XTC on The Open Road

Sunday, March 14, 1999
the Open Road
Hosted by Gary Calamar

XTC's Andy Partridge & Colin Moulding was Gary Calamar's special guests on The Open Road. The hour long interview covers the legendary British pop band from their new wave origins in the late 70's to the orchestral, acoustic sounds of their latest release Apple Venus Vol 1. Songs include This Is Pop, Making Plans For Nigel, Senses Working Overtime, Dear God, and I'd Like That.

(Listen to the interview at kcrw.org.)

Gary: Growing up in one of England's least desirable towns, Swindon, a.k.a. Pig Hill, the former Helium Kidz, XTC are one of the smartest and catchiest of the British pop bands to emerge from the punk and new wave explosion of the late seventies. From the tense, jerky riffs of their early singles to the lushly arranged, meticulous pop of their later albums, XTC's music has always been driven by the hook-laden songwriting of guitarist Andy Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding. Well, they were in town last week and stopped by KCRW to talk with me about their new album, Apple Venus Volume 1, as well as to skip through their troubled yet glorious career. We'll start with a track from the new album....

["River Of Orchids" is played]

Gary: You just heard "River Of Orchids" from the new album Apple Venus Volume 1 on TVT Records, and there's also a new band autobiography out; it's called Song Stories, which has just hit the stores. Hello, gentlemen, thanks for joining me on The Open Road. Why don't we start right off with ... the strike; it's been about seven years since you released the Nonsuch album. Why the wait?

Andy: Let's put it this way: if you spent twenty years working your heart and soul out, and were never rewarded for it, wouldn't you feel a little bit annoyed?

Gary: I think I would.

Andy: Exactly. Well, that was the situation with us and Virgin; we were never, ever gonna make a living on that label. Seriously, we were twenty years before we went into profit; it was obscene. So, well, it came to '92 when we did Nonsuch and I knew we weren't going to be promoted... 'cause they never knew what to do with us. They weren't content to let us be who we were. They were constantly trying to subtly change us into... I dunno, whatever they wanted, the Spice Girls of the week. The Spice Old-Gits. And, as I say, we just weren't making a living on that label, so we all got round and decided there was only one thing we could do, which was to "down plectrum" and go on strike until they let us free. Because anything we would have recorded they would have owned for perpetuity and we'd have never escaped.

Gary: And you actually presented them something, some demos that....

Andy: We had already -- I'd presented them with the first sort of -- five of mine and [to Colin] I don't know if any of yours were in there...you didn't send them any, did you?

Colin: No...

Andy: Smart fellow ... yeah, he's the smart one!

Colin: I knew something was afoot, and --

Andy: Yes, twelve inches, normally! (err, err, errr!)

Colin: Well the thing was, the demos that Andy sent through, they actually kept them and copyrighted them. So in order for us to leave the label we had to actually get those songs back first. So it was a real mess, you know.

Andy: But we had to get out, and eventually, they, uh... they let us free.

["This Is Pop" is played]

Gary: ... I'm here with Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding of XTC...

Andy: You have to say "the lovely Colin Moulding." It's in his contract.

Gary: And what do we have to call Andy?

Andy: The "lardy-like" Andy.

Gary: [laughing] Okay. In 1979 you released Drums and Wires, which was a hit for you guys and it seems that your career really kind of got jump started at that point.

Colin: Oh, I think that's where our career started. Up until that time I think we just wanted to make a racket, and just wanted to make an impression on people. But with Drums And Wires I think we'd found our voice. And we found... us.

Andy: We started to get half decent from then on. And it was almost as if it was a kind of a serious hobby before then. And then afterwards it just became a ... serious hobby! [laughter]

Gary: Gotcha.

Andy: Like before then, it was... I mean, we had a sound on White Music and Go 2, but a lot of that was tied in with Barry Andrews' nutty professor kind of organ sound. You know, like he was trying to repair a front-loading dishwasher. This front-loading dishwasher's short-circuiting and you're stuck on a carousel during this ... you know, that effect. And that was a lot of the sound of the band, and when Barry left it was "Uh oh, now what do we do?" and literally all we could do was kind of start again.

["Making Plans For Nigel" is played]

Dave: That's XTC "Making Plans For Nigel" live from the BBC's Peel sessions from 1979. That appears on the box set Transistor Blast which came out last year. The original version is from the Drums and Wires album. And also at this point XTC was building a reputation as a great electrifying live band, and you had been spending quite a lot of time on the road at that point.

Andy: We certainly had frightened audiences the world over by then.

Gary: Were you enjoying touring at that time?

Andy: I was, in the early days. Yeah, very much so. Can you imagine it? A young kid who'd never really been outside his own town gets given apparently ... apparently given!! ... a new guitar and someone says "Do you want to go around the world, and drink all the world's beers, and see all the world's girls, and frighten people with that horrendous noise?" "Yeah, yes, please!" I mean, me and him had shared rooms in the early days, and we couldn't sleep, we were just too excited. You'd lay there saying "We're in Holland!" "Yeah, I can't believe it!" [laughter] "Look out the window, what's it look like? Does it look like Holland?" "Yeaaaah!"

Colin: No, it's "We're in Holland... oh, no!" [laughter]

Andy: "Lock up your daughters!" Of course it was great fun. We were just kids and we wanted to do all the things that kids wanted to do. If you don't want to do those things when you're young, I think you're in need of mental treatment.

Gary: In 1980 you released Black Sea, which proved to everybody who heard it that at this point that you guys were not kidding around. This was a powerful album. Four singles were eventually pulled from the album: "Generals and Majors", "Sgt. Rock", "Towers of London" and "Respectable Street" which opened up the album. And that one also seemed to be a bit controversial.

Andy: [confused at first] "Respectable Street"? Oh, yeah; Virgin were getting cold feet about words like "abortion" and "contraception"; everyday words, but they were just getting very puritanical for some reason about it. And they said "Oh, if you're going to have this as a single you must re-record the words." And I thought "Ah, this is really silly" but I thought it might make quite a good single so I went along with the game and changed it... I changed "abortion" to "absorption," which I thought was equally as risque [laughter] as in sanitary protection. Changed "contraception" to "child prevention" which had got the same feel for it. They were just as good/bad as the originals. And they should have left it alone.

["Respectable Street" is played]

Gary: In 1982 the double album English Settlement was being very positively received, and you guys were using your new acoustic guitars that you had just picked up at that point, and you moved in an acoustic direction at that point.

Andy: Well, we gave away our -- I did own an acoustic guitar, and it wasn't a very good one. I think I paid about 26 pounds for it originally, and gave it away on a TV show. Virgin records said to go on this TV show and you're supposed to give something to their raffle or whatever it was, and I gave my guitar away. So it was a case of "whoops, I need another guitar to write songs on." So I bought another guitar. Of course, having a new guitar you tend to play it all the time, and suddenly I started thinking "Hey, it would be nice to leave the songs on this guitar, instead of converting them to electric." Just leave them on the acoustic guitar. Colin bought himself a fretless bass. Huge mistake. [laughter] And a miner's helmet so he could look down with a light on it so he could play! [laughing]

Colin: It was okay until the lights went out.

Andy: Cries of "Get a fretted, bastard!" could be heard all around the stage.

Colin: It was okay for one record and I enjoyed the sound, certainly. It was quite a different sound to what I'm used to.

Andy: It seemed to blend in well with the acoustic guitar.

Colin: Yeah, it was lucky in that respect.

Andy: Yeah. Dave Gregory bought himself a twelve-string Rickenbacker. So he's chiming, I'm sort of strumming, and Colin was burping and sliding, and Terry Chambers is just whacking 'em. "Lord Wackingham"! [laughter]

Gary: Well it came to some great results. It was actually at that point that I had first attempted to cross paths with you guys. I had tickets to see XTC at the Palladium, here in Los Angeles...

Andy: [in mock exasperation] Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah....

Gary: And after being held outside for quite a while, word finally came back that the show was canceled. And at that point, the band never toured again.

Andy: No, actually we performed in our "Jools Holland And His Millionaires" masks. [laughter]

Gary: Ah-ha! No one caught that, was that you guys?

Andy: No one caught on!

Gary: So I know that was kind of a dark period there for you...

Andy: Yeah, that was pretty horrible. I mean, while you were stood outside, I was in one of the hospitals in Los Angeles, faking some sort of... uh, illness ... so I wouldn't get my legs broken by the promoter's heavies. And I'm led there on a trolley, having my rear fingered by some young doctor saying [American accent] "Well, what's the matter with you?"

Colin: That wasn't the doctor, that was a promoter.

Andy: [laughs] He was a promoter, yeah! He was just somebody in off the street, truly! Saying "What's the matter with you?" and I'm saying "Well, I don't really know" and I'm just there thinking "Just give me a chitty so that my legs don't get broken!" I just wanted to go home, I'd had enough of touring and it was making me very ill. I just had to escape. In fact, I couldn't escape because Colin and I flew back to New York and were immediately snowed in for two days in Kennedy airport...

Colin: That's true.

Andy: ...with a couple of hundred Hasidic Jews, who spent all their time praying and wailing and nabbing the best seats.

Colin: I think it was fortuitous actually that we did stop touring then, and that we could go on and broaden our horizons in the recording world. It was kind of fortuitous.

Andy: Yeah, I think things would have got worse and worse with our management, worse and worse with the fatigue level, feeling trapped on the kind of touring treadmill. Because we hadn't been allowed off for five years. It was really ... it was certainly getting me down terribly and I think it was getting everyone else down in different sorts of ways.

["Senses Working Overtime" is played]

Gary: Jumping ahead -- on April Fool's Day, 1985, came the first release from the Dukes of Stratosphear. How did this project come about?

Andy: Well, the Dukes were really the band that we all wanted to be in when we were at school. Or if you were at school and you wanted to be in a group, you'd see contemporary groups of the time on the TV, and you'd hear 'em at the youth club on the record player, and stuff, you know, "Fire Brigade" would be on by The Move or "Itchycoo Park" would be on around the youth club. Or you'd be in the kitchen of the church hall, trying to get your hand up the dress of the daughter of the fellow who was the janitor there. And you'd be stuck in there playing things like "Lucy In The..." er, "Lucy In Disguise With -- " ah, "Judy In Disguise."

Colin: "Judy In Disguise"

Gary: John Fred and the Playboy Band.

Andy: ...and the Playboy Band, yeah. And those kind of great psychedelic singles. And so I thought "Yeah, I'd love to be in a group" and so you obviously thought, if you were in a group, that that was the kind of music you'd make. And then you grew up and you get in a group, and times change and tastes change and so on. And you're in a band that's not psychedelic. So I thought it would be a good piece of mischief to make some fake history and be every psychedelic singles band ever, in one hit. The Dukes Of Stratosphear.

[The Dukes of Stratosphear's "25 O'Clock" is played]

Gary: 1986. Todd Rundgren comes aboard and produces Skylarking.

Andy: [hums The Munsters theme] [laughter from Colin]

Gary: The album turned out phenomenally well. Tell me about recording with Todd. I know that was not so smooth at the time.

Colin: It had its trials and tribulations. If anybody who knows Todd ... he's a very introverted sort of a chap, but he has this cutting sort of sarcasm which is very hard to deal with.

Gary: Although you guys, you know, are not unfamiliar with sarcasm.

Andy: I don't think we're sarcastic. We're hopefully witty but not too destructive. But Todd has a very destructive streak. I think it's how he gets over his production. I think he likes to belittle the people he works with so that they say "Oh..." and he, you know, breaks their spirit and... "anything you want to do." He was a great producer, I will say.

Colin: He was a good producer but he had trouble dealing with people, that's the thing. And I think that's a major asset if you're a good producer, is to actually make a musician feel as though he's making a good contribution to his record.

Andy: Yeah, you have to be a diplomat.

Colin: Yeah, and very often when you'd finish doing a guitar take or a bass take or something, he would never give -- not that we were looking for glorious comments, we just wanted some feedback, how we'd done, you know? He wouldn't give you that feedback. And you never really knew what he was doing.

Andy: Mmm. Wonderful arranger, I mean, fantastic arranger. You'd discuss the style of something, like you'd sit down with the man to sort of arrange a song, and you'd say like "I'd really like the idea of this being kind of like a piece of fake John Barry" or "like an existentialist spy film, so we need some music for that -- kind of a beatnik spy movie thing". And he'd go away overnight and he'd write the arrangement up overnight, in only a couple of hours, and bring it in the next day. Shocking. It would be spot-on. Everything'd be in its place, and you'd think "How did he do that? He must sleep. What does he do, does he sort of lay in a coffin, attach a couple of electrodes to his neck? What does he do, you know, to sleep?" And he'd do these fantastic arrangements which were bang-on what we wanted.

["The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul" is played]

Gary: On the original version of Skylarking, "Dear God" was not on there. It was delegated to be the B-side of one of Colin's songs, "Grass". Sort of got picked up as the B-side and made a lot of noise.

Andy: It did. "The B-Side-stie Boys." I thought "Dear God" actually failed. So I thought "oh, dear I think I've kind of failed publicly here by trying to put into words this whole religion thing." Me wrestling with the last vestiges, the last ashes of my belief or not in God. And I thought "no, I've really failed here." And I had a track which came up near the end of the writing which I was keen on. That was a piece of music called "Another Satellite." I thought, "wow, let's put this one on instead it's a much better piece of music and I'll take my failed religion song off. So I don't humiliate myself in public by falling flat on my face with a song that I don't think even scratches the surface of human belief." And it got reduced to the B-side box, and DJs cheekily flipped the disc over and played it, and then the phone calls started pouring in. Either "that is wonderful, and we think this has found something I couldn't say" or people would ring in and say "if you play that record again I'm going to fire bomb the station. You're all going to go to hell for playing such a record." Blah blah.

["Dear God" is played]

Gary: "Another Satellite" -- I think that's a very interesting story. You wrote about a girl that was...

Andy: I wrote it about a girl who was pestering me rather too much, and she was very beautiful, and I was a married man, and I thought "if this girl doesn't leave me alone I'm going to make a terrible fool of myself here and ruin my marriage." And, um... [laughter] I'm living with her right now!

Gary: There you go.

Andy: She didn't ruin my marriage, my marriage ruined my marriage. But I do feel terrible about writing that song because I wrote it and it came out rather heavy handed, telling her to go away and please stop pestering me. I mean, I couldn't really write in the song "I've got a terrible crush on you and I fantasize about you terribly rather than fantasizing about my wife." You know, I couldn't really put that in the song. But I did. And the thing is that now myself and that girl, who's called Erica, are lovers, partners. We are a ... a thing. And I wish I hadn't written "Another Satellite." Dammit!

Gary: Well, we admire her perseverance there.

Andy: Oh, yeah, so do I! [laughter]

["Another Satellite" is played]

Gary: I first met you guys, and I don't know if you recall, but back in 1988 I came up to see you while you were recording Oranges And Lemons here in Hollywood on Sunset.

Andy: [singing "Hooray For Hollywood"] "Holly-wood!" You've got to say it like that. "Holly-wood, don't you just love that Hollywood?"

Gary: And amidst all the ravioli and porno magazines...

Andy: Ha ha!! [all laughing] Ah, you've got the measure of us, my dear boy! Ravioli and porno, that seems to spell it all out!

Gary: You guys were all huddled around the TV watching Help! on the video. In the book Song Stories, the autobiography which just came out, you talk about many of your influences, from Black Sabbath and Captain Beefheart to Noel Coward and Cole Porter. But it seems that the ones that come up most often are the Beatles and the Kinks.

Andy: Kinks were big for me. And Ray Davies is possibly, possibly more of an influence than Lennon and McCartney put together.

Colin: Definitely.

Andy: Ray Davies has written ... you see, I don't think the Beatles have quite approached the sublimity ... is that the, is that a word? If not, it is now. The sublimity, the sublime-ness of, say "Waterloo Sunset." They haven't approached the encapsulation of English life in three minutes as "Autumn Almanac." They haven't ... I dunno, "See My Friends" had an incredible kind of dreamy longing to it. I just thought the Kinks were wonderful, they really ... Ray Davies had ... this art of songwriting.

Colin: Yeah, Ray Davies' lyrics spoke to you probably more than Lennon and McCartney's lyrics, although record-wise, I suppose the Kinks' records weren't all that well produced.

Andy: They were pretty scrappy at times.

Colin: They were.

Andy: And they did write some rotters. I mean, the Beatles didn't really write anything that sucked the big red one, but the Kinks did. You could hear tracks on Kinks albums, and you'd think "why have they done THAT?" Then next to it would be the most perfect song ever, and you'd think "what's wrong with their quality control?" So they seemed to hit the very depths of depravity, or they could go right up past heaven with some of their songs.

[The Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset" is played]

Gary: On the new album, Apple Venus Volume 1, you had originally planned on omitting the song "Your Dictionary."

Andy: Yeah.

Gary: Tell me about that one.

Andy: Written in a fit of extreme depression, and anger, and as soon as I'd finished it I thought "well, it feels a little better, to write that." And as the weeks went by, and then the months, and then the years that we couldn't record, I got away from feeling hurt and disappointed and thrown away in a divorce. Betrayed, really. That was the big hurtful feeling. To be a cuckolded husband, not once but twice, was very painful. And uh ... I wrote this song, and as I say, got away from it, and I thought "well, I don't feel like that anymore, we don't need to record that track." And then everybody who got to hear it, a lot of potential record companies we spoke to, the band, friends or whoever got to hear all the demos, the one song they picked out, they said "you've got to do that song, if there's one song you've got to record, it's that one." And I began to feel awkward about it, because of the hurtful lyrics. And at the time I meant those lyrics, I really needed to lash out and be angry. And time wounds all heels, and I didn't feel like that by the time we got to making the record. But Colin and others gently cajoled me into recording it. And I think I'm glad we did. Everyone seems to like the song. But I didn't write it to hurt the other party, I wrote it to ease my own pain.

["Your Dictionary" is played]

Gary: What's the next album going to sound like?

Andy: Apple Venus Volume 2 will be electric and straightforward and less dense, less layered, more in-your-face, up-your-nose, down your eyeballs, through your ears and tickle the back of your testes.

Gary: You guys have been together for like 24 years now, and I definitely do not want to hear about you guys breaking up, so ... don't try anything funny, now. It's been a sincere honor and a pleasure ...

Andy: [laughing] He's putting his ring on my finger, and --

Colin: You're witnessing the marriage ceremony!

Andy: I'm glad you haven't got television, because the sort of ring he's putting on my finger is not the sort of ring you think! [laughter]

Colin: It's gone a bit brown, I think.

Gary: As I was saying, it's been an honor and a pleasure to have you guys here, thank you very much. Please give my regards to Swindon when you get back there.

Andy: The Blighty. [in an old guy voice] "Give my regards to Blighty, chaps. Ta-ra."

["I'd Like That" is played]

Go back to Chalkhills Articles.

Transcribed by Janis Van Court, March 20, 1999.