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XTC

interview by Tim Alexander
first published in Artist Magazine, San Francisco


XTC

XTC, the famously quirky British new-wave band, stopped touring in 1982 when singer-songwriter Andy Partridge began suffering panic attacks on stage. In the following interview, we unearth the deep psychological reasons behind Andy's performance anxiety.



Not punks, not top-forty pop, XTC's music, with its innovative jerky rhythms and odd melodic twists, is best described as quirky pop. A reflection of founding-member Andy Partridge's background, perhaps. "I had a strange musical records background," Andy agrees. It's very schizophrenic because I like a lot of very straight pop, like Small Faces, Stones, Kinks; and on the other hand, I like a lot of avant garde things. I had a friend who was older than me, and he used to go to New York and buy these strange records and try to force them on me. At first I couldn't take it, I rebelled; but then I started to listen to them more and more and really got to like it. I found it an easy thing to do. I found I could be like these exploratory players with my rudimentary knowledge. It was a style that I could imitate or grasp easily, and it sort of went back-to-back with the desire to learn things like (The Monkees') 'Last Train to Clarksville.' Where I've arrived now is the product of mixing the very straight with the very exploratory; there's a fine line between the two, although it tends to be getting straighter and straighter because my songwriting is getting better. But I don't think there's anything on a record that's suggestive of how I can play."

With a new record just coming out, critics and fans alike wonder whether this record will be the big breakthrough, and if so, whether the band will ever tour again. In an attempt to answer these burning questions, we talked to Andy, looking for the where and why of it all.

Q: Let's go way back in time to your earliest recollection of a guitar. How did you start and what was your parents' influence on you?

ANDY: My parents, especially my mother, were no influence on me whatsoever. People are supposed to say, "Yeah, my mother was great, she helped me along," and all this, but my mother used to turn off the electricity just to stop me from making that horrible noise. (laughs) People would turn up at the house to play with me—musically—and she'd deny I was in, she'd lie. My mother did everything to stop me from playing the guitar, to de-influence me—attempted to cut my hair off in the middle of the night while I was asleep and stuff like that.

I suppose my father was more influential in my starting to play the guitar. Just out of habit—'cause he used to have one in the Navy—when he came home he'd just stick his guitar behind the settee and I'd think, "Well, here's something I can mess about with." And it was just like a doodle thing. Then in the early '60s with The Beatles and groups in general I thought, "Great, this is really exciting and I'd love to be able to do that." In secondary school, about 13 or 14, during English lessons they used to encourage you to write stories, and one of them was about what you'd be doing, potentially, in the future. I wrote this fanciful thing in as much detail as I'd gathered of the music world, about what it must be like to be a pop performer/guitarist. Strangely enough, it turned out to be quite prophetic. I drew a picture with it as well, where I looked vaguely like Peter Tork, 'cause I was crazy on The Monkees. I had all the clothes, the double-breasted shirt and the hipsters with the belt that you buckled up on the side. I was a really groovy 13-year-old. I used to take the guitar to school and just hold it in front of girls, sort of an early penile substitute. I couldn't actually play; that was secondary.

Q: As it was for a lot of the '60s groups.

ANDY: Yeah, certainly for The Monkees. As it got into the late '60s I thought, "Maybe I should learn to play it." So I started trying to copy records—I was too ignorant to go to lessons and would not let somebody tell me how to do it, so it tended to go really slow. By the early '70s I had gotten reasonable and I started to get in hundreds of groups that rehearsed and never played at all. I mean, the most important thing was to look good and have a great name. I formed a group with a very loose kind of vaguely hippie philosophy where it didn't matter how many members it had; sort of an expansive thing.... And that was called Star Park, in the early '70s. Then I bought my first amplifier. I actually stole my first electric guitar. The start of my rock'n'roll lifestyle! I actually stole it from a youth club, 'cause I'd twang on my dad's acoustic guitar and it didn't sound like the records that I had (laughs), so I went to a youth club and they had a disgusting guitar with a really thick neck, sort of a brick wall with strings. It was bright red and it made the most awful noise, like someone shoving a koto in a blender. So anyway, I snuck this guitar and amplifier home and I had it for some months.

Q: What did your parents think?

ANDY: "Well! He's got a guitar." I told them they gave it to me at the youth club, and this is more or less where the electricity turning off started. Then I got a guilt complex and snuck it back. At this point, Star Park faded and I was in a bar and met Colin (Moulding] and Terry (Chambers]; all of us, stone drunk teenagers. And Colin suggested we all be in a group and be rich and famous, which we all agreed was a great idea. So we used the name Star Park for a couple of weeks till I decided we needed a new, sort of faster and more aggressive image, and I came up with The Helium Kidz. Then we discovered The New York Dolls and decided This Was It.

Q: This was about '73?

ANDY: Yeah. We were crazy on The New York Dolls, The Stooges, Alice Cooper, The Pink Fairies, anything kind of over the top, glam, outrageous. So we went the whole hog. I'm talking gold fur trousers with a tiger skin tail, platform glitter boots five feet high with sandwiches of different colors, a penis-shaped pocket made in studs, lipstick, bouffant (hair], the whole lot. Then we started doing gigs and people would just walk out by the hundreds 'cause we were really awful. We'd just get stone drunk and turn up to ten and just crrrrrrr.....

Q: That's what the New York Dolls did, too.

ANDY: I mean, they were our heroes. Whatever they did was fine by us, although we were too snotty to play cover tunes so we'd write sort of surrogate Doll's tunes. Instead of doing "Jet Boy" I wrote "Jet Shoes," which was in praise of platform-heeled boots. This went on for a while until the glam thing died down and we got lost for an image. So about '75, I decided the thing that I really liked most in pop music from when I was a kid was 3-minute songs that've gotta be fast and fun.XTC - 1977So I cut off all my hair and said to the band, "Look, I think we should have a conglomerate image." About this time we changed our name to XTC, which I thought was great, a little shorthand way of writing "ecstasy," with sharp connotations, fast and fun and euphoric. And I got the band dressed in boiler suits, very baggy with huge Chinese characters drawn all over them. We looked pretty fast, sort of pre-Devo. But we couldn't get many gigs.

We made some demo tapes with a few people coming and going in the band, and then Barry (Andrews) joined at the start of '77. He was with us a week when we did a demo session for CBS.  Then we started to gain some momentum with some gigs in London and people started to say, "I'll listen to them, I'll give them a chance, 'cause they're different, too." So, really, '77 (the punk explosion in England) happened parallel to us and we were given a chance 'cause everything in '77 was different.

Q: What was the scene really like?

ANDY: Violent, but it was show violence. We'd play in places like The Roxy and The Red Cow and there'd be all these big show fights with people acting "show aggression" to us. Being from a little country town, it was really frightening. The early gigs were pretty panicky—and great, sweaty fun. We were brand new to most people, and they were willing to take anything brand new, for the first time in years.

Q: Were you living in London during this period?

ANDY: No, we just used to sleep on people's floors or whatever. We did a gig at the Marquee and we were supposed to be paid five pounds but we never got it, and it cost us something like 10 pounds in petrol to get there to do it. So what we did was steal some equipment from The Marquee. They had a Leslie cabinet and we took it at the end of the night and put it in our van. We couldn't even get it in properly, so we were hanging out of the van with this stolen cabinet and in the morning when we sobered up, we went and snuck it back to The Marquee; our guilt got the better of us. We were creeping around the back of The Marquee while the milkman was leaving 20 bottles of milk, and us depositing this stolen Leslie like we were delivering gear or something at 6:00 o'clock in the morning.

Q: Did you fraternize with any of the other young groups coming up during the upheaval?

ANDY: No, not really. We felt very out on a limb. We didn't come from London, we came from Swindon, which is 18 miles out in the West and it was one of those joke towns. It's like saying "Akron" and the rest of the country laughs. So it was a bit tricky, 'cause most of the people in London belonged to this London clique and we didn't. So we didn't go to parties or hang out. People tended to piss at the way we spoke, so we felt like outsiders. But that still didn't mean that when we played on stage people couldn't connect with us.

Q: Could you tell me a little bit about your freak-out period?

ANDY: Freak-out period! (laughs) I don't like touring and it seemed to be getting on top of me in a big way. I felt pressured by continuous touring. Come English Settlement, I had it in my head that I didn't want to tour. And, I believe since we've come off the road we've done our best stuff. Whether that's coincidental or not, I'm not sure. Anyway, I collapsed in France in the middle of a tour. I hadn't been eating properly, I was getting very phobic about audiences, and I collapsed in pure fright. That really scared me; I'd had a real weird crackup in America on a very long tour in '81 and I thought, "God, it's happening again." I actually got really petrified by the thought of people seeing me. I thought it was gonna be, "Move over Brian (Wilson); give me some of that sandbox."

XTCQ: Was Los Angeles the first gig on the tour?

ANDY: No, it was the second one. We did one the previous night which was sheer hell. It was in San Diego and I was on stage and couldn't remember how to play the guitar properly. I was in terrible pain and my nervous system was just going wild, like somebody had just run a car over me. So I thought, "That's it, I'm going crazy. This must be what happens to other people when you hear they've gone crazy on the road." I figured, "Hell, I don't enjoy doing it in any case, so I'll just implant myself in the studio and concentrate on studio things," which I think I do much better.

Q: Why did Terry Chambers leave?

ANDY: He was basically disgusted with me because I didn't want to tour. Straight back from America I went to a psychiatrist, hypnotist and all this other kind of stuff to try and get me sorted out. Terry went straight to Australia where he had a girlfriend and she got pregnant and had a baby. So he became a dad and they got married. Then we managed to coax him back for Mummer and he did three tracks, "Beating of Hearts," "Wonderland" and "The Toy Song." From there, we started to rehearse to do the rest of the album properly, but he couldn't grasp the songs, his mind was not on it. Finally, he came in one day and we started to play, but he was just so bad that he put his sticks down and said, "Look, I can't do this anymore. I've got to leave." He gave a long list of excuses like, "I don't like the songs. I don't like the way they're going acoustic. I'm fed up with struggling; we've had no financial reward." Terry said he had this new kid and his wife didn't want to live in England. He wanted to tour. He hated being in the studio. Terry liked seeing various bars the world over and getting smashed out of his brain. He was a sort of latent Keith Moon.

Q: Was the song, "Me and the Wind" about Terry leaving?

ANDY: (vehemently) No, no! It's basically about when you finish with somebody there's this enormous hole, and you don't know whether you're glad or sad. You're just left with a hole.

Q: Well, let's talk some more about your guitar work, despite your disclaimer that we've never heard on record how you can really play. What about your guitar lines in "I Remember the Sun"?

ANDY: That's the nearest I've gotten to playing how I play when I'm on my own. I'm thinking of doing more of that 'cause any little snatches that people hear they say, "Didn't know you could play like that," but that is how I play. I have to sort of control myself. The solo in "Train Running Low on Soul Coal" I really enjoyed doing. I felt really exuberant doing it, but it's not always easy for people to accept it.

Q: In the beginning did you say, "I'm not gonna play any real scales; I'm gonna make up my own?"

ANDY: More or less. I was a very snotty youth; I just didn't want to take what other people had done. I was too bigheaded. I used to secretly copy people like Jimi Hendrix, John McLaughlin and Ollie Halsel until I could, hopefully, play them off pat. But then there wasn't much reward 'cause once you'd done it, that was it.

Q: There's not a lot you can do with it unless you're in a McLaughlin cover band.

ANDY: Exactly. I was a big fan of Lifetime, the band with John McLaughlin, Tony Williams and Jack Bruce, sort of a logical extension of bebop—that is, before Jack Bruce got in and spoiled it on the second album. I met Jack Bruce, one of my heroes, in a studio while doing some recording. England had just beat Scotland in a big football match and I saw Jack trying to break into this refrigerator in the lounge, drunk out of his brain, and I didn't know what to say. He looked up at me and I stuttered, "Uh, uh.... Did you see the match?" And he said, "What fuckin' match?" (laughs) Scotland had gotten really badly beat, so it was a very strange meeting with one of my heroes. I also met Ollie Halsel, who was from a group called Patto, who had a great influence on me. He used to do these extraordinary piano and sax runs on guitar that just took me eons to figure out. Patto's two albums turned my head around and did a lot to destroy the reputation of the rock guitarist for me.

There are moments of guitar that I think are unsurpassed on unsung rock records. It's sort of what jazz would be if it stopped being snobby and what rock would be if it stopped being stupid. You'll hear a big footprint left by him in the way I play. You see, most other people's playing bores me. I don't want to bore myself, so I have to think, "What do I want to do with this so I won't go, 'ho hum' after I've played it a few times?" A lot of guitar players are lazy. Their hands do the same things all the time.

Q: Your albums are very challenging to get into; it usually takes about ten listenings just to begin to like them.

ANDY: Well, that's good. You know, I was such a big Beatles fan, and when I'd buy a new album I'd invariably hate it the first time I heard it 'cause it was a mixture of absolute joy and absolute frustration. I couldn't grasp what they'd done, and I'd hate myself for that.

Q: But you'd get a tingle....

ANDY: Right. If it's a good LP, you'll get that tingle that makes you put it on again no matter what your initial reaction was. On the other hand, if you don't get that tingle, you'd better take it straight down to the record exchange.

  

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