XTC ringleader Andy Partridge is attempting a precis of his band's enforced seven-year hiatus. ''Wine, women, and song,'' he says. ''I mean, there's only song left. Not really as gratifying, I have to say, as wine and women.''

Turns out it's been a period of unrelenting personal turmoil for the reclusive south-west England native. ''Went through a lot of illness, including deafness, with an infection in my middle ear, which was very scary because my eardrum blew out,'' he recounts. ''I had blood running down my neck in the middle of the night, incredible pain . . . My hearing got better after about six weeks, but initially the doctors didn't know whether I was going to be able to hear again in my right ear. I can, but it's not great. So, I had that . . . I discovered that I had a prostate, which was a real piss-off. Or not a piss-off. Barely a piss-off. All-night-trying-to-barely a piss-off. I either drank it to pieces or f***ed it to pieces, one of the two. So I've got to go really respectful of alcohol, and sex right now.''

Medical problems aside, Partridge's idle hands were the direct result of XTC's decision effectively to go on strike from their long-time record company, Virgin, in an attempt to better the terms of a particularly deleterious contract. ''We were 19 years before we came out of debt with them,'' he explains. ''Since 1977, things were so bad with Virgin that I said, 'Look, can you please make our deal better, or, the only thing we can do is withdraw our services,' for which we were contracted to the hilt. As opposed to 'to the Hilton'. If you're Elton John, you're contracted to the Hilton, and you're chauffeured there and back. And I said, 'We're going on strike', which you're not supposed to do in the pop world. It's miners' territory, really.''

Five eventful years later, the staring match ended (Virgin blinked) with XTC's release; the group promptly enlisted with indies TVT in the US, and Cooking Vinyl in the UK. Somewhere in that time, in addition to stockpiling more than 40 songs for eventual recording, Partridge ''woke up one morning and found myself divorced, which was very stressful'', and his bandmates, Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory, were reduced to ''collecting rental cars to make up some money''. All of which is a very roundabout way of saying that if you've been wondering what XTC's been up to in the seven-year period since the release of 1992's Nonsuch, don't ask. Just don't ask.

''Everyone said, 'This'll be bad for your career, this is terrible, everyone will forget you','' Partridge recalls. But the weight of XTC's contribution to the canon of what has come to be called alternative rock should be adequate proof against the attention-span-impaired vicissitudes of the pop world. Going back to the band's 1978 debut record, White Music, which yoked post-punk-flavoured angularity to Partridge & Co's quirky art-rock leanings, on through the Kinks-y popcraft found on 1980's Black Sea, and 1982's English Settlement (it was about this time that XTC ceased to play live, due to Partridge's renowned disaffection for touring, misdiagnosed at the time as garden-variety stage fright), blossoming latterly into the sort of rustic, Twentieth-Century-Man-But-I-Don't-Want-To-Be-Here convolution-rock mixed with dissonant bursts of avant almost-jazz found on 1984's Mummer and 1992's

Nonsuch, XTC have forged a template for endearingly highbrow complexity and twisted wit that continues to have an influence on almost every band from Canada (Crash Test Dummies, Barenaked Ladies). In 1986, the band recorded Skylarking with Todd Rundgren, with whom Partridge famously did not get along, but who managed to extract from XTC possibly their finest moment, and certainly provided (in Dear God) their closest brush with Stateside chart success. (Partridge now concedes that he considers Rundgren ''a genius with a small 'g'''.) Earlier XTC is well-represented on Transistor Blast, the recently released four-CD set of vintage BBC Radio 1 In-Concert recordings and a live Hammersmith Palais set from 1980, in the course of compiling which, Partridge says: ''I laughed my socks off.''

He goes on: ''Especially the live gigs. I played them on my daughter's little ghetto-blaster thing in the kitchen, and I was filled with trepidation, because I hadn't heard these live gigs for 20 years. I have a real fear that everything the young me did was really naive and crap. And it's not, and I realise that now. When I put these tapes on I just laughed with a sense of relief and joy, that the music on it was so kinky. It was like this energy attack, this kind of perverse triangular friendly fire. Just the sauce of the lad. Who is this naive, stupid kid making this music? It was certainly fresh in 1977, 1978, 1979, but Jesus, it's very fresh now, because there's nobody that sounds a million miles like that now.''

Except, perhaps, for the grown-up naive, stupid kid himself. Which brings us to the newest XTC record, Apple Venus, the first of two projected albums of original material to be released in 1999. Volume One, as Partridge likes to call it, is an extension of some of the more pastoral elements from Nonsuch, relying heavily on acoustic guitars, and orchestral elements - a 40-piece orchestra was employed on some of the songs, which ''broke the bank a bit'', he notes, ''but it was worth it''.

Lyrically, Partridge explains: ''For me the songs that go into Volume One are a bit on the pagan side.'' There's a lot of stuff about trees and harvest festivals (not least on Harvest Festival), and the death of the old year and the birth of the new, which bears in part the bucolic influence of his English countryside environment. ''I never used to think it did, but it does,'' he admits. There's also the influence of what Partridge calls the ''character building stuff'' he's been through in the past six years, especially on the corrosive Your Dictionary, an overtly-autobiographical screed directed at his ex-wife.

Volume Two Partridge describes as ''basically idiot guitar and drums'', although it has yet to be recorded, and you get the sense that he's a bit worried that XTC fans who've waited patiently for new material for seven years will be turned off by the determinedly non-rock bent of Apple Venus. Not that the man who describes himself as ''bullet-headed and stubborn'' would let such qualms deter him. ''I'm aggressively middle-of-the-road,'' he quips, ''and proud of it.''