Backseat Mafia recently enthusiastically reviewed the new EP “Great Aspirations” from XTC‘s Colin Moulding and Terry Chambers, released under the name TC&I. We were very luck to get the chance to fire some questions to XTC’s legendary singer/bass player Colin Moulding about his new release and about the place XTC held in the pantheon of pop.
June 1976, the Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall – purportedly the gig that changed the world. Was there a similar moment of musical epiphany for you and Andy Partridge when you began writing songs? Or were you just doing your thing and got caught up in the slipstream of signings that occurred as part of the so-called new wave post punk explosion?
Yes I think the latter. Punk was the catalyst to get us in the door. The industry in those days was a pretty closed shop, so after bands like Genesis, and Gentle Giant, record companies were very confused by it and, so as not to miss out , signed everybody! It was then that we were able to prove what we could do and rise up the ladder. We were pretty fast and frantic in those days and maybe record companies thought that we must be punk because we played in excess of 150 beats per minute.
You both grew up in Swindon. Did this town define you or was its influence on you merely peripheral?
Well I think your home town defines you whether you like it or not. The band banter and in jokes were just pure Swindon. It’s a town that remains still quite separate from the outside world, and back then even more so. In the end it wasn’t necessary to move to London, it was just a more expensive place to live and besides we were having an influence quite happily just being an hour away. Our Ace card was having a manager who could get us gigs in London, so we could play in front of influential people.
What regrets do you have about XTC and its history – is there anything you would change if you could?
Certain ill fitting slacks and shirts. Advised haircuts come at a premium obviously. I also wished we’d had a hold on the finances at an earlier stage, but once again, when one starts in this game that is not one’s priority. The songs were written when they were written:it’s what your imagination gives you at the time. I don’t think they were too bad…
Do you feel XTC has achieved or deserves a place in the history of rock/pop music? Is there frustration that critical and peer adulation never really transferred to relative commercial success?
Yes I think we’ve earned our blue plaque. In some quarters we were told we had something and this was enough to keep us going. To be honest , I was just glad I was working, and doing something that I really enjoyed and you know what? I’d have done it all for nothing.
Have you had much contact with Andy Partridge, particularly given the recent release of deluxe editions of XTC recordings he has been overseeing?
Just business stuff really. We’ve had a few flare ups over certain issues, but have managed to keep the lines of communication open. Probably not a good thing to air one’s washing in public. The reissues have saved us from the bargain bins but probably not in the way that I would have liked.
I’m sure you must be very bored of this question but it has to be asked: is there any sign of XTC reforming? What needs to be done and how would you personally feel about that?
I’m not sure that I would want it, if it were possible. Too much antiseptic has gone down the lavatory…all the good bacteria has disappeared and nurturing new germs might be more than we’ve got.
“Great Aspirations” is your first major release since XTC disappeared on 2006. Does it reflect the output of a continued creative development since 2006 or is it the result of a recent return to and interest in producing music?
Yes more the latter – when the band fizzled out I think I watched tv for two years…it was a love that I had to get over before a new romance could start. I was still emotionally attached to it all. But slowly I learnt to love again…
I did sessions for other people for about 6 years off and on, then lo and behold a genie appeared in the shape of Terry Chambers. He’d been in Australia for 34 years mainly working in the construction industry and was having personal problems so came back to England. I thought it was a long shot but asked him if he was interested in working on a few songs that I had squirrelled away.
What is it like to be back working with Terry?
Well unusual! Having mixed concrete for the past 34 years it has obviously been a natural follow on from playing the drums (is there a difference?). You see we were born within a mile of each other, within one month of each other, and something about the punch of his foot with the pluck of my note…it’s a very satisfying match.
I understand that you have stated that “Greatness” reflects a fear of the dumbing down of the world. I have always thought of your songs as being in a unique style of clever pop, linked with bands such as Talking Heads, Elvis Costello through to The Go-Betweens, Aztec Camera to more recent bands like British Sea Power and The National. Has clever pop ever been commercially sustainable in the world of disposable pop?
I just think that in England we live in a country where everyone gets a prize now. People are let down gently from failure, when really the hard knocks are what we need. I like my lords to be haughty…living down gravel drives up in their ivory towers: that’s where I like them. That way it will encourage me to scratch and scrape my way up to where they are. In answer to the second half of your question: well it’s all done on a shoestring anyway, so probably not.
“Comrades of Pop”, you have said, is not directed at XTC’s turbulent history or Andy Partridge in particular but is more of a caution to nascent musicians about the financial perils of the industry. What is the future of music – is rock dead?
As much as it grieves me , I am probably nearing the end of my pop career, and I just wanted to pass the baton on to some of the young guys coming into the industry, just to say that this is the likelihood of what will probably happen to you and the band, but whatever you do , don’t get tangled up with the money men as they will probably make mincemeat of you. It’s just a little poem set to an emotional fanfare. I did it because as far as I know it hadn’t been done, or at least not about the industry. Is rock music dead? Well it’s had the last rites given before and I dare say if it goes away it will come back. In this game nothing really dies , it just comes back in another guise.
Does “Kenny” reflect a yearning for an England of the past or just a cautionary tale of development?
Its about building on the playing fields. Schools and waste grounds where footballing talent is nurtured. It has been a bad trend of local councils to sell off playing fields for development for some sort of well publicised carrot, but everyone knows it’s done to raise money to balance the books. Kenny is just the central figure in the landscape. It’s cut to a guitar riff meant to sound like the motion of a train…that’s where one sees the playing fields in all their glory…from the window of a train.
Aesthetically, there has always been something unique about the artwork for your albums: what can you tell us about the cover to “Great Aspirations”?
It’s the emblem at the bottom of my bed…i have a brass bedstead..and as I write in bed…I’ve been staring at it these past month. I’m sure it’s had something to do with the birth of the songs.
Is there any contemporary rock/pop music you listen to and like?
Well I like melodies…there are some good pop ditties that seem to lurk in the shadows of the industry. I liked Allyson Seconds’ ‘Little World’. What I seem to like the industry doesn’t or it is not aware of, so I don’t know.- angst seems to find favour more than exhilaration or maybe the public are used to angst and expect it now.
Finally, what are your top ten albums of all time?
I certainly enjoyed listening to these:
Revolver — Beatles
Rubber soul — Beatles
Innervisions — Stevie Wonder
We’re only in it for the money — Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention
The LA’s – The La’s
My Fair Lady soundtrack (I’m sure there are other soundtracks too)
And of course these – where my teenage mind was perfectly in sync with the UK underground scene, so indelibly emblazoned on my mind, thus so tainted with a rose coloured varnish:
Led Zeppelin 2 – Led Zeppelin
Fire and Water — Free
Black sabbath — Black Sabbath
Thank Christ for the Bomb — the Groundhogs
On the Boards — Rory Gallagher