Catching up with XTC
by Brett Milano
Fans can get understandably cynical when rock bands start griping about their
problems with record labels. (Trent Reznor's genius wasn't understood properly
by the folks at TVT? Prince felt like a slave while making millions on Warners?
The heart just bleeds.) Fans of the great pop band XTC have undoubtedly felt
that kind of cynicism in recent years. The trio's dislike of Virgin, their
international label since 1977, is well known to anyone who's followed their
saga. But they never dealt with it as drastically as they have since the
release of 1992's Nonsuch -- by declaring themselves "on strike" and not
releasing a note of music in the past five years.
The move couldn't have worked wonders for XTC's career, since they wound up
sitting out the entirety of the Brit-pop revival. And as singer/guitarist and
main songwriter Andy Partridge explains over the phone from his home in
Swindon, England, it hasn't been great on the band's psyches either.
"I miss us -- it's like looking in the mirror and there's no reflection. I'd
get together once in a while with Dave and Colin [guitarist Dave Gregory and
bassist Colin Moulding] and we'd try to bash a few things through. They were
sad sessions; we knew we couldn't get excited because we couldn't record it. If
we did, Virgin would own it. So even playing together felt like a prick tease.
It was like watching a porn film with boxing gloves on."
Still, Partridge insists the move was necessary to dissolve their Virgin
contract. "It was a crap deal, we were on the label 18 years before we were out
of debt. The final straw came when they allowed us to release the single
`Wrapped in Grey' [from Nonsuch] and immediately got cold feet. It was
one of the first singles we've ever done that I was musically proud of, and
they basically killed it. We said, `Right, you're not getting any more music.'
We believed it was time to do the right thing, and I know that sounds crazy
because most bands don't even last five years. But we really wanted to shame
them into releasing us."
The release finally came about last year, and XTC are now negotiating with
various labels, one of which is rumored to be the Salem-based Rykodisc. "We've
talked to all the majors, and it's always the same: they stroke your ego to
zeppelin size and give you the same deal they give bands who don't know their
ass from their plectrum. The indie labels are much more sensible. We may win at
this game eventually."
Meanwhile Geffen (which holds the US distribution license on the Virgin UK
albums) has released Upsy Daisy Assortment, which combines their small
handful of US hits with a bunch of seemingly random album tracks ("It seems
like they just stuck all our song titles on the Geffen dartboard," Partridge
concedes). Although a redundant package -- by my count it's XTC's fifth
compilation -- it combines obvious choices like "Dear God" and "Mayor of
Simpleton" with fannish picks like "Funk Pop a Roll" and "Love on a Farmboy's
Wages" (both from 1983's Mummer, the album that diehards think is the
best and everyone else thinks is too weird). And it traces XTC's career from
the new-wave giddiness of 1979's "Life Begins at the Hop" to the textured pop
charms of 1992's "The Disappointed."
Since the layoff, Partridge figures he's made demos of "enough songs for five
albums if we scrape it, four passable ones, or two really good ones. But
wouldn't you know it, you send these demo tapes to record labels and they go
vanishing; then they get out to everyone on the Internet."
The recent Partridge demo tape I've heard -- through the Internet, of course
-- takes the melodic side of Nonsuch a couple steps forward. "That's one
side of it," admits Partridge. "But I have a mental picture of the album we
want to make, and it will be two discs with two different characters. One will
be the acoustic orchestral things; the other will be all the loud guitar
The return to action can't come too soon for Partridge, who's had a miserable
few years, what with the break-up of his marriage and recent health problems
(an ear infection made him temporarily deaf -- he still lacks 30 percent
hearing in his right ear). After temporarily relocating to New York to be with
a girlfriend, he's now back to living in his native England.
"It's funny, I can't get arrested in England," he admits. "But in the East
Village I'd get stopped every 50 yards -- `Hello Mr. Partridge, do you mind if
I pull up my little leprosy-ridden son for you to cure?' The divorce was rough;
I felt incredibly bitter and betrayed, but I tried not to let that get into the
songs. I didn't want to make a Phil Collins `Songs for Swinging Divorcees' kind
of record -- please take me out and shoot me if I ever do that."