Andrew John Partridge was born in a naval hospital in Malta in November 1953 but grew up in Swindon – a town he still calls home today.
Leaving school at 15, he followed the time-honoured route of all wannabe rockers by enrolling in Art College. In 1972 he met bassist Colin Moulding at Kempster's Music Store in Swindon, the two of them forming the nucleus of the band that would become XTC. Signing to Virgin Records in the wake of the punk/New Wave explosion, XTC issued 12 highly acclaimed albums, plus two as their psychedelic alter egos The Dukes of Stratosphear, and a slew of great singles before finally calling it a day in 2005.
An in-demand session musician, songwriter and producer, outside of XTC he has worked with a wide range of performers including Joan Armatrading, Ryuchi Sakamoto, The Residents, Doctor And The Medics, Blur, Terry Hall, Cathy Dennis, Sophie Ellis Bextor, Thomas Dolby, Peter Blegvad, Harold Budd, Jamie Cullum, Robyn Hitchcock, Pugwash, Meat Beat Manifesto and Lloyd Cole.
With a career that spans four decades, Andy is often compared favourably to the likes of Brian Wilson, Ray Davies and Elvis Costello. He was the recipient of the Q Classic Songwriter award in October 2014. Andy discusses his songwriting in depth in a new book (Complicated Game - Inside The Songs Of XTC), published by Jawbone Press in March.
Q: How did you get into making music?
A: My father always had an old battered acoustic guitar behind the sofa and after seeing the Beatle films and then being exposed every week to the Monkees TV show, Top Of The Pops and so on, I thought ‘this looks good; this is very attractive to me. I'd like to try this out’. The fact that girls screamed at young men with guitars pulled me in.
Q: What were you biggest musical influences?
A: My musical influences are many, many. I suppose the most powerful ones were the Beatles, the Monkees (Andy has a song You Bring The Summer on the new Monkees album, Good Times!, due for release in June 2016), the Kinks, the Small Faces, the Stones and an awful lot of 60's bands. I would fantasise about being in one of those type of groups, you know, making fake album sleeves for them, logos, drawing myself on stage and in the studio with 'them', whoever they were (probably the Dukes?). I remember writing essays in my school English book about being in a band. It was a total obsession with me: a 24-hour daydream every day.
Later I realised how much my parents music went in deep too, with my dad's jazz records and my mums 'musical shows' which came out of the radio constantly at home. All went in the melting pot. Novelty songs were also a huge influence, which is why I think I took to psychedelia so much.
Q: Are there any current bands or musicians that inspire you?
A: There aren't any current bands, as I don't think anyone is doing anything new. The musical landscape is very conservative right now, and I may be passed being influenced. I hear quite a bit of XTC influence on lots of bands though.
Q: Who or what inspired you to first have a go at writing a song?
A: No one song or group particularly, probably one of the more colourful singles from ‘66 to ‘68. Oddly it took me ages to grasp that the missing piece of the kit I needed was to learn to write songs! I had the vanity and the drive, the ideas for presentation, the art side, I even taught myself to play a guitar… but not the song. That took years to kick in.
Q: Can you remember the first song you wrote?
A: Yes: I think it was called Please Help Me; it was truly awful formless rubbish in A-minor. Sophomore to the Nth.
Q: What would you be if you were not a songwriter? Would you have stayed working in graphic design?
A: I think so, but I have to admit what little experience I had of graphic work for 'the man' wasn't for me. It was too restrictive, not imaginative enough. I needed to fly in some way. Visually, musically, as a writer, even a sculptor. I had to be in control of my own creativity.
A: Totally. The first spark of inspiration or creativity is the best. I found the repetition of performance boring; I get bored too easily. Even some recording can be boring if you aren't taking the initial idea higher.
Q: In 1982, after a decade on the road, XTC quit touring. Did it become easier or harder to write once you stopped playing live?
A: Much easier, as I had time, and I wasn't being pitched from wearing one head - the creative, private, naive, childlike one - to having to don the other head: the athletic, performing, public property, learn your lines, get through it alive one. Of course, stopping touring made me a figure of hatred and mistrust from the manager, who just wanted instant live shows cash, the record company who retreated from any promotion of the band, and the other band members, who probably thought that I was ruining their one shot at fame and fortune. I desperately needed a break: it was killing me.
Q: Where do you like to write?
A: Ideas come everywhere. Asleep, walking, messing with an instrument, hearing someone say a phrase. I also agree with Duke Ellington when asked about where did his inspiration come from? He said ‘fuck inspiration, just give me a deadline’. That always works.
Q: Is there a time of day when you find it easier to work?
A: Probably before mid to late afternoon, from waking until that 'slump' time.
Q: What part of writing a song do you find the hardest?
A: Freeing my head from the editor. The naive child in you is the creative one, the one who can put stuff together in new and exciting wrong ways. They can be the maker. The editor though is very needed, as they can sort all the gibber out into a form that can be accepted more easily by others. They are the 'straightener', but the editor and the creator don't get along. The editor puts too many restrictions on to the naive kid. I have to watch out for that. The better my editing skills get, the less the naive creator kid comes to visit.
Q: Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you deal with it?
A: Not to fret, and I get it a lot because of the editor problem. A deadline usually sorts it.
Q: How is your health currently? Is the tinnitus causing problems?
A: I get heart palpitation problems and quite a few complications from IBS or similar. The tinnitus is a pain, but doesn't stop me creating. I'll just never trust anyone with my headphone volume again. The other things put the brakes on more, also the 'everyday life' stuff that you have to do: the shopping, the cleaning, blah blah blah. That stuff eats up so many days. Generally I've never been a healthy chap, I'm more the ill weed who forged his own school sick notes to avoid sports.
Q: What comes first: the melody, chords, lyrics or the title of a new song?
A: Hopefully all of that. The best ones have all of that mostly arriving simultaneously. If they don’t then a good technique might be to take the chord change you are liking and describe to yourself what it makes you think of. The description of this then can make the lyric. It's like you have started to paint some stage scenery and saying what that looks like becomes what the actors say, their lines. That works for me. Also, reams of loose written jibber. Exploded poems, prose, brain vomit. If I get a load of that out and written down, I can always go back days later and find good couplets, titles or even the bulk of a lyric. The trick is turning off the editor, or censor.
Q: Where do you draw your inspiration? Does having synesthesia (a neurological phenomenon in which sounds or words appear as colours) play a part in the songwriting process?
A: Synesthesia is very helpful, especially in describing what it is the chords you have played look like in word form. Inspiration can come from anything though. Some things that are good triggers are ...trying to write a song like one by another artist you admire, you know, 'in the style of' one of your favourites. This can lead you down some great creatively wrong thinking alleys. That can work well. Repetition is big for me, to find a musical phrase that I can leave playing around and around whilst you go into a kind of trance and skate verbally over the top. That's been very productive for me; bring up songs like River Of Orchids (from XTC’s 1999 album Apple Venus Volume One), Battery Brides (a track from the band’s 1978 album, Go 2), Travels In Nihilon (Black Sea, 1980), Stupidly Happy (Wasp Star, 2000)... loads really. That’s a favourite technique.
Q: Your lyrics are very evocative. Do you have a particular favourite lyric or song that you have written?
A: Probably the ones that stand up alone on the 'poetry' front: The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul (from 1986’s Todd Rundgren-produced Skylarking album), Easter Theatre (Apple Venus Volume One, 1999) and Across This Antheap (Oranges and Lemons, 1989) are three that could be appreciated without hearing the music I think. I love lyrics, from any writer, that are pungent and can work on the poetry level. Rook (from the 1992 XTC album Nonsuch) is a good lyric too I reckon.
Q: Is there an XTC song that you’re most proud of?
A: Maybe Easter Theatre.
A: Is there a song you’ve written that you feel you did not do justice to in the recording studio, or anything you demoed but didn’t record that you regret leaving to one side? Personally, I think Everything (originally planned for Oranges and Lemons, 1989) cries out for the full XTC treatment!
Q: I really wanted to do them all, but time and costs meant that many fell by the wayside. Spiral (initially released as a digital download with Apple Box, 2005) would have fit well on Wasp Star and I was crushed that we never got to do Wonder Annual on Nonsuch, which I had a real soft spot for (Partridge’s demo appears on his 2002 demo collection Fuzzy Warbles Volume One). We actually started Everything but it was never finished, not sure why; maybe it just felt too old by the time the next album came around? The group’s way of democratically voting for songs meant that many favourites fell between the cracks for both Colin and I. We should have done This Is The End (a song Partridge wanted to use as the closing track to Oranges and Lemons: it appeared on the 1992 fan club cassette The Bull With The Golden Guts, and on Fuzzy Warbles Volume 3 in 2003), but it was voted down. Jump (issued as the B-side to the 1983 single Wonderland) could have come out better. Part of me thought that may have even been a single, but it was rushed and sounded weak.
Q: Some of your songs - Across this Antheap, Respectable Street (from 1980’s Black Sea) for example - feature a kind of prologue which later re-occours as a bridge with very different dynamics. Is that an influence you picked up elsewhere?
A: Probably from the show tunes my mum would like. That's an old Hollywood trick.
Q: Is there a band or artist that totally nailed their cover of an XTC or Andy Partridge song?
A: The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul, the version by Ruben Blades, was thrilling to hear; also Sarah McLachlan’s version of Dear God (XTC’s breakthrough hit in the US; originally the B-side to the 1986 single Grass) was rather haunting, maybe better than ours?
Q: Is there a song that you wish you had written?
A: Thousands. I sometimes think my whole career is made of me chasing after writing a song as good as Autumn Almanac by the Kinks, which haunts me still. Rain is my favourite Beatles number: a droning nursery rhyme, but magical. I hear the fingerprint of that in Towers of London (from Black Sea). Oh lord, too many songs! So... yeah, a thousand fold.
Q: You usually write alone, but have at times collaborated with other writers. Do you prefer writing alone or collaborating?
A: It's a different discipline. The two are very, very different things. For yourself you can vanish in silence, thought, tinkering, trying stuff out... sometimes for years, on a song, but if you are collaborating you have to be 'present' and compromising. I thought when XTC fell apart I could step into a career as a songwriter for hire, which I've tried to be, very unsuccessfully I must add, for the last 10 years. It seems to me that I'm constantly writing for others, only to have them reject what I do - only for them to go, in my ears, to record far inferior material with other 'hipper' writers. Maybe I am too odd for a lot of the others I have worked with? Consequently I have a vast backlog of demos of stuff written for others that they haven't used. One day I may use it myself. Who knows? My writings for others tend to be straighter than what would thrill me.
Q: Do you prefer to work with people you already know, or are you open to working with other people?
A: I can be OK with both.
Q: You’ve had mixed experiences in the past when working with other artists. Do you find it easier or more beneficial to work with people as a songwriting collaborator, as a hired musician or as their producer?
A: Production is generally not for me. It's too much baby sitting/social worker for bands and not enough creativity. I don't think I have enough of the patience gene and can get very bored waiting for bands/artists to come up to just average. Some of them have unworkable egos where they think that they're so fucking good... but they aren't! They struggle to reach acceptable – but I'm not naming names! I have better luck with being a hired musician, but I'm not that great a player. At best I can be inventive or 'distinctive'. The songwriting thing is my best side; that is what I'm good at.
Q: What instruments do you use to write?
A: Mostly acoustic guitar, but keys now and then.
Q: Do you ever de-tune/re-tune for songwriting or chording inspiration?
A: I had a big phase on doing that in the 80's; I don’t do it now.
Q: How do you record spontaneous ideas?
A: I have a shed at the bottom of the garden for multitrack recording, but for just day-to-day ideas I still use an old cassette machine, as it's instant. I tried using digital recorders but by the time you'd set the file destination, the recording bit rate, mono or stereo etcetera, you'd forgotten the idea. Grab it quick.
A: Never. I have too much fear and respect for the cost of studios and others time, not to waste it. I always have 90-something percent of any song prepared by the time it even gets to a pro studio. The last thing you want to be doing is working out parts with the studio clock ticking and engineers drumming their fingers. The only times I've done this is where the improvisation is integral to the project, say for Gonwards with Peter Blegvad and Stu Rowe (released in 2012) or Monstrance (2007) with Barry (Andrews, former XTC member and Shriekback front man) and Martyn Barker.
Q: What advice – if any - would you give to an aspiring songwriter?
A: Where to begin? Keep your song short: two minutes is a good thing to aim for. The classic pop bands knew that and so did the classical composers. Their best works are strung together chunks of short ideas. Learn and copy from the masters: Lennon and McCartney, Bacharach and David, Ray Davies, Brian Wilson, Rogers and Hammerstein, anyone you respect really. Find out what makes them tick. Remember that you will write 300 or more songs before you start to get decent at it; the ten thousand hour rule applies here too.
If your chords don't move about much, then make your melody mobile... and vice versa; busy chord changes often need a static melody. Never use lazy rhymes in your lyrics, but be creative and make sure they all rhyme well. Anything else will judder the brain to a halt. Try to start with the title line and give them the gist of the song in the first two or three lines. Be concise and never commit the sin of boring the listener.
Q: If XTC had continued after Wasp Star, what direction do you think you and Colin (and possibly Dave) would have gone? Did you have any ideas or songs in the bag for a follow up?
A: I think we had about run our course, and it was a good long run too. I have to admit, I loved writing for XTC and now I don't have my troops, or Indians, this chief is more than a little lost, I must confess. They were such good natural players and music fans. I miss them but the male marriage is over. I've read people say ‘Oh Andy drove the band away one at a time, till there was just him’. That is so far from the truth. I thought in terms of a band, a group, never the solo thing, right from being a schoolboy.
We had a very long career and those that left did so for their own reasons. I never threw anyone out, that's not my way. If the others had of been into it, I would have kept going till I dropped dead. They were my band.
Q: You were approached by Disney to write songs for the movie version of James and the Giant Peach, but didn’t get the gig; you also wrote the theme tune to the US TV series Wonderfalls. Would you ever consider writing for film again, or perhaps the theatre?
A: I have written a couple of film ideas out but neither are musicals. They're pretty good. Opera intrigues me, as I love the scale of it but not the musical forms. They frequently have crap songs, not up to my standards. One opera in a hundred has maybe one good tune, otherwise back to the drawing board with you! Maybe I could change that?
Q: Is there anyone you would like to work with, or anyone no longer around that you would like to have had the opportunity to work with?
A: Odd choices, but here goes: I would have loved to have written some stuff for the Cramps, but seeing as Lux is solid gone... or work with Iggy Pop on an album of material. Elvis Costello intrigues me: he has good lyrics but is lazy with his melodies. I could help there.
Of course working with Macca, Ray Davies and Brian Wilson would be interesting, but they don't need me so what's the point of those particular fantasies? I would like to steer Bowie back to classical song shapes, but he's doing fine. They are all the silly dreams of a pop fan. (note: this interview was conducted less than a fortnight before David Bowie passed away)
Q: Are we ever going to see a ‘proper’ Andy Partridge album?
A: I don't know, as the 'being a pop star' dream faded a long time ago, leaving me with nothing other than the freaky ability to write a decent song. I seriously don't know. I'd like to try my hand at being an alcoholic for a while, but I think I'd get bored with it too quickly!
For a real insight into the songwriting mind of Andy Partridge a new book, Complicated Game - Inside The Songs Of XTC, is a must-read. With a forward by Steven Wilson – the guitarist and songwriter who has been working with the former members of XTC on a series of 5.1 reissues of their back catalogue - Complicated Game offers a unique insight into the work of one of the world’s most influential and original songwriters.
Complicated Game - Inside The Songs Of XTC by Andy Partridge and Todd Bernhardt, is published in March 2016 by Jawbone Press: ISBN 978-1-908279-90-3