New Wave and Beyond
Issue Number 11, 1999

XTC: Take Another Bite...

Let me find a piece of furniture to destroy before we start. Here, this looks nice. I was just in France. They give very philosophical interviews over there, you know. Lots of wine, smoke, sitting back in a chair. Great stuff. Had to dash back here for Valentine's Day. Mad dash through the tunnel going 200 miles per God-knows-what, grabbed a box of chocolates-and the rest I will put a little black box over. Let's just say I had a chocolate cigarette later that day. So what sort of banal questions do you have today? Maybe I should lie, answer all the questions with some sort of lie, like they do in LA. There's a city of professional liars for you. I once heard that no one really drinks much in LA because they have to be careful and remember all the lies they've told."

I have barely said hello and already Andy Partridge is off and running. As he later puts it, he gives great interview. My weak American attempts at humor or "interesting" questions do not faze him or slow him down a whit. Over the next hour we talk about everything from toy soldiers to his favorite band, Spandau Ballet.

XTC is back. Plain and simple, like a gift from the pop music gods, Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding are back. (Dave Gregory split with the band during their seven-year sabbatical, although he did play guitar on a couple of tracks on the new album.) Apple Venus Vol. 1 is a glorious return to XTC's peculiar veddy British songcraft approach to pop music. Less guitars, less drums, more sweetness and light, more sticky English garden humidity.

"We chopped up the Dukes' guitars for this one, although we did borrow their strings," notes Mr. Partridge, referring to XTC's one-time alter ego, The Dukes of Stratosphere [sic]. "But it's not like we are going to bring them back. Any psychedelica on the new album is purely by chance. I mean, how many times can you tell the same well worn, even if funny, joke? Oranges and Lemons had the last little fluttering bits of psychedelica floating down to the floor on it. I get bored by the '60s. People send me all sorts of stuff about the '60s because they think I'm into it. But I am really not now. The Dukes allowed us to get rid of that, say our thank yous and be done."

The Dukes are a peculiar bit of XTC history, cruelly misunderstood in their "time." 25 O'Clock and Psonic Psunspot were both somewhat underperformers when they were released. Many in the press, especially in Britain, thought that one album was indulgent, two overkill. The "band" were involved in some sort of horrible sherbet accident, according to XTC lore, and were never heard from again.

Although they were written off as a joke, Mr. Partridge now feels unable to escape the Dukes. "I guess a lot of other bands liked the Dukes, a lot. The guy in Radiohead, the guitarist, he has said that he really likes the Dukes a lot. I guess it was just fun for a lot of people. English psychedelica was always kind of light and fun, not like American. In America psychedelia was dark, lots of drugs, Vietnam, police action. In England it was like kids dressing up in their parents' clothes, lots of garden parties. But now it's time to move on. I find the future more interesting. I like the slightly scary factor of tomorrow. You know it's going to be basically like today, but not exactly. You don't know for sure what will happen. That's enough excitement for me."

The Dukes' name would surface one last time on the next to last XTC "album," Rag and Bone Buffet. Big stickers would announce that the collection contained unreleased tracks from XTC and their many alter egos, like the Dukes. Many would go quite mad trying to figure out which track was the Dukes, exactly, but for the fans, Rag and Bone Buffet was a welcome collection of odds and ends from the band. "It was a gift to Virgin, non-contractual, like the Dukes. I had gotten letters for a long time from people asking about all of these unreleased, rare tracks. Some albums had some tracks in one country, different ones in another. We had EPs and singles with non-album tracks. So we decided to go about gathering up these tracks and put them out."

After that the world got the last XTC album, Nonsuch. An under-performer in the US ("Geffen admitted to messing up the promotion on several of our albums," notes Mr. Partridge, "one of the reasons we didn't go with them after leaving Virgin"), the album would mark the beginning of a seven year dry stretch for the band's fans.

Although hardly Steely Danesque, the period was immensely frustrating for the band and its fans. In interviews elsewhere Andy has noted that it was a tough time. He got divorced and nearly lost his hearing in one ear. I asked him about his hearing now. "I actually just got tested for my hearing. I am over the thing from a couple of years ago. I had an infection in my right ear. It ruptured my eardrum and the doctors were not sure I'd recover, but I did. It was a scary six weeks, though. Now it turns out that playing all those shows with really loud sound systems has done some damage. I get ringing, whistling-tinnitus. But it turns out that they can fix some of that if you take ginkgo biloba, or so I've been told. But I've lost a lot of the high end. I have 63% in the right ear, 80% in the left, so I'm okay. No half-stereo mixes yet."

Mr. Partridge recently revisited those loud old days for the recent BBC box set. "Good 'ol BBC, they had erased most of it. That puts us in pretty good company; they've erased the likes of Hendrix for God's sake. But they sent me these cassettes of what they had. I really was prepared for the worst. I went into the kitchen with the portable tape player and I was fully armored to wince a lot. But instead I laughed for hours on end. Part of it was relief that it was not that bad. And it was funny-those saucy young lads, thought they were the best thing on earth. They were very naive, but tried very hard too, tried to be sophisticated. It was a lot like naive art, bad, but charming. It wasn't done right, but it was the best they could do. We were 20, 22. I have to forgive them, forgive myself."

Better known than any of their modern rock radio hits is the fact that Mr. Partridge refuses to tour anymore, having had some sort of breakdown one night on stage. In general he found touring to be difficult. "I used to lose five pounds every night. Everyday I'd eat like crazy and then lose it every night. It got to be too much." He now has a reputation for being a bit of a recluse, not the kind that lives in a shuttered house and peers from behind curtains at the neighborhood kids, but the kind that putters around in the garden, giving a friendly wave. Of course, absence makes the heart grow fonder. "Yes, absence makes the farts last longer. I have never wanted to be really well known. I don't understand people who do. There are people who play the game to the bitter end. I guess we play it to some extent, sitting here in an armchair giving phone interviews, but that's not much. I mean, some guys go all out: they visit the distributor, go to the warehouse, hang around and pat the people loading up their records on the back. "Look out! It's David Lee Roth! Hide behind these boxes!" I want people to hear the music. If they buy it, even better, but that's all. I'm not giving anything else up."

It is a little ironic then (don't you think?) that XTC probably has some of the most, well, rabid, fans around. "Foaming at the mouth, the ears, the nose, the ass. I mean they are foaming everywhere. I try to stay away from that: it's a little scary, unnerving. And the internet doesn't help. I am not on it, but a friend of mine wrote me and said that there was someone online who was saying that he was convinced it was I, not the other guy, who killed John Lennon. I mean, that's, well, wrong first off! But it's also scary. Is that guy going to come after me now, like the guy who killed Lennon did? I really find the Web, despite its potential, a problem. One-third is hyperbole, one-third just plain wrong, and one-third people acting like judge and jury. They don't know me. It's unfair to tear me apart, or even the music, in such a way. I don't enjoy that at all-very painful."

XTC vs. Adam Ant, who would win? Mr. Partridge gives a huge laugh, "Oh, I don't know, I suppose Adam. Marco is so beefy, and how many drummers did they have? Two-I think they would win by sheer numbers. But XTC would win because we invented "ant music," although I doubt Mr. Ant would agree. When XTC first came to London we had some self-concocted publicity. We put stickers around saying "XTC plays ant music" as opposed to human music." Ants, it seems, are a bit of a fascination for Mr. Partridge. "Across this Antheap" is a highlight of Oranges and Lemons. "There was a great series on TV the other day. It showed ants laying their eggs in other insects and then when the eggs hatched they ate the insect, kind of a living buffet. I see a lot of parallels between human society and ant society. I see the soldiers, the farmers, etc." When asked if he has read Edmund Wilson's Ant Society, he thinks for a second. "No, but I think that I almost got that book the other day. Was that the one that was popular a few years ago? I guess I should." I threatened that now fans will send ant farms. "Oh God no, too messy, it always breaks and they always escape. No, no ant farms, but perhaps a nice narwhal farm though."

Besides the occasional narwhal grooming, Mr. Partridge also likes to collect toy soldiers, and has begun making them as well. "I started six or seven years ago, after trying, wanting to for years. I kept hammering my head against the wall. I found that the secret is in constructing the skeleton. You have to have the skeleton right or it just won't work. You build a wire skeleton and then fill it in with this epoxy putty stuff that dries in a couple of hours. You have to work quickly. Then you pour white metal in the molds. It works quite well." I ask if he paints them too. "Oh yes, but I don't really go for the super realistic kind. I like them to look toylike, not real. And if they have misshapen limbs, even better!"

Steering back on track, I ask how they ended up on Trent Reznor's favorite label, TVT. "Yeah, right, get me off the toy soldiers. I could go on all day, it would be the whole interview! I like TVT. There's a good example of a homegrown label. They met our offer, and more importantly, they really seemed to be enthusiastic about the music. Geffen was not willing to better the deal we had with Virgin, which was abysmal to begin with. We went in as a band and they just offered us this small percentage, minus expenses, damages, etc. I used to laugh when I read that The Who took 11 years to break even, but that happened to us. What we found worked much better was to go in as a record label. The band got a small offer, we'd turn around and go in as a label and they'd be like, "Sure! 50-50 split then?" I don't know, they don't like to screw over fellow companies as much. Maybe it's honor among thieves huh?"

And to get right to matters at hand, Apple Venus Volume1? "That's songs from 1992-1994. The second volume is 1994-1996. We haven't started on that one yet. Well I mean we have, but I suspect we'll scrap what we've already done. As soon as we finish building the recording studio in Colin's garage we'll start Volume 2, maybe in May. I hope we can have it out by the end of this year. It won't be like Volume One at all."

Apple Venus is the band's "orchestral" album. Working with an orchestra presented the band with a host of new challenges. "We approached Jonathan Leckie (who did the band's first two albums and the Dukes material) about doing Apple Venus because we knew we wanted to use an orchestra. It was he who recommended Hayden Bendal. The guy was engineered with practically everyone at Abbey Roads. He was very adept at editing the orchestral parts. It's weird, but with pop music you layer, with orchestral works you edit. All those classical records you hear are the products of thousands of edits, sometimes bar by bar. With so many people playing it's hard to get a perfect take. A lot of people think that the orchestra gets it right the first time. But in reality it's much more complicated-the engineer may take the first three bars, then at the fourth bar someone is off, so they take a good fourth bar from take 19, then the next four bars are good, but after that the percussionist drops a tambourine, so you pull a bar from the second take. It's amazing!"

As usual, for the band, the UK press has been lukewarm to the new project. (Meanwhile, in the US business is decent, with the band being written up in USA Today, among other places and the album entering the Billboard Album Chart at number 109.) "We were the main article, 14 pages, in MOJO (a British monthly music magazine). They always put the main story on the cover, but for us they didn't. I guess Paul Weller had a new single or something that was more important. But really, it feeds my paranoia. It's a conspiracy." I remind him of how, a couple of years ago, he voiced fears about future overview books on rock music skipping from the band X to the Yardbirds. "Yes, exactly! I went into a bookstore at the time and found a dozen of those books, and we were in two! They had overlooked our 14 albums altogether. Not very encouraging."

I point out that the band seems to have had better success in the US, which is strange because they are so very British. Meanwhile other very British bands, like Beautiful South and the Lightning Seeds, have failed to crack the US at all. "Oh," he laughs. "I am so tempted to answer like a five-year-old. "Maybe it's because we're better than they are!" I have no idea. Maybe because they're working class while we are more exotic. I mean, it's a mystery, I know Paul Weller has had a tough time. Blur doesn't seem to be doing so well either." While not exactly mainstream in the US, Mariah can sleep peacefully. But XTC has done remarkably well in the States for a "difficult" band. For a while in the late '80s and early '90s the band scored huge modern rock albums, with "Oranges and Lemons" and "Nonsuch" coming close to achieving gold status. Several singles, "Mayor of Simpleton," "King for a Day," and "Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead," were tops radio hits and even threatened to break into the mainstream top 40.

I pose the question to Mr. Partridge: What would you do if you were king for a day? "I would let people vote directly on what to spend their taxes on. If they wanted to spend them on medicine for the elderly or didn't want to support unwed mothers, whatever they wanted. I think that is the only way to truly have democracy. The people you vote for, they're the last people on earth you'd actually want running things. Politicians are all power hungry. That's the very definition of politicians, isn't it? People who are worthy are either too smart or see what trouble you can get into. I guess the only solution is to draft people into government or something. I'm just not into hero worshiping. I don't worship anyone as a hero. King for a day - just too dangerous. I'd probably make myself king forever, then change a lot of things up."

I then spring on him the dreaded Spandau Ballet question. His favorite song? "Oh God! What was that nonsense? "Instinction!" What was that, is that even a word, what? 'Instinct' and 'extinction?' It's not even a word. I could not stand that band. I used to see them on TV and I wanted to kick in the set. How dare the TV force such crap on me?! They had appalling lyrics! Appalling music! Least favorite band in the history of foreverness! They were a bunch of bankers, for God's sake!"

When I ask who, among the band's contemporaries, he did like, Mr. Partridge is a bit more subdued. "Elvis Costello occasionally did stuff I liked. Talking Heads too. David Bryne and I knew each other at one point. He would visit me in the studio, and I wrote a song and sang it on that Heads album a couple of years ago."

It is at this point that things suddenly fall apart. With a sheet full of questions to go - what really happened with Dave Gregory? Where did those woodcuts from Nonsuch come from? Is that really Curt Smith and Roland Ozabel making train sounds on Big Express? What on earth possessed them to cut "Dear God" from the initial pressings of Skylarking? - Mr. Partridge announces, "Look, sorry, I just saw on my sheet here that I am only supposed to talk to you until 8:30. It's ten of nine now. Do you have one more really good, deep-digging question?"

"No," I apologize. "All the rest are as boring and shallow as the previous ones. What about Prefab Sprout?"

"I would have to bludgeon that girl if she sat there singing 'Ohh, Ohh' every five seconds. Drive me crazy!"

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Copyright 1999 Lexicon Magazine.
[Thanks to Dave Richards and Molly Fanton]