Andy Partridge is one of those almost mythological figures of British pop music…but it wasn’t always so. As one of the primary singers and songwriters within the band XTC, Partridge had always tended toward being the face of the group, but he became vaguely infamous in 1982, when – as the legend goes – he had a nervous breakdown onstage in Paris and, not long after, developed a case of stage fright that resulted in the band never touring again. Legends, however, are usually only partially based in truth, and Bullz-Eye had the opportunity to set the record straight…well, a bit straighter, anyway. XTC has been on hiatus for several years now (and whether it’s permanent or not remains to be seen), but Partridge has kept busy not only with several songwriting collaborations but also by releasing collections of demos, both from his solo work and the material he wrote within XTC. The series – called Fuzzy Warbles – has now been collected in The Official Fuzzy Warbles Collector's Album, a set which comes with a bonus ninth disc. Partridge spoke to us about these demos, his reported 24-year-long case of stage fright, the status of XTC, and the folks he’s worked with over the years as a producer, songwriter, and musician, among many other topics. Join us now, then, as we learn a bit more about Andy “Two Sheds” Partridge...
Andy Partridge: Hello?
Bullz-Eye: Yes, may I speak to Andy?
AP: Ah, that would be Will.
BE: That would be.
AP: Okee-dokee, then, I’ll be me if you’ll be you.
BE: I can do that.
AP: All right. Well, I dunno, I could be Saddam Hussein, if you want, just doing a lot of ranting.
BE: I suppose it’d be one of my last chances to talk with you, then, based on recent reports.
BE: Well, I’m very honored to speak with you. I’ve been a fan for many years.
AP: (Sheepishly) Ah, get away with you.
BE: No, I’ve got to be honest.
AP: No, I’d better be careful. I’ve got to leave the room; I don’t want my head to swell this much!
BE: Well, since we’re here to discuss the Fuzzy Warbles collection, I guess we’d best start there.
BE: I should admit that, although I’ve got Volumes 1 and 2, since those came out, I’ve bought a house and had a kid, and that, uh, kind of got in the way of my buying as many CD’s as I wanted.
AP: (Overdramatic exhale of breath) Well, next year’s going to be a great year; you’re going to have to make up for it.
BE: I have every intention of doing so.
AP: Did you see the box?
BE: I did. Well, I received the DVD with the audio-visual presentation of what it looks like.
AP: Oh, right, okay. Well, I love the box, actually. I mean, I’ve got a soft spot for trompe l'oeil things, in this case…trick-of-the-eye type stuff…and I’m really, really pleased. In fact, I think it’s my favorite ever packaging that I’ve been involved with.
BE: Did you come up with the stamp motif yourself?
AP: Yeah, it was a case of where I knew there were going to be a lot of volumes, and it was, like, well, it would be nice if people collected them all. And it was simply a case of, well, what do people collect? And the first thing that came into my mind was stamps. (With mock realization) Oh, yeah! And where do you keep stamps? You keep ‘em in a stamp album. So I was going to do kind of a heavy-looking, embossed Victorian stamp album, but the artist – Andrew Swainson, the man that has to convert all my gibberish into three-dimensional things – said, “Well, wouldn’t it be better if we took the color theme that we’ve been using on the stamps, which is much brighter, and we did something more modern?” And I said, “Well, I mean, modern stamp albums really don’t have it for me. Maybe the kind of stamp album when I was a kid and collecting stamps? Like an atomic-looking 1950s stamp album?” So that’s what we went for, and…I dunno, I was pleased as punch with the results.
BE: What led you to start going through the cupboards and pulling out the tracks for the collections in the first place?
AP: It’s such a simple thing, but…bootleggers. I hate them. Y’know? In terms of money, I never made much money out of this career of mine. In monetary terms, I’m a bum. In credentials and critique terms, I’m Bill Gates…but you can’t spend those ‘round the store, getting vegetables. I’m as rich as I could want to be with good critique and love and people saying nice things about the music, but it just hasn’t sold phenomenally well, and where it has sold, we’ve had such bad deals in the past that we’ve virtually seen no money. So anybody who’s gonna rob off of me, i.e. bootleggers, I’m gonna sort it out. It was just a case of, if anybody’s gonna bootleg me, I can do it so much better than they can. It’s my reflection. It’s gonna look great on me. They’re not going to be able to do it as nice. So I was just annoyed with people telling me that they’d bought discs of ours on eBay, or they’d bought stuff of ours in a shop that was, like, bootleg stuff. And I thought, well, I can do it so much better than a bootlegger can. I mean, I’m gonna have stuff that they can’t get hold of. I can clean up old recordings, I can remix them a little nicer, I can actually mix stuff that, to be truthful, there was never a mix of in the first place, because they were just dubbed off one at a time for members of the band, or people from the record companies to hear how the songs would go for whatever was the forthcoming album. So it was A) a chance to beat bootleggers, B) a chance to give people the things that they obvious want, in a better quality.
BE: Did you anticipate when you started releasing them that it would be as many as eight volumes?
AP: Well, originally, I thought Colin (Moulding) was going to get involved, but, for several reasons, he declined to be involved. One of those reasons is that…I don’t know why, but he just doesn’t want people seeing sketches of his songs…or hearing them, rather. He doesn’t want his workings exposed.
BE: I can kind of understand that. A friend of mine doesn’t like watching the gag reels they include on DVDs because she thinks it takes away from the final product.
AP: No! I’m completely the opposite of that, you see! For me, when you go see a magician, you know it’s not magic, so you sit there going, “How the hell is he doing that?” To me, the magic of watching a magician is finding out, working out, or being shown how the trick is done. That, to me, is the great bit. So with people that I’ve idolized or hero-worshiped or really admired in their work, I would love to see how they came up with such and such an idea…how a certain artist got to such and such a painting, or how a certain musician came up with this idea for this song. Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketchbook? Yeah! They’re as great as the finished thing!
BE: So I guess you ate up the Beatles’ Anthology, then.
AP: Yeah! Uh… (Pauses) Not bad, actually. I was a bit sort of annoyed that they made “fake” versions of stuff…y’know, chopping tapes together. I thought, “No…” That did piss me off a bit. I would rather have, y’know, just the pure...the version that went wrong and it broke down and they had to start again. I would rather have that than the chopping together and making fake altera-somethings. But, yeah, if somebody said to me, “Here’s a bunch of Captain Beefheart demos,” or, “Here’s a bunch of sketches that Paul Clays did,” or, “Here’s a rough symphony that Holz never finished,” or whatever…it’s the sort of workings-out that I find magical. It’s how the magic trick is done that I find is magical.
BE: You made the purchasers of the other volumes of the set very happy by offering the box itself separately as well.
AP: Oh, yeah, I’m not into ripping people off. I think we always gave people…actually, to our detriment, financially, I later found out…but we always gave people great value in the past. We’ve given them free albums along with such and such an album, or a free EP with it, or so-and-so book, or two for the price of one, or a double EP for the price of one. Stuff like that. To me, I was just a big packaging whore, and I loved packaging, and I loved different combinations of stuff…really nicely packaged and put-together things. And it was a case of wanting to see that…and me getting excited about it. If I wasn’t excited about it, I couldn’t expect the people at Lifetime Music to get excited about it. So I love all the whole packaging thing, and I wouldn’t want to rip them off.
BE: Some of the songs on Fuzzy Warbles are so well done, they beg the question, why didn’t they make it into official release before this? Did some of them just not fit the XTC mold, or were the written during the post-Virgin/pre-TVT era?
AP: Uh, no, most of them never made it because, dammit, the band was run on pretty much a democratic kind of basis. What would usually happen, you knew you had an album to do, so you’d write and write and write, and right down to the wire – sometimes while you were even making the album – you would be demo-ing material. And then what would happen is that you’d bring it up to the other members of the band, you’d give them all a tape, you’d give the record company a tape, the producer a tape, the audio engineer or whoever was expected to record this stuff. And then, of course, everyone would want to put their five eggs in, so you make a list of all the material you have, and then you’d mark what you’d think would be a good album and the ones that you didn’t think would make it. And what would happen is sometimes that favorites of mine, for example, nobody would pick them. Things I thought were some of the best things I’d ever written, nobody would pick them. Nobody would like them. And then, conversely, stuff I wasn’t particularly proud of, they might all turn around and go, “Wow, that’s great, that’s the single!” And I’m going, “Oh, come off it! There’s much better ones than this!” And they’d be going, “No, we really like that one!” So if a song, for whatever reason…if the other members of the band or the record company – or all of them, sometimes – would say, “No, we don’t like that song.” And I could be foaming away at the mouth, going, “I really want to do this!” But it was no good, because nobody liked it. So there were those rejects. There were even things that I myself might do and then go, “No, that’s not good enough. I’m gonna work on the lyrics to that later. Maybe for the next album, I’ll try and get the lyrics better.” Or try and get the structure better, or I’m not happy with that part of it and I’ll come up with another part. You also get things that kind of never made it just because they weren’t quite shaped right, or they never had quite the right words. But, hell, there’s some stuff on there that I wish we had done!
BE: Some examples…?
AP: “Wonder Annual,” for one. I know the subject matter’s a bit unusual, but I wish we’d done that in the studio. I also wish we’d done “I Don’t Want to Be Here.” “Dame Fortune,” I really would’ve liked to do that one as well. Loads of them. The sadness is, for whatever reason, some of your kids get thrown away, and it’s, like… (Offers a mournful moan) You know, they’re still my kids, for God’s sake!
BE: You know, you’ve done enough songs for projects that are aimed at children, like “Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego?” and the material that was – unfortunately – rejected for “James and the Giant Peach.” Have you…
AP: Yeah, they went for Randy Newman. Randy Alfred E. Newman.
BE: Have you ever considered doing a proper children’s album?
AP: Yeah, I’d love to, actually! I think the trick is finding a subject, or finding a key to let you into something. Like, with “James and the Giant Peach,” I got the phone call from Disney…and I didn’t actually believe it when it first happened; I thought it was some friends of mine messing around…and I got a call from the company that was actually making the film, Henry Selick’s company – he was the stop-frame animator – and they said, “Henry would love you to do the songs.” And they sent me a script…which was by Dennis Potter, actually. The late Dennis Potter. The rather controversial English writer. (Writer’s note: Sting fans may know Potter for having written the film “Brimstone and Treacle.”) I thought, “Wow, this is really dark! This is much darker than Roald Dahl’s initial telling!”
BE: Which is saying something.
AP: And then another script arrived, and they said, “Potter’s off, he’s too dark.” And I thought, “Oh, dammit.” But I was really fired up, because Disney songs…up until about the late ‘60s, a lot of music, a lot of songs in Disney films were really excellent. I mean, the best of Disney’s material, the best of those songs, like “When You Wish upon a Star” or “The Bear Necessities” or “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat”…it’s really infectious, good stuff. Unfortunately, now, Disney makes music in their cartoons and films for the adults who take the kids, which is really wrong; whereas they used to make it for the kids at one point, now they make it for the parents who have paid for the kids to get in. After the end of the ‘60s, I think most of the material ended up sounding sort of like rejects from the musical, “Cats.” D’you know what I mean?
BE: Yeah, absolutely.
AP: Really slushy kind of…echhhhh! Just a kind of grown-up, middle-aged angst syrup. Ugh. When they did stuff for kids and they got great writers involved, I really liked it, and I was very honored to be asked. I literally wrote four songs for it in a week. Actually, I wrote five songs, but they only wanted the four. And then I spent the best part of a year wrangling with them, and they ended up giving it to Randy Newman, who… (Pauses) It was all really kind of a political situation, where Henry Selick got the child actor he wanted and Henry Selick got the designer he wanted. And Disney wanted Randy Newman, but Henry Selick wanted me. But Disney knew that Randy Newman had done a pretty good job on “Toy Story,” so…that was it.
BE: You’ve been doing a Song of the Week feature on XTC’s MySpace page. Was that your idea, or was it something that was pitched to you?
AP: No, it was Todd, the fellow that runs it. Todd Bernhardt. I like Todd a lot, and he just called up and said, “Well, do you fancy doing a little blog where I’ll ask you about a song every week, and you just give me the stuff that comes off the top of your head?” I’ve done about four or five so far; I think he’s put two of them up so far, with another one going up this weekend. People seem to be fascinated with them. I had a peek yesterday on the site, and people seem to be enjoying reading them, so, yeah, we’ll work through the whole catalog, I guess.
BE: As long as we’re on the topic of online stuff, “Where Did the Ordinary People Go” got the music downloading community excited when it showed up on iTunes. Whose idea was it to make it just a download?
AP: Do you know, I can’t remember? Um…it was a song of Colin’s that we never, ever did…one of his Fuzzy Warbles, as it were. I don’t think Dave (Gregory) and I particularly thought it was that strong, so it never got the proper band treatment. I cannot remember why that just went onto being a download. It was, like, there’s no home for it, or something…although there’s a set of vinyl things coming out a little later in the year, or January, which it makes it physically onto vinyl at that point. But at point, we just didn’t want it to slip between the cracks, y’know, so it was, “Release it any way we can.”
BE: I actually spoke to Robyn Hitchcock a month or so ago…
AP: (Immediately perks up) Oh, yeah?
BE: …and we chatted a bit about the two of you collaborating, the first result of which, I guess, was “’Cause It’s Love (Saint Parallelogram),” which turned up on his new album (Olé! Tarantula).
AP: Actually, we have about half a dozen things…
BE: Well, he seemed optimistic that there would be more to come.
AP: Yeah, I would like…love to do more! What happened was that I busted a tendon in my ring finger, my left ring finger, and I couldn’t play the guitar for about six months. And that really messed me up. And then, after that, I had an accident in the studio where a very stupid engineer deafened me…
AP: …and I do have very bad tinnitus now, as a result of that. So I’ve had a pretty bad year for accidents. But up until that point with the finger, we were doing these songwriting things, and it was going great, and I liked him. He was very sparky, and I found I wasn’t racing ahead of him, as I do most people. I find I tend to race ahead of a lot of people, and I think they resent that, but he was there. He was there with me all the time, keeping up…and racing ahead of me some of the time, so that was great for me. So, yeah, when he gets off of tour with the Venus 3, I’d love to just carry on.
BE: He spoke very highly of your shed. (Writer’s note: Partridge has a shed full of equipment in his backyard, where he does all of his recording.)
AP: (Laughs) Well, I’ve just had all the gear renewed in there, so I’m damned if I know how to work anything in there at the moment. So he’s gonna have to wait; we may have to just capture them on cassette for awhile.
BE: You know, every time I hear the word “shed,” I always think of the Monty Python sketch, Arthur “Two Sheds”…
AP: (Breaks in) …Arthur ”Two Sheds” Jackson! (I do actually have two sheds!)
BE: Oh, my God!
AP: Yeah, I do. One has, like, gardening tools and stuff like that in there, and the other one has the recording gear. So, yes, I am Andy “Two Sheds” Partridge!
BE: Oh, man. That might just have to be the headline of the piece.
BE: Of course, Robyn’s not the first person you’ve collaborated with. You’ve also worked with Cathy Dennis…among other people, of course, but…
AP: Oh, well, the last person I collaborated with, just before Robyn, was Charlotte Hatherly.
BE: Right, from Ash.
AP: From Ash, yes. She’s ex-Ash now; she’s completely on her own, and a couple of days ago, she sent me a burn of her up-and-coming new album, which sounds great! Really, really, very musical. Again, we did about half a dozen things together; she put one of them on this album that’s coming out shortly, and she said she likes the others so much that she’s very tempted to do an EP in a month or two and put a few more of them on that. She was very good. Again, very musical. Yeah, that was a good collaboration.
BE: I’d heard that it was considered…well, at least, it was spoken of…that you might collaborate with Brian Wilson, but I guess that never came to anything. Or, at least, it hasn’t come to anything.
AP: Yeah, his management rang me up…it must’ve been almost a couple of years ago now…and they said, “Brian would like to work with you, would like to write for his upcoming album with you.” And I thought, “Wow! This is…” I had to pinch myself. “Am I dreaming this? Did I dream that I came over and picked up the phone, and that they’re saying this on the phone?” And they said, “He’ll call you when he gets off of tour. He’s touring around at the moment, so he’ll call you in about three weeks time.” So in that time, I spoke with people about Brian Wilson. I said, “Look, is he really crazy? Is he together enough these days?” And I got hear the stories about…what’s his name, from the High Llamas? Sean Hagan. And things didn’t go too good with Sean Hagan supposedly writing with him. I think it never got beyond having some ice cream with him, and Brian not really even grasping what Sean Hagan was doing there. And I felt a bit trepidacious. You know, am I going to be flying all the way to L.A. and him not even remember why I went there? But three weeks pass, then four weeks, then a couple of months, and nobody called me, so I guess he either changed his mind or forgot about it or…who knows.
BE: I’m a big fan of David Yazbek’s work…
AP: Oh, yeah, he’s very good! He’s very underrated. His musical stuff is good, but I really like his albums that he does, too.
BE: Do you still stay in touch with him at all?
AP: Yeah, he calls me about once every six months because he’s stuck for a rhyme. (Affects what is likely a not-very-accurate David Yazbek impression) “I’ve written a song, and I’ve gotten to the end of line one, and it ends with…can you give me a rhyme for the word ‘month’? Oh, and line two ends with ‘orange’!”
BE: (Laughs) Yeah, that sounds like fun.
AP: No, but we speak about every six months. Well, maybe less than that. Every two or three months, maybe.
(Writer’s note: On a whim, we decided to contact Mr. Yazbek – a two-time Tony Award nominee, courtesy of his scores for “The Full Monty” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” – for a response to Andy’s comments. To our pleasant surprise, he wrote us back almost immediately. “Andy's a big cheerleader,” says Yazbek, “and he's always itching for a brain-teaser. I almost never ask him for anything as specific as a particular rhyme. I usually just whine about my work in general and he starts bombarding me with ideas and assignments, etcetera. If I can say it without sounding too wet-rectumed and corny, if I really want inspiration from him, I can just put on any one of his dozens upon dozens of brilliant and classic songs. The guy's been an inspiration since way before I ever met him. Phone calls are just gravy.”)
BE: You’ve done production work with a lot of my favorite artists, too: the Mission U.K., the Lilac Time…
AP: The Mission was difficult.
BE: Was it?
AP: Not successful. I didn’t get on at all with Wayne Hussey, who is the nearest person I’ve ever been to in the studio that I could quite honestly call a cunt.
BE: (Bursts into laughter)
AP: He was really just very difficult on purpose, as if it was some way of achieving alpha-male status by just being an asshole towards me. So I did the one track, and I couldn’t wait to jump ship from that. He was just purposefully difficult. The Lilac Time, that was good. I think I did most of the album All For Love & Love For All, and I got to do a couple of tracks on…I Love My Friends, I think it’s called.
BE: Right, Stephen Duffy’s solo album.
BE: Speaking of difficult in the studio, I know that you’d originally been set to helm the sessions for Blur’s Modern Life is Rubbish.
"I guess it was stage fright. To be honest, it was a case of my life coming undone physically and mentally."AP: Yeah, we actually did three tracks, but they were fighting amongst themselves and falling to pieces, and Graham was having a big problem with drink and drugs. They were smoking far too much dope and getting very paranoid. I thought I did a pretty good job, but, eventually, I didn’t get the gig. And also, if Dave Balfe of Food (Records) ever gets to read this…? Pay me my expenses, you bastard!
BE: (Laughs) Well, I had heard mixed reports…like, I’d heard that the band thought you were too difficult to work with, then I’d heard that the label said that you had insufficient “street cred”…
AP: (Explodes into laughter) Probably! I have no “street cred”! Come on! I’m about as “street cred” as…well, as an extremely un-“street cred” thing! I’ve never had “street cred.” I wouldn’t know what to do with it if someone brought a big skipful of it around! I think the truth of the matter is that I didn’t come up to Dave Balfe’s expectations. I probably quite pleased the band, but Dave Balfe…I remember him having an argument with me that I hadn’t computerized the drums and I hadn’t computerized this, that, or the other. And I said, no, I wanted the band to play, and I wanted them to sound like Blur, not like just a bunch of samples and stuff like this. So I think it was really Dave Balfe why I didn’t get the entire gig.
BE: Well, as far as “street cred” goes, you’ve got a bunch of bands coming out now who – to put it charitably – are sounding a bit like early XTC.
AP: Well, odd that you should mention Blur, because they said to me that they had a few songs that sounded just like ours, and they were actually rehearsing numbers and calling them “The One That Sounds A Bit Like XTC” or “The One That Sounds Like It’s Off English Settlement.” So I think we left a little footprint in Blur.
BE: This last year or two, I’ve seen more mentions of comparisons to early XTC than ever before.
AP: Oh, yeah, you can’t move for ‘em!
BE: Dogs Die in Hot Cars is one that leaps immediately to my mind.
AP: Yeah, well, there’s quite a few in Britain: the Futureheads, some things that Franz Ferdinand do, or…God, I can’t remember the name of them…Maximo Park. Jesus, it’s, like, every week there’s a rash of groups. I kind of feel a bit sorry for them, actually, because they do sound a bit like us at one point in our career – somewhere between 1978 and 1979 – and people say, “Wow, you must really like that group!” No, not particularly, because I’ve actually sort of done that. Been there, done that, thanks. Believe it or not, I kind of invented that style! (Laughs) So it’s tricky for me to get excited when I hear what can be best described as competent tribute bands. But they won’t always sound like that. If these bands hold together, to be fair to them, they’re gonna find their own feet very shortly…or they won’t, and they’ll just fall to pieces!
BE: What do you think about the irony that XTC is perceived as a definitively English band, and yet they weren’t really all that huge in England?
AP: (Sighs) Yeah, well, the prophet never goes down well in his own country, does he? Well, the mountain came to Mohammed, but Mohammed never got to the mountain in England. We couldn’t seem to get arrested. We seem to be okay now, as this kind of elder statesman of the new wave – a benchmark type thing – going on, I guess, but we never really sold many records in England. Not even when we were supposedly really hot in England. I don’t think we ever got an album…I think the highest we ever got an album in the English charts was #5 with English Settlement. But, no, we never sold very well in England. I think they resented us for being as intelligent as we actually were, rather than pretending to be stupid…and, at the same time, because we come from England’s comedy town – Swindon – there was a lot of, “We must be worthless if we come from a town that’s considered stupid and…” Well, you know, shorthand for funny. A joke.
BE: One Ricky Gervais continued with “The Office,” having David Brent make reference to Swindon.
AP: Exactly! So it still carries on! Swindon is England’s comedy town! So coming from Swindon, it’s, “Oh, they can’t be any good. They come from Swindon!” And that really used to annoy me, because it’s not where you come from; it’s about what you do! So, no, generally, we can’t get arrested in England. But the Japanese and the Americans and, strangely, the Italians really seem to like us.
BE: Okay, a couple of inevitable questions. “Dear God”: does it annoy you that you’re probably known more in the U.S. for that one song than you are anything else you’ve ever recorded?
AP: Mmmmm…no, what annoys me about it is that I don’t think I did it very well. It’s just too massive a subject to kind of chop down to three and a half minutes. It’s human belief and systems and requirements of human beliefs, and why humans need to believe this sort of stuff. You could make a 50-disc box set and still not scratch the surface of it, so how the hell are you supposed to put it through the mangler and come out with the essence of it in three and a half minutes? I don’t know. I think I sort of bravely failed, if you know what I mean. But because Americans seem to have invented Christianity…
AP: I mean, let’s face it: White America was kicked off by you taking our crazy, overzealous fundamentalist Puritans in the first place.
BE: I am sorry about that, by the way.
AP: Yeah, well, we had to get rid of them some way! Nobody else was going to have these assholes, so they just had to go start afresh somewhere else. (Affects gruff tone) “Go on, get out!” You know, America’s religious backbone comes from a fundamentalist kind of place…so, yeah, it never bothered people in England and other countries. It only seemed to bother Americans. And why would it bother Americans that you’re just supposing that there may not be a God? But you’re doing it in a paradoxical way by addressing a letter to him, or a conversation to him, saying, “Dear God, I believe you don’t exist.” It’s a paradox. But the only hate mail we got was from Christians. That says a lot, I think.
BE: Okay, and Inevitable Question #2: do you happen to remember the exact moment when you got completely and totally sick of people asking you about your stage fright?
AP: Uh…no, in fact, I’m fine with it. I guess it was stage fright. To be honest, it was a case of my life was coming undone physically and mentally…because I was extremely exhausted and worst of all – and I didn’t know the connotations of this – I was addicted to valium for 13 years. I’d been given valium as a child and kept taking it from the age of 13 to the age of 26…and I suddenly stopped. And I had no concept of withdrawal, and I had no concept of what would happen to you if you stopped taking this stuff, which…your brain becomes dependent on it. And after 13 years of quite high doses, you’re really dependent on it. And it was a mixture of exhaustion, plus I was very malcontented with our management and our record label, and the fact that we weren’t making any money and they were, and yet we were killing ourselves every night. And then you mix this with coming off of valium…I didn’t know there was going to be such awful withdrawal symptoms! I was losing my memory, I was getting bouts of amnesia, I was getting physical problems like pains in my stomach, I was getting weird events like I couldn’t move my legs. And my brain came unwound. I started having panic attacks. Just…everything was going wrong. And it took a long time for me to get sorted out from it. And by the time I was sorted out from that, it was, like, “Well, you know, I don’t really enjoy touring. Why don’t I just do what I enjoy doing?” Which is writing music and making records. And ever since I kind of mentally clicked into that state of mind, I think our records got better, in any case. So that was a good result.
BE: If pressed, can you actually pick your favorite XTC record?
AP: Mmmmm…well, if someone had a gun to my head, I’d say, “Oh, okay, it’s Apple Venus.” But, truthfully, it’s probably a sampler, with selections of cuts from all over. There’s gonna be “Season Cycle,” “The Man Who Sailed around His Soul,” or “Rook,” or “Wrapped in Grey,” or “Chalkhills and Children.” There’s gonna be stuff from all over. “Wheel and the Maypole”…oh, gosh, “Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her, Kiss Her”…you know, you could make a good kind of sampler disc, and it’d have all my favorite stuff on it.
BE: And then I’ll just close with these last couple of questions. You popped up on Shriekback’s last album (2005’s Cormorant), so I guess you and Barry (Andrews, XTC’s original keyboardist) are still mates?
AP: Oddly, he’s moved back to Swindon! Affairs of the heart, and all that. I met him in the street last year, and he said, “Yeah, I’m living back in Swindon now. D’you want to play on an album I’m doing?” I said, “Yeah, sure!” He said, “Well, it’s coming out under the Shriekback name, and if you’ll play guitar on it, I’d really like that.” And I thought, well, great! Because we haven’t spoken too much since he left in…urgh, when did he leave? ’78…? ’79, maybe. Late ’78, early ’79, yeah. We hadn’t really spoken much since then, and it had ended difficult. It’s always sort of like a male divorce or something when a band member splits, or when someone that you’ve gone through extreme things with, when you no longer get on with them. And he just turned up at my house with a laptop with the whole album on it, and I plugged into the laptop, and he said, “Just go! Begin, and I’ll use the bits I like and shape those.” So I did that, and then we began to sort of get together and go out for drinks a bit more. And I said to him, “Something I’ve wanted to do for a long time is a totally improvised record.” And he said, “I’d be up for that.” So we got together, me on guitar, him on keyboards, and a friend of his – Martyn Barker – who I think was in some of the early incarnations of Shriekback. We decided we were just going to go into the studio and play, and not have any preconceptions of things like key or tempo or feel or anything like that. No overdubs. It was all going to be live, just as it came out. And so we did that over this year, before I busted my finger; luckily, we got it finished just before then. We did about eight hours worth of playing and chopped it down to about an hour and twenty-something minutes. And that comes out in January. It’s called Monstrance, and I’m very proud of that, because it’s something I’ve wanted to do for ages: just pure playing, just feeling it and making the right noises, the right sounds. Just a three-way conversation, purely musical. As I say, no overdubs, no preconception of what it was going to be. We just kept the best stuff.
BE: Is he releasing that, or are you releasing it through Ape (Records, Partridge’s label)?
AP: Ape, yeah. It’s gonna be a double-disc on Ape.
BE: And the last question, but one that was also inevitable: what’s the status of XTC? I’ve heard that Colin’s not really into the idea of writing songs these days.
AP: No, I…I’m reluctant to pull the plug, because I never know what’s around the corner. And seeing as I’ve spent thirty…one?...years now, building up the brand name of XTC, I’m reluctant to let it go, although I realize that it would it not quite be XTC if it was just me. Also, I legally can’t use it, because I think everyone else has as much right to the name as I do. But I’m not pulling the plug on it. It’s just that Colin has stopped writing and, actually, stopped having anything to do with music, as far as I can tell. And it’s no exaggeration to tell you that I actually don’t know where he lives these days and don’t have a phone number for him, which is very odd, ‘cause he’s supposed to be my partner in Idea Records.
BE: That is odd.
AP: That’s very strange. He’s kind of disappeared off the planet. I don’t know, he’s just…he wants out of everything. He certainly wants out of being my pal, I think, but…so he’s not working on music, as far as I know. In fact, he told me a few months back that he doesn’t want to write anymore and he’s not really interested in music, per se. So I now have a very odd looking future, where I hadn’t thought about having no kind of co-dependency with other people. So I’ll probably be working on an album under my own name…or under another project name, but it’ll probably just be me…some time in the new year.
BE: Well, I could go on for hours…
AP: Well, you can go on for a little bit more, if you like.
BE: (Fights every instinct to go on, in an attempt to be polite) Well…
AP: Because I was supposed to have two interviews tonight, but I think it’s just you at the moment.
BE: (Decides at this point that it would be more polite to accept the gracious offer, then proceeds to fail to hide complete giddiness) Well, in that case, I do have a couple more, if you don’t mind. Actually, one was less a question than an observation that the Dukes of Stratosphear made the cut for the track listing of Rhino’s Children of Nuggets box set last year.
AP: Yeah, that would’ve been nice if someone would’ve asked us, though!
BE: They didn’t even get in touch with you?
AP: Nope, nothing. I had a phone call, somebody said, “Hey, I was just in a record shop, and there was this box called Children of Nuggets, and you fellas are on it!” I said, “Oh, that’s good. That’s nice.” Rhino were nice enough to send me one, which was good, but it would’ve been nice to have a phone call or an E-mail, saying, “Is it okay if we use these tracks?” or “Is this a good choice?” Or whatever.
BE: That’s really surprising, because given how in-depth the booklets for their sets tend to be, you’d think they would’ve contacted you just to maybe get a quote for the piece.
AP: Yeah, they were nice enough when they did that Monkees thing (the 1998 two-disc Monkees’ Anthology), I did a whole bunch of quotes for their Monkees retrospective, and they put that in the booklet in the Monkees’ box and set me one of those, but…I dunno, somebody missed out somewhere. I had no idea we were on there until, suddenly, we were on there.
BE: I actually had a chance to speak with Mike Nesmith a couple of months ago, too.
AP: Oh, right! What’s he looking like these days?
BE: He’s shaved his beard…all his facial hair, in fact.
AP: So he’s surgically had the (wool) hat removed, I guess.
BE: Yes, apparently so.
AP: I’ve got to imagine he couldn’t wait to get that bloody thing off of his head when he got home every evening.
BE: He was pleasantly diplomatic about his Monkees days. I wasn’t sure what he’d say, you always hear that he’s kind of negative about that time, but he was pleasant.
AP: Yeah, I’ll tell you, they were huge for me, because I was just at an age where I was really suddenly getting into the whole band/commune thing, and they further compounded that Hard Day’s (Night)/Help thing of, “Hey, there’s four in a group, and they all live in a crazy house!” And they compounded that further…and I thought, well, okay! And, plus, I looked a little bit like Peter Tork at the time. I had a kind of blonde, pudding-basin haircut, and girls were telling me, “You look like Peter Tork!” And it was, like, “Whoa!”
BE: Hey, whatever works for you.
AP: So I connected with the Monkees kind of big.
BE: I don’t know how much awareness you have of the various XTC covers that have come out over the years, but did you by any chance hear Mandy Moore’s take on “Senses Working Overtime” a few years ago?
AP: I did! Actually, I got to see a video last week that I had never seen before – I saw it on a computer somewhere – and, yeah, they really sort of…popped it out, I guess!
BE: Have you heard any other covers of your material that you particularly enjoyed?
AP: Yeah, Sarah McLachlan’s take on “Dear God” was, I thought, better than ours! And Ruben Blah-days, or Blades, or whatever…the late Ruben Blades…did a great version of “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul.” (Writer’s note: fans of Mr. Blades need not panic. Andy apparently got hold of some bad information; Ruben Blades remains among the living…though he has retired from music in favor of serving as the Ministry of Tourism for Panama. We later eased Andy’s mind by telling him this, and he responded, “I stand erected.”) He took it out of 7/8 time and put it back into 4/4, for the Latin thing. But that was very good. That was really kind of “cruising around the hills of Acapulco in a swish, fab, old American car” music. Great version of that. I got to hear an all a cappella version of “Rook”…and I don’t know who the hell did it! In fact, I hunted ‘round on the ‘net, and somebody said, “Oh, there’s a load of ‘Harry Potter’ footage chopped together to ‘Rook.’” And I found it, and, yeah, somebody had gotten “Harry Potter” footage and hacked it together, but the version of “Rook” is all a cappella, with female voices, and it’s really beautiful. But I’ve no idea who did it.
BE: I’ll see if I can hunt around and find out.
AP: Mmm. (Loosely translated, one presumes, as, “You do that.”)
BE: Do you have any other songwriting collaborations in the works?
AP: I was supposed to do one last week, actually, but… (Hesitates) …I kind of…I never turned it down, but…I sort of ducked under the radar. Made excuses. Because I wasn’t particularly enamored with what I heard of this person. I’m not going to tell you who it is…
BE: Fair enough…
AP: …in case I change my mind and accept it! (Giggles) But, yeah, EMI are always offering me stuff to do. I did some stuff with Jamie Cullum last year.
BE: I think I knew that, actually.
AP: Yeah, well, he didn’t record any of the songs, but he’s started playing one of them live…and the one I really thought he should have done, I think it was his ego that (was why) he didn’t do it, because I wrote all the lyrics and did the music as well, so he basically contributed absolutely nothing. But I thought it was the best number that he never recorded, if you know what I mean. It would’ve been the best track on the album…but he didn’t do it, because he didn’t contribute anything to it. But I thought, “Shit, well, it’s still better than the stuff on his record, so he really should’ve done it!” But, yeah, collaboration stuff can sometimes be fun if they’re good, musically…if they’re sharp and they know what they’re doing. But sometimes EMI sends me some real stinkers. I occasionally get these things where you sit with people, and you go, “Okay, give me a chord of G!” And they go, “Uh, what’s that look like, then?” And you’re going, “Oh, no, no, don’t tell me!” So you go, “Okay, make it a C.” “Uhhhh…can you show me what C looks like?” And I think, “Oh, NO! They’ve sent me some sort of troglodyte here!” I do actually think that a lot of this co-write thing is a real scam, and I liken it to some spastic kid who’s always wanted to play football, and they come up with the idea that if they strap him to David Beckham’s leg, he’ll be able to experience scoring a goal in a match…but they don’t seem to realize that David Beckham can’t operate to his full capacity with someone who’s never played football before strapped to his leg. And a lot of this whole co-writes thing is very much like that. How are you expected to write your best when you’re kind of hampered by someone who’s never written? And they insist on having their shit words and their non-musical ideas be part of the song? But the days are gone when bands and artists would just buy a song off the shelf. Because they don’t do that anymore, because they realize that there’s money to be made in the publishing side of things. So they insist that their artist, who’s never written a song in their life, get 50% of any writing credits, and this means being involved…so I really do get some spastics strapped to my leg sometimes!
BE: Okay, well, I think that covers everything on my list. But I did mean to mention earlier, as far as the whole possibility of writing with Brian Wilson that…and you may already know this…but Wendy at Toolshed (the publicity firm handling the Fuzzy Warbles box set) was actually repping the anniversary re-issue of Pet Sounds.
AP: Oh, right?
BE: So she does actually have an “in” with Brian Wilson, should you want her to follow up.
AP: (Thinks for a moment) Well, if she followed up, he’d have to come here. If I don’t have to fly these days, I’d rather not. I don’t think I could be bothered to sit on a boat for six days, and then a train for another three. But, yeah, if Brian wants to come over here…or we’ll do it on the phone…we’ll try it.
BE: Well, it’s been an honor talking to you.
AP: (Laughs) All right, cheers!
BE: Thanks a lot!
AP: Thanks, Will. Bye!