March 4, 1999

XTC The Masters Return - Exclusive LAUNCH Feature By Mac Randall

How often does something you've been expecting for a long, long time actually turn out to have been worth the wait? This question is of high relevance to XTC fans, who've had to go seven years without an album from the Swindon, England-based pop masterminds. First, a bitter dispute with the group's former label put them out of commission for nearly half of the '90s. Then, once they were finally free to record again, their initial efforts got hung up by gremlins--improperly equipped studios, lack of funds, and growing tension within the ranks that led to the departure last year of longtime guitarist/ keyboardist/ arranger Dave Gregory. It's been a tough time for the band and its listeners, but at long last the drought is over: XTC are back. And with the phenomenal Apple Venus Volume 1, they've created a sure contender for album of the year. On second thought, make that album of the decade.

Nearly as astounding as Apple Venus itself is the sight of XTC's two remaining members, Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, treading the pavement on New York's Madison Avenue. Not that their appearance is so shocking; apart from Andy's flamboyant taste in patterned trousers, the duo are fairly nondescript (though both men look remarkably good for fortysomething former pop stars). It's just that for most of the last 17 years, ever since the band gave up touring in 1982 due to Partridge's advanced stage fright, XTC have been generally depicted as eccentric English hermits, venturing out of Swindon only when it again comes time to sequester themselves in the recording studio for months on end. Seeing them striding good-naturedly through Manhattan doesn't match up with the mystique. But then that mystique was never completely based in reality. Andy, supposedly the sensitive recluse, spends a lot of time away from his hometown these days. His girlfriend lives in New York's East Village, and as we settle down over drinks at the chi-chi Jazz Standard club/ restaurant, our conversation veers into a typical city subject: namely, Manhattan apartments, their lack of availability, and their astronomical rents.

It's all a bit shocking at first for this longtime XTC enthusiast, but one quickly gets used to the fact that neither Partridge nor Moulding put on airs of any sort. In fact, Andy relentlessly pokes fun at image-mongering, including his own recent photo session poses. "Have you noticed," he asks Colin, "that at some of these sessions, I've been behaving all saintly? With the outstretched hand? I like that. Adopting that saintly vibe kind of appeals to me. I have nothing to tell people, but it gives me a certain primitive charm."

Andy and Colin are more than a little tired of talking about the events of the past seven years, particularly the self-imposed strike they led for half a decade against Virgin Records in protest of what they felt was a ludicrously unfair contract. The strike ended with XTC's release from the label and the subsequent formation of their own Idea Records (distributed in the U.S. by TVT). Colin describes the depth of their animosity toward Virgin as "quite a big subject," but Andy says, "You mustn't be bitter. They were just doing their job. It's the nature of their job that's very wicked." With a chuckle, he lapses into a Hogan's Heroes German accent: "They were just following instructions."

When it comes to the new music, however, XTC have plenty to say. Partridge, the band's principal singer and songwriter, punningly calls Apple Venus Volume 1 "orchustic." Though there are electric instruments on it, they are far outnumbered by acoustic guitars and keyboards and by the 40-piece orchestra that appears in various configurations on several songs. The "orch" part of the "orchustic" concept was present right from the original demo stages; Partridge had bought himself a sampler loaded with orchestral sounds, and "I played with it endlessly, doing things like looping a bassoon part and transposing it, so that in a way, the arrangements almost existed before the songs did." As heard in their finished versions, tracks such as the intricate "River Of Orchids," which blends pizzicato strings, muted trumpets and four distinct vocal lines to form a dazzling polyrhythmic whole, or the soaring "Easter Theatre," with its ornate mesh of brass and woodwinds, achieve a Cinemascope grandeur rarely heard in pop music.

"Both of us are convinced that making records is a very filmic process," Andy says. "You get the first scene right, then you have to edit it to the next scene. [Director] David Lean is a big hero. There's one number on [the new album] called 'I Can't Own Her,' and big slabs of it sound like the music from [Lean's] Great Expectations, which is bang-on as far as I'm concerned."

Partridge also claims that Dave Gregory didn't share this view about record-making, which was one of the factors that led to his leaving the band. "I think Dave was convinced that the only way to make albums was to just plug in the wall and go, 'Hey hey, we're the Dave Gregorys and people say we Dave Gregory around,' and that's it, you're done."

Of course, there were many reasons for Dave's departure. Colin puts much of it down to their former bandmate's diabetes, which has worsened over the years. "The resulting chemical imbalance gives him terrible mood swings, and his negativity was sometimes hard to take. But also, there really wasn't much for him to do on this record and he felt left out."

"Dave's an angry middle-aged man," Andy says. "He's angry that I write songs and that he doesn't, he's angry at me for keeping him off the road--I think that's how he would see it--and he's angry at his medical condition, and he's got certain call to be. But Dave's been getting increasingly unhappy with the band over the last bunch of years, because he's an interpreter and not a creator. It's tricky for him because he had to take what we gave him and the way he'd interpret it was not always the way we'd want to interpret it, and that causes friction."

As you might expect, Dave has a different outlook on this. Interviewed recently by the British music magazine Mojo, he claimed that Andy had insulted him and everyone else involved with the new album by saying that the results of the early Apple Venus sessions weren't up to snuff: "With the way he'd behaved...the fact that he had absolutely no regard for anybody else's point of view, I said, 'I'm disgusted with your attitude, I can't change you, you're not going to change, so I have to go.'"

"Dave didn't want to do an orchestral record," Andy responds. "He'd had some of this material for years, and he hadn't arranged it. Normally he'd say, 'Wow, great, this is a challenge,' but this time he was oddly resisting doing anything with it, which was a bit worrying. When we asked to see his arrangements, he brought them out, and instead of the 40-piece arrangement that we'd discussed, it would be four players. I said, 'This is hardly the orchestra, Dave.' He said, 'We can't afford an orchestra.' He was strictly thinking about the money, and I was really appalled by that."

For a moment, though, let's try and see Dave's side of the argument. Not being a songwriter, he received minimal royalties from the band's albums. In fact, at one point he was so strapped for cash that he had to get a job repossessing AWOL rental cars. Given the situation, isn't it understandable that Dave might be a little hesitant about the financial extravagance of hiring an orchestra?

"I can see that, yeah," Andy acknowledges. "But...I don't mean to sound pompous, but I don't worry about where the money comes from. And I don't worry about not having money. Both Colin and I have been alarmingly poor. Our background is very poor. We're council estate kids, projects kids. And Dave never was. Dave came from an upper-middle-class family, his parents were teachers. He was more used to having money, and he worried where the next penny was coming from, whereas coming from my background, I didn't." As you can probably tell by now, the divisions between Partridge and Gregory run deep, sadly.

Still, on the money front, Dave had a valid point. Apple Venus's orchestral parts were recorded in a single session at London's fabled Abbey Road Studios, while drums (played by ex-Tube Prairie Prince, who also manned the skins on XTC's 1986 masterwork Skylarking) and piano were laid down at Chipping Norton Studios. Because the costs of these sessions were so high, XTC had to record much of the rest of the album at Colin's house in Swindon.

"Colin's hallway is great for recording acoustic guitars, but you do live in fear of who's going to come through the front door and knock you over," Partridge notes. "You're sat there looking at the door going, 'Nearly finished this take, don't come in yet!'" The ambience of Colin's hall can be heard to best effect on the ebullient "I'd Like That," which was recorded solely at the home studio. (Moulding himself, always the band's second songwriter due to Partridge's astoundingly prolific nature, weighs in with two deliciously droll numbers, "Fruit Nut" and "Frivolous Tonight," both flecked with pronounced Kinks and Beach Boys overtones, as well as contributing his usual high-caliber basslines and backing vocals to Andy's material.)

The album's final song, "The Last Balloon," is a devastatingly sad ballad that fades out with an eloquent flugelhorn solo by Guy Barker. Andy remembers the circumstances of its recording fondly. "It was three takes. It was the end of the night at Abbey Road, when everyone was so tired they couldn't stand, and Guy had to play his solo. He just banged off three in a row like that, and we made a composite of all the best pieces." Barker's performance wins great praise from Partridge for its demonstration of resilience in the face of great stress, something that XTC themselves have gotten to know more than a little about over the past few years.

"I have to say," Andy comments, "I think this is a wonderful record, but I'm really glad it's out of our system. It was like a demon baby. You know, it's been in there for five years and it's going to come out fully formed with horns and hooves."

As the title implies, Apple Venus Volume 1 is only the first installment of a set of albums that XTC have been planning to make for several years. The electric rock album Apple Venus Volume 2 is tentatively scheduled for the end of 1999; the band is recording it in Colin's garage, which has recently been converted into a full-fledged studio. Andy predicts that of the band's past work, it'll be "probably closest to [1980's] Black Sea." What it will actually end up sounding like is anyone's guess. But after the splendor of Volume 1, further music from Partridge and Moulding is just more icing on the triple chocolate gateau.

--Mac Randall

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[Thanks to Dan Wiencek]