XTC - a summer's day captured on record

August 2000

by Tero Alanko

In the beginning of 1990's XTC went on strike, because the band regarded their deal with Virgin as unfair. After about five years of strike the record company decided to give up and XTC returned to studio. Last year the band released the acoustic and heavily orchestrated Apple Venus and now it is time for more electrically rocking Wasp Star.

"Wasp Star is a kind of small and glowing thing which buzzes around your head and dashes at various directions, until buzzzzzz... It decides to hurtle far away", describes Andy Partridge, the main songwriter of XTC.

Andy Partridge lives in Swindon, the railway junction town, where he has spent almost his entire life. A large part of his living room is filled by two old sofas and between them a small table; on it there are newspapers and art books. The walls are full of framed pictures and posters; the subjects are familiar from the XTC record covers. On a mahogany chest of drawers there is a small TV and a cheap CD-set. Against it there are resting some jazz records and classical music. On the tables and chairs there are more papers and and books but you don't see records anywhere. Instead on the honourary place of the room there has been set up a Danish castle inhabited by hundreds of red coated and fur hatted tin soldiers. When I stop to investigate the castle closer, Andy asks me to step into the room beside to have a look at the treasures of his tin soldier collection.

"In the attic there are at least 10000 more soldiers. Winston Churchill and George Orwell also collected tin soldiers, so I'm in good company", he says. Beside the doorway of the living room there is a piano and on it there is a cheap dictaphone and notes of sonnets by an Italian composer unknown to me. Behind the door there is hidden a rowing machine which Andy and/or his partner Erica use to keep themselves fit. Andy got divorced from his first wife after the release of Nonsuch. "Wounded Horse", a rather bitter song on Wasp Star may well tell about the reasons of divorce. On the old piano and window sill there are several old and tattered cardboard puzzles, problem boxes, in which the idea is to catch the rings in the staffs or to get the small balls in the holes.

"This is quite impossible. I have never managed to get all the balls in the right places simultaneously. I guess there's enough for you to do in this while I make us tea", Andy says for comfort.

Mr. Partridge, who wonders at the world from behind coloured Lennon-lenses, is dressed in loose checkered trousers and a faded sweater. He may have gained a bit more weight, his hairline has moved more up and there is grey on the temples. During the interview which takes almost an hour and the subsequent lunch the 46-years old artist shows himself to be frank, outspoken and very curious. Like the music of XTC, the speech of Andy Partridge is full of dry humour. During the interview I have to tell him among other things about the origin of the Finnish language, the railway system of Finland, the relationship of the Finnish left and right and the sources of livelihood of the Lapps.

XTC is one of the most British pop bands ever. Among others Damon Albarn of Blur has named the band that started as Helium Kidz as one of his greatest musical influences. Although XTC and punk rock had their breakthrough at the same time, the loud, witty and angulated pop of the band had nothing to do with, for instance, the anarchy stirred up by Sex Pistols. Not even the name refers to the drug ecstasy, because it had not been invented in the mid-70's. During the 80's the expression of XTC changed to a more skilled and more carefully articulated pop music in which you can find similarities with, for instance, the socially sharp-sighted albums by the Kinks and the psychedelic baroque pop by The Zombies. Of XTC albums, for example English Settlement (1982) and Skylarking (1986), are some of the best pop records of the decade; they are full of melodic perceptions, rich arrangements and sharp-sighted lyrics and they can hold a good grip on you and even surprise you still. On the last three albums (Skylarking, Oranges & Lemons and Nonsuch) before the strike and the seven year break the sound of XTC became polished to an almost exact 60's pastiche.

When moving to the new millennium the ranks of XTC had diminished to two founding members. When multi-instrumentalist Dave Gregory departed during the sessions of Apple Venus dissatisfied with the small amount of his contribution, there were left only Andy Partridge (vocals and guitar) who writes most of the XTC songs and Colin Moulding (vocals and bass) who writes some songs on each record.

In the music of XTC there has always been something very provincial. It is easy to imagine that the green countryside that surrounds Swindon and the air that is fresh from water has had a certain influence on the sound of XTC.

"Swindon is a small and sleepy English town; there are several of those all over England. Earlier two of three of the inhabitants of Swindon used to work for the railroad, but now there are more people working in clothing industry. They are trying to make Swindon a kind of center for the new industry.

"Swindon is situated in a really beautiful area. If you were awake in the train, you probably saw that the Wiltshire county is a really green and beautiful region. Wiltshire is like the face of young Brigitte Bardot and Swindon is like a pimple in the middle of the cheek", Andy analyses. Partridge, who had been suffering from the fear of performing a long time noticed in 1882 that he simply cannot climb to the stage any more. After about five years of constant touring XTC ended touring and concentrated on making records. At least until now they haven't regretted the decision.

"Of course I think every now and then how it would be to perform these songs live, but that feeling goes away in about two seconds. Why on earth should we perform live? We concentrate on making excellent records. Most of the pop music performed live works only as a jukebox for young people having fun. We have no need for that.

"Making records is our form of art. In my opinion the fact that we haven't performed live for almost 20 years doesn't lower the value of our music in any way. Music is the only form of art in which people expect that the work of art is being reproduced on the stage in front of the audience. Neither authors or painters are doing gigs writing their books or painting their pictures again in front of the audience with the lights flashing and people jumping up and down." The sales of XTC records have never been tremendous, but the band has had three top 20 singles in its home country and English Settlement went number five in the album charts. The record that has been sold most is Skylarking which had its breakthrough in the USA with the help of the hit "Dear God"; worldwide sales are about 500,000 copies. Apple Venus, which was recorded for Idea Records founded by Partridge and Moulding and licenced by the independent Cooking Vinyl, sold more than 100,000 copies.

"We have never sold tremendous quantities of records, but when you count the sales together the total amount is quite decent. But our deal was so hopeless that we never saw money. Actually I have started to earn money with my music only during a couple of last years. In my opinion it is quite fair. You have to get reward for 20 years of work although the motive for making music is something else.

"Although we have made records for more than 20 years, it's only now that we have had money to save. XTC has never brought huge sums of money to anyone, at least as far as I know, but previously everything has gone for the ex-manager, ex-wife and our former record company has had its share. Obviously we have made a better deal with ourselves than what we could have made with some multinational company."

After the release of Nonsuch XTC spent about five years on strike. It refused to make records for Virgin and the record company refused to tear the deal with XTC until several years of tiring fighting. In order to get rid of the deal which the band regarded as unfair it agreed to release the Fossil Fuel compilation in 1996.

"We received some kind of prize for best record cover for the special edition of Fossil Fuel. In the cover there is an embossed fossil. We were not present in the prize-giving gala. The prize was accepted by the same person from Virgin who tried to prevent us from releasing the whole package. To release a compilation was the easiest way to get rid of Virgin. There is nothing to be ashamed of most of our singles and when you put them altogether they sound even better, although I would have chosen different songs as singles. I would have liked to to release as singles the best songs, not the easiest ones. But I think the chosen songs give a good picture of what kind of band XTC has been. Apple Venus from last year presented XTC as a chamber pop group. Most songs are full of tasteful orchestrations and carefully decided arrangements. Compared with it the just released Wasp Star sounds like a a real rock band; the emphasis is in crackling and humming guitars and simple structures in songs. The album was recorded in the studio built in Colin Moulding's big garage. The drum players on the record are among others session drummer Chuck Sabo who has played in Natalie Imbruglia's band and Prairie Prince who used to bang on drums in the Tubes.

"Most songs were put into effect in a really simplified way. When we got started, these recording sessions were without any problems. Since the band's early recordings it hasn't been so uncomplicated. In those early days we used to get inspired by whatever reason and put everything on record without thinking further whether the idea seemed good after two days or two years.

"This time there were other problems than those concerning the recordings. When we started the recordings, there was a solar eclipse. I burned my eyes looking at it and I had to go to an eye hospital in London with 5000 other people. When we started the recordings during the first two months I saw the eclipse as a negative picture in front of my eyes everywhere I looked". When I say that I've thought musicians suffer more often from problems with hearing than seeing, Andy cannot help laughing.

"This (right ear) is quite faulty and the other one a bit. The first symptoms became already when we were touring which is about 20 years ago and they haven't really healed ever. I don't hear some frequencies at all and in my other ear there is an constant tinnitus aurium. I think it is not very bad, but rather nasty anyway. Wait a second... (Andy walks to the piano and strikes some keys alternately). There is a constant A ringing in my other ear."

XTC's first album White Music was released in February 1978 and in the beginning the band seemed to release a new record whenever between the tours there was enough time to record it. After mid-1980's the pace started to slow down, although the band concentrated entirely on making records. Excluding Fossil Fuel the previous record prior to Apple Venus and Wasp Star was Nonsuch in 1992. Before that the time between XTC albums had become about three years. Although Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding have just released two records in a year, Partridge doesn't promise new records immediately.

"Believe it or not, but I haven't written new songs since 1997. I haven't had time for the work of thinking that writing new songs requires. For two years I haven't done anything else than recorded two albums and spoken about music with journalists. Of course I have some ideas but actually there is nothing going on.

"The process goes in this way: first comes music. Then I think that what should I write about, what did I want to say with my songs and is this certainly the right way to say what I want to say. Sometimes it happens also that I when I'm polishing some song for several days and then as I play it for someone, his first comment is that, "but it is 'Surfin' USA', why are you playing me it?" It's all in your subconscious. It's difficult to control what comes out of there. If I have even the slightest doubt that what I've written sounds somehow familiar, I throw it away at once. Writing songs is a sensitive condition."

The whole name of the just released album is Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2). At first these two discs were meant to be released in one package, as two counterparts presenting two different sides of XTC. The project did not materialize quite the way it was planned.

"The recordings took more time than we had expected. In the end the situation was that we ran out of money and time and were not able to release the discs simultaneously. Mostly it was due to money. We had to get something released and the second part just wasn't ready. In the end we ended up recording the material for Wasp Star anew in full. I regard these two discs as a double and that the second part just took longer and subsequently it has been released separately. Now when it is ready everyone can pretend that it has been released at the same time and be surprised over a second disc they have found a year later."

During the years XTC records have been produced by among others John Leckie, Steve Lillywhite and Todd Rundgren. Andy Partridge tells that the band has always tried to hold the reins tightly in their own hands. The only time the grip was loosened was when XTC was recording Skylarking which was meant to be the breakthrough record in the American market with Todd Rundgren. Rundgren, who had gained his reputation by creating almost alone from start to finish epics like Something/Anything and A Wizard, A True Star, had a reputation of a difficult man and according to Partridge not without good reason.

"We have always tried to use producers who rather just record and offer their technical knowledge than bring with themselves their own ideas. I want that they capture what we want to convey with our music. John Leckie was quite phenomenal in this. The records which he produced (White Music and Go 2; he also has produced both albums by the psychedelic project The Dukes of Stratosphear) sound very much like XTC, if you know what I mean. Todd Rundgren was a much more difficult case. Our record company wanted us to work with a American; obviously they saw America as potential marketing area. They gave us a long list of names and the only one I recognized was Todd Rundgren. I knew his reputation but I thought that it would be interesting to work with him. The record was recorded in New York.

"Todd Rundgren was a difficult person but he knew how to do his job. He seemed to be nervous all the time. In addition to this he said a lot of insulting things. He didn't know how to get along with people. We often wondered why he said things like that. He got along much better with the studio and the machines than with the people who were there. Todd might come to the studio in the morning at 11, an hour late. Then he went beside his giant table and at about 4 pm he eventually turned and said 'Hello'.

"When Skylarking was finished I wasn't at all sure whether it was a good or bad record. It sounded somehow ... strange. At times it felt that Todd had understood about us something that not even ourselves had understood, and at other times the record sounded as some other band. Only after a couple of years I learned to like that record. Today I think it is one of the best we have made."

Skylarking is the first XTC album I bought and maybe that's why it is an absolute favourite of mine. The fresh sound, the optimistic mood and the ultimately melodic songs charm you even today. Andy Partridge has described Skylarking as "a summer's day captured on record". Another favourite of mine is English Settlement, released as double vinyl record, which is certainly one of the most English records ever. English Settlement is like a history book transformed to luxuriant and a rather progressively entangled pop music or a verdant rural scene. In the cover of the album there is a famous rock painting near Swindon, the Uffington White Horse.

"There are a lot of others who like English Settlement too. In my opinion it may be a bit too long. Some of the songs are too long. It is a bit unpolished. The last time I listened to it was sometimes a couple of years ago. Some of the songs on the record, such as 'Jason and the Argonauts', are deliberately long. 'Jason and The Argonauts' is meant to portray a long journey and that's why there is so much repetition in it. Some of the songs might have been shorter. If you have listened to the record for years you certainly know which songs I mean".

Andy Partridge tells that XTC "found itself" only after the band stopped touring. Before that it was impossible to concentrate completely on making music. Rather than to find, in the early stage of the career the members of XTC may have been more eager to search and to experiment.

"Of our records I like most about the five last ones. On the other hand, in the beginning of the career we were quite different people and we tried to express quite different things. White Music is naïve art. It is really naïve art, but in its own way it is a charming document. That's what we were like in those days, but not any more. I'm proud that we have gone forward all the time. Our curve of development can clearly be read from our records. In my opinion our two new records contain the best material we have recorded ever.

"In my opinion there's no sense in making records if you don't believe that the new record contains the best music the band has ever made. Think for instance of David Bowie. Let's Dance went number one all over the world and it was a good record. After that there were some clearly weaker records, then the utterly horrible album Tin Machine and then again records by his own name which were continually worse and worse. And why? I don't know. At least he could not believe that he would each time release the best album of his career. And he's not the only example."

"I think I have seen seen you in a photograph with a golden retriever, but now you don't seem to have any pets?"

"No we don't. We had a cat and a dog, but now they are in heavenly kennel. A dog might be nice. Do you think I'd dare to bring the matter up?"

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[Thanks to Jari Kostilainen]