Andy Partridge: The Big Interview
The founding member and former frontman of XTC is still keeping busy with his involvement in XTC’s latest reissues, a collaboration with The Monkees and more
It’s mid-morning when Prog calls Andy Partridge at his home in Swindon. He’s still debating what to have for breakfast, he explains, though it’s instructive to note that he’s already been strumming away on a guitar for the past hour or so. It’s the kind of thing that offers a neat illustration of the songwriters’ lot, more intent on feeding their creativity than their stomach.
This diligent, often painstaking approach to his art has sustained him for some 40 years now, from his time as co-founder, guitarist, singer and primary songwriter of XTC through to a solo career that continues to throw up its fair share of gold. XTC’s arty post-punk, informed by a whole spectrum of colours from The Beatles to Beefheart, only seems to grow more influential with time. Their songs are self-contained worlds of dazzling inventiveness and subtle sophistication, given extra weight by Partridge’s erudite lyrics.
It’s been 10 years since the band split for good, amid a certain amount of antipathy between Partridge and fellow songwriter Colin Moulding, but XTC’s flame continues to burn via an ongoing reissue series of classics like Skylarking, Oranges & Lemons, Nonsuch and English Settlement. This remix project has been overseen by prog’s go-to guy Steven Wilson, an XTC enthusiast since the 80s.
Like many admirers, Wilson has voiced his puzzlement at the fact the band never became household names. Maybe it’s the unclassifiable nature of the songs, or maybe because they quit touring in 1982, just as XTC were finding some commercial traction. Maybe it’s down to their reputation within the industry as being somewhat ‘difficult’.
Whatever the reasons, there’s no denying the sheer quality of their recorded output, from 1978’s White Music to 2000’s studio send-off, Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2). XTC are consummate proof that creative excellence and longevity need not be mutually exclusive.
“I would say that only The Beatles made a similar journey with such consistently brilliant results,” contends Wilson.
Ever one with a unique slant on things, Partridge himself puts it down to the effects of failure: “If XTC only sold 30,000 copies of an album we’d honestly believe that the next one was going to be better. We were always thinking about how we could make the songs greater. Failure is brilliant for that – it’s the best lesson-teacher there is.”
Written in conjunction with Todd Bernhardt, Complicated Game: Inside The Songs Of XTC throws a spotlight on 30 of Partridge’s finest moments with the band, revealing how his best-loved songs – among them Respectable Street, Senses Working Overtime, Dear God and The Disappointed – were written.
2016 has been a busy year for Partridge. Aside from his involvement in the XTC reissues, he’s issued a fresh compendium of his Fuzzy Warbles series (an orphan selection of demos, including songs later recorded by XTC) and has contributed a new tune, You Bring The Summer to Good Times!, the first new Monkees album in two decades. Plenty to go at then…
How did you end up with a song on the new Monkees album?
Beats me! In the 80s, XTC were making Oranges & Lemons in LA, and The Monkees’ archivist and producer Andrew Sandoval asked us for an interview for something or other. He knew they were big for me as a kid. Then he went on to manage what was left of their career. When the three living ones reformed, he contacted me and asked if I’d write some songs for them. I told him: “I hope it’s going to sound like classic ’66/’67 Monkees.” And he said: “Yeah, if we can.” So I wrote him about eight songs in that vein. I’d be happy to write a whole album’s worth for The Monkees because they gave me a lot of joy as a kid.
Moving on to the book, how did Complicated Game: Inside The Songs Of XTC develop?
It started off as a fan thing for Todd a decade or so ago. He said: “Would you agree to do an interview every couple of weeks on a certain song, if I got a MySpace page, and tell me everything you can remember about it?” So he’d prepare questions and I’d go away and relisten to whatever song it was, then he’d ring me up and we’d do these things and put them up on MySpace. And people seemed to like them. When he approached [publisher] Jawbone with the idea of compiling them in a book, they chose 30 songs. I’ve always been interested in how certain people make great art, whether it’s painting or literature or music. So it’s the sort of thing I would like if I was a fan of me. If it sells well, they’ve promised another volume.
How did you whittle it down to 30 songs?
I think the publishers went for stuff that was probably more well-known in the XTC online community. Incidentally, it’s not true some of the shit you read online, about Colin and I parting ways, and when Dave Gregory left the band. I didn’t force these people out. Nobody left XTC that didn’t want to. They left because they wanted to do other things or had other emotional ties. I shouldn’t read the internet about XTC, actually, because there’s a lot of Chinese whispers. There’s a lot of, “Andy must be awful in the studio.” I’m not, I’m mister fucking nice! At least I try to be, because I realise you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.
The book also stresses the importance of allowing yourself permission to make mistakes when it comes to songwriting…
That’s creativity, isn’t it? You have to make a complete and utter tit of yourself. And stop thinking along accepted lines, otherwise you’ll never be able to create. You have to develop your own language.