XTC's Andy Partridge follows his bliss

Minnesota Daily
July 18, 2000
By Saiki Difrances

The Andy Partridge Family

XTC's Andy Partridge makes no secrets about his band's 20-year history: Bad record deals, the departure of guitarist Dave Gregory, difficult producers and even bizarre health problems are all part of Partridge's rollercoaster music industry drama. But none of these troubles has dragged XTC down, and Partridge, along with founding bassist Colin Moulding, has the two-part Apple Venus to prove it. An unusually candid Partridge (even for him) talked with A&E about the second installment of the Apple Venus project called Wasp Star (TVT), bad rhyming and his prostate.

A&E: So, what's been going on since Nonsuch back in 1992?

Andy Partridge: Since Nonsuch came out, we knew we were never gonna make a living being on Virgin. Seriously. In fact, we never went into the black on the Virgin label for 20 years. I used to read about The Who as a kid and they never went into profit for 11 years. I thought it was crazy. We never went into profit for 20 years.

A&E: How?

AP: Yeah, exactly. I figured The Who were smashing up all that gear so that's what kept them in debt. But we just had such a crap deal and we had a corrupt manager. A very evil manager. He set things up legally so that he couldn't be touched. He would siphon off huge amounts from the record company and put it into offshore business and pension funds. We were never gonna make any money on Virgin.

I came to the conclusion that something had to be done. Actually Dave Gregory came up with the idea: "Why don't we just go on strike?" I think he said it half-jokingly. I thought: "No, he's right. We should." I told Virgin: "That's it. You're not getting more material. You have to release us." So what ensued was a five-year staring contest where they didn't blink and we didn't blink. Except in the meantime we were [affects mischievous tone] storing up dozens of songs. But we couldn't go into the studio because any note that we recorded, any fart in the bath that we made, they would own for perpetuity.

We didn't go in the studio, and I just kept pestering them to release us. I'd ring up the head of the label while [he was] on holiday in the south of France and get him by the poolside and say [pleading] "Please let us go!" Cue the old Negro spiritual in the background. They got sick of us badmouthing them in the press saying they wouldn't release us. They came up with a whole package of stuff we could relent and give to them for leaving.

As soon as they let us free, I went running around record companies with tapes in my hand saying "Do you want to sign us? Do you want to listen to the next huge project we want to do?" That way, I found all the labels we're on at the moment.

A&E: Around the time of the new record deals was the time Dave Gregory left?

AP: No. Actually we started what was tentatively called the Apple Venus project. It was going to be two discs in one package. I figured that if we'd been out of the public eye for seven years, then we should come back with quality and quantity. We wrote something like four albums worth of material. We picked two best records worth. Because they were written over such a long period of time, they naturally fell to two styles. One bunch to orchestral and acoustic and one to electric guitars. So I said, "We should really hit the public with a double 'bang-bang' here with two discs and call it The Apple Venus Project."

Unfortunately we only had one record deal in place when we started and we ran out of money. The first producer was Hayden Bendall. He was not so expensive, but the fact that he took so long -- a lovely fellow but painfully slow, and he ate up all the money. An orchestra is not cheap and Abbey Road [Studio] to record the orchestra isn't cheap either. We ran out of money and it came to this fateful decision: Do we make the public wait another year, and get some more record deals and money and finish up the albums -- I don't know what the plural is ... albi, alba -- or do we finish one first and as soon as we can get back in, we put the next disc out? We went for [the latter] option.

Around this time and about a third of the way through recording what would become Apple Venus Volume One, Dave Gregory did leave.

A&E: Why?

AP: It's a long [story] and it's very complex only because Dave is immensely complex. There is nothing simple about Dave or any of his thoughts and actions. He got diabetes at 16. Some people handle diabetes and you wouldn't know they had it. There's no problem. Some people don't handle it well. He handled it very badly because it caught him at an age where from then on he had the world's biggest chip on his shoulder. He really resented having what he saw as a life-crushing condition. Some people don't see it that way and attune to it. But he went blind in one eye.

The thing was, not only did he have a big chip on his shoulder for lost time, he also had one about getting older and being in the company of two people who wrote rather a lot of songs. Over the years, he became more jealous and verbally upset. The only people he could allow his anger at the world out on were the people he was closest to: me and Colin. It became more and more difficult to work with him. Every time we'd get into the studio, he'd get really negative. Everything we were doing was crap and he wanted to erase it all and start again. He didn't want to be part of an orchestral album. He didn't want to push all the electric stuff to one disc. He didn't want to do interviews for the book or turn up to photo sessions. Everything became a problem and he was trying to tunnel his way out of the band and didn't really know how to tell us. So it came out as making life as difficult as possible until something gave. That's rather a long answer. I'm sorry.

A&E: ... so where did Homespun, the Apple Venus Volume One demos come in?

AP: This sounds stupid, but it's kind of not related to the whole project. If you play [them together], that's how it's meant to go. Hopefully, there's going to be a second volume called Homegrown for [Apple Venus Volume Two:] Wasp Star demos. You may be the first to know. I don't think I've officially told anyone. We're going to be using more of the primitive ones, because people would write to us or whatever ... they liked the idea of hearing the demos, but a lot of people complained that they were too finished [on Homespun]. When you're messing around with orchestras, you can't go in there and hold up a card that reads "Let's jam." You can't hold up a card with the key of A or G and say "OK, let's improvise, fellas!" Every note has to be worked out beforehand. That's why the demos for Apple Venus Volume One were very worked out.

"I lost my hearing for six weeks. After that, my wife just ran away with another fellow, which really crushed me."
-- Andy Partridge

The demos for Wasp Star were less worked out. Demos go through at least two stages, if not more. The first idea, which usually catches while I'm sat down being a slob with a guitar around my neck. So I run around looking for any cassette machine -- it's usually my son's little cassette player -- and put it on in the corner and sing it before I forget it. There's that stage. If it feels good, then it gets worked up to a stage where we make a little 8-track recording in my garden shed. From there on, you get a much better picture of the way you want the finished song to sound. Maybe on Homegrown, we'll use more of those "first idea" cassettes because people said they were more interested in the removed, primitive side of things.

A&E: So with Homespun and Homegrown, are you trying to get your version of unfinished XTC music out there?

AP: Yeah. Because we knew that a lot of people had little bits and pieces, there's obviously an interest in our sketch books. You might as well see them in the nicest quality you're going to see them. We chopped them together in the same order as the album. But like I said, the next one, Homegrown, will probably lean toward the home demos.

A&E: On Wasp Star, you seem to be in a much better mood than past outings.

AP: Over those four or five years, I went through the biggest, most extreme situations I'd ever been through in my life. Sheesh, this is kind of boring. I'll do it quickly.

I lost my hearing. I had an infection in my ear drum and it blew out completely. It was the worst pain I've experienced in my life. I remember banging my head against the wall at about two in the morning. I was crazy with pain. I didn't know what to do. It was the ultimate toothache, but it was in the center of my head. I was banging my head against the wall crying and screaming "Get the doctor!" I didn't know what was wrong. Then I felt a surge of pain and then no pain. I touched my neck because it felt damp. I looked at my hand and it was blood. There was blood dribbling out of my ear. What had happened I'd had a disease of the middle ear. The pus had built up and couldn't drain. If it can't drain out, the only way for it to get out is to burst out of your eardrum. [laughs] That makes it sound pretty gruesome. It was lots of pus and blood dribbling from my ear.

So I lost my hearing for six weeks. After that, my wife just ran away with another fellow, which really crushed me. Our marriage was going down in any case. I think there was a lot of jealousy that I had a career and she was stuck with the kids and stuff.

She ran away with the antithesis of me, which is interesting. I'm sort of a gentle, artistic fellow. She ran away with this ex-sergeant in the RAF. A real brutal character.

A&E: The Anti-Andy.

AP: [laughs] I was one end of the rainbow, he was the other. So that hurt, and I just about got as low as I could get. And then my prostate started going awry. I was drinking a lot in my marriage because I was obviously unhappy. So I had an alcohol problem and my prostate was malfunctioning and my hearing was fucked up. I had no marriage. I was looking after my kids single-handedly. And I was trying to write an album hoping that one day we'd get out of this terrible situation where I couldn't record. So life was about as black as it got. I should really hurry my answers up. [laughs]

Then I fell in love again with a woman who I'd known for years. I never dared think we'd get together. We just did. My health started getting better and we got away from our Virgin contract. I was free and in love so I guess the majority of the songs that made up Wasp Star were more optimistic.

I actually heard Apple Venus today for the first time in a long time ... I think it's not too bad.

A&E: You're being pretty modest.

AP: OK, I enjoyed some of it.

A&E: Come on, Apple Venus Volume One is a one of a kind record.

AP: Maybe the best album we've ever made. That and this new one.

A&E: I think it's The Big Express.

AP: Aw shit. Why'd you mention that? 'Cause I love that album and nobody ever mentions it. That and Mummer are the two ignored discs.

A&E: Mummer is kind of weird and summery.

AP: It's a transitional type disc. I was very confused at the time. I'd [stopped] touring and everyone said "You're washed up. You're finished. What are you going to do now? Everyone will forget you!" That wasn't the case. Well, they have been forgetting us, but I was busy finding a load of songs. I had more time. I wasn't stuck in hotel rooms or playing in Mosse Ovary, Kan. Or wherever.

I had loads of time and could create. More songs came out from Mummer because I was free from the road. It could've been four albums. Big Express too. But it's Colin's least favorite of our albums. It was a bad time for him. He wasn't writing anything. I was on a roll.

A&E: I read an interview where you apologized for rhyming "umbilical" with "cycle" in "Season Cycle" from Skylarking. Is there anything else you'd apologize for?

AP: "Um-bill-lie-kul," please. [laughs] I could apologize for rhyming "festival" with "best of all."

A&E: Anything else?

AP: My entire career? [laughs] What are you leading to? This is enigmatic.

A&E: I'm pointing at "Omnibus" from Nonsuch.

AP: That's all about Dave Gregory though I could never tell him. I think he was a virgin up to that point. I'm not joking. He was very shy. Being diabetic, he thought it was a good excuse to stay away from girls. I would try to do anything I could to encourage him to sample the female race in some way. Live with a girl, take girls out, get a female dog. Anything! You need some female energy to balance yourself out. So I wrote "Omnibus" as a candid letter in a bottle to encourage him to get involved.

A&E: I would've never thought it.

AP: Now you know what it's all about! You'll get it now. You'll say "Jesus, he's right!" But did I rhyme something really bad?

A&E: Not rhymed, no. But the "There's nothing in the world like a green-skinned girl/Make your bonsai whip/And make your oyster pearl" series was suggestive to say the least.

AP: But it all rhymes! It's all about erections. You know what I'm talking about.

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