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Sunday, September 13, 2009


Colin discusses 'King for a Day'

Song of the Week -- Colin's take

Part of an ongoing series of interviews by Todd Bernhardt with Colin Moulding about the songs we feature each week on MySpace. This week's song, "King for a Day," is from 1989's Oranges and Lemons. Don Device was first to guess the correct song for this week, followed closely (and logically) by Steve from Film Extras. Congratulations, gents!

We'll be back at in two weeks with an interview about a song with a title that almost matches a song by Terre Roche.

TB: Let's talk about your single from Oranges and Lemons, which is "King for a Day." The demo for this is on Coat of Many Cupboards, and it's one of your more well-realized demos, I think. The guitar parts are there, the vocals seem to be all all there. Some of the lyrics are different, and the drumbeat is kind of straight-ahead -- it's not as much a shuffle -- but by this point in your career, you're doing more complete demos.

CM: Well, it's still pretty primitive by my standards, but the main guitar parts are there -- the guitar motif, which goes pretty much through the whole song. It's a bit of a bugger to play!

TB: I can imagine -- is that any special tuning?

CM: It is, yeah. It's a secret tuning, which I won't divulge to anyone! [laughs] You actually play the strings, and the strings that you play, you think they should not make that note, but they do. It's that much of a wild tuning.

I showed Andy the tuning, and I remember he got tripped up by it a few times. Until you play it over and over again, it's hard to do, and the repetition of it gets to you as well. Don't think about it too much, otherwise you'll trip over yourself.

But I thought it was a great riff, and tried to write some words to it.

TB: Do you play with alternate tunings a lot?

CM: At that time I did, yeah. My strings were going up and down like a whore's drawers, you know? [laughs] I was just desperately searching for songs -- I used to experiment with all sorts of tunings and capos and stuff, to try to get a melody going. I was really pleased when I came up with this riff -- I thought, "That's usual. I like the way that goes round and round."

And then, having laid the principal riff down, I started to strum some chords over the top. I thought, "Christ, you get some really lovely clashes here." The whole thing kind of revolved, and I thought it had the makings of a really good tune, if I could find some words and a melody to go with it.

So, I was quite pleased with the way the song started out. It was kind of earmarked as being a single right from the word go.

TB: Was it similar to what we were talking about with "Nigel" or "Ball and Chain," where you sent the demos to Virgin, and they took notice?

CM: Yeah -- it was going to be either the first or the second single. As it happened, it was the second single, but it was going to come out as a single. We even made a video for it, so they were that keen, right from the beginning. The Americans liked it in particular -- they seemed to see something in it that was special. We also had "Mayor of Simpleton," so we seemed to be quite well-equipped with singles to offer up.

TB: And you were just coming off the success of Skylarking, so you were a bit of a hot property at this point, I'd imagine.

CM: Yes -- we were starting to sell a lot more in America, and starting to do the rounds there, in terms of promotion.

TB: You did the radio tour after this album, and you played this song on David Letterman.

CM: We did, yes. We were fretting a little bit about how we were going to achieve it, but he's got such a competent band of musicians under his wing there that it worked out alright. We were able to arrange something with the band -- you know, the parts that were too difficult to sing and play at the same time, they would fill in. We played most of it, but occasionally the band would help. We used their drummer, of course.

TB: Anton Fig.

CM: Yeah, great musicians, and we were able to pull it off and do a competent version. That was the main thing.

TB: So, what's the process for a show like that? Did you spend the afternoon rehearsing? I guess they actually tape it in the late afternoon or early evening, right?

CM: You'd bash out a version of it, then go up to the control room to see what it would sound like coming out over the air. They had a pretty good handle on how it was sounding -- I have to say, it sounded a lot better than some of the TV shows we'd done in England, certainly a few years back. I remember the Old Grey Whistle Test was appalling, how dry it sounded. But this show had a certain amount of life to it, which was good. The guys who were doing the show -- they might have been musicians, or certainly engineers of our ilk, rather than just for TV shows, you know? They were pretty clued up, and it was a pretty good sound right from the word go.

So, we felt pretty confident going into it, really, having heard what was being delivered upstairs.

TB: Had Paul and the band listened to the song beforehand and worked things out, or did you do it on the fly with them?

CM: They'd heard the song, and they'd rehearsed it before we even got there. So, we managed to do a reasonable version of it.

TB: Did Andy have to deal with any nerves? I remember this was a big deal for XTC fans at the time, because you guys hadn't played in front of an audience for something like seven years.

CM: Indeed, yes. I think it was a bit more of a bigger deal for him than it was for me and Dave. But the radio tour was just as nail-biting. Anytime you're playing live, there's the risk of errors and all that.

We acquired a new manager at the time -- Tarquin Gotch. He was an English guy, but he was based in Los Angeles, where he working for John Hughes, doing films and stuff. He was having a lot of success with that, but I think his heart was really in music.

Anyway, we got friendly with him, and he said he could do things for us, and that's how we got the acoustic radio tour going.

Speaking of LA, [producer] Paul Fox has us rehearse the songs at Leeds Rehearsal Studios near LA, and he really murdered us on those rehearsal sessions. We were about three or four weeks there, rehearsing solidly, and I'll tell you, I was so drained at the end of it -- we hadn't rehearsed that much even in the old days! It was the complete antitheses of Skylarking, where we had no rehearsals.

We were working on the principal numbers we'd agreed we were going to do -- there were still some fringe tracks that we didn't know we were going to do or not, so consequently they didn't get rehearsed hardly at all. But the main body of the album, we rehearsed like crazy, so we pretty much knew what we were going to be playing.

TB: Do you think that paid off once you got in the studio?

CM: Yeah, I do. It makes a change, to know what you're doing! [laughs] When we recorded, we worked as a band -- the usual procedure, to get the drums down, and then if there were any corrections to be done, we'd do it individually. But we'd rehearsed so much that there weren't too many corrections. I just remember working so hard at those rehearsals, and playing those tunes to death. But it was worth it.

But there was still a certain amount of building the song once you got into the studio, you know?

TB: I know from other interviews I've done with Andy that Paul Fox was willing to try lots of new things once you got in the studio, correct?

CM: Yeah -- although we knew basically what we were going to be playing, when we got into the studio, there was a feeling of, "Oh, perhaps we could do this instead." So, in a few places, there were a few changes and a few additions -- for example, you'd get the main riff down on "King for a Day," and then there was that bell-like melody in the beginning that Andy wanted to put on, I think. That had not occurred to me to do that, and I came round to liking it in the end, but I wasn't sure about it to begin with.

My demo was a bit more rough and gritty, I suppose, and this sweetened it up perhaps more than I would have liked, but you yield to the fact that it probably needed something. You didn't know if that was quite the ticket, but it was there, so you used it.

I think we had some sort of backward thing on the riff as well -- although it was going forward, it was going backward.

TB: I noticed that today, as I was listening on headphones -- that the circular guitar riff has a backward effect on it.

CM: Yeah, that was Paul Fox's idea -- or it might have even been [engineer] Ed Thacker's. I think it might have been an accident to begin with, and somebody liked it and said, "Well, why don't we keep that happening?", as very often happens in the studio.

TB: Happy accidents.

CM: Precisely. "Oh yes, let's let it run, then." It made it a little bit fuller, perhaps. It seemed okay. We went with it at the time -- everybody jumped up and down when they heard it, so we went with it, but I supposed that we maybe could have done without it [laughs]. I don't know.

We had Pat playing the drums, of course.

TB: I wanted to ask what it was like working with him.

CM: It was Paul Fox's idea to use Pat -- he said that he'd principally been the drum player in Mr. Mister. He seemed a competent player, and he was Paul's recommendation, so we went with it.

TB: Kind of like Prairie was Todd's guy.

CM: That's usually the way it works out. If you haven't got a drummer, then the producer usually has somebody in mind. We're open to suggestions, so why not?

TB: And Pat's a fan of you guys, plus I've heard he has a really good work ethic...

CM: He did, yes. He worked really hard, and he was a fan of the band since the Drums and Wires days, so he knew our stuff quite well, and we got along with him pretty well. He's open to suggestion -- if the bass drum doesn't have enough weight in it, then he'll probably be the first one to suggest putting a little sample with it -- you know, these kinds of things.

On this song, he played the shuffle. I mean, it was always going to be a shuffle -- on the demo, it's created with a kind of cabasa, while on the album it's a hi-hat.

TB: So, you'd always intended it to be a shuffle?

CM: Well, the riff kind of suggests it -- you're propelling it with the riff in a kind of a shuffle way anyway, so all you need is a thump-whack, really. Give it a little help with a cabasa or hi-hat, and away you go! [chuckles] I just kind of left it up to Pat, I think, to come up with something that was what we needed.

TB: Did he record all his parts at once, or separately? I remember an interview with him where he said that, on some songs on this album, he recorded his drum parts separately, to get more separation. So, he'd record the snare part just by itself, or the kick and hi-hat just by themselves. Did he do anything like that on this?

CM: The only thing I remember was that we put a sample on the snare, to help the snare -- and on the bass drum, I think -- to make the sound a little fuller. We did the drums and backing tracks at Ocean Way -- it used to be called Western Studios, I think, and The Beach Boys supposedly used the studio to do a lot of their stuff in the early days. So, it was nice to know that!

And we had Elvis Costello next door -- he was doing that album with T-Bone Burnett. Spike, I think it was.

TB: Is that where you met T-Bone? Or had you known him before?

CM: The whole band was kind of ushered into the studio to meet up with Elvis and T-Bone, and so it was not specifically me meeting it, but more the band saying "hi," you know? I had not met him before that -- it was my first encounter with the name, even. I didn't know what his pedigree was until later.

Later down the line, of course, we became even more acquainted.

TB: When did you do that album [Martinis and Bikinis] with him and Sam Phillips?

CM: It was the year that River Phoenix died -- it was the actual month that he died! He got me the gig, to play on this album.

TB: He was someone else who was at the Oranges and Lemons sessions.

CM: Yes, he would drop in. Quiet chap with a kind of rucksack on his back. He'd come in to the lounge there, the relaxing area, and make himself known. I didn't pay much attention to him. He was a child star at the time -- he seemed a nice chap, and I just thought he liked to hang around rock bands or something.

But apparently he was a big muso, loved music, and was a big fan of the band. I didn't know -- I just thought he dropped by to say hello.

TB: Is it because he knew Paul or someone else at the studio that he was able to come by?

CM: I don't know who got him in, or how he got word that we were there. Someone said, "Oh, there's River Phoenix -- he's in films." I didn't give it much notice, and vaguely remembered seeing him in one film, I think. I didn't pay that much attention.

Later on, he got me the gig for that Sam Phillips session. And while we were at the studio doing that, he came to grief. They came in one morning, and said, "Did you hear the news?" I said, "What's that?" and T-Bone said, "River's dead, at the Viper Room." We were doing the session down in Santa Monica at the time. It was quite bizarre, because he lived next door to them, in West Hollywood, and it was him who'd put my name forward for the session.

TB: You had some other guests at the studio as well -- I heard that Chris Squire would stop by. Did you ever get a chance to chat with him?

CM: No, we didn't really chat -- he was just this big, towering figure who'd visit. Foxy knew him more than we did, because he'd worked with him on "Owner of a Lonely Heart," I think.

[chuckles] He poked his head 'round the door when I was doing a bass overdub -- right at that moment! So, it was a bit, "Hang on a minute -- do I have to have this kind of pressure?" [laughs]

TB: [laughing] You weren't playing a Rickenbacker, were you?

CM: No, I was playing my Wal bass, I think! He was just this towering figure kind of staring down on me suffering, you know? [laughs] Very influential player -- he must have sold more basses for Rickenbacker than anyone else.

We moved from Ocean Way to Suma when the drum tracks were done. That's where we did the overdubs and the mixing.

TB: Were you able to stay for all of the mixing, or did you have to go back to the UK?

CM: I stayed for some of the mixes -- I can't quite remember which ones, but I know I didn't stay for all of them. I think Andy did as well -- I think he came back with me.

TB: He said that he stayed for as much as he could, but because you guys were dealing with litigation at that point with your former manager...

CM: Yeah, it was a heavy kind of time. I think we were under a lot of pressure -- a lot of worry about how the court case was going to turn out. It was just hanging over our heads. It's most unusual for Andy to leave the mixing -- he must have been completely washed out, for him to say, "I'm getting on the plane and going home, and leaving the mixing to somebody else" -- that's unheard of. But I'm almost sure we went home together.

TB: Did you initially have your family there with you, like he did?

CM: Yeah, we came over in April, and I left at the beginning of October, I think, with a couple more weeks left of mixing. I think the mixing didn't end until the end of the month. I know Dave stayed in LA 'til the very end.

The families came over when we did in April, and I think they went home beginning of July -- spent about two-and-a-half months. It was a long old haul, being away from home that long, but obviously having your families there for a good proportion of the time made it a lot more bearable.

TB: That was one of the hardest things about Skylarking, correct? It was another big chunk of time you were away, with no family at all.

CM: That's right. Things got a bit dire -- listening in, I didn't know if it was Andy jerking off next door or the woodpecker pecking the tree, you know? [laughs]

TB: [laughing] I wouldn't think that the shark would make that noise!

CM: [laughing] You wouldn't think a pecker would make that noise, either!

TB: [laughing] So, speaking of long hauls and litigation, let's talk about the lyrics of this song. They're pretty dark. Where did these come from?

CM: Probably the case! We were out in sunny Los Angeles, but it was a pretty grim time.

TB: So, even when you were back in the UK writing this song, you were feeling the pressure of the court case and all that?

CM: Well, it hadn't come to a head just yet -- it was about to come to a head, and that was the worrying thing. It was settled in late '89, I think. Certainly the months preceding it, we thought there was going to be a trial, a court case, but it didn't actually get there. It was agreed that both sides would settle -- come to some arrangement -- before that happened. Which was a kind of a relief, although not a totally pleasing outcome.

TB: Yeah, I think in situations like that, part of you wants to do battle, to have your day in court. Get all the facts out in the open.

CM: That's alright if you don't have an album to make, or need to write more songs.

TB: Or have the money to keep spending on the lawyers!

CM: We knew we were in the hole quite a bit already, because we'd gone to Virgin cap in hand to get money to cover our court fees. I knew we were quite a bit in the hole. If we hadn't had a relatively successful record with Oranges and Lemons at that time, we would have been in deep shite, I think. It was quite a relief, to be doing rather better. Took the pressure off a bit, but still, the months making the record were quite tough.

TB: Why all the alternate mixes for this song?

CM: Nothing to do with me, Guv! [laughs]

TB: [laughing] Nothing at all? So, it was Virgin deciding to squeeze the lemon a little bit?

CM: I think we were lured into thinking that there was a demand for it, that "you should get this guy on the case" -- whoever we was -- "who does these 12-inch mixes, and get him to do one."

At the time, I didn't really care if they came out or not. I think my mind was elsewhere -- I just wanted a happy outcome to the court case, I think, and whether we were doing a 12-inch mix was a matter of, "If you can find a use for it, then get somebody to do it."

TB: Of course, it was your money they were using to finance these mixes, right?

CM: Well yes, I think the budget for the album hadn't reached a couple hundred thousand yet, but by the time we did these remixes and stuff, it'd gone up to about a quarter-million, you know? It really stretched the budget to the limit -- we broke the budget several times, really. I think they threatened to pull the plug several times.

But it was out of our hands -- it was certainly out of my hands. Somebody suggested it, so I said, "If you think it's got a chance, sure." I didn't know the American market, and it was done more for the American market than for the English -- they said that it would be a good thing for the clubs, or whatever. I just think they were trying to flog the song more than it should have been flogged.

My feeling is, if it's going to be a hit, the audience will find their way there eventually, and make it a hit.

TB: You can't really force it upon them.

CM: I just wanted to release it as a single and see how it did. It came out, with a video and stuff, and got some attention, but I think that maybe doing the 12-inch mixes was one step too far. But somebody suggested it, and somebody was willing to [laughs] put up some of our money, and there you go. There you go -- very often you do a lot of things to please people, when you know you should be putting your foot down, and saying, "Look -- no. This is not going to achieve anything."

But, to tell you the truth, I didn't really know the market too well, and there was talk of it being played in clubs and stuff, and that it would be a hit in the clubs, and so it was, "Alright, okay, if you think it will be, then go for it." But it wasn't my way of thinking.

TB: Finally, speaking of the video, we've talked about videos you like and those you don't -- where does this one fall?

CM: The guy who did it, Tony Kaye, had done lots of advertisements on English TV. These guys have really got their sights set on making feature films, and it does look rather glorious, I suppose, from a purely visual point of view. There was a sepia version at well, though it was in black-and-white to begin with. It was okay -- made us all far better-looking that what we were! [chuckles]

TB: And Ian Gregory plays drums in the video, yes?

CM: Blimey, yes! Come to mention it, I think you're right. Couldn't afford to fly Pat Mastelotto around the world, I suppose -- we'd broken the bank already, so that was the way it was. Ian comes through for us again! [laughs]

There are a lot of those video shoots where you don't know how it's going to turn out until you see the finished product. You're in the hands of these guys, and you just hope they don't make you look a fool.

TB: Do you feel as if you succeeded on that level with this one?

CM: That it didn't make me look a fool? [laughs]

TB: Yeah.

CM: Ahhh -- the hat may be a bit dubious. [laughs] I don't wear hats all that well -- I've too much hair! I'm glad to have it, mind you. But I just followed orders, and it didn't come out to bad. Got away with it on this one -- not too much acting involved, and that's the main thing. When you're seen to be doing stuff you really shouldn't be doing, that's a problem. You should be strumming your guitar, fellow -- then you're not going to look too much of a twit.

TB: So, how did the song do, ultimately? Did it sell well?

CM: It was quite well-received in America. Judging by my PRS statements, it still gets played quite a lot in the States. In comparison to some of my other stuff, it seems more favorable, perhaps, to Americans than to English, really. You don't hear the song on English radio -- certainly not on the main stations, anyway. Although you might hear "The Mayor of Simpleton," which maybe just got inside the top 30 here at the time.

TB: I know that I've heard it quite a bit on what seem to be compilation mixes that get played in public places, if that makes any sense.

CM: Come to think of it, yes, I think you're right. I've even heard it in DIY shops or something over here. Yes -- you wouldn't hear it on the main radio stations here, but you hear it in DIY shops!

TB: That must be a strange experience, for you to be walking through the store and suddenly say, "Hey, that's me!"

CM: Yeah, it's even more bizarre when it's not you playing it, but it's a rendition of it! I've heard that as well.

I remember that we met up with a lot of people in Los Angeles, being over there. Couple of the guys from Frank Zappa's band -- Mike Keneally, and Scott Thunes -- they used to drop by. I remember learning cribbage with Mike Keneally and Dave Gregory -- we used to play in our spare moments, and I've been thrashing my mother-in-law at it ever since! [laughs]

We'd go up to Griffith Park, the big park there in Los Angeles, and did a lot of sightseeing at various places. Quite a strange place to be -- funny town. It's alright if you're working, but if you've got time to kill, I wouldn't recommend it.

TB: It's so spread out -- there's no real urban center.

CM: Yeah, that's right. If you heard of a good book shop, you'd have to travel miles to get there, and by the time you'd gotten there, you'd more or less gone off the idea, you know?

The frustrating thing was, once we got there, there were too many days off. I would have liked to have just got on with the record, gone in straight to rehearsals, and all that. But obviously Paul Fox and Ed Thacker had families, so they wanted time off. That's all very well, but when you're in a strange environment, it's not always good for the guy in the middle of it all.

TB: And plus, you're continuing to pay money to live there but not being productive, even if you're not spending money on studio time or the staff there.

CM: Burning up per diems, yeah. I think with the success of Skylarking, there was a bit more money available to make this record, but having said that, it appears we even surpassed that budget. We spent a hell of a lot of money on this record, and I'm sure those remixes took it well into the red.

TB: Did you guys experience any earthquakes when you were there?

CM: We did actually -- there were a few days when we had a few rumbles.

TB: That must have been strange for a West County boy.

CM: Indeed. I think I woke up in the middle of the night with the bed shaking a few times.

TB: And it wasn't you!

CM: [laughing] That wasn't me wood-peckering! Promise!

11:42 PM

©2009 by Todd Bernhardt and Colin Moulding. All Rights Reserved.