Friday, February 1, 2008

Colin Moulding of XTC — Previously unpublished interview, May 2000

Today I break from the usual Bongo Jazz format to present a previously unpublished interview with Colin Moulding, the co-founder of one of my favourite bands, XTC. I chatted with Colin in May of 2000, right after the release of XTC's Wasp Star: Apple Venus Vol. 2 which, sadly, now appears to be the band's swansong.

A little background: XTC — singer-guitarist Andy Partridge, singer-bassist Moulding, and multi-instrumentalist Dave Gregory — went on 'strike' following the release of their 10th studio album, 1992's Nonsuch, in an attempt to extricate themselves from a less-than-lucrative contract with Virgin Records. The trio remained virtually inactive for the rest of the decade.

When they were finally cut loose from Virgin, XTC started recording the mountain of material Partridge and Moulding had penned over the previous several years for release on their own indie label.

Partridge had planned to release all of this material in one grand package that would include a disc of orchestrated material and another disc of guitar-bass-drum pop. But finances and other circumstances led to separate releases: The orchestrated Apple Venus: Vol. 1 in 1999 and the stripped-down Wasp Star: Apple Venus Vol. 2 the following year. The latter was completed as a duo, as Gregory left during the tumultuous sessions for the magnificent Apple Venus Vol. 1. (You can read my 1999 interview with Partridge here.)

In the following previously unpublished interview, Moulding talks about Wasp Star (pictured right) as well as plans for a couple major archival releases: a Virgin box set (Coat of Many Cupboards) and a self-released collection of demos, which would turn out to be the nine-volume Fuzzy Warbles collection. Tellingly, he expresses uncertainty about the future of the band as far as new music is concerned. In the end, Moulding didn't participate in that massive Fuzzy Warbles project — all the demos came from Partridge's closet — and soon Partridge would admit XTC is 'in the fridge', telling interviewers Moulding had moved away without him where he was going or how to contact him.

BONGO JAZZ: In the book Song Stories, the band admits there were heated debates over how these songs should come out. Looking back, do you think you made the right decision in releasing them on separate albums a year apart?
MOULDING: Oh, I think it would have been a bit of a car crash if we had mixed them all up. They're quite diverse in style. I think it would have been a mistake to jumble them all up. They wanted different treatments for the songs. Yeah, I think it was a good idea to separate them, you know. I think they would have been in one box — two discs in one box. But we kind of ran out of money. So we had to hurry up and get something out.

BONGO JAZZ: Recording and releasing all that material at once would have been a huge task.
MOULDING: Absolutely. We had 20-odd songs. What we originally started to do actually was record all 20-odd songs. But as I said, we got a couple months into it and ran out of money and ran out of time. We just had to concentrate on more the orchestral/acoustic stuff.

BONGO JAZZ: Do you believe, after 11 or 12 songs, most listeners just tune out, no matter how good the songs are?
MOULDING: Yes, a little bit of that. The continuity factor, as well. It's important to have continuity in a record. I think some of my favourite albums have kind of a thread going through them. If you put on too many songs, they're going to be outside a field, a lot of them. So continuity is another thing to consider. Of course, I suppose one can get a little weary listening to a large body of work.

BONGO JAZZ: XTC goes on strike for seven years and then, in a relatively short span, you make two albums and do a lot of promotion for both. Has it been a shock to the system?
MOULDING: It's nice to get back working. Absolutely. A shock to the system? A pleasant shock, you know. It's what we enjoy most: working, recording and writing songs. We're back doing what we enjoy.

BONGO JAZZ: Tell me about the construction of your studio, where much of these records were made.
MOULDING: I think I told you we ran out of money. Well, that was part and parcel of it. We actually finished Volume 1 in my two front living rooms. It was quite a feat but we managed to do it. And we hit upon the idea that, because we invested in some equipment, we should take it to my house and finish the album in my house. We thought: Well, if we could convert the garage in some way, we could have a permanent studio for ourselves. That's what we did. My garage was just full of junk. We just took all the junk out and tried to make it into some sort of studio. And it's been quite successful. So we recorded Wasp Star in my garage, really.

BONGO JAZZ: A real garage rock record, then! A lot of time and money must have been needed to turn a garage into a good recording space.
MOULDING: It's surprising. Wood is very good. If you have wooden floors and you have a wooden ceiling, you're halfway there. A lot of people don't realize that's what the major studios use a lot of — wood, basically — and you don't have to make it too dry. It has got to have some reflective surfaces but wood is very kind to sound. So we have a predominance of wood in the recording studio.

BONGO JAZZ: From the standpoints of ease and enjoyment, how would you compare making the two Apple Venus records?
MOULDING: Volume 1 was more dramatic, traumatic and had a band member leave (Gregory, pictured left) during the making. We had a producer (Haydn Bendall) leave as well (laughs). We had to appoint someone else to finish the record and to mix it, so it was quite traumatic. But I actually enjoyed making both of them in different ways. Such a thrill on Volume 1 to hear the orchestra in that big room, Abbey Road, where a lot of big records have been done. That was a big thrill. I think people get frightened of Volume 1 because they think it's going to be XTC Goes To The Albert Hall or something, with the orchestra. They're really only pop songs. Some of them just have orchestral accompaniment. There are only two songs with the full orchestra on. But I like Volume 1 a lot. It's more moody and more melancholy, I suppose, than Volume 2. But they're both different. That's the beauty of it.

BONGO JAZZ: If it's true, it's too bad some people were frightened off Volume 1 (pictured right) because you're right: I'd Like That doesn't have the full orchestra, your songs Frivolous Tonight and Fruit Nut are...
MOULDING: ... well, they're kind of music hall songs, really. Yeah. Yeah. That's what I think. It's just a pop album. But a lot of people thought: 'Oh, it has strings on it. I don't think I'll like that.' But they're just pop songs really but, to bring out the more melancholy aspects of the record, strings are a very good instrument for doing that, you know. The celebratory aspects of the record were brought out by the brass. You just use the instruments that the songs dictate. Some people shouldn't be put off by it.

BONGO JAZZ: At times, did you miss Dave's contributions to Wasp Star? Strange to think this is the first XTC record since Go 2 in 1978 that he hasn't been on.
MOULDING: That's right. Well, I think Dave wouldn't have had much to do to ornament Volume 2 in any case because the songs are more straight ahead and the arrangements were kind of known before we even recorded it. I think his contributions would have been more or less reiterating what Andy and myself had already done on our demos. I don't think he would have had much inventing to do. But we'll probably miss him in the future, yeah. We'll just have to see.

BONGO JAZZ: So how well did Andy handle the tricky bits on guitar?
MOULDING: There were a few solos to do but I think it was just laziness before (laughs). He probably would have given those solos to Dave in the general course of things when we were a three piece because we're basically lazy and (Andy) in particular. He would have given those solos to Dave but Andy is perfectly able to play a good solo.

BONGO JAZZ: Did you miss having a potential ally in the group when you had a disagreement with Andy?
MOULDING: Uh (pause), we didn't really have much disagreement, to tell you the truth. Not on these projects because they're pretty much cut and dried with the demos. I mean, the basic disagreement why Dave left was because he wanted to play more guitar-oriented stuff. I think that's the truth of it. He would have liked to have seen the albums kind of mixed up. He thought it was a mistake to do two separate records, whereas I thought it was perfect to do what we did. Dave — it's gotten rather complicated because Dave is quite a complicated guy. To say he left on that premise is probably not entirely true. It's probably a lot of the personal antagonisms over the years but, if you asked him, he'd probably say he left because 'they weren't making the record that I wanted to make.' There you go.

BONGO JAZZ: Andy told me last year that, once Dave departed, his relationship with you became stronger. 'Co-conspirators' is the word he used.
MOULDING: Probably, yes. I think even when Dave was in the group, we were kind of closer. I think Dave felt a little like an outsider at times. When Andy and myself used to get together and start cracking the jokes, it was kind of impenetrable sometimes. So I think he felt a little bit like an outsider. Also, he came from a slightly different background than Andy and myself. Andy and myself more or less grew up on the same housing estate and came up through the same schools (in Swindon), whereas Dave, I suppose, is viewed in England as being kind of middle class whereas Andy and I are viewed as working class. It's different background. That's not to say we were totally separate from him. We weren't. But there are certain times when he felt that he was the outsider, yeah.

BONGO JAZZ: Songs of yours like Wonderland and My Bird Performs suggest you've never lost that working class self-image.
MOULDING: Oh, yes, I'm a firm believer in only talking and writing about what you know. I can't say I know too much about world affairs and politics and stuff. I try to stay well clear of that sort of arena, you know.

BONGO JAZZ: What about Generals and Majors (pictured right)? Or Ball and Chain?
MOULDING: The few times that I've tried to write about worldly affairs, I think I've failed quite miserably. So now I tend to stick to a lot of personal and a lot of domestic issues. That's what I really like. That's what I think really registers with people. I think you'll find not many people really care about what's going on in the world outside them. They're more interested in the relationships in their own backyard.

BONGO JAZZ: In Another Life (link expired) is obviously inspired by your own marriage. It's romantic but in no way romanticized.
MOULDING: In that particular instance, I tried to avoid ... you know, when you write about marriage relationships and stuff, it can sound like a kind of slushy country and western thing, which I tried to avoid. I thought, if I'm going to write about marriage, let's do it in a slightly comical way. Not comedy but just one or two jokes along the way to relieve the slushiness or the sentiment. So I tried to do it in more of an English music hall kind of way. Say something like, oh Christ, Lionel Bart would have written.

BONGO JAZZ: My favourite line in the song is: "I'll take your mood swings if you take my hobbies/It all works out in the end." That's marriage.
MOULDING: If it hadn't been for the electric guitars on that song, it could have ended up in a musical like My Fair Lady or something. I think it's got that real Stanley Holloway kind of delivery — you know, music hall delivery — which I think is very good for writing about marital relationships. Otherwise, they can get really slushy. You have to watch the cheese. I tried not to do overboard on the sentimentality and I tried to make it more celebratory, which is celebrate people's foibles. The little things that they do that can really irritate people, you know.

BONGO JAZZ: You've mentioned English music hall tradition several times. I assume that's what Andy means when he talks about your newfound appreciation for easy-listening music — and not Barry Manilow.
MOULDING: No, definitely not Barry Manilow. When you get older, you begin to investigate the music that your parents liked. That's the thing. Whereas when you're in your early 20s, you couldn't do that because you'd be ridiculed by your friends and your contemporaries. Music like Burt Bacharach and things like that — stuff that we call easy-listening and stuff from showtunes — you couldn't really admit to liking stuff like that when you're in your early 20s because of fear of ridicule. But as you get older, that fear diminishes and goes altogether and you don't give a damn. So I found myself going back and listening to a lot of the stuff that I kind of missed out on. I just got a taster as a child but wanted to know more about it and investigate it more.

BONGO JAZZ: I bought the Burt Bacharach box set last year. It's phenomenal. I couldn't believe I overlooked the music's sophistication the first time around.
MOULDING: You didn't think it was great at the time probably because of the style. That's what it was. It was the style in which the song was done at the time. But now style doesn't worry you and you're probably not fashion conscious in any way, you realize you can like lots of different styles. You're probably not afraid to like that kind of Bacharach style.

BONGO JAZZ: Would you rather be a homebody now than a world traveller?
MOULDING: Oh yes, absolutely. I like travelling, mind you. I like travelling a lot. Not too much but it's always nice to get around and see people and stuff and if you have a nice hotel, it makes it all the more pleasurable. But I would say I cannot possibly write songs when you're doing promo and you're stopping in a hotel. There are too many distractions. People think you'll be able to write songs on the road. You never do; well, I never did anyway. So you have to get back to normalcy to write songs, I think. That's what I like doing — writing songs — so I find myself becoming more and more of a homebird, I think.

BONGO JAZZ: Fruit Nut suggests you like puttering around the house.
MOULDING: Well, I think that particular song is slightly comical. I didn't mean to make it too much of a novelty song, which is what it turned out to be. But there you go. Oh, I think people take themselves far too seriously in the pop industry, especially a lot of the younger bands do. They think: How are people going to take us seriously if we don't make serious music? I think the art of making light music has all but disappeared. We should never be afraid of making light music and chuck a few jokes in there. It's always viewed as being a bit of a comedy, isn't it? Well, it isn't. You can write about a very serious subject and still chuck in one or two jokes in there to kind of have that bittersweet thing, which is very important in writing a song. It's very important to get the ol' bittersweet going, I say. It's very useful for your favourite films — you get a very moody sequence and then you'll get a very light sequence and it's all in the same film. I think records should be like that. They should have lighter moments.

BONGO JAZZ: And hence Standing In For Joe (link expired), which I'm surprised made the cut because Song Stories hinted you weren't too keen on the tune. Did you revamp it since writing it for XTC's ill-fated bubblegum album?
MOULDING: This is the odd one of the bunch, I must say, because it was written as a parody. That's not really me in the actual story.

BONGO JAZZ: Your wife will be glad to know.
MOULDING: We were going to do it for this bubblegum record — that's quite right. It has a very glam-rock sound to it. Somebody said it sounded like the Sweet or something. It's kind of the odd one of the bunch because it is a parody and it sounds rather old-fashioned — around the early-'70s, like. But I thought it was a good tune and had a cheeky lyric. I thought: Let's do it.

BONGO JAZZ: You've had these songs on the horizon for years. Now that they're finally out, have you and Andy even dared to broach your next move?
MOULDING: We really don't know what's going to happen next, as regards to a new album. We've got one or two little projects — like little demo projects, little sketchbook things — that we want to give to the fans. As regards to the next XTC record, we're all delightfully blank. We don't know which way we're going to go and that's kind of thrilling but kind of fearful as well.

BONGO JAZZ: Please tell me it's not going to be another seven years...
MOULDING: No. I wouldn't have thought so. No, probably the normal year or two gap is how it's going to turn out. But who knows?
As regards to the next XTC record, we're all delightfully blank We don't know which way we're going to go and that's kind of thrilling but kind of fearful as well ... Probably the normal year or two gap is how it's going to turn out. But who knows?
BONGO JAZZ: Are we going to see a demo version of Wasp Star, like Apple Venus's Homespun?
MOULDING: It's quite possible and there are also plans to release demos of new songs that kind of didn't make the albums recently and also demos of old singles, like Nigel and Mayor of Simpleton. All that kind of stuff, there are demos in existence of us recording those songs at home.

BONGO JAZZ: Are you involved in the Virgin box set?
MOULDING: Yes, we've been in negotiations with Virgin about this box set (which would be released in 2002 as Coat of Many Cupboards, pictured left). They want us to co-operate and come up with a lot of these old demos. Of course, the rub is they want to own all these demos when we give them to them. They don't just want to licence them off of us. They want to own them. That's where the rub is. We say: We don't mind you using these demos on the forthcoming box set providing we get them back and you don't own them. That's what's been happening. We've been in negotiations with Virgin to decide who's going to own these demos when they come to light.

BONGO JAZZ: What form will your own box set take?
MOULDING: Our little demo package, you mean? It's going to be called Fuzzy Warbles. Do you remember the bar scene in A Clockwork Orange? The name Fuzzy Warbles comes to mention. We thought it would be a good, little title to call our little box set of demos. So that's what we intend to do. But I think the Virgin thing has to come first. They've got plans to get it out before the end of the year. So we hope we can sort something out.

BONGO JAZZ: So the size and scope of your set will depend on how the Virgin negotiations go?
MOULDING: It's pretty substantial. We've got lots and lots of demos of the old stuff, as well as the recent stuff. We've got a lot of stuff. But we've got to resolve a few things before we go ahead.

BONGO JAZZ: Andy is always asked if he'll get over his aversion to touring. At this point in your life, are you quite happy not to have to uproot yourself for months at a time to play some gigs?
MOULDING: When the decision not to tour was kind of taken from me all those years ago through Andy getting ill, I thought: Oh God, how does one go on? This is what bands do. Bands have to tour — it's part of the curriculum. So I was quite fearful how we were going to stay in touch and exist as a band. But I can honestly say at the time I was always a little anxious when we used to tour. I never actually took to being onstage that well. I think it actually stems from school times when you're asked to read a book out to the class. I think I was always terrified of that. It's more than that. I think we're both a couple of basketcases at the end of the day (laughs). When that decision was taken from me, not to tour, at the back of my mind it was a bit of a relief.

BONGO JAZZ: Sometimes I think if the band tried to plow ahead, XTC wouldn't be around now.
MOULDING: Oh, I think you're probably right, yes. Touring takes its toll and all those little things that annoy you about one another come to the fore, believe you and me.

BONGO JAZZ: I'm thinking about the 10 best Colin songs on XTC albums. What would you like to see top that list?
MOULDING: I think Frivolous Tonight (link expired) is my favourite song of mine, ever. I'm very keen on In Another Life; it's one of my better ones because the lyrics have become more important to me over the last few years. Going back to the old stuff, probably some of the stuff you don't hear that often. There's a track on Nonsuch called Bungalow. It's very cinematic, I think. Those are some of my favourites.

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Jemiah said...

Came here through a recommendation on the Chalkhills mailing list. Excellent interview - very much with the "bittersweet"! Thank you for posting it.

Unknown said...

Also got the link from Chalkhills. Great read, thank you for posting this! Why didn't you release it at first?

DVeitch said...

Thanks so much for the kind words. I can't remember the exact reason it wasn't published. I was working at a daily newspaper at the time and I don't think there was much appetite for a big story on a band few people cared about. I'm just glad I kept the full transcription and had the chance to publish it.

Olav Rokne said...

Great interview — Apple Venus Vol. 1 is just an awesome album.

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