XTC: Off Strike!

Stomp & Stammer
March 1999
by Jeff Clark

XTC: Off Strike!

If you're flipping through the platters down at the corner store one day and you spy one by a group called The Barbers of Penzance, or Sopwith Caramels, or Solid Gondolas, you might want to snatch it up. Especially if you're a fan of XTC.

"I really love the idea of anonymous music, and I'd like to do more of it," says Andy Partridge, on the other end of a trans-Atlantic telephone conversation, flipping through a notebook full of dodgy band names he's made up and jotted down, such as the ones above. "I keep books and books of band names," he continues, as the sound of turning pages flutters in the background. "I just keep endless lists of bands. Thinking if I ever need something undercover... But I could tell you a few. I definitely want to be in a band that makes a record, and it's credited to the Ten Commandos. I think that's just a great name for a band. And of course there can't be ten of them! Some people have used my names, actually. Lloyd Cole and his band once did a series of gigs as the Maybe Sitters.

"I like the idea of making music that has no history. Like Ruben and the Jets, and Carl and the Passions. You have a clean slate."

Unfortunately perhaps for him, XTC sport a rather extensive and colorful history, from the herky-jerky nervous-wave rock of late-'70s albums White Music and Drums and Wires, through '80s masterpieces Black Sea, Mummer, English Settlement, and Skylarking, up to their last studio album, the keyboard-heavy Nonsuch. But, geez, Nonsuch was 1992. There are a lotta days between there and here. So while XTC enter 1999 with an autumn almanac full of eccentric pop treasures in their tote, in many respects they are operating with a clean slate themselves. Where exactly have they been hibernating for the past seven years, and why? What, besides dreaming up punnish band names, have they been doing? Ever the droll chap, Partridge puts down his coupler and fills us in:

"Well, Nonsuch came out in '92, and we really had no way of making money with our Virgin [Records] deal. We were on the label actually 19 years before we went into the black. I know that's unbelievable. But true. I used to read about The Who, and they were in the red for 11 years. I'd say, 'No, that's impossible.' And I can see it's completely possible... [The label] was making fine amounts of money. It's just the way that the deal was stacked. It was very stacked against us. It was literally signed on the back of a cigarette packet in 1977. And I said to Virgin, 'Look, please make our deal sensible, or let us go so we can go get a sensible deal and make a living at doing this.' And they said no to both of those, so the only thing I could say is, 'We're going on strike. We're withdrawing our labor.'"

The thing is, Virgin didn't cave, not until recently. They just prevented XTC from working as a band for a good five years. "If we'd have farted in the bath, they would've owned it," underscores Partridge. "You know, the only thing we could do was store up songs. And I was doing a lot of co-writing, 'cause there was no ban on that, so I could write with other people, make records with other people, but we couldn't work as XTC. But in that time we stored up a lot of material. They gave in eventually, and said basically, 'Let us agree to put out a boxed set, and you can go.'"

The material written and stored during that time finally sees a release this year (on their newly-formed Idea Records, through a deal with TVT Records) in the form of Apple Venus Vol. One, and Apple Venus Vol. Two. The titular association between the albums suggests a musical bond as well, but Partridge emphasizes that "it's really just a name that means all the stuff that was written in that time." Indeed, the two albums come from entirely different mindsets. As Partridge infers, Vol. Two, currently being recorded in Colin Moulding's garage studio and due for release late this year, will be more of a "head-wall-hit kind of thing. Just much more immediate. There's much more simplistic thinking about the material that's going on it. It's basically guitar, bass and drums. Much more 1999. Vol. One's a little bit more timeless, I think."

Hitting stores presently, Apple Venus Vol. One is an enchanting experience, with most of the songs pristinely painted with strings, brass, woodwind and piano. Amid this dreamy setting sits XTC's already ornate, inventive pop - multi-layered, complex, and impeccably crafted. What will surely be noted as the most accessible tracks, "I'd Like That," "Your Dictionary" and "Greenman," begin with a simple, stripped-down acoustic base, with the orchestral adornments giving the proceedings a truly peaceful vibe. And as for the closing track, the incredibly wistful "The Last Balloon," with its Chet Baker-esque trumpet solo, well no words worthy. The album as a whole is immediately recognizable as XTC, and - yep, I'll say it - the band's finest work since Skylarking. Worth the wait. Definitely.

"We were on the label 19 years
before we went into the black."

"You can sort of see some of Nonsuch going that way, just non-rock 'n' roll textures," Partridge expounds. "And all the stuff that was written immediately after Nonsuch was with that in mind. It was either based on acoustic instruments forming the core, or orchestral arrangements forming the core... Stuff I'd wanted to do for a long time."

Although XTC's songs haven't always had the simplest arrangements, did Partridge find working with strings a formidable challenge?

"I'm very, very primitive. And all the arrangements that I did were very primitive kind of one note things, very simple, and kind of pagan," he laughs. "In fact, an arranger called Mike Batt arranged two songs. He'd be calling me on the phone and playing me bits, and I'd say, 'No, make it more scary in there,' or 'No, it's gotta be more windy there, or foggy there!' You know, 'More geese in that bit!' I could've never done the arrangement for 'I Can't Own Her,' because I don't know how to make strings do that kind of thing. I don't know how to make them sound like the wind blowing up a load of leaves. But he did."

Partridge explains that he secured the band's new record deals (they're now signed to Cooking Vinyl in the UK, for instance) in large part by going door to door and playing demos of the new material for label heads. "And we found that the most interest came from the sort of younger, hungrier labels, and by the time we'd whittled through, TVT really looked like the best option [in the US]. But it was a strange time, because you do have a background, and you're not walking into these places cold, and some of these people were so nervous you're playing them demos, they're sort of shaking and stammering, and they're obviously big fans. But then they turn around and offer you a kind of beginner's deal. So you say, 'Well, you know, I'm really gonna hafta think about that.' The funny thing was, as soon as we called ourselves a record label, a lot of these labels started acting differently towards us. Suddenly the offers got a lot better. That's a good bit of advice there, for a band. Form yourself a record company, sign yourself to it, and you'll get a better deal. Then you can rip yourself off!"

The first fruits of the XTC's reintroduction came late last year in the form of Transistor Blast, a four-CD set of live and studio recordings made for the BBC, mostly in the early days of the band. "I think there was kind of an appealing, naive sort of raw energy at one time, and probably Transistor Blast is a good snapshot of that kind of thing," he says. But Partridge himself does not sit around listening to it in the parlour at home. Never one to dwell on prior glories, his position is that "the past really is another country... Nostalgia pisses me off. And people won't let me escape from it. Like, people think I'm besotted with the '60s, which I'm not. It's just that when we did the Dukes of Stratosphear I thought it would be a piece of fun to kind of be in the band that you always wanted to be in when you were a schoolkid. And there are people sending me endless...'60s compilations or '60s videos, and it pisses me off! I'm much more interested in, like, the 1860s. I've no interest in looking back whatsoever. Certainly not artistically."

But obviously, at least some of that is pure bluster, as I then bring up the subject of unreleased recordings in the vault - things that might make it onto that box set that Virgin's threatened to put out - and although Partridge vows he's "not gonna help [Virgin] one jot with it until they pay us all the money they owe us - we audited them, and found thousands and thousands missing," he does express enthusiasm for going through the backlog of the band's demos and releasing them in some form on Idea/TVT.

"There's demos of virtually everything you hear on our albums going back to Mummer. And there's probably about half again songs that were never heard. We've already titled the album - it's gonna be called Fuzzy Warbles. Which is a very apt description of some of these demos, 'cause most of them were done on four-track cassette machines. And it's a great phrase, it's from Clockwork Orange. It's when the main protagonist is trying to pick up a couple young girls in a record store, and he's sort of commenting on the music they're listening to, and saying that 'There you are, listening to your fuzzy warbles.' His phrase for pop music. Trouble is, Colin's actually erased most of his demos. He didn't think of them as having any worth, and what he would do was just use the same cassettes over again to record further ideas down the road. At least I never rubbed mine out. So there's not too many of Colin's left around. But unfortunately there are lots of mine, ha ha!"

Since the early days of XTC, Partridge has, of course, been acknowledged as the band's leader, writing most of the songs (although some of their best loved, like "Life Begins at the Hop," "Generals and Majors," and "Grass," were written by Moulding), doing most of the interviews and generally running the group. But while in the past year Moulding has become, according to Partridge, "more involved...on a sort of physical day-to-day running of band, whereas he was a terrible dreamer at one time, and had no concept of how the group was run," guitarist Dave Gregory, who joined XTC before the recording of '79's Drums and Wires, became increasingly discouraged during the band's extended layoff, and finally left the trio last year. It was not pleasant.

"I keep books and books of band names, if I ever need something undercover... I definitely want to be in a band that makes a record and it's credited to the Ten Commandos."

"Dave's a very angry person," offers Partridge. "He's angry about a lot of things. He's been diabetic since was sixteen, and he has a terrible chip on his shoulder about what life has dished out to him. So he's angry about that, and he's angry that he doesn't write songs and I do, and he has to translate stuff that I write, and he's not a creator, he's an interpreter. He's angry that we did an orchestral record. He didn't wanna do that. He's angry that we signed to TVT, he didn't wanna do that. He's angry that we are not touring, 'cause he wants to go and show everyone his guitar collection and make a noise. And...you can see it happening as this album was going on, he was really being so negative as to be unbearable to work with, and I'm really glad he left, because it did save me. I was planning - painfully - to try and think of a way to fire him. And he may have sensed that, I don't know, but he left, and said, 'I'm off.' And it felt like a thousand tons lifted from my shoulders, I have to say.

"I think all that time off in the fridge did nothing but harm his attitude further," Partridge speculates. "But it was not anything I could help, it was not anything he could help, it was just, you had to sail through it. At least I was writing songs, and being busy bringing the kids up and stuff, but with him, he'd just sit at home in the dark and fret... And, this is not a reason for him leaving, but you know, he's an intensely shy person, and he got himself in a relationship with Aimee Mann, and uh, that ended very quickly, and he was completely crushed by that. So, it was like, poor Dave pokes his nose gently out the door, and along comes this harpy and slices it off! You know, he was like, ludicrously happy for five minutes, and then he was Mr. Brokenhearted for a long time. And obviously Dave thinks I'm the great Satan, because he left in March, and he has not spoken a word to me since. And we used to see each other every few days. So, obviously I'm Mr. Evil in his eyes. Part of me fears for him, just his mental attitude."

Partridge himself says he was "oddly inspired" by the band's hibernation, even though he was going through a painful divorce (listen to "Your Dictionary" for what appears to be a bitter account of the breakup) and endured several mid-life health problems during the past six years, including ear and prostate (ugh!) trouble. "But weirdly, not being able to record, I found that perversely very inspiring," he confesses. "It was kind of like being a kid again, not knowing if you were gonna get a record deal, and make a record. It was actually more inspiring than that! You know, because I didn't know what was gonna happen this time. And by this time I knew I had to write songs, whereas as a kid I didn't really know, I was fumbling along, thinking I was God's gift and then really not being very good. I didn't know when we were gonna get out of this deal, when we were ever going to get to make another album, and in the meantime all these songs were pouring out, and you think, 'Oh my God, is anyone ever going to get to hear this?!' It was a beautiful agony, I have to say."

Does he fear that maybe they've been gone too long - that anyone beyond the most dedicated fans may either figure they disbanded, or forgot about them entirely since Nonsuch?

"In England I honestly think they think we broke up in the early '80s," he laughs. "But as for Americans, I hope they've got some patience and they've hung on. And I hope they like [Apple Venus Vol. One]. It's a grown-up record. It's not gonna be for people who like it straight in your face, 'cause it's a lot more adult than that. But adult needn't mean boring. We'll have to define that with a fluorescent marker there."

Just don't expect XTC to be coming soon to a theater near you to promote either of the Apple Venus albums. While selected TV appearances are planned, as since the early days of the band Partridge refuses to tour. And while his much ballyhooed stage fright presumably is a factor, in talking to him it seems just as likely that he simply doesn't enjoy live concerts, so why force it?

"I kind of get a little tired of being defensive about this," he declares. "Our art is making those records, it's not being live troubadours, live minstrels. It's like anything else, like painting or making a film. You know, those people are allowed to have the end product as their art. You don't ask a filmmaker to go up on stage and show us how you did that shot. 'Show us how you edited those scenes together.' And he's gotta do that for an hour and a half, two hours, under lights, on stage. They never do that. They're quite content to have the finished product be the film. Or, the painting. Whatever it is. Why are people not content to have the finished product the record?"

As you might predict, Partridge doesn't venture out to see many rock 'n' roll shows. "No, they bore the shit out of me. They really do," he says. "Even supposed good ones, I've sat there thinking, 'This is dull.' Or, 'This isn't as good as the record.' Or, 'Call that a light show?' Or, 'What do you think you're doing, dressed like that?' I just get very, very critical, and get very, very bored. But I don't get that same feeling off of a record. A lot of the live thing, for most bands, is that sort of Nuremberg rally principle. They're all sexed up on each other, not who's on stage. It's the same sensation whether you're a wrestling match or a rock gig or a religious thing, or a presidential election rally. You know what I mean? It's this mass hysteria audience thing."

But for those of us who can somehow enjoy XTC without such spectacle, Partridge promises that this year's rebirth is only the beginning. Hey, you just might see a record by the Ten Commandos one of these days.

"I love making records!" he gleefully exclaims, with the same enthusiasm as his songs express. "I love making music! I can't stop - it's an illness now."

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[Thanks to Andisheh Nouraee]