Our correspondent—who you may know from a little old Athens, Georgia, band called Pylon, and subsequent related outfits—converses with the British legends about their new band, their legacy, the recent XTC documentary film, an epochal (to Georgians, at least) early, concert summit between XTC and R.E.M., and plenty more. Note: A version of this story also appeared earlier this month at Athens’ Flagpole magazine. (Photos of Moulding and Chambers by Geoff Winn.)
BY VANESSA BRISCOE HAY
In which XTC’s Colin Moulding & original drummer Terry Chambers discuss: Great Aspirations, a new EP from their project TC & I; XTC’s This Is Pop rockumentary. What have they been up to and where have they been? I love the work of Andy Partridge, but I wanted to know more about the other members of XTC than I saw unfold through This is Pop... Plus, read a few memories of a legendary Athens, GA show 37 years ago that paired the legendary British band XTC with a very young R.E.M. A show that many fans of both bands wish that they could take a time machine back to. Colin Moulding and Terry Chambers were both very generous with their time and answered every single question I asked. A fan couldn’t ask for anything more!
2018 marks the 40-year anniversary of XTC’s first studio album White Music that spawned the Andy Partridge penned singles “This is Pop,” a manifesto proclaiming that punk was no different than pop and “Statue of Liberty.” I was delighted recently to chat with the formidable rhythm section of XTC’s bassist Colin Moulding and original drummer Terry Chambers about their current project TC&I. Colin and Terry with some help from their friends have recently released an EP, Great Aspirations, via PledgeMusic. Great Aspirations harkens a bit back to the early glory days of XTC, but how could it not with this pedigree. Most people don’t understand how important the drummer really is to a songs pattern and flow – and with the songwriting skills of Colin Moulding, the EP is a delight to listen to. The four songs on Great Aspirations include adult themes about things like conservation and happily facing mortality.The XTC documentary This Is Pop just aired to rave reviews from fans on Showtime (trailer is belowI).
Last year, The XTC Bumper Book of Fun, an anthology of articles from XTC’s fanzine published between 1982-1992 with new material for 2017 came out to rave reviews from fans. (Loved the Limelight zine! And hey, whatever happened to The Little Express XTC zine out of Canada? – Archival Ed.)
VANESSA BRISCOE HAY: For someone who is semi-retired, you seem busier than ever. There seems a sense of both looking back and forward.
Colin Moulding: I always like to be able to look forward to something musically, so the new stuff is where it’s at for me …. but of course, I’m very proud of what we’ve done too with the chaps over the years. Something new and experimental musically keeps me going in my ‘dotage.’
VBH: I’m right there with you on that. I briefly met you and Andy Partridge in January 1980 while passing through the Hotel Iroquois lobby. A lot of bands who were booked by Frontier Booking International or FBI stayed there – I also ran into other bands like The Clash, The Pretenders, Iggy Pop and The Police. Randy Bewley (guitarist for Pylon) spied you two sitting in the lobby doing an interview and asked me to give you our first single because he was too shy. I know that you don’t remember us, but we were thrilled!
CM: I hope we were courteous when we met. I remember the cockroaches at the Iroquois… they were certainly friendly. (laughs)
VBH: You both were very nice. I can’t say the same for the cockroaches. On April 24, 1981, XTC performed in Athens, GA and the opening band was none other than R.E.M. My band Pylon were out on the road at the time, so I missed it.
CM: I don’t remember too much about that particular show. But I know the reception we got in general across America was nearly always good. The size of the portions at meal times certainly made an impression on me! It was a great time to be young and into music.
VBH: Please tell me how your new project TC&I with former XTC drummer Terry Chambers came to be.
CM: Well, as you may know, Terry left the band in 1982 and moved to Australia to be with his wife at that time. He had made previous visits to the U.K., but this time it was different. When he came over in 2016 for a family wedding he expressed a wish that he would like to come back to England on a permanent basis. He was. I think having personal problems and saw his future back in the U.K., so the novelty of it all was too much to resist. I asked him there and then whether he fancied playing on some new songs of mine that I was contemplating recording and one thing led to another …and then we formed TC&I. A very enjoyable few months we had too, recording and having fun.
VBH: Had you been in contact with him or worked with him since he left XTC in 1982 (during the sessions for Mummer)?
CM: No not really —he would come back for family events and stuff, and maybe I would see him on occasions when our schedules would allow, but generally we were like ships in the night.
VBH: Are there plans for TC&I to perform live?
CM: We may do (that), but you must remember we pretty much played most of the stuff on the record between ourselves, so as such, we don’t have a band. Fnding players who are sympathetic to our sensibilities won’t be easy, but if we click with some other musicians then yes, it’s a possibility-I think quite soon we’d like to do some more recording too. Fitting it all in is difficult.
VBH: Apart from the existing ‘Scatter Me’ video, will there be another video forthcoming?
CM: We were going to do another for “Greatness” but it’s such a difficult subject to find tangible visuals for, so it may happen- depending on suitable visuals. We have some shots for it, but nothing we are happy with thus far
VBH: I have read that Terry Chambers’ son is a drummer like his father. Can Terry tell us anything about that?
TC: My son Kai plays in an Australian band called October Rage. They have a deal with a record company in Salt Lake City, Utah called Aircastle and they regularly play the U.S.- mainly in the mid-West. They are a fairly heavy rock band.
VBH: Are you writing new material together for this project with plans to record it?
CM: After ‘Great Aspirations,” there is plans to do more. Terry doesn’t write per se, so I have to have time off to formulate ideas for us to record. At the moment we’re doing promo for the EP, so I am not settled into this process yet. Besides, we want to keep them special and fun. The conveyor belt of the old days doesn’t apply anymore.
VBH: The documentary This Is Pop was great! I would have liked to have seen a little more about the other members’ background. I really love Andy Partridge’s work, but I love the other members work too.
CM: I think documentary film making is a certain (type of) art. The director must entertain, inform and keep his backers happy too. Andy’s breakdown and his subsequent refusal to tour was headline news -so there you have it. There were other tributaries that the story could certainly have taken, but in the interest of holding a (story) thread and keeping a strong central core, it was told this way.
VBH: What attracted you to music initially and what was your first instrument?
TC: At first, I wanted to play piano for some unknown reason. That idea never came to fruition. I think maybe because I became obsessed with rock music in late 1968-69 and suddenly thought …drums! I was 14 years old. I had an inspired moment and sought out a drum kit reasonably priced at Kempsters, a music shop in Swindon. I think the kit cost around £35-50* which was bought from money that I had saved from my after-school job stacking shelves at a local grocery store. The kit was a lovely blue coloured Broadway drum kit made by John Gray. When I got the kit home, I didn’t even know how to set it up and had no idea how to play. I learned to play by listening to my sister’s records on an old mono record player hitting parts of the kit that seemed to sound like what was on the records. For example: that sounds like this one – then hitting the snare drum, bass drum etc.
I hope that this helps to explain my perhaps unorthodox playing style rather than the usual text book style.
*Note: This was about $80-115 in US dollars at the1975 exchange rate – which is now worth about $380-540 adjusting for 2018 inflation. A lot of stacking shelves, I’m sure!
CM: I first noticed being moved by hymns at school, but I couldn’t work out why some moved me, and others didn’t. What was that thing that gave me a lump in my throat? “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” still moves me today. * This coincided with hearing pop music on the TV and radio-The Beatles in particular, as well as The Kinks, Dusty Springfield, and Spencer Davis. I loved the melodies of it all. My first instrument was the bass guitar-right from the start. I thought that it would quickly get me into a band and make me popular with girls. In fact, we knew people who just carried a guitar around with them most of the time, without a clue as how to play it, just for that purpose.
*Note: This hymn originates from a poem penned by Sir Spencer Rice which was adapted by Holst to music from his work Jupiter.
VBH: Who was an early influence on your style?
CM: A chap called Andy Frasier. You may recognize the name. He played in the band Free, of which I was a huge fan. I thought the sound of his bass was very unusual-like an elastic band or something.
Free played in a very empty sort of way which appealed to me a lot more so than power chords. I’ve thought that less is more ever since…
VBH: Were your family supportive?
CM: Not to begin with-no. You see I had forsaken my education to do music which rather horrified my parents. Indeed, I had five very dispiriting years after I had ‘dropped out’ where nothing much happened. So, I was beginning to come around to the assumption that they had been right all along, but the calling was too strong for me. You see one thinks that it’s all going to happen overnight when one has made up one’s mind what to do, but it very rarely does. Then along came punk rock and rather saved the day…it got us in.
VBH: Yay, punk rock! Did you have a childhood hobby?
CM: I was rather taken with astronomy and studied it for a number of years. I also had an interest in maps, which stays with me to this day. I still have my original copy of sheet 157 OS of my local area somewhere in the house.
*Note: Referring to an “Ordnance Survey” map with scale of one inch to one mile. 157 is the sheet number and refers to his hometown of Swindon, UK.
VBH: I’ve never been to Swindon, but I originally came from a town which is much smaller than Swindon. Did you know the other members of XTC growing up? How do the townspeople or the town feel about their most famous product?
CM: I Knew Andy at school because we grew up close by. The other members I met later in pubs and stuff, or in music shops. We are known to some in our town, and even revered and respected in some quarters. But, I’m sure to others they wouldn’t know who the hell we are, you see, for some, unless you come from London or New York you can’t possibly be that good!
VBH: I know that at one point in the 2000’s you washed your hands of music. I suspect that it was the business more than music because you became involved in some prog rock projects in LA. I must confess to having had a sweet tooth for this type of music in my teen years when I loved bands like Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, Pink Floyd and Renaissance. Tell me a little about your involvement with this genre.
CM: When the band fizzled out I went down like a wounded horse. It had been such a big part of my life that I couldn’t face starting anything new. Very much like when a romance comes to an end, one is still emotionally attached. I had to give it time before I could ‘love again.’ So, I think I just watched TV for two years, and made myself a nuisance at the local tennis club. Then, I began to get offers from a guy in LA named Billy Sherwood who was well in with a clique of musicians that I knew from my prog rock record buying days. He asked, “Did I fancy having a go at contributing to this stuff?” So, I thought, what the hell. Billy actually plays bass in YES now, and tours live with them due to the untimely death of Chris Squire.
VBH: Are there any prog rock recordings that you were involved in that we should look for?
CM: Yes, my favourites are: “The Man Who Died Two Times,” from (LA prog rock band) Days Between Stations concept album In Extremis and “Just Galileo and Me,” from Billy Sherwood’s solo album Citizen.
VBH: What is it like to work with Rick Wakeman?
CM: Rick, I believe, was on a track that I worked on from Billy’ Sherwood’s Citizen record. Files were compiled and sent down the line and assembled at his end, so I never got to be in the same room. It was all very impersonal – but that’s the industry for you. You can work intensely in a room together for three months with a person and then never see them again – or be at the end of a computer in different towns. Well, they say the internet has drawn people closer together …. Well this would seem the opposite wouldn’t you think?
VBH: I have done very little work like that, but I would agree. You are known for earnest, yet indirect at times pop lyrics and song writing. I know that the first three songs to chart for XTC were penned by you. The first single that I bought by XTC was “Life Begins at The Hop”. A highlight of the album Drums and Wires was “Making Plans for Nigel.” Perhaps my favorite XTC song is “Generals and Majors.” Many drummers have cited the sound on the 4th XTC album Black Sea as the best sound recording of a drummer. There is a little discussion of that in the documentary This Is Pop. To me the whole band sounds very full and clear and the rhythm section is killer.
How did XTC and your producer Steve Lillywhite achieve the sound separation during the recording process of Black Sea?
CM: That sound is the sound of the stone room at Virgin’s “Town House Studios” in Goldhawk Road, London. Not long built when we got to work there-In fact we may have been among the first to use it. We had done Drums and Wires there the year before and the big sound was being worked on even then. Later it was developed even more for Back Sea. It’s the sound you hear on Phil Collins’ ‘‘In the air tonight’…and on the Peter Gabriel album from around that time. Hugh Padham was the house engineer, and together with Steve, they developed it. Essentially the drummer is locked away in a room of his own that is made of stone.
VBH: Amazing. That explains a lot. Do you feel that you are coming full circle with your latest project TC &I with Terry Chambers?
CM: No, because a circle would indicate that we had arrived back where we started and that’s not right. I feel the stuff on (the TC &I EP) Great Aspirations is breaking new ground. To write about death in a positive way (“Scatter Me”) is a hard thing to do – plus others like ‘Kenny’ and ‘Comrades of Pop’ is largely storytelling over fanfares and riffs with sound effects. I’m more a narrator than a tunesmith in these instances. I thought it was something we hadn’t done.
VBH: I see that you play bass, guitar, keys and sing lead vocals and that you wrote the songs as well. Who are the other players on this project?
CM: We had some local players that sang and played the saxophone and trumpet, but essentially Terry and I played everything – more out of necessity than design. You see we didn’t have the big budgets that we had on the XTC records. Susannah Bevington is from a local choir and Alan Bateman has played brass for many people locally. Mikey Rowe is the exception; he plays Keyboards for Noel Gallagher’s band High Flying Birds.
VBH: Is it self-produced?
CM: Yes – and we have a saying in England…’cheap as chips’ – that’s what music has become. Considering the amount of time and expense that one has to go through, it’s a wonder anyone produces anything at all.
VBH: Where did you record it?
CM: It was recorded at my house. I have a facility in my garage. We would run long lines into the house to record things that needed separation like brass and the soprano voice that you hear on ‘Scatter Me’. When you record yourself, one doesn’t have the pressure that one has at the big studios where the clock is ticking……the pressure to get it right within a short space of time is immense. One shouldn’t subject oneself to such pressure. Yes, it was all very ‘Joe Meek’, but I figured that at least we were going to have a record that sounded different. Sure, you will make mistakes – but good things happen when you don’t know what you’re doing…. trust me.
VBH: What technology did you use to record it?
CM: I like the Otari Radar because the converters are so good. Then we transferred it all to Logic Pro. We had a very good mixer chap by the name of Stuart Rowe who rapped our knuckles when we got a bit wayward with the sound, so he was our guardian angel really. I only hope that we can afford him next year.
VBH: Are there plans for further XTC projects?
CM: Well, certainly no new ones, that’s for sure.
VBH: How involved are you with the reissues?
CM: None whatsoever – they are totally Andy’s babies. He chooses what goes on them and it is his choice alone. I don’t think he appreciates any outside interference, so I don’t bother anymore. My feeling towards them is this: They most certainly have saved us from the bargain bins, and I’m grateful for that, but I’m not a believer in (the release of) demos of any great number. You see for me, ‘the extension should never be bigger than the house.’ in my view it rather dilutes the magic. He says the fans want them; I say the fans have had them.
VBH: Do you think that you will ever tour with XTC again?
CM: Extremely unlikely I’d say……. the individuals are far too disparate in thought for it ever to happen. But then I’m not sure whether I would want to …. I think I might feel uncomfortable being in their company after so long…
VBH: Okay, I have two questions for you Colin, from two friends who also love your music:
Jason NeSmith: “Do you have a favorite plant (or type of plant) in your garden?”
CM: I’m very fond of my box plants…which I clip to a topiary shape…. very therapeutic…. i can contemplate the world whilst doing it….
Marianna Silva: “As I live in Brazil, I’m still waiting for my TC&I EP to arrive, so I haven’t heard it yet… But, it’s fantastic to hear Colin and Terry playing together once again. I’d like to know if there is a song or songs that he wrote (from the XTC catalog such as “Nigel”) that he wished that he had done differently on listening to it/them today?”
CM: Probably lots….certainly some of the later stuff which didn’t get done all that well….as I think we knew we were breaking up…like the last days of Rome or something….but going back further…I think ‘Cynical Days’ got some rough justice…it’s far too lounge-y and the clatter of the snare drum on the choruses is not quite right…..but if I went through it all I’m sure it would distress me too much….best not to think about it…
Here are a few memories or comments from some of my fellow Athenians about XTC or that XTC / R.E.M. at the B & L Warehouse on April 24, 1981:
When I was touring Europe with Sugar, we had a truly excellent sound engineer from the UK by the name of Mick Brown. It is typical for a touring sound engineer to tune each venue’s PA with a recording with which they are very familiar and hold in high regard. Every single day of that tour, Mick’s choice was XTC’s “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead.” It was constantly stuck in my head, but I never minded. Great song. Great production. Great band. — David Barbe (Chief Engineer & Producer at Chase Park Transduction, Director of UGA Music Business Program, Mercyland, Sugar, The Quick Hooks, Bar-B-Q Killers, Drive-By Truckers)
The show R.E.M. did with XTC at the B&L Warehouse was one of the most fun nights I’ve ever had, and XTC were as hot as any band I ever saw. The crowd simply would not let them stop playing, and I think they were as surprised at the multiple encores as they were happy to play them. The musicianship of Colin and Andy, and the power of the band, gave us something to shoot for. — Mike Mills (R.E.M.)
I remember thinking that this was the first time I had seen R.E.M. in color… there was a “tree” of colored lights on the stage and R.E.M. looked like a real, pro band! Also, I remember that XTC had a projector projecting words and dots on a screen behind them – “Cuba” “Generals and Majors” etc. The other random memory from that night was that a big old football player-sized frat boy took my chair from me when I stood up to dance saying “get your coat off of my chair, boy” – Bryan Cook (Time Toy)
In 1981 I was a very young student at UGA, living in Reed Hall. Since the previous year my friends and I had been seeing R.E.M. whenever we could, and we were always on the lookout for their next show. We were excited to learn they’d be opening for XTC, we’d been hearing “Life Begins at the Hop” and “Making Plans for Nigel” on WUOG and thought it was cool that our local heroes were opening for a big-time band. At the time our ideas about what constituted “New Wave” were vague at best; none of us had much access to the music press or records, but we thought of UK punk as having kicked things off and of UK bands as being on the leading edge. The night of the show we walked over to the B&L Warehouse from the dorm, crossing the railroad tracks behind the art building. The venue felt big compared to Tyrone’s, which is what we were used to, but the same crowd seemed to be there. R.E.M. did their usual energetic set, much to our satisfaction, but when XTC came out it was instantly obvious which was the better band. They were tighter, they had better sound, and their songs and arrangements were on an entirely different level. It was the show of the year for us and helped us realize that what was going on in Athens really was part of something bigger. Black Sea is still my favorite XTC album. – Brad Cahoon (Athens resident since 1979, Retired)
There was great energy in the room that night, the audience was enthusiastic, and I think the bands picked up on that. I just recall having fun from start to finish – Jeff Hollis (UGA Alumnus, Attorney)