The Jetsons Meet Captain Beefheart:
The Wonderful World of XTC

Pop Culture Press
Issue #47 — Fall 1999

by Kent H. Benjamin

XTC are really on a roll. Disgusted with an onerous record deal with Virgin Records they signed when they were very young, they've spent the last five plus years basically on a work strike. Since Andy Partridge's paralyzing fear of performing live had long since transformed the band into a studio only outfit, this meant no recording sessions that the label could use, and no new records. Virgin released a compilation of all their singles in England, Fossil Fuel, and in America, a collection of their 'hits' with choice album tracks.

Virgin finally gave up the battle, and released XTC from its contracts. This left the band free to release the huge backlog of material they'd demoed in the interim. Since much of the material had a more acoustic and orchestral flavor, it was decided to release the material as two albums, the second being the more recent electric, guitar-based songs. During 1998, a fine book was released that serves as a sort of autobiography of the band's career, based primarily on the music, via a chronological song-by-song conversation. Coupled with the Virgin compilations, it seems a fitting close to an era. And for those longing to see the band perform live, there was partial salvation in the form of a brilliant 4-disc boxed set of BBC radio studio and live in concert recordings. But the ending to that phase of the career was made more poignant by the departure of long-time lead guitarist and consummate musician Dave Gregory. He was disgusted by not touring, not being allowed to contribute songs, being inactive, and feeling dominated in the studio by leader Andy Partridge who by all accounts including his own, is a control-freak on the best of days. This left XTC a duo of Partridge and singer/songwriter/bassist Colin Moulding. Amazingly, they've released one of the strongest albums of their careers. And with the completion of their own studio nearing, and the support of an enthusiastic new label, TVT, the future looks bright in spite of all the adversity.

We talked to Andy Partridge, songwriter/singer/guitarist from XTC on May 1, 1999, from his home in Swindon, England. My expectations were confounded. I encountered a warm, friendly, funny father who still feels passion for comics, toy soldiers, and music, and displays disarming candor on most subjects. Here are some excerpts from what I found to be a most delightful chat. This is a more nearly unedited version that what's in the issue.

ANDY PARTRIDGE: [My lineage is] a mixture of things, a bit of Scots, great-great-grandfather was black, apparently, I was born in Malta to extremely WASPy parents. I'm just a mixture of lineages.

PCP: What made you decide to put out the boxed set of live BBC recordings, Transistor Blast (TVT Records, 1998)?

AP: It was totally to do with the availability of the material. The thing is, the BBC owns the rights to everything it records, and these were all BBC recordings, made for radio and for television. They then lease them out to anyone who asks for five years at a time. Some of this material had been leased out to two other companies in the past, that we had nothing to do with, and it just so happened that all the leases had expired, and no one was leasing any of it at that time. So we got in there quick and said "can we lease our own material" and they said "of course." So it was purely a piece of jammy timing. Some people have said "why on earth release that now?" but it was purely a timing thing. I've got to admit it was great fun listening to that material after 20 years. The liner notes say it all.

PCP: The material sounds great. I had no idea how good the band was on stage. When the band decided to quit touring in the early '80's, I just said "so what, they're studio band anyway."

AP: Well that's perfect, really. You've no idea how many times I've had to justify why we don't tour the new record, it becomes a real drag.

PCP: Yeah, I mean, how are you going to perform Apple Venus Pt. 1 live on stage anyway, with all the horns and orchestral accompaniment?

AP: I just tell people I don't want to buy a 40-piece orchestra lunch every day. The fact is we are a record-making group, and we're not a bunch of performers — I've really gotten that out of my system. Funnily enough, I couldn't sleep last night — full moon — having just gotten back from doing promotion in Italy and Austria, and someone posted me that the book by Zoot Horn Roland, his experience in the B Farm Band, and he said that he doesn't miss playing in front of people as much as he misses playing with people. It kind of summed up the way I feel. I don't miss playing in front of people, I have no show-off left inside me. I really think you have to be of a certain mindset to do that well. I think people who do that with real fire are probably half my age, and probably need to show off and make a big noise in front of everybody, and say "look at my wooden penis, everybody." It's a young thing, and it's a gang thing as well. Most young bands are gangs with guitars.

PCP: Absolutely. I will say, however, that Paul Weller's is playing live as well as he's ever played in his career. He's just amazingly passionate and intense on stage.

AP: Yeah, I like the fire he puts into it. I just wish the material was a little stronger. You know someone recently said that Paul Weller wants to play guitar like Eric Clapton and sing like Steve Winwood, but in fact he plays guitar like Steve Winwood and sings like Eric Clapton. I like the fire he puts in, but wish the material was a bit stronger, for me personally. But anyway, to wrap the touring thing up, we toured nonstop for over five years, and the only breaks we got were to make an album. And that's no break at all, it's another kind of stress. Literally every day for five years we were on the road somewhere. And it really...boy did I get it out of my system. I never want to see another set of floor monitors or an audience again. I just don't need to do it. It had begun to really wind me up.

PCP: For me the box set was perfectly timed with the perfect material, because if I went to see XTC play today, what I'd really most want to see as a fan are songs from the albums I first fell in love with, like "Black Sea" and "English Settlement", and that's exactly what's on the album. Even if you played live today, you certainly wouldn't do all that material.

AP: Right, so at least with the box set, you get like snapshots of the band a couple of years apart.

PCP: I was playing it really loud last night, and you did a really wonderful job mastering it, it sounds great!

AP: Well the thing is, those are the mixes done by the BBC. We had no potential to remix it. That was mixed as it happened live on the air, captured to two-track on a piece of tape. That was how it went out on the radio. Whoever did that just winged it, and seemed to capture just exactly the right amount of electricity coming off the stage.

PCP: Why not put the songs on the album chronologically? The way you did it, the songs jump back and forth through time.

AP: Just because I think it's important that an album has a rhythm. I don't think chronologically, the songs would make for a good listening experience. It would be correct timewise, but it's like saying with the material that makes the suit up, why not lay out all the pieces of material, and the order in which you're going to sew them together. Is it better to see all the pieces of the suit laid out as you cut them out, and the order in which you're going to sew them together, or is it best to see the whole suit? See what I mean? I think the album experience is the rhythm and tempo and flavor and the meal of an album, is more important than having all the ingredients in the correct chronological order.

PCP: Well, it plays very well as it is.

AP: It can work chronologically, but I think it's rare. For me, an album has to have a rhythm and a flow. An album's order is very very important to me. The way that a suit is made up. I had great fun listening to it. I listened with trepidation at first, I thought "what am I gonna hear," 'cause I hadn't heard this stuff for 20 years in some cases. I was really delighted by the energy of it. Like the sleeve notes say, I sort of forgave myself for being so hyper and naive in the early days. Some of that early stuff is naive art. We didn't really know what we were doing, but we were trying to have a real good go of it and do the best we can. And the perspective is a bit wrong, and the proportions are a bit wrong, and the colors are a bit too fluorescent, but it's charming. It's like Grandma Moses electric guitar or something. It was good to forgive myself, and say "hey, this isn't bad." It has a sort of timelessness, fresh energy. If you played this to a bunch of young kids in a club now, they'd say "wow, who's this new band."

PCP: When I first heard XTC in '77-'78, I really liked the sort of science-fictiony, '50s kitsch feel to it, and in the book I was fascinated to hear you describe the music in terms that were exactly the way it sounded to me then.

AP: Yeah, it was a sort of future pop that wasn't. As if a pop group had the soundtrack for the movie Forbidden Planet. It was sort of The Jetsons meet Captain Beefheart's Magic Band. It was like THE future of pop music — that was the concept, the handle I tried to get on things. That came out of the fact that the music in England in the mid-'70's had gotten so flatulent, and so bloated, and directionless. Songs were dying, and it was sort of real jerkoff music, two-hour drum solos and stuff. And I thought to myself, what do I really love? And I really loved singles. I loved a little bit of psychedelia, the idea of the future, three-minute commercial, intense, kinda futuristic sounding singles. And I thought, "that's just the kind of band I want to be in." And literally that decision was made overnight, I told them we gotta look toward the future, and XTC became that type of band. I did think of us as like that. What was that cartoon band, The Impossibles? They were superhero types, one of them got sprayed out of a tin, one of them had a sort of spring body, they were like a sci-fi pop group. The sort of group you'd see if The Jetsons were watching a pop group on the television.

PCP: Obviously there's a Beatles influence in XTC, but it's never seemed to be THE main influence. I've always heard bits of pieces of different bands in different songs — Roxy Music with Eno, Beefheart, Steve Harley, the recorders in "Harvest Festival" on the new album are lifted straight from The Move's "Curley"...

AP: Of course! (laughing) They're school recorders.

PCP: "I Like That" is being played quite a bit on local radio on KGSR Austin, and I've heard from several people with good taste who all compare the song as sounding like '68-'69 vintage Paul McCartney and The Beatles, yet I just don't hear that in XTC's music.

AP: I gotta be frank with you, I get really pissed off when I read reviews and the first word they use is Beatlesque... "XTC are a very Beatles-influenced band." And they're just one tiny facet of our influences. You can hear loads of stuff in there. I think the Beach Boys are just as big an influence, The Kinks are just as big in there. Can for me were enormously influential. Charlie Parker, his angular melodies were just enormously influential on me. But it's just lazy journalism to say "Beatlesque, Beatles-infatuated, Beatle-like" — it pissed me off when they have the Beatles blinkers on like that.

PCP: When people compare XTC to The Beatles, it just makes me want to go "oh yeah, exactly which Beatles song does it sound like?" because it doesn't, there is no Beatles song that sounds like "I Like That." It doesn't!

AP: (laughing) There you go! It doesn't! They never used chords like that, never used key changes and shifts like that.

PCP: You guys are really busting your ass doing press for this album, and I'm fascinated by how much press your getting. Now that you aren't playing live, how do you promote your record? In your case, the answer is to do tons of media interviews, maybe some instores and signings. In America, if you're over 40, you basically can't get a record deal and can't get played on radio...

AP: It's the same here, if you're over 25 you're dead and gone in England.

PCP: ...and yet XTC is getting an enormous amount of press, and Apple Venus is pretty much being described as a masterpiece.

AP: Maybe they don't know how old we are. Maybe if they knew, they wouldn't write about us! Maybe there'd be a lot of ageism coming our way.

PCP: Now we know why there's a peacock feather on the cover instead of your old faces, right?

AP: That was the closest I could get to female genitalia and get away with it on the sleeve. But no, in England, forget it. This album's not been on the radio at all, because they think "XTC, they're middle-aged fellows and they can't be any good." It's a quick equation that they make. It's like, "Status Quo, middle-aged, they can't be any good." Fair enough, I'm not a big Status Quo fan, but it's not because they're middle-aged, they're just not very good. They use the same equation for us: "XTC, middle-aged, they're past it, they've had it." And actually, we have bucked the trend. We HAVE gotten better. We're one of the few bands, brands, brand-names... some of the few writers that have actually gotten into our craft and have gotten better than when we started. We now write better songs. And I would fight anybody with a rusty tin over that. We HAVE gotten better.

PCP: I think it would be hard to say you've ever made a better album than Apple Venus.

AP: It's not the same style as when we started, and some people have a nostalgia for the more noisy stuff, or the more angular stuff, or whatever. Some people will go for the sound or vibe they get from English Settlement, Skylarking, or Oranges and Lemons, and then some people will say you never bettered White Music. It's really more to do with what was going on in their lives at the time they heard that album than to do with what was going on with ours.

PCP: Sure. With this record, when you announced that you were doing Apple Venus as two releases, the first an acoustic, orchestral album, and the 2nd a guitar-based album, I immediately pronounced that I was going to wait for the guitar album. BUT, then I heard "I Like That" many times on the Pop Culture Press free CD and "River of Orchids" a bunch of times on the Uncut free CD, and consequently, when I did hear Apple Venus for the first time, I simply loved the album the first time through. Do you think that's really a good way to promote your album in the absence of radio play for older acts?

AP: It gets a bit humbling to hear people say such nice things. Thank you! It's not armored for radio, you won't find too many radio stations who play it. Which I knew was going to be the case. It's really out of whack with what's the norm now.

PCP: You're building your own studio for XTC. How's that coming along?

AP: Well, I just got some quotes in for wiring today, just signed a check for some microphone stands, I've got to do some more painting this week, the carpenter just put up the sound-proofing at the back. So, it's growing. I can't wait to get in there and get going. But the weird thing is, the material we're working on is three years old. The oldest thing is about 5 years old. But I do feel a need to get this out of the way before we can move on.

PCP: But that also means you can be more selective about your material.

AP: Yep. We've written about four albums worth, so by the time we boiled it down, and you sort of look at it chronologically, there's two really good albums worth of material. The acoustic/orchestral stuff was mostly between '92 and '94; I think the latest track for that was written about '95. Then from '94 to late '96/early '97, it was all kind of electrical stuff. So, until I get this backlog of stuff out of the way and feel mentally that I've done it justice, I won't be able to move on.

PCP: Until I read the new book, I never realized just how much influence Dave Gregory had on the material in the studio. I always thought of him as just the guitar player. I know when he quit, I just shrugged and said he must've gotten bored sitting around with nothing to do once the band quit touring.

AP: Well that was one reason. But the main reason he quit was that he took working with an orchestra as like a personal affront. Because he was a lot of what you might call "the musician" in the band. Colin and I are pretty primitive when it comes to what we're doing. We have no academic training in music, we don't know the names of the chords we use, or how to do notation. It's an instinctive kind of thing. But Dave reads the dots, he writes out his guitar solos on notation paper. He pulls things apart, he makes his own demos by pulling apart my songs and redemoing them. He'll adjust bits and pieces and find out how everything works. He's the consummate musician, if you see what I mean. But primarily, he's an electric guitar player, and I think he was really pissed off that I wanted to work with an orchestra, just because I wanted some of those orchestral textures. You can see it in some of the stuff on Nonesuch [sic].

PCP: But I thought he did the arrangements for that stuff?

AP: Well, usually he would take my ideas, and make charts out of them. And I would go "can we make a little more tension at this point" or something, and he would kind of squeeze and tinker. Some things he did pretty much from scratch like "1000 Umbrellas" on Skylarking, where he took my pulled apart my acoustic chords, and made all the movement choices himself. Over about six weeks. I'd visit him once or twice and listen to what he had, and say "that bit's good, that bit's not so good, that bit's great, love the way that happens," and over the course of six weeks it sort of jelled into what was required, a very sort of baroque blancmange of a string arrangement, which was just what I wanted. An over the top sort of finickyness, an over-iced cake. But for example, the few strings that reared their resiny heads on Nonesuch [sic] were my arrangements, and Dave just noted out the dots for the players. And on Apple Venus, most of them are my arrangements. We got Haydn Mendel [Haydn Bendall] or Haydn Mendel's computer to write out the dots for the musicians. So Dave didn't get to arranging anything for Apple Venus, because he'd already decided he didn't want to work with an orchestra, and he wasn't going to put himself through it. By the time he left, we'd either decided what we wanted the orchestra to play, or I think we only had two arrangements left to go. A friend of Hadyn Mendel's called Mike Batt, a songwriter, came in and he arranged "I Can't Own Her" over the phone. He sat with the phone under his chin working, and I with my phone playing the chords on the guitar to him. I did with him in an evening what with Dave would have gone on for weeks. But most of the arrangements were my "idiot" arrangements, but they seemed to work.

PCP: The thing that blows me away about "River of Orchids" is the horn parts. That's the real hook, then you get to the great counterpoint of "push your car from the road."

AP: That's three trumpets! Those horns have all the rhythm, because the strings are just playing a 'bum-bum-bum-bum' part, and it's the trumpets playing the triplets on the off-beats that give the song all it's rhythm. I felt it was like a dance record that didn't have drums and bass and keyboards, just the strings and trumpets. When I first came up with it, I spent hours dancing around to it in the studio, thinking "what the hell am I going to do with this," but it excited me. You wouldn't have wanted to see it, I had my shirt, shoes, and socks off, dancing around the studio, which is about 12 foot by 8 foot.

PCP: Now that you've got a new and more supportive record company, what's the possibility of the bubblegum covers album (like the Dukes of Stratosphear's '60's psych/pop, but with bubblegum "bands" and songs) actually getting made?

AP: I don't know, that idea may have become too gelatinous on the back burner. But there's a lot of projects I would like to do, and they would all have an anonymous kind of thing. I love the idea of anonymous, disposable music.

PCP: I love the Dukes of Stratosphear's "Mole From the Ministry" video.

AP: You saw that?! That's the only one of our videos that I've liked, the only one I can watch. We tracked down every promo film from 1967 that we could possibly get, and we copied them. Like Pink Floyd's "Arnold Layne" and "Scarecrow", "I Am The Walrus," "Blue Jay Way" — every little film we could find, we put ideas from them in there. That was great fun to do. Best video we ever made, all the others are shit as far as I'm concerned. I'd love to do more anonymous projects, more stuff where people really didn't know it was us. Where you can really sort of unburden yourself, and you're free from who you normally are. It's a big tradition: Zappa did it with Rueben and the Jets, Fleetwood Mac with Earl Vince and the Valiants, The Beach Boys with Carl and the Passions, the Move did Eddie and the Falcons. It's like when your in school growing up, you think you're going to be in one sort of a band, and then you're not. Just to rewrite history.

PCP: What was the oddest thing you've ever had thrown at you on a stage?

AP: A mud-filled bra! That was in Switzerland, at an indoor show. Something whacked me in the face, mid-way through the gig. And when we came off stage, a journalist backstage said (mimics Swiss accent): "the first question I want to ask, is why do you wear this make-up around the eyes" and I said "I don't." And he said "well of course you do, you have it on now," and I looked into the mirror, and I had two rings of mud around my eyes. And a roadie came backstage (mimics dumb British roadie voice) and said "hey Andy, I just picked this up off the stage, and this was what clouted you like three songs from the end." Somebody had hit me in the face with like a mud-filled bra. I don't know if that's like a Swiss custom or something. Some of the things we've had thrown at us are:

Just about everything really. And you never know if it's a compliment, or if someone's disgusted with you!

PCP: There's more than half a dozen comic references in XTC songs over the years. Were you a Marvel or a DC fan?

AP: This is terrible, because I think when the coin eventually falls to the floor, I'm gonna be a DC fan, because although I like a lot of what Marvel did — Jack Kirby was the King, my favorite, and I love a lot of what Steve Ditko did, too — but I think a lot of my real favorite art and stories were DC things. Carmine Infantino's work on The Flash and Adam Strange. Gil Kane's Green Lantern and Atom were beautiful. Had a soft spot for the Metal Men. A lot of the Superman art; Curt Swan, used to love it when they'd get into the bottled city of Kandor as a little kid. (More comix talk follows.)

PCP: Are we still gonna see Apple Venus Pt. 2 later this year as originally planned?

AP: No, for two reasons. One is that we did a lot more promotion for Apple Venus Pt. 1 than we'd originally planned, and that's kept us very busy. And two is that by the time we get it finished, I think there's gonna be so much millennial shit at the end of this year, a tidal wave of it, that we were afraid it would just get swallowed up in that. So we're thinking February of next year now, so people will have to hang on for a little longer. I like the idea of non-showbiz appearances for promotion better. I find the whole showbiz thing distasteful. Actually I find adulation difficult. I was saying to a few people recently that if people want to like anything, I'd rather they like the songs. I don't care if they like me or don't like me. I'm not interested in being liked. If they want to like something, like the songs, you know (laughing).

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