In one of the most heartwarming and genuinely most exciting music stories of the year, the classic XTC rhythm section of, bassist Colin Moulding and drummer Terry Chambers, has reunited after 30 years to play a series of gigs in their hometown Swindon and release a 4 track EP, ‘Great Expectations’ (available from https://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/tc-and-i) as the cunningly monickered TC and I.
XTC are rightfully one of those bands that attract total devotion and, for their legions of diehard fans, it seemed inconceivable that any form of the group was to ever return since they stopped touring in 1982 and stopped releasing records in 2006. (it seemed so unlikley that they would return to stage that we even imagend a comeback gig once and reviewed it here )
Much loved, XTC were a genuinely thrilling artful band with an equal command of innovation, melody and ideas. They were part of my post-punk teens and took me on a wonderful adventure for the next three decades. They didn’t have to be rock star cool as the Clash or other contemporary bands because they were total genius on their own willful, eccentric and quite brilliant terms, beavering away at their own speed.
They somehow managed to cram groundbreaking experimentation into classic pop songs in that quintessential English art rock way that underpinned all the greats from the Beatles to Roxy Music and many others. Formed in Swindon in 1974, their scratchy early releases were full of kinetic energy that somehow fitted perfectly into the maelstrom of punk where we first latched onto them, falling in love with their wonk energy and amazing ideas.
Andy Partridge was the frontman – full of nervous energy and bug-eyed pop songs but Colin Moulding was also writing a third of the songs that initially came under the Partridge spell before peeling off into perfect new wave pop like Making Plans For Nigel and then into the quixotic filtering of McCartneyesque melodies on the mid-period work where they somehow combined their love of all things Beatles and Sixties with then very modern big drums, English folk, African guitars, a new psychedelia and always that quintessential elastic bass. Colin is one of the great bass players from the period who created a great rhythm section with Terry Chambers – the band’s powerhouse drummer who hung around long enough before he had enough of their arty faffing and sitting around in studios and buggered off to Australia.
The rhythm section kinda kept in touch over the years and after XTC ground to a halt. There were occasional phone calls and long silences until the news came out that they had returned to play a series of gigs in their hometown of Swindon where Terry Chambers had moved back to after the end of his long marriage in Australia.
Of course this is no longer the kinetic young band of yore but older years always suited the band who packed wisdom into their chalk hill Englishness and with the four new songs that echo prime time XTC with an added maturity already recorded and a set that promises hits and curveballs, this is one of the most fervently awaited comebacks of any band from the period, especially one with such devout disciples.
We caught ups with Colin and were charmed by his Swindon burr, self-detracting sense of humour and total lack of any awareness of his own pop genius.
How are things looking for the gigs?
‘We are rehearsing hard for the shows in the autumn. It’s so tiring! I haven’t done anything live for years, apart from playing something small for a chap in the pub in the early nineties. I’ve done nothing significant in the live idiom since the band split up in 2006.
Will Andy be turning up at the gigs?
‘He’s gone to ground even if the gigs are awkwardly round corner from his house. I imagine he is scared of being called up and asked to join us on stage! When the gigs are on he is going to the seaside for a couple of weeks. Playing live is not his bag. He got ill through doing it and it poisoned him then and he probably thinks it could all come back which is fair enough.
I think he has set his sites now on the 5.1 surround things with the XTC catalogue and releasing everything! I didn’t have the stomach or the stamina to do a lot of that so I took my royalty cheque and ran.
The last conversation I had with Andy was a couple of years ago. It’s like a divorce and you lick your wounds. Andy and me have had our ups and downs in the last few years since the demise of the band, mainly over the spoils of what is left financially. I have every respect for his talent even if I like him slightly less than I did but I do wish him the best of luck.’ (this bit reads far worse than it was actually said)
Why did you decide to play live again after all this time?
‘When Terry came back to the country we recorded the songs. Because your involvement with them finishes when they are recorded, it seemed a real shame to say goodbye to them straight away. There was a chance to do some shows and we decided to do it even if the song rosta is quite small with only one EP, so we decided we could play some of my more obscure stuff from XTC and some of the hits.
So we are rehearsing like crazy now and getting acquainted with playing live again which is a different animal now.’
Were you in touch much with Terry over the years?
‘I didn’t see or hear from him in particular for a good while. He had his family out there in Australia and this different life. The only time I did hear from him was when he came back for a funeral or he might occasionally give me ring so we spoke about every five years! When he finally came back to this country we have an association because he started seeing his old girlfriend from before he went to Australia and we are sort of related as my wife and her are cousins! Most peculiar! When he divorced his Australian wife it was a long drawn out affair which caused much torment when we were doing the EP.’
Swindon was always at the heart of XTC. Instead of escaping to the big city lights of London you remained part of the soil of their native town.
‘Swindon is vastly different from what it was like when I was growing up. It’s redoubled in size and there are lots of new houses on the fringe of the town. It’s not the town it was but it still has it’s odd identity. It’s not only geographically separate, it’s also separate in its thinking. We are separate in a way. We feel separate.
That was a frustration for us in the old days and we felt there must be something more than this and we got up to London and found this whole new scene up there and it helped bring a bit of fuel for the songwriting but the Swindon mindset gives you a bit of speciality which was also important. Also the countryside around Swindon, with the Cotswolds 65 miles away, Marlborough, the Uffington white horse is fantastic all the way round here and a big influence on our music..’
How do you create a set?
‘With what I’m doing now I didn’t want to end up in my own tribute band so we are playing mainly idiosyncratic kind of stuff that perhaps tribute bands couldn’t play the chords to because it’s too convoluted. I chose stuff slightly left of centre and peculiar to me as an individual stuff although Making Plans for Nigel will be making an appearance maybe – I’ve got to play it although maybe I’d rather not!
There as some favourites that have been altered slightly, like some of the keys have been changed so I can sing them now. When we first recorded them some of them were speeded up to get the singing right. We used to varispeed them and it would fall in-between two keys and because it’s never been played live before and it can take a bit of work to work it out! I also tried to make the stuff as exciting to play as possible and a little bit odd as well.
There are certain songs which I came to like over the years, lets say some of them that were recorded at the time deserved to be forgotten and were put on albums languishing halfway down side two and forgotten about. Years later you view them in a different light and think I’ll give that a run.
We have a surprise for Mr Andy Partridge as well, I guess as a tribute to him. It would have been churlish not to play any of his songs and it’s so I can tip my hat to him and say hello.’
What was it like playing with Terry Chambers again after all this time?
‘It reminded me of how hard he hits the drums!
In the rehearsal room there was a slight echo in there and my ears were like, ‘ow! Fuck me! I remember all you did Terry was make me deaf all those years ago!’
Those minor irritations!
I think he would have irritations about me as well. He’s a very physical drummer on stage but his time keeping is slightly erratic and he wouldn’t mind me saying that. He speeds up in the right places. Sometimes it’s ok for a drummer to speed up. It ’s natural to speed up. We did so much with drum machines after Terry left that it’s difficult to play those songs as they have never been played live. The Linn drum came in after Terry had left so Terry is playing songs that he has not played before and they were the hardest to get to grips with. He can still play the old stuff but the later period, where we used drum machines and click track technology its, of course, harder.
Overall it’s also hard to make four people sound like 15 because later on we were doing overdub after overdub to make it sound the best. It could be like an acoustic guitar soup but that’s good record making. It’s like Phil Spector building up the layers and arranging things so they sound sonically where they should be. But you don’t have that live – that’s just 4 individuals playing which gives it a certain excitement.’
The other two members
‘There is Steve Tiling on guitar and Gary Bamford – who is mainly a keyboard player and feels best suited playing the stuff Barry Andrews played on and some of Barry lines are here as well but he also plays guitar.
There are certain anthems and guitar lines that people need to hear to recognise the songs and our hands are forced really. We have also got to create enough interest in there, enough difference, to keep it interesting but the line needed to be drawn.’
Four new songs…
‘I’d written 3 of them but it was evident that we needed another one because, Hope Is My Finest Virtue, we felt, was not strong enough to be the lead track. So I went back into my cocoon and came up with ‘Scatter Me’. I played it to Terry on my laptop and he felt there was something there and then we played it to Stuart Rose, the mixer, and he said ‘bloody hell, that’s the best one!’
That song has got a number of references in there. There was a Top Of The Pops influence from McGuinness Flint ‘When I’m Dead And Gone’ from 1970 which I always thought was a nice sentiment which was to leave some happy woman living on when I go. I always remembered that kind of sentiment and that came out in that song. Walking over Marlborough Downs you can see all these effigies up there and people scattering relatives’ ashes as well as flowers and photographs as well which also inspired part of the song. People scatter ashes where they want them to be scattered and all these things come to you all at once and help make the song and then the chords make their mark as well with there being a certain melancholy to them which brings something out as well.
Post XTC projects
‘I was approached by Billy Sherwood a couple of years ago and we did ‘Just Galileo And Me’. After XTC had finished I was at a loose end and watched TV for a few years! I played bass on one track and one or two other projects and then Billy’s prog rock thing came in and I did it to keep my pecker up. I also did some local band stuff if they needed a hand.
It’s a completely different idiom turning up with my bass in a studio, plugging it into the wall and sounding fantastic when recording to playing live though! Now its lugging amps around – I’ll do my back in! It’s a strange world that I left in 1982 and I’m back in that world again and it’s rather odd but we are having a bit of a laugh…’
Are you nervous?
‘Nervous? I’m terrified! Jesus! this a bit different after all this time!
Let’s hope there is a lot of love in the room. The internet makes me more nervous as I feel the weight of expectation on my shoulders. It’s not just me, Terry has not drummed for half his life since the tail end of 82. He kind of played with Dragon for 18 months in Australia and then hung up his sticks and he hasn’t played for half his life! It’s quite bizarre what we thought when we started again as being a bit of a laugh has turned into something much bigger!’
Have there been more offers?
‘People might want more but I like the small combo and it feels better in a small theatre where we can get more familiar with the audience. Someone from the fan club asked if we were using a back screen and I said it’s not that type of gig. It’s a four in the raw type of gig. I think he was expecting extravagant flying pigs! I don’t want all that. I want something more intimate, like the old days even if it makes less money…’
Are you going to take the thing further?
‘We might take it to London and, like Dick Whittington, pack our bags but I like the idea of putting a gig on in your hometown especially one where everyone knows where you are from.
I’ve not thought about the next bit. People thought this was a good idea. It’s not intended to start a trend. I want to keep things small and humble.’
Have you any more new songs?
‘To tell you the truth, no! This thing is all-encompassing and it takes over sleep patterns as well. Its blitzed everything having to think about live things again. It’s not like being 23 when you can tour and still come home and write a song. I think I have better songs now – just less of them! I was never that prolific anyway. It’s all-encompassing this live caper though and I have to get it out the way.
‘In XTC I used to bring ideas in on acoustic guitar to the rest of the band and would say it goes like this. It was then kicked about by the rest of the band. Then we had we had 4 track tape recorders which is when I had more of an influence on the arrangements but you would still want the other members of the band’s input as well or what is the point in them being there?
That would be your bit, to put something in there as long as the chord and melody are still there.
I write the same as I did as I think neither as a piano player or a guitar player I play either that well. That means I’m not going were everyone else goes and that is what makes it original. ‘You have to defeat the editor!’ as Mr. Partridge would say when he was talking about the chap who makes things ordinary.
You would get this idea to the front of the mind that had been in the subconscious mind which is a lot better than the conscious one. I have written songs on normal tunings but I like to use different tunings on the guitar to get interesting chords and have a good strum rather than form normal chord shapes. It was an unusual approach that worked for me and I would sing and find the melody over the top. I found that when I pick up the same guitar I have to be careful not to fall into the same old traps and the same old chords and I had to try and get out of that and surprise myself and if that means tuning the pegs to different tuning then so be it.’
And then the song would come
‘It was usually accompanied by some sort of words or a phrase – they tend to come in phrases. They come out of nowhere. Melody lines come on their own but not the full words – they are worked out to beggary really. Then I would come up with several other chord changes or another tuning.
Then it is about honing it down. Arranging the song. Sometimes I like to let it go where it likes – like the Syd Barrett thing of having a melody line that goes over the bar line and don’t worry. Throw out all the old rules and let the song have a bit of freedom, let it meander to where it wants to go. I don’t want to reign it in, just let it happen and let it go – don’t put a cork in, just let it do its own thing
As you get older you run out of tricks and more bizarre ways of finding them. You will do anything – like put a capo in ridiculous places in the desperation to come up with something that has not been done before but there are only so many tricks in the book. You also get less prolific as you get older. I graduated to keyboard recently where I don’t know what I’m doing and good things can happen there.
I got a drummer pecking at my heels. I’m not sure if he likes the recording process which is still a lot of hanging about. He helped me a lot in the studio, working the machines while I did the vocal and then I recorded him. It was just the two of us. You need more than just yourself. You need someone to record you. In the general course of things, drummers have a raw time in the studio. What is there to actually do after you have recorded your parts? Just a lot of hanging about on the settee.’
‘The early XTC stuff – I don’t have much interest in it now. I was learning how to be a writer at the time. It has that desperation about it. I don’t even know what the songs were about now to be honest. I was being led by other people. There is a bit of Andy and a bit of Barry in there as I was unsure of myself. It wasn’t until Barry left the group that I found my voice and it was more melodic than the punk thing. Not that we were really that punky. We just played very fast songs. Barry was very terrifying at the time. He wanted his own group and he got that with Shriekback. He had lived in Swindon since he was six and he wanted to be back in London and eventually opened a shop selling metal sculpture. Then he came back to Swindon. I saw him back at the studio where we worked in last year and we had a chat. Terry has been out with him a few times. Barry was shocked that we had started playing again but then again so are we.’
‘People ask whether I have an album in me. I’m not sure that at 63 you should be making plans. To be honest I don’t know whether I have an album in me or even another EP. If I have new songs I would like to them out stuff but if I don’t have to then I’d rather not do it.
We don’t have record company pressure or need something to get out of contractual obligations. We can put it out ourselves when we got it ready. No one gets shafted. No one is disappointed and the band mean what they do. I’m not sure but I might play a few more shows in the early part of the New Year, on the other hand, I want to think about going into a cocoon again! maybe I’m spent force, John.’
Our task as fans is to keep Mr. Moulding out this cocoon. The new songs are easily up there with his great XTC moments and this is one ‘comeback’ that will be cherished.