Colin Moulding and Andy Partridge formed the nucleus of XTC, the post-punk band who seemed to corner the market on pop hooks, clever lyrics and seamless production values. They not only gave us eternally listenable songs like “Senses Working Overtime,” “Making Plans for Nigel,” and “Generals and Majors,” they released masterful albums like English Settlement and Skylarking (produced by Todd Rundgren), plus two albums’ worth of prime psychedelia as the Dukes of Stratosphear. Valerie Simadis spoke with Colin Moulding for PKM.

 XTC emerged on the music scene during the New Wave explosion of the late 1970s. In 1972, before they came to be known as XTC, founding members Andy Partridge (guitar/vocals) and Colin Moulding (bass/vocals) joined forces and eventually formed their first group with Terry Chambers (drums) in their hometown of Swindon, Wiltshire.

“Andy Partridge went to the same school as me…” Moulding said. “Several years later, we picked up our association in a music shop in Swindon. Andy was sitting down playing one of the guitars in the music shop and I picked one off a wall as well and we started playing.”

Not long thereafter, Moulding took part in a jam session with Partridge and Chambers, and the nucleus of XTC was formed.

“One of [our band names] was called Star Park and another was called The Helium Kidz,” recalled Moulding. “It was pretty glam, but that was the time that we were living in.”

Several years later, when glam rock was on the way out, and punk and new wave groups were becoming popular, Andy Partridge changed the band name to ‘XTC’, which was based on Jimmy Durante’s exclamation after he had discovered the lost chord – “That’s it! I’m in ecstasy!”

XTC promo photo, 1979.

In 1977, BBC radio presenter John Peel discovered the group after seeing them perform at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London. Peel liked the band so much, that he invited them for a session, despite the group not having a record deal. That year, XTC signed a record contract with Virgin and in October of 1977, they released their first EP, 3-D. By the end of the year, XTC had released a full-length album, White Music, which reached No. 38 on the U.K. charts.

While XTC did travel to the U.S. for a brief tour in 1978, none of their songs were charting in America. Shortly after their U.S. tour, Barry Andrews, the group’s keyboardist, decided to call it quits and was soon replaced by David Gregory. In 1979, the band released their third album, Drums and Wires. Included on that album was their first charting single, “Life Begins at the Hop”. The track was Colin Moulding’s first A-side arrangement, and it became the band’s first charting single in the U.K. rising to No. 54. The first track on the album “Making Plans for Nigel” (also penned by Moulding), spent eleven weeks on the UK Singles Chart, peaking at No. 17.

Andy Partridge changed the band name to ‘XTC’, which was based on Jimmy Durante’s exclamation after he had discovered the lost chord – “That’s it! I’m in ecstasy!”  

After “Making Plans for Nigel” had saturated the BBC airwaves, XTC were playing sold-out shows, and making appearances on Top of the Pops. In 1980, Colin Moulding’s song “Generals and Majors” (from the album Black Sea) charted at No. 32 on the UK single chart, No. 104 on the U.S. singles chart, and peaking at No. 28 on Billboard. This was the first XTC single to chart in America, and a major commercial success. 

It was followed by the first of their truly classic albums, English Settlement (1982), which spawned the Partridge-penned “Senses Working Overtime,” the highest charting album and single XTC would ever enjoy.

The band reached its creative peak with the seamless, if controversial (for the single “Dear God”), album Skylarking (1986), whose stature has grown in the ensuing 35 years.

Through the years, XTC had gone through various lineup changes, and released two studio albums under the moniker ‘The Dukes of Stratosphear’ before parting ways in 2006.

Colin Moulding, who was one of the principal songwriters of the group, and responsible for XTC’s breakthrough hits, went on to release a solo single, and has collaborated with a number of artists, including T Bone Burnett and Anton Barbeau. In 1980, Moulding released a single, “Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen” b/w “I Need Protection”. In 1994, he co-produced (with T Bone Burnett) and played bass on a track entitled “Baby, I Can’t Please You” from the Sam Phillips album Martinis and Bikinis.

Moulding has contributed to various tribute albums including Return to the Dark Side of The Moon and The Prog Collective. In 2013, he sang lead vocals on the track “The Man Who Died Two Times”, which was featured on the album In Extremis by the group Days Between Stations.

In 2016, Moulding played bass on the Anton Barbeau track, “High Noon,” and sang on the track entitled “Little World”.

In 2017, Colin Moulding reunited with drummer Terry Chambers and released a four-song EP Great Aspirations (under the TC&I moniker). Following the release of their EP, Moulding and Chambers played half a dozen shows in their hometown of Swindon. “Terry wanted to expand on that, and I thought we’d better leave it here then, because that’s not really my bag.” recalled Moulding. “What Terry didn’t realize is that in the last 35 years before he came back from Australia, I was a studio musician, and that’s the way it’s been.”

This summer, Colin Moulding released a 3-track EP entitled The Hardest Battle which was composed in his home studio during lockdown. I sat down with Colin to discuss the early years of XTC, his reunion with Terry Chambers, and the story behind his latest EP.

PKM: Tell me about your early life in England.

The hardest battle you can find is to be yourself. Not many people are. The guy who’s on the street corner lighting up a cigarette so ostentatiously…he’s probably Clint Eastwood at that very moment!

Colin Moulding: I was born and raised in Swindon, and we got the band together when we were teenagers. When I was 21, I was signed to a record company and I’ve been making music ever since. That’s a very general open kind of answer, but there isn’t really a lot to tell. You go through the school of hard knocks as you do in the industry and get better at what you do. When you start out, you just want to be good at playing your instrument. Then you graduate to thinking about writing songs, arranging them and getting better at writing lyrics, so it’s a gradual process of getting better at what you do. Here I am 45 years later still making music, so thank God for that.

PKM: You’re a self-taught bass player. How old were you when you started playing bass?

Colin Moulding: I started playing bass when I was around 14. My childhood was based in the Sixties, and I grew up listening to all the pop hits of that era. When I was 15 in 1970, I started getting into what they called “underground music” at the time. These were bands like Free, Jethro Tull, what they called Progressive music, I suppose. I was very enamored with Free, and I loved the bass player in that band, Andy Fraser. I thought his bass sounded like an elastic band, which was pretty novel. That induced me to pick up the bass guitar, and to be a musician. I’d always liked melody and melodic bass players like Paul McCartney and Andy Fraser, so I thought that might suit me, and I’ve stuck with it ever since. I play keyboard and guitar, but I just know enough to facilitate my songs. I wouldn’t say that I was a keyboard player or a guitar player, but I am a bass player. That’s how I started, and I’m going to be true to my mistress as they say!

XTC on the cover of Smash Hits magazine, 1980.

PKM: You mentioned that you gravitated towards a lot of Sixties groups. What were some of your other musical influences growing up?

Colin Moulding: My first likings of music were probably in assembly at school when we used to sing hymns. I used to like some of the melodies of the hymns like “Jerusalem” and “I Vow to Thee My Country”, so I picked a lot of the melodies that I liked from there. Then of course there were the pop hits of the sixties. I used to love The Kinks, and The Beatles, obviously. I’ve always loved melodies. It’s my grounding, really.

PKM: How did you join forces with Andy Partridge? You both hail from Swindon, so I presume you met him in town?

Colin Moulding: Andy Partridge went to the same school as me, and when he left, I stayed on school an extra couple of years. Several years later, we picked up our association in a music shop in Swindon. Andy was sat down playing one of the guitars in the music shop and I picked one off a wall as well and we started playing. Eventually, he lost his bass player in his band and asked if I would I step in. I went down to this crummy little garage in the middle of nowhere and we had a bit of a jam session that night, and it really went from there. I was playing with Terry [Chambers] at the time, and that was the nucleus of XTC. Terry, myself and Andy became the early XTC, and that’s how it started.

I was very enamored with Free, and I loved the bass player in that band, Andy Fraser. I thought his bass sounded like an elastic band, which was pretty novel. That induced me to pick up the bass guitar, and to be a musician.

PKM: Pre-XTC you formed a glam rock group with Andy Partridge and Terry Chambers. Is this the band that you’re referring to?

Colin Moulding: Yes. We officially became XTC in 1975, though we did have a couple of other names before that. One of them was called Star Park and another was called The Helium Kidz. It was pretty glam, but that was the time that we were living in.

PKM: Were you playing at various venues around London at that time?

Colin Moulding: No. You couldn’t play in London unless you were signed up to certain agencies there. They didn’t want to know groups from the provinces, so we played local gigs. I remember we supported Thin Lizzy when they came to town, but it wasn’t that easy to get gigs in those days. Just before we signed to a label, we started to play in London because our manager (Ian Reid) owned a nightclub in Swindon. He was able to offer bands that were on the books in London, gigs in Swindon, in return for a spot for us in London. So that’s how we got to play in London. Around that time pub rock was big business. London was buzzing and you could play in front of record company executives if you got those gigs in London, which was what we were seeking. Eventually, we did get to play in London and that’s how we got signed.

PKM: What were some of the venues that really stood out to you?

Colin Moulding: Well, they were mainly pubs. There was one called The Nashville [laughs]; it had nothing to do with Nashville. The Red Cow, Rochester Castle, The Hope & Anchor. You played in cellars and the walls were dripping with sweat. They were pretty inhospitable places. That’s what you had to do in order to play in front of influential people, so that was what we did.

PKM: You composed a number of songs, including “Making Plans for Nigel,” which heralded a commercial breakthrough for XTC. Had you anticipated that the song would be a hit?

Colin Moulding: It was a surprise, really. Our first couple of albums weren’t big sellers but we had some attention. You see, I started writing roughly when the band started to kick off with their first record. Up until that point, Andy had been the principle writer. Some of my early efforts were a little primeval, but when we made the third record, I was really trying to be more myself. When one is oneself, all sorts of good things happen. Up to that point the band had got a kind of a name for being quirky, and maybe we were on those first few albums, but I was thinking it really wasn’t me. I wanted to write more melodic songs, so for the third album I said “Right, that’s it. I’m not doing this anymore, I’m going to write how I feel I should write”, and lo and behold, we had a hit! It just goes to show that good things happen when you really are yourself.

PKM: In 2018, you released the Great Aspirations EP with Terry Chambers under the TC&I moniker. What was it like working with Terry after all these years?

Colin Moulding: Terry had been in Australia. He left the band in 1982 when we finished touring, because that’s Terry’s thing. He loves to tour around albums and so forth. When he left, we were just a three-piece, and we used to hire session drummers. We had been like that for years. Terry came back from Australia when XTC had already disbanded and I got word that he was back in the country. This was after 30 years! You know, a tremendous amount of time. I contacted him and we went out for a few drinks, had a few laughs and whatnot. At the time, I had begun working on what would end up being Great Aspirations, and I thought “Well, I wonder if he will be up for drumming on it. We could call ourselves an outfit.”

You played in cellars and the walls were dripping with sweat. They were pretty inhospitable places. That’s what you had to do in order to play in front of influential people, so that was what we did.

I popped the question to Terry and he said, “Well yeah, but after all these years I’m a little bit rusty”. I don’t think he touched the drums much at that time. So we got together and I said, “Well, I’ve got this little setup in my house. Why don’t you come down and bring your kit and we could rehearse some of these ideas I’ve got?” We had a tremendous amount of fun, lots of laughs, and came out of it with a jolly good EP. It was brilliant, and it was fantastic to actually not work on one’s own. So yes, working with Terry after all those years, it was a real gas. It just goes to show, there’s life in the old dogs yet!

An ad for XTC’s 1978 tour, featured in New Musical Express, January 28, 1978.

PKM: Your new 3-track EP The Hardest Battle was released in July. Where was the album recorded, and can you tell me a little about the production of the album?

Colin Moulding: I think the old rules don’t apply anymore. I like singles culture, I always did. I thought what with it being a lockdown across the world, and considering what a very strange year it’s been, that I’d have a bash at putting a single out. I said to the record company, Burning Shed, “Do you do singles?” and they said, “Have you got anything else to go with it?” I had a couple of tracks hanging around, and so The Hardest Battle was born, really out of the lockdown and just time to spare.

PKM: Tell me about the track “Say It”. I understand it was originally written for an XTC album?

Colin Moulding: XTC disbanded around 2006, but just prior to that, I recorded a version of “Say It” for an XTC promo disc, the Apple Venus sessions. It was really written for what would have been the XTC album that never was. It’s a long story, but we split up, and I felt that the track deserved a better fate than what it got. I just felt that it was bit of an expedient. I got a couple of guys from a band called Pugwash (they’re an Irish band), and they played on it. So yes, things had deteriorated that much with XTC that I had to get other players to play on it! I remembered the early version that I recorded, and I thought I’d put that on the disc. It’s a better version because it has more feeling.

PKM: What guitars and keyboards did you use while recording this EP? 

Colin Moulding: Getting technical eh? I like recording into the Radar. It’s a stand-alone digital recorder, and I make digital transfers to the computer once I’ve made tracks to keep. It’s digital recording, but not as we know it. I think the conversions on the Radar are very good. It’s probably unorthodox, but that’s the way I work.

I use a Nord keyboard and a Telecaster. As for bass, well, I use various basses. I’ve got quite a collection now, so I used my Vox bass on “Say It”, and my old Fender Precision from ’65 on “The Hardest Battle”. I wouldn’t say I was a collector, but if I quite like the sound of a particular bass I’ll try and get a hold of it. In fact, I was given the Vox by T Bone Burnett! I did a session for his wife at the time, Sam Phillips, and he said, “Well, if you like this bass guitar, I’ll give it to you as a gift.” I still have it, and I still play it.

Colin Moulding, photo courtesy of Colin Moulding

PKM: Is that the most prized guitar in your possession?

Colin Moulding: It has a unique sound, but I wouldn’t use it on everything. You have to decide horses for courses what suits. I played on about four tracks with that Vox bass on the Sam Phillips’ record. [Editor’s note: The Sam Phillips album was Martinis & Bikinis.]

PKM: You are primarily a bass player. Do you compose songs on piano or guitar?

Colin Moulding: I compose on both. “Say It” was composed principally on guitar, and “The Hardest Battle” was composed on keyboard. You see, I don’t classify myself as a keyboard player nor a guitar player. I just know enough to facilitate my songs. When you’re in a process of discovery and you don’t know a lot, good things happen because you don’t fall into any traps. I know that sounds bizarre, but it works for me.

PKM: What is your favorite track off the EP?

Colin Moulding: The single, “The Hardest Battle”. I’m not enamored with making videos, but we made a video for it. If you make a video and put it on YouTube it gives the song a little bit more life, and people can refer to it, because they don’t always get the CD out from the rack. If they’re on the web they might just stumble across me. The EP is basically a single with a couple of other tracks on there. I just like singles culture, and albums do take a long time to record, especially if you’re on your own and doing everything yourself. I wanted to get the track out there.

PKM: What is the significance behind the dragon insignia on the EP cover?

Colin Moulding: The dragon signifies facing up to being oneself. I think most people aren’t really themselves or become themselves later on, you know they ‘find themselves’. There’s a saying by Matthew Arnold, “He who finds himself, loses his misery.”, and I think there’s a bit of truth in that. Facing the dragon on the hilltop is more of facing up to being yourself. It’s a scenario that can be frightening.

PKM: Do you have any plans to tour in the near future?

Colin Moulding: No. Terry and I did some gigs in our hometown after we did the Great Aspirations EP. I knew he wanted to play gigs, and I wasn’t crazy on playing any, so I said “Alright, we’ll do half a dozen. What about doing them in our hometown? Just stage it in one place?” So, that’s what we did. The gigs were fantastic and I’d never heard those songs played in a concert hall before. Terry wanted to expand on that, and I thought we’d better leave it here then, because that’s not really my bag. What Terry didn’t realize is that in the last thirty-five years before he came back from Australia, I was a studio musician, and that’s the way it’s been. I’m afraid I’m conditioned that way. They say ‘never say never’, but at the moment, I’ve got no plans to tour.

There’s a saying by Matthew Arnold, “He who finds himself, loses his misery.”, and I think there’s a bit of truth in that. Facing the dragon on the hilltop is more of facing up to being yourself.

PKM: What music are you listening to these days?

Colin Moulding: I tend to have Radio 3 on in England. It plays classical music like Elgar and Handel. In fact, I compose to it, is what I tend to do. I’ll have Radio 3 in the background, and then I’m noodling on the keyboard. I don’t actually listen to pop music now, not like I used to. I just find that it’s too noisy.

Growing up I liked Sixties music. I was the impressionable 10-, 12-, 14-year-old, and it was a great year for pop music. During that time, I think you’re looking for something that you can call your own. That’s why people used to get into carrying albums around. During the hippie movement, especially when the heavy stuff was in, people used to carry albums around with them like banners! They didn’t mind being seen with them, either. In fact, they liked to be seen with them, so they could say “Well this is what I’m into!” Those are transient phases, and they’re out the other side before you know it. That’s the way it’s been for me. I’m in my mid-60s now, so I’m into a quieter period. Classical music has all the melodies in there, and that suits me down to the ground.

During the hippie movement, especially when the heavy stuff was in, people used to carry albums around with them like banners! They didn’t mind being seen with them, either. In fact, they liked to be seen with them, so they could say “Well this is what I’m into!”

PKM: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Colin Moulding: Just one other thing about The Hardest Battle, my current single. You have a poet, an American called e.e. cummings. He died in the early Sixties, I would imagine. That’s where The Hardest Battle title comes from. Cummings goes on to say that “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” I was looking through a book and I spotted this and thought “Do you know what? There’s a song there.” And I thought “There it is. There’s your title. The Hardest Battle.” The hardest battle you can find is to be yourself. Not many people are. The guy who’s on the street corner lighting up a cigarette so ostentatiously…he’s probably Clint Eastwood at that very moment! The gist of the song is that you should try and be yourself.

The Hardest Battle can be ordered on CD exclusively via Burning Shed at

https://burningshed.com/store/colin-moulding_store/colin-moulding_the-hardest-battle_cd

by Andrew Swainson
http://www.pleasekillme.com
 
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