Interview with Andy Partridge

KGSR Radio Station, Austin, Texas
January 20, 1999
by DJ Jody Denberg

Andy Partridge:
``not your standard rock and roll''

Forget for a moment that XTC is a pop band responsible for some of the most sublime modern music of the last twenty years, and consider simply that these are musicians that have been prevented from sharing their gifts with the world since 1992 due to battles with their former label in England, Virgin Records, as well as a slew of other complications you are about to read about. Their sabbatical was a crime, and it becomes doubly criminal when you take into account that XTC ceased playing live in 1982. Their absence was not only a disappointment for the fans who craved their singular blend of post-punk pop, but a flustering frustration to guiding light Andy Partridge and his foil Colin Moulding - as well as third wheel Dave Gregory, who recently left the fold after twenty years.

Thankfully, XTC's dark period came to a close at the end of last year with the release of Transistor Blast, a 4-CD archival excavation of radio broadcasts and live material that is the group's first release through the independent label TVT; that relationship blossoms with the March 2 release of a brilliant new studio album of "orchoustic" XTC, Apple Venus, Volume 1. For a full exploration of XTC's music to date be sure to seek out Neville Farmer's book XTC Song Stories: The Exclusive Authorized Story Behind The Music. For the story of XTC's new album, we turn to Andy Partridge.

Q: Andy, it's been seven years since XTC released any new material. I'm sure there's several reasons why...
A: Have you got a few hours? I could tell you them. I'm going to have to do this real quick, because a) I'm going to bore the pants off of you and b) unless you've got a tape there that's like five days long, you won't get all the reasons. But just briefly, we did Nonsuch in '92 and weren't happy by the lack of promotion and we weren't happy being on the Virgin label. We were never going to make a living being on that record label. We had the world's worst deal. It was a real back-of-the-cigarette-packet kind of deal. And I said, "Look, will you make our deal sensible or can we go and get another deal with another label and we'll make some money doing this? Because I don't want to remain in poverty for the rest of my life." They were selling fine amounts of albums, but our deal was so appalling we weren't making any money.

So they would do neither. And so I said, "Okay. We're going on strike." And we spent -- let me see -- four years, nearly five years on strike in which we legally couldn't record as XTC. They would have owned it. And in that time, I went through illness, divorce, a lot of songwriting. And finally, they let us go. It was wonderful. You know, we won, basically. And we have some great deals with record companies all around the globe. And we spent last year in and out of various studios making Apple Venus, Volume I.

Q: When was it that guitarist Dave Gregory left XTC? Because he had been with you for almost 20 years.
A: Yeah, he was like - he was part of the wallpaper. He left in March of last year, more or less as we were just getting into starting the album. He wasn't happy with a lot of things. He wasn't happy with doing an acoustic/orchestral record. He wasn't happy with the fact that he wasn't songwriting, which I can't help him with. You know, he should go and buy a pencil. He wasn't happy with a lot of things. He wasn't happy with not touring. Colin and I don't like to tour. He wanted to tour. And basically, the band had kind of drifted away from his expectation of what a band should be. And it's got closer to what Colin and I think a band should be. You know, certain sorts of songs and a certain way of approaching something. But Dave, I think, has a kind of more old-fashioned plug-in-the-wall-and-play kind of an attitude. And it was just time that we split. It was sad that he went, but I felt like a million tons had been lifted off my shoulders the day he walked out. So it was good for everyone.

Q: On the way to making what has turned out to be Apple Venus, did you have some false starts, some times you went into the studio to start making a record and then it didn't come to fruition?
A: We did. We actually started in a studio run by Chris Difford of Squeeze. And I went to see it and it looked great. It was in the grounds of his house. He's got this nice house with these big grounds. He must have made a few bob somewhere along the line. And he had this old barn converted into a studio. And it looked great, you know. Wonderful. And we started. And just nothing was ready. The day that we turned up, the mixing desk was in pieces on the floor. And we waited around for four days until tempers were really frayed. And we said, "Look, we'll come back when it's all fixed." Came back two weeks later, two weeks eaten out of our schedule and it still wasn't up and running properly. And we tried to record and things weren't technically working. And he was really embarrassed. He said, "Look, you're my favorite band ever. I'm embarrassed to death about this. So why don't you take the rest of the time for free." So we took the rest of the time for free. And then near the end of that time, he tried to charge us for the free time. And we said, "Take that bill and put it somewhere and not on the shelf." And we left the studio. And as we were packing up to leave, he stole our tapes. So we had to start the album again. In fact, he still has the original tapes.

Q: This is going to be a juicy little conflict when it hits the music press.
A: Oh, you wouldn't believe the stuff that happened during the making of this record. I mean, this has been the trickiest and, I think, the best album yet. But it was certainly the trickiest to get born.

Q: Why is Apple Venus, Volume I an almost exclusively orchestral recording?
A: That's something I've wanted to do for a long time. And you can kind of see there are pointers on Nonsuch: "Rook" and "Wrapped In Grey", and the way that we approached "Bungalow" and, to some extent, "Omnibus" and "Humble Daisy". I mean, they're not your standard rock and roll kind of structures and instrumentation. And I really wanted to get into different sounding textures. I wanted to get into an orchestral sounding thing. And as soon as we finished Nonsuch, all the material I started writing was really with that kind of thing in mind. You know, an acoustic instrument, like an acoustic piano or an acoustic guitar and then the flesh that gets hung on that skeleton is strings, brass, the whole orchestral nine yards.

Q: Do you read and write music in this process?
A: Not at all. In fact, I barely even play keyboard. I mean, you're talking to the man that's made a cardboard hand to -- if I find a great chord on the keyboard, because I don't really know what I'm doing, I've been known to run in from my little garden shed studio, draw around my hand in that shape and then run back out with this cardboard hand so I know what the chord is. So I don't read and write music. And the arrangements that I did, I had to do them one note at a time on a sequencer.

Q: Are you a notebook or computer man?
A: I have a computer, but I'm a real lug on it. And I don't use it for anything other than playing -- you know, putting together things that I can't play, but wished I did play, like drums and keyboard.

Q: Isn't making an orchestral record like Apple Venus, Volume I, an expensive proposition?
A: Jesus, you're not kidding. Basically, we spent, on and off, a year. The first part of the year we spent really plotting out what we were going to be doing. Kind of sitting down with sequencers and plotting out a note at a time what the strings were going to be playing, what the orchestra was going to be doing, what the brass, woodwinds, blah, blah, were going to be doing. Then we recorded live drums, live piano, bits and pieces like that. And then the weird thing was that most of the music was actually recorded in one day. We booked one day at Abbey Road and hired an orchestra for 12-and-a-half thousand pounds, which God knows what that is, about $17,000 for one day and did most of the actual recording in one day. And then spent, God knows how long, editing that and shuffling it around and getting it just exactly how we wanted and then putting the vocals and stuff to that. So the weird thing was, over a year, most of it was done in one hit, in one day. A very long day.

Q: Since XTC does not tour and that's where a lot of bands make their money, Andy, should I, as a fan, be worried about you that you're not financially comfortable?
A: Well, you can pass the hat round when we finish the interview, if you like. No, things are -- things are okay. They're getting a lot better. We actually -- I don't know whether it was all the pressure we were putting on Virgin or whether just our crap deal kind of, the scales tipped over, but a couple of years back, we actually went into the black. From 1977 to 1997, we were in the red. That's 20 years in the red. And that was getting a bit tight at times. Dave and Colin were actually having this thing of collecting rental cars at one time, just to make a bit of pocket money.

Q: Because you do most of the songwriting, it wasn't quite as difficult for you financially, I'm assuming?
A: Yeah, but they get a decent slice.

Q: Is it because of your struggles with a major label that you decided to sign with a smaller label, TVT, in the States this time?
A: Sure. The nature of record deals is the devil's own. They're written on the devil's own toilet paper, I'll tell you. Those record contracts. And 99-plus percent of them are just really abusive to the artist. And the artist has no other way of getting their records out, because the companies have it all sewn up. So TVT was one of the few companies that gave us an honorable deal.

Q: XTC haven't toured since 1982. And, of course, that makes your fans and the press clamor for a performance. I've heard various reasons why you don't play live. Is it because it's difficult to replicate the studio sounds onstage or --
A: Well, it certainly would be with Apple Venus. We would have to walk around with an orchestra and I don't want to buy lunch for 40-odd players. But I just don't enjoy it. I don't enjoy touring. I don't enjoy the whole show sensation. I never really did. You know, I went to see bands when I was younger. And I was always disappointed by them. But I was rarely disappointed by their records. For me, the magic is the record. The record is what hits you. The record is what gets in -- you know, why do you want to go and see somebody's flabby stomach when you can have a slice of their soul on the record?

Q: Well, I like having a slice of your soul on the record, but sometimes live performances bring new things to material, which makes it ironic that the last release from XTC was a boxed set called Transistor Blast. And that's live and radio performances from the '70s and the '80s.
A: Sure, that's a real -- well, we say historical, but some people pronounce it hysterical -- document. Yeah, you're sort of captured, in the five years that we were touring our little buttocks off. And, yeah, that's some real charming, naive stuff on that boxed set.

Q: So hearing that boxed set and the material didn't make you want to play more?
A: No, I did all that. I got all that out of my system. I did it solid for five years. I ruined my hearing. I drank the world dry. I destroyed my prostate. I've done that. I don't want to do that anymore. I don't need to be idolized. I don't need -- you know, nobody needs to see my flesh. The magic -- the good thing that I do is a record. The crap thing that I do is reluctantly going onstage and going, "Okay. We'll run through this one for the five-millionth time for you." I don't want to do that. I'll leave that to young kids who need to kind of get that out of their system.

Q: You write most of the songs for XTC. Is this frustrating for Colin Moulding?
A: No, because he doesn't write that much. If I write, say, 40 songs, he'll write four. I can be nice and say I do the quantity, he does the quality. But, wasn't it Stalin that said, "Quantity has a quality all of its own"?

Q: The new album, Apple Venus, Volume I, is a gorgeous record, with songs like "Knights in Shining Karma" and "Your Dictionary", which I'm going to play on the airwaves tonight, Andy. FCC be damned.
A: Well, I don't know whether you can get it in the neck for spelling out cuss words. I don't know where the rules lay on that.

Q: Well, there's such a nice blend of innocence and darkness on this record, as there is on most XTC discs...
A: It's kind of a bit like life, really.

Q: Is it your kids that keep you in touch with the innocence side of things?
A: My kids keep me in touch with jammy smears, as they were. I don't know whether they keep me -- I never lost the kid thing myself. I'm still like nine years old in my head. It's quite appalling when you have to act really adult, because I have this big flabby, decaying carcass I haul around with me and my brain's like a nine year old that wants to set fire to ants with a magnifying glass and put girls' hair in inkwells and stuff. But you don't want to know about my sex life.

Q: I'm going to pass on that. But there's almost a show tune quality to some of the music on Apple Venus I.
A: Great. I mean, that's a good thing, for me. I love show tunes. The best musicals are unsurpassable. They're fantastic. And I'm not talking about shite like Cats and stuff like that. I'm talking about really good stuff like South Pacific, Westside Story, My Fair Lady. I mean, there's no bummers in that. They're all great things.

Q: What are your plans after the release of Apple Venus, Volume I? You might explain why there's a Volume 1 and there's going to be Volume 2.
A: Well, there was so much material written while we were in the fridge, while we couldn't work as XTC, legally, that I just kept writing and writing and so did Colin. And we split the material up roughly into two camps: there's kind of acoustic/orchestral stuff, which is going to be Volume 1 and the more immediate electric stuff, which was written later, is going to go on to make up Volume 2. So we actually start -- we have April penciled in to start work on Volume 2. And it's much more in-your-face electric guitar.

Q: Do you think it's going to come out this year?
A: I would really, really like that. I mean, I'm going to try for that, but I realize that the gaping, snowy maw of Christmas tends to swallow up a lot of stuff. And I wouldn't want to get lost under a landslide of sort of, you know, commercial cack.

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Reproduced by permission.
[Thanks to Jill Oleson]