Cover PULSE!
March 1999, Issue Number 179

Dear God! It's ANDY PARTRIDGE talking about songcraft,
dog vomit and the long-awaited return of XTC

Arguably the most influential pop group to emerge from post-punk England, XTC has had more ups and downs than a barrel of manic depressives. Fusing pop and experimentalism in refreshingly unexpected ways, frontman Andy Partridge and co-writer Colin Moulding were at the core of such U.K. hits as "Making Plans for Nigel," "Sergeant Rock" and "Senses Working Overtime," before collapsing in a pile of nervous exhaustion amid their 1982 English Settlement tour of America. Rising from the ashes, the group spent the next decade releasing albums but refusing to tour. It was during this phase that they found unexpected American chart success with "Mayor of Simpleton" and "Dear God."

And now begins phase three. Back from a half-decade work stoppage that pried them loose from an archaic Virgin U.K. record contract, Partridge and Moulding, sans guitarist Dave Gregory (the group has relied on session drummers since the departure of Terry Chambers in the early '80s), are making up for lost time. Apple Venus Volume One, released this month on TVT, finds the group adding acoustic and orchestral tones to the sonic palette, veering into Philip Glass, Brian Wilson and even Ralph Vaughan Williams terrain without losing sight of the pop smarts that have earned them what may be the pop world's most dedicated cult audience.


Also in the bins is Transistor Blast, a 4-CD set of live and studio material from the band's BBC appearances, and XTC Song Stories, a revealing book wherein the band tells the story behind virtually every XTC song, including the new Apple Venus material (see our story "Instant Tunes").


On a brisk winter evening in Swindon, the English railroad town where XTC first got its start and where its principals still live, Mr. Partridge doffs his woolly jumper and settles back for a candid chat about lunatic fans, psychotic episodes and the bittersweet ballad of a band called XTC.

Photographs by Jill Furmanovsky

Some artists shy away from talking about their songs in any detail. Not XTC. Working with writer Neville Farmer, the band has co-authored XTC Song Stories (Hyperion Books) with more than 300 pages devoted to the backstory for virtually every track the band has recorded, from the 1977 Science Friction EP forward. Following are excerpts from the book in which the band talks about several of the songs on the new Apple Venus Volume One.

"River of Orchids" (Andy Partridge)
Nonsuch [XTC's 1992 studio album] piqued Andy's interest in orchestral sounds. It pushed him into the purchase of a collection of orchestral samples for his modest shed studio, which he would blend into loops and riffs. From these came the inspiration for a number of the tracks for the new album, including the epileptic, cyclical nursery rhyme. "I just hit upon this wonderful two-bar phrase and let it repeat around and around. I couldn't stop dancing for hours to it and hundreds of songs came into my head," says Andy. Harold Budd already uses the song in lectures in Arizona, as an example of modern cyclical composition.

"Easter Theatre" (Andy Partridge)
If there is a song that demonstrates how far XTC has come in the 20 years since Science Friction it is "Easter Theatre." "I came through Andy's back gate one day and I could hear Andy playing this dirgy riff in his shed, like something by Kurt Cobain, over and over," says Dave. "I opened the door and he seemed really excited but I wasn't impressed by it. The next time I heard it, it was fucking amazing. I couldn't believe what he'd done. 'Easter Theatre' is the cornerstone of the album and a wonderful piece of modern classical music."
     The arrangement is almost reminiscent of Michael Nyman or even Benjamin Britten, though still a pop song. Propagated from a seedling chord progression of oboe and bassoon samples, which sounded to Andy as though it burst from the ground, "Easter Theatre" celebrates the life cycle through a theatrical performance. "The lyric might seem confusing at first, 'Now the son is dead the father can be born,' but the other way 'round it would be too obvious. It is self-explanatory. It just says one son dies and another is born which will itself become a father."

"Frivolous Tonight" (Colin Moulding)
Imagine Colin Moulding, Ray Davies, Noel Coward and Cole Porter meeting at a suburban wine and cheese party and writing a sing-along song, while the wives gossip about their husbands' hairy backs. That about sums up "Frivolous Tonight." "It's very provincial and small and that's why I like it," says Colin. "As the evening wears on it just gets worse. It's what people like to do; talk about the stupidest things. But its not a venomous lyric. It's celebratory."

"Green Man" (Andy Partridge)
The fertility symbol of the Green Man, like Mummers and Nonsuch Palace, harvest festivals and maypoles, is all part of the Partridge passion for British history. The tune was a continuation of his love of nursery rhymes. What appears to be a hint of Middle Eastern influence in the arrangement is apparently nothing of the sort. "It's Vaughan Williams with a hard-on," he explains. "It's a percussive pagan piece with this long glorious 'Blue Remembered Hill' string line to carry the melody," clarifying things still further. "The song has come out as sung by a randy father figure--part fatherly, part horny. I suppose that's the Green Man."

"Knights in Shining Karma" (Andy Partridge)
The gruesome pun of the title was originally one of the band names for [XTC's] shelved bubblegum pop project, and though punning is the lowest form of wit, Andy couldn't let it lie. From the title, and an afternoon "dicking around" with the chords of Macca's "Blackbird," came a new chord structure and a lullaby telling Andy to cheer up in the face of his divorce. "I think I'm basically a good person," he says. "I'm probably a better person than the members of the Christian Right who wanted to do away with me over 'Dear God.' The song basically says that your good karma will protect you. That rather drippy sentiment keeps me buoyant." Like "Blackbird," simplicity was the key to the demo, so the original guitar from the shed appears on the album.

"Your Dictionary" (Andy Partridge)
There are odd occasions when Andy doesn't get his way. Not often, mind you, but given the choice, he would not have included "Your Dictionary" on the album. Andy's divorce from his wife Marianne was messy and acrimonious, thanks to zealous lawyers and a system devised by but not for human beings. At the time he was eaten up with fury, feeling, perhaps unfairly, that he was the only injured party. "I was extremely bitter and angry about being betrayed in my marriage," he says. "Your Dictionary" captured that mood succinctly and viciously, emphasized by the sinister string quartet and acoustic guitar of the arrangement. "I don't feel that way now and didn't want to use this song as a rusty can opener to pry open old wounds with Marianne. The words are a little petulant, spelling out bad words but given a different connotation. It's a noncommunication song because the nub of our marriage breakdown was noncommunication."
     As is so often the case, rage brings out the best in a songwriter and the rest of the band insisted the song remain in.

"Fruit Nut" (Colin Moulding)
Colin's is the only XTC garden large enough to warrant an interest in prize vegetables, but he leaves that to a hired gardener. So "Fruit Nut" is not directly about him. "It's a daft little piece about growing fruit and vegetables," says Dave Gregory. "But it's more than that," says Colin. "It's about eccentricity, about husbands of long-suffering wives who are building sheds all over the country to house train sets or whatever." Frightfully English, with a hint of Laurel and Hardy theme tune, "Fruit Nut" is a perfect example of the small-town intimacy that Colin loves in his songs.

"Harvest Festival" (Andy Partridge)
Why, in his 40s, Andy should start writing about schooldays is something of a mystery. Both "Playground" and "Harvest Festival" echo images of childhood, with "Harvest Festival" waxing wistful about what happened to the girls he loved at school and confusing the school ceremony of harvest festival with that of marriage.
     "There were several girls at school who gave me a look across the hall that would totally inflate me for months after," he says. "There was an incredible radioactivity that came from that look. Then, years later, I'd see them married in the local newspaper and wonder what might have happened if it had been me. I suppose someone seeing my wedding photo in the paper might have thought the same thing about Marianne."
     "Harvest festival was a pagan celebration hijacked by Christianity," says Andy." Part of the confusion of the festival was singing those hymns that you didn't understand yet bathing in the mystical glow that they left on you." The song emanates the same warm glow.

--XTC & Neville Farmer

Excerpted from: XTC Song Stories: The Exclusive Authorized Story Behind the Music (Hyperion). Reprinted by permission.


PULSE!: Let's talk about the new album--it's been a long time coming.

PARTRIDGE: Well, Apple Venus Volume One contains a lot of the music that's been written while we were on strike from '92 to late '96. This was the only thing we could do to get out of our appalling contract. I know you're not supposed to do that in the pop world, you're not supposed to go on strike, because people will say, "Oh, they'll forget about you, nobody will remember you" and this kind of thing. But that didn't worry me, because I knew that it was the only thing that we could do to get away from our deal. I mean, we've spent 20 years in debt. It was an obscene deal. We were running in the red for 20 years.

PULSE!: Right, and then you wonder why you're depressed . . .

PARTRIDGE: Yeah! Well, things over the last four years have been--they're great now--but they have been appalling. You know, my health was bad, I was drinking too much, I found myself divorced, basically the band's career was put in the fridge because we had to get out of this deal. So I said, "Okay, we're not making any more records." And they said, "Okay, well, we'll see who cracks first." And we took it to five years, and thankfully they cracked first and let us go. And in that time, I also got together with the love of my life. So I've had extreme depression and extreme joy, which are the two great things for writing music or doing any art. You know the best art comes from extreme depression or extreme elation. And I've been through those in buckets.

PULSE!: So are you planning to sustain this extreme elation, or are you just going to give up on art once things settle down?

PARTRIDGE: If art doesn't give up on me, that's the thing. I'll leave my headset on receive, and we'll just see if Radio Muse keeps broadcasting. But this material we're putting out now--we stirred up something like 40 songs. We basically gave up writing and got to the point where, "Jesus, we're so happy with this material, what's the point in writing any more." It's like we've got four albums worth of material here. So we whittled it down to what we thought would be two good records. And the first volume is largely orchestral and acoustic centered. It's the stuff that was written first of all after Nonsuch, so you can see threads of it in songs like "Rook," "Wrapped in Grey" and "Bungalow." So if we hadn't been on strike and legally unable to work, this is really the album that should have come out about three or four years ago. We put together 11 of these songs for Volume One. And then Volume Two, which hopefully we'll put out in the fall, will be all electric guitar-based.

PULSE!: You've also spent time rummaging through all your old material, both for the boxed set and then for the book. Was that a strange experience?

PARTRIDGE: Basically what happened with the book is that we sat down with Neville [Farmer, co-author of XTC Song Stories]--Colin and myself and to a lesser degree Dave Gregory, he was in the process of sort of extracting himself from the band at the time, but we didn't really know that. So he really didn't want to take part in the book, much to our upset. We couldn't figure out why he didn't want to be part of these conversations. But he did some separate stuff with Neville, which Neville then cut in.
     So we'd sit down and we'd take out the albums. And, you know, I don't play our material. There's no need. It's like a dog returning to his vomit. You know, an artist doesn't stand in front of his own paintings and stare at them for hours on end saying "Wow, aren't I fantastic?" It's kind of pointless. You get it out of your system, you move on, you know? It was weird to sit down and put these albums on that I had not heard, some of them, for 10 years or more. And some of the stuff that comes flooding back is very strange. It's not necessarily musical stuff. It's things like: Oh, that was the day I had some new boots on, or I can smell the studio, or didn't so and so have that gravy stain down his shirt? Do you know what I mean? Lots of strange memories came back.

PULSE!: So having done that, do you now understand why a dog returns to his own vomit?

PARTRIDGE: Yeah, it tastes great occasionally! (laughs) All depends what you have eaten. So I guess I had some good influences, so hopefully our vomit is very tasty.
     But that was a strange sensation, to sit down and then work through an album at a time, and play through every song one at a time. And then Colin and I were usually kind of awash and drowning in sensory memories and we'd then blurt out anything that came to mind.
     Then we got to the new material, which at the time had not been recorded and was only in demo stage. And so we had to play the demos. [They were] musically unformed so it was tricky commenting on the music, because the music would change to some degree. But also I wasn't far enough away from the material to really have a big handle on what a lot of it was about.
     Take "Knights in Shining Karma [Apple Venus]." Now that I'm further away from it, I can see that I was writing a comfort song for myself. Because I went through a very painful divorce, and was sort of stuck learning how to cook and all this kind of stuff. And I'd catch myself sort of crying at the sink, thinking, yeah, I'm not gonna eat tonight, and what am I doing here, and my woman done left me and all this kind of thing. And I really wrote this song as, not a lullaby, but some form of musical blanket to kind of put around myself and say, "Look, everything's fine. You're a good person. Everything's gonna work out good. And then, this good karma that you're trying to make as you go along is gonna protect you and hold you up, in this time of weakness, or this time of desertion or whatever." So it really was like I wrote myself a blanket to put around myself. And I didn't quite see that at the time. But, you know, as I get farther away from these songs, I can see more and more of what they're about.

PULSE!: And the boxed set?

PARTRIDGE: We went back to the BBC and got the use of all the sessions that we did for them--well, the ones they haven't wiped. They're notorious for wiping stuff. They've wiped the greats. They've wiped Hendrix. They've wiped just marvelous stuff. They've wiped eight of ours. But all the remaining stuff, we then sifted through it and we made up four discs. Two live discs, live in concert, and two studio sessions discs. The studio stuff is pretty close to the recorded version, except some of them are actually better than the album versions because they have a quick desperation. You know, you have to get them done in one afternoon. And they have a kind of a rough intensity that may have got ironed out on an album version. But Transistor Blast is very different to how we sound now, especially the live stuff from the late '70s. I heard the BBC tapes recently compiling this stuff, and I was laughing my socks off. It's so naive and so energetic. So kind of gangly. It's like naked baby photos or something. But I think I'll forgive the young me for doing all that . . . Actually, I had a bit of a revelation listening to these early live tapes.

PULSE!: What was that?

PARTRIDGE: I think everything I thought the young me did at one time was kind of--you know, can you imagine something you did in your early 20s when you were really striving [for] originality, plus you were like ferociously naive, and imagine that being in the public domain and you wanting to get away from it, and it's suddenly coming back 20 years later.

PULSE!: And then you hear it again and realize there's more of the current you in the young you than you ever imagined . . .

PARTRIDGE: Yeah! I was kind of shocked and delighted. I kept thinking, God, the sauce of these kids! This music is just so ludicrous. The friendly violence, the friendly fire of this music, it really goes for your throat, this stuff. And just the chords and the melodies and the vocal--a mixture of sort of acrobatics and just sheer laziness. I could just see all these influences mangled into a blender and kind of shot out at a thousand miles an hour. And I was just laughing with kind of unfettered joy and relief that the young me could be not only naive but really sort of ugly-attractive. Especially the live stuff. There's a great desperation and energy in it. It's frightening. I couldn't do that now. Seriously. It would kill me.

PULSE!: You just don't have the same hormonal levels . . .

PARTRIDGE: And I don't have the same desperation to impress, you know? But it's very much like naive art, because we didn't know what the hell we were doing, but we insisted it was tight and well-polished and well-finished. But we couldn't do it properly, if you see what I mean. When you get a group of people, they all want to be someone different. You know, I wanted to be Captain Beefheart's entire Magic Band and I wanted to be all of the Beatles and all of the Monkees and the Jetsons. So if you can imagine, say, those four smashed together. And that was just me.
     And then Barry Andrews [keyboardist on early XTC albums]: He'd want to be the Phantom of the Opera or he'd want to be the organist from the Tornadoes, you know, all his influences. I'm just picking four, I mean, I had millions, he had millions, Terry Chambers had millions, so did Colin.

PULSE!: Who did Colin have?

PARTRIDGE: Colin probably had a straighter selection than me. He liked bands like Black Sabbath. I mean, I thought they were OK, but he was really obsessed with Black Sabbath, he loved Alice Cooper, he was a big Rolling Stones fan. He got into the Beatles later. And so did I, actually. I liked them as a kid. And then I had a big period where I denied them and I didn't want anything to do with them. And of course, they were a massive influence for me, but there was a time when the band really started up, I wanted to deny their influence. It was almost like because your parents approved of it, you didn't want anything to do with it. But somewhere in all those incredible influences, the mess of influences, where they all collide, was XTC. And that was the thing. I was just laughing with joy. Because it was like this stuff is naive but fine. So I hope people get that. I think people that know the band these days, and don't know the earlier work, will probably be disgusted by the cacophony of it. But you never know.

PULSE!: It seems to me that it's unprecedented for a band to actively provide so much information about the actual songs and lyrics and music as you have in this book. I assume you're not one of those artists who's very guarded about your creations and feels that talking about them is going to ruin them somehow.

PARTRIDGE: No, because we have really rabid fans that seem to spend all their life on the Internet discussing the ins and outs of our songs. So I thought it was good timing, you know, the end of the Virgin years, as it were, the start of another career. I mean, some of the things they say about the songs are just so out-of-whack, which is great fun. But I thought it was a good time to come clean on some of these songs and what the hell they were.

PULSE!: What are some of the better misinterpretations of your songs?

PARTRIDGE: Oh, there's just too many. One man wrote to me and just went through the lyric to "Garden of Earthly Delights" on Oranges and Lemons picking out all the stuff he thought was relevant to Star Trek. And the song is not anything about Star Trek. But because I had mentioned the name Chekhov and there happened to be an episode of Star Trek called "Garden of Earthly Delights," that was it. His little four-watt light bulb went on and he was convinced that the whole song was in praise of Star Trek.

PULSE!: Well, you know, on a Jungian level, it could be so in spite of your intentions.

PARTRIDGE: You never know. It's the shape of my ears that's the give-away, really. But people get all sorts of songs wrong, you know. People also get very passionately weird about songs. I had a lot of love and hate mail after "Dear God." And I had a great--I say great, but I mean it wasn't good, it was just very memorable--a letter from, I think it was Arizona, a fellow sent me a letter when he heard "Knuckle Down" on English Settlement. And he was disgusted that I was promoting love between the races. And, you know, he was saying that the white race is gonna die out, and I was a traitor to the white race, and how dare I promote interracial love. And he wasn't gonna sign his name and address, because I was obviously going to send one of my Negro monkeys from Brixton down to his place and rape him and his entire family. So, you know, people get kind of weird about songs for all the wrong reasons.

PULSE!: So what is "Knuckle Down" about?

PARTRIDGE: It's just a song that says let's stop fighting interracially and enjoy ourselves while we have the time. And "knuckle down" is largely a play on knuckle down in terms of we gotta get working on this and make an effort, but also knuckle down as in putting your knuckles down and let's stop the fighting. Let's get on with each other, because we only get a short span of time here, and it'd be nice to oil the passage between the races and the creeds and colors and religious differences and everything.

PULSE!: It's amazing how the things that, when you write them, you don't think are really the least bit provocative, end up causing people to freak out . . .

PARTRIDGE: Yeah, he obviously was some sort of white supremacist and this song got right up his nose. But I was more disgusted to think that we had a white supremacist who, at one time, before this song, was a fan of the band, you know? That was what really upset me . . . But people get all sorts of songs wrong, you know. People have written to me and say, oh such and such a song, I know it's about me. And all that kind of thing. So that happens a bit, you know.

PULSE!: So the strike is finally over . . .

PARTRIDGE: Yeah. In fact, we're building a studio at the moment. The builders are in knocking the shit out of Colin's double garage, and we're turning it into a regular studio because we're sick of throwing money into studios. So it's all these years from the garage back to the garage. It's kind of ironic.

PULSE!: Had you ever imagined you'd still be doing this sort of thing with each other?

PARTRIDGE: No, I didn't. Certainly not. I mean, when I was really just a kid, when we did [1978's] White Music, I kind of thought, "Wow, well that's it, then, that's my dream fulfilled." But it's like being bitten by a rabid dog, you know? Not only is this suddenly addictive, this big hit of being in the studio and touring and adulation and getting your art out is such a buzz, you think, whoa, I wanna do this some more. And before long, you find yourself a hopeless junkie to songwriting. And yeah, I'm totally damaged by all that. I can't stop. But I'll say in all honesty, and it probably sounds immodest but I think it's true, that we've actually got quite a lot better. Different, but for me, better. You know, we're nearer the emerald city, I think, now.

PULSE!: And if the young version of you were to hear this new material?

PARTRIDGE: Oh, he'd be repulsed. he'd be totally repulsed. He'd think it was really middle of the road. He'd think it was kind of, I don't know, his parents' light entertainment shoved through a strimmer or something.

PULSE!: Through a what?

PARTRIDGE: A strimmer. You know one of those garden things that cut your hedges? Yes, he'd probably think it was his parents' music put through a strimmer. Like bad light entertainment on Drano or something. So I'm really happy with it. It's different. And you know, I hope the fans of the band--I don't like the word fans, maybe friends of the band--who've come this far with us, I hope they'll like where it's gone for this particular record.

PULSE!: Well as a friend of the band who got stood up at that English Settlement show in L.A. . . .

PARTRIDGE: Oh, I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. I was having a lot of problems at the time. I was cracking up at the time. It was five years on the road and it was really hitting me bad.

PULSE!: I can't imagine that kind of traveling . . .

PARTRIDGE: Yeah, I enjoyed it when we started. It was great because it was like being in a gang. You know, we were a gang, we'd drink and we were gonna screw the world and we were gonna deafen everybody. It's like a kind of rock'n'roll gang with guitars around their necks, that's what it's like being in a young band. And then we were thrown in the back of a van, that seemed to last for five years. I mean, literally we were performing every night for five years, and the only time off we got was while we were making an album. And as soon as you made that record, or even during sometimes, you'd be out touring again. And five years of it just drove me insane. I wanted a normal life. And my subconscious started to say, "You're not enjoying this, we're going to make you ill." So [stopping] was necessary. And now it's out of my system. I love writing songs. I love making records. For me, that's the magic, that's the alchemy.

Photographs by Jill Furmanovsky

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