Chicago Tribune
Sunday, May 3, 1992
By Greg Kot
Rock Critic - Chicago Tribune

Pop group XTC succeeds by doing only what it wants

Imagine how a deer reacts when caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck, and you've got the idea of how the members of XTC relate to the record industry.

Every three years or so, the three members of the British pop group -- singer-guitarist Andy Partridge, singer-bassist Colin Moulding and multi-instrumentalist Dave Gregory -- release an album, hold their noses and emerge from the British countryside for the obligatory publicity blitz, then go back to live relatively undisturbed with their families in the town of Swindon.

The band hasn't toured since 1982, has never had a Top 40 single, and yet its critical and commercial success has accelerated. The group's last album, Oranges and Lemons, was the No. 1 college album of 1989, and last week, Geffen Records released Nonsuch with even higher expectations.

The irony of the group succeeding despite its massive indifference to the ways of pop stardom isn't lost on Partridge. A witty and thoughtful conversationalist, he is calling from his home in Swindon, a fact confirmed by occasional gentle reminders to his daughter to "shut the door because daddy's working right now."

"We get loads of pressure to tour again, but we're used to shrugging it off," Partridge says. "Actually, these are bad life lessons we're learning. The more selfish I've been toward the music, the more people like it. It's like 'Naughty boy! Here's your reward!'"

It was Partridge who put the kabosh on further touring after he collapsed on stage in 1982. "Stage fright was the final straw," he says. "It was like the teenager in me finally died that night."

In so doing, XTC joined a small hadful of groups who have become famous for confining their music-making to the studio, including the post-Sgt. Pepper Beatles and Steely Dan.

Like the songwriters in those groups, Partridge became increasingly dissatisfied with the band's inability to duplicate its studio perfection on stage. He dismisses XTC's early albums as the work "of teenagers running around with forks in their head." XTC's first two albums, which created a niche in the emerging new wave scene in England during the late '70s, are "naked baby photos," Partridge says.

Drums and Wires, which introduced the band to America with the single "Making Plans for Nigel," he brushes off as "teenage and spotty," while the near-classic Black Sea "is a bit loud and gaudy."

The singer is more satisfied with the band's six albums since then. "They're more natural and more wonderful. They're more us."

"Us" is a group that enjoys puttering around Swindon, frequenting book stores, spending time with family and creating music. Partridge and Moulding are prolific songwriters and Gregory is the group's ace arranger -- he kills time by creating elaborate replicas of classic rock songs such as "21st Century Schizoid Man" in his home studio.

"One of us will be walking down the street and hear the muttering: 'Why, he doesn't look like a millionaire,'" Partridge says. "Everyone assumes that if they see a video of you on TV, you're supposed to be a millionaire. Other than that, we do a very good job of just forgetting about the business for two or three years at a time."

And then there's the wife and kids to keep inflated pop-star egos in line.

"We'll get this ludicrous fan mail, where people compare you to God, but I've got a house full of critics if any swell-headedness occurs," Partridge says. "My wife will be the first to say if a song isn't very good."

Partridge says the band's relatively reclusive existence doesn't stifle the imagination.

"Swindon is this incredibly dull place, but it's fine for escaping all the insanity of the pop industry. And it enables us to draw colors all over it in our songs. The problem is not where to get ideas, the problem is too many ideas."

For Nonsuch, Partridge and Moulding wrote 32 songs and pared them to 17.

But though Partridge compares the winnowing process to a "very democratic knife fight," he has no trouble singling out a favorite song: "Rook."

"I had this incredible cas of writer's block, something very close to physical constipation for two, three months," he says. "I was desperate to get something out of the way, but I got to the point where I feared nothing would ever come out."

"All of a sudden, in the most depressed state, I started tinkering at the piano, and these chords came out that literally made me cry. These were known chords, but it was sort of like I stubbed my toe on them, and this song just when, 'Blah!' and came rushing out of me."

Later on, Partridge realized, "I was shaking, I could barely get it on tape. 'Why is this song frightening me?' I concluded that in some way or another it was about confronting my mortality, the fear of dying."

He suspects the song is connected to a dream he has "almost every night."

"I dream of flying, and when I awake there's this terrible darkness," he says. "It's like there's this fantastic life and aching darkness in your head all at once."

When he brought the song to Moulding and Gregory to be considered for the album, "I felt like I had just put my testicles on a Formica table and handed baseball bats to these other two guys."

Much to Partridge's relief, Moulding and Gregory were as taken with the song as he was and recorded it virtually unchanged -- not a common occurrence in a band that takes its songwriting very seriously.

"[Colin and I have] made a few tentative stabs at writing together, but I found there's no way on earth that I can describe what's in his heart," Partridge says. "We found ourselves arguing over the choice of one word."

Partridge says XTC found its true calling that night in Paris, when he had to be helped off the stage during the concert.

"All my stupid, crass, college delusions got killed," he says. "That's when I realized I didn't want to be a pop star anymore. Something died in that inferno, but something also was born -- the ambition to be the world's greatest songwriter, better than Lennon and McCartney!"

So, how's he doing in comparison to his heroes?

"Jesus, it's tough at the bottom," Partridge says with a laugh. "It's like one by one I have to kill off these people inside me. I finally got rid of Lennon and McCartney, and then Burt Bacharach is in there grimacing. Then I discovered Thelonious Monk and the wonderful triangular symmetry of Charlie Parker. It's endless. Eventually I'll exorcise them all, until only Danny Kaye is left."

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[Thanks to Rick Rock]