Interview with Andy Partridge

January - February 1999

Part I: Steady Eatin' Donuts with Andy Partridge of XTC

Oranges and lemons, generals and majors. A perfect pop band like XTC doesn't come along every day... and then disappear for seven years. From "Making Plans for Nigel" to "Dear God," Andy Partridge has worn the pop auteur mantle to the hilt, crafting beautiful songs for years while dealing with his own darker side in the background. The SPINonline Investigative Action Team plied Partridge with glazed doughnuts and better than average coffee (this is genius, after all) to get behind his happy pop veneer. This is his story.

[The orchestral disc opener "River of Orchids" plays.]
Partridge: That really made the hair on the back of my eyes stand up when we recorded with the forty piece orchestra. A lot of the songs on this disc grew out of the desire to move away from sort of conventional rock 'n' roll instrumentation.

SPINonline: Did this change have anything to do with the long period since your last album?
You probably know that we were on a strike for a long time to get away from Virgin records. They wouldn't give us a sensible deal, and they wouldn't let us free. So I said that we're withholding our services, thank you. In that five year space they just sat on us and said, "Well, you can't work." So we wrote lots and lots of songs. The first batch are all the ones with the acoustical-orchestral bent, which is something I really wanted to do. This record should've come out in '93 or '94 but we were put in the fridge legally.

[The sunny first single "I'd Like That" plays.]
It's wonderful what you can do with a pair of knees, feedback, and a bicycle. The bicycle is Colin's bike. What can I tell you about that one? It's extremely simple instrumentation--it's just like a bass drum, acoustic guitar and bass, me hitting my legs. Extremely simple word-wise. I went through a horrible divorce and was really saved by meeting back up with the New York girl that I live with now, Erica. There's the angle. This is just a very simple song of some of the things I'd like to do with her. It's a love song.

Obviously just from listening to the first two tracks, it's clear that the gorgeous pop element is still there. When a band doesn't release a record for a couple of years, people start to talk and there are rumors that the sound is going to change completely. I had heard that this record was going to be strictly orchestral.
Sure, it probably would've been insane to throw [the aforementioned orchestral songs] away. I don't think that I can throw that away. But it's just different. The fun of it, being able to explore different avenues. I couldn't stop writing good melodies. God, I never had good melodies when I started. I was just beginning to get into it, so I'm not going to throw that out.

No one would ever mistake your voice either. That's a constant no matter what style of orchestration's there, pop or classical.
That was one of the things I really used to worry about when we started. With our first LP back in '77, I thought, "God, how are people going to remember my voice?" I think I contorted it and twisted it into recognition. Partly to get through s****y PA systems. But also you make your first record and you're desperate to be remembered, and I wanted to kind of smash together all of my rock 'n' roll voices that would give me my identity.

Can you address the rumor that there are going to be some live performances this time?
That's always a rumor.

Are there?
I just have to get keen to do it. I don't want to stand on stage and think, "I really don't want to be doing this." I think that will show. I don't want to get up and be fake because I think people will see through it.

Can't you just play New York?
[Laughs] Just be fake in New York? If someone makes a film they don't expect a filmmaker to then go on tour and stand on stage and re-make the film in front of 10,000 people a night. The object is the film. If somebody writes a book, you don't expect them to sit on stage and say, "So this is how I did chapter one." You know? [Imitates roar from crowd.] Sometimes they do readings, yeah. But it's about the object, the book, or the film, or the painting, or in our case, the record. To me that's it. I'm not interested in the kind of the cult of a personality behind it.

But sometimes there's a different, interesting element you bring to the object with live performance.
I think that the live element frequently has nothing to do with music. It's the same sensation if you're at a wrestling match, or if you're at the Nuremberg rally, or if you're at a heavy metal gig, or if you're at a revivalist meeting. You have to get the audience going. It's largely to do with being in the same, oh I hate this phrase, "headspace." Oh, I said that! I said "headspace." It's better being in the same headspace as the other members of the audience.

Yeah, but what about the spontaneity?
No, the shows are never spontaneous unless you're avant-garde jazz. Otherwise it's all extremely choreographed, whatever it is. Some bands do it really well, so you think it's spontaneous. But they do the same f***ing thing every night! They say the same stuff at the same point in the show. '"We really love you, you're the greatest. You know you're the best audience in the whole tour so far." And they say that at the same point between the same two songs every night. You couldn't see a whole load of gigs in succession--you'd come away in disgust. I liked performing live at one time. I think a lot of performing live is also an age thing. To be really into it, it's good to be in a young band like a gang. And I think that's what a lot of rock 'n' roll bands are: most of them are gangs with guitars. You have people around you, the same age, the same mindset. And you're the sort of age where you want to go see the world, drink it dry, f*** it to the floor, and conquer everything with a lot of noise. And then you get older and you kind of grow away from that and you think, "I've done that, I've tried that and it's not all it's cracked up to be." So I want to do something else. I want to be normal and dull and have a family. I want to try some music that's like that in that direction. I just drifted away from wanting to be in a gang. I think I've gotten that out of my system--five years on the road with the same people.

Can you talk about your stage fright?
Well, that's what was happening. It was not so much stage fright as it was actually panic attacks on stage. On stage I felt so good at one time that it felt completely natural, like walking into a living room. It was just like being in your own home, in your own space. And then you do so much [playing live] that you start to worry about real life: "Why don't I have a real house? I have one room near a yard in a railway station. Why is the record company making millions off me and I've never seen a penny from any live show that I've ever done?" And it starts to gnaw at you, and you start to really begin to hate the traveling prison sentence of being on the road. But you don't want to let the rest of the band down. You say, "No, I'll just do one more show. I'll tough it out for another tour." And then things start to go wrong. You get off stage and you think: "Why is my stomach hurting? Why am I shaking? I never used to shake. Why do I feel sick before the show? Why am I having panic attacks on stage?" And then it gets really serious because then you associate stage with dying. You think, "The next time I go out on stage I'm going to die." It gets like you can't work your limbs to get off your bed to get to the sound check because your body has paralyzed itself with fear. It's that time to stop and re-look at what you're doing when it gets like that. And I thought at one time that I was going to be the classic rock 'n' roll casualty, end up sitting in the garden, dribbling, with a shawl. "Syd Barrett's on the phone. Would you like to get together with Syd? You two can have some hot chocolate together. He's bringing a friend of his called Brian [Wilson] along."

Part II: Exploding Ear Drums, and Wires

In part two of SPINonline's interview with XTC founder Andy Partridge, the twisted pop genius discusses how he emerged from a bitter divorce, a pus-filled ear injury, and a legal wrestling match with his old label to produce his "uncoolest" album to date, the soon to be released Apple Venus Vol. 1.

SPINonline: How do you feel about this new record?
Andy Partridge: I'm really proud of this new record. It's not like what's going on at the moment. Nobody's doing this. Every one's doing guitar, bass, drums, or samples of music.

Have you been sampled?
Yeah we have. A band sampled "Melt the Guns." I think the song was called "Peace on You."

Did you like it?
It wasn't bad actually. I really loved the groove thing.

Did they give you any money?
They may pay a royalty but I don't know what it is because I didn't set the deal up. It's like 10% or something. It probably converts to about 40 cents a year.

Do you think about what other musicians are doing when you're making an album?
You said that you started writing a lot of these songs five years ago, there's been so many musical trends since then. Electronica, ska, swing, etc. No, I exist in a bubble outside of whatever is happening, which is healthy because you don't get trapped and pulled down into the mire of this week's thing. I'm never going to be this week's thing. I'd much rather be selfish and make the music I want to make. If people like it, that's nice. If they don't, then f*** you, you know? I'm just not interested. Life's too short to worry "Ahh... Are they going to like it or not?"

You seem proud that this music is different than what's out there now.
Yeah, it's just that the last five years has been amazingly difficult for me. Like the divorce was really s****y. The whole betrayal thing was really terrible. I went through a lot of illness as well. I lost my hearing to a disease of the inner ear. My eardrum blew out one night, which was the worst pain I've ever known. It was like two o'clock in the morning and I'm banging my head on the wall, and I'm like, "Call a doctor! Something's really wrong!" Then I felt this wet stuff down my neck, which I touched and found out was blood pouring out of my ears. It was blown with pus, I suppose, building up behind the ear drum -- just BOOM! The doctors didn't know if I was going to regain my hearing in my right ear. My hearing came back after six weeks, but before that I thought, "S***, what am I going to do now?" I thought my career ended.

On top of that, we were struggling to get this record contract and we couldn't work as XTC. I co-wrote with a load of people. Anyone that would ring me up and say, "Come write a song with me." I would say, "Sure, I can't work as me so I might as well work as you." So I did a load of that and I was bringing my kids up on my own at the time. But things are looking good. I'm actually saying, "Yeah, back in the ring!" It's not like that, really, it's just I've been through so much sh** in the last five years, it's good to finally have lots of positivity. This record is really positive. It will upset some people a lot -- "God this is like orchestras and, oh it's just so straight" -- but I like that. It's the uncoolest record we've ever made which makes it really cool for me.

XTC's always rubbed people up the wrong way. Putting out these great pop-songs while addressing controversial themes with these pointed, sort of "on the attack" lyrics. Songs like "Making Plans for Nigel," "Respectable Street," and "Dear God."
I know but isn't it a delight to rub people up the wrong way? Who wants an ass-lick career? You want to be stirring the s*** a little bit and making people think. You want to put in sayings that might not work, or might not fit into their idea of what's suppose to work in there.

Do you think you'll ever get banned on the radio again?
Well there's one song ["Your Dictionary"] at the end that's not going to get played because it's filled with cuss words. I wrote the song through the divorce. People say, "Oh, you should release that as a single" But they're never going to play it on the radio because of all the cuss words. And now I feel really bad about it because when my ex-wife gets to hear it, the five percent of humanity between us left is just going to go to f***.

Well here's a suggestion. Why don't you just have that one lyric be "F-C-U-K" instead of "F-*-*-K" and your wife can be a bad speller as well.
"F-C-U-K" that's French Connection UK.

I think you can spell curse words. It's not like saying them. That's what you do when there's children around.
Yeah, but I don't know whether radio will buy that. It's sort of split down the middle. I feel kind of icky about having written it now because I think, well, you know...I'm just glad it was one song, and not the whole album. It's like having dumped some sort of toxic material that's been festering in you. But then because it's on a record. . .

You get to say it a thousand times even though you've only said it once.
Exactly. You know, you just wanted to get rid of it. I didn't want to record it, but then everyone had heard the demo and said, "Wow, what's that one!" And I said, "Oh, it's a song I feel really icky about." "Oh, you really must do that! You really must do that." And then the producer says, "You must record this. It's one of my favorite songs." And he says, "If you don't release it you're stupid." So I gave in.

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[Thanks to Stephanie Takeshita]