Over The Tracks With The Big Express | XTC
making The Big Express and strumming guitars
Despite XTC not touring any more, having spent twice the intended 30 grand on the new "Big Express" LP, and having had two sets of ears mixing this waxing (David Lord or Phil Thornally), they're still happy. One might even say ecstatic. "Since the time we were going to tour America for 'English Settlement' it's been nothing but hassle up to now, losing Terry Chambers as well, but this album shows signs of doing great things," enthuses Colin Moulding, as Dave Gregory and Andy Partridge nod in agreement. Tell us all about it, then.
Dave: "The choppy guitar chords at the beginning I played on a short-scale 'John Lennon' Rickenbacker, probably the worst-sounding guitar you've ever heard. We managed to get it sounding good for these bits by putting it through a Marshall at deafening volume. We love confusing intros: records that start with a naked riff with no drum beat. And then when the drums come in, or the band comes in, it throws you completely."
Colin: "I put down the three-note piano riff first when I was writing the tune on my Portastudio, and the two guitar rhythms seemed to go well with the piano. I use the 144 Portastudio, the first one, with a cheap drum box and any effects I can get hold of. One thing I find with my 144 is that when you re-record over something you've already done you can hear the previous track breaking through. But it was a good 500 quid's worth. The track didn't really happen until David Lord got hold of it. A local girl came in and sang the 'choir', tracked up a load of times."
Dave: "He sat here in the studio, and kept singing the next harmony down the talkback for her to sing — she'd do that, he'd think of the next one, and then sing that to her. He's a very accomplished musician."
Andy: "We used Prophet for the bell sounds, Dave's new JX3P for some bell sounds too, and we used a Yamaha CP80 electric grand as well, DI'd and mixed through a Roland chorus amp. Colin wasn't too fussed about putting a bass on it, so it went on last, just a few crunchy notes here and there. But for most of the time the 'bass' is the Yamaha electric grand's bottom notes. There's also an Emulator cello near the end, very low down."
Andy: "The song was written because I was messing around with a Melos echo Dave lent me, a real Nuremburg rally of an echo, the sort of thing Hitler would have under his podium. I got this jittery rhythm from chopping chords into the echo rate, accidentally really."
Dave: "This starts with our Mellotron — nothing else sounds like a Mellotron. For the intro we sent it through a tiny little speaker and put that in a wastepaper bin, and then taped a kitchen roll tube to the mic so that we just got the sound of this little speaker reverberating in the bin. It sounded a bit like it was being played in the Albert Hall, actually."
Andy: "There's a Peak Freen-type biscuit tin on this — the bottom goes 'cong', the lid goes 'cang', and the piece of corrugated paper goes 'thun'. Then there's a tape spool on a hi-hat stand that goes 'tang', and a tall industrial-type ashtray that goes 'chong'. So we gaffer-taped all these bits of metal around Pete Phipps' drum kit. So he superimposed another rhythm over the drum track with those and we substituted the biscuit tin for the drum kit in some places. Sometimes it's biscuit tin and sometimes it's drum kit.
"The metallic sounds were over-compressed so that the initial strike was supressed, and then the ringing ambience around it was brought up out of all proportion."
Dave: "It starts with my Schecter Telecaster playing the riff — I thought Phil did a great job getting the sound right. It's the best Telecaster I've ever played, I've never heard a Fender sound that good. The stacked humbuckers, split coils, have something to do with it — when the two coils are in it's like a nuclear-powered Telecaster, everything and then a bit more. With one coil it sounds a bit weedy and scratchy."
Andy: "I told Colin that the bass had to sound like 'Troglodyte' by the Jimmy Castor Bunch. It came out in the mid-Seventies and had a great crunching bass line. So it's a homage to Jimmy, a sort of memory lift."
Dave: "During the rehearsals for 'Mummer' we were sitting around thinking of something different to use. Mellotron? Yeah! We looked in the Melody Maker and there was actually one for sale in there, we had to go to South Wales for it. I think the bloke had just quit his job in an art-rock group. When we got it back and I took it to pieces to see how it worked I couldn't believe it: the tape's attached to springs that pull it back after eight seconds, and there's a wheel propelled by a big fan belt. Plus it takes about ten minutes to warm up after you turn it on. We have to clean it from time to time, and the fuses used to go a lot when we first got it. Absolutely obsolete."
Andy: "We got our Mellotron for £250 a few years ago — they're very much in neglect. This one has, I expect, had its fair share of being bucked on stage by members of King Crimson during 25-minute versions of 'Devil's Triangle'. I put this song together all on the Mellotron, but I've had the tune knocking about for ages and would bash it out on piano whenever we were in the studio — it's vaguely reminiscent of 'Marjorine' by Joe Cocker, for some reason. So I built this thing up on the Mellotron, and it reminded me of the seaside, especially the seaside in winter when everything's shut up."
Colin: "Redcar in winter."
Dave: "Andy's pride and joy, this song — when we recorded 'English Settlement' he had this tune, he'd pick it out on piano. It's been worked up to this, and for someone who doesn't play the piano, some of the chords are very subtle, and the inversions of the chords are very musical. Quite a good tune for a keyboard dyslexic."
Andy: "It's the first thing I've written with two hands on a keyboard. The stabbing chord stuff is the right hand, and then the tune is actually played on the bass, because my right hand, being my strumming hand, can't do anything fluidly."
Andy: "Steve Saunders plays euphonium on this track — he did a lot of playing on Michael Nyman's music for 'The Draughtsman's Contract'. Funnily enough, whenever we had the odd five minutes between sessions we'd run out and watch a bit more of 'The Draughtman's Contract' on the video. I love the look of the film, the story's very confusing. So anyway, I never realised the range of the euphonium until we did this track."
Andy: "This was written on guitar — most of my songs on the album were written on open-E tuning, a bit of a sod if you want to go away and work out the chords for yourself. So most of them use straight barres, or simple shapes with several bits of barres put together — you get some wonderfully exotic changes from doing that. But this was written when I mucked around with old XTC songs in the Open-E tuning — I played the normal tuning chord shapes of 'Complicated Game' but on the E-tuned guitar. It came out wonderfully melancholy, and this is what it ended up as.
"There's a guitar part that's quite interesting, several feedback notes layered up and sustained. I had to stand in the studio with it painfully loud, cranked up through a Marshall, so I had headphones on for protection — no music going through them, just for protection from deafness."
Colin: "I've bought a Wal bass which I used on this and about three other tracks; I've been playing my Precisions for years, but I've been waiting for a good bass to come along. David was having trouble getting a good bass sound so we tried a few out in a local music shop, and eventually the bloke let me borrow his own Wal. I tried to buy it off him, I liked it so much, so last Saturday I offered him a lot of money and he said OK. It's a very tight sound on the Wal, you can play much faster than on my Fenders, and it's more of a Gibsony, borpy sound. I used to use wirewound strings, too, but I got sick of the sound and went to flatwound strings. But the Wal does it better, that middley, borpy sound I was after."
Andy: "The high stratospheric squeaking noises in the last verse are viola harmonics, Stewart Gordon saws the bow over at a harmonic point, very whistly, and that was put into a Chorus Echo. Glorious, reminiscent of birds and... grand things."
Dave: "Between the second chorus and the last verse there was supposed to be A Solo, but in the end we used a mixture of a couple of guitar chords that were just put in to flesh it out, and some treated violins and violas that a local guy called Stewart Gordon played. He put down a half-cocked solo there when tired and emotional one night — so we came in the next day, chopped it in half and seeped it back into the mix."
Colin: "A crunchy plod. Bit of a stomp."
Dave: "That was the first time we've used an Emulator, for the brass. It was 50% successful: we would have preferred the Brighouse & Rastrick Band. But the track nearly didn't make the album because we didn't think the mix was very good. But I'm glad it did make it because it's a good song, in the tradition of 'Dead End Street' — very Kink-y."
Andy: "The demo I did on my Portastudio, I couldn't get a brass band into my bedroom, so I did it on kazoos. We couldn't get a brass band in time for the studio recording either, so we did it on Emulator with whatever discs we happened to have — not so much brass band as a mixture of various saxophones and classical horns. Dave really liked the demo's kazoos so we also put double-tracked kazoos on the brass parts."
Dave: "I play the Gary Brooker keyboard bit, and those little slide guitar pieces — I used the little Rickenbacker that I used on 'Wake Up' for them, they're sort of George Harrison-style slide parts.
You'd really have to work forever to get that guitar sounding good — it's inaudible because the pickup output's negligible, there's no response from the strings, and the whole thing sounds flat and uninteresting. It worked for this, though."
Andy: "The main guitar parts are very simply played on open-E tuning again, through a little pedal flanger, a Boss I think. It's finger-pulled, but the guitar's loud. If you play a loud electric guitar fingerstyle the strings sort of fight you back, lots of 'nyaaaah' sounds where they don't want to lie down, they want to sustain and play up."
Andy: "The track is about violent regimes, so it should sound violent. I'd quite like people to say oh no, take it off. Virgin didn't want to put the track on the album — Dave thinks it's because the lyrics are slightly anti-American, but they're anti-Russian, anti-British, anti anyone who's ever had a violent regime. I know I have, and I'm willing to confess to Woman's Realm."
Dave/Colin (unison mode): "We didn't like the distortion effect on the vocal..."
Andy: "In my head I wanted it to sound like the vocals and harmonica were coming from Howlin' Wolf or something, and because the quality of the microphones and amplifiers on those sort of records isn't very good they inevitably sound fuzzy. So we put the voice through a Burman amp and cranked up the input stage until it was very fuzzy. We had to gate it quite dramatically because it was doing all kinds of horrible things, it really slams open.
"I sang it, then I DI'd it, and we used the best voice to put through the amp; and then the double-tracked one, which wasn't as good, was used as the main vocal. We ended up burying it under the fuzzy one. The harmonica went through the same amp and gating."
Dave: "It took me a long time to work out what I was going to do on piano — the verse is really weird, it's got a C6maj7 sort of chord to it, really odd. And the chorus is so catchy."
Andy: "I like things with pounding piano, everything from Velvet Underground's 'I'm Waiting For My Man', to things that people like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones did at one time — I just love banana-fingers piano."
Colin: "About 1979 I picked up an old Epiphone Newport bass from Charing Cross Road, I was frustrated at the time with my bass sound. I was scared of it for a couple of years because it sounded very much like a string bass if you put the damper on and got the engineer to go mad on the eq. It's on most of 'Black Sea' — it made Hugh Padgham tear his hair out, 'That bass sound is all eq,' he'd scream. On this there's no damper but it still has that string bass feel."
Dave: "The vocal harmonies are good, I love the last chorus, exhilarating voices. That was Davie Lord again, coming up with the harmonies."
Andy: "Colin brought along the demo of this; his demo guitar playing is very Neil Young: sort of it'll sound nice when you get your fingers out of the strings. But quite charming too. So I interpreted the line — as we got involved in pulling the song about in rehearsals, Pete began drumming more and more in a jazz style, much lighter. And my playing gravitates to a jazzier style when I'm messing around. I played it on my Squier Tele, very wirey, with ambient mikes over the other side of the room. The run I play is almost an exercise run for me, even though it sounds off the cuff."
Dave: "This is supposed to sound like metal gone mad, 150 tons of metal hurtling down a track at 90 miles an hour. I think the middle eight is the best thing Andy's ever written — and the guitar's great, lots of backwards echo, and three 12-strings."
Andy: "This is a normal G-minor shape on an open-E tuning. The actual tune is a very fast strumming over that chord shape, moving your hands backwards and forwards across that box shape on the G-minor.
"Dave played most of the skeletal bones of the rhythm guitars on his Rickenbacker 12-string, with a favourite trick of mine which I think makes an electric sound very pure: that is to mix the electric signal with a miked signal, just put a mike in front of the guitar. You don't hear much from an electric, of course, but what you can hear is a wirey 'glin, glin, glin' sound. Mixed with a full-bodied electric signal you do tend to get a great spectrum of sound to play with. We did a lot of the tracks on 'English Settlement' using that technique."
Interview by Tony Bacon
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