The last record of new songs by XTC came out in 2000, about 22 years after the first one. In the intervening decade and a half, cofounder Andy Partridge has acted as a steward of his band's legacy—overseeing reissues, remasters, and maintaining a vivid, gregarious web presence. It's not quite as good as if he were making new music, but for his fans, who tend to be devout, it will do.
The end of March saw the publication of Complicated Game, a book-length interview between Partridge and engineer/writer Todd Bernhardt, compiled over the course of several years, that goes deep into the specifics of Partridge's songwriting process, song by song. For XTC adepts, the book will be sacramental. But even those who are merely interested in songwriting as a craft will find a wealth of insight and wit, and a revealing dialectic between self-awareness and self-effacement in Partridge's memory bank withdrawals.
He spoke to me by phone from his home in Swindon (of which, more later). The interview will run in installments in these pages and on The Stranger's website.
I wondered if on some level you did this book as a way for you to never have to do another interview.
I never thought of that! Actually, I could start thinking about that now. I enjoy interviews because I just like chatting. I'll talk to anyone. Any down-the-street crazy, the supermarket checker, I'll talk with anyone. I don't need any excuse to chat. I love talking. It's in the genes. It's in the DNA.
About this subject in particular, your songwriting process?
I'm never going to totally explain that. The best I can do for people is to let them see the tip of the iceberg, because I don't understand the vast majority of the size of the iceberg. I've no idea where it comes from. In fact, I'm tempted to think one has a finite amount of songs in there, if you see what I mean. I don't know whether I'm mining them all out, or have mined them all out.
Sure. But some musicians are comfortable talking about their process and their history, and some prefer not to disclose that kind of thing.
No, I can't stand that. What are they protecting? I better have the right music in the background [plays Twilight Zone–theme-like figure on guitar]. Try to make some mystery. There's no mystery. They're not more exceptional than you or I. They just made a song. It's not hard to make a song. I couldn't make songs at one time. Now I can. It's not a mystery. I couldn't play guitar at one time, and now I can. It's not a mystery. People who would make out that they're somehow special and what they do is rarer than gold hound's tooth—I don't get it.
Maybe there's overlap here, but there are also people who prefer or pretend not to be reflective about the creative process. "I don't think about that kind of thing."
Maybe that's true, in which case they might be living inside a body and a brain that they don't know about. They may not be in touch with themselves. I can't imagine a worse fate in life than being some passenger in a big fleshy bus that you're not driving. That'd be terrible. I made a real conscious effort right about the age of 18 or 19 to get to know myself. That included all the awful stuff as well. That's important. You have to know how you do things, why you do things, what you're all about.
Whatever your art is, you will know why you make that art and you will know the process of it. Perhaps they think that somehow their sacred magic will be stolen by bad gnomes. I don't know. I have no problem in life. If I'm a fan of somebody—whether they're a painter, sculptor, writer, musician, whatever the art is—I want to know how they did it. I want to know how they mix those paints. What was the choice of stone? Did they try chiseling in different stone first and then come to some revelation that it'd be better in this stone and change over? What chisel did they buy? What guitar strings and why? Why do you choose those? Is it important for the sound? I need to know all this stuff.
Because you're speculating on that while you're listening anyway?
It's all part of the ammunition that you're using to shoot the town up with. It's good to know what ammunition you using, isn't it? I don't hold with this "Ooh, got to keep it a mystery." Come on, you're not a Vegas magician. You know what I mean? Even they get bitten in the ass by their tigers occasionally. Come on, let it out. Why are you saving it?
Mystique was a big part of rock 'n' roll for a long time, but it seems to have gone by the wayside since the idea that rock 'n' roll is a sacred, important art form has also sort of gone by the wayside.
I dunno, was it ever a sacred and important art form? I think when you're 13, you think it's sacred and important. You think every utterance is going to save the world if only my friends could hear it. Then you scour the back of album sleeves and you look at things like "Laminated in Clarifoil by British Celanese Limited," and you think, "They're trying to communicate with me. This is so fucking deep!" You think that when you're 13. You think rock 'n' roll is going to save the planet and every utterance has got to be chiseled out in monumental forms. That's the second time I said chisel in this interview. I got to get off that chisel thing.
Let's explore that.
Let's go chisel! Rock is just another art form. You dig it or you don't. It's this thing about mystery. Mystery—certainly in pop music, rock, whatever you want to call—is usually a cover for: It's an idiot. It's an idiot I'm managing and please don't talk to him because the second he opens his mouth, you'll see what an idiot he is.
Because the holy fool is still a fool.
Exactly, it doesn't matter whether he is holy or not.
But during the big era of rock stars, they did get over on that idea that what they were doing was shamanic and important and one of the high forms.
That is complete... balls. It really is. You either like what they're doing or you don't like what they're doing. To look for world-saving concepts—I mean, come on, there's no more world-saving concepts in ballet, no more world-saving concepts in pin-and-string pictures, or a nice old automobile made of highly polished clock parts. It's just a little artistic thing that somebody does. If you like it, hey, that's art. None of it is going to save the planet.
Unless all of it does, maybe? That would be nice.
Well, the actual act of doing it does. But it's like having a crap. It's good to have a crap, but it's not always great to poke around in it and look for sacredness and holiness in it. It's important to get the art out. I recommend that everybody do it. Everybody do something creative. I couldn't imagine not doing anything creative.
In the book, you've really done this atomized look at your songs, and then you obviously digress in fruitful ways. The format is very inviting. I wonder if having gone through all these songs one by one, if you have any observations about your body of work that you didn't have before or that are different from what you thought before?
Maybe not so much talking about it, but simply the act of listening to it to have to talk about it. I don't really listen to my own music very often. I don't see the point in it. The point of it is to do it and get rid of it and move away from it. Much like having that artistic crap. You have to get it out and then move away. That's the very essence of being creative. You have to learn quickly when to abandon something. You can't mess with it forever, or else it's never going to get born.
I can occasionally listen to something and think, "Wow! I can see this or hear this a little different from the last time I heard it." I may have been in a studio with a red light on feeling rather scared and "Oh my God this is forever kind of thing." Or maybe the last time I heard it, I was extremely drunk and had headphones on and was listening to it on the floor of my studio then I passed out because I drank too much. Actually, that's one of the only ways I can completely listen selflessly to my own music is to get the headphones on after an awful lot to drink. Then I inevitably go to bye-byes sooner than I thought.
You do get a different take on it, because you're removed by the alcohol and by the years. Sometimes you can think, "Wow this band—they're great!" You can get a different picture or pictures than you've got while you were writing it or recording it or immediately after. It's all about pictures for me. I shouldn't be a musician at all really. All of my leaning was to have been in a career of the visual arts.
I'm always struck by the number of musicians who talk about that. Joni Mitchell, Daniel Johnston, Ronnie Wood, Kim Gordon, David Bowie, Patti Smith, even Paul McCartney. Is that just the longing to do something other than what you do?
I just think it's the thing that people who write songs probably write poems. They probably paint. They might sculpt. They might dance. They like to act a bit. You'll find if you do one artistic discipline, you probably do at least half a dozen others. Whether you do it as a living, that's a different thing. Probably at least half a dozen others as well and enjoy that. One thing leads to another with the music side of things, and it tends to be a bit public at times, so therefore, "Yeah, they're good. Can you come and make a record for us? Where can we buy your record?" Then suddenly you become a bit famous. That's accidental, but people seem to plan that these days. I can't imagine that. I suppose I can. I wanted to be rich and famous as a teenager—then very, very quickly I didn't want to be famous.
My conception of XTC is as a band that really came alive on later albums, in the mid-1980s and beyond. But reading the book, I was reminded that to a lot of people, you guys are eternally locked into that late-1970s/early-'80s post-punk/new-wave period, where, despite some excellent singles, you really weren't all the way yourselves yet. What's your sense of that?
In England, we're generally unfavorably thought of, and I spent many years thinking about it. It has to do with coming from England's comedy town. [Swindon, about 80 miles southwest of London.] America has comedy towns as well. What's the West Coast comedy town do you think?
Bakersfield? Though they have the country-music connection. Or Fresno, maybe? Phoenix? It's hard to say. Americans tend to make fun of the Midwest in the way I think you mean that Brits make fun of Swindon.
Okay. Swindon still is considered England's joke town par excellence. My wife went to see a performance of a play in London last week. It was a farce. She said two or three times in the play they mentioned Swindon, and of course the audience just roared with laughter. Just say the name, and it's like that's the comedy button pressed, you know? Because we came from England's comedy town, we were considered to be worthless yokel trash. Whereas if we came from a big city like London or Manchester, we would have probably have been heralded as more godlike. I don't get the godlike thing at all with people like the Smiths. I never saw it. I just thought this is a man who sings a two-note melody no matter what the chord structure." Johnny Marr is just the new Graham Hicks. Is it Graham Hicks? Who is the Hollies guitarist? They even look similar. From the same neck of the woods and look similar. What is this godlike thing about the Smiths? I don't get it.
You think it was all because they came from Manchester? [The Smiths-loving interviewer hereby shamefully admits to having bitten his tongue until it bled at this point.]
It comes from a big city, which is considered to be big and serious. Therefore they must be big and serious. Or anybody from London, no matter how stupid, who came from London, which is big and serious. If you came from a little comical town, you were little and comical.
My Anglophilia runs deep enough that I'm aware of the regional prejudice, but not so deep that I understand what it's about. Although in the United States, people love to pile on the South with generalizations that are both completely unfair and weirdly accurate. It depends who you are and why you're doing it.
It really works. The west country is: We're all farmers, we're all stupid, we're all sheep fuckers or whatever. It's a really bad combination. It's a comedy town in sheep fucker central.
Have you considered that as an album title, by any chance?
"Lonely Hearts Club Band" on the end of it... We don't get that stigma in America, because America doesn't know or care about Swindon. We don't get that in Europe. We don't get that stigma in Japan or Australia. It's only in England that we have that very restricted stigma which has damaged us in the eyes of most English people. Also we weren't... Sorry, I'm talking I'm like verbal diarrhea tonight. We weren't allowed a career in England after 1982.
To be continued. Read subsequent installments of this interview at thestranger.com/music.