XTC: Love and Disguise on a Farmboy's Wages

June 1984
by Karen Schlosberg

If there were a true norm for British pop bands, it would be XTC, who reflect where they're from and what they see so accurately as to provide a sort of aural travelog for rural England. Listening to the band's latest album, Mummer, provides the perfect scenario for the country-side as the train pushes on towards Swindon. Britain is an anachronism in a way that America can never be, which is one reason why "quaint" is invariably how Americans describe most aspects of the British Isles. It is an unselfconscious amalgam of old and new: ugly cement motorways nestling next to rolling green fields, upon which lay ancient stone walls that surround fat, contented grazing sheep... pubs so old they would be museum pieces in the States... mailboxes that still bear the imprint of Queen Victoria... thatched cottages, stone manses, towns with names like Biggleswade, Scunthorpe and Swindon.

Swindon, Wiltshire was once a bustling and proud railway center, home of the Great Western. Everyone worked for the railroad. Now there's a railway museum there, and saying Swindon to an Englishman is like saying New Jersey to a New Yorker. The town is not very picturesque, not very quaint, rather nondescript, and, well, dull. But it's home for XTC, Swindon-bred Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory.

Dave Gregory, Colin Moulding & Andy Partridge

In comes I, with a sheaf of tattered magazines around my head. I've come to try and dissect magic, for how else can one describe that delicate balance between words and music that makes an XTC song? On this chilly gray Swindon afternoon, my amiable victims are lounging around a small living room, drinking the ever-present cups of tea.

The dynamics of a group interview with XTC are instructive: Andy Partridge is a natural talker; the fact that it sometimes takes gentle force to get a word in edgewise seems to he taken for granted within the group. Dark-haired, soft-spoken Moulding was reading a magazine at the start of the interview (I learn later he doesn't usually expect to get to say much) but opens up as time goes on; while possessing, as all the band does, a sharp sense of humor, Moulding seems the most bitter about the business end of the band's pop career and how it has hindered XTC's progress. Dave Gregory is quietly witty and just as quietly articulate; I'm sure his importance to the group's sound is largely underrated by the public. Drummer in residence Peter Phipps (who also manned the sticks for most of Mummer) sat reading Helter Skelter and managed to get in a few words about his drum kit when necessary.

"In comes I," explains Andy Partridge, principal song-writer/singer and outspoken wit of XTC, is a line frequently used in the mummers plays that take place around Christmas time in rural England. The ancient tradition has the players - the townsfolks - dress in suits of rags and tatters and follow a basic script having to do with cycles of death and rebirth. Just an ordinary folks' entertainment in the days before telly, which is why traditions like mummers are now rapidly dying out.

Disguise is important to the mummers, says Partridge and recognition would "spoil the magic". If somebody said, ‘Ere!’" (Partridge's Wiltshire accent, full of "errs" and an unpronounceable way of saying "ou," broadens, flattens and widens to become a perfect Monty Pythonesque yokel.) "‘You're Fred the Baker!’ he'd have to go home in tears because he'd been recognized. It's an ordinary people's show business. They don't go on stages to do it; they do it in the street or they knock on your door and come in your house and do it."

Disguise is also important to Mummer, the album. This is a band in a business devoted to pushing yourself in front of the people and demanding attention, but XTC has no enthusiasm whatever for the task. They try to keep their sense of normalcy and reality by planting themselves in their surroundings to keep the sentiments true, but disguising the facts with metaphors to keep people from getting too close. "None of us are really into hey-notice-me," says Partridge. "We'd all like to be rich and obscure."

"The good thing about the way we are," Gregory says, "is that we don't feel honor-bound to follow up. We can do whatever we want. It's not like we've become a mammoth success with one particular record and then felt we didn't dare do anything that wasn't quite as good as that."

"I feel like a thirty-year-old musical vandal," Partridge says cheerfully. "I can do what the hell I want and I don't have to answer for anything."

Mummer is the latest act in this West Country version of Everyman; an album that was just about finished at the end of 1982 but was released in England about nine months later, and in the States a little over three months after that. XTC's difficulties would have broken a less secure band, one that wasn't grounded by now in reality. There were problems with Mummer's original producer, Steve Nye, which led to a couple of new recordings with a new producer (Bob Sargeant), and several remixes with yet more producers (Alex Sadkin and Phil Thornalley); a disagreement over the cover; and a new label in the States, Geffen, which, by the way, the band found out about by accident.

All of this followed a major decision by the band not to tour anymore and the loss of a drummer who'd been with them since they began (Terry Chambers, who moved to Australia). "I'm personally not too interested in touring," says Partridge, "plus I've developed a terrible phobia about audiences that got worse and worse. It was making me physically ill. My nervous system was not handling it. The next step was a sand tray." He pauses. "Move over, Bri! Don't nick all the sand!" Moulding and Gregory crack up.

"Still..." Partridge muses, then breaks into his yokel accent, "ya got ta laugh!"

Andy Partridge
Down on the farm, an aural travelog of English sensibility.

"Is anyone playing Game For A Laugh on us or something?" asks bassist Moulding (Game For A Laugh being the English equivalent of Candid Camera in terms of public practical joking).

"Game For A Laugh ..." chuckles Partridge. "Maybe we're not really signed to Virgin."

But XTC doesn't particularly feel it's being persecuted. "No, actually I think we probably got over that," Partridge says, then laughs. "We had a stage of feeling persecuted 'round about 1981."

Guitarist Gregory adds, "We just got used to the idea of being always the bridesmaids, never the bride."

Mummer continues what English Settlement (1981) started -- a textured, rich, layered and personal album that actually succeeded as a double-disc package (though it was slashed down to a single LP in the States by XTC's current record company) -- and contained the breathtaking songs "Senses Working Overtime" and "All Of A Sudden." Mummer is more personal, more accessible and more acoustic than English Settlement, and is best listened to as a whole, for the songs flow into one another and complement each other.

Mummer is also a most creative and unusual album, blending pop, rock and folk in a way that pretty near defies categorization. XTC don't recycle American rock'n'roll. They play their music as if the only thing America did for rock 'n' roll was electrify the guitar, and the band has developed, since their first LP White Music in 1978, a definite, warm and defiantly unique style.

And they've left their least favorite adjective far behind with White Music and Go 2's rather artsy new wave.

"Quirky!" all three of them shout at once.

"We still get it, as well," Partridge says, sighing. "Looks like Tom Dolby's going to get it now, poor sod. I think we're one of the straightest bands going, and people think we sit around with huge boffin-expanding heads saying, ‘Hey, how can we out-Devo Devo?’"

"We've always claimed to be a pop group, not a rock group," Gregory says. "Our audiences tend to be rock-oriented audiences, and that's probably why they think we're a bit weird."

Partridge laughs. "Yeah. they're the sort of rock audiences who kind of go in on the weird angle." He whispers, "Oh - they're really a pop group, but there's something about them, something strange...." "QUIRKY!" Gregory stage whispers.

Sorry, but White Music and Go 2 were rather quir - oh, eclectic, but since the crystalline pop visions of 1979's somewhat erratic Drums And Wires ("Making Plans For Nigel!"), the sophistication and personality of the band's lyrics and melodies took a giant step to the near-perfection of 1980's Black Sea. Then came the somewhat pastoral English Settlement that settled into Mummer, which suggests what rock'n'roll might have sounded like had it been invented in the nineteenth century.

Mummer is a celebration of simple life in the best definition of that word: pure and unadulterated; without affectation: natural. Trust plays an important part in life on Mummer, as does love, faith and a sort of pastoral mysticism that is evoked through the haunting arrangements of such songs as Moulding's "Deliver Us From The Elements" and the touching "In Loving Memory Of A Name," Partridge's "Beating Of Hearts" and "Love On A Farmboy's Wages" (which is one of the most wonderfully original pop songs written in a very long time).

Of course, talking about songs doesn't always get you very far. Partridge feels XTC's songs are simple. "We try not to write things that aren't necessarily untrue; we try to write things that we can either see happening to other people, or have happened to us - and I'm going to give it to you in metaphors because I'm a bit scared of giving it to you real." He smiles. "So really, in the last four albums, it's all been fact writing; things that have happened to us or things that we are concerned about.

"Sometimes," he continues, "when you get asked to explain a song, you have to think - now how can I say this so as not to expose too much of myself? Because what you put in a song, sometimes you're on a very thin line of really exposing a few raw nerves, and people are going to touch them and you'll think, ‘Ahhh, I knew I shouldn't have exposed that!’" Partridge chooses metaphors both as a way of exposing his sentiments safely, and keeping them hidden.

"Love On A Farmboy's Wages," for example, "is just about being poor and knowing that if you keep going, it will be all right. I was choosing a nice local metaphor about farms, a metaphor that most people can swallow. They're all things that we've lived through, or are living through, whatever."

"Some of the songs are just describing the surroundings," adds Moulding, "be they gritty or really nice."

Andy Partridge
Principal songwriter/singer Partridge displays his acerbic wit... bassist/songscribe Colin Moulding works on a punch line.

The surroundings of the British countryside are special, as there's always been a very deep and mystical connection between the people and the land. The more you live in the countryside, the more in tune you are not just to nature, but specific rhythms; your perceptions are broadened and deepened as you move into sync with the terrestrial heartbeat. XTC music has reflected more of their surroundings, and gotten more personal, philosophical and simple as they've toured less and less.

A song like Moulding's "Deliver Us From The Elements," for example, seems infused with an almost primordial sense of being overpowered by Elemental Forces; it sounds like a stormy night, a pagan prayer in front of some druid altar. Moulding, in instinctive empathy with the countryside around him, is uneasy about over-intellectualizing what is essentially an intuitive feeling, and perhaps rightly so.

"I was just looking up at the sky one gray afternoon, you know," he says and laughs.

"You thought your house was going to be blown away in a hurricane and end up in Oz," says Partridge, to the band's general amusement.

"Yeah, on a wet and windy night. No, I just thought of a song about, uh," Moulding pauses, "about the elements, really." He laughs again. "No matter what we can do, the elements will decide what happens to us. It's beyond our control."

The Englishness of the band might, admittedly, seem more charming if you're not from England ("I don't think the English like to see themselves, necessarily," Partridge says), since XTC on Mummer appear to reflect every stereotype of bucolic country life that's ever been portrayed on Masterpiece Theatre: joy in nature, acceptance of life's beauty and sorrow, and verbal eloquence reflecting the eloquence of the physical surroundings. Tess of the D'Urbervilles meets Oklahoma!

"That's probably where the Englishness thing comes in as well," Partridge says. "We don't sing about freeways and drive-in burger stands 'cause there aren't any around here. What we can sing about is sort of double-decker buses, cups of tea, farms. It's reflecting exactly what you see around you."

But it's not just the quality of the songs that makes XTC's music so compelling; the execution is equally unique, a tribute to the skills of guitarist Dave Gregory and new drummer Peter Phipps. Partridge calls Gregory the "musical glue" in XTC, the "music teacher who tells me how to get from one chord to the next. He kinds of ties up a lot of loose ends."

"That's right," Gregory says, laughing. "The loose end tidier-upper, the gleaner of chaff. I'm the last link between the songwriters and the group as such, otherwise we'd just be making solo records."

Phipps' arrival has also affected XTC's approach: "Pete's drumming changed a lot of the original intention of tracks from Mummer, which were kind of written with Terry's drumming in mind," says Partridge. "Things like ‘Ladybird’ were much harder until he picked up a pair of brushes. He kind of broke it up into Pentangle-on-acid mixed with a bit of Dave Brubeck."

One sonic trademark of XTC is their everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink approach to effects: "We use loads of that stuff," says Partridge, "filing cabinets, some metal lampshades, an electric shaver... techniques like ‘Beating Of Hearts’ - what sound like really sparkly, zithery guitars are actually 12-string electric guitars that are miked up as opposed to being electrified. So all you hear is the pling-pling of the electric sound miked up through the air so it's thin; then we layer those on."

"‘Wonderland’ is mostly various tracks of Prophet 5 and people wopping bird noises and stuff. You get that thick tropical sort of nothingness, you know, that thick, steamy glump. Plus accidental things, like on ‘She And The Wind’ what sounds like a ship's masts rattling away at the end is just me trying to hold one of those vibra-slaps still enough while the track's fading out and it just happened to be sort of clanking."

"There's quite a few shouts on that record," says Moulding.

"Somebody asked me what you were yelling, the other week," Partridge says to Moulding. "In ‘Ladybird’ he goes.... (Partridge shouts) He played a really terrible bum note and yelled, as if to say, ‘Oh my God!’ We couldn't get rid of the shout so we had to leave it on there."

"That Thick, Steamy Gump"

ANDY PARTRIDGE Ibanez Artist, Martin acoustic, Squier Telecaster, Marshall 100-watt amp, Trucker amp. The instruments "change on each track. Also through laziness. I go to the studio and most likely I'm going to put my part down and I think, ‘Oh shit, I can't be bothered to put a new set of strings on,’ so I'll walk over and grab one of Davy's guitars."

DAVE GREGORY Owns sixteen guitars; uses mostly Stratocasters; Rickenbacker 12-strings; and a Schecter guitar. His amp is a Roland JC-120.

COLIN MOULDING A couple of Fender Precisions; a fretless bass; an old Epiphone that sounds like a string bass, used on "Ladybird" and "Me and the Wind." Colin has an Ampeg SVT amp, but usually prefers to go direct through the board.

PETER PHIPPS Sonor drum kit; four concert toms; Dave Gregory's brother's 20-inch (European) Hamer bass drum; Terry Chambers' Tama floor tom and Premier roto-tom; four Paiste cymbals: 16-inch, 18-inch, 22-inch and 20-inch.

COMMON TO ALL Prophet 5 synth, Mellotron.

"I think we left the bum note on there as well," Moulding adds, and laughs.

Mummer's celebration includes the bittersweet, as the joy and exhilaration of songs like "Beating Of Hearts," "Farmboy," "Great Fire" and "Ladybird" are tempered with Partridge's "Human Alchemy," a dark song about slavery; "Me And The Wind," a haunting song of lost love; and "Funk Pop A Roll," a biting but funny song about, what else, the music business ("...is a hammer to keep / You pegs in your holes / But please don't listen to me / I've already been poisoned by this industry / Funk pop a roll beats up my soul"); and Moulding's songs are touched by either sadness ("Memory"), a feeling of helplessness ("Elements"), or love's frustration ("Wonderland").

"I'm getting cynical," says Partridge, "more cynical as I get older. It's a sort of natural human thing, because, ‘Ahhh, I've done all that!’ I suppose it's the cruel end of wise, is cynical. It's the same hat but it's the pointed end of it. I'm sort of a romantic as well, because I like things to be nice, I like people to be pleasant - although I am aware of how gritty things are. Maybe songs are my soapbox; get up on there and say, ‘look, things are really shitty, please let's try and sort them out.’"

Since the band tends to look at their albums as going in pairs, it's about time for a change, and Partridge says that the next album will be harder, with perhaps more of an R&B feel.

"I' think that people think the next album from us is going to be even more acoustic guitars. They think it's going to be more songs about farms and hayricks."

"More songs about farm buildings and chicken food," adds Gregory.

"Farm buildings and high-density bulk yield!" throws Partridge into the cackling momentum. "There are no acoustic guitars within a thousand miles of what we're doing now. We've just twanged the possibilities out for us.

We tend to garner as many new friends as we must piss off old fans, you know," Partridge continues cheerfully. "I mean, people obviously want Black Sea II, and then English Settlement arrives. And they go away and some new people come along and say, ‘Hey great! I can't wait for English Settlement II!’, then Mummer comes along and must annoy some people."

XTC will never be staying in one place for long; how will it all add up? "Hell, write your epitaph now..." Partridge pauses. "I demand a second opinion!"

"I'd like to be remembered as having some really good songs," Moulding says firmly.

Partridge wanders over to a bookcase and puts out a rock encyclopedia. "Well, let's see how we're going to get remembered.... Here we are, XTC!" He reads. "U.K. male vocal/instrumental group." He snaps the book shut. "There we are, that's it. We got one line."

I say that reminds me of the description of Earth in the book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "Harmless".

Partridge laughs. "Mostly. They added, ‘Mostly harmless.’ Yeah, file under ‘mostly harmless,’ file under ‘U.K., male.’ Well, that's it, I mean, they've written our epitaph already. No, I hope it's infinitely more subtle than that."

"In Loving Memory Of A Group," says Moulding, and smiles.

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