This interview originally appeared over three days at the XTC Convention 2020 Facebook page.
Words copyright Darryl W. Bullock; live images copyright Lou Dommett Young.
Quietly spoken, Coke drinking (rather than coke-sniffing) and self-effacing: not very rock ‘n’ roll, is it? But then Steve Tilling is not your average rock ‘n’ roller. Part of the extended XTC family through his work with three quarters of the band, Steve and his own group CIRCU5 (pronounced Circa Five, for those who, like me, have wondered), which currently features former TC&I member (and a certain bass player’s son) Lee Moulding, will be one of the highlights of the 2020 XTC Convention.
Gearing up for a homecoming gig on September 21, I caught up with him recently for a natter at the Tuppenny, the pub where so many of us gathered last year ahead of the TC&I shows at the Swindon Arts Centre. Before we had even sat down, his phone rang, the screen lighting up with the name Terry Chambers. But more about that later…
Swindon born and bred; Steve grew up on the same estates and the same streets as Andy, Colin and Terry, although being a generation younger he’s happy to admit that XTC were not his first musical influence. “Abba,” he laughs. “I was about three years old when they were on the Eurovision Song Contest performing ‘Waterloo’. Apparently I was jumping up and down on the sofa telling everyone that they were going to win!”
Obsessed with music from a young age, he was initially attracted to the trumpet before being taught to play classical guitar, which he continued until he was around 12 years old. Then something happened that brought about a change in musical direction. “I was a bit of a space cadet when I was about 12, I was into things like Gong and Yes: I was a little hippy really, old school prog and space rock. A mate of my dad’s lent me a couple of albums – it’s all his fault. I feel I missed out on the classics, The Beatles, The Who and the like. It’s odd because I was never really exposed to them: I went straight into weird! Being a musician, the self-doubt creeps in, you know, should I have been weaned on the Beatles, but it’s who I am. You can’t go back and change those influences.
“As a teenager, I was into bands like Iron Maiden, but I soon grew out of that. It always seemed like a bit of a Boy’s Own club, very strange... all a bit Dungeons and Dragons. Then in my 20s, I got into bands like XTC and Jellyfish… I love harmonies, nice plump guitar sounds, big drums. I grew up through the 80s, with Duran Duran and that tinselly stuff, but my ears were more attuned to the70s. That’s probably why my own melodies are a bit proggy or space rock-y.”
After a few years playing in Swindon-based metal outfit Bardiche, music was forced to take a back seat. The arrival of children meant that he needed to find a proper job, one that would feed and clothe his offspring. Now the kids have grown up he has returned to his first love. Sadly, there’s not a lot of money to be made music these days (unless you’re Ed Sheeran, that is) but working as a freelance copywriter allows him the time to concentrate on writing and performing while still being able to earn an income. “It’s a struggle,” he admits. “Everybody’s listening to Spotify and the other streaming services, but people of my generation don’t really use them. For me as a musician my income mainly comes from live work, then there’s the CDs and t-shirts. But I think the secret of happiness is in creating something – whether that be gardening, writing or making music – just create! There’s a tremendous amount of satisfaction in creating.”
Before setting out to record his own album, Steve played with singer Johnny Warman in his 60s tribute act Magic Bus. Warman, who has had a long association with Ringo Starr, has his own XTC connection, both appearing on the 1989 charity single ‘Spirit of the Forest’. It was through Steve that Dave Gregory got involved in the band. “We needed a guitarist, and I got in touch with him through Facebook Messenger! I told him what we were doing and asked if he’d be interested and he said, ‘Yeah! I’d love to!’ But, being as it’s such a small world, Johnny and Dave already knew each other. In the late 70s, Johnny had a band called 3 Minutes, and they’d supported XTC several times on the ‘Drums and Wires’ tour.
“We became friends, so when I started working on the album, I asked if he could come and add some of his magic to it. I gave him a blank canvas, and when it came back to me I was blown away. His melodic sensibility is unbelievable. It’s almost orchestral. It was beyond anything I could have imagined, and I didn’t change a note. He’s such a talented bloke. It’s great playing with Dave: he’s got a rack of vintage guitars; the finest gear and he knows everything. He’s just perfect and you just bathe in his sound!”
Had he been an XTC fan? “My earliest memories of XTC were seeing them on Top Of The Pops, around the time of ‘Making Plans For Nigel’. I remember thinking, ‘My God! They’re from Swindon!’ then later, when ‘Senses Working Overtime’ was a hit, I remember being in the playground at school, everyone singing along. I loved the singles I heard as a kid, but I came to them, in terms of buying their albums, quite late. It was 1992, and the first album I bought was ‘Nonsuch’.”
Like most musicians, Steve finds difficulty in labelling or limiting his own music. “Before I released it [the CIRCU5 album] people were saying, ‘this is prog’, and I’m thinking, ‘is it?’ I know that there are elements on there, so I focussed on the prog audience, and they’re all scratching their heads going, ‘Well, there aren’t any 24/18 time signatures’! ‘Where are the nose flutes?’ But I’ve never really liked the pastoral style of prog rock. In my mind, I had things like the Jellyfish album ‘Spilt Milk’: it’s not got that level of production, they threw the kitchen sink at it, but in terms of hooks and harmonies… music should be enjoyable to listen to, and a lot of prog rock is hard to get through. I wanted something a bit easier going. Everything should have a point; you shouldn’t be meandering in music. I mean I love Yes, but some of their stuff is hard work.”
Most XTC fans will know Steve from his stint playing live with Colin and Terry at the Arts Centre last October and November. He was initially approached by Stu Rowe, who has worked on a number of projects with Andy in recent years (Monstrance, Gonwards, Lighterthief and the as-yet unreleased Clubmen album) as well as with Barry Andrews’ group Shriekback and with Colin and Terry for the TC&I project. “My immediate reaction was ‘no’,” he candidly admits. “I’m a bass player, live, although I do play guitar. That’s a typical example of that lack of confidence that local musicians seem to have. But he talked me round.
“So, we met up, and I had about a month to learn the songs before I went around to Colin’s and began rehearsals. They were happy with me so that was it. It was really daunting, but I just spent every minute I had learning the songs. I put all the tracks into Pro Tools, which helped me to pick out the guitars. The night before the first rehearsal I didn’t sleep a wink – I had a big dose of panic. It was pure terror!”
Asked if it was difficult, coming in as a third wheel to a relationship that had existed between Colin and Terry for more than 40 years, Steve says that the duo were just as worried as he was. “I think they were lacking a bit of confidence too, so we all seemed to be on the same level. They were not sure if it was going to work and just grateful that I was part of it. I was amazed at how modest, and unsure, they were.”
The TC&I gigs were incredibly well received, perhaps unsurprisingly when you consider that the pair had not played together in front of an audience for 35 years. But what was it like, as an outsider, coming in to join one of the world’s best-loved rhythm sections? “I felt like a rabbit in the headlights at that first rehearsal,” he admits. “The first notes I played were the ‘Bungalow’ intro and then into ‘Day In, Day Out’, and I’m just trying to make a good impression. At every rehearsal we went through the set list as if we were doing it live.
“Terry was really keen to go out live, and Colin wanted to give these songs of his an airing. Terry’s drumming was such a big part of the early XTC sound; he’s got a very distinctive style, these solid rhythms. He didn’t seem to struggle with the songs that he had not originally played on, he just made them his own. Colin and Terry are really humble and modest, which is great, but I think it also made them worry about people actually turning up!”
Clearly he had some big shoes to fill, and not everyone was going to give him an easy ride. “I loved it, but I was petrified. I was trying to do both Dave and Andy’s guitar parts, and then I lost my voice, so I couldn’t do any backing vocals for the first few nights! You’re always going to get people who say things like ‘huh! I didn’t enjoy it He’s no replacement for Andy or Dave’. There were a few of those, but I know that: I wasn’t trying to compete with Andy, I just wanted to do the songs justice.” Luckily for us, the live album, Naked Flames, captures the performance from the last night of the shows, by which time Steve’s voice had returned. “There were a few technical difficulties with the other nights, a few niggles here and there,” he says. “Colin and Terry were really limited to what they could choose from. But I’m really happy with it[ST1] . It sounds great and captures the ambience of being there. It’s quite an intimate sound.”
As we all know, the set list was the same at every concert. That may have disappointed a few fans, but there was a very good reason for this, as Steve explains: “I don’t think that either Colin or Terry realised that people would buy tickets for multiple nights, the thought was that it would probably be a different audience every evening. There were other songs that were considered, and I even suggested some, but they weren’t that keen. We jammed a few disco-ish things, like ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by the Sugarhill Gang, and some stuff by Chic… we even did ‘Masters of the Universe’ by Hawkwind, just noodling about. Terry had a drum pattern, something cyclic, a bit like ‘Travels in Nihilon’, and we jammed along with that. I thought that might turn into a great XTC or TC&I type song, because he’s great with those looping beats, but it wasn’t to be.”
Due to personal circumstances Colin felt the need to put TC&I on hiatus, however Steve and Terry have become close friends and are looking at doing something musically together at some point soon. “I was gutted when it finished, because by that last night it was getting really good. We were getting tighter and tighter, and it would have only got better.” Yet although Colin may have decided that, for the present time at least, he’s putting things on hold, Terry may have other plans. "He’s a great drummer and I really want to play with him, do something productive and keep things moving,” Steve says. “He’s one of my best mates now: we talk every day. I love him to bits. You can’t escape the XTC legacy; it’s something to be proud of. You can’t help but want to get a band together and go out and play some of these songs. I don’t know how it would be received, with Terry as the only founding member of the band, but we just want to do it and see how it goes. Ultimately we’d like to write our own material as well, which is something I’m really looking forward to: I fancy writing something in a different vein. It would have been great to continue with Colin, that would have been perfect… or to get Dave and Andy involved, but that’s not going to happen. I’ve lived in this town all of my life and I’ve never even met Andy! (Note: two days after this interview, Steve met Andy Partridge for the first time, and the two got on famously.)
“I love Terry and I want to play with him. He’s a brilliant drummer and he’s having a rebirth, and I want to give him the opportunity to go out and do it. We’re both really keen to get out there and do what we love doing, which is playing live. That’s what I live for.”
I asked Steve if he thought about asking Dave Gregory to come along. “We did ask Dave,” he admitted, “But he’s got a hell of a lot of work with Big Big Train he doesn’t want to get involved in another band. I’m still very good friends with Dave…” Then he dropped the bombshell, something that would be news to the majority, if not all, XTC fans: it certainly was to me. Last summer, Colin and Terry asked Dave if he would like to join them for the Swindon Arts Centre concerts. “When we first met, we were sat down talking about me joining them, and I know how much XTC fans would have loved to see Andy or Dave rather than me there, so as an act of self-sacrifice I said, ‘Do you want me to ask Dave if he’ll do it?’ And they said ‘Well, we’ve already asked him’. [ST2] It’s a tantalising thought: for a moment, just the briefest of moments, there was the slight chance that we could have seen three members of XTC on stage again, for what may have been one final hurrah. Since I spoke with Steve, Terry has confirmed that it was he who initially reached out to Dave, and that Colin was happy with that.
"It would have been great if Dave was involved, but unfortunately that was not meant to be. I’m a massive XTC fan and all I ever wanted was for XTC to get back together. It would be like the universe had aligned. Wouldn’t that be amazing? Colin’s always said, ‘never say never’, and as a fan I would have loved to see Dave up there.”
Still, right now the focus is on CIRCU5 and his project with Terry. In these days of instant gratification, digitally downloading everything, why did he decide to release the CIRCU5 album on CD? “I wanted a proper release, rather than a download, because I wanted something physical. You never know what might happen, and this could be my one shot – I might get run over by a bus tomorrow! So, I thought, ‘If I’m going to do it, I want to do it properly’, you know? I wanted something tangible. Financially it’s madness, but I think it has more value; downloads are so ephemeral, disposable… if your computer buggers up it’s gone. Seeing your name on something physical, it’s a real high, isn’t it? He admits that several people have asked if the album will be available on vinyl, but he feels that the costs would be prohibitive.
On September 21 Steve and the band, which also features former Tin Spirit Mark Kilminster, play a one-off gig at Swindon’s Level Three, showcasing the album as well as throwing in a few covers and some other songs. “There’s so much talent in this town,” he says. “It was hard in the pre-internet days because you didn’t know anyone, and there was this idea that to be any good you had to come from London. Now you’ve got people like Mark, Lee, Chris O’Leary (formerly of the K Band) and so on… these people are as good if not better than the so-called premium musicians from London. It’s the Swindon disease, thinking you’re not good enough, but they are. The musicians I’m playing with now are the finest I’ve ever played with. People like Lee, Mark and Chris really put the time and the effort in. They’re amazing.”
Then, after a break – which will probably be spent writing – there’s a new album to consider. “I’ve got a lot of songs nearly finished, and ideas for a lot more, so I want to take some time to go through all of those and see if I can make something of them.“ His mobile phone has become an audio notebook: “I’ve got about two years’ worth of ideas on there,” he reveals. “I don’t know what would happen if I lost them all: I’d be twitching in a corner before they carted me off to somewhere secure!
“We’ll probably do the odd gig here and there, but I’ll be easing off for a while to give me a chance to write. But I’m really looking forward to playing at the Convention next September: I can’t wait! I wasn’t at the last one, but I know that Colin and Terry were, and I think one of the motivators for getting them back on stage was their attending the last Convention. I don’t think Colin was aware of how popular the band still were until then. When I told my kids that I was doing something with members of XTC they told me that there were loads of kids walking around college wearing XTC t-shirts. Lots of bands have dated, but XTC haven’t. I think that’s partly because they didn’t fall into that 80s trap of cheesy synthesisers. It’s still relevant. And they were ahead of their time.”
Tickets for CIRCU5 and friends at Level Three, Swindon, are available now at https://www.seetickets.com/event/circu5-special-guests/level-3/1394854