XTC's orchestral maneuvers out of the dark
British duo XTC bounces back with first album in seven years
March 26, 1999
By Donna Freydkin
(CNN) -- After going through a messy divorce, losing and regaining his hearing, striking against his record label for five years, and overcoming deep depression, XTC frontman Andy Partridge doesn't much care what you think of him. Actually, he'd prefer it if you didn't like him -- or even know of him -- at all, and focus on his band's music instead.
"We do this for the art, not the adulation," says Partridge, in the midst of promoting XTC's first release in seven years. "I'd rather our music get liked and we get ignored. I don't want to be adored for anything other than the music."
"Apple Venus Volume 1," a remarkable release from the ingenious, and acerbic, British band, truly was a labor of love. More labor than love, much of the time, to hear Partridge tell it. And the solidly uphill trek to finish the album, which was released in mid-March, has pretty much banished any anxiety about public opinion and perception, insists the man who once appealed to "Dear God" to banish war and starvation.
"We've hung together through all of the filth that's been flung at us. The most important thing is the music, and we never stopped doing it," he says.
From legal battles to busted eardrums, XTC seemed to be slammed by a hailstorm of problems. Yet for better or worse, the duo managed to wade through the muck. And now, XTC returns with an orchestral album full of the band's characteristically clever songwriting, nestled amid deceptively light music. Critics love it, and Partridge loves being back.
Law and disorder
XTC, formed in Swindon in 1975, has always been something of an oddity. From the start, the band has drawn on such disparate influences as Captain Beefheart and Charlie Parker. Among the slew of albums they released through the 1970s and '80s, it was their 1987 single "Dear God" (from the album "Skylarking") that, by challenging the Supreme Being on issues like poverty, ignited quite a bit of controversy for its bluntness.
The band is perhaps best known for the 1989 single "Mayor of Simpleton," which peaked at No. 72 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
After releasing "Nonsuch," which stayed on the U.S. charts for 11 weeks and hit No. 97, in 1992, XTC went on strike against their contract with Virgin Records, which Partridge says wasn't lucrative whatsoever for the band. In legal limbo for more than five years, Partridge, current bandmate Colin Moulding, and now former bandmate Dave Gregory spent years developing what Partridge describes as four albums' worth of material.
After getting their walking papers from the label, the band went to work on their first album of new material in seven years. Originally planning to release a double CD set, XTC ran out of both time and money along the way. As an added blow halfway through recording, longtime guitarist Gregory abruptly quit the band.
But, according to the chatty Partridge, "We cemented all the difficulties."
The now-duo waded through the finished work, picked out the best material, and went shopping for a record deal. According to Partridge, the band met with most of the major labels, many of whom were perplexed about ways to market a band that produces music almost impossible to classify, without any ready hits, and, to boot, refuses to tour.
So to do things his way this time around, Partridge started his own label, Idea Records, and released "Apple Venus Volume 1" in the United States through a deal with TVT Records.
Orchestral and acoustic
"Apple Venus Volume 1"'s sound leans heavily on orchestral and acoustic arrangements, and it spotlights a quieter, more reserved side of the always versatile British outfit. The album plays like something of a fable, from the odd violins and looping bass of "River of Orchids" to the flutes and strings of "Greenman."
"It sounds like unlike anything else out there at the moment," Partridge comments. "It's pagan, verdant, greasy, idiosyncratic, salacious."
For inspiration, Partridge says he veered away from the music on the charts today, in favor of the musicals he heard on the radio as a child. From "South Pacific" to "My Fair Lady," Partridge points to light music -- free of electric guitars -- as the main inspiration for his work.
"People ask if we made this kind of record with an orchestra because of the classics and I say no, it's made up of the music I had stuffed into my ears as a kid," laughs Partridge.
The album's calm belies its darker themes, most of them stemming from the seven years of pandemonium leading up to it.
Partridge says the band didn't worry about possible critical backlash. They did what they wanted, he insists, public opinion be damned.
"I'm much more artistically selfish now," he laughs. "I'm aware of damn-giving but I don't give one. I was prepared not to give a damn if this album was kicked. You get old and rhinoceros-skinned."
Nevertheless, the overwhelmingly positive critical response -- indeed, adulation -- has astounded even him. Everyone from Rolling Stone and Spin to USA Today has swooned over "Apple Venus Volume 1."
"The response has been so good, a little frightening, I must say," says Partridge. "I'm a little humbled. The album is out of sync with everything that's happening today and people say wow! It's different."
You can hear XTC on your CD player, but you'll never see them on stage. The band hasn't toured since 1982, when Partridge suffered nervous exhaustion onstage in Paris, and later had a nervous breakdown in California as a result of massive stage fright and continuous panic attacks. He sticks to his mantra that touring doesn't go hand in glove with CD sales.
"No, we're not going to tour. We don't see any need to," he says. "The art that we do is writing and making records. We're not performers and we don't enjoy doing it. We do what we're good at, which is make records."
But in lieu of a tour, the band will be making promotional interview appearances at radio stations nationwide, and holding book signings of its autobiography, the Hyperion book "XTC: Song Stories." And truly diehard fans can check out "Transistor Blast," a four-disc box set of early BBC recordings released last year.
XTC is now getting to work on "Apple Venus Volune 2," which will be as loud as the first album was subdued. The album is slated for release early next year.
"The next record will be rather noisy and crashy and with electric guitar," according to Partridge.
WorldBeat Fresh Cuts review: 'Apple Venus Volume 1'
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