GARY STEEL INTERVIEWS XTC’S ANDY PARTRIDGE
“It might be crazy, but I just wondered what XTC stood for…?” – Airdre McEwen, producer, Radio With Pictures.
THE CASSETTE RECORDER cringes with embarrassment. Shock waves subsiding, it hears Andy Partridge, XTC main man, explain that there is a German contraceptive of that name, but that in this case, believe-it-or-not, XTC stands for ECSTACY! Got it?
Minutes before, the boys arrive in our windy weatherina. They are not happy with the climactic Wellington climate, and unbeknownst to them, will suffer several set-backs in the following days, including the theft of one irreplaceable guitar, and an atmosphere-destroying electricity break in their St James Theatre concert on the Sunday evening. One feels insensitive asking them to partake in question-and-answer sessions. Perhaps pleasant chatter… but profound statements amongst hunger/fatigue-induced cheese-cracker nibbling this group were not about to make.
I talk to Andy Partridge. He is immediately quotable, has a lot to say. He says that the band is on a world tour and “we should wind up a few days before Christmas.”
Steel – Why do you work yourselves so hard?
Partridge – We don’t. Other people work us hard. We’re potential pennies in the bank.
S – Do you mind it all?
P – I’m not crazy about touring, and flying. I don’t like my chances of going down.
S – Is America important to the band?
P – It’s not for us. We’re important for America.
XTC have done two US tours; one mini promo visit, and one extensive grueling trawl. They went down well on the East and West Coast, but are virtually unknown down South. Nevertheless, “we have done some of our best gigs in places like Texas… they’re (the people) just crazy, just having a good time.”
S – Is there much point in world conquest?
P – Really, that’s what we’re doing it for. If we were doing this to be unliked, it would be a rather self-destructive process.
S – Many of your British contemporaries seem to have anti-world-success philosophies.
P – I’m sure that’s a gimmick, whether you’re aware of it or not. Everyone is in it for being liked, y’know. Even liked for not being liked, y’know. Like Alice Cooper was at one time, although that was just a big circus thing but, no, we want to be popular. We don’t, er, openly prostitute ourselves just for that purpose, but we hope that the things we do are going to be accepted and even liked. I think everyone needs that. It’s a real human need to be liked, y’know.
Digby Hildreth, sitting in on our conversation, asks if XTC would like to be more popular than Jesus.
P – Ah, I don’t know, give it a few years… We’re more popular than John Lennon though, shock! Horror!
S – Are the world tours an economic necessity then?
P – Economic necessity, no. At the moment we’re being very clever and breaking even. Most people lose money touring and it costs so many thousands to set up tours – equipment, hotels, lights, flights… everything. Bills, doctor’s bills. Just so much money.
S – Do the records bring in all the money, then?
P – We haven’t actually got any money at the moment. We’re still in debt to the record company. Potentially the albums will bring in the money, yeah. I don’t know if I’ll recognise it when it comes through the door. No, we still owe a big debt to Virgin Records in England. We’ve got something like 70,000 pounds left to pay off so it’s not too bad.
Partridge views America with more than a tinge of bitterness.
P – Everybody in America seems to be such a victim. We had quite a good time – it was very crushing. But American TV, American radio, American food, the violence in the air, the… I don’t know, just the closed-upness of…
One good thing about America is Talking Heads, suggests a voice.
P – Yeah, they’re okay. I used to like them a lot more than I do now. I like the first album. Nowadays they sound more like Can. Very much like early Can. I like things that are more song frameworked. I’m a very ‘song’ person. (Proceeds to whistle to ram the point home).
S – How does the band’s concert sound compared with the recordings?
P – Someone listening to the band live will get the general impression 90 percent more, but will miss 10 percent subtleties.
S – Will you be working with Steve Lillywhite again? (He produced Drums & Wires and The Black Sea).
P – The partnership’s more or less (cutting throat motion), y’know. It was a bit difficult doing Black Sea. For what he does, his engineer does most of the sounds for him and he just makes rash decisions. So we’ll probably use just a very good engineer. He’s like a puppet producer.
S – Black Sea is less varied than Drums & Wires.
P – No, but that’s what I like about it. I like it instant. I’ll probably get fed up with it in the long run quickly, but I like it instantly now much quicker than I liked Drums & Wires.
S – ‘Sgt Rock’ is very instant.
P – It has a Davy, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich feel to it. When we did it, I thought it sounded the perfect hybrid between ‘When I’m 64’ and ‘Fame’ by David Bowie. We don’t try and make songs sound like anybody else, but you got to laf when you sit back and go, ‘that sounds a bit’…
S – Your new record’s not doing too badly on the New Zealand charts.
P – I can’t understand why New Zealanders take to us. They’ve just taken to us immediately. It’s really odd that New Zealanders should have a specific music, a taste, pick a group out, put ‘em right on top. I can’t figure out why the rest of the world won’t do it!
Partridge says that “I don’t listen to too many groups really. I don’t listen to too much modern music at all. I get enough out of making my own, so… I buy an album about once a year.” Of his own work, his favourite is XTC’s single from earlier this year, ‘When The Boat Goes Down’. Despite a diff production, he maintains that “Frank Sinatra could have sung it if it had a string arrangement written for him.” Ironically, it sank like the proverbial anchor, even before its launch.
His solo dub album, Takeaway/Lure Of The Salvage, has apparently outsold the group’s efforts in Japan.
S – Are you planning more solo projects?
P – I’ve got some projects in mind, but… time really. I don’t think I’ll do anymore altering of our material because I think it’s already bashed out of all commission now. I don’t think it needs anymore punishment. I quite like acoustic instruments… clarinets, saxophones, violins. I’ve also got an idea about instrumenting the alphabet. Each letter has a different sort of musical property. For example, K is to me the sort of letter you’d see on the side of a Messerschmitt and it should be drawn very precisely with a thin black outline and the music should be very, very precise German military music. And um, B is a very rounded, motherly looking, pally, fatman letter, like it’s going to burst, or bubble. Rather friendly. One of my favourite bits of music of all time used to be the music they did on Sesame Street – there was a piece of really tinny jazz, a great piece of music underneath these letters that they did and I thought wouldn’t it be nice if you got the music inseparable from each single letter.
Another project, in the planning stage for several years and now scotched for the time being because Eno got there first, is an album of “quasi African ‘60s beat music with oddly placed tribal frills to it.”
S – Takeaway had a tribal feeling in parts.
P – Yes and no. Actually bits of 2×45 plank banged on top of Marshall cabinets. There were some very odd instruments on that album. Odd treatments of songs as well. Slowing down tracks and speeding them up. Have you worked out what they are yet? There’s only one you’ll never work out, ‘Commerciality’, because that’s a number that was never finished for White Music, ‘Refrigeration Blues.’
S – Black Sea. Most of the songs are your own.
P – Colin didn’t bring up too many songs. I feel like I’ve sort of propped the album up this time. But maybe next time he’ll feel a bit better about writing more songs. America really did him in.
S – When were the songs written?
P – Only one of the songs came before the tour. Otherwise, all the other songs were done more or less straight away after returning from America. I thought I couldn’t do anything. I came back and didn’t want anything to do with music, groups, travelling. Just wanted to sit indoors, shut the windows, just be quiet, y’know? Not have anything to do with anything. And I thought, ‘well, shit, y’know, they’re expecting another album so I better get the biro out’, and started squeezing some songs out. I thought ‘ah, nothing’s ever going to come out’ and then, all of a sudden BLUUURRG! It all came out and it was great. It was just like ending a musical constipation.
S – Was it just physical exhaustion after the American tour?
P – Mental as well. I really did crack up y’know. I’m not too sure what a nervous breakdown consists of but I’m sure I had one. I was completely out of control of myself… shaking and, I’d just sit there and start crying for no apparent reason, couldn’t work out what was going on, couldn’t remember where I was.
S – In what circumstances did Barry Andrews (former XTC keyboardist) leave the group?
P – I caught wind of Barry leaving. I don’t think the others wanted to tell me. I overheard somebody talking about Barry wanting to leave and I thought ‘well, shit, we better get somebody else’. So I actually rang him, Dave, up from Boston before Barry left, and got his little brother on the phone and said, ‘look, ask Dave if he wants to be in a group’. Dave joined because we knew him not because of what instrument he played. He just happened to play guitar. Now we’ve got a guitar player. If he left – I don’t think he will – we could get a bassoon player.
He says the unit, who are “not totally knit socially, but musically and ideally”, have been together since 1973. Or at least “me and Terry and Colin.”
P – We couldn’t play very well. In fact, we were atrocious. Over-the-top Stooges, New York Dolls, r’n’b. People used to run from the venue screaming, ARRGH! Great, we could clear a heal in seconds. We were terrible. We were called the Helium Kids. We did about one gig a month ‘cause nobody’d book us. We were that awful. That outrageous, that, just OOOOOOH! I used to wear gold fur trousers painfully tight with a penis in studs down one leg and a top and a tigers tail, black stack-heel boots, the top of me head shaved and the rest of it long, big swinging glasses over yer leather jacket with metal doylies hanging out, leopard-skin guitar. (Writers note: don’t ask us what this means). We thought the New York Dolls were it, y’know. The Stooges. Like those two bands were our bible. Like Funhouse and the first Dolls LP were our musical bibles. We couldn’t play too good. We just used to get up there and get very drunk and just do it.
S – Did you have any of your own songs at that stage?
P – We refused to do anybody else’s numbers. ‘Neon Shuffle’ was one of those. We had our ’77 in ’73. Terry used to have a Johnny Thunders hairdo. Colin’s hair was right down to his waist and it used to fall over his face and he was skeletal thin, really painfully thin.
Partridge gets quite animated talking about XTC’s formative stage. He says that after about a year, they got sick of glitter and started wearing denims. Andy had his hair cut to the present length – short!
S – 1975?
P – We used to come onstage in black boiler suits. And, with a synth player, we were almost sounding like the things on White Music. Late ’75, punk came out and we started to be more accepted ‘cos we were just different and it gave the chance for a lot of people to swallow things they wouldn’t have necessarily wanted to even sniff at.
We had a lot of false starts where we always seemed to be doing this kind of music that was very unfashionable. Like, over-the-top pissed-up r’n’b when everybody was listening to the Doobie Brothers. Then really scientific whizzing sounding pop tunes when everybody was doing what everybody was doing – still more Doobie Brothers.
S – Do you think you are more accepted than your contemporaries because your music shows more humour, is more ‘up’?
P – We try and be… as ‘peopley’ as we can be. I find people much more interesting than ‘I am an android’. Emotions. Let them out rather than deny them. Denying emotions is unnatural, and I don’t find unnatural things interesting. We do it very humanly, which is much more interesting than someone who comes onstage and acts like an android, y’know.
Someone mentions the Gang Of Four.
P – They’re not bad actually. They’re reasonably human. But ah… I can think of a lot of examples of people who actually treat it like nothing more than a circus, and get what they deserve. What they get out of it is what they put in. We put in all of our emotions, so it’s very rewarding. I couldn’t be Gary Numan .
• This story originally appeared in Wellington rock magazine IT in December 1980.