The Agony And The XTC

Bass Player
Sept. 1992, p. 14-16
by Brenda Herrmann

It's not easy getting a reputation as a bass player when you're in a band that hasn't toured for ten years and probably never will again.

As bassist and co-founder of England's quirky pop group XTC, Colin Moulding has found himself idolized by the band's dedicated listeners, many of whom are musicians, but somewhat ignored by the larger music community. Moulding has worked on ten full-length XTC albums; the most recent one, titled Nonsuch [Virgin/Geffen], was released earlier this year. He has also recorded countless EPs and singles with the band, which currently also includes guitarist Andy Partridge and keyboardist/guitarist Dave Gregory. But when it comes to sharing his talents with other musicians, Moulding usually finds himself jamming with his 17-year-old drummer son, Lee, in the garden shed behind his home near Swindon, England. "I would like to do some live shows," Moulding admits, "but no one's called. I'd definitely consider an invitation to go on the road or to do some recording with different bands."

XTC began recording in 1977, but this is the 20th year the 36-year-old Moulding has played with Partridge. "I picked up the bass around 1970 because I liked music," Colin recalls. "I thought that playing a bass, with four strings, would be infinitely easier than playing a guitar, with six strings. That was a horrible misconception!

"It was Jethro Tull that made me want to play," he continues, adding that he also likes Andy Fraser of Free ("the most underrated bassist"), as well as Bill Wyman, Nick Lowe, and Chris Squire. Colin taught himself to play by jamming along with the records of his idols. He also tried to learn how to read bass clef, but the attempt didn't last long. "I was so slow I gave it up -- it did me brain in."

Moulding and Partridge grew up together in Swindon, where they founded XTC along with drummer Terry Chambers. The band became linked with the popular new-wave movement and did quite well in England, especially with its 1982 album English Settlement [Geffen] and the single "Senses Working Overtime." It was the first XTC album to sell well in the States, and the first single to reach the Top Ten in the U.K.

About this time, Partridge announced he didn't want to play live anymore because it was affecting his health. "We had to decide if we wanted to carry on or quit," Moulding remembers. "Terry left, but I knew the songs were still there and that we should carry on. It's a pity the public can't see us, but faced with the alternative of touring, we would have split up."

Despite occasional problems with the reputedly difficult Partridge, Colin says he enjoys their partnership. "Andy's a real ideas man, and I love good ideas. It's not hard contributing bass parts when you have such good songs to contribute to." Moulding writes several tunes for each release and contributed four to the latest album, including the dreamy "My Bird Performs," "Bungalow," "War Dance," and "The Smartest Monkeys." He usually writes on acoustic guitar -- often in a bizarre tuning -- and begins with a chord progression. "That usually provokes a subject matter, and then the two collide somewhere and a song results," he laughs. Colin records his tunes on a 4-track and brings them to the studio to discuss with Partridge. "We never collaborate. Each person puts his little prints on them, but we don't write together. There's a lot of freedom to do what each of us likes with the other's songs, however." The band records live and then gradually replaces the tracks bit-by-bit with overdubs. "We like to lay it all down first just to keep the essence of the performance -- and to keep our drummer company," Moulding says.

XTC has used session drummers since Chambers's departure; Dave Mattacks, known for his work with Fairport Convention, drummed on Nonsuch. "It's something both Andy and I enjoy, working with a different drummer each time," Moulding says. "We don't get the chance to work with any other musicians, so it's really nice. I look for a drummer with a very simple approach -- someone who leaves lots of holes. I like him to keep it as simple as possible without using too many fills. The feel is the most important thing -- it's far more important than being fancy."

Moulding's technique is as quirky as his tunes are. "I play with only right-hand finger," he admits. "On Oranges and Lemons [Geffen], I grew the nail on my forefinger long and used that as a pick. It was a faster record, and my fingernail gave a more pointed sound. It's a very unusual way to play, but I just don't get along with a pick -- it makes me feel detached from my instrument. I also use my thumb, but not in the slapping style -- I pluck with it when I'm trying to achieve a soft attack."

Considering that he's a member of such a well-produced, high-tech-sounding group, Moulding is refreshingly oblivious to the equipment he uses. Since 1984, he has played an English-made Wal bass. "I bought it in Bath while we were recording, and I know very little about it," he notes. "It just feels nice -- that's all I can say. It's got two pickups; I don't know what kind. I usually use medium-gauge Rotosound strings and change them quite frequently when recording, probably after three takes." Colin plugs straight into the board, using the chorus effect built into the console. Other than that, he finds he has little need for equipment. "When I play in the shed with my son, I use an Ohm 140 combo amp -- and that's it."

Moulding believes less is best on bass -- although an XTC record usually sounds anything but simple, with its layers of guitar, percussion, samples, and horns. "It's a feel thing. The composition is important, but equally important is the feeling. I can get turned on by a slide or even a single note, if it's played with a lot of emotion. I think the bassist has to bow down to a good song -- to do whatever is needed for the betterment of the song. In fact I'd tell bass players to play only one note, if they can get away with it!"

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Transcribed by Gregg William Epstein.