XTC's Partridge Anywhere But Up a Tree

The Rocky Mountain News
May 28, 2000, Sunday
By Mark Brown, News Popular Music Critic

After five weeks of doing interviews for his brilliant new album, ("A man called hoarse," he dubs himself), XTC's Andy Partridge finds himself with a problem most musicians would kill for. Critics are arguing whether 1999's Apple Venus Vol. 1 or its follow-up, the new Wasp Star, is the more brilliant album.

"Anything that gets critics damaging each other is a good thing," Partridge says amicably.

And Wasp Star has them going at it. Partridge and his XTC cohort Colin Moulding have crafted one of the finest albums of their long career, finding new steam at a time when most bands run out of it.

Of course, they had help. Partridge's ugly divorce and recovery from it have made Wasp Star one of the darkest yet happiest albums he's ever done. One thing he's learned, he says, is that people never change - aptly laid out in Wasp Star's leadoff track, Playground.

"Playground came out of just thinking about divorce and thinking about how one person dumps you and moves on to the next person, just like kids would do at school," he says. "You think you're best friends with this person, and suddenly they go, 'Oh, there's someone else! I'm gonna go play with them! Bye!'

"Everyone's is just a giant kid," he says. "They always act out the same stuff. The playground is just a rehearsal camp for being a cruel adult, I think. If you're gonna break that cycle, you've got to be aware of it."

Both Apple Venus and Wasp Star are by far Partridge's most naked writing. He still uses metaphors such as the playground, but they're now used to illuminate, rather than hide, his feelings.

"I think what happens is some songs are a safety valve. You feel so much about something that if you don't write about it and get it out, you're going to die," he says.

But it's not all bleak; Stupidly Happy is a song about being just that, fitting in nicely with past XTC hits such as The Garden of Earthly Delights and Mayor of Simpleton.

"There's a terrible fear of repeating myself," he says. "Even now, there are certain subjects I keep returning to - the whole thing of birth and death and new life and decay helping to cause new life. I've visited that one at least three or four times now. Between songs like Season Cycle, Easter Theatre and The Wheel and the Maypole, how many times can you visit it?"

Lack of time and money made XTC release the two albums more than a year apart (along with a demo album in between), but now that they're back in the public eye, Partridge has more ambitious plans - everything from box sets to another eight CDs worth of demos.

He's got so many new songs that "it got to the point where I didn't bother demoing them. Songs just lay in notebooks," he says.

To catch up, he says, "we want to put out as many demos as we can - demos of material already recorded and material that was never recorded."

Being allowed to do so, however, is another matter. The oft-told tale of XTC's seven-year silence due to record-company hassles is finally over. They've struck their own deals with various record companies around the world after getting off Virgin Records and have finally seen money from their sales.

"It sounds stupid, doesn't it?" Partridge says.

"Gaining control of us was very important. We'd been very much at the mercy of Virgin Records for the first 20 years of our career, and we'd never made a penny from the sales of our records during those years," he says. "I certainly feel robbed. There's a large amount of money that's been made and we didn't make it. Managers made it. Record companies made it. Lawyers, accountants, whatever. If there's any money to be made from my art, I want to be the one who's making it."

Even if the financial rewards weren't there, watching XTC's growing legacy makes Partridge happy. He enjoys watching other bands come up through the pop ranks behind him, covering the same ground.

"There are certain places we haven't been through, though. We haven't been through Drug Hell. We haven't been through Smashing Up Hotel Room Ballet. But just for musical aspiration or desire, I can see bands going through similar things that we did on our journey," he says.

XTC, meanwhile, has become so good at pop music that they can stretch the form, inserting jokes in The Man Who Murdered Love and doing unexpected time, rhythm and genre changes.

"I like surprises. I don't like shocks; I like pleasant surprises," he says. "I like toys that surprise, architecture that surprises, books that contain delight. That kidlike desire for joy is very important in music."

And pushing to do better is what keeps him going, 20 years after making the initial splash.

"Laying into the ghosts of these people is an enormous spur," he says. " I'm sure it's pride and vanity. But to write songs better than Ray Davies, to write better songs than Lennon and McCartney, Burt Bacharach or Brian Wilson - I need it in some way. I need to climb over those people and somehow defeat them, defeat their songs. If they're all on rung 10, I may be on rung three at the moment. But it's the desire to get to rung 10, to write a song as perfect as I'll Say a Little Prayer, Good Vibrations or Rain - the world's most beautifully put-together songs, real masterpieces of words meeting chords and melody and sound. I have to exorcise those ghosts."

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[Thanks to Wes Hanks]