The Onion

the a.v. club
june 19, 1997

by Keith Phipps
The Onion talks to frontman Andy Partridge about his music, his lousy old record deal, and where the hell he's been for the past five years.
Since making its debut in 1977 alongside The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Wire and other influential acts, Andy Partridge's band XTC has labored in relative obscurity, surfacing with some regularity to produce masterful English pop music that's adored by the group's cult following but ignored by the public as a whole. Following the release of 1992's Nonsuch, this pattern changed, and the generally prolific band seemed to disappear. Singer/songwriter Andy Partridge recently spoke to The Onion about why, and about subjects ranging from deafness and prostate trouble to his band's brand-new retrospective and long-awaited studio releases.

The Onion: Your last album came out in 1992. What have you been up to since then, and why haven't we heard from you?

Andy Partridge: Because we've been on strike. Because we had the shittiest record deal on planet earth. I mean, you hear about those old blues artists who sign away their estate for five dollars and a bottle of beer... Hey, I'm still waiting for that bottle of beer! You know, we had the crappiest record deal. I'll tell you how crap our record deal was: Although we made Virgin Records [the band's label in England] somewhere in the region of 35 million pounds profit, we were still in debt to them after 15 years on the label.

“Not only were they not promoting us; they weren't paying us, and they were, you know, actively stopping our records from getting played on the radio.”

O: You must have been running up a big catering bill in the meantime.

AP: Well, we had a very corrupt manager to start with, but I'm not supposed to talk about that because he made me sign a very uncorrupt manager's gagging clause. The sort of gagging clause that really nice people who don't have anything to hide make you sign. We had a very corrupt manager who kept taking money and putting us continually in the hole. We didn't know. He was setting himself up nicely. And of course, we got shot of him and inherited this debt. And, as I said, they were doing fine out of us and we were still in the red. I mean, things were getting really bad just before we did Nonsuch. Dave [Gregory, guitar] and Colin [Moulding, bass] were collecting Hertz rental cars, you know, for money. One of the best things we've ever put out as a single, "Wrapped in Grey," they withdrew after something like 3,000 copies. They got cold feet and said, "Oh no, this isn't a single," and withdrew it. And that murdered it. That really incensed me, because not only were they not promoting us; they weren't paying us and they were, you know, actively stopping our records from getting played on the radio and stuff. That was it. I said, "Look, let us out of this deal, oh great Satan." And they wouldn't. So the only thing we could do was withhold the one thing we had, which was our songs, our musical services. So from '92 until the end of last year, we weren't able to record, because if we had, they would have owned it. So we've been storing up material. They finally let us out at the end of last year, and we've been talking legitimately to other record companies since then, and it looks like we're very, very close to signing a sensible record deal. But, in the meantime, we've stored up one hell of a lot of songs. And, I mean, the last four years have been unbelievably difficult for me. Just a quick scrape of the violin: I got divorced... [singing] I woke up one morning, found myself divorced. That was kind of traumatic, because I wasn't really expecting it. I had an ear infection and went deaf for about three months. I blew my eardrum out. Which was, I tell you, short of pushing a thermometer down the hole in your penis and gently bending until it snaps, the most painful thing I can imagine. I was, like, 2 o'clock in the morning, banging my head on the wall saying, "For Chrissake, call the doctor, something's wrong in my head." And then I felt all this wet on my neck, and it was blood pouring out my ear, 'cause my eardrum had broke. I was deaf after that for a while. So, things have been really kind of odd for me, what with, fuck me, my prostate... I decided to grow a prostate. I never even knew what one was. I think I drank mine to death. Quite seriously. It decided it was going to do the old-man thing and enlarge itself. Which means you're up all night pissing. Because I used to drink quite heavily and now I hardly drink anything.

O: So, the next XTC album is going to be full of lyrics about deafness, and divorce, and enlarged prostates?

AP: Oh god, no! I don't want to do one of those sort of Phil Collins-type records--you know the kind of things, Songs For Swinging Divorcees, that sort of stuff. I don't want to do that. So I've been really careful to watch the divorce; there's no mention of divorce. There's just one bitter song called "Your Dictionary," which I feel very tricky about doing, but everyone says, "Fuck me, that's so strong. You should do that." It kind of [mockingly] "poetically weaves a fine web of innuendo." And at the end of the song, it says, "Let our marriage be undone." And that's about it. That's really the depths of my revenge, I suppose.

O: You're ready to start recording then?

AP: Yeah, I say. It's been driving me crazy.

O: When the next XTC album does come out, are we going to see something like Prince's last album, where it's three albums in one?

AP: Yeah, we're releasing a 19-album box set and changing our names to The Artists Formerly Known As Having A Quality-Control Button. His is busted, I think. Certainly his quantity-control button is busted. No, I think there are four albums worth of stuff that we've written. I mean, that isn't a lot over the four years that I've been writing. Four albums worth of stuff is going to be pruned down to two good albums. I really think there are two good albums there. And, you know, I could say that evil word that all record companies run from: double.

O: You think a double album will happen?

AP: I'd like to. I mean, I can't see why not. Well, I can see why not, because they don't want to pay you the mechanical royalties and the extra 20 cents it costs to print up another disc.

O: You do have a greatest-hits album [Upsy Daisy Assortment] coming out, right?

AP: Well, yeah. It's a bit of a bizarre mixture. I think they bought a dart board at Geffen [the band's U.S. label] and wrote a load of our titles around it and just flung darts at the board.

O: The track selection seems mostly sensible. What are you unhappy with on there?

AP: Well, I would have liked them to release the Fossil Fuel collection, which was all of the singles in the correct chronological order. It came out in England earlier, and it was fish or fowl. And this Geffen one is kind of not fish or fowl at the moment. It's got some singles and a couple of album tracks, but I guess they didn't want to do the entire singles collection because of the two-discs principle. So, it's basically tracks they thought had some relevance to Americans, I guess.

O: Which do you wish would have been a bigger hit?

“I'm not especially ultra-proud of our singles. I think our best stuff, the chewier stuff, is usually left on the album.”

AP: That's a tough question. Because I'm not especially ultra-proud of our singles. I think our best stuff, the chewier stuff, is usually left on the album. Because the entire singles industry seems to be geared down to immediacy and lower IQ rather than geared up to people making some effort to listen to music and chew it. Most of the singles market seems to be... They like the pre-chewed kind of nursing-home food. There's nothing wrong with catchy music: One of my most favorite musical forms is instantaneous, disposable music, I suppose, but instantaneous in that you hear it two or three times and then want to bin it. I think our best stuff is inevitably stuff with bones in it that takes wrestling with.

O: Of that stuff, what songs are you the most proud of?

AP: Yeah, uh... "Rook," "Books Are Burning," "Wrapped In Grey," "Humble Daisy." I was very proud of that for some reason. "Chalkhills And Children," I was especially proud of. Oh, "Garden Of Earthly Delights," I like that... Um... Oh sheesh... That's a tough one. "Season Cycle," from Skylarking.

O: That's an ambitious song.

AP: You've gotta forgive me the "umbilical" [pronounced "um-bill-like-al"] rhyme on that one. Sheesh, what else? Odd things for odd reasons. "Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her," because it was the first song I'd ever composed on a keyboard using two hands.

O: Looking back over your career, is there any song you wish hadn't seen the surface?

AP: Oh Jesus, yeah. Virtually the entire first two albums, White Music and Go 2. But, you know, they have their appeal. But if you were me, and you're trapped inside those songs, and they're [your] spotty, kind of masturbatory youth, it's kind of tough that they're out there on display still. Imagine someone had a picture of you with a really bad haircut and wearing really bad flared polyester trousers and you've got your dick out and you're covered in spots and this was like, you know, one of the most--how shall I say?--vulnerable moments in your life, and suddenly they've blown it up, and there it is on permanent display in Times Square... You know, I mean, how would you feel? Maybe at the time you might think, "Yeah! That's me!" But then 20 years later you think, "Jesus, it's still there." I still see that record in record shops and I think, "That's a different person that made that record." But, you know, it's got a kind of naive charm.

O: It seems like you're one of the few bands from the big class of '77 that's still actively around.

AP: Yeah. Are there any other bands still around from then?

O: The Buzzcocks still surface every once in a while, right?

AP: Yeah, but they're kind of sad now, because they're doing the chicken-in-a-basket circuit, the cabaret, you know? "Here we have from Manchester, Port Cabaret! Settle down, ladies and gentlemen, we got The National Buzzcocks, and they might say a few rude words in between songs, but they promise to turn it down so you can hear the bingo." It's all kind of a bit sad. They're just going around playing old shit, and I wouldn't want to do that.

O: On the other, far, end of the spectrum you have The Sex Pistols.

AP: Yeah... Actually, there was a strange paradox to them reforming and people going to see them. The paradox is that you knew they were crap in the first place and you bought the records, and then when they split up and said, "Yeah, we fooled you," you said, "Oh, okay, I've been had." And then they reform, and people go and see them again! Talk about a dog returning to his own vomit! I mean, there's a great kind of paradox in that, of all bands, it should have been them that reformed. It's kind of perfect.

O: Do you find it bothersome that you're still best known for "Dear God," 10 or 11 years later?

AP: Yeah, that's... a tough one. Cause I'm not... I don't think it's one of the best things I've ever written. It's a very clumsy way of saying something enormous. I wasn't that keen on it. I mean, I asked for it to be left off the British album [Skylarking], which it was. With "Dear God," I feel that I failed to [capture] the subject in three and a half minutes, or whatever it is. It's such a vast subject! I mean, how the hell do you do that? It's like somebody saying, "Human Belief: You've got three and a half minutes. Go." You're not going to get a fraction of it out, are you? So, yeah, it kind of worries me, 'cause I think we've got much better material than "Dear God," and it's a combination of human laziness and the fact that we haven't had the exposure, so people don't get to hear the other things we've done.

O: Do you find the lack of recognition troubling?

AP: I did terribly to start with. It was like, "Ah, Jesus, I'm in a band that looks like it's not going to get above cult status." And now it doesn't worry me. I've spent a long, long time learning to be selfish about my music, for a start. I don't worry now about what other people think about my music. Which is good. It's good for your art for you to be selfish about it, for you to just please yourself totally and not give a damn what anyone else thinks. Not to compromise, not to water it down, not to worry about acceptance and stuff. It's taken me a long time to get to being artistically selfish, but it's good for me. It doesn't worry me that we're not accepted; it's more important that we just get to make this music. And if some people like it, fine. If they don't, I suppose I'll just have to go and get a proper job.

“I always think the next album's gonna change things, but then again, I always think that each album we make will be our last.”

O: Do you think the next album will change things?

AP: I always think the next album's gonna change things, but then again, I always think that each album we make will be our last, and I've treated every album that way, from White Music onwards. We finished White Music and the mixing was finished and it was all sequenced up, and I thought, "Well, that's it then. That's about what you get," after literally 10 years of build-up, wanting to make an album and be in a band and get a recording contract. I used to fantasize about being in a band when I was a schoolkid. I used to write essays about being in a group. I used to illustrate them with pictures. You know, I'd be 14 years old and I'd project ahead and draw me on stage there with a guitar, or draw me in the recording studio. And I'd write these elaborate fantasies about what I thought I was going to do when I grew up. Um... What were we talking about? I suddenly came over this funny little wash of nostalgia about me stuck there over exercise books in school drawing... But with each one, you build up to making an album, and you have to mentally treat it like it's the last thing you're gonna do. If not, you're not going to put your best work into it; you'd just be kinda coasting. I treat each one like it's the end and we're not going to make any more after that. And that helps me to put intense--and I don't know how you're going to spell this--to put intense [grunts loudly] into each one.

O: Are you a little bit nervous about putting out a greatest-hits album?

AP: Yeah, they wanted to call it Greatest Hits and I said no, because they're not greatest hits. You know, there's a selection of things that were popular on the radio; there's a few things that people bought. There's things on there that nobody'll know what the fuck they are. So don't call it Greatest Hits; instead, I came up with the idea of doing it like a sort of box of chocolates or something. 'Cause I had this incredibly tacky picture of this serene-looking lamb, and I thought, "That is such a beautiful picture! We've gotta use it somewhere." And it was an excuse to do the chocolate-box kind of thing, using that chocolate-box lamb. But I said, "You mustn't call it Greatest Hits, because that's wrong."

O: And it's often a band's tombstone, when you put out a greatest-hits album and call it one.

AP: Yeah, I just see that, and Fossil Fuel, as being part one of the career. You know, now there will be a short intermission and you can run out and have a piss and get some popcorn. Or piss in somebody else's popcorn if you want to make the second half really interesting. And then the second half of the film or play gets going.

O: So the best-case scenario for you at the moment is...

AP: The best-case scenario is suddenly someone walks in the door and gives me a couple of dozen ingots. That'd be great. But, go on...

O: You record the album, and then what happens?

AP: And then suddenly everyone in the world says, "Oh Christ, we were wrong about them! They were marvelous all along."

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