International Musician and Recording World
August 1983

by Tony Horkins


A friend of mine once told me that when former XTC drummer Terry Chambers returned to his native Swindon after a world tour, he'd gaze over the final few yards of M4, stare adoringly at the Swindon horizon and say "That's the best sight in the world."

What a load of old cobblers! Personally speaking I've never found the sight of steel works and housing estates aesthetically pleasing, and even Terry Chambers saw sense eventually and legged it to Australia.

But for Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding and David Gregory home is where the heart is, and their hearts are firmly bedded in Swindon soil. In a small terraced house just off the town centre the threesome wait patiently for my rather late arrival. There's none of the 'You're late so we're going to give you a hard time' nonsense normally associated with bands of their status, but a warm West Country hello and a cup of tea to get us started.

Now that the remaining three XTCs are back on home ground they're pretty adamant that they're here to stay. No more touring the world for this world-weary trio, but instead a more relaxed work environment with emphasis shifted to studio work, which goes some way to explaining why Mummer is perhaps their most flowery album to date. This decision to stop touring came about after Andy made a hasty retreat from a French stage clutching his stomach at what was to become one of their last European dates. The nervous stomach disorder reached peak proportions forcing him, and the rest of the band, to bow out not quite so gracefully.

Andy: "It got to the point where I was getting very paranoiac about people - firstly about the audience, then about other people - I couldn't go out without wanting to pass out. It got to the stage that I couldn't go out to the local because there were people in there. I'd hate to start the process off again so I'd rather work in the studio and do other things." Does this rule out gigs totally, forever?

Dave: "Yes. in a word."

Andy: "Yes...but I'd like to get the spirit back in. I don't think you should do anything that you really want to do."

Dave: "There's no real incentive for us to do gigs because we just used to lose so much money. That's why we haven't got any money."

How come bands of your status still lose money touring?

Andy: "They're very expensive to set up, without going into particulars, equipment rental to stage setting to hotels, and we never played really huge places, only supporting other people, and usually you'd either come in even, or more likely just under what you'd expect. And we were doing a lot of it on the cheap. I didn't think we were ever an excellent live band. One gig in ten was rewarding."

Dave: "It was just run on nerves. It was just one big adrenaline rush. There was no subtlety in our performance or anything."

Colin: "There was no element of showbiz, was there?"

Andy: "Not no element, I just think we weren't naturally extrovert enough to capitalise on that."

Dave: "We weren't sensitive. We were just four people turning up to number ten to see who could finish first."

All three chuckle wildly at the thought of their live performances and seem glad that it's all behind them. They're a very strong working unit who, through the course of the interview, drift regularly into conversation with each other, expanding on the question without due prompting from 'the journalist'. I'd have assumed through their close personal banter and the erratic nature of their music that there was a lot of improvising going on, but it appears not.

Andy: "Everything is highly worked out."

Even the early White Music material?

Andy: "Everything. That was stuff we'd been playing, some of it, from '75 onwards, and it was really well rehearsed by the time we went in. Some of those tracks on there were just live in the studio as they came out, and everyone more or less knew exactly what notes to play. So there wasn't any room for improvisation. Even what sounded like crazy solo passages or whatever were just exactly the same every time we did them. I never liked that kind of thing where the band would boogie on and the guitarist would have one minute to have some fun..."

Colin: "And when he's played four licks the band come in."

Andy: "The band would have to hang around for that minute while the guitarist would run out his catalogue of licks till somebody jumped in the air and ended it. It isn't really improvisation - it's just a 'Get your willy out, let's have a look at it...oh alright here it is, now put it away...' It's just quasi-musical willy showing."

With the smell of the grease paint a thing of the past Terry Chambers, after moving to Australia to get married, decided to call it a day.

Dave: "I think basically he didn't see his role as anything other than a performer. He didn't write anything, and his drum parts were more or less what Andy told him to play. So unless he was actually out on the road and doing it for real, he wasn't actually doing anything, and obviously having made the decision not to tour he felt redundant."

Andy: "In any case he wasn't inherently musical. He was actually the nearest I've ever met to a human machine - a grumpy human machine. You'd say to him 'Well look, Terry, you play this that and the other', and he'd say 'Oh alright I'll give it a go'. and he'd say 'Well that sounds good' and he'd play it for a few minutes and that would be it. It would be locked in his memory. He was programmable. He couldn't really make these decisions for himself so you had to give him the idea of what to do, and then maybe suggest that he turned it inside out and you'd get these unusual patterns coming out, complete with his meat and veg no nonsense style, and he'd just sort of set himself and that would be it. On some tracks in the studio he'd just go in and play the drums without any music. He'd just say 'Well I'll go and do the drumming and I'll go down the pub, then you put the song to it.' So we'd say 'Okay. you've got four minutes' so he'd go in there, do the drumming and go to the pub, then you'd fit your song into that. He used to set it in so much that he didn't actually want any other instrument spoiling this divine drumness that he'd set in."

Dave: "There were some things where I didn't think his drumming style suited the song. All of a sudden I didn't think his drumming style was really right for us."

Andy: "Yeah, he never had a delicacy of touch."

Dave: "‘Yacht Dance’ was one where we really had to struggle and strip down the drums to a bare minimum to accommodate his style of playing."

So how do you as a guitarist come up with drum patterns?

"You don't necessarily hear them as drums, you just hear these accents in your head. You think maybe that's a bass, maybe that's drums, whatever. I know it sounds corny but it's like working out a boxing routine where you put a little stab in here, a little piece in there."

Colin: "More often than not you get a hi hat pattern and you play it on the floor tom. So you can be playing these little accents on what is seemingly the wrong drums."

Did Terry play most of his patterns live in the studio or did he do a lot of overdubs?

Andy: "It was nearly all live. In things like the ‘Ball and Chain’ pattern which sounds ludicrously difficult -- it sounds like half a dozen drummers -- it's all him. He'd always want to do it all in one go."

Dave: "Which was good, especially live, because on a good night he was really dynamite..."

Andy: "But the other nine nights out of ten..."

Although there's no plans to replace Terry on a permanent basis, on Mummer they opted for the services of Pete Phipps, better known for his work as the original Glitter Band drummer (along with ex-Saxon drummer Pete Gill), and who can also be heard as current tour drummer with Eurythmics.

Andy: "Naively we kind of thought that his drumming would be like Terry's, but in fact it was a thousand miles away. We thought he'd be a real hitter, but in fact he was really light, which in the end worked out to our advantage. Things like ‘Ladybird’ - Terry could never have used brushes so lightly and jazzily, or on ‘Elements’ that small woody kind of nattering drumming. Terry couldn't have done that kind of small sound."

Dave: "Pete is a musician, and as such he approaches his drums in a musical way rather than a mechanical one."

Andy: "Pete would ask if the tuning was alright, but Terry couldn't tune his kit - he'd have to get other people to do it for him."

By the time Mummer was actually finished they'd gone through three producers - Steve Nye, Bob Sargeant and Alex Sadkin, Sadkin being the one they were most happy with, along with the expert talents of his engineer Phil Thornerly [sic]. After so many album releases, didn't they feel confident enough to produce themselves?

Andy: "I think we have done in the past, though there's usually been this figurehead character, and it's very difficult talking your record company into this. I remember they got really funny about just using Hugh Padgham because they said Hugh was really only an engineer."

Colin: "I think they want someone to hold responsible in case the album turns out duff - I think they want someone to blame."

Having made the decision to stop touring, do you think this has affected your writing or recording?

Andy: "Yeah. I think it was a bit like a weight before where I thought I'd better have a part for another guitar, we'd better not have any keyboard parts that clash with the guitar because he (Dave) won't be able to play them, I'd better have a part that I can play and sing as well...see what I mean? I had it kind of stripped down for live all the time, which in a lot of ways is a good thing because it was a tight control. But after years of all that control you long to get rid of that weight and say 'I don't have to play guitar on this track'. I'll put it down and maybe we can have a trombone which we can get somebody in to play. Like on Great Fire we had cellos. We could never have done that in the past because we'd have felt bad about going on stage and not having a cello."

There must be a danger now of becoming too self-indulgent with no barriers at all to hold you back. At this stage how do you avoid that?

Andy: "I don't know, we haven't done it before so we're going to have to become self indulgent before we can undo it. I don't think we'll do a more flowery album than the one we've just done. This is our most floral and intricate album. The next album for me has got to sound plainer and more direct. I'd hate to get more into orchestras."

So is it just the arrangements that have changed with the knowledge that you don't have to play the songs live, or the actual songs?

"I think in the back of your head you're doing it with a different set of pencils, so obviously it affects the way you draw the picture."

Colin: "We have actually overplayed in the studio and taken things away in the mix. Things like three guitars basically doing very similar things which we've often stripped away and left one."

Andy: "I'm a great fan of empty music anyway - believe it or not. Some of my favourite songs by other people have been really empty ones - like ‘Rock On’ by David Essex. That was perfect - there was hardly anything in it, just one or two little noises that all had that rhythmic echo on them. You end up willing yourself into the holes."

When referring back to their own albums the three of them seem to disagree on what made each album good. How did they make final decisions in the studio?

Dave: "That's where the producer comes in."

Andy: "I think if we all had the same mind the music would come out really bland. If one person said 'Hey, I think we should not have any drums on this one' and everybody else would go 'Marvellous', then there'd be no drums and the track may not be right. But somebody else might say 'No no, I disagree, we should have a bulldozer on there', and the others say 'Well, I don't know', so we'll try it, and that's the sort of bubbling hot house of ideas I'd like to keep going. Some people have to really swallow their pride. I'm doing nothing more than a few bird noises on one number, but my guitar part was not right for the track, so it went."

Colin: "And I play just one note all the way through ‘Beating Of Hearts’. And that could have been a bass drum turned up."

Dave: "But we're all kind of mature enough now to realise whatever is best for the song. There's no petty ego trip where we say 'Oh I'm not doing anything on this track'."

Andy: "I've heard some terrible reports of bands who have territories within them, where so-and-so can't play a keyboard solo because that's so and so's territory, so and so's job."

Colin: "Sounds like the MU."

Andy: "The song is absolute God for us, and then whatever's right for the song. Everybody bows to the song and not to the ego of the player."

Andy later confided that he'd be happy to eventually not play anything at all on the albums, but just see the song through to perfection.

"If there's one thing I can't stand it's the multi-instrumentalist. They were the really boring kids at school whose mums bought them trailers full of equipment. They were never any good at one particular thing. Actually I'm getting so fed up with instruments in general that I'd much rather just sing or yell."

So while the world moves on in search of bigger and fuller washes of sound it makes a refreshing change to find XTC in search of creative minimalism. Who knows, it may end up to be this year's 'new' idea.

Go back to Chalkhills Articles.

[Thanks to Stefano De Astis]