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BYT Interviews: The Clientele
July 16, 2014 | 9:00AM

“Well, that’s a difficult question, to be honest.”

Alasdair MacLean pauses to collect his thoughts. The question – more innocuous chitchat than anything else – was about how he’s been filling his time as of late.

“I feel like I’m retired or something,” the Clientele singer says.

He’s speaking from London on an early evening in the middle of June. The day had been quite hot by the city standards, but otherwise unremarkable.  It was “one of those days where absolutely nothing of substance happened whatsoever.”

This being the Clientele, such details are important.

Upon further reflection, MacLean recalls one accomplishment: “I sent an email about what sizes of t-shirt we wanted for our upcoming US tour. Does that count as something?”

After almost twenty years of making music – first with the Clientele, then with Amor de Dias – MacLean has assuredly earned the right to move at his own pace. The Clientele’s fans, who come almost invariably devoted, are just happy for the opportunity to hear the band again. A few years ago, the prospects of doing so – let alone the possibility of newly recorded music – was anything but a given.  When the trio split in 2010, there was an air of finality. In interviews, Alasdair MacLean spoke about how its fifth LP closed out the circle of the act’s career. “I think if… this record makes us rich, we’ll [still] be together,” he said at the time. Obviously, it didn’t.

And so it was a pleasant surprise when the Clientele reunited this year with seemingly the ease of flipping a light switch. First came a one-off show in March for Chickfactor 22, then two new songs for Merge Records’ 25th anniversary Or Thousands of Prizes 7″ series – “Orpheus Avenue” and “Falling Asleep”, both of which are incredible. This month, they’ll travel to the States for Merge 25 in North Carolina, and while they’re over here, they’ll play a handful of shows.

All of this was sparked largely by the label’s decision to reissue the Clientele’s debut LP, Suburban Light, earlier this summer. The 2001 album collects the band’s earliest 7″s – “recorded on 8-track tape in various flats and houses in Hampshire and London,” per its liner notes – and is a fan favorite. Here it’s been remastered and restored to its initial UK tracklist, with a bonus disc of ten songs recorded (and some released) during that time period.

The reissue and new 7″ would seem to provide a neat opportunity for MacLean to yet again close out the circle on the Clientele, but thankfully he doesn’t appear to thinking along those lines.

The Clientele plays Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right on Saturday and the Black Cat’s Backstage in DC on Tuesday. The Suburban Light reissue is out now on Merge Records.

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Did you always think that the Clientele would come back in some form? Or was it an idea that you had to warm to over time?

That’s a really good question. When I was 18, and thinking “What should I do? What should the career of this band be?” – I think that my initial idea was that the Clientele was supposed to be this doomed band that made three or four classic records and then somebody in it would die and the band would become legendary. That was the blueprint.

But as you get older, that starts to become slightly less of an attractive prospect.  Once you hit 30, it’s kind of like, “Well, okay, I’m passed that now.” Then you start to look at Robert Wyatt maybe, or Lambchop – people who have made records consistently over decades that unfold in a very, very interesting way, and you think, “Maybe we could just refine and refine this sound, so that we have a lifetime’s body of work.”

I’m kind of between both of those things at the moment, and I just can’t decide really. I think it’s easy to become self-indulgent if you choose the latter path. But if you keep the former path, obviously it cuts off. And if you feel like you have more to say, then you have more to say.

Is the Clientele working on new music?

We just had the record reissued, which is why we’re touring, but we’re saving up the money we get paid for the shows to potentially record something in the future. I’m writing new songs. The other guys keep asking me for more, so I’m trying to write some songs, but in such a way that they’re a bit of a step forward, and they’re more fun to play than the old ones. I’m doing my best.

Do you write songs in a way that’s tailored for the Clientele – in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily for Amor de Dias?

Sometimes, yeah. I think that often it’s just about the musicians who are going to potentially play on them. With Amor de Dias, we’ve been talking about what a future approach could be for us, and I think it would be less song-based and more abstract. By default then, if I write a song, it seems to go in the pile for the Clientele.

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Where did “Falling Asleep” and “Orpheus Avenue” originate?

Merge said, “Why don’t you guys make a single for us for our anniversary?” And we were so flattered by the idea of it, and we liked them so much as a label, that we couldn’t really say no.  And I thought, “Well, this is nice – we’ve kind of gone back to the original way the Clientele used to do songs, which is two songs at a time on a 7”.” But I didn’t have any songs.

I bumped into a guy who lives two streets away from me, who I hadn’t seen in twenty years, but used to play music with me. We couldn’t work together [back then], because we were both too bossy and egotistical. During the time that we didn’t see each other, he learned how to play Persian dulcimer. He’d studied Persian classical music, which is as complicated and difficult to understand as Indian classical music – it’s quite a serious type of music. I just bumped into him on the street, and it turned out he lived very close, so he came over and started to play his Persian dulcimer, and that’s where “Falling Asleep” came from – that kind of rolling riff that’s got some arabesque in it. It’s got a little bit of a flamenco feel to the melody.

And the other one just came from I don’t even know where. It was written in two seconds flat. I just had a tune and I said, “How does this sound’?” and he sang harmonies on it and that was it – they were both written. So we were like, “Ok, let’s go and record them.” They were Clientele songs, even though he’d never played in the Clientele. They sounded like Clientele songs, I guess.

Was it just the two of you?

At the time of writing, yeah. Then I called up Mark [Keen] and James [Hornsey] – who play bass and drums – and they added their parts. They seemed quite happy to do stuff again, because we played a festival in Denmark a few months before and it had been a really, really positive experience. We enjoyed playing as a three-piece. They loved the idea of the Persian dulcimer on songs, so it all came together like that.

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What’s your relationship with Mark and James theses days? How does it compare to the Clientele’s earlier days?

Well, I didn’t really know Mark until 2001. He was friends with James’ older brother. The original line-up of the band had a guy called Daniel Evans on drums, and we had a really good friend of mine, Innes Phillips, on guitar. He was also a co-songwriter. In those days, the relationships between the members of the band was always really gelled by humor and an inability to confront each other in any way other than the most passive aggressive way possible. And I think it’s just exactly the same way now – it’s quite charming, in a way. Nothing seems to have changed.

The guys who play on the reissue – James, Dan, and Innes – were all guys I had known since we were kids. We all met at school. We had the usual teenage dream of being in a band, but as it slowly but surely became obvious that the Clientele wasn’t going to make anybody rich, and it became obvious that it was going to suck away everyone’s time, Innes left, and then Dan left, and so we kind of recruited Mark as someone who we knew had a really nice touch on the drums.

What was the experience of going back and revisiting those [Suburban Light] tapes like?

It was really weird. In between the songs, there’s a lot of stuff of us talking and joking. It was really at the beginning of the whole thing, and we were now looking at it at the end, and so it was just a bit weird. It would be weird for anybody to hear themselves and their friends just messing around fifteen years ago, when you’re sitting in the same room with those friends now.

We tried really hard to polish those songs up at the time that they were recorded. We tried really hard to rehearse them. And we’ve played them a lot ever since. So, for me, the songs are kind of meaningless now. They don’t really have the cache that certain other people seem to give them. I mean, it was kind of nice to hear them, but it wasn’t anything particularly profound.

There isn’t much of an effort to overtly commemorate the record with the reissue – there’s no essay, no collection of photos. It’s presented in an unfussy way. It’s just: “Here’s the record.”

I think most of us would see it the same way – that having an essay or a collection of photos is a little bit pompous. This isn’t Marquee Moon. It’s a cult record, really. Hopefully, one day, people will universally call it a classic, but at the moment, the people who are calling it a classic are coming from various corners – it’s not everybody. To have a big commemorative essay would have felt as though we were taking ourselves a bit too seriously. And I’m sure they feel the same way.  The minimalist thing is best really.

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Do you have a favorite Clientele record?

My favorite is probably Strange Geometry. I know I just said that I would never sound pompous, but I’m going to sound really pompous right now: The first three Clientele records – Suburban Light, The Violet Hour, and Strange Geometryhad to be made. I feel like I had to make those records. Anything that came after was a nice plus. The culmination of the aesthetic that we were developing was Strange Geometry. There’s something about that record that just rings true for me about the place and the time that the songs were written. And that’s probably just a very personal thing for me, but that’d definitely be my favorite. That’s just where it all seems to work, you know? Everything all seems to work with everything else.

I feel as if all of your records are evocative of a place and a time. There’s such a  degree of specificity and detail in the Clientele’s songs – street names and seasons and months. Why have you gravitated towards those types of details?

It’s a difficult question to answer. I think this is just getting worse and worse – I’m going to sound more pompous than the last time. But do you know the novels of Marcel Proust, “The Remembrance of Things Past”?  He builds this whole edifice of memory, where he talks in incredibly precise detail about many, many things that happen, and these repeated events, and everybody who’s around and the landscape and the food. As the book ends, you realize everything he’s described has been obliterated by the gun barrages of World War I, because the front line was straight through the village that he grew up in. And everybody he talks about is dead now. That’s the shattering thing at the end of the book. In a much humbler way, it’s that same sort of urge to preserve things for me – that you can somehow preserve certain lives in the amber of a song. To me, that seemed like a noble quest in a way, rather than just writing a love song or another song about London.

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I’ve seen old interviews where you discussed the Clientele’s initial radio ambitions. As a young band, who were the any bands you heard on the radio and thought you could be akin to?

Well, at the time that we were really putting out our first records, that kind of guitar music was selling very, very well in Britain. That was the major dream at the time of Britpop. We looked at these bands like Blur and Oasis, and we thought, “We could be the next one of them, but we could do it better. We would correct all of the crassness and stupidity of their music, and we could just being an elegance to it – a kind of elegant surrealism to that kind of sound.”

That was always the plan, you see. There was a chance – a very, very small window that closed very fast – for us to get rich. Because we spent so long working out how exactly to put our first record out – which, obviously, in our eyes had to be this sort of classic record and couldn’t be hurried – we missed that window, and by the time we put our first record out, that kind of 60s-influenced music was completely out of fashion, and it was very hard to sell it either to a label or to fans or to the radio or anybody.

When I was 20, my parents said to me, “You’re not seriously thinking of becoming a professional musician are you?” And I said, “Yeah, listen to these songs. How could they not be hits?”  That’s how naïve I was.  I was like, “Of course the world is going to love this music.” And, you know, a lot of people do love it that much and in that way, but our ambition was to be, like, a million record selling band.

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How did you initially came into contact with Merge? What was your opinion of the label at that point?

We first come into contact with them because a friend of ours from New York – Gail O’Hara, who does chickfactor magazine – was just manically sending tapes of our music to everybody to try and get us signed to a label in America. And one of the labels who bit was Merge. Because we lived in London, we had not really heard of them, but we looked at their website and the first thing we saw was Lambchop, and the second thing we saw was the Magnetic Fields and we thought, “Wow, this is an incredible label.” We looked at the other bands they had, and we thought, “This just seems like the exact right fit for us. I really hope that they do offer us something.”

How has that relationship played out over the years?

I’ve got  a lot of admiration for them, because in a sense, the things I was talking about that I failed to do, they succeeded at. Everything I’ve touched has pretty much turned to failure. I wish I was joking, but it’s true. I used to run a DJ night when I was a student in Edinburgh that would play only the most rare and exquisite garage punk records. The problem was that it was on Tuesday night at midnight and nobody ever came. Everything since has pretty much been a spin of that. So, for me, Merge possess a sort of magic, because they do the same kind of thing – they don’t make compromises and they don’t make fools of themselves – but they actually succeed at it, which is incredible. I wish they would tell me their secrets.

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You once said that you were worried about London’s future – that you were nervous that it would turn into a Disneyland-esque environment like Manhattan. Over the past five years, has that feeling calmed or intensified?

Oh it’s gotten so much worse. It happened. It’s a hundred times worse than Manhattan now. It’s just a banker’s playground. They’re slowly, in the most cynical way possible, forcing the poor people out. The people that have subsidized homes are being evicted, and there isn’t a Brooklyn to go to. There isn’t a Queens to go to.  That’s the problem there.

London is over as a city. I miss the things that used to make me dream of coming here when I was 16 or 17. They’re over. They’re finished. No one can afford to live here to start with. The lines of guitar shops on Denmark Street and the great bookshops in Camden Market are all gone now. Nobody who doesn’t come from here will really want to live her. It’s not what it was. It’s getting to be like Zurich or Frankfurt. It’s a city of bankers you know?

Do you think you’ll leave at some point?

I hope so.  I don’t have the faintest idea of where I would go. I think that maybe somewhere like Spain would be a good idea. Maybe I could just learn some proper guitar playing down there.  That’s my long-term plan.

You mentioned the band’s cult following. What’s your reaction when you see other bands cite your music as an influence?

I haven’t really seen that many do it, to be honest, but obviously it’s really nice. In fact, the most rewarding thing about making music is when someone says, “I met my girlfriend in a bar when your music was playing” or “Your music got me through some dark nights when I was alone.” And you just think,“Wow,” because it makes it real for you. And if other bands say they like our music or are influenced by what we do, you cant really take it as anything other than a massive, massive, flattering, beautiful thing.

Additional contributions by Morgan Day.

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