Less Smooch, More Dance: An Interview with the Clientele
The Clientele's Alasdair Maclean tells us everything we need to know, from A to K.
When you think of those bands you hold closest to your heart -- the ones you force your best friends to listen to, that you'd strongly prefer never to get too popular, and with whom you secretly believe to share a psychic kinship -- when you think of those bands, you can usually trace the genesis of your obsession back to a single song heard at a particularly sensitive time in your life.
One of those bands, for me, is the Clientele, and the song that seduced me into an unreasonably passionate (and decidedly one-sided) relationship was "As Night Is Falling", a track from the collection of singles the band assembled for their American debut, the 2000 Merge-released Suburban Light.
"As Night Is Falling" is anchored by a quiet, languorous drumbeat, a barely-there bass line and a woozy, monotonous organ. Singer and guitarist Alasdair Maclean's voice, a fey whispery thing, tinged with just the slightest hint of menace, starts the song: "Drag yourself along to the sweetest Sunday song, then you smile / It's the kind of place, where dizzy and awake you face the night..."
To the listener, or at least this listener, the song is blissful envelopment; irresistible cinema that sucks you in like that hole in the floor underneath the carpet in the heroin scene in Trainspotting.
And while on the topic of mind-altering drugs: When I spoke to singer Alasdair Maclean as the Clientele traveled in a van from Cleveland to New York in a heavy snowstorm, one of the things that I asked him was if the songs "Since K Got Over Me" and "K" from the band's new album, Strange Gemoetry, were influenced by the very-mind-altering drug ketamine, whose street name is "K."
Maclean laughed in response. Then, our cell phones disconnected.
Since it was our second disconnection, and we had been talking for quite awhile already, I didn't call Maclean back to find out whether he's singing about ketamine when he sings "There's a hole inside my skull with warm air blowing in" or "Everything's so vivid and so creepy since K got over me". I figured he probably wouldn't tell me anyway.
But I did get him to talk about how he wrote "As Night Is Falling". "I was walking across an icy football field after a night down at the pub, and I was really, really hungover," he recounted. "I was going to play football with my friends, and it just sort of popped into my head, and I just went and recorded it straightaway. The organ I had at home was just slightly off-pitch, and the slight-off-pitchedness gave it this weird, faded, slightly off-key sound, which reminded me of the same feeling of walking hungover across the football field. That is, I suppose, how I write."
A desire to capture moments like that, a love of psychedelic pop from Love to Galaxie 500, and the band's until-recently limited recording resources have all helped shape the Clientele sound. Words like gauzy, gorgeous, hazy, sleepy and mysterious all approximate it, but no adjective pins it down as accurately simply saying "that Clientele sound" -- a phrase that is likely popular parlance among fey indie kids. I asked Maclean whether the band intentionally sought to create such a unique, instantly recognizable sound.
"We did have a pretty clear idea [of what we wanted to sound like]," he said. "To be honest, we had such limited equipment that poverty had to be the mother of invention. But on the other hand, we were rehearsing, and we didn't have a PA. So we sang through guitar amps. And we all really loved the sound of our voices through guitar amps. So it's a question of just having no money and no equipment. That was the only sound we could actually get that was in any way interesting, you know? We almost had our hands tied."
After releasing The Violet Hour in 2002 -- the band's first proper album despite having been together for a number of years prior -- Maclean felt that they had pushed the Clientele sound as far as it could go. So instead of self-producing as the band had on previous recording efforts ("You could call it self-producing -- it was just sticking mics in front of instruments and recording onto a very primitive tape recorder," Maclean said), the band brought in Brian O'Shaughnessy to handle production duties for Strange Geometry. Asked what kind of sound he was hoping to get with a new producer, Maclean claims to have let go of those kinds of concerns before recording started.
"I didn't have anything in mind, and that was the difference from The Violet Hour. I was just happy to let the producer produce it, so that all I had to do was play and sing. The Violet Hour had taken a year to record, and we had fussed over the sound so much and gotten precious about it. This one was recorded in just two weeks, and everything was done in one, two or three takes. I just let Brian worry about the sound, and I worried about the performances."
Critics have responded to Strange Geometry with fervent approval, all of them concurring that the album manages to keep the Clientele sound intact while at the same time expanding it with better production equipment and immaculate string arrangements. Maclean gives the stock "I don't really listen to our records very often" response when asked for his thoughts on it, but added that "most people who are fans think it's the best thing we've ever done".
"I think the songs are probably more complex than previous outings," he continued. "I like the hi-fi production. The thing with old Clientele releases is that you can't actually play them at a loud volume on your stereo. Otherwise, suddenly you're getting all of this hiss, and all of these horrible bass frequencies. With this one, you can actually turn it up really loud, which is nice."
And if the recent U.S. tour is any indication, you can dance to it.
"When we play some of more of the up-tempo numbers, like 'Since K Got Over Me' and 'E.M.P.T.Y.' -- people dance. There's even people who do an 'E.M.P.T.Y.' dance. They spell out the letters with their bodies. That's like the big tradition at Clientele shows instead of smooching, I think."
"When we toured for The Violet Hour people were smooching in the front row a bit more, whereas now, not so much. I think for a lot of people, that was their bedroom record. It was very confusing, but that's what they used to do."