Rolling Stone (Australia)
June 1999
by Michael Dwyer

What the hell happened to

It's been 7 years since the last XTC album. In that time, Andy Partridge has gone through illness, divorce and one largely disintererested record company. Weirdly enough, he still wants to make music.

IT SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA at the time. Back in the pre-punk dark ages, Andy Partridge was the kind of obsessed teen who spent hours drawing guitars in his exercise books, listening to "bad psychedelic singles" on the radio and writing English compositions about being on stage with a rock band. By 1982 he'd done it, with some impact and acclaim, for five years and six albums. It scared the shit out of him.

1981 (from left): Moulding, Terry Chambers, Partridge and Gregory.

"I came to the opinion that I wasn't cut out for the physical pop stardom thing," says the leading light of XTC, safely wrapped in a dressing gown in his Swindon home with his own young teenagers, Holly and Harry, squabbling in the background. "I don't like being photographed, I don't like being filmed, I don't even like being stared at. So what the hell was I doing under lights on stage for Chrissakes?"

With their leader suffering stage phobia, ulcers and exhaustion, XTC ceased performing after their classy studio opus of 1982, English Settlement. In Partridge's opinion, so did their record company. Virgin effectively "sat on" another five albums before band and label entered the stalemate which explains the seven-year silence since 1992's Nonsuch.

"They wouldn't release us from our contract and they wouldn't make our contract sufficiently bearable (for us) to make any money," the surprisingly cheerful songwriter explains. "You could purchase our albums on Virgin from '77 to '97, but we never went into the black until '97. That's an indication of how poor our record deal was."

Virgin vanquished, XTC are back with the first of two albums due in 1999 (there's also a 4-CD live retrospective, Transistor Blast). Apple Venus Volume 1 is the acoustic / symphonic side of a coin which will reveal its more electric side on Volume 2. Guitarist of 19 years Dave Gregory left the group early in the recording process and bassist / co-writer Colin Moulding brought only two songs to each album, but Partridge found his muse and spirit undampened by the layoff.

"The strange thing was that the more bad that we went through, the more Virgin put us in the fridge and said, 'No, you're not going anywhere', the more inspired I felt. I know that sounds perverse but I guess you make the sharpest sword with the heaviest hammer blows.

"The more personal horrors I seemed to go through, like divorce and illness and God knows what, the more this music flowed out. I never felt like giving up. I cannot stop. It's an addictive kind of voodoo. I just love the process of finishing off a song and cooking it to the point where it becomes a record. It's a creative illness."

Volume 1 is a refinement of the lush, colourful pop which flourished with Skylarking (1986) and Oranges and Lemons (1989). There's also traces of the swirling psychedelia which inspired the band's occasional alter-ego of the '80s, the Dukes of Stratosphear.

"There's the usual ghosts to exorcise," Partridge acknowledges. "My entire career seems to be me attempting to kill off the Beatles - not in a Mark Chapman sense, but getting the holy guitar and saying, 'Begone vile ghost!' I had to exorcise Ray Davies, to some extent Brian Wilson and Burt Bacharach. . ."

Put those folks in a blender, of course, and you've got a concoction which goes some way to approximating that runaway train of the early '90s, Britpop. As Blur and Oasis slugged it out on well-trodden turf, XTC's intrinsically English, classic songwriterly principles made them conspicuous by their absence.

"It was ironic, that, wasn't it?" Partridge says. "I liked the fact that Britpop seemed to be bands, rather than the put-together commercial exercises that make up 99 per cent of English chart music. At least it was largely real bands having a go and trying things out.

"I wasn't that interested 'cause I saw a lot of them were just ploughing through territory we'd already been through. But a couple of them cited us as an influence - predominantly Blur - so that was very brave of them 'cause we were the uncoolest thing you can mention. I thought, 'Good on you, lads, you've given us a wee dollop of due.'"

"I don't like being photographed, I don't like being filmed, I don't even like being stared at. So what the hell was I doing under lights on stage for Chrissakes?"

Aforementioned ghosts acknowledged, the "defrosted" XTC has a new brace of influences to go with their new studio duo incarnation. Moulding has taken to stained glass and gardening, and there's "a new ghost drifting through the walls of Partridge manor" too.

"My Fair Lady, South Pacific, Oklahoma, Lionel Bart's Oliver . . . musicals have left a big fingerprint on me and I think that's the reasons I wanted to work with an orchestra for this record. People have said, 'Is it the classics? Were you inspired by Mozart or Beethoven?' Well, no, those chaps leave me rather cold actually. I think I'm more inspired by Annie Get Your Gun.

"But of course, after a couple of years on that diet of orchestral sounds I begin to think, 'I could do with a really cranked up guitar on this,' and the later material came up easier. A little more banal, but kind of exciting in an idiot way."

Hence Apple Venus 2, presently under construction. It shouldn't take too long, given the absence of corporate litigation and Andy Partridge's iron-clad vow to waste no further time under the spotlight he once coveted.

"There's a certain stadium disease you can catch which is all grand gestures and it's all designed to please the millions that are there at that moment clutching their merchandising," he says with wry distaste. "People like U2 have it, the Rolling Stones, this essence of Nuremberg Rally which seems to make most big pop groups tick. And I don't think those groups necessarily make good records.

"Had we gone on the way we were, we may have got stuck into that rut, which frightens me no end 'cause I think that's death for music and the death of trying different things, getting inside yourself musically. You become an arena beast. I wouldn't ever want to do that."


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[Thanks to Paul Culnane]