"Music is so abused these days": XTC's Andy Partridge opens up about songwriting, painting and developing the "cruel parent gene" toward your own art

Salon talks to the pop icon about the new collection of interviews, "Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC"

Published March 20, 2016 10:00PM (EDT)

Andy Partridge
Andy Partridge

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

From the late '70s and on through the '80s and '90s, Swindon, U.K., pop chameleons XTC produced album after album brimming with indelible pop music. Although the band's early work was very much of the time—albums such as 1979's "Drums & Wires" and 1980's "Black Sea" had new wave's nervy energy, as well as post-punk's forward-glancing approach and playbook-ripping attitude—the band never chased trends: Later LPs such as 1986's beloved "Skylarking" and 1989's psych-pop opus "Oranges & Lemons" incorporated intricate production and arrangements along with lush orchestration. And although XTC might be best-known in the U.S. for the song "Dear God" and the No. 1 Modern Rock hit "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead," the band's entire catalog is scattered with gems: Vocalist Andy Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding traded off crafting tunes that flouted conventions but always embraced a sticky hook or melodic quirk with open arms.

A new book, "Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC" (due March 22 from Jawbone Press), finds Partridge and old pal Todd Bernhardt having in-depth conversations about how 30 songs from the band's extensive catalog came together. (These conversations, which focus on the songs Partridge himself wrote, originated as Myspace blogs, although many have been augmented by newer interviews.) More often than not, the chats feature plenty of witty repartee—Partridge's love of wordplay is well-documented, after all, both in lyrics and previous interviews—and also delve into XTC's intra-group dynamics, as well as band history, studio memories and Partridge's recollections of growing up (and continuing to live) in the small town of Swindon. But "Complicated Game" stands apart from other musical deep dives because it's a rigorous and intriguing look at the creative process itself: If anything, it features plenty of advice on how to coax art into being, and explains how and why XTC's music coalesced like it did—from Partridge's initial inspirations on through the actual tweaking and perfecting of the lyrics, melodies and structure.

"Let me pull up a big pile of raw liver here and sit down," Partridge says after Salon reaches him at home, where he was immersed in hand-painting one of the postcard-size dust jackets covering a sold-out, limited-edition version of "Complicated Game." On this particular day, he's working on a piece inspired by the song "Train Running Low on Soul Coal" that he says features his face depicted as "a bending, impending steam train crashing into the wall. And the little Thomas the Tank Engine face on the front is me kind of going, 'Oh my God!' as if my head's going to smash into the wall."

Partridge has a long-standing affection (and aptitude) for art: For example, he dreamed up and designed XTC's elaborate LP and single sleeves, and has long been a champion of vinyl's artistic qualities. ("Gatefolds, wow—that’s the IMAX of sleeves," he says at one point.) As far as this round of painting goes, he says, "I'm kind of enjoying it. It's a different discipline. I thought at one time my career was going to be as an artist, a visual artist. And then at some point I must’ve seen 'A Hard Day's Night' and 'Help!' and then 'The Monkees' series on the TV, and thought, 'Hey, wait a minute. More girls seem to be attracted to guitars than pencils.' So that was the way. Guitar equals better girl fishing rod than paintbrush or pencil."

Besides discussing his current art hot streak, Partridge chatted about his recent musical endeavors—including writing a song for the upcoming Monkees album and prepping the next release in a series of high-fidelity, surround-sound XTC album reissues, which are remixed by Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson—and the premise and distinctive nature of "Complicated Game."

There were 83 interviews completed from which to choose for "Complicated Game." How did you guys whittle down these to what made the final cut?

Actually, I wasn’t particularly part of that choice. I think this was more Todd [Bernhardt] and Jawbone [Press], the people who put the book together. Personally, I wanted them all to come out. My actual concept was that it be printed on that really thin Bible paper, onionskin paper or something. Do you know what I mean? And I said, “Well, why can’t you print them all?” They said, “No, we can’t print them all, because the book will be too thick.” And I said, “Well, print them all on that kind of Bible paper, and then there you go. You won’t have a thick book.” But no, that met some resistance. We have, what is it, 30-something songs here? And if it sells well, they told me they’ll do another volume with some more interviews.

As you were doing those interviews, what sort of insights did you glean about yourself, both as a person and as a musician?

As I was doing the interviews—you know, you’re pulling stuff out of your memory. I had to refresh my memory by listening to our music, and I don’t particularly listen to my music. Does a dog return to its vomit? Maybe. But I’m not the sort of person that sits here naked in a bath of Jell-O listening to his own music particularly. I find I can only do that if I get really, really drunk, which I tend not to do much these days. If I get really drunk, I’ve forgot I’ve even made the music, and I’ll lay on the floor with headphones and say, “Hey this is great, who’s this?" And then pass out. But I had to listen to it to remind myself of what it was all about, and I found myself thinking generally, “Hey, you know, this is pretty good.” But that’s not what you think when you’re in the eye of the hurricane.

You need the years of perspective and hindsight…

Yeah, and in my case you need a couple of bottles of wine as well.

You and Todd had a really good rapport, which helps. He knows your catalog inside and out.

And we were friends before he came up with the suggestion of doing these interviews, so it was just a continuation of two friends talking on the phone.

That makes sense, because that’s very much how it came off. Which was nice, because sometimes you read books about songwriting, and it's dry. It's like reading a manual to put something together.

A lot of the books about songwriting, it’s not from the creator, it’s somebody’s take on it. And it ain’t genuine guts, unless it’s the songwriter’s guts coming out and saying, “Well, it’s about this, and the reason it’s like that is because of this, and da da da da.” That’s the kind of stuff I like. If I read a book about a songwriter, I want their guts on the table. I don’t want pretense, or [affects sneering, taunting voice] “No, I’m not gonna tell you.” I don’t want that sort of “shucks” kind of thing, I want guts.

It’s a tease then. You feel betrayed—you came in for one thing, and then you're like, "Wait a second. I didn't learn anything."

Yeah, I came in for a Chinese meal, and what? You want to get me to eat an old Greek kebab here with 10-day old meat in it?

"Complicated Game" was really also like a manual on creativity. I liked that you talked about to being precious about your own work, which is something as a writer I'm always keeping in mind.

You can’t be precious about your own work. You have to abandon it. You have to develop the cruel parent gene. You have to kick it out into the snow and say “get.” And point. Your little creation then hobbles off into the world, and hopefully makes something of themselves. But you have to develop that. You can mess with something to a certain extent, and then say, "Well, you know what? Cruel parent's going to have to kick in here." And then you gotta throw it out, just get rid of it. Because if you don’t throw it out, you’ll never be able to move on and make new things.

You need to clear your head.

The attic will be full of junk, and it will weigh down and bust and crush the rest of the house below. I like to try and periodically get rid of everything, if I can.

And you recently asked on Twitter whether you should do another "Fuzzy Warbles" [demos, unreleased songs and rarities] release. So how much do you have laying around?

Oh, sheesh. I don’t know, I've got loads of stuff. Mostly stuff that I’ve written for other people, because I thought, “Well okay, XTC is over now, I guess I can write songs, I'll go on and do this for other people." And I tried doing it for other people, and either [it's] the world of the needy popstar or whatever, when they need songs from you, there's a whole different ego minefield you have to [navigate]. I don’t particularly have an ego minefield when I’m writing my own material—I just write it and there it is. But if I’m writing for someone else, you got to think, “Are they going to sing these words? No, they’re not. They’re known for singing a lot straighter words." Or "No, they’re not going to use those Martian chords, I better get rid of those and just put E, A and B in there. or else they’re going to fight it."

I find writing for other people pretty difficult, because you can’t be yourself. You have to pretend to be something else on tap for them. And then you can bust your guts and write somebody 10 songs and they’ll say, “Ehhh, well, you know, I don’t think I like any of them.” Or you can bust your gut, write somebody 10 songs, and they won’t get the record deal. Or you can bust your gut and write somebody 10 songs, and they’ll do one of them. So there you go: In 3 jobs there, you’ve got 30 songs, and one of them's been recorded. But I hear other songwriters saying that when they’re writing for others, it’s one in 10, if you’re lucky.

That’s a terrible batting average.

It’s awful! But unless they’re going to learn to write their own material, they’ll have to come to someone who can write and say, “Can you help me out?” or whatever the case is. But I find myself with lots of demos of songs written for others that for whatever reason they didn’t get to do. And I’m thinking, “You know what, some of these songs are pretty damn good. Maybe I should do something with them," rather than them just rotting in a computer or on a DAT machine or wherever they’re living.

Would we have heard of some of the people you’ve written for? Are these big artists? New artists?

In the last few months, for example, I’ve written with somebody who had a deal with Jack White’s label, and his name is Willy Moon. He’s a New Zealander that lives in New York, and he came here and we wrote three or four numbers with him in the room, as it were. They were written with him in the room trying to get exactly the kind of vibe he wants. So let’s see whether anything will happen with them. A couple of weeks before that, I was asked, "Did I have any material—or could I write some material—for Blondie?" So I wrote two songs specifically, and I got my daughter [Holly] to sing them, she’s got a really good voice. She was sort of doing a little bit of a Debbie Harry impression for me. But I didn’t hear anything back from the management, I didn’t hear back from [affects exaggerated "Noo Yawk" accent] Tommy. So I guess [affects accent again] Tommy didn’t like them. So do you know anyone that wants to do a couple of ersatz Blondie numbers?

Man, there’s a lot of bands influenced by Blondie these days.

And I was contacted on Twitter by the man who manages the Monkees, Andrew Sandoval. The Monkees are going to make one more album, one last hurrah, and they want to do it in the style of '66, '67 Monkees. [Sandoval] knew I was a fan of the Monkees as a kid, and said would I write something for them? I thought fantastic, so I wrote them a bunch of things, wrote them a few new ones, and sent a couple that I thought they might like. And their first single is going to be one of those songs.

It's "You Bring The Summer," right?

Yeah. So I was channeling my inner Neil Diamond there.  Which is easier to do, really, than my inner Carole King.

It’s all about Twitter. Twitter brings people together.

Well, yeah, kind of. People always say, “Follow me, follow me on Twitter.” “Let’s hook up, let me direct message you.” No, I’m not interested in that. I only do Twitter because it was started by Todd for me, Todd Bernhardt. He said, “Look there’s so many people who would like to hear things from you, can I start a Twitter site? I'll call it @xtcfans.” Then I was just emailing him stuff to put up on Twitter in my name. After a little while, I thought, “No, this is stupid, why don’t I just put it up myself?” So @xtcfans—although I don’t like that name—is actually me. I sort of took it over, because I thought it was weird that there was another person in the way.

It's amazing how many artists do have someone else tweeting for them under their name. I've always thought that was sort of disingenuous.

Yeah it’s a little bit odd, and I didn’t like it. So I thought, "No, I got to take it over. Even though I’m not happy with the name @xtcfans, I’ll take it over." It really is me gibbering like an idiot on there. But there are also fan sites where they just sort of talk about you, I guess.

Creatively, when you are painting, do you have a different mindset as opposed to when you are sitting down to write songs?

Totally. I’ve been doing so much music in the last six months—writing, recording, demoing, blah blah, all that process—and now I’ve gone and made a rod for my own back by saying I’m going to hand-paint 50 dust jackets for a special hardback edition of this book. Which sold out in less than three hours. So now I’ve got my Picasso brain on, and I’m sat here giving myself repetitive strain injury painting 50 different pictures. I’m actually going for song titles, I'm just picking a song title that gives me a nice, strong pictorial image, and I’m trying to get that image down onto a postcard-sized, water-based painting.

As you are making these individual paintings, are you actually listening to the particular song that inspired them?

No, because I’d still have that defensive head on. I just find that I feel a bit icky listening to my own music. It’s like staring in the mirror all the time: All you see is all the faults. You don’t look in the mirror and go, “Wow, that is so beautiful! I think I could do that all day, just stare at myself.” No, you look in the mirror and go “Jesus, that spot’s got bigger" or “Wow, look at that sag. Where did that saggy eye thing come from?” or “There goes your hairline, going back further.” So I don’t do that. I don’t listen to any music I’m involved in very much, because I don’t need to. It’s kind of done, and it’s out there.

I’m actually listening to all sorts of stuff. I got sent some King Crimson, old King Crimson recordings. I never really listened to much King Crimson, and I’m trying a bit of King Crimson out today. Yesterday, I was playing a lot of Miles Davis, the day before—what was I playing the day before? A little bit of Iggy Pop and some William Walton. Very nice—his façade, I really like that. It’s whatever mood I’m in. But I don’t usually play much music in the house, this is unusual. I tend to live in silence.

As a writer, I work at home. And I find myself not listening to music–it's almost like it's distracting. And I love music.

I love music. And I’ve figured out what it is: I think to play music all day long—or hear music all day long—is like being forced to work on one of those perfume counters in a department store. You know, your nose is getting beaten up all day by really strong, distinct smells, and I think after a few days of that, I’d run screaming from the store just to get fresh air. Auggh, get me normality! Give me no stink. Because music's like that: It's pungent, it’s strong, it envelops the senses, it triggers pictures off in my head. It’s very emotional and evocative, and it’s so strong and so pungent, I have to be totally in the mood to hear a little music. I mean, after four days of painting, listening to music, I’ve now got to the point of thinking to do them all in silence, because I’m getting that perfume counter sales-lady effect.

I hear that. And sometimes there are some albums that either I'm looking forward to, or albums I love, and it's almost like you want to save it. It's like saving it for chocolate cake at the end of dinner. You're anticipating it so much, you almost don't want to play it, because it's so beautiful or means so much to you.

Sure, you get that too. I just find that it’s like too much of anything. Because music is so abused these days. You hear it in every shop you go in; you hear it in every taxi; you hear it in every pub; you hear it coming out of every car door, every car window that passes you in the street. It’s in everybody’s house; it’s on every phone while you’re waiting to complain somewhere. It's been demeaningly pulled down, whereas it used to be so much more magical and sensory. Now it’s kind of oral, dirty wallpaper.

Do you have anything else in the pipeline?

Am I working on anything else? Well, I am working on getting together all the stuff for the next 5.1 [surround sound XTC] release, which when Steven Wilson finishes his tour in a couple of weeks' time, will be making more inroads into that. I’m not going to tell you which title it is yet, but it’s going to sound great. He’s doing his usual excellent job of making it sound just like the original, and then better. That’s the criteria. It’s got to sound like the original, but it’s got to sound better. I’m looking around for archived stuff, demos, any other performances to make this forthcoming package a good one. There’s some vinyl releases coming up, so that’s good. What can I tell you that I'm doing? Right now, I’m sort of in painting land, really. I facetiously thought, “Yeah I can knock up five of these a day, easy.” I’m struggling to do one a day, because I’m putting more into it than I considered I would. I want to make them really beautiful and detailed and fine.

Just the detail you can see on the digital picture of "2 Rainbeau Melt" is impressive.

It’s a bit of a fuzzy photo, I just snapped it. But that’s not bad, because that’s only the size of a postcard. I got 50 of these to do, and my eyesight's fucked enough as it is. [Laughs.]

When people read "Complicated Game," what do you want them to take away from it?

I personally love it. If I’m interested in an artist—and it doesn't matter what sort of art they’re doing, whether they’re an author, a filmmaker, a sculptor, a musician, whatever the media—I want to know how they did it. I want to know how the Beatles made that particular recording. I want to know how Miró painted that picture and why the choice of those symbols and what paints he used, and how it happened. If I like a magician, I don’t just look at the trick and say, “Well, that’s good, that’s magic.” No, for me, the real magic is finding out how they did it. Finding out what the process is, what the rocket fuel behind it is that made the explosion that made that picture. To me, that’s the magic, as much or more than the artwork I liked in the first place. It was the artwork that pulls me in—now you gotta show me how this was all done. So if they get an essence of that out of these interviews—if they come to a little bit more light on how it happened, how it worked, why it worked—then that’s the sort of thing that delights me.

People have actually said to me, “You don’t want to talk so much. You’re spoiling it.” This is just the wee tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more to know. I have actually thought of doing an exhaustive thing about the lyrics. The better lyrics I’m really proud of. The early lyrics, I’m not so proud of, but I was learning my craft. But the later, better lyrics I’m very, very proud of. Talk about pulling guts about—[I've] really thought about pulling every line and every phrase, and telling people where I took that from, what it means, what this means to me, what the choice of that word—it could’ve been this word, but I chose that word because it does a certain thing, and explain what that thing is. I don’t know how thick that book would be. If there was a little fuss about putting 30 interviews in a book, god, if I did an exhaustive thing on all the lyrics, it’d be a box set. A small library.

You could almost do it album by album. That would be an interesting way to frame it.

That’s an idea, actually. Although the early ones, it would be less interesting, because I was learning my craft in public. The early songs have more energy and spunk than they do have solidity. They’re not so solid, and not so well-built.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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