Language in His Lungs

Los Angeles Reader
July 8, 1994
Rock & Pop
by Tom Chao

Andy Partridge on Collaborations, Stage Fright, and Rejecting Disney

Even though XTC hasn't released a new album since 1992's Nonsuch (Geffen), the group's principal songwriter, Andy Partridge, has not been slacking. Last year, he worked with Martin Newell on the pop album The Greatest Living Englishman (Pipeline). Last week, Caroline Records released Through the Hill, Partridge's collaboration with minimalist composer and Los Angeles resident Harold Budd. The album has an ambient mode, rather different from the jangling beat-pop associated with XTC, although fans will recognize Partridge-isms in it. Partridge spoke to the Reader by telephone from Swindon, England, following a session of recording in his garden shed with singer Nicky Holland.

R: Through the Hill seems like a departure.

AP: No, it's a return in intention to an exploratory, if gentle, instrumental style. It's a continuation of a branch line growing in the late seventies with [dub experiments] Take Away / The Lure of Salvage.

When Harold visited England, he came to see me one afternoon. I suggested I'd love to make an album with him. Then we spent four hours improvising in my home studio. About 50 percent was really good. We were grinning ear to ear. We agreed to do it as soon as we could.

That turned out to be eight weeks later. During that time we had a "fax romance". We had no idea what the record would be about, so we sent each other diagrams, titles, ideas, maps, anything. When he came back to England, we had all the titles, illustrations, the album title -- everything. We had the whole thing plotted out as a faux archeological dig.

We grouped the titles in several areas: the geography, manmade structures, and artifacts. We liked the idea of having a musical curtain between the "lens changes". So we had little pieces of music called "Hands", all containing the same musical motif. The title comes from an illustration of a votive clay hand in a German encyclopedia of engravings.

R: How did you work together in the studio?

AP: We had about half a dozen springboard ideas, which might be two chords or a phrase. Then we went to the end of them and leapt. Or we would just improvise; I'd sit at the organ and Harold would sit beside me at the piano and just start.

R: Who played what?

AP: It's easier to say that Harold didn't play guitar, and I never spoke. But everything else was shared. There were always two instruments live, either left like that or decorated minimally. Some had more overdubs, for example, "Anima Mundi". We decided it would sound great with lots of guitars all played slightly differently, off in the distance. Others were left as the improvisation, like "Place of Odd Glances".

R: The titles are great.

AP: You should see the ones we threw away -- "Aborted Takeoff From Baal International".

R: You also collaborated recently with Martin Newell on The Greatest Living Englishman (Pipeline).

AP: Martin's a big late-sixties British Beat music fan. He writes great songs with that feel. The Harold Budd budget was Brobdingnagian by comparison to that budget. It was all recorded in my garden shed. I waived my fee. We spent six months, our marriages fell to pieces, and we went through eight tape machines! But his songs rise above all of that.

R: Are the collaborations different from the XTC working procedure?

AP: Yeah, [XTC] get 90-something percent of the stuff worked out before we set foot in an expensive studio. And XTC are two songwriters who don't interfere with each other's work.

R: What about the next XTC album?

AP: I'm really behind on getting our new album going. I'm just going through a divorce. A lot of people say, "I'm sorry," and I'm the first to correct them. It's really necessary. Divorces are horrible for bunging your creative brain up.

I'm so easily sidetracked -- I have a "magazine in doctor's waiting room" mentality. I'm working on material for our next album. It comes off the branch line of "Rook," "Wrapped in Grey," and "Bungalow" [from Nonsuch]. We're moving away from standard rock 'n' roll -- it's nowhere near the "Peter Pumpkinhead"-"Crocodile" line. Colin [Moulding] is writing and I have six demos and three or four in the head.

R: Any drummer in mind?

AP: I don't plan to have drums on the new album. The propulsion would come from the feel of the instruments. At the moment -- I hate to say it -- it's mostly orchestral.

R: Elvis Costello recorded with a string quartet.

AP: Yeah, I felt peeved at that because that was something I wanted to do for ages, and then suddenly it came out and I thought, "Bah, humbug!" If we do anything even slightly similar, people will say [childish sing-song], "You've been copying Elvis!"

R: You recently talked to [English music magazine] MOJO about stage fright --

AP: I feel freakish about that. I believed it was going to be an article about lots of people who had stage fright, not just me. I feel badly set up by MOJO. There's a lot of mangled quotations in there.

R: They quoted you as saying, "... I feel as if I could go onstage ..." -- which is what every fan is waiting to hear.

AP: I don't remember making this big speed about, "Yeah, I'm gagging to get back out on the road!" This fellow's just having wishful thinking. We don't tour around, which is excellent as far as I'm concerned.

R: Your depiction of the stage fright that kept you from touring sounded horrific, but you suggested that you're past most of it.

AP: At one point it was really crippling. It affected things I did every day. Recently, the nearest thing I've gotten to it is when my divorce started, I started getting panic attacks, which are kind of similar. I had panic attacks in embarrassing places. One was on Star Tours in Tokyo Disneyland. As soon as those doors closed, Jesus, I was feeling like I was going to die as the hand of Walt --

I must tell you, I just turned down Walt Disney. They asked me if I would write songs for a full-length animation. I said, "Great, I've always wanted to do this." They sent me loads of info. I wrote four songs. They came back saying, "We've changed the script -- can we rewrite the lyrics?" I said, "You'd better show me a contract." They sent me a contract and it was so appalling I had to turn down the whole thing.

R: Was this The Lion King?

AP: No, I'm stuck with four songs from James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. I'm not too sure what to do with them. The band can't do them because the lyrics are all about fucking giant peaches.

R: Some people are into that!

AP: Yeah, there are magazines specializing in that!

I have a really perverse goal: I'd like to be a recorded label and every band on that label, but without anybody knowing. It's an idea I was speaking to Virgin about last year, a bubblegum sampler with twelve bands on a mythical label from 1970. They didn't like the idea of the historical document. I had all the songs written and all the bands, and they wouldn't do it.

One song did surface on the Carmen Sandiego soundtrack (Zoom Express/BMG)). It's called "Cherry in Your Tree", by "The Captain Cooks," but the original lyric was a bit more double entendre.

R: Will you be coming to the States anytime?

AP: I may be in New York soon. Last week, MPL, [Paul] McCartney's company, asked me if I would narrate "Tubby the Tuba". I said [dimwitted voice], "Yeah, OK."

I said yes, but they've got to get other people involved. It's commercial suicide if I narrate it because who the fuck's going to buy it? When they rang, I said (this is McCartney's company!), "Can you not think of somebody just a little bit more famous who might like to narrate it?"

R: Do these projects signal a new trend?

AP: There are trends I would like to instigate. Your goal in life changes as you get older. I could no more stand up and say I want to be a pop star now than I could levitate. I do not want to be a pop star. Everything has to mutate, decay, expand -- nothing can stay static.

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