Since first appearing on the British scene in the mid-’70s as a founding member of new-wave act XTC, Andy Partridge set about failing his way to the top of the pop charts. While XTC did experience modest success—a U.K. top-10 single (1982’s “Senses Working Overtime”) and a U.S. modern-rock number one (1989’s “The Mayor Of Simpleton”)— Partridge has emerged as an influential figure who has somehow eluded the fame and fortune accorded to lesser peers.
Partridge nevertheless has assembled an enviable body of work. He ceased touring altogether after suffering a breakdown onstage at a 1982 XTC concert in Paris; Partridge’s then-wife had thrown out his supply of Valium, resulting in a debilitating battle with stage fright that would haunt him throughout his career. While XTC has been largely dormant since 2000’s Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2), Partridge remains as busy as ever. He recently released Fuzzy Warbles Collector’s Album (encompassing nine volumes of XTC-era outtakes, demos and radio rarities) and Monstrance (an experimental two-CD set with XTC/Shriekback keyboardist Barry Andrews and drummer Martyn Barker). Both releases appear on Partridge’s own Ape House label.
MAGNET caught up with the 53-year-old Partridge at his home in Swindon, a sleepy southwest suburb of London.
Fuzzy Warbles—all 472 minutes of it—is immensely entertaining, but not nearly as entertaining as going online to witness a huge community of Andy Partridge and XTC fans pick it apart.
Yeah, the bitches can say some hurtful stuff! [Laughs] Some lovely stuff, too. I tell you, the Internet has created “the geek shall inherit the earth.” If I was interested to that extent in a musician, artist or writer, I guess I’d want to pull apart the molecules to find out what made them tick, too.
There are plenty of musicians today who are influenced by your work. How often do you get asked to produce bands?
I got asked regularly to produce people, but I said no to everybody; after a while, people just stopped asking. I got sick of the social-worker aspect of it. I found it had very little to do with music and more to do with being a nanny and making sure the alcoholic guitarist gets to the studio on time, doesn’t fight too much with the singer, who can’t stand the bass player. In the meantime, there’s no music being made. I also think it’s kind of odd that everyone wants to sound like 1979 again. I lived through it, and it just sounds like dress-up: “Let’s play skinny ties, tight trousers, angular guitars and hiccup vocals.” I’m not interested in that; I’ve been through that station on the trip already. I long for young kids to come up with stuff that’s really going to upset me. But nobody does. They all just want a little piece of the corporate cake. I want a band who’ll make their own instruments out of cardboard, then play four-hour songs about urinating. Is it too much to ask for something new, for god’s sake? Take up instruments you don’t hear anymore. Let’s hear four kids playing xylophones through fuzzboxes. It really frustrates me and gets me to the point where I can’t talk about it anymore without my brain knotting up in anger.
Let’s switch topics, then. You’re an avid collector and builder of toy soldiers.
I’m quite obsessed with them. When I was a kid, all my toys were constantly being thrown away because they made the place look messy. I had one of those obsessive-compulsive mothers. “Mum, where did my toys go?” “Oh, I gave them to the kids next door.”
There must be some parallel between the miniaturized perfection of a toy soldier and the almost miniaturized way in which you write songs.
To me, music is more akin to something like architecture; the nearest I can get it to anything in the toy world is a mechanical toy. You get these little surprising and delightful miniature worlds that have an element of joy inside them.
The XTC song I like best—and that has that sense of surprise in it—is (1986’s) “Dear God.”
I agree, and I especially like the idea that it was a paradox. You’re writing a letter to somebody you don’t believe in, but you’re still conversing with them very passionately and trying to find out what sort of individual this non-existent thing is. What their personality is like, why this non-existent entity would be so cruel and stupid. It got me into a lot of shit, that song. The worst hate mail I’ve ever had.
It’s ironic that one of John Lennon’s most beloved songs, “Imagine,” is essentially saying the same things in slightly different language.
Wouldn’t it be great if we all woke up and thought about this religion crap for a bit? No heaven, no hell, only us.
You get hate mail, Lennon gets canonized.
Well, he got the bullets as well; you have to remember that. He deserves the canonization. I’m gonna get caramelized; it’s a much nicer sensation. [Laughs]I think religion is the way very cynical, power-hungry people manipulate the softer, gentler questing side of human beings. If I was going to start a religion, I’d give you very few rules and wouldn’t pretend they came from outer space or were written on the back of golden Formica tables in the bowling alley of foreverness.
I’m sure you’ve had to think about a potential XTC reunion now that you’re on friendly terms with Barry Andrews and (guitarist/keyboardist) Dave Gregory. Would you be willing to make XTC records again?
There are too many things against it, not the least of which is my non-desire to be onstage. But I also just don’t like seeing old pop stars: 99.9 percent of them reach a certain age—30, let’s say—and become shit. I don’t know why that is, but it’s true. Some of it is because they got the success they wanted quickly, then all their drive goes. Or that they never were all that great to begin with and it was all hype. Eventually, people wake up and say, “Hey, this was all hype. They were always crap!”
Or, worst of all, they start writing about the pop life, which is the most egregious, boring way to kill your career.
That’s the worst of the worst. I have to be honest, the only reason XTC had such a long career is through failure. There is no better motivator than failure. You think you’re doing the world’s best music, but no bastard’s buying it. It makes you more righteous and angry: “The next one’s gonna be even better!” So you do that, still nobody buys it, and you hear, “Oh, they come from that stupid town of Swindon. Their trousers are awful, their haircuts dreadful. One of them wears glasses. Ha ha ha ha!” Then you’re like, “OK, this one will be even better!” I’ll tell you, failure was fantastic to us. More bands should try it.
So what kind of crazy, rock-star-life question should I have asked you? Was the groupie sex all it was tarted up to be?
I wasn’t a groupie-sex man. I was very, very well behaved, but Barry Andrews and Colin (Moulding) partook in some pretty heavy-duty stuff. Colin’s a bass player, what do you expect? [Laughs] There was all sorts of talk of girls being accommodating to most of the band, roadies and lighting men all at once. “Oh dear, she’s had her period. It’s all over the walls. Oh dear.”
Or the Led Zeppelin shark story.
Right, although the nearest I could get was my rubber-shark story. That was my notorious way of not being unfaithful when I was on tour.
It was the best blow job I ever had. I bought it at a Woolworth’s in Melbourne, Australia, on tour. I saw this soft, rubber shark about a foot long and thought, “Wow, if I stuck my dick in that, it’d feel really good. I could be faithful and not tempted by all these women now that I’m married.” So I thought, “I’m gonna buy this rubber shark and fuck it.” I bought the shark, and it felt great. You’d get some suction going, a vacuum effect, just terrific. I used to wedge it under a cushion or a chair and fuck this rubber shark. My suitcase was full at the time, so I had to buy an extra box to take it around. I remember going through New Zealand with it and the customs agent asking me, “What’s in the case, mate?” I said, “Well, it’s a rubber shark.” “Wise guy,” then he’d open it up and it’d be a rubber shark. It was great.
Did it have a name, this shark?
Sharky. [Laughs] Although after a while that stopped, because then I’d think of Feargal Sharkey. The last thing—literally—you want to be thinking of when you’re blowing your wad is the lead singer of the Undertones.