Taking slurps from a disgusting brown drink that's supposed to restore him after a bout of flu, Andy Partridge of XTC is in an unusually quiet mood. But even when he's recounting the band's woes, he can't resist a joke. "It's a catalogue of errors," he agrees, then elaborates. "It's an Argos catalogue of errors."
It certainly appeared an error when, in 1982, after years touring the world, he developed permanent stage-fright and took XTC off the road. With an album and single ("Senses Working Overtime") high in the British charts, they had seemed on the brink of a breakthrough.
Nor was it necessarily sensible to spend five years suing their manager after an unpaid VAT bill for pounds 300,000 dropped through Partridge's letterbox. They lost some pounds 500,000 on the exercise.
Nor was it transparently worthwhile to spend another five years "on strike" in an attempt to escape from their "back of a fag packet" contract with Virgin records.
And, even now, there are those who wonder whether the right way to come back after seven years of silence is with a record dominated by orchestrations: this from a band who made their name with an album called Drums And Wires. But Partridge is not in the mood for doubts: "I was more excited putting the stuff together for this record, in more nervous anticipation, than I was for our very first album."
XTC "downed plectrums" in 1992 after Virgin records suddenly withdrew their last single. Since then, they've effectively been paralysed. "If we'd done anything as XTC, Virgin would have owned it. If we'd farted in the bath, they would have owned that," he says.
They took odd jobs, musical and otherwise, surviving on what Partridge calls "a low average wage" from publishing. Andy, hailed briefly as The Godfather of Britpop, worked with Cathy Dennis, Terry Hall, Blur and others. Colin Moulding, bass player and songwriter, did some sessions and made stained glass. Guitarist Dave Gregory, with only a nominal share of the publishing, had to work moving rental cars around the country, and not for the first time.
But Partridge continued to write. He also built a studio in his garden shed, where he created increasingly finished demos, despite uproar in his personal life. In America in the early Eighties, he had met a woman called Erica Wexler. Their association threatened his marriage: on the Skylarking album, the band's biggest success in America, a track called "Another Satellite" was intended to warn her away. Luckily for him, she was not easily dissuaded. "I fell jam-side up," he says, gesturing upstairs where Erica can be heard clumping about.
In the meantime, his wife Marianne had left him for another man. Partridge captured his anger in a song called "Your Dictionary", intended, he says, "as an exercise to get the pus out of the top of my head". It appears on the new album, which is hardly diplomatic.
Partridge, no househusband, now found himself looking after his two young children for half the year. He began drinking heavily, until prostate trouble told him to stop. "It reduces you to real old man status," he says. Then there was an inner-ear infection that might have deafened him.
But in the midst of his turmoils he surprised himself by finding "a new sound". "River of Orchids", the opening track of the new album, began as a two-bar riff built up from pizzicato string samples, layered with chants and melodic fragments. "I think it sounds like a nursery rhyme," says Partridge, "which pleases me no end."
In 1997, free of Virgin, the band began preparing a new album. Colin Moulding had, as usual, a handful of songs in primitive shape. Andy had 40, finished. He insisted that the new record be a double album of 21 songs, half "orchustic", and half electric. In the event, it will appear as two separate records: Apple Venus Volume 1 and Volume 2.
Partridge once wrote his songs by stamping his foot and strumming into a mono cassette. Now he makes digital demos in his shed, then replicates them in his producer's computer. For the orchestral Apple Venus, the budget allowed a day of recording at Abbey Road, where a 40-piece band played arrangements written by Mike "Wombles" Batt. But the human string players could not match the mathematical precision of "River of Orchids", as programmed by Partridge and producer Haydn Bendall. Nor could the woodwinds cope with the computerised ostinato in "Greenman", another fine example of Partridge's armchair paganism. The orchestra became a glorified sample, cut and pasted together to achieve the "Vaughan Williams with a hard-on" sound required.
Before all that, however, the new methods had taken their toll elsewhere. After waiting years to make the record, then months to slot his guitar parts into the spaces allocated to him, Dave Gregory decided he'd had enough. He had been in the band for 19 years.
According to Partridge: "I said to him, `Look Dave, I need to do these vocals in peace, and I can't concentrate with you sitting there shaking your head and going on about how it's all fucked. So would you take a break while I do my vocals?' And he took that as permission for him to go."
Gregory and Partridge have not spoken since, although there have been bitter faxes. Gregory presents his departure as a matter of craft skills displaced by new technology, and he tries to be conciliatory. "It's not the record I wanted to make after six years of doing nothing, but it's a fine album," he says. "I think Andy's done a good job in recording the songs. Plus, there was a lot of personal stuff between Andy and me that got a bit out of hand."
Recently, he has played a few sessions and recorded a new version of "No Milk Today" for Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits. Friends have received copies of his Remoulds, in whch Gregory creates brilliant Tom Keating-style forgeries of tracks ranging from "Macarthur Park" to "All Along The Watchtower".
What undermined Gregory within XTC was that he was not a writer. Recently, though, he has been mulling over the unfinished songs he has accumulated over the years, with the aim of assembling an album of his own. And what will it be like? "A real kit of drums, a guitar going through an amplifier: that's the essence of rock music - and where I come from. But there's nothing wrong with hi-tech, pseudo-classical stuff," he says, and seems entirely sincere. "I'm a big fan of Prog Rock."
Partridge is currently thinking about Volume 2, to be recorded in Colin Moulding's garage outside Swindon. All very XTC. Partridge admits he lives in a limbo between rock'n'roll and real life. Sociable and effortlessly entertaining, he admits to having no friends. "It's an only child thing," he says, quite cheerfully.
XTC, he says, is no longer a band. "It's more of a brand. It's more HP Sauce than ever. We're two selfish middle-aged gits who make the music we make. I often see people our age in bands and I think `You're pretending now! You're pretending to be rebellious, you're putting on this fake stance. I bet you wish you were at home with your slippers on, looking through your stamp collection'."
Partridge's single-mindedness and his vision have cost XTC a lot over the years. At the same time, they have probably kept XTC going. He surely must have been tempted, many times, to jack it all in, but he says not. "It's not that I think I'm going to save the planet with my songs," he insists. "I'm realistic about that now. But I can't stop writing."
`Apple Venus Volume 1' is released on Cooking Vinyl on Monday (Cook CD 172)
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