Senses (still) working overtime: Remixing XTC with Steven Wilson9 December 2014
It is frequently the curse of British bands that they be defined by two or three early, sometimes unrepresentative hits. XTC is no exception, but while any band would be glad to have a Senses Working Overtime or Making Plans for Nigel to its credit, the group’s progressively more ambitious 14 studio albums – including two as psychedelic alter-egos The Dukes of Stratosphear – contain melodically ingenious riches in abundance: from exquisite acoustic miniature Mermaid Smiled (on 1986’s Skylarking), to the enigmatically beautiful Rook (1992’s Nonsuch), to the full-on orchestral, Vaughan Williams-goes-pop overtones of Greenman (1999’s Apple Venus Volume 1).
Fourteen years after the group’s final album, singer, guitarist and principal songwriter Andy Partridge (pictured) is aware that XTC’s reputation continues to grow in absentia. “I think we actually got better over time. We were the other band who got better,” he laughs, in wry reference to a legendary British four-piece who – like XTC – forsook the rigours of live performance to achieve greater heights in the studio.
Alas, unlike the Fabs, one couldn’t quite claim that the XTC catalogue has always been treated with reverential care. Setting out on a combined 5.1 and stereo reissue programme last year in conjunction with Panegyric label boss Declan Colgan – whose other clients include Robert Fripp and King Crimson – Partridge was understandably distraught to find that many of the group’s mastertapes cannot currently be located by latterday owner UMG.
“There was me thinking that they are in a situation like at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, inside a huge warehouse with an old fella pushing a trolley down the aisles going, ‘Ooh, there’s Gentle Giant, there’s The Subs, ah XTC, there they are,’” he says. “Sadly, my vision of our tapes residing in a temperature-controlled environment with Dexion shelving [has proven to be incorrect].”
While the search goes on for the originals of landmark albums such as English Settlement and Black Sea, Partridge has busied himself researching additional audio and video material for the reissue of Nonsuch – undoubtedly one of Gus Dudgeon’s final great productions before his tragic death in 2002 – and, imminently, 1979’s distinctly spiky, Steve Lillywhite-produced Drums & Wires (cover pictured right).
“The surround sound for Drums & Wires is pretty minimal as there weren’t 5.1 instruments to use on some tracks,” laughs Partridge. “It was cut virtually all live, with very few overdubs. ‘Punky skiffle’ I think I’d call it.”
In delivering the reissues – which are being released through Ape House/Panegyric – Partridge has been crucially assisted by a new collaborator, Steven Wilson. Best-known as a founding member of Porcupine Tree and now a distinguished solo artist in his own right, Wilson (pictured right) has established an increasingly hectic sideline as a remix/remaster engineer thanks to landmark reissue projects for primarily prog-oriented acts such as King Crimson, Jethro Tull and Yes.
“My intention with all the classic albums I remix is to be as faithful as possible to the original material, and that’s partly borne out by the fact that I only remix albums I genuinely love. I definitely have the fan’s perspective,” says Wilson. “So I am not about to change history or try and ‘improve’ anything in a revisionist fashion, although if possible I do aim to find a little bit more clarity or depth. I also try to retain as much dynamic range as possible; I don’t like things to be too compressed and limited.”
Based in his own Hertfordshire studio, unofficially dubbed No Man’s Land, Wilson works in the box using Logic Pro X. Universal Audio plug-ins remain a mainstay – “they make such fantastic emulations of classic outboard gear” – while the monitoring set-up revolves around Mackie HRH824 MkIIs for stereo mixes and Genelecs for surround work. Now, after something of a ‘70s focus these past few years, he is moving on to a slew of ‘80s classics with more work for XTC and an imminent reissue of Tears For Fears’ 1985 Fairlight-fest, Songs From the Big Chair.
Meanwhile, back at his Swindon base, Partridge is nurturing new music from his own Logic-based ‘shed studio’ and the facility of a local friend, producer/engineer Stuart Rowe (check out their wonderfully disorientating 2012 collaboration with American polymath Peter Blegvad, Gonwards). A part-improvised album with Rowe and singer/songwriter Jen Olive under the name The Clubmen is likely to be released next year, while Partridge also continues to write for others – albeit with distinctly mixed results.
“I keep writing songs for other people that don’t seem to be being accepted,” he laughs ruefully, “so I am mulling the possibility of a multi-disc album set entitled My Failed Songwriting Career!”