Meet: Is this Pop? Colin Moulding (XTC) has a chat about his new single, the old stuff and the secret to writing pop songs

It’s been over 3 years since ex XTC singer/bass player Colin Moulding teamed up with ex-XTC drummer Terry Chambers under the moniker TC&I to record the brilliant EP ‘Great Aspirations’ and the follow up live album ‘Naked Flames: Live at Swindon Arts Centre’. Moulding of course wrote some of XTC’s most iconic pop songs including “Making Plans For Nigel’, ‘Life Begins at the Hop’ and ‘Generals and Majors’.

Now Moulding is back and has released a three track CD entitled ‘The Hardest Battle’ through Burning Shed Records.

Moulding took some time to have a chat with Backseat Mafia via zoom about new music, old music and pop music.

First of all, congratulations on the new mini-EP/CD single or whatever the correct term is…

Well, it’s a single isn’t it, I guess?

Ignoring the work you released under the name The Colonel, ‘The Hardest Battle’ is billed as your debut solo – what is it about the process that makes it different from your previous releases?

I don’t know – it’s just another song really, I was the only person working on it, so I suppose it had to be me in the title. It’s no big deal (laughs)…it’s just material!

What was the recording process?

I’ve got my own little set up on the side of my house – it’s where I worked with Terry (Chambers) on the TC&I stuff – and what with this crazy year that’s just happened with the pandemic, Boris Johnson told me to stay at home, so I did (laughs) – what can one do?

I thought I’d have a go during the pandemic, and it would mean me playing everything, but you know – worse things happen. I had a go, and it came out rather well so I thought I might as well release it.

Normally I would squirrel these things away and usually wait until I’ve got something a bit more for a larger project, like an album, but I thought, you know what? I’m in my mid 60s now and nobody knows what’s around the corner.  I mean at my age, you run to the doctors; you don’t walk! (Laughs) I said to myself: ‘you haven’t got time old chap you’ve got put it out there now’, so that’s what I did.

You humbly make it sound so simple, but surely, it’s a lot more complex than that…

Yeah, the arrangement took a while to get together – you know – what instrumentation to use and there were quite a few false starts, but I’m used to that – you can just scrub it out and have another go. That’s the beauty of working in your own studio. If you’re not working in a major studio then the clock isn’t ticking. Of course, you can rehearse it – in the early days of XTC we would rehearse and rehearse and so when we went into the studio we knew what we were doing, you know, but this time I work in reverse – I just blunder into it.

How do you record?

For the initial recording I recorded to RADAR, which is a standalone recorder made in Canada, and I inherited the band’s RADAR after the band dissolved and since then I’ve had two more. So, I work on a standalone recorder and then I put the recordings into the computer to assemble them via digital transfer and I usually put them into Logic.

It’s a lot easier with the digital process compared to when you first recorded back in the 70s?

It is, but something is lost when you have to do everything yourself. Back then, everything was done for us – I really had no experience of being an engineer. All this has come about in the last 10 years really and I thought, well, if I’m going to actually release anything it has to be of my own volition, and I have to learn how to be an engineer as well. It’s really not my bag but, yeah, I’m getting used to it, but when you’re a one man band and a one man engineer it’s quite a bit to do! I’ve made mistakes obviously!

In the old days you had to play note perfect when recording whereas these days you can just cut bits out and paste them across the entire song…

Yeah, there is cut and paste aspect – but something’s lost in regard to having someone else actually recording you and you are able to think more about playing. Back in the really early days we used to just take our live set and record that. Then we realised what studio could really do, and then you get a little bit fussier over the arrangements and then you want certain colours brought in – that was all good. You thought about the arrangements more because the albums got more costly as you went on and there was this huge palette that you could use and therefore you are going to use it! In the early days you just banged it down and it was done! Now it’s good because I don’t worry about the cut and paste, I just do another performance. However, if I thought, Christ there is something magical there I’ll snip that out of course, and re-use it, but I don’t do this too many times – I like to perform it if I can.

It’s more organic, I guess…


At this stage ‘The Hardest Battle’ is only available on CD – is it going to be available as a digital download or even a vinyl?

I don’t know – I told Burning Shed ‘look, sell the CDs and we’ll see about everything else later’. I think we’re well on course to sell out of the CDs anyway so maybe it will eventually be available as a download, yes.  Vinyl, I don’t know.  People said ‘you ought to do vinyl’ so we did some vinyl of the TC&I EP – there’s still lot on the shelves I’m afraid… (laughs)

Is that right?

Yeah, Burning Shed still have about 300 of them still left so I don’t know. I leave that decision to the guys that do that sort of thing! (Laughs)

There was an interesting statistic that vinyl outsold CDs last year…

Yep, that’s possible, but my perfect format would be CDs in a vinyl package! That’s not going to happen! I love CDs I think the sound of them are far superior to anything – certainly to (mp3s) – there’s a big difference if you can compare them.

Vinyl has a certain sound, but I do like the expansiveness of CD’s, but you know, they come in this fiddly package; that’s the problem. It would be great if they came in a poster sized package like vinyl!

Can we expect an album next? There have been a lot of people asking this question…

I know, I know! I think the old rules don’t apply anymore – I love the single format, the culture of it – I always did. And another thing is that years ago I probably would have squirrelled the songs away for an eventual album because I felt that that’s what you had to do. But, you know, I’m at the age now where I just haven’t got time to hang around, and me doing an album will take forever – three or four years! I just haven’t got that time to waste! (laughs)

Is there an archive of secret material you’ve got squirrelled away?

 No – when I write it and I rate it, then I will put it out.  That’s the mantra that I’m working to. I’m not going to squirrel anything right now – if there’s anything recorded you can have it now! (laughs)

It’s kind of well documented that you had a fairly horrendous experience with the machinations of the music industry and became disillusioned – what brought you back to recording with TC&I and this release?

Well first of all, XTC was just a big part of my life for so long you know, and when it finished, it was the kind of…well, I knew it was coming but it was still a surprise. I think that, all in all, it was like a marriage breakup, and I really didn’t know what to do for a couple of years. I thought if that’s your state of that mind, then you’ve just got to grieve for a while and I did, really.

And then I started doing work for a guy called Billy Sherwood who actually plays bass in Yes now. He’s a producer in his own right and he asked me would I contribute to some prog rock records he was making – a band called Days Between Stations. I did several recordings for him, and I found that I enjoyed it and I started getting ideas about doing some stuff on my own you know, but it was a slow process getting back to it, and also, I had the problem of learning how to work equipment and stuff! (laughs). I was used to just plugging my bass in and somebody handing me a cup of tea and I was away! (Laughs) I thought ‘Oh Christ, I have to do all this stuff myself – where do I plug it in?’ (Laughs) There was all that to learn, and that’s not easy.

Do you still have the same bass that you used to use in the old days?

I still have my Wal bass which is the one I played predominantly in the 80s and then I’ve got the Fender Precision which I’ve used on the Dukes of Stratosphear albums, and I’ve got a series of other basses as well – I’ve got my old Vox which I played on the Apple Venus Sessions and a couple of other guitars that have been made for me, and I use those occasionally. On ‘The Hardest Battle’ I think I’ve played the Precision.

What about playing live – you played a few gigs at Swindon with TC&I…

We played six gigs actually! Terry wanted to play live.  I said, since he helped me out on the TC&I EP, we would play some gigs.  It’s not really my bag, I have to say – but I know he was itching to play live because, as far as he was concerned, there was sort of unfinished business from 1982. I said, ‘you know a lot of water has gone under my bridge, I’m afraid, Terry’, but I came round and said ‘alright we will play some gigs’, having no idea how hard it was to get match fit. We rehearsed day after day for months in order to get ourselves up to scratch and that was hard work.  But it was good because the gigs were staged all in one place at a certain venue in our hometown and everybody came to us! It was remarkable!  

They were sold out every night and they really did go down very well, and I enjoyed them, and playing those songs in a concert hall after so long – a lot of those songs had never been played in a concert hall that was quite thrilling. I enjoyed it.  Of course, Terry wanted to complete the picture and tour worldwide, (laughs) and I really didn’t want to do that – I told him I wanted to get back to writing, really, if I could. I didn’t want any resentment to build up, so I thought we have to leave it here and do what you want to do. I think he’s in the throes of getting a band together and that’s what he’s going to do so that’s good for him and it’s good for me too so we’re still good together.

The live album was brilliant…

Yeah, well that was an offshoot of what we did, and Terry actually mixed it with Stuart Rowe. I said I didn’t really want trawl through it, so they did it all together. All that mixing takes time and I’d said I’d sooner not do that, but Terry said ‘I’ll do it’ so that’s what him and Stewart did really, they trawled through it and mixed it and I thought it was really good.

Yeah, it was great because as you said, the gigs all sold out, so it gave those who missed out on tickets and those of us on the other side of the world an opportunity to hear it being played – and it was great hearing some XTC stuff as well.

Yeah, we did some XTC stuff and lot of people commented that they thought they’d never hear ‘Bungalow’ again. That was Stuart Rowe’s idea to do that song – he said the venue that you’ve chosen – which was the Arts Centre in Swindon – you really ought to do something more intimate, not just bang out the hits. Just do something that will bring the audience more to you. I said I wasn’t sure I had anything that would do that, and he said what about ‘Bungalow’ and I said well we could do a version of that I suppose with Gary on the keyboards and me singing. He said, well, just give it a try so we did it one night and it remained an intimate thing you know and the theatre that we chose really responded to that…

I read the on-line chatter – there were a lot of people raving about it…

…there were people weeping in the aisles apparently (laughs). They could have mocked up the tears, but I was told they ran down the aisles.

You and Terry were very patient – there were lines of people taking photographs with you

 …and I didn’t have my best shirt on either (laughs). These days, you’ve got to come armed with your best shirt because people will just corner you and do a selfie and whatnot but its part and parcel of it, but everybody enjoyed it and it was good fun.

Do you ever get accosted in the street as you go down to get your milk or something?

I’m just outside Swindon, my hometown, so I’m out in the country, out in the sticks, so you don’t bump into a terrific amount of people, and most of the villagers around here they don’t actually know XTC from Adam (laughs). I don’t go into town very much.

What is the song that you’ve written over the years that you’re most proud of?

I think some of the later stuff. I think ‘Scatter Me’, for me, is some of the best stuff I’ve done, composition-wise, lyrically and emotionally.  It’s probably the best I’ve done, and I thought, well I hit a good vein here and perhaps I should carry on. So that that for me…since I left the band, I’m probably writing better than ever really.

‘Scatter Me’ is beautiful it captures I guess what we’re all facing as the inevitable end of the escalator appears…

It’s the elephant in everyone’s room…

That’s interesting that you chose ‘Scatter Me’ given you’ve written probably some of most iconic songs in British pop history…

I think I’m a melancholic person and to me the orchards are more mysterious, and the fields are more golden now – that’s the way I feel.

What about albums – is there any particular album from over your career that you are particularly proud of?

That’s a big one!  I like ‘Skylarking’ as an album. I think Todd Rundgren put it together quite well, like the passage of the day, and he chose those songs because he thought they would make a good album. I think he was right, because it was quite a good concept, you know the passing of the day, and then you get death and then resurgence at the end. So, I’ve got quite good memories of that record even though it was very hard to make. I know Andy didn’t enjoy it because there was a clash of personalities, but from my point of view I think it was one of the better ones.  Some of the stuff we did with Steve Lillywhite as well I quite like as well.

He’s a great producer…

Yes – and he lets creativity flow. He’s a good people person. You have to do that when you’re a producer, especially when handling personalities within a band. He managed that quite well.

 What is pop? What is the secret to writing a good pop song?

I think it has to be the bittersweet. It must have both sides of the equation. If you think of your favourite films, they’ve all got passages in different moods. There is a tension and a release. These are all general phrases, I know, but I look back at some of my songs and I think maybe that’s got too much sweetness in it and not enough edge. And I think you’ve got to have both. I know it’s a generalisation, but that is for me the inkling of a good song: you’ve got a certain tension in there as well along with a release. And also, if there is sadness, I mean  – what makes you cry? It’s something to do with a longing that’s been fulfilled – sadness really makes you cry and just makes you miserable and there’s something in chords that can emote but having too much of it is you know – it’s a very fine line you’re walking with all these emotions.

I think if you get that right… and it’s to do with the movement of chords and the placing of the words on the top of those chords of course. The construction of the chords is vital, I think. It’s about release of emotion and the exhilaration in one minute. It’s not easy to describe but it’s something to do with good and bad and evil.

It’s like a tension between bright upbeat music and darker tones and melodies that often feature in your writing…

Yes! I think that’s what you got to do very often if you get bright and breezy music you must make the words more sour, you know, to get that kind of tension going. It’s an interesting topic!

I’m certainly more of a melancholic person and yeah but that can only be put over in a certain way otherwise it can sound a bit schmaltzy.

There is certainly a link between creativity and melancholy…

 Yes and the older you get the more you look back – you don’t want to look back in that schmaltzy manner. It’s like ‘Scatter Me’ – it’s a melancholy subject but I felt that I put it over in a positive way.

In a sense it’s all about wanting something of yourself to exist after you’ve departed…

Exactly! And that’s a positive thing, it’s not just about death, but death with a smile. (Laughs)

To wind back a little, you can go back to the early stuff from XTC which is kind of punkier and even there’s a bit of reggae: was there a kind of organic process over time or did you plan the sound and the development?

I think a lot of it was instinctual because of the times, and reggae went hand in hand with punk or seemed to at the time. As youngsters, the music was fast and frenetic because we were like that – totally wired up. We had a lot of youthful exuberance that we wanted to get out of our system. That was reflected in the music and with the punk around at the time which was fast and furious anyway.

In those early days you really couldn’t make any headway in the music industry, especially if you came from the provinces. It was an industry run by public school boys who thought you were a hayseed, so I think when punk came along it confused the hell out of record companies – they really didn’t know what it was about and felt that it should have been about musical ability. It was kind of a movement that anybody could be involved in, so they were very unsure themselves about who to sign so, in the end they signed everybody! I think an awful lot of people got signed that shouldn’t have been (laughs).

It was like drift net fishing, catching everyone in their nets…

(Laughs). It really was, yes! But it was thankfully, as I said, a difficult time to break into the music industry before that, but with punk we were able to get inside the door.  Once you got inside the door, you can prove what you are about. That was wonderful because you know we had a lot to give…

I read somewhere that you chose bass as an instrument because only had four strings or something and it was easier…

That was a bit of an oversimplification!  I fell in love with the sound of it. I remember around my 15th birthday there was a band called Free – you know ‘All Right Now’ and stuff like that.  I was very enamoured with the sound of the bass  – a guy called Andy Fraser –  and I thought it sounded like an elastic band! It wasn’t deep at all, it had a sort ‘bawpy’ sound and he played melodies and stuff and I thought it was unusual. I thought, you know what? I wouldn’t mind having a go at that because I’ve always been interested in music, and I was always moved by music, but you know I didn’t play instrument at the time, and I thought well what could I do? I just fell in love with the sound of this guy’s bass guitar. So, I bought a bass guitar and started to have lessons for a few months, but they were pretty unsuccessful really.

My teacher – this old chap – had me playing ‘Won’t You Come Home’ by Bill Bailey – it was basically stuff from the 40s. (Laughs) I wanted to turn his amp up so much and one day he went out of the room, and I turned his amp up to #10 and I didn’t know what to expect. I hit a note and the whole room shook it, like a double Decker bus. He came back into the room, and it was really embarrassing because I didn’t really know how to turn to turn it down (laughs).

I was enamoured with power and amplification because I was 15 and I was starting to grow my hair and I was interested in bands like Free and Jethro Tull – more sort of progressive underground music at the time, but I still liked the pop hits of the 60s. I was still a melodic sort of chap but that was my earliest beginnings with the bass guitar.

Do you feel you grew as a musician as the years went on with XTC?

Yeah, I think when you start you just want to become good at your instrument and respected for being a good player and then for an all-round musical experience you start writing songs.

 So, do you feel lucky that you were able to develop this into a profession?

Yes – I gave up my education when I was 15.  My parents were horrified that I was making a leap into the music industry, and I thought it would happen overnight. I didn’t realise that I would have five very dispiriting years before this would happen when punk came along. We were raring to go having been kicking around our local town for five years and nothing had happened, because as I said, the music industry was difficult to break into.  It was a closed shop, so you know, before punk happened, I think we were ready and we played some gigs and we were up to speed.

Does it surprise you at all that you still have such a devoted following after all these years?

 It’s great. I was just delighted to have made a living out of it  and I’m thankful to still be around and doing something I love! Who wouldn’t?

One journalist wrote that XTC were the best British band of all time…

Oh really?

What do you think of that?

You’d better tell that to Paul McCartney! (Laughs).

This analysis looked at lots of bands including The Beatles and the Rolling Stones and came to the conclusion XTC were the best British band of all time.

I’m sure there are people around that think we were absolutely rotten…there are very different opinions in the music industry.

But XTC does have a certain place in the pantheon of new wave music – it must be something that gives you a sense of achievement and pride to know that?

Yes, of course, well I’m thankful I’m still around and I’m still making music. I’ve realised now that it’s not just a vocation for me it’s something that I have to do because there’s like a spiritual thing – it’s like taking a pill or something, I have to do it. I’ll probably pop my clogs with my headphones on in a studio. It’s something that is inside me now that I have to do it. You’re stuck with me, I’m afraid (laughs).

Andy Partridge rings you tomorrow and says 2022 will be 50 years since you all got together – let’s do some gigs. What would you say?

That’s never going to happen (laughs). I don’t think Andy wants to play gigs – it’s not on his radar, he would never want to play gigs and I wouldn’t want to play them anyway. And I feel maybe we just got too set in our ways to even to work together again. You can never go back. The Beatles – even if they were all alive – that would never happen. People move on, the mindset changes and you’re no longer the person you were – you’re somebody else, so that’s not going to happen, I’m afraid.

Different people that made that magic are no longer those people!

Thank you for your time and hopefully we’ll get some more stuff from you in the coming year?

I hope, I hope! I’ll still keep ticking over!

‘The Hardest Battle’ can be ordered on CD single exclusively via Burning Shed Records.

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