David Veitch talks to Andy Partridge, March 1999

A Chalkhills exclusive.

Calgary Sun entertainment editor David Veitch chatted with XTC's Andy Partridge in a telephone interview on March 2. They talked about XTC's new acoustic/orchestral album, Apple Venus Vol. 1; Andy's evolving relationship with sole remaining bandmate Colin Moulding; writer's block; and lingering resentments over David Gregory's departure last year. Here is the full transcript of the interview.

SUN: You and Colin have been doing a lot of in-stores on your current promo tour. Are you getting the feeling that XTC were really missed over the past seven years?

ANDY: It's very humbling, I have to say. That's one word that really seems to sum a lot of it up. Meeting these people at the in-stores, they are so affectionate, like you're their long-lost uncle or something and they haven't seen you for seven years and they missed what you do and what you bring. Some of the things these people say at these in-stores, when you're meeting them, really cuts straight to the heart and I feel choked up sometimes. And then you have 500 of them telling you this and, by the end of the evening, you're totally, emotionally wrecked. So it is humbling and I don't know what to say to a lot of them. All you can say is thank you and they probably think that comes across as rather banal or something. But some of it is like an affectionate punch in the heart.

SUN: So, absence does make the heart grow fonder.

ANDY: It seems to be. Or absence makes the fart grow longer, as they say. It seems to do that, but this is no cynical plan on our behalf. It's just the way things panned out.

SUN: You said you wanted to get this sort of acoustic/orchestral album out of your system. Does this mean you don't see XTC making another entirely orchestral album, at least in the near future?

ANDY: Not for a couple more records. I've not written it off. When I say getting it out of my system, I just had to do it for the first time and do it totally. But that's not to say it won't be done again. No. The next one will happen to be an all-electric album.

SUN: Apple Venus Vol. 2.

ANDY: Yup. But (an acoustic/orchestral album) is something I've wanted to do in a long time. You can see there are signposts on Nonsuch (XTC's last studio album, in 1992) saying Andy wants to go that way.

SUN: Even as far back as Sacrificial Bonfire, or even Great Fire.

ANDY: You can see we were messing with the stuff over the years, but there were a couple of big pointers on Nonsuch. Songs that could have been on this. Things like Wrapped in Grey, Rook, Bungalow even Omnibus to some extent. It's not your classical rock and roll shape, either.

SUN: Logistics prevented Apple Venus from being a two-CD set as originally intended.

ANDY: Or cash. (laughs) Let's be brutal. Cash prevented it. Cash and the slow, thoroughness -- and I don't mean that slow in a bad way -- but (Apple Venus Vol. 1 producer) Haydn Bendall was very, very thorough. He was a wonderful chap to be with, but he was like he was on Valium. So, you realize very quickly your grand, wide-screen epic will have to be cut down to the standard one-and-a-half-hour movie and maybe Vol. 2 will have the rest of the movie in it.

SUN: But Vol. 1 sounds like a complete work in itself. Are you content with the way things ultimately turned out?

ANDY: Yes and no. You're never content, because if you're content with what you did, you'd probably just say: "Well, that's it then. I can't better that. I'm completely content. I have nothing to climb higher for." There's Shangri-La and you put your guitar down and go put your feet up forevermore. So, no, I'm not content for those reasons because I'm compelled to keep bettering myself in my own head and to keep on slaying the ghosts of the people who put me here in the first place. And then I'm content in one way because these songs have to be born and raised and they have to leave home. Then I don't want anything more to do with them. I don't need to hear them again, unless I get phenomenally drunk in five years time and say: "Hey, I wonder what that album sounded like?" I don't need to hear that stuff ever again.

SUN: Are you sick of Vol. 1 already?

ANDY: Not sick of it, but what artist needs to be constantly reminded of what he's done? It's like you paint an oil painting, you don't want to sit and stare at it two, three hours every day. Or you write a book. How many times are you going to read through the book you've written? It's for other people to shovel that shit. It's for us to be the cart-horse to walk down main street and drop it all, and it's for other people to shovel it up and put it on their roses, see what grows. It's not for us to mess with it.

SUN: The cyclical structure of River of Orchids sounds like a watershed moment for XTC. I'd put Easter Theatre, which I think is one of the most beautiful songs you've written, in the same category.

ANDY: Oh, thank you. The cheque's in the post.

SUN: Were there times during writing and recording Apple Venus when you thought you were entering uncharted territory?

ANDY: Certainly with River of Orchids, which excited me immensely because of that; because it's not like any song structure we've ever done. It doesn't have any ingredients that we normally associate with a pop song. Also the shape of it, it's like a dream of two or three nursery rhymes colliding together. I was immensely excited by that, I make no bones about it. And I would love to find more material of that calibre, but that was such a fluke. That was tripping over the tip of a pyramid in the sand, keep brushing the sand away and what was one inch tall in the sand, you keep working at it and you find you've discovered an entire pyramid that nobody knew existed. It was very much like that for me.

SUN: Fifteen years ago, in your song Train Running Low on Soul Coal, you wrote about the fear your songwriting was drying up. A moment like River of Orchids, where you see all the new possibilities, must be reassuring.

ANDY: It's very thrilling. There were several points in my life where I thought I've dried up and something came along and more often than not -- and this sounds really dopey, but I might as well tell you -- it has made me cry like a baby when these things happen. For example, with Rook, on Nonsuch. I hadn't written anything for months and I thought, "Oh dear, I've dried up. That's it. Halfway through making a record, I've dried up." And then Rook came out of nowhere and scared the pants off of me. I had no idea what it was about but I just cried with a mixture of relief and fright. The relief that I had found a song for which I honestly could stand up and say: "Um, excuse me, sir, but I think this song is quite beautiful and I don't know how I made it," and the relief of, "Oh my goodness, there's another good song in me." To some extent, that was the case with This World Over, certainly the case with River of Orchids. River of Orchids -- I never knew where that came from.

SUN: That Harold Budd uses it to teach cyclical song form is a nice compliment.

ANDY: Sure, he was lecturing in Arizona. He had a post at a university in Arizona and he was using it as an example of modern composing. We hadn't recorded it at that point. He asked if he could use the demo. I said I'd be really honoured. A lot of people came up to him afterward and said: "Who is this? How can I get this?" So, that was nice. It's a feather in your cap.

SUN: I watched Look Look (a collection of XTC videos from 1977-82) recently . . .

ANDY: Woo-hoo!

SUN: I had never seen some of those clips.

ANDY: And I detest all of our videos. I sincerely detest them.

SUN: Yes, General and Majors jumps to the top of my worst video of all time list.

ANDY: Yup, I quite agree.

SUN: But I did get a chuckle when you said, in the early days, all you wanted was fame and a dressing room full of beer. Nowadays, are you most concerned with making albums that, in your heart of hearts, you hope will be as ageless as Rubber Soul, Pet Sounds or West Side Story?

ANDY: I don't think about that. I never think about how this stuff is going to hold up because I remember thinking, as a young kid, that (XTC's 1977 debut album) White Music was like the be-all and end-all. You hear it now and it's so dated. It might as well have been made in the '20s. It's so dated and mannered. I know, to some extent, Apple Venus Vol. 1, in 20, 30 years' time, will sound dated and mannered. So I don't think how this stuff is going to pan out in the future. It's enough thinking just about the next day.

SUN: Life can throw you a curveball, of course. . .

ANDY: It certain has for me, yeah.

SUN: . . . but right now, do you see clear skies ahead for XTC and your personal life? Are you happy?

ANDY: I am for the first time in a long time, but I take that as a danger sign because I perversely seem to thrive under adversity. I seem to get, not a kick, but I seem to feel inspired by not being allowed to make a record legally. I felt perversely inspired by being a cuckolded husband. I naturally felt inspired by falling in love again. Perversely felt inspired by illness and stuff. It's as if fate is trying to prevent you from making a record and you've beaten the fates and they're on the floor panting: "Andy, you win (panting). We threw our worst at you." And so I mustn't be complacent. Because things are looking rosy right now, I'm not going to drop my guard. I was expecting a critical kicking for this album because I know what the English press is like, certainly, and a lot of people have said the world has moved at an incredible pace since 1992 and what you're doing is going to be so out-of-sync that people will think it's a 1,000-year-old Chinese egg. It's just not in-sync with anything.

SUN: XTC was in-sync for, I think, about 18 months in your career, weren't you?

ANDY: I wouldn't give it that much. Eighteen minutes, I think. And we've never been cool but that's a good thing. If anybody ever called us cool, I think that would be the Judas kiss of death because you know you got the final countdown when someone says: They're so cool. That's it. It's over in the next few minutes. I never want to be cool. The whole concept of cool is really stupid. So I'm decidedly anti-cool.

SUN: Will Apple Venus Vol. 2 actually be ready for a fall release?

ANDY: We're starting again. We did roughly bank some of this stuff down, but I don't think we've given it our special attention and I would like to start again in early May to see what we can do. There's a possibility it may be ready (for fall). I would like if we can; it's something to aim for, but I have a terrible feeling there's going to be such a tidal wave of millennial cack coming that, you know, we could get swallowed up. It may sensibly be early in the new year.

SUN: Surely, you must have been a little self-deprecating when you said Vol. 2 will contain all your idiotic songs.

ANDY: Actually, Vol. 2 does contain the most idiotic thing I've ever written. It's three-and-a-half minutes on the same chord, but it is very charming, I warn you. It's called Stupidly Happy. The bass plays one note, the guitar plays one chord, the drums don't deviate. . .

SUN: It's Crosswires!

ANDY: No, it's so banal, it makes Jonathan Richman's Roadrunner sound like a symphony. It's so banal, but it's very appealing and I think musically it sounds exactly like the lyrics.

SUN: It's about (Andy's girlfriend) Erica, right?

ANDY: Yeah, I guess so. I've been through such big ups and downs lately that I'm prepared to let any emotion necessary into any song. And because I felt totally drunk and 14 years old in love, I did feel stupidly happy and the music is very stupid and banal, but charming, I think. So, be warned. It will contain the dumbest song I've ever written.

SUN: I signed up to the Hello Music Club to get your four-track EP in 1994. (Andy laughs). I thought Candymine might actually be the dumbest song you've ever written.

ANDY: That was one of the demos for the bubblegum record (that XTC unsuccessfully pitched to Virgin during the band's "strike." The record would contain "lost" bubblegum classics, all written and performed by XTC under various pseudonyms.)

SUN: Does that idea still appeal to you?

ANDY: No, I think it's been so stuck on the backburner, it's totally crusted-over and rather lichen-covered by now. But I do love the idea of anonymous music and I'd like to make more.

SUN: How many album-worthy songs do you have backlogged? Could you, like Prince, stop writing but still put out three or four records of reasonable quality?

ANDY: Probably, but I wouldn't feel happy. I'd feel somehow, because they've been rejected for some reason, that there would be a little voice of doubt in my head just because they were never quite finished or there was something about the words you like but the music is not as good as the lyrics, or vice versa. I suppose there's enough stuff to do quite a few albums, but I would be filled with doubt about some of it for whatever reason.

SUN: Your bandmates and record company executives have given you their negative feedback in the past. Does Colin now fill that role as an honest appraiser, or at this point, do you just rely completely on your own instincts to tell you what's good, what's not?

ANDY: I rely mostly on my own judgment and I think so does Colin. But it still has the effect on me -- it's an archaic, old effect. If he brings a demo around to me . . . For example, he dropped a cassette around of a song called Frivolous Tonight and just left it with me. He said play it if you get the chance. I was cool about it but, as soon as I shut the door, I ran to the stereo and put this on. After two minutes, I was thinking, "Shit, this is so good. Damn him. Damn his eyes!" You know, when I hear stuff that he brings up, I'm frequently inspired to grab a guitar and say, I gotta beat this! It is a good sense of competition. And I secretly sense it's the same for him. If I give him some demos, he'll hopefully have the same reaction.

SUN: Are there songs of Colin's that make you think: Man, I wish I had written that!

ANDY: Oh yeah. I wish I had written Frivolous Tonight. I wish I had written Bungalow. Any others? (pondering)

SUN: My Bird Performs?

ANDY: Yeah, actually yeah. Certainly Bungalow. It's a toss-up for me between Bungalow and Frivolous Tonight for Colin's best song ever, just in terms of capturing verbally and musically this theatrical or cinematic experience of the song. You're in the play. You're in the film. The costumes are all right, the set's all right, the writing's correct. Those two seem to do it for me.

SUN: You said Dave Gregory's departure made your relationship with Colin seem "fresher." What do you mean by that?

ANDY: We seem to be a little more mutually supportive in some way. It's not a said thing. It just feels like we're now more in cahoots, not to fool the world or anything. We seem to be more mutually supportive and it's kind of oddly a little more brotherly. I hope that lasts. He still knows I can be a little bit of a bully, and I think he can be a little bit of a bass player at times. But we do seem a little more mutually supportive of each other. It's like we're in cahoots to get our art to the world in some way.

SUN: Colin is generally portrayed as a fellow who doesn't have a huge ego, who doesn't have the great desire to make sure he has a certain amount of songs on the record, who's a little more laidback. . .

ANDY: . . . interrupting you there. (sounding annoyed) There was one review recently which said: "There are nine of Andy's songs on the album and two of Colin's (not really my idea of democracy)." I thought what do these people know? If this was a democracy, it'd be a four-track EP. It just happened that I wrote more than Colin and he happened to write less than me. He found the time in the fridge rather crushing. The first thing he wrote while we were holed up was a song called Boarded Up, which I think was his state of mind. Whereas I found it very stimulating. I think the first things I wrote were things like Easter Theatre and River of Orchids and the more joyous stuff. I seem to thrive on adversity and he seemed to be a little crushed by it, I think.

SUN: I assume XTC will remain a duo and not draft a new member to round out the lineup.

ANDY: I have an odd, funny, little fantasy. I don't think it's going to come true. That some way there's a drummer who'll say, "I am THE person for the band," and we'll get along so well with him. We'll play, he'll fit and suddenly we'll become a whole unit again in some way. But I suspect that is a fantasy. At the moment, I'm quite content to just remain being a songwriter and a record maker. I see that as my art and so does Colin. We don't see ourselves necessarily as performers.

SUN: It's interesting your fantasy involves a drummer, not another guitar player. Dave has said he was once a much better guitarist than you, but over the years, you improved to the point where Dave admits you're as good, if not better, than him.

ANDY: This sounds so awful. but I'm not meaning it this way. There's nothing that Dave can play that I can't. I mean, usually . . . (sighs) oh, this sounds terrible. Usually, I would tell him what to play and then he would be given certain areas where he would get a free hand at something. "Say, Dave, I want a certain solo and I'd like it to be a very cascading kind of thing." Or "I want a little four-bar thing in here, I want it to be very languid and flute-like." He would come up with something and I'd say, "Sorry, Dave, this is not really happening." Then he would hit the roof. "Oh, I spent weeks working this out." "Sorry, it's just not right." And some of his best solos have been where I -- because Dave can be a little lazy like that -- said, "No, that's not quite good enough." In a fury, he's gone away and written something that's blown my socks off, in retrospect. A good example of that is the guitar solo in That Wave. The one he had was so safe and so stolid. I said, "Dave, this doesn't sound like someone in the greatest throes of ecstasy, someone totally washed over in love and affection. It sounds rather dull." He was very upset by that. While we were actually mixing the track, we said, "Look, do you think we could try another solo?" He went away and I'm sure in his anger worked up a fantastic solo that was just right. So he would sometimes respond to that kind of thing very well.

SUN: Have you spoken to him since the split?

ANDY: He's never called me. I think he sees me as somehow bizarrely both making his life and destroying it in some way. But it was his choice to leave the group. It was his choice because he didn't like the way we were going.

SUN: In the interviews I've read with him since the split, he has talked about the reasons he quit, but he has also gone out of his way to speak with a great deal of admiration about the new music. Would you like, at some point, to soothe the hard feelings?

ANDY: Yeah, at some time, but not now because I do have a terrible betrayal theme that I can't seem to get away from. This has been a constant theme in my life, people betraying me. I thought Dave was closer to me, but I realize now some of the things he's been saying in print and in some of the ways he's behaved since, that for him it was -- or it seems to be -- purely a job of some sort. He would say things even in the last few years in the band. He would say things that were totally shocking. Like, he'd say: "You know, chaps, I put on the Black Sea album the other day." I'd say, oh yeah. He'd say, "Yes, it's not bad at all. I haven't played it for 15, 16 years because I hated the thing. Hated it." And I'd think, Whoa! Where did that come from? This is a man that never admitted anything like that, and he'd let these bombshells out. You'd be talking about a certain couple of songs, and I'd say I'm really proud of those songs, I'm so glad we got to put those on the album, and he'd say, "No, I didn't like it. I thought it was rubbish. I don't see what you're fussing about. I didn't like it at all." You think, Oh, that's so painful. He was such a secretive individual. He really is the archetypal anally retentive Englishman, I'm afraid. You'd never know what Dave was thinking.

SUN: Maybe some of his recent comments, calling you a genius, are olive branches.

ANDY: Well, maybe you're right. But he won't call me. In the last year, a couple occasions I had a little too much to drink. Not very often, these days. And I felt, Why not? Let me ring him up. The phone had been ringing and I slammed it down. "This is idiotic. What am I going to say to him?" I'm just going to say to him, "Why haven't you called me, you jerk. What have I done to you? My songs bought you a house, my songs bought you your beloved guitar collection, and you won't even f---ing call me." So it's a male divorce, that's what it is.

SUN: I was surprised you said you wanted to write songs for XTC even if XTC ends up being just you. If you and Colin ever divorced . . .

ANDY: The only way I'm going to throw in the towel is if no more songs bubble forth. In some way, I know I've succeeded in killing all the ghosts of the people who have influenced me, or I have dried up before I could achieve that goal and I should be left haunted forever.

SUN: But would you maintain the XTC name even if it was just you?

ANDY: Oh yes, I think it's important. You spend 22 years making your steak sauce and everybody knows it's a certain quality steak sauce -- mmm, maybe I should be aiming higher -- making your Rolls Royce and even though a certain worker isn't in the company anymore, you know there's a guarantee what gets made is hopefully a Rolls Royce. I think that's important. To be banal, brand recognition does mean a lot. And I would think I was somehow being immodest if it was just an Andy Partridge album. I wouldn't like that. I like the idea of being able to modestly hide behind XTC. That affords me a certain anonymity. I know that's a bit of a lie, but there's a certain anonymity in XTC.

SUN: So far, has working with Cooking Vinyl and TVT been the correct decision?

ANDY: Yes. No doubts here. No doubts at all. I have a few doubts about Cooking Vinyl. They've been losing a few staff. Staff have been saying some worrying things about certain people in control of the company. But no doubts at all. TVT have been working my ass off and (my ass) is in fact travelling with me. Whenever I fly, it gets a seat of its own. I'm in one seat; my ass is in the other. I think it's the right decision. We ran out of money and TVT came through and, like the cavalry, sort of saved the day.

SUN: The liner notes to Transistor Blast and Apple Venus are pretty slim. Is this a case of spending money on essentials -- the music -- and not on the luxuries, like the packaging?

ANDY: I didn't want to put lyrics in Apple Venus Vol. 1 because I want people to work and come toward us. I don't want to give them everything on a plate. And I realize there are people on the Internet who are putting this stuff up anyway. Why bother? I wanted people to come toward us a little, I wanted their ears to be put into the music more, which is why we decided no lyrics. Not for any other reason. Not to save paper or anything. Just we want people to come toward us a little more. And I thought the liner notes in Transistor Blast were fairly good. It was the first time Colin and I really got into writing, commenting on the past.

SUN: I was surprised you've softened considerably about your older material.

ANDY: You can't hate yourself forever. I was just a kid. If you read those notes, they really say it all.

SUN: Thank you, Andy.

ANDY: Thank you.

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David Veitch can be reached at d_veitch@yahoo.com