Cosmic Radiation: An Interview with Clinic

Free Reign

Fifteen odd years into their music career, Clinic is a relaxed and optimistic about the future — and with good reason.

This past November saw the release of Free Reign, the virtuosic UK band’s seventh studio album with longtime partner Domino Records. This time around, the group incorporated textures and rhythms more characteristic of pioneering electronic acts such as Suicide and Cabaret Voltaire than anything in the drum and guitar-centric world of rock and roll, feeling the need to mix up their style lest they ever run into the tragic fate of standing stale (which, for Clinic, will never be a problem).

Late last year, PopMatters spoke with the band’s singer Ade Blackburn about the stylistic shifts the band has made with Free Reign. As he explained to us, an important part of Clinic has always been the members remaining fans of music, using that as a way to incorporate elements from a diverse assortment of genres and musical eras. Since their beginning, the band has steadfastly avoided the commercial pressures of the mainstream music industry, concentrating instead on refining their sound from their home-base in Liverpool. Bands have always been quick to come and go in the hype-driven world of English pop-music, but Clinic has found a way to be successful on their own terms, and tell us all about it …

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What prompted a more electronic sound on your new album?

Well, we had definitely played around with more electronic sounds in the past, but we never did that constantly over a whole album. With Bubble Gum, our last album, it was a bit more acoustic and guitar-based, and I think it was a logical step to do something more electronic. We still wanted the sound on the album to have an edge to it, but we also didn’t want to repeat ourselves either.

What were some of the touchstones in electronic music that inspired you in making the album?

Since I was really quite young, I’ve been a fan of bands like Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra. I loved the way that they made electronic music but it also had a lot of hooks and was still quite pop-based on certain songs. And then you get things like [English synth-pop act] Fad Gadget that’s really DIY. Bands like Cabaret Voltaire had a big influence on the album, also earlier stuff like the Silver Apples and psychedelic funk albums, along with bands like Hawkwind. So it’s quite a mish-mash of sounds. But it was really easy for us to go down that road because, even when we were just playing guitars, it was never about being really precious with the instruments.

I also heard a jazz influence on some of tracks, something like off early sixties-era Sun Ra.

That’s definitely right. We’ve gotten jazzier on this album. We’re all quite big Charles Mingus fans as well as Sun Ra. The music has insistency to it. There’s also playfulness to it as well. We’re not that proficient of players, [but] that’s our take on more jazz influenced music.

So for the electronic sounds on Free Reign, did you go with vintage or analogue equipment?

A lot of the tracks with this album have been off a Boss Dr. Rhythm, which is about as basic as you can get. We’ve actually got a pretty big collection of broken down 80s and 70s drum machines. And they are quite difficult to program. You definitely have to think about it more to get something good. On one of the songs, “King Kong” the basic drum pattern for that was a preset rhythm off an old 70s keyboard, which is actually quite tacky in-and-of-itself, but I like working within those limitations.

Are these production touches, the synths and electronic drums, are they something that you’ll be able to translate into a live environment?

When we actually play live, [the arrangements] will be more stripped down, but still using keyboards, drum machines, and other effects. So essentially, pretty close to the album. It’s something that you learn how to do as a musician, you know, get all of those effects that you had on the album [into a live setting].

Something I’ve been thinking about recently is that if you use the standard studio techniques that are available now, even when you’re just playing guitar based music, it comes out being more processed than any of that early electronic music ever was. Now things have flipped sides, where some of the electronic acts are more “real” than any of the music that’s made on traditional instruments.

It almost seems to have gone full circle because you have everything there you need on a laptop to make [your music] sound squeaky clean and as polished as you want, but then you realize it has no character, it’s got no soul to it. So I’ve always thought that it was a logical step that people started to get more primitive.

On Free Reign, you worked with Daniel Lopatin of Oneohtrix Point Never. How did that come about? Did you know each other before working on the album? Was he familiar with your or you with his?

I think Daniel had actually heard Walking with Thee when he was in school and had liked the band for quite a while. I liked how Daniel got these abrasive electronic sounds and how he used them in a way that added to our own sound.

I understand that you recorded this album at home. Is that usually how you do things now?

The last three albums we recorded ourselves. It’s very liberating to do that without clock watching. You can be more playful in your recording if you’re not worried about how much it’s costing. That way, you can just ditch something if it doesn’t work out. So we always record ourselves and then mix with another person to bring a different element in.

Clinic’s been on Domino for the majority of its existence. What makes that extended partnership possible?

Domino has always allowed us to make the music that we wanted to make. They never put commercial pressures on us. I think that never would have worked for the band. In some ways, that has allowed us to grow up and improve the music, to continue as a band. And the label has been responsive to that.

On a similar note, the band has had the same core members since 1997. Has resisting commercial pressures contributed to the band being such a stable arrangement?

Yeah, that’s it really, everyone treating it like a group effort. It’s never been about egos or really having a front-person. I think everyone has their role and we’re all in it together. Also, everyone’s got a fairly broad taste in music, so we all want to explore different styles. Those two things combine so that everyone’s kept an enthusiasm for making music. It’s never really been about status, always about making the music.

So has been staying outside that hype cycle always been an important part of the band? I know that in England the music press has a tendency to build bands up and then tear them apart.

When we first started out, the NME was still quite powerful in England. They would cover a band for awhile and then really criticize them six weeks later. That environment made it difficult for bands to develop. But we have always really found our own path and weren’t concerned with people who were trying to categorize us as “the sound of ’97” or something like that.

I don’t recall 1997 as being a particularly good year for music.

Well, 1997 was quite a good year in Great Britain. Then was when you started getting a move away from the Britpop sound, a few bands trying to do something a bit more broader and eclectic sounding. That was before bands like Coldplay got big, and there was a countermovement back to guitar-based music.

Clinic has been based out of Liverpool for its entire career. In the States, there’s always a lot of pressure to move to a bigger media market like New York City. Has that been the case with the band? Pressures to come over to London, let’s say.

When we first started releasing singles, we knew that we didn’t want to just play local gigs in Liverpool. We wanted to play for different audiences. At the same time, we didn’t want our success to be based off of some poppy single and get stuck in that track of a lot of bands, playing the same crappy venues. We thought — and luckily it paid off — that if you were doing something more original, then you’ll stand out, and the audience will come. So I think that you’re better off spending time just getting the music right than moving to a big city.

It seems like festivals now more than ever are just a huge force in the music industry. They definitely follow their own format. Is that where you’re doing something different?

We’ve played some of the bigger festivals, but I know [that atmosphere] is not really suited to us, like playing in the daytime, when it’s light and three o’clock in the afternoon. Now we tend to play festivals that are more creative, things like Green Man in Britain. I think, in that way, the setting itself is much better than some corporate festival, which now we wouldn’t get asked to do and we wouldn’t want to do.

Was there any point where you played at a festival like Glastonbury and said, “This isn’t for us.”?

The first very first time we played at Glastonbury was great. We played on what was, at the time, called the NME stage, but which I think is now called the John Peel stage. And that was in a tent and it was quite a small stage. And that suited the band quite well. The next time we played Glastonbury was on a much bigger stage at two o’clock in the afternoon. It wasn’t delighting at all. It seemed like there was a huge gap between the band and the audience. No atmosphere. So, I think you have to choose carefully what you do.

In some of the songs you have these characters or names, Misty or Evil Bill. What does that allow you to do with your songwriting?

I like that because it connects you to everyday experience. In your own thoughts, you think in terms of names of people and places. I think that it’s a way of bringing the music to life a bit more, using these persons. It also means that you can subsume yourself for awhile in that character. It allows you to be a bit more playful with the lyrics. It gives it more strength. You can get into more detail. Or in the case of something like “Evil Bill” that was something more fun, like an evil cartoon character.

You already have a video out for the track “Miss You”. I recall you explaining that the concept behind this video was about a housewife who has been saved by LSD.

That was very tongue-in-cheek. You get so much scaremongering and misinformation about LSD that I thought it was a nice idea to have someone have their life saved or find salvation through a drug that you wouldn’t recommend to anyone. It was a kind of inversion, playing around with that idea.

Do you have any particular goals or ideals that you want to push forward with the music and have those changed over the years?

When we first set out with it, we took a lot of intention and seriousness with things like how long we’d be working on each song. I’d say we’ve mellowed out a bit and probably let in a bit more randomness. It’s slightly less regimented. So, for instance, with Free Reign, it’s got a kind of looseness to it, which I really like. We’ve left good mistakes and happy accidents in the sound. So I’d say we’ve managed to loosen up a bit between now and say, Internal Wrangler.

So that comes out of you guys playing so long together? Would you say that you’ve found a groove where everything doesn’t need to be hammered out so much?

Yeah, that’s right. Although we’ve always had fun making the music, I think, because you take it quite intensively, you need to sometimes step back and lighten up a bit. And I think that we’ve definitely done that. We’ve definitely gone into a few different styles that we may not have done if we hadn’t gotten more relaxed with it. I think things like the more funk side or folksy affairs. Going back awhile, we would have been more strictly garage-y. We had also lots of reverb, so that helped us to think, “Why not try different styles more?”

And that playfulness comes out too in your visual presentation as well, am I right? Where you’re not trying to be strictly show-business but you’re also giving the audience more than just a run-through of the songs. Obviously that’s the case with the masks, but also other elements as well, right?

I’ve always felt that the visual side — it’s there for us to use, and not for us to just play the standard venues or play the standard tour. It’s interesting. We’re doing a date in Liverpool in a few weeks, which is going to be in a gallery rather than in a music venue. And the idea behind that is that it is we’re playing a gig but there are also people with cassette recorders taping the gig and then running the sound off that tape. So I like taking things out of their standard context and just making the experience more enjoyable, and giving something that people have never seen before. I think that you should give that much more to an audience.

What about other memorable gigs?

We had one that was an awards event for the NME. And it was a show in London, in quite a big venue called the Astoria. And this event was very London-centric, a celebration of working-class culture there. And so we dressed in costumes that were more like kings and queens because the idea with this awards show was that, like you said earlier, that if you’re not in London you’re somehow missing out. So we dressed up as way of taking the piss out of people a little bit.

When you meet people outside of music, how do you describe the band’s music and the image or persona that you have behind that?

I think we have it fairly easy with friends and family because they often know what we’re about. It’s harder when you meet someone new, as it can be a bit difficult to describe what the music is like and why we wear these outfits. But on the whole, I think that people that we know recognize that we’re fairly unusual in what we do and they accept that.

So Free Reign is also coming out in a glow-in-the-dark, cosmic flying disc format. What is that? A Frisbee?

[laughs] Yeah, it probably sounds grander than it really is. We should probably shorten it to deluxe Frisbee format. But I haven’t actually seen one myself yet. It really was Domino’s idea to make the Frisbee. But I think that, again, it helps you to take the music not too seriously.

There’s a certain type of music right that really plays around with packaging and presentation. I’m thinking of the [English post-punk band] Durutti Column with their record sleeve made of sandpaper.

One of my favorite compilations is by the [pioneering Cleveland punk band] Electric Eels called Those Were Different Times that had the nuts and bolts down the spine. It’s quite like a riveted-together fanzine. I’ve never been a fan of standard CD packaging, so I like the idea of packaging music in things that don’t really suggest anything to do with music. Packaging that looks like farming machinery, that type of thing. Before you’ve even listened to the music you think, “What exactly have I let myself in for with this?” That’s what I think we need more of, isn’t it?

And that’s something that you think will help people to keep releasing music on physical formats?

I think it will do, because now it seems to be down to a moral decision, if somebody is choosing to buy something instead of downloading it. And I think that if you create something that is well outside of what you normally expect a format or a packaging can be, I think people want to have that, whether it be music or anything else. So if you’ve got something like the nuts and bolts idea, a bunch of mp3s just seems really dull in comparison. I think that you need to give people a reason to buy.

You guys have been going on for 15 years now. Is Clinic something that you think has a fixed life-span or is it something that you think you’ll be doing as long as you’re able?

In the near future, I think we will do some side-projects and spin-off things with it, just because over time you tend to stockpile different songs that would not be suitable for Clinic. One of the things is that I’ve got a lot of quite raw punk songs. We, as a band, haven’t done something like that in a while. So that’s something that we will do probably outside of the band.

But as far as actually making Clinic records, we look at each record — it’s got to be worthwhile releasing it. We’re not just going through the motions, thinking, “Another two years, let’s release an album.” We’re still releasing music because we still really want to make it. And each time we make a record, we’re listening to and exploring different types of music. So yeah, I think we’re good for releasing a couple more albums.

After making Free Reign, is the band at a point now where you’re starting to write new material?

Well, we still work on doing new things every week. That way, we don’t lose the flow of doing something creative. As a band, we’ve always done things on the go.