April 1999

>>A Conversation With ... XTC's Andy Partridge

After six years of record label-imposed silence, XTC - now signed to TVT - is set for spring's renewal, a subject oft conjured by the whimsically sardonic Andy Partridge. XTC returns with Transistor Blast (a boxed set featuring smashing BBC sessions recorded live between '78 and '80, after which Partridge quit touring forever), Apple Venus Volume 1 (an orchestrally lush new studio LP; Volume 2 is due later in the year) and Song Stories (an often painful, always funny biography written with scribe Neville Farmer). MAGNET rang the Partridge hermitage in Swindon, England, to mince words with the reclusive pop icon.

For someone so private, this seems a revelatory time, with the book, box and other new stuff. What gives?

The funny thing about privacy is that I'm the ultimate torture victim. Like the good soldier Schweck, I'll confess anything. Got any murders? By purest Dick Van Dyke-style happenstance you're looking at several separate strands that came together accidentally. For several years, we were on strike with our old label (Virgin U.K.), so we were enforceably quiet. We could've made a contract killer like Metal Machine Music, but unfortunately they would've had to like it to release it. They let us go out of embarrassment, so the material I had before the end of 1997 went into production. At the same time, the ability to lease those fairly hysterical BBC sessions came up. [And then], a friend of a friend thought it a good idea to talk about ourselves and our songs.

Is there an upside to not recording for five years?

Oh yes. Despite all I went though personally - with divorce and illness - and professionally, I stored what I considered to be amongst the best songs I'd ever written. Everything was written with a different battery in the pack, similar to when you're a young kid and you're dreaming of a record deal. But when you're a kid, you're storing up crappy songs because you don't know how to write.

Developing an orchestral noise: Why?

I've been wanting to do this - an orchestral backbone hanging on acoustic flesh, sticking to the ribs - since (1992's) Nonsuch. I wanted to steer the band toward orchestral textures. I think it came from being a kid in England listening to radio. Ninety percent of it was light classics, musicals, show tunes. The other, more interesting, 10 percent was novelty tunes with sped-up voices and reverbs.

So should we be happy that Apple Venus didn't turn out barking dogs, xylophones and Spike Jones?

He was amazing. Pre the Beatles getting into their stride, there was no such thing as pop radio in England. There was only selections from My Fair Lady or incidental musics. Waiting for those great novelty records like Spike, I took in all the other stuff. I thought that was the dirt I was wading through, little knowing that the orchestral stuff would have the most consequence.

The lyrics to the song "Your Dictionary" are really brutal.

I went through a very painful divorce. Betrayed. And I have a big problem with betrayal since I'm a very loyal person. I felt a bit like a cuckolded husband. I was so upset, but I don't drink and I promised myself I wouldn't write bitter hurt songs. I didn't want this to be Songs For Swinging Divorcees. I'm not Phil Collins, for chrissakes. I thought I'd write just one song to let the pus out. And then I felt better. I felt very tacky about it 'cause I didn't want to cause undue hurt. I no longer feel that way - it's needlessly vicious. And then I played it for the band and some other divorced friends, and all of a sudden it's an anthem for group analysts everywhere.

Why is renewal of the life cycle - as envisioned on "Harvest Festival," "Easter Theatre" and, frankly, your entire oeuvre - so fascinating?

I can't get away from it. I'm besotted with the idea of decay turning into life, and vice versa, over and over. It's the whole Christian thing about Easter, too - the imagery. Easter is a goddess, an old Germanic female whose symbols are the egg and the hare.

I guess we should talk about Dave Gregory (long-time guitarist who recently left the band).

He's enormously complex. It wasn't as if he was offended by my socks. He negatived himself out, tough since we'd known him since we were 14. He's a diabetic with an enormous chip on his shoulder about it. He's angry and negative, feeling as if his life had been stolen away from him. His negativity had just gotten worse, be it from chemicals or age. Didn't want to do the orchestral record or the book. Didn't want to sign with TVT. No photos, no video shoots. Didn't want to map out the orchestrations on computer. He became impossible. He was a godsend when we were a touring unit ... I got sick of him shaking his head at me in the studio acting as if all of it was crap.

I know music is not an altruistic art, but how much has cash played a part of the XTC saga?

Mostly, it's passed through my hands without me knowing. Literally. I have these huge gaps between my fingers ... The band has never lived in luxury. We don't make more than any other Swindonite. We were making records for Virgin for 19 years before we went into profit, so shitty was our deal with them.

Will Apple Venus Volume 2 be the same beast with a different head?

A bit more moronic, actually. More instantaneous. Add one pack of electricity, stir well. It's the music written between '94 and '96. Once I had gotten the orchestral thing out of my system the next stuff was a return to noise. Simple and direct. Some of the most moronic stuff I've ever written. I have a soft spot for idiot music.

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