Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Interview: Henry Chats with Mark Fisher about What Do You Call That Noise? An XTC Discovery Book

Limelight's Mark Fisher Talks about His New XTC book, What Do You Call That Noise? in a CoolDad Q&A

By Henry Lipput

Mark Fisher started his Limelight fanzine about XTC back in 1982. Since then he's had blogs, websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts to spread the word about one of the best -- and most influential -- bands of the last forty years. (The band's 3D EP was released in 1977, which means that they should have been on the short list for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a long time ago. But don't get me started on that.)

Fisher's What Do You Call That Noise? follows 2017's The XTC Bumper Book Of Fun For Boys And Girls. CoolDad Music sent Mark some questions about the new book which came out last month. He graciously provided in-depth and personal responses to questions about his own history with the band's history.

Henry Lipput: In 2017, you released The XTC Bumper Book Of Fun For Boys And Girls, and you've just released What Do You Call That Noise?, two books about XTC. In addition, last year the well-received documentary XTC: This Is Pop was broadcast; and we got Complicated Game with Todd Bernhardt's interviews with Andy Partridge. Why do you think all this attention is being given to a band that released their last album nearly 20 years ago? (By the way, I’ve been a big XTC fan since I bought Mummer in 1983.)

Mark Fisher: It's an interesting question. Into that mix you could add:

• Colin Moulding and Terry Chambers coming together as TC&I to release an EP and perform six gigs
• The continued work of XTC cover bands including Fossil Fools
• A fan convention in Swindon in 2017 and another on the way in 2020

All of these have been beneficial to me as a way of generating interest in my books, but it's harder to say for sure why it's happening.

My best guess is it's something to do with age. You get to my sort of age – I'm 54 – and two things happen when you look back on your younger self. One is you become nostalgic for the old days. The other is you re-evaluate the past with the perspective of time. I'd imagine several of us have looked back and thought, "Hold on, XTC weren't just a teenage infatuation – this stuff still holds up."

My generation has also built up the skills to make books and documentaries or whatever, so maybe it makes sense that now is the time we would do it. But, at the same time, a younger generation of music lovers are discovering XTC for themselves, with no reason to be nostalgic. Four fans under the age of 21 contribute to What Do You Call That Noise? and they write with passion and authority.

Could it be XTC's time has finally come?

Henry: What Do You Call That Noise? is subtitled "A Discovery Book." Are you trying to attract a different audience than the Bumper book?

Mark: I can't remember what came first, the title or the idea for the cover, but there's a visual suggestion of educational children's books from the 1950s and 1960s – I Spy, Look and Learn, and so on – and "discovery book" fits in with that theme. In turn, that links to the cover of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun which looks like a children's annual from the same era.

Actually, the book is less about discovering than rediscovering. It offers lots of perspectives about what people hear when they hear XTC. Some of them are musicians. Some are regular fans. A couple are academics – and then, of course, there are the band themselves. In that sense, I'm aiming the book at a similar audience who bought the first book – fans who want to share the experience of
listening to XTC.

I have, though, suggested to a couple of non-fans that they use the book as an introduction to the band and I'm interested to find out whether it works in that way too. It would be nice if it was genuinely a discovery book for some readers.

Henry: The book starts out with a lot of photos of Swindon, the town where the band came from. Can we consider this a visual companion to the map on the record sleeve of XTC's second album Go 2?

Mark: I suppose it could be seen in that way. I think it's significant that all the band members still live in and around Swindon. It's not the most attractive place in the world, yet something holds them there. The more you listen to the music, the more you realize how deeply embedded the town is in their world view.

Forget about "British" music, this is not even "English" music – it's Wiltshire music and more specifically Swindon music. You hear it foregrounded in "The Everyday Story of Smalltown," "Respectable Street," and "Chalkhills and Children," but it's there too in the observational detail of "Bungalow," "Ball and Chain," TC&I's "Kenny," and many more. Yvonne Wootton's photos at the start of the book are a way of reminding people of that.

Henry: A major part of the book has musicians talking about XTC songs. In your introduction, you write about how the idea came to you. Can you tell us about this "light-bulb" moment?

Mark: A couple of years ago, my daughter was working in the Stand Comedy Club in Edinburgh and overheard a conversation between comedians Stewart Lee and Joanna Neary about XTC. She told them about the XTC fanzine I used to edit and said she would scan copies for them to see. One thing led to another, and I published those scans as The XTC Bumper Book of Fun.

Also in the book were new articles. Talking to Neary, I discovered there were more comedians who were XTC fans, so I got a group of them together to talk about their favorite songs.

I really liked that article because it was full of enthusiasm and insight. My light-bulb moment was wondering if I could use a similar technique with musicians.

The old phrase is that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, but I wanted to know if musicians could get us closer to the music through their insights.

I'd like to think my instinct was right – certainly, I had many head-spinning conversations with musicians in putting the book together.

Henry: Even more of a coup, I think, was being able to get all of the band members from every iteration of XTC to contribute to the book including a terrific, wide-ranging interview with Dave Gregory and an article about the drummers who played with XTC after Terry Chambers left the band during the recording of Mummer. Was this part of your vision for the book or just luck?

Mark: That's good of you to say. Yes, I guess it was always part of my vision. I didn't want to step on the toes of Todd Bernhardt whose Complicated Game is a fascinating series of interviews with Andy Partridge about XTC's songs, but I also wanted to bring the readers as close to the band as possible. So the trick was to find a fresh angle.

My hunch in a book with a musical theme is that Dave Gregory would be central. He is the band member who might best be described as a muso and I knew his analysis would be invaluable. I made the effort to sound him out before the interview and he mentioned that he had never been interviewed about his keyboard playing and orchestral arrangements. That seemed a great opportunity, so I drafted in my friend Hugh Nankivell, a professional musician, to lead the interview. We kept Dave talking for six hours and the beauty of a book is there was space to publish the whole thing.

Andy Partridge has always been a keen spokesperson for XTC, so I asked him to talk about his organic, untutored approach to songwriting in contrast to his meticulous approach to recording and mixing. In the case of Barry Andrews, who played keyboards on the first two albums, I knew he wouldn't want to get bogged down talking about music he recorded 40 years ago, so suggested we talk more generally about his attitude to making music. And it was a nice coincidence that Colin Moulding and Terry Chambers were playing live for the first time in 36 years, so that subject was handed to me on a plate.

I wouldn't have been surprised if we hadn't managed to get every one of the drummers who played with the band after Terry left, but Yvonne Wootton, who wrote that article, managed to track them all down and, she told me, all were very happy to talk about their experiences. It tells you something about XTC that so many people are proud to have been associated with them.

Henry: You've been associated with the band's music since the Limelight fanzine, the website, the Twitter account, and now these two books. Would it be wrong to consider you to be the Mark Lewisohn of XTC?

Mark: Ha! Doing these two books has certainly given me an excuse to reawaken my inner teenage fan boy. I've always regarded myself as just another fan who happened to be the editor of a fanzine. There are keener collectors out there and people with a deeper knowledge, but by specializing in XTC for so long, I probably know more about them than is healthy.

Henry: Will What Do You Call That Noise? be available in bookstores?

Mark: No. It's hard to set up distribution for one-off titles when you're not a bigger publisher. You'll find it on Amazon, eBay, Burning Shed, and (best for me) my own website:

Henry: What are your personal favorite XTC albums and which album would you use to introduce someone to the band?

Mark: They change all the time, according to my mood. Right now, I'm thinking Mummer is an underrated album and there's a good case for Apple Venus Volume 1 being a pinnacle. But ask me again tomorrow and I'll give a different answer. To introduce someone to the band, it's helpful to know about their existing tastes because there are so many flavors of XTC, but a good primer would be the singles collection Fossil Fuel.

Henry: Thank you, Mark. It’s a wonderful book. Good luck with it.

Mark: Thanks, Henry. Great questions.

What Do You Call That Noise? is available at the Limelight website

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