Dave Gregory

XTC's Reluctant Keyboardist Reveals Rundgren's Production Style

November 1987
by Ted Greenwald

While the punk movement was turning late-'70s London into a morass of multi-colored mohawks, black leather, and under-developed performance skills, XTC jumped upon stage with its own brand of screwball pop. To the punk formula of stripped-down arrangements and high-energy delivery, XTC added hooks, humor, and precision. When keyboard player Barry Andrews left the band two years later, Dave Gregory stepped in -- but with a guitar. By 1982, though, Gregory and guitarist/leader Andy Partridge agreed that something had to change. As Gregory puts it, "We both feel that two guitars in a band is usually one guitar too many." Their search for an alternative led to the purchase of a Prophet-5 synthesizer, and Dave Gregory has been a keyboard player -- more or less -- ever since.

"I've never thought of myself as a keyboard player," he insists, sidestepping the fact that his facility, rhythmic chops, and sense of style would make many players proud. "I'm the only one in the band who can play with both hands, so I get the job. I'm really a guitar player."

In truth, Gregory's metamorphosis from guitarist to keyboard player wasn't quite so haphazard. He didn't simply find himself with the job -- he was seduced into it by the lure of the grand piano. Having taken "the obligatory" piano lessons as a child, Gregory discovered the guitar at age 14. The new instrument had a drastic impact on his piano studies: "My interest in the piano disappeared overnight," he recalls, "and eventually I got fired by my tutor for not practicing." Joining XTC led Gregory into London's finer recording studios, where, he discovered, the ivory keyboard beckoned from the shadows. "They had wonderful pianos," he recalls, "the sorts of things that I would never get a chance to play anywhere else -- a Steinway or a Bechstein. I spent most of my time tinkering around in the studio while Andy and Colin [Moulding, bass player] were in the control room.

"It's a funny thing," Gregory muses, "because as a kid, I was never that good, on the piano, at playing tunes. But finding chords on a piano is so much more satisfying than on a guitar. You can find so many more, much more subtle chords. That's really what I like most about it. I'm able to get more original ideas from the keyboard than from the guitar."

Most XTC songs don't lead Gregory to stray too far from the usual triads of rock and roll, but one song from the band's most recent album, Skylarking, gave his chord-finding sense a workout. Originally given a folky acoustic-guitar setting, "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul" spontaneously combusted into a too-hip jazz chart in the hands of producer Todd Rundgren. "There was supposed to be a Dave Brubeck type of feel to that track," Gregory says of the song's 7/4 groove. "We didn't actually rehearse it that way, but in the studio Todd decided he wanted to do this rather cheesy late-'50s big-band arrangement. I just sort of fished around for a few chords that were in that element."

When Gregory goes fishing, the treasures he pulls up belie XTC's new-wave affiliations. "I think a lot of my influence came from the '70s," he admits, "listening to Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder. I learned more from Donald Fagen and Stevie Wonder than I did in five years of piano tutoring."

"I love that sort of jazz influence, the tone clusters," he reflects. "You know, it's almost impossible to get a nice tone cluster on the guitar. Three or four notes, just one tone or a semi-tone apart, but played in a certain way and maybe with a certain tone setting on a synthesizer, produce a particular blend that's nice. It's difficult to put into words, but notes at those intervals jammed together with the right sound produce a certain effect. Maybe it's because the ear can't decide which notes it's trying to listen to."

As it happens, Rundgren's involvement in the Skylarking project was largely Gregory's doing. Having been told by their record company that they sounded "too English," the band members received a list of American record producers. "It read like a roll call from Fort Baxter," Gregory laughs. "We hadn't heard of anyone except for Todd. I said to the other guys, ‘Forget all those other names. Let's go with Todd.’ I'd been a fan of his for so long, and it was a dream come true to work with him."

"The charts are full of things, particularly keyboard chord structures, that are just rip-offs of Todd's stuff. I find his influence in so much of other people's work, yet he's rarely credited with the inspiration. And not only does he write wonderful music, but his voice is one of the best voices in rock, I think, ever. To cut a long story short, we went over to Woodstock [in upstate New York, where Rundgren kept his studio at the time] and met the man. I can't say that we got on together all that well. It was a working relationship."

The working relationship between Rundgren and XTC yielded what may be the band's finest record to date, and certainly one of the best rock records of the year. Skylarking is a Beatlesque amalgam of styles and moods, strung together Sgt. Pepper-style by a nearly continuous thematic and musical thread. The songs are overtly pop-oriented, featuring the melodic inventiveness and lyrical cleverness that are the hallmarks of XTC's style, and a structural complexity that skews otherwise simple song forms into labyrinths of well-turned musical phrases. And, of course, the keyboard work is prominent. Gregory modestly calls it "a bit of decoration."

Gregory's musical witticisms range from frivolous (bell tones answering Partridge's line "Are you deafened by the bells?") to subtle (the organ's pious overtones in "Season Cycle," which celebrates the changing of the seasons) to the essential (the spacious timbres of "Another Satellite"). "We try not to make it too obvious," he apologizes, clearly embarrassed that anyone might notice. "We like to put them in as a sort of subtle reference, but it doesn't do to make it too obvious, you know?"

"Another Satellite" is a case in point. In a song full of obvious references to outer space, it would have been easy to clutter the arrangement with oddball electronic sounds. Instead, there's little beside a pair of ringing open fifths that modulate from chord to chord. "We wanted to create the impression of space," Gregory explains, "and the best way to do that, I guess, is to leave holes. There are just these big things drifting off into space," he says, describing the fifths, which have a distinctly guitarish sound. "That's Andy's guitar sampled into Todd's Fairlight. We just sampled one guitar chord and then I played the tune on the keyboard." The song ends gently with a single repeated note washed in reverb, like, as Gregory puts it, "a distant radio signal getting fainter and fainter."

Gregory did his first synthesizer programming during the recording of the English Settlement album, for which the band bought their Prophet-5. The sounds on that album resulted from collaborations between Gregory, Partridge, and producer Hugh Padgham, but he characterizes the process as having been "by the seat of our pants, really." On Skylarking, Rundgren played a large part in the sound design as well as the drum machine programming, working with his own Fairlight ("his rather elderly Fairlight, it must be said," Gregory interjects), DX7, Emulator, and pre-MIDI LinnDrum. "The only instruments we took over [to America] were about eight guitars," Gregory says. "In fact, to be honest with you, the only keyboards that we actually own are a small synthesizer of mine, a Roland JX-3P. I bought the thing ages ago. We sold our Prophet because we kept going wrong and we needed the money."

"Todd bought a Prophet-10 especially for this album," he adds. "We went into this shop on 48th Street, and Todd saw this thing going cheap, and said, ‘All right, we'll have that.’ So there we were, wheeling it through the streets of New York in a flight case. It was quite funny to watch."

As it turns out, Rundgren conceived and executed the keyboard parts in "That's Really Super, Supergirl" at the band's request. "We really didn't know what to do with it," Gregory says. "It was just a ‘B’ side, and he could obviously see possibilities in it. One afternoon, we just left him to it." It's typical that Rundgren took no credit for the work, given his attitude that any task involved in producing is all in a day's work. "I was talking to him about the Tubes album that he produced, Remote Control," Gregory recalls. "There are a couple of pieces of music on that album that are unmistakably Todd. No other musician could possibly have come up with those particular chords, that particular melody, or that particular arrangement. I said to him, ‘You're not credited with writing half of this stuff, Todd. Why is that?’ He just said, ‘Oh, it's all right. I got a production credit and I got paid.’ He's quite modest in that respect. But at the same time," Gregory adds, "Todd has his ego, no doubt about that."

Another area of Rundgren's impact is the string and brass arrangements, of which he did all but one. "He did most of those arrangements in one evening" Gregory exclaims. "He's a real computer nut, and he's got this add-on keyboard for his Macintosh computer that will print the music out as you play. Then you can go back and update things without the hassle of having to write it all out manually. He'd go away and, literally, come back the next morning with a complete string chart, like the one in "Sacrificial Bonfire." That's a ridiculous part, you know? I've still got the computer printouts here in my home."

While Rundgren did most of the orchestral arrangements, the elaborate string lines in the mournful "1,000 Umbrellas" are Gregory's handiwork. "Originally, all Andy had was an acoustic guitar and his voice," he explains. "It was a rather doomy, miserable little thing with all those descending chromatic chords, and I thought, ‘Oh dear, how can l cheer this miserable song up?’" A Roland MSQ-100 sequencer became the sketch pad for the arrangement when Gregory began tinkering with a string patch on his JX. "That sequencer saved my artistic bacon, I have to say that," he laughs. "It's a wonderful device. I'm a born-again composer, almost, thanks to these little machines. I just kept running the parts by Andy for his response and then updated my program according to what we decided upon, and eventually we got the thing finished. Then I sat down and manually wrote out all the individual parts."

Although no other sequencing entered into the production, Skylarking's basic tracks were cut using Rundgren's LinnDrum. Real drums, performed by the Tubes' Prairie Prince, were added later in San Francisco. "It was only then that the album started coming to life," Gregory reports. "Before that, it was sounding very stiff and lifeless." The drums breathed so much life into "Earn Enough For Us" that the song was re-cut live with the drummer. "I'd love to do more songs like that," he says with enthusiasm, "because that's really what it's all about -- getting a good groove going as a group."

"Machines are wonderful labor-saving devices," he insists, "but they can't perform. You're always left with that difficulty of having to inject human life into an inanimate object."

For Gregory, there are two problems with mixing music and technology, one financial and one ideological. "Sequencers and drum machines are great," he states, "and really, they've opened my eyes to a lot of possibilities. But I simply can't afford to get involved with computers. It's a matter of finance." Explaining the other side of the coin, Gregory -- true to the punk credo -- invokes the spirit of rock and roll as an argument against technology for its own sake. "I'm a bit of a blood and guts musician," he maintains. "I just like to stand on a stage with a little amplifier turned up loud and stamp my feet and go. To get high-tech in music is great as an aid to your work, but I think it's wrong to get so involved with it that it becomes any more than a means to an end."

"I can always tell when a song has been written on a computer," he asserts. "The human aspect is missing, and I think that's the most important thing to keep. If I'm totally honest," Gregory reflects, "I think that before I spent a lot of money on any new sequencer or new synthesizer, I'd probably rather have a couple more guitars."

Go back to Chalkhills Articles.

[Thanks to Richard Pedretti-Allen]