Alec Dartley spoke with Colin Moulding about hearing hymns as a child, arguing about fox hunting, courtship in municipal parks and why songs are best written in the morning.
We used to sing hymns in assembly at school. I often wondered why some of the melodies moved me to tears and others did not.
As a kid, I learned how powerful music was by experiencing my parents — the big, strong adults — being turned to mush when songs they liked would come on the radio. Suddenly, the mood would totally shift from arguing about directions to being calm and reflective. Do have any early memories of music?
We used to sing hymns in assembly at school. I often wondered why some of the melodies moved me to tears and others did not. Hymns can be very moving, and similarly, hearing stuff on the radio as well — the charts and pop music. Of course, my parents were into music as well, especially my father. I was bombarded with Bob Dylan and the Beatles and a lot of people. I think there’s a streak of musicality in the family anyhow, so it did not take much to spur me on.
XTC is often called “pastoral.” Can you talk about the landscape of the town you grew up in?
Swindon is bang in the center of England, and we were 18 miles from the coast. To Americans, this might not sound like much, but that’s quite a distance over there. It’s a small town. Well, it’s getting bigger, but it was a small town, I should say. We have some wonderful countrysides around the town. The Cotswolds are just five miles down the road. That rubs off on you, I think. You haven’t got to go to far before you’re out in the country. I’m sure that the pastoral flavors on a lot of the albums came from where we live.
It was written about 30 years ago. Well, the memory of having my first girlfriend, and going to local homes around my area and parks and grass and municipal places and greenery play a big part in courtship. I think it always did, even going back to Victorian times. Victorians did their courting in the park. There’s a certain innocence about it. A lot of people have said, “Oh, it’s definitely about drugs.” Well, no. There’s a little bit of naughtiness on my part, I suppose, but it’s the innocence of lying on the grass with your girlfriend having a snog, you know. Very pastoral. It’s not “countryside,” it’s more “municipal park.”
What was it like to work with Todd Rundgren on Skylarking?
Todd had a way of working that was different than how Andy wanted to work. That’s where the sparks came from. I fully accepted that he wanted to do things in a certain way. That was fine by me.
The record company said they were in a bit of hole with the band; we hadn’t had a hit in a while and this might be their last chance. We were kind of in the last chance saloon.
How different of a record do you think Skylarking was because you came to America and recorded with Todd?
Usually, if the producer is not of the old school and is prepared to go along with how the band wants it — how Andy wants it — then it usually turns out that Andy takes control and produces the record. There have been cases, though, where the record company has not wanted him to produce the record or the band. To have that wrestled out of our hands and put in someone else’s hands as producer, Todd was given carte blanche, really. The record company said they were in a bit of hole with the band; we hadn’t had a hit in a while and this might be their last chance. We were kind of in the last chance saloon.
Was it difficult for you and the rest of band to give up control, or I’m guessing you were used that already, with Andy?
Yes, he has a very forceful personality. He takes the initiative. That does not always fit well with the record company, especially if you have not had a hit in a while. They’re thinking this isn’t working and they have to do something to bring the band’s popularity up. And that was way back in 1984 or ’85. They were looking for success and we had a couple of albums that didn’t sell particularly well, so they said “What about using an American producer?” He said, “Well, who did you have in mind?” There were a few names that I didn’t recognize, and then Todd’s name came up. Dave happened to have one or two albums of Todd’s and said that might be a good idea. We hadn’t bargained on all the personality clashes! It was hell to make, but it turned out quite well.
It did get quite popular in America. It was all over the radio in the summer of 1987. It was one of the only albums my parents could not only tolerate, but really enjoy.
Well, we had a mini student hit with “Dear God.” That was all over the campus radio stations and it saved our career, to be honest. Andy said he didn’t want “Dear God” going on the record. That’s the irony; he wanted this other track on it, which wasn’t in Todd’s running order when we got Todd involved. He said, “Well, I want you both to send me your demos, so we both sent him demos within a week. He compiled a running order from our demos, and that was the album.
He said “This is what we’re going to record.” and that’s what we did. On day one, session one, we recorded track one. It was a very linear way of working, but that was his working method. You know? So, there was a lot of animosity between Andy and Todd and there still is.
Were there demos of yours that didn’t get picked for Skylarking that you still like?
Yeah, there was one or two. One was called “Find the Fox,” but Todd thought that was dangerous territory. The whole aspect of fox hunting. It was meant to be in a playful way, but Todd said they were going to leave that one behind. That’s far too contentious an issue. I was thankful because I got 5 songs on the record, so I was not arguing. I was just glad to represented in a big way.
A few years back, I had to grab time where I could. But now, the children have left the nest and I like to write in the mornings.
I’ve been listening to your new EP with Terry Chambers, as TC&I. How did you come to work together after so many years apart? Terry left XTC in 1982, I believe?
It was very fortuitous. Terry came over to England for a wedding. He was 12,000 miles away in Australia, so he came back for this wedding and never went back. Me being the opportunist that I am, I said, “Hey, I’ve got some tracks and I’m in the course of writing. So, do you fancy playing on them?” He said he like to have a go. It was like bringing him back from the grave, really. I don’t think he’d touched a drum kit in 30 years. So, we’ve had a bit of a refresher course.
How about the songs? Are you writing them together?
I write the songs myself and Terry adds the drums. We are considering doing some live shows, and getting us in shape for that is proving to be all-encompassing. Getting it in line has taken time, so composing has taken a backseat. Recording and playing live, I’ve come to realize, are totally different things. You have to use a completely different part of your brain, a part I have not used since 1982, I suppose. We’re going to do some shows in the autumn where we play some old XTC songs of mine and all the TC&I roster of songs, which is quite small at the moment. We will make a night of it. We’re humble about it. We’ll give it a few nights and see how it goes.
As for the songs, I write them in bed. You know, in those first few hours in the morning, the mind is clear and you haven’t got the paraphernalia of the day to ail you. So, I find the mornings very therapeutic, and you want to get out of bed, grab a cup of tea and pick up a keyboard or guitar. Mornings are best for me.
Have you always maintained your creativity in the mornings?
Not when I had young children. I’m afraid they interrupt that process. So, a few years back, I had to grab time when I could. But now, the children have left the nest and I like to write in the mornings.
Yeah, it’s kind of death with a smile on its face. Do you remember that song by McGuinness Flint called “When I’m Dead and Gone”? It’s an old-fashioned song from 1970, I believe. There’s a line in there where he sings, “Oh, when I’m dead and gone, I want to leave some happy woman living on.” I thought that was quite a nice sentiment. I’m sure that had some bearing on the writing of it. Yes, you pick out these things and you store them away like a squirrel, and 40 years later, it comes out.
Curated by: Alec Dartley
Conducted by: Phone
Edited by: Morgan Enos
Published: August 3, 2018
Total questions: 12
Word count: 1543
Reading time: Six minutes
Andy Partridge, animosity, assembly, Australia, autumn, backseat, bargain, Barry Andrews, bearing, bombardment, calm, carte blanche, clash, Cotswolds, countryside, course, courtship, death, England, father, flavor, hymn, innocence, McGuinness Flint, melodies, memory, municipal, naughtiness, opportunist, park, pastoral, personality, reflective, refresher, representation, school, sentiment, smile, squirrel, Swindon, TC&I, Terry Chambers, Todd Rundgren, Victorian, wedding, wondered, writing, XTC
About the curator
Alec Dartley is a painter and sculptor working from The Palisades in New Jersey. He received his BA from Parsons School of Design in 1995 and was later awarded a Skowhegan residence. He was born in 1973 in Englewood, New Jersey. Alec is also the founder of Aagoo, a record label for emerging musicians.
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