Andy Partridge, longtime member of XTC and highly revered songwriter, knows that his latest project, Monstrance, collaboration with Shriekback's Martyn Barker and Barry Andrews, is facing some strong criticism. "It's really going to piss some people off," he said from his home in Swindon, England. "It's going to upset a lot of people who like the straighter side of XTC. They can be quite conservative."
Partridge has been burning to record improvised music since his teens and when the chance to make such a record presented itself last year, he dove in headfirst. The music itself is a distinct departure from the smart pop songs he's become known for penning in XTC but, he pointed out, the space-cum-progressive stylings of Monstrance are not entirely out of his character. The signs have long been there for listeners and biographic obsessives. If they know where to look.
Read on for Jedd Beaudoin's full interview!
His formative musical years, he pointed out, had two distinct and disparate strands. On one hand, he'd been exposed to the standard pop fare that most members of his generation had cut their teeth on; on the other, he'd also listened to his father's jazz albums and taken in a healthy helping of experimental music at the urging of a friend named Michael "Spud" Taylor.
"Taylor lived about a mile away from my house as a teenager," Partridge recalled. "He was about a year or two older than me and he was absolutely immersed末I don't know where he got it末but he was immersed in jazz and the avant-garde. He got me into reading William Burroughs. I fought against reading books at school. I begrudgingly y read all the stuff you're supposed to read末Lorna Doone and all that kind of stuff that the class reads. The first book I ever read under my own volition was probably Naked Lunch, which Taylor recommended to me. And to get me into this music that he was importing from America and Scandinavia, he'd say, 'Oh, what albums have you got?'
I'd bring out the Monkees and the Beatles, the Rolling Stones. Pretty straight stuff. He'd say, 'Alright. Can I borrow those and you loan these?' I really think it was a case of how he really gently got me into liking this stuff. I knew that I really should listen to what he loaned me because he was borrowing my albums. I think he started me off gently with stuff like East Broadway Rundown by Sonny Rollins. I think I kicked against initially but very quickly that became one of my favorite all-time records. Then he'd try me on Albert Ayler, Terry Riley. He's really responsible for blowing my musical doors right open."
While he didn't experience any memorable or immediate epiphanies, he recalls that hearing Rollins, Riley and the others shook the foundation he'd previously built his tastes on. "It's like the world became much more Technicolor. I thought it was red, yellow, and blue and then, suddenly, I could see that it was the most incredible shades of mauves and browns and oranges and black and white detail."
Once he'd delved in both worlds for a time, he made a serious attempt to make the ideas come through in his own work. "I tried to put it together," he recalled. "I tried to stick these unusual chords or the fact that the scale is broken in melody or unusual choices in sounds or structures. I tried to weld them together with the straighter side of what I liked. Remember, the only thing on English radio when I was growing up was novelty records. There was no such thing as rock 'n' roll or pop radio in England in the '50s and all the way into the late '60s. The only thing of interest to me as a kid were records that had a bit too much reverb on them or some sped-up voices or strange noises or odd instrumentations, the sort of records that nobody makes anymore because they're considered to be the most uncool of all uncool. I loved that. Eventually, I got into psychedelic music, which was just rock 'n' roll with novelty noises. We had electric guitars, drums and organs and too much reverb and backwards sounds and sped-up sounds, all the same noises that were on novelty records from 10 years previous, except that it was considered more cool.
When I was making music myself, I'd try to combine the element of surprise and the element of the unexpected, which comes from more radical music. I tried to combine that with the safe child's playground of pop music. Here's the sand pit and here's the bars with all the rubber around them so you don't hurt your head. The rubber bars are pop music. Then there are weird shapes over there that you're not sure you're supposed to go near. Wow! Look at that tree! It looks scary!. It's like combining several elements together末the frightening and surprise, the stuff that shouldn't fit, just hammering it into quite safe music."
But he'd never really had the chance to make a freewheeling record that tapped into his experimental side. "I've always felt that there was a piece of me that was missing," he said. He did have nebulous bulb of an idea for an experimental project more than a decade earlier, though, and upon bumping into Barry Andrews on the streets of Swindon, offered him the chance to collaborate. Andrews said he was keen on the idea but what thing and another blew him off course for more than a decade. It was only when he returned to Swindon and rang Partridge up to lend some guitar parts to a Shriekback record that the two really began turning seed into fruit.
Over drinks at a local pub, Partridge reiterated his idea and this time Andrews dove into the idea full force. Andrews recommended Barker and a recording studio. Partridge already had some ideas about the shape of the project, a humorous concept that probably would have proved great fun during the heart of the Cold War.
The idea was that the Soviets had actually created rock 'n' roll and were beaming sounds down to the rest of us via Sputniks. It had fallen away by the time recording began but, Partridge added, some of the spirit lurked in the ether during tracking. "I think I was sort of mentally planning that Barry would do the keyboard on it in any case. That footprint seems to fit how he plays to me," Partridge said. "His playing comes from two places simultaneously末it comes from Victorian melodrama and noise. He seems to live in the middle of those two forces pulling him. Some of the tracks do sound like that. 'Mig' sort of goes there. It's like a nightmare of a minimal big band thing. Parts of 'I Lovely Cosmonaut' do that as well末they both have Soviet-esque titles. That Soviet idea was a framework I gave myself 10 years ago, something just to climb onto. That doesn't mean that what you actually make it going to be just that shape."
Once the three friends had entered the studio, discussions about the shape of the music were kept to an absolute minimum. "There was no sitting around saying, 'Well, we'll do a piece that's quiet. We'll do one that starts quiet and gets loud,' or vice-versa.
There was none of that at all," Partridge said. "It was a case of, 'Is he rolling? Alright, let's go.' There was no discussion about keys. There was no discussion about feel. The songs genuinely grew organically. We got a lot of what Barry called the butt sniffing out of the way on the first day. By the end of that day, we started getting to things that were less laying out our goods and more three-way conversations as opposed to three people yelling at once; it started to become more about responding to each other in a cohesive way."
Once finished, the tracks underwent very little editing and although Andrews and Partridge labored briefly over the idea of whether to keep the project at a single or dual disc length, Partridge explained that the finished product emerged almost as quickly as the music itself. That finished product, Partridge said, is likely to alienate him from some who've come to appreciate the distinct songwriting style he's developed in XTC. "There are also people saying, 'You've lost me. I'm not buying, I'm not interested in this.' Some people will die off at one end and some people will come to life at the other. I guess that's how the snake moves." He added that he isn't too concerned about who is ultimately alienated by the material. His own artistic satisfaction came to the fore with Monstrance. "I think that, primarily, you have to please yourself. Your art has to be your art. If I was really worried about who was going to like it, I wouldn't have made it."
Partridge added that even his most pop-oriented material rarely arrives in the fashion that fans hear it on record. Between seed and fruit, there's a whole lot of messy gardening. "When I sit alone I just scribble on the guitar," he said. "I scribble and play in no key and I just skate with nothing in mind. Frequently that's how song ideas will come out because I'll find patterns, unusual chords that I've never found before, or little lead lines that might suggest a melody that shouldn't work over the previous chord that I've played. The hard work is shaping the stuff into acceptable songs. But the process of defining a lot of these songs comes from blundering, sort of being free."
It may be some time before fans hear anything approaching the music Partridge is known for making. He believes that Colin Moulding, his longtime partner in XTC, has retreated entirely from the music business and that making another band record or even one that approaches the familiar may not be a good idea at all. "I think I'd be pretty hard-pressed to top anything on the Apple Venus record in terms of songs. I don't want to repeat that," he said. While he has nearly a 100 ideas for tunes he's more content at the moment to focus his energies on his Ape House imprint. That project, he said, has its roots in Andy Partridge, music lover but also a different long-term passion.
"It probably comes more for a love of packing than music. I love great sleeves and great packages. I'm a real packaging whore末here's the disc and it's in a beautiful case, it's got a lovely picture and it folds out and that's free with it. I love all of that stuff," he said, before adding that he's well aware that working his way toward age 60 is going to place certain limitations upon him. "It's a bit like being a boxer. You can't keep doing it on the level you're used to doing it on, or like being a footballer, you become more manager-trainer-shaped over the years. Maybe it's also the fact that I've been so badly done by the record industry that I wanted to do it straight. All of the artists on Ape get the best deal I can give them. It's 50-50, I'll pay for everything to be manufactured and shipped out and as soon as it makes money, I'll make my money back and they'll just be into profit. I want to run a record company as ethically as I can. I know that that's not the reason for finding great music or anything. But when you start looking around you find that there is great music that you didn't know about."
One of the criteria for being signed to the label, Partridge said, is not sounding like XTC. That is to say, the CEO prefers a few surprises in his mailbox and on his stereo speakers from time to time. "I like the sampler mentality, that you don't know what you're going to find. You might find that one artist is a bit jazzlike, another is a bit folklike and I might take on a heavy band or something. I like the idea of label that's my tastes if I can get a hold of these people. That's terribly selfish, I know," he said.
Focusing on his own music, he added, should be easy, especially if he's able to go in the direction he'd like to. "I want to stay fresh and this whole improvisational thing is very fresh for me. This record will upset people who've been expecting songs.
It's actually something I'd love to do a lot more of," he said. "It's like you've been nice to your right arm all your life and you think, 'I've ignored my left arm.' I want to be nice to my left arm for a bit."