The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul

[27 October 2006]

By Patrick Schabe

There is no mansion and no country estate.  There is no fancy sports car collection, nor luxury yacht, nor private jet.  The road to becoming one of alternative rock’s most influential artists of the last 30 years has not been paved with riches and rock and roll status symbols.  There is no museum, no shrine.  Not even a framed gold or platinum album hanging on the wall (though not for lack of sales).

In fact, rather than being a rags to riches story of musical salvation and material excess, it’s a life story enlivened by managerial fraud and graft, financial ruin, frustrated success, marital collapse, industry restraints, and reclusive defiance. 

So why does Andy Partridge seem so calm, so happy, so content?

Perhaps because after thirty years in the music industry, struggling against all manner of odds and potential ends, Partridge is finally comfortably ensconced in the place he has carved out for himself.  Perhaps it’s that after a strange career marked equally by praise and indifference, the legacy of his work is finally beginning to speak for itself. It certainly must have something to do with achieving that ideal of artistic independence that has wound its Elysian thread through rock history.  No matter how modest, as humble as a daisy, it is a niche that Partridge fought for and fashioned to his design.  And after years of conflict, the future is finally his on his own terms.

As Partridge explains in his own words, “My expectations of success are that sort of weird invisible horn that grows out of your head and waves around thinking ‘Wow! Where’s success?  Where is it?’  I think it shriveled up and dropped off a long time ago.  To me, success is really making enough money to be able to carry on making music.  That’s success.”

1. Funk Pop a Roll Beats Up My Soul

By some accounts, the rough journey of Andy Partridge and his band, XTC, is due in no small part to Partridge himself.  He was difficult, complicated, and contrary.  He didn’t play by the rules, and he didn’t play well with others.  He was (and maybe is) headstrong, arrogant, and stubborn.  He has no one to blame but himself.  And, of course, there is The Incident, and all that came, or didn’t come, afterwards.

Any biography of XTC and Partridge himself must eventually return to The Incident.  It is the black hole at the center of the XTC galaxy, exerting its gravitational pull on all the history that swirls around the band and its members, bending and warping each of their lights.  Over the years, various explanations and descriptions have been given accounting for the conditions that led up The Incident.  Most settle for a lazy explanation that Partridge suffers from crippling stage fright.  Others chalk it up to exhaustion.  Partridge himself refers to it as a nervous breakdown.  Whatever the case, there remains little doubt that The Incident changed XTC’s course forever. 

In 1982, XTC had released its fifth album, English Settlement, in as many years, cutting their own path out of the UK punk scene, running briefly through new wave and heading into larger pop territories.  Each album since their White Music debut had seen XTC grow in leaps and bounds.  1979’s Drums and Wires yielded XTC’s first chart success in the single “Making Plans for Nigel”, while 1980’s Black Sea sold well on the album charts on the strength of its solid post-punk tracks, including “Respectable Street”, “Towers of London”, and “Generals and Majors”.

And the band was active—intensely so.  From the moment that XTC signed to Virgin in 1977, they embarked on a flurry of touring and promotional appearances, hitting television studios, club stages, and progressively larger concert venues in a series of almost endless appearances.  The band would be home in its native Swindon, England, for only months out of the year following the release of Drums and Wires, spending most of its time on the road around Europe, and eventually Asia and America, where they performed alongside the likes of the Police and Talking Heads.  Those shows were high energy as well, with a grinning Partridge front and center the whole time, churning through versions of their tunes that occasionally reached manic pitch and volumes so loud that XTC made the 1981 edition of Rolling Stone’s Book of Rock Lists‘s list of 17 Loudest Bands in the World (coming in at Number 15 and beating out both Queen and KISS—unsurprisingly, the Who was number 1).

This frenzied pace may have been simply part and parcel of the rock and roll world, but it had dire physical consequences for Partridge.  As a child, Partridge was diagnosed as “hyperactive” (in a world before ADD) and placed on a regimen of Valium to calm him down.  As the demands of performing and life on the road began to stack up, so too did the demands of the Valium.  In 1979, three years before The Incident, Partridge experienced what he believed was a nervous breakdown, essentially blacking out on stage and forgetting who he was and all of XTC’s songs.  It was temporary, and he went quickly back to work, but the pressures of performing began to build up more and more from that point on.

The Incident was actually stretched across a small span of time in 1982. On stage at a show in Paris during the first European leg of the English Settlement promotional tour, Partridge relapsed, collapsing on stage and cutting the show short.  The collapse prompted the cancellation of the English tour that was to follow, and Partridge began a round of various psychological treatments, which seemed to relieve him of the stress.  It was revealed that he’d stopped eating three days before the Paris show.  The Valium was fingered as a culprit, and Partridge’s wife Marianne tossed the pills, forcing him to kick a serious dependency.

Believing he was cured, Partridge joined the band in California to kick off a sizable US tour—their first as a headlining act in the States—and took to the stage for the first night’s show in Sand Diego.  Once on stage, however, the entire flood of stressors returned, and Partridge fell apart once more, struggling through the show, unable to focus, and collapsing once more.  Though the band tried to resurrect him for the second show, a sold out Los Angeles performance, Partridge was physically unable to take the stage, and the tour was cancelled, much to Virgin’s dismay.  Partridge resolved to never tour again.

The fallout of Partridge’s refusal to tour was an increasingly impatient and unhappy parent in Virgin Records, who saw XTC as untenable as the studio-only act Partridge declared them to have become.  Drummer Terry Chambers no longer saw a place for himself in the group, and abruptly quit as the band was trying to record their next disc, Mummer.  And while convalescing at home in the generally more rural Swindon, Partridge’s rediscovered love for the English countryside he grew up in was reflected in the new material he was writing.  None of this was a formula for pop-rock success in the mid-1980s.

But it’s also a fallacy to chalk up XTC’s semi-transparency to the simple problem of the band’s refusal to tour and call it stubbornness.  While it certainly limited the band’s marketability, and therefore their label support, XTC suffered more from the hands of industry forces than they did from failure to find an audience.  While XTC defied expectations by retaining a dedicated fan base that grew with each release, despite their low profile, the most damaging trials came from within the ranks of their own management. 

While Partridge and company have a court-enforced gag order preventing them from discussing details, what is known is that their initial manager, Ian Reid, inked a deal with Virgin that wound up working out primarily for Reid, secondarily for Virgin, and not at all for XTC.  Throughout their first five years of existence, XTC never saw a penny of profits from either album sales or touring revenue.  Reid, on the other hand, took out large loans from Virgin, borrowing against XTC’s royalties, to the tune of millions of pounds by some estimates.  Even after the band settled out of court with Reid, because of the terms of the contract, Virgin was able to hold XTC liable for the sum.  Because of XTC’s failure to tour, the likelihood of ever repaying Virgin dwindled further and further away.  Over the course of a 20-year contract with Virgin Records, and after achieving gold and platinum status in album sales on a number of discs, XTC never saw any publishing royalties.

Moreover, despite of the increasing presence of Partridge in the greater music scene as something of a muse in his own right, working as a co-songwriter and producer with a number of other artists, Virgin continually rejected XTC’s demands for creative control of the group’s output.  To the end, Virgin demanded an outside producer be in charge of each release, not trusting the sometimes fanciful and unpredictable whims of Partridge to deliver the album with the best chance of paying back their debt.  Recording sessions were followed by tales of resentment settling into resignation, as producers and Partridge butted heads.  The time spent recording and producing XTC’s probable masterwork, Skylarking, with Todd Rundgren was famously charged with tempests of clashing visions.  Nonsuch was wrapped up with producer Gus Dudgeon and Partridge no longer speaking to one another.  And Partridge, a talented visual artist before deciding on music as a teen, was constantly having sleeve designs and packaging concepts rejected by Virgin executives (often later picked up and used in the final output without crediting Andy himself).

So XTC went on strike.

Following the 1992 release of Nonsuch, Partridge, bassist Colin Moulding, and guitarist/arranger Dave Gregory demanded to be released from their contract, citing both creative differences and the money they felt was owed them by Virgin.  Virgin, still in the red where XTC was concerned, refused to void the contract.  And so an industry strike quietly raged past the point of more famous (and publicized) strikes by Prince and George Michael.  Partridge and Moulding continued to write and record demos, planning what they hoped would become their first post-Virgin release, but the label dragged the fight out over five long years.  In the end, XTC won, despite making some heavy concessions, and 20 years after punk first broke, they were DIY for the first time in their career. 

XTC immediately went to work recording their triumphal return, but the strike years had strained relations within the band.  Partridge’s new material forced a further evolution of the band’s sound.  The incorporation of more symphonic elements led to Partridge arranging those parts, duties that had previously fallen to Gregory.  Tensions came to a head and Gregory quit XTC while preparing to record the long-awaited Apple Venus Vol. 1.  Still, Partridge and Moulding pushed on, and the album release was met with critical acclaim (and very modest commercial success).  The follow-up, Wasp Star: Apple Venus Vol. 2, debuted a year later, to similar results.  Moving forward, rather than shopping itself around to small independent labels, XTC took the logical step of forming its own label, dubbed Idea Records.  Partridge also struck out on his own, resolving both his solo work and his production history into one entity by forming his own APE House Records label.

All of this is not to say that XTC’s is a sad-sack story of a band to be pitied.  On the contrary, despite challenging many music industry foundations, XTC managed to continue to record and thrive where many bands failed, split up, and moved on to more respectable jobs.  At one point in time, XTC were seen as contemporaries of Public Image Ltd., Wire, Joy Division, the Human League, the Specials, Gang of Four, Blondie, the Cure, Buzzcocks, and the aforementioned Talking Heads and the Police.  But by striking out on their own path, rather than merely being lauded as new wave icons, or godfathers of such and such, XTC is also frequently and reverentially compared to larger than life icons like the Who and the Kinks, and most especially the Beatles.

Yet, in looking back on the career of Andy Partridge and XTC, it’s difficult to justify claims of greatness without trying to understand exactly why they never managed to rise above the status of cult band.  Respect and recognition are the real validation of such claims, not financial success, and for various reasons that came slowly to Partridge. But perseverance, even stubbornness, pays off, and come it has.

2. Feeling Extrovert

Partridge’s Fuzzy Warbles series certainly encourages us to look back on that past.  Whereas the recorded output of Idea Records has been fairly limited to demo albums of the Apple Venus discs, culminating in last year’s beautifully rendered Apple Box collection, APE House has been busier in true label fashion.  In addition to signing and releasing work by pop bands new to the scene, Partridge quickly went to work on a long-discussed project to release all of the home demos, outtakes, and unused songs that had piled up over the last two decades.  In a nod to the rough and tumble quality of home recordings, Partridge dubbed the project Fuzzy Warbles.  But the motivation for the series doesn’t lie in nostalgia.

“It’s going to sound really banal if I tell you the truth, but the truth is that I was sick of bootleggers,” Partridge explains. “I kept hearing from people, ‘Hey, yeah, I bought a disc of your demos.’ Or, ‘Hey, I got a 3 CD set of your demos from somebody,’ or you’d see them advertised on the Net, or people would tell me about them.  And sometimes even bootleggers would send me a free one and they’d say ‘Well, I had a 1,000 of these pressed, and they’re selling really well, and I thought you might like one, ha ha.’ And I was just going insane with rage at this, because, you know, I never made a lot of money at this game.  And the thought that my music was being stolen from me… and, you know, bad quality copies of it, because you hear some of it and it’s obviously taken from tenth generation cassette dubs and it’s all the wrong speed and it’s all full of flut-tt-tterrr and stuff like that.”

cover art

Andy Partridge

Fuzzy Warbles Collector’s Box

(APE House Records; US: Available as import; UK: 16 Oct 2006)

“I thought to myself, ‘Look, if anyone’s going to bootleg me, it has to be me.’ Because I’ve got first generations of these recordings, I can clean up some of the older stuff, I can remix if they’re not good mixes, I’ve got stuff they’re never gonna have because it never left my possession, I’ve got stuff that, you know, just stuff that bootleggers could never get hold of.  So it was just a case of, I’m going to bootleg me really, really well.” 

Originally envisioned as a ten-disc series that collected all the castaways from XTC’s past, the project quickly became an Andy Partridge solo venture when Moulding decided that he wasn’t interested in adding his songs to the series.

“He’s been a bit cagey about all this.  It’s a combination of things…  I think he’s uncomfortable with people hearing him scrabbling around for ideas,” Partridge says.  “I’m the opposite.  That thrills me.  If I can see the sketchbooks, visual or aural or whatever, of the people I really admire, I find that incredibly thrilling.  I like to see the germs of ideas, I like to see where they came from, and the failures… I guess it’s the stuff that makes them human.”

“But Colin feels a little difficult about that.  That was one reason.  Another reason was that maybe he didn’t want to get involved in something where the mass of material was going to be mine.” 

Going it alone and releasing Fuzzy Warbles through the APE House imprint, Partridge has been putting out two volumes a year since 2002.  With the release of Volumes 7 and 8 this year, the series comes to a close.  To commemorate, APE has put together an elaborately packaged “Collector’s Album” that turns the Fuzzy Warbles discs into a box set.  As a bonus feature it includes a booklet penned by Partridge (“Hit Record and Play, or a Brief History of Home Sound Capture”) and a CD of bonus tracks, Hinges, that culls a few remaining home recordings that didn’t make it onto the proper eight volumes.  And like last year’s Apple Box, this collection revels in the newfound freedom Partridge has in making packaging designs.

Discussing it, he lights up. “Oh, I love it!  I’m a complete packaging whore!  I just lay on my back and open my legs… package me, baby!  I just love packaging.  You know, sexy, good packaging is, it’s… whaa, yeah, you just want to eat it!” 

In keeping with the stamp collection motif used on the Fuzzy Warbles discs, the box itself is designed to mimic a stamp album, and even includes a sheet of stamps using the cover art from the eight discs.  In a clever marketing maneuver, APE has also made the collector’s box available as its own separate purchase, complete with bonus materials, allowing fans who’ve spent the last four years purchasing Fuzzy Warbles discs as single items not to have to re-purchase the whole series just for the collector’s item. It’s the reflection of a musician with the soul of a collector, a true bag to keep life’s souvenirs in. 

“I think the ‘Collectors Album’ is possibly my favorite piece of packaging.  Actually, that’s a tough one.  It may be a tie between this and the three-dimensional ammonite cover for Fossil Fuel,” Partridge enthuses.

There’s no doubt that XTC has inspired some serious collecting among it’s most ardent fans, including fan magazines and conventions.  And that collector’s spirit is a drive shared by the band’s leader. Partridge readily admits, “I’m a collector.  I just can’t resist it.” In fact, while the Fuzzy Warbles series was being produced, Partridge confesses to finding himself getting pulled into the world of stamp collecting as well.  Of course, when asked whether it would replace his reported passion for toy soldiers, the answer was an emphatic denial.

“No, no, it mustn’t.  There’s gonna be war if it happens. No, that’s really my first love.  That’s my cocaine: toy soldiers.” 

As a collection itself, Fuzzy Warbles offers an interesting assortment of treasures, each arranged onto its own album-length collection, leaving the whole collection a scattered, seemingly disorganized hopscotch through 20 years of recordings.  Unlike a more historically minded box set, this collection as a whole (and each disc in it) deliberately does away with any sense of linear progression or chronological sequencing.

“That would be awful,” he says bluntly.  Explaining how the songs were picked and arranged on each volume, Partridge says, “It’s the balance thing.  The older I get I really feel very strongly about the kind of ‘middle of the road’ attitude.  I don’t want to be upsetting right or left, I want to be bang on that fulcrum in the middle… I guess it’s the balance principle of composing any album.  You need a great opening song, great closing song.  You need to look at the sort of… the orgasms within an album; you need to look at the shapes where it gets excited and then calm it down a bit.  It’s a bit like… I’m gonna sound like such a cheesy Frenchman: It’z a beet like making love to a beautiful woman.”

“Or like, you know, cooking a big banquet or something, where you’ve got a great starter, and then you have a little palette cleanser, and then we hit ‘em with a very flavorable so-and-so, so then you’ve gotta take it down a bit and have a little bland something after that so the too-strong flavor things don’t kill each other.  So maybe planning a banquet is more of an adequate metaphor.”

In that sense, Fuzzy Warbles is a set of eight distinct albums.  And yet, assembled in one place, it also acts as a collection of Partridge’s songwriting history.  Some of the best known tracks and near-hits from XTC’s albums aren’t included here, the album versions are not buried in the mix, and no album cuts are found here.  Aside from attempts to collect the usable scraps that haven’t made it onto previously commercially available releases, this collection does not pretend to a sense of comprehensiveness.  Such attempts tend to fail anyway, and Partridge clearly thinks little of them to begin with, including Virgin’s assemblage of XTC’s own Coat of Many Cupboards box set. 

But what we do gain in total is a sense of Partridge in the home studio over the years, and some insight into the songwriting process—though, in his typically straightforward manner, Partridge states in the “Hit Record and Play” booklet, “Don’t even start me on ‘how does one acquire songwriting wherewithal?’. All the time you are moving down the road to good quality home recording, every time you click the ‘on’ switch, you are taking another learning step, and it never stops.  But you still have to do the walking yourself.” And rather than being a plodding travelogue of each step that Partridge has taken along that path, Fuzzy Warbles is instead a collection of some of the marvelous discoveries made along the way. 

Casual fans of XTC will recognize some of the familiar album tracks that make demo appearances here.  “Merely a Man” and “Complicated Game” are strange bedfellows across time on Volume 1, and clusters of songs from studio albums appear on various discs, such a Volume 5‘s handful of Skylarking songs, or Volume 7’s concentration of songs from Oranges and Lemons.  Tracks like “You’re the Wish You Are I Had”, “Human Alchemy”, and “Helicopter” are all revealed in their toddler years, before being polished into their flashy adult lives by mixing and mastering.  And for these tracks, there is a sense of looking at the baby albums of these songs, revealing what chord progressions and hooks made up the central creative core around which all the other instrumentation and arrangement was built.  Sometimes lyrics have obviously been changed, with the intricacy of Partridge’s expected wordiness still being worked out in the rough.  These tracks don’t replace the studio versions, but they certainly enrich their appreciation, giving a back door into what makes them work.

For fans with the glint of obsession in their eyes, the Fuzzy Warbles series is yet more familiar, and more rewarding. This collection helps replace the seventh-generation cassette tape copies of Jules Verne’s Sketchbook, The Bull with the Golden Guts, and Window Box—fan-club releases put together by Partridge and XTC over the years—with improved sound quality on such gems as “Young Cleopatra” and “Goodbye Humanosaurus”.  There’s also a fair number of tracks written for XTC’s psychedelic alter egos, the Dukes of Stratosphear, including a back-to-back run through XTC’s “That’s Really Super Supergirl” and the Dukes’ “Braniac’s Daughter” that shows the songs to be clear sisters. Plenty of rarities make appearances as well, such as “Cherry in Your Tree” from the Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? soundtrack, “I Don’t Want to Be Here” and other songs donated to charity benefits, tracks written and recorded for the unused James and the Giant Peach soundtrack (decidedly better than Randy Newman’s), and more. Unfortunately, there’s no “Wonderfalls” here, though diehards have probably already bought the DVD just for the music video.  And there is plenty of music here that is brand new to all but the most rabid and well-connected XTC fans, giving Fuzzy Warbles enough of that taste of new experience to keep older fans satisfied.

But it’s also a series that could, under the right circumstances, be a hallmark of Partridge’s career.  Perhaps, for those who’ve never heard XTC and don’t have prior interest, this set will seem off-putting, like doing some navel gazing and gathering up the lint collected there.  On the other hand, without prior expectations, it’s possible that the vast amount of variety, styles, and interests collected here under one umbrella (rather than 1,000 umbrellas) could serve to introduce the novice to a singular songwriter with a deep and rich history to explore.  With 180 tracks covering decades of recording, the Fuzzy Warbles series makes the case for Partridge as a consistently engaging and often brilliant pop talent too often ignored.  In that sense, it may work as well as (and in some respects better than) the entire XTC discography.

This set also carries the danger of feeling like a final closure.  Partridge claims that this set represents the majority of the previously unheard or unreleased Andy Partridge library.  “People say, ‘Oh, what’s the Andy Partridge archive?’  They expect it to be cupboards of tapes and stuff, or a vault.  No, it’s two shoeboxes.”

As a piece of reflection, Partridge is rather sanguine about whether it’s really closing the door on the past, however.  “Yeah, in a way.  But only for now. Because what’s going to happen is, if I keep recording, another ten years down the line, the kitchen drawer is going to be full up with more weird shaped bottle openers, strange corks, and weird bits of plastic out of Christmas crackers, pieces of string, and strange cutlery… That’s like my musical brain.  If I keep recording, in the next ten years I’m gonna have enough stuff in the musical kitchen drawer to probably do another… another ten volumes of Fuzzy Warbles.”

But for now, this represents nearly all the usable remainders of the past two-plus decades of Partridge’s work: “I guess it is closing the lid on my home recording to date.”

Even if perceived by some as marking the passage of time, it comes at a moment when XTC’s bike ride to the moon is finally being hailed as the quiet-but-important musical legacy that it is.  Asked the loaded question of what mark Partridge feels like he’s left on music, he pauses, considering the answer before saying “Am I allowed to be immodest?  I think we’re pretty, largely influential.”

XTC’s later material has been monumentally praised by those who carry on the power pop tradition.  Bands like Jellyfish and the Apples in Stereo nodded to XTC publicly, they were one of the motivating factors for mid-‘90s Britpop (Partridge was, in fact, initially slated to produce Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish), and the entire pop underground recognizes Partridge as one of the icons of contemporary songwriting in the field.  And, of course, the current resurgence of post-punk formula has led to XTC being revered in association with the groundbreakers of that era, being name-dropped by everyone from Dogs Die in Hot Cars to the Futureheads.  And while Partridge doesn’t make a huge deal out of this level of accomplishment, he acknowledges that it’s something that he takes some measure of pride in.

“It’s only now, rather, that people in England start to recognize this, certainly,” Partridge says, pointing to the frequency with which XTC’s name has been popping up in the British press. “I feel like a benchmark or something.  So, I guess there’s some sort of legacy there.  But I think we may be one of the most influential groups—quietly influential—to come out of Britain.  That does sound a little pompous, but from the stuff I’ve been seeing in recent years, I don’t think that’s too wide of the mark.”

“In the last four or five years in England, every band that comes up gets compared to us, whether it’s the Kaiser Chiefs, or Franz Ferdinand, or the Futureheads.  It’s like a band a week, and an awful lot of them do get compared to us.  And it doesn’t annoy me or anything like that, because I’m not interested in the place where they are musically now.  It’s a place that I’ve sort of been through on the journey, and I wouldn’t want to go back there.  But it does mean that we’ve been quietly, largely influential for a band that hasn’t had hits.”

Partridge acknowledges that this is unlikely to ever turn into sudden wealth, but he seems to be accepting of this fate, so long as he can continue to make the music he cares about.

3. Eternally and Ever Ermine Street

While Fuzzy Warbles may have effectively cleaned out the closet for older material, and hopefully achieved its goal of thwarting bootleggers from capitalizing on Partridge’s work, the present and future remain busy for Partridge as he continues his work building APE House into an artist-friendly home for new acts.  Currently developing the Milk and Honey Band and singer-songwriter Veda Hille, Partridge’s goal is to use the intensely negative experiences that XTC went through in the Virgin years to reverse the relationship of ownership and provide a label that works positively to the benefit of bands.

“Most record companies give artists very poor deals.  That’s one thing with APE, that taking on other artists at APE, I wanted to give them the best deal possible. In fact, the artists make a lot more than we do, which is, you know, that’s completely brobdingnag of an idea.  Swift would be proud of that.  It’s completely upside down of an idea, because most record companies, they’re grasping and grabbing, and the artists are the last ones to see any money.”

In addition to his work as an independent label head, Partridge remains an active songwriter on his own.  Recent years have found him in a primarily collaborative role, working and recording with a number of artists.  With Peter Blegvad, he co-wrote and recorded the synesthetic Orpheus: The Lowdown in 2004.  He’s also co-written songs appearing on a number of discs, working with Mitch Friedman, Dave Yazbek, Pugwash, and the Nines. Most recently, Partridge worked on a song collaboration for Robyn Hitchcock’s new album Olé! Tarantula, a pairing that seemed particularly fruitful and was unfortunately cut short by a sound engineer’s studio mistake that left Partridge battling a severe case of tinnitus. 

Partridge reports that Hitchcock sent him word that “when he comes off tour, he’d very much like to get back with me and carry on writing.  Which I’d like to do as well, because we came up with about half a dozen things.  A couple of them I thought were pretty damned good, actually.”

Partridge seems the most excited about a new project that’s just wrapping up and nearing a release date.  Labeled Monstrance, this project brought him back into the recording studio with founding XTC member Barry Andrews, who quit the band after its second album, Go 2, following some creative differences with Partridge in particular, and went on to form Shriekback.  Having long since patched up old wounds, Partridge even adding his guitar to last year’s Shriekback release, Partridge approached Andrews about working on a non-pop album, scratching the itch he’d long suppressed to explore jazz-influenced improv music. 

“This is something I’ve wanted to do forever.  A lot of my background is a bit of a schizoid split thing.  As a kid I loved pretty much straight pop music.  I mean, my real love was slightly psychedelic pop music.  But it would be thing like Beatles, Stones, Small Faces, Kinks, early Floyd.  Pretty straight pop music.  And then, just a year or two after that, a friend of mine who was like two years older than me, he was really big on avant-garde jazz music and he used to get these import records from New York and Scandinavia and he kept inflicting them on me.”

“At first I resisted, ‘cuz I had a very straight sort of background.  And then suddenly something kind of snapped where I became as addicted to these things as he did,” Partridge explains. “I’ve always wanted to make albums of purely improvised music.”

This project promises to be a new direction for Partridge, whose reputation has always been recognized as musically diverse, yet still based squarely in the pop tradition.  Such free-form experimentation requires an entirely different set of sensibilities, and Partridge laughs about the effect it might have on his core fan base.

“It’s probably going to piss off a lot of XTC fans. Because they can be a bit conservative, you know.”

Unfortunately, a larger question mark hangs in the air as to the precise status of XTC.  While Partridge is quick to say that XTC’s long journey isn’t over, he explains that Moulding’s heart is no longer in music.

“He’s going through the change.  He said to me a couple of months back, he’s not interested in writing any more songs.  And he’s, in fact, not interested in listening to music full stop.  He’s stopped listening to music and stopped wanting to write it.”  Partridge encouraged Moulding to view it as a potential writer’s block, and not treat it as final, but rather to wait and see if the urge to write surprises him in the next few years, and to put things on hold until it does.

It’s certain that fans hope, along with Partridge, that Moulding finds his muse once more, and connects with Partridge in the studio once more.  Partridge acknowledges that XTC is not, and should not be, a moniker being exploited for a Partridge solo show.  “It’s no good making a record and calling it XTC, certainly, if Colin isn’t involved.  I wouldn’t want to do that; he wouldn’t want me doing that.”  However, he remains hopeful that the situation is indeed temporary, and is unwilling to say that XTC the band is done for good. 

“We’ve not killed off the XTC head.  I mean, we still have the head cryogenically frozen.  It’s up next to Walt on the shelf.” 

But for the immediate future, Partridge will continue to work in his quiet, semi-hermetic way.  Partridge notes that working on Monstrance has been an invigorating process, and that if successful enough, he’d like to repeat it.  Additionally, having spent the last several months recuperating from a series of injuries, Partridge seems to be itching to return to his garden shed recording studio, hit record, and play some new material. 

“I think I’m gonna have to make a solo record just to get rid of all these songs I’m amassing.  And, also, lots of other projects, things that I fancy trying, and areas I would like to go into,” Partridge asserts. “But it’s difficult to stop music.  Not being able to play the guitar for six months, and not being able to hear any loud noises or put on headphones and stuff with my hearing, that’s been tough.  It’s sort of made me want to do it even more now.”

With the completion of the Fuzzy Warbles series, another layer has been added to the ziggurat of Partridge’s monument in music history.  The role XTC has played in defining pop excellence and inspiring other musicians to pick up instruments and attempt to write songs of their own seems to have become clearer over each passing year, and Partridge is finally being given the respect that he has earned.  And while modest by some standards, Partridge’s life affords him the opportunity to continue to explore new avenues and write more songs.  Partridge says that his only rule as a songwriter has been to better himself continuously. If he succeeds at this, then the future has a rich tapestry yet to offer. So if chalkhills and children truly do anchor Andy Partridge’s feet, he seems content with it.

Patrick Schabe is an editor, writer, graphic designer, freelance copyeditor, and digital content manager, depending on the time of day. He has also worked in a gas station, at a smoothie bar, as a low-level accountant, taught college courses online, and cleaned offices, so he considers his current employment a success. Under his unassumed identity, Patrick holds a BA in English -- Creative Writing from Metropolitan State College of Denver and a Master of Social Science with an emphasis in Popular Culture Studies from the University of Colorado. He's currently at work on a first novel and a non-fiction piece on cultural theory. Patrick lives in Littleton, Colorado, with his wife, Jessica, who makes everything worthwhile.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/the-man-who-sailed-around-his-soul/