A Watershed Moment: XTC's Andy Partridge On English Settlement
, February 6th, 2012 04:33
'Hail to the provinces!' says Jim Keoghan while talking to Andy Partridge of XTC, 30 years after the release of English Settlement
It sometimes gets forgotten that it’s the small, unassuming places that can produce great bands and sounds. A lot of attention gets focused on the big cities, their cultural vibrancy and inherent tension seen as vital components in the creation of music. But not everyone can come from London or Manchester and across the years our collective small towns have yielded many great bands, despite the fact that those same towns might regard am-dram as culturally relevant and still have visiting performances from The Barron Knights.
Swindon exports XTC are a case in point. Not always seen as the coolest of groups and one for whom commercial success deserted them for much of their later career, they were nevertheless a band that were rarely content to stand still; possessed of a back catalogue that embraced many different sounds and genres, including a stint as their neo-psychedelic side-project, The Dukes Of Stratosphear.
Thirty years ago, XTC released English Settlement, an album that many critics, both then and since, have regarded as their finest. It’s a release that holds a special place in their discography; but not just for the critical acclaim it garnered. It was an album that marked a specific turning point for the band. Not only did it see them abandon the muscular sound that they had spent nearly a decade honing but its release would also see them stop life as a touring entity all together.
The driving force behind this change of direction was the band’s frontman and principle songwriter, Andy Partridge, who a few months ago was kind enough to give me the story behind this transformative album.
How would you characterise the change in the band’s musical direction that took place on English Settlement?
Andy Partridge: We’d spent the best part of a decade developing quite a thumping sound, one best exemplified on our previous album, Black Sea. With English Settlement I wanted to move in a more pastoral, more acoustic direction. I remember taking some time off, locked away in a flat above a shop in Swindon, to work on how to capture this. Although I’d been writing in a certain way and style for years it actually came quite naturally.
What was the motivation for the change?
AP: I had a new guitar, (I’d given away my old one on swap shop) so there was a touch of new gear syndrome. But more than anything else I wanted to produce a sound less geared to touring, which the muscular sound that we had developed was perfect for. The problem for me was that I was beginning to absolutely hate touring. I wasn’t a young man anymore and my body was starting to rebel against the lifestyle. We’d been doing it pretty much non-stop for nearly a decade and I was sick of it all: the crap food, the hours stuck on a bus with the same faces and the general soul-destroying tediousness of it. I got it into my head that if I wrote an album with a sound less geared towards touring then maybe there would be less pressure to tour.
How was the change of direction greeted by the other members of the band?
AP: There wasn’t a problem; they all seemed to welcome the new stuff and what I’d written seemed to complement the few tracks that Colin (Moulding) had done for the album. The time felt right for a bit of a change anyway and I think this was a feeling shared by the other members of the band. The recording experience was actually one of the best I ever had. We did it in this massive manor house that Virgin had bought out in the Oxfordshire countryside, all four-poster beds and roaring fires. I remember that we spent a bit too much of our time there playing conkers when we should have been recording. That just shows you the heady excesses of our ‘rock & roll’ lifestyle.
Although your previous albums had done well, English Settlement was a much bigger seller, did this surprise you?
AP: No because I recognised that it was a good collection of songs that should do well. We’d been slowly inching our way into the public’s consciousness and there was every reason to believe the album would inch us on a bit further. The high charting of the single that preceded the album’s release, ‘Senses Working Overtime’, also buoyed-up our confidence a bit.
Following the album’s release was there pressure from the record company on the band to tour?
AP: Sadly yes, nothing had changed; my musical rebellion going virtually unnoticed. We were bullied back onto the road and that really started to wind me up. I’d be there onstage thinking: ‘I hate doing this.' The anger towards being made to tour and the mental stress it was causing me began to manifest itself in stage fright, which I’d never had in my life. It didn’t help that my mental state was being exacerbated by the impact of Valium withdrawal, which I’d been on since my early teens.
It all came to a head on our US tour. I managed to get through the first show, but it was an awful experience. I was onstage and couldn't remember how to play the guitar properly. I was in terrible pain and my nervous system was just going wild, like somebody had just run me over in a car. Then on the second night, this was in LA, I cracked-up completely. I really believed that I was going to die, it was that bad. I just had to get off the stage. And that was the end for me and touring. I just couldn’t do it anymore.
How did the other members of the band react to your problem?
AP: A band with a singer who can’t be a get on stage and perform in front of a big audience doesn’t sound like a great idea but as a group we adapted. The other members were supportive and together we were committed to continuing things even if that meant we’d only ever be a studio entity from then on. It wasn’t ideal and I think that not being able to tour definitely affected our popularity later on but at the time we couldn’t really see any other way around things.
English Settlement was something of a watershed moment for XTC; an album that seemed to promise your progression up the music world’s greasy poll, yet untimely marked the point where the band’s popularity started to ebb. How do you look back on it today?
AP: I still think it’s a great album, although not my favourite. It was a joy to write and to record and despite what happened I still look back on some of that period fondly. We might have missed our chance at making it really big but in the years that followed we still made some great, critically acclaimed albums and expanded our sound to include other genres.
I do still listen to the album now and then. It sounds especially good when I listen to it when very drunk because then it’s like I’m someone else and I’m hearing it for the first time. And when I do that I realise just how fucking great it really is.