP: I haven't spoken to Dave since the day he walked out of the studio during the recording of Apple Venus Vol. 1 about two years ago. I think he considers me the great Satan.

PD: Do you guys spend alot of time with each other outside of the band?

AP: I don't think fellows in their forties tend to do much of that. It's easier when you're in your twenties but when you've got families and other things to take care of...

CM: Yeah, we're more family-oriented instead of nighttime at the pub with the lads.

AP: It's not like we run away from doing that, we're just drawn to more solitary or family matters.

PD: I get the sense that you don't miss touring at all.

AP: We've toured for five years when we first started and now we haven't toured for nineteen years, you think people would take the hint. We are not going to tour. There are people who do well in the studio and some who do well live, but I think there are very few who are good in both. The Rolling Stones probably put on great live shows but they haven't written a good tune since the 70's. U2 does these barnstorming, crowd pleasing shows but I don't like their records.

-Paul Ducey May 2000
Paul writes freelance music criticism and reviews.


[Thanks to Paul Ducey]

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