XTC hasn't put out an album of original material in eight years, and it's only released two albums in the past decade and a half. But its herky-jerky post-punk guitar pop is as popular as ever. It's just that other bands are cashing in, including Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs, Hot Hot Heat, and many others. Meanwhile, chief XTC songwriter Andy Partridge remains ensconced at his home in England, where he's remained since retiring from the road in the early '80s. While XTC appears to be finished, the jovially acerbic Partridge remains active, even after injuring his hand and aggravating his tinnitus in 2006. He recently teamed up with former XTC keyboardist Barry Andrews for an improvised album called Monstrance, and a wealth of his home-recorded demos were collected last year for the nine-disc Fuzzy Warbles box set. The A.V. Club checked in with Partridge to talk about songwriting, his cross-dressing musical Western, all the XTC-inspired bands, and his troubled relationship with longtime XTC partner Colin Moulding.
The A.V. Club: How are you doing?
Andy Partridge: I'm not doing great. My mouth has come back to life after some heavy-duty dentistry earlier this afternoon, so I'm not talking like Quasimodo now. But my tinnitus is roaring—Jesus Christ, it's going loud today. I have really appalling tinnitus after a studio accident last year.
AVC: Does the tinnitus come and go?
AP: No. I'm afraid I have it 24 hours a day, screaming feedback. It makes up for all the years I yelled at monitor men on stage. "Get these fucking things working! Stop that whistling!" Somewhere in the ether, there's a heavenly monitor man laughing: "Hee hee, I'll give you feedback 24 hours a day!"
AVC: Does the tinnitus make it hard to play or listen to music?
AP: I tell you, it's really put me off music in a big way, because I find a lot of sounds upsetting now. Where before they were thrilling or beauteous, I just find a lot of them annoying now. I'll stop scraping the violin, it's boring, but I'm going to see a supposed expert on tinnitus in London tomorrow, and hopefully she will say "If you do this, this, and this, it will calm down a bit."
AVC: You weren't able to play guitar for six months because of a hand injury. Were you still writing songs during that time?
AP: Trying to, but it's not easy when you can't play properly. I have cassettes—how's that for duff technology? They still sound better than MP3s. I have loads of cassettes with about 100 bits of song. But I've just been kind of lazy and somewhat diverted from wanting to finish them off. Years ago, there was an interview with Brian Wilson—this was when he was coming out of his very troubled phase—and he said, "I have tapes with 100 pieces of song." And I thought, "God, why doesn't he just finish up a few of them?" And now I find myself in an identical position.
AVC: How often do you write?
AP: I can go a month or so without writing anything, and then I'll go mad and write a bunch of stuff in a week, or just sit down and come up with a half-dozen ideas in an afternoon.
AVC: Does songwriting get easier or tougher with experience?
AP: It's tougher, because you end up dry-retching. You don't have a lot left. I actually think the creative process is finite, and I'm wondering whether I've retched everything up. Because it's like vomiting or shitting. People ask, "Do you listen to your own stuff?" Rarely. What do you want to return to your own vomit for? You got it out to get it out. If I get really, really drunk, on the edge of passing out, I might lie on the floor and put some music on. And just before I pass out, I say, "This is fucking great, they were brilliant, that band. I love this band." Then I'm gone. I can get over the vomity barrier if I get ludicrously drunk.
AVC: What makes you think that you might have retched everything up?
AP: Because from about 15 on, I was retching up song ideas pretty much every day. Now, I sort of feel like, "Have I said everything I need to say, or do I need to look really, really hard for things to say?" It's like the easy-to-say stuff has been retched out. But maybe I'm just resting between courses.
AVC: Have you thought about exploring other musical avenues beyond pop music?
AP: Well, there's an album coming out in two months' time that's all improvised material with myself and Barry Andrews and a drummer called Martyn Barker. We just hired a local studio, looked at each other, and said, "Go." There was no preconception to what was going to come out. There was no talk about keys or anything like that. We just played. Over three days, we made about eight hours worth of things, sort of mutual clay-squeezing. Sometimes a great-looking thing would come out of it, and other times, it looked like a pile of shit. We ended up with about an hour and 20 minutes that we really, really liked. That's called Monstrance. Some people are going to say it's just avant-garde jazz, or "avant got a clue," ha ha ha. Some people will like it. I'm pretty pleased with it. I've always liked the idea of improvised music. Improvised anything. It's what conversation is.
AVC: XTC fans might be surprised by the jazz influence on your music.
AP: It's enormous. It's one of the two big forces pulling me inside out. I've got what you would call novelty music slash psychedelic noises music slash pop music with that stuff on top of it. And in the other corner is the more outside stuff of jazz, from bebop outward. Certainly not inward—trad jazz bores the shit out of me.
AVC: You've said you have an interest in musical theater, including an idea for a cross-dressing musical Western.
AP: [Laughs.] Yeah! It was called Helles Belles. It probably won't ever see the light of day—who the hell wants a cross-dressing musical Western? I already have a tagline for the poster: The Wild West, where men were men and so were the women!" I have the story outlined, but I never took it any further. I guess I got really lazy. But some part of me would love to see it come to fruition. I think the world is ready for a cross-dressing Western. It's the story of Billy Helle, the sheriff in a wretched town. I'm not going to tell you the whole story, because somebody will rip it off, but it's quite a journey of sexual discovery there. And it's all set to song, and there's a great gay mayor in it.
I'd really like to do an opera based on Cortez and Montezuma. I think somebody had a go in the late 1600s, but nobody has touched the story since. And it's such a fantastic story, that Cortez was seen by Montezuma as a god, and Montezuma was seen by Cortez as the passageway to power and riches. And the two men warily used each other. Very interesting relationship. I don't like opera. Therefore, I would want to write something better than the stuff that disgusts me. It's like country music. I don't really like country music, therefore I'd love to write some country songs just to beat out those crying-in-your-beer shit songs they keep mashing out. Actually, you watch the country-music awards that they show on the television over here, and you see country music has reached about 1985. It's all huge processed drum sounds and chiming chorus guitars and programmed synths bobbling along in the background.
AVC: The Fuzzy Warbles box set includes nine discs. How much is still left in your vault?
AP: There's a modicum, but it's probably really poor quality and would only mean anything to me. Unless it's a really Mark Chapman-esque fan, I don't think anyone would be interested in hearing it.
AVC: Why did you release your demos?
AP: Because I hate bootleggers. It was really a "Fuck you, bootleggers." I got sick of people bootlegging my demos. Some of the cheeky bastards would even send them to me, saying they pressed up a thousand of these and would I like one, and all this smarmy stuff—they're stealing from you. So obviously people want this stuff, because they're buying it from bootleggers. I'm going to bootleg myself. I have the best quality stuff.
AVC: In a perfect world without bootleggers, would you rather have kept the demos to yourself?
AP: Well, none of it was intended to be heard other than by other members of XTC or people at a record company or a record producer—at most, a half-dozen people. Really, a lot of this stuff is a dumpster, just stuff that was rejected for whatever reason. There's four songs for James And The Giant Peach that were rejected by Disney because they got it up their ass that they wanted to use Randy Newman, and Randy Newman wasn't being troublesome about royalties, and I was. There's a couple rejects from the Wonderfalls show. It's just a big dumpster.
AVC: What's the status of XTC?
AP: Well, I think XTC is so far in the fridge now. I know Colin isn't interested in music anymore. He called me about three or four months ago to say he wasn't listening to music or buying music and didn't want to write any more music. And not long after that, he actually moved and omitted to tell me where he now lives or what his new phone number is. I could find out through management, but if he doesn't want me to know where he lives, I guess he's trying to run away from his past, and I'm part of his past. So the general is left, but the troops have deserted.
AVC: Would you want to revive XTC if Colin was interested? Or are you ready to move on?
AP: No, I think I could kill him now. I've been married to him since 1972, and I know all the good bits about him, and certainly all the bad bits. I think we reached a creative impasse some time ago. I know the songs he brought up for Wasp Star were kind of also-rans, rejects from another time. I think Colin has written one new song in the last 10 years. So I find myself in a very weird position, because it's the first time since 1969 that I haven't been in a group.
AVC: In recent years, XTC has been really influential, particularly the early punk-era stuff.
AP: I guess where we got to in 1979, most bands from England want to sound like. Certainly people like Franz Ferdinand and Kaiser Chiefs and Maxïmo Park and Dogs Die In Hot Cars and Hot Hot Heat and—Jesus, the list is endless.
AVC: Do you like any of those bands?
AP: Not particularly, because they sound like a place I was in a long time ago, and I'm not interested in it, because I've been there and done that and come away from that place. I'm really interested in bands that sound nothing like anything I do or can do. That's what interests me.
AVC: The A.V. Club recently did a feature weighing the possibility of various bands making the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. We said XTC wouldn't make it. Do you think it will?
AP: I hope not! Hard Rock Café sent a letter asking if they could have one of my guitars. I just said, "Fuck off! Of course not, I bought that, you go buy one." No, we won't make the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. You know why? Because it's down to sales figures, ultimately, and we never sold that many records, because we were too off-the-wall for most people. A lot of people really don't like what we do. I don't think it's anything unusual. I think it's kind of interesting pop music. It's guitar, bass, and drums. It's really pretty damn straight stuff. But for some reason, people think I'm expecting them to eat barbed-wire salad with fetus in it.
AVC: What will your solo record be like?
AP: I have no idea what my solo record is going to come out like. But in a sad, weird, deranged, Brian Wilson kind of way—and I should wear a grubby old dressing gown to say this—I do have 100 pieces of song. And you know, I felt so sorry for him when he said that. I thought, "God, Brian, get it together!" And now I've admitted to you that that's what I've got. Now I'm the crazy guy that stays in bed with tinnitus.