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XTC’s Andy Partridge on COVID-19, Valium and 20 Years of ‘Wasp Star (Apple Venus Vol. 2)’

Talking to Partridge is like listening to his music: There’s the madcap exterior and zip, zap and whee! — but underneath it all thrums something darker

Michael Putland/Getty Images

Andy Partridge is having some particularly bad luck lately. He’s pretty sure he had the coronavirus a few months back — plus, due to a rainy winter, his studio door is busted. Now, he can’t record without bothering the neighbors, who are outside a bit more than usual in light of the pandemic — which has effectively stopped work on his new album My Failed Songwriting Career, a collection of rejected songs he wrote for other people.

Talking to Partridge is like listening to his music: There’s the madcap exterior, but underneath it all thrums something darker, something perhaps a bit wicked. In a recent call to discuss the 20th anniversary of XTC’s last album Wasp Star Apple (Venus Volume 2), he whirled through stories ranging from the time he was so zonked after quitting Valium that he forgot his own name to one of the only times he’s ever stolen anything: a bottle of milk from someone’s porch when he was very drunk (haunted, he went back and replaced it weeks later).

Wasp Star contains just as many facets as Partridge’s personality, kicking off with the deceptively chipper “Playground.” Bright, sunshine-injecting guitar riffs peppered with a snappy, satisfying snare drum send us running pell-mell into Partridge’s playground, where sneering bullies wait to fall upon their prey. “You may leave school, but it never leaves you,” Partridge informs us, barely letting that dire warning sink in before another round of rousing guitars ushers us into the appropriately titled “Stupidly Happy.”

From there, it’s a tizzy only interrupted briefly by fellow lead writer/singer Colin Moulding’s more subdued cuts, which let us take a break from our dervishes: “In Another Life,” “Boarded Up” and “Standing in for Joe.” Partridge adds to the morass with the delightfully slow slump of “Wounded Horse,” before frenzying once more into the almost frantic love song “You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful,” closing out with “The Wheel and the Maypole,” a mythical, medieval romp that unravels to reveal its sobering center: that everything ends, everything falls apart — and the human race is no different.”Was I so naive?/Of course it all unweaves,” Partridge muses.

Rolling Stone spoke with Partridge recently about the record, the end of XTC and why school is such a drag.

Wasp Star was my first XTC album. I know people generally don’t regard it as the best XTC album, but it’s my favorite.
Oh, really? You came in the “out” door. It was the one that people generally don’t regard so much. It usually gets voted down. It’s usually in the bottom two. [1978’s] Go 2 and Wasp Star are the two most unloved of the children.

I’m pretty happy with it, though. I had a bit of a downer on it when we first put it out. But that was probably more into personal struggles with [guitarist] Dave [Gregory]. That maybe soured it a little bit; he left before we finished the album up. But, no, I think it’s OK. And I think there’s some good strong songs on it and it’s a good blasting, electric guitar, pop record.

By the time you made this album, the only OG members were you and Colin Moulding. How do you think that affected the way it turned out?
I was a bit cheeky and I actually used quite a lot of [the guitar arrangements Dave did before he left]. Little riffs and runs and things and thinking, “Well, that’s what Dave was going to do anyway.” But we didn’t use Dave on the album because he left. [There] was a bad taste left in the mouth when Dave walked out. So, it was a case of, “Right, just pull these faders down and we’ll redo the things he was going to do anyway, or similar or as good or better.”

But I was very proud of where I got to let rip myself. Like, the solo on “Church of Women,” I was very, very proud of that. Or some of the bits and pieces in other tracks, I’d think, “Wow! Maybe Dave not being around maybe pushed my brain a bit.” I wasn’t thinking “What would Dave have done?” I was thinking, just, “Oh, we need something at that point.”

I heard a lot of these songs were written in the Nineties. Can you tell me a little bit about where they came from and how you updated them for 2000? 
Well, what happened was after we made Nonsuch for Virgin, Virgin really failed to promote it. They actually stifled the single “Wrapped in Grey.” And we weren’t touring live because that was my whole thing. I didn’t want to tour live anymore. I just wanted to write and work in the studio.

Dave Gregory said, “Look, why don’t we do what everyone else does when they don’t like the conditions of the job? Why don’t we go on strike?” And I don’t know whether he said it facetiously or as a joke or whatever. But I thought, “That’s a great idea.” I said, “You’re right! We should go on strike.” And we basically did. And this dragged on for something like five years; they wouldn’t open the cage and let us out. And during that time, we knew we couldn’t record, because we knew if we did they would own it for perpetuity.

But you were still writing. Tell me a bit about how 1999’s Apple Venus Volume One differs from Wasp Star. That came out on your own label via Cooking Vinyl, finally.
I really wanted to work with an orchestra and that’s an expensive fancy. An orchestra, it’s a high-end call girl you’re hiring. We’re talking 30,000 pounds for the day, here. But I wanted to work with those colors and those textures and sounds.

I bought myself a sampler that had lots of orchestral samples in it. It was an emulator sampler device. And I’m no keyboard player. I’m really terrible. It’s a one-finger delight with me on the keyboard. But I was coming up with stuff that, “Yeah, when we get to make an album, this is what we’re going to do.”

And as the years went on, I wrote stuff like “Easter Theatre” and “I Can’t Own Her” and “Harvest Festival.” Basically, most of the stuff on Apple Venus Vol 1. And I kind of got it out of my system.

I thought, “Well, OK. I’m sick of thinking about orchestras now. I want to plug in my electric guitar again and crank it up.”

So you plugged in the guitar for Wasp Star. Why didn’t you release it all as one big album — all the music you wrote over those lost five years?
I thought it was best to not mix up the flavors. Let’s not have beef and ice cream. Let’s have a great beef dish and when that’s done let’s have a great ice cream dish. And Colin went along with that, but Dave didn’t.

Dave was kind of annoyed that, “Oh, why can’t we just pick the best of the material and just make one album?” I said, “Well, it would just come out as Nonsuch 2. It’ll come out part electric part acoustic/orchestral, whatever. And I don’t want to make Nonsuch 2. We’ve done that mishmash before. We’ve got all these orchestral colored songs, let’s group them all together. Let’s make that sort of statement. And then, when that’s done, we’ll have all the electric ones left. We can put those out and that will be the flavor of that disc.”

Why did you stop touring in the Eighties? Seems like it opened up the way you made music going forward — since you didn’t have to think about live arrangements.
I didn’t enjoy being on stage. I did initially. I did when we first started out and we were clamoring for attention. It was kind of thrilling to have an audience just blank you, not know who you were or what you did and then have them all screaming and cheering by the end of the night. That was kind of a thrill.

But when you do five years of that, and you don’t see any money, seriously, no exaggeration, we never saw any money from any of the five years of touring that we did. We knew the money was being made because we could see, “This is a 5,000-seater and tickets are X dollars and it’s sold out and so in the next six nights on the tour or whatever, these type size venues. So that’s duh, duh, duh, duh, yeah, that’s that much money. Where is this going?”

Let’s have a look at this scenario. You’re killing yourself by being worked to death, you are not seeing a penny for your labors and you’re starting to be really dissatisfied. And all those stories you’ve read when you were younger about so-and-so stars getting ripped up, so-and-so stars getting worked to death. It was happening to us, and it was happening to me specifically because I was the sucker they all wanted to talk to in interviews.

And then on top of that, the real cherry on the cake, was the fact that I didn’t know I was addicted to Valium. When I was about 12, 12 turning 13, my mother’s mental problems were getting to such an extent that it was really winding me up, as well. You know, “Aw, poor kid whose mother is crazy, she’s been put in a lunatic asylum. I tell you what, he’s not handling it well. Stick him on Valium, as well.”

And I got put onto Valium at 12. And I was stuck on that. I was addicted without knowing it. I just took handfuls of these every day. And I didn’t get any benefit from it. I didn’t grasp that normality was made by this addiction, if you see what I mean.

You quit Valium kind of suddenly. What effect did that have?
I got married in 1979, and, during a big U.S. tour, my brand-new wife at the time didn’t like seeing me taking Valium every day. I wasn’t taking one; I was taking quite a few. And we were playing in L.A. somewhere, I can’t remember what the gig was. And I went out drinking with some friends after the show, got back to the hotel, and I said, “Hey, where’s my pills?”

And she said, “Well, you aren’t doing those anymore.” I said, “What? What do you mean?” She said, “I took them all and flushed them all down the toilet.” It was like an industrial-sized tub of these things.

And I freaked out, because I thought, “Oh, shit! My crutch is gone! And I’m halfway through a big U.S. tour. Oh my God, what am I going to do?” I was so angry, I really freaked out. It’s the only time in my life I’ve smashed up a hotel room, and I was so ashamed.

When I’d calmed down, I thought, “No, you know, she’s probably right. I don’t need those things. They don’t do anything for me. What do they do? Nothing. I don’t need them. I’m going to be fine. It’s going to be great.”

That can’t have gone well.
My brain started to melt. I’d forget who I was. I’d forget where I was. I remember we were driving through some really heavy snow on the East Coast of the States. It was like upstate New York or something. I said, “Look, I got to piss. You got to stop the bus here.” And I jumped out and wandered out to the middle of this snow-filled field, so I’m up to my knees in snow and I’m looking up at the stars and I’m thinking, “Where am I? What’s my name? What am I doing here? This is weird. Who are those people in that bus over there?”

I defied everyone wanting me to carry on with the tour and I said, “No, fuck you, I’m going home.”  I was just paralyzed, I couldn’t get off the bed to go to the soundchecks or I wouldn’t know who I was while we were driving to the gig.

It took me years to get over the results of that gigantic cold-turkey, 13 years of addiction and then just slam, the train hits the buffers.

I wanted to ask you about some of the songs on the record, specifically “Playground,” because it seems to fit in with what you’re talking about — starting Valium so early, a troubled youth. The song seems pretty applicable to your upbringing. Is that accurate?
Yeah, I was bullied a lot at school because I was the skinny, nerdy kid. My nickname at school, which I hated, was Stick because I was so skinny. I was bullied a lot by the jock types at school. And I think they secretly loved me because I could make them all laugh and I could draw.

I didn’t like the way that I could see society was. As I was getting into my mid-teens, I could see, well, school is one level of bullying, but seemingly when you get out, there’s the same density, the same strata of bullying seems to go on. And you get to see that it’s exactly like school. The bullying and the crazy egos and those in control are just the same as the biggest jock in the school or the toughest teacher.

The thing that really annoys me about school is they don’t teach you anything. The one thing they should teach you, they don’t teach you. Which is to ask questions. In fact, if you question, you are a troublemaker.

I got really political in the last five, 10 years. And my disgust at humanity and politics, generally, has grown enormous. But at the time that I wrote “Playground,” I was seeing that they’re turning out little obedience machines. And you are not to question. You are not to look behind the veil.

There’s another standout that I wanted to ask you about — “Church of Women.” Can you tell me a bit about where that song came from?
I used to have in my hands, pretty much constantly, my daughter’s little tiny, short-scale acoustic guitar. She said, “Oh, Daddy, I want to take guitar lessons at school.” So I bought her this. I thought, “Well, it may not last, so I’ll get the cheapest acoustic guitar in the shop.” Which was made in Romania, home of great rock & roll guitars. She was interested for a few months in learning guitar at school, then it just stayed in the corner of the room and she never touched it.

Because it was so small and light, I would carry it around the house. I’d carry it to the toilet and be strumming. I’d stand there watching the TV, I’d be strumming this little, Romanian guitar.

And I was watching something on the news one evening, and I can’t remember what it was, but I just started lazily strumming the opening bars of the intro. Because I was in subconscious mode, something just fell out.

And some years before, I’d read a fantastic book by a woman called Barbara G. Walker called The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. And it’s possibly my favorite ever book. It’s a big doorstop, big brick of a book that gathers together how women were written out of religions, plural, how women were written out of societies and control.

I had this in the back of mind and I knew I wanted to write a song about women and certainly my take on women. I was a shy kid and I knew I loved women, but I was so shy about how to approach them and how to talk to them and I was so afraid of rejection. And to some extent, I held women in awe, because they were these gorgeous monsters that were going to reject me if I approached them.

On the opposite side of the coin, tell me a little bit about “I’m the Man Who Murdered Love.”
That was sort of a little conceit of: “What if love were a character?” What if Eros with his little bow and arrow, instead of being a little flying cherub, a little airborne poochy, with his bow and arrows, “Twing! Hey! I got another sucker, right through the heart. He’s falling in love. Hehe!” I always thought, “What would it be like if that character grew up?”

I’ve had my share of heartbreak and heartache. And I’m sure everyone else has. What if I do a little conceit here, where I imagine I kill off love. Let’s see if it makes a better world. Do we all know where we stand? Is it better that we don’t have heartbreak and heartache? Is it a better world?

Well, I guess my last question is, are you working on anything new now?
The sad fact is, my door on my home studio is so badly warped in the heavy rain that we had in the winter. I couldn’t get it fixed because I had six weeks where I was in bed and I thought it was the worst flu I’d ever had in my life and now I’m of the opinion that I had coronavirus.

Stretching across February and March, I was just totally incapacitated. And we were having heavy, heavy, heavy rain. And I couldn’t get my studio door open, my shed door open. And I got a carpenter, finally, when I was up and about.

And he said, “Look, you need a totally new door and you need a new lock because that’s all busted, too.” So, I’m afraid I can get into my studio, but I can’t close the door and if I’m in there, I have to work on headphones, because all the neighbors are out in their gardens because of lockdown and I don’t want them hearing me singing.

But what I am working on is, I have hundreds of songs that I wrote for other people that they rejected. And so, when I can get in there and get working properly, I am going to be putting out a series of records tentatively titled, My Failed Songwriting Career.