Music

Less Smooch, More Dance: An Interview with the Clientele

Matt Gonzales

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."

Smooching?

"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."

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Man Alive! Is a Continued Display of the Grimy-Yet-Refined Magnetism of King Krule

Following The OOZ and its accolades, King Krule crafts a similarly hazy gem with Man Alive! that digs into his distinct aesthetic rather than forges new ground.

Books

The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.

Music

ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.

Film

Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Music

Rush's 'Permanent Waves' Endures with Faultless Commercial Complexity

Forty years later, Rush's ability to strike a nearly perfect balance between mainstream invitingness and exclusory complexity is even more evident and remarkable. The progressive rock classic, Permanent Waves, is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Music

Drum Machines? Samples? Brendan Benson Gets Contemporary with 'Dear Life'

Powerpop overlord and part-time Raconteur, Brendan Benson, grafts hip-hop beats to guitar pop on his seventh solo album, Dear Life.

Music

'Sell You Everything' Brings to Light Buzzcocks '1991 Demo LP' That Passed Under-the-Radar

Cherry Red Records' new box-set issued in memory of Pete Shelley gathers together the entire post-reunion output of the legendary Buzzcocks. Across the next week, PopMatters explores the set album-by-album. First up is The 1991 Demo LP.

Music

10 Key Tracks From the British Synthpop Boom of 1980

It's 40 years since the first explosion of electronic songs revitalized the UK charts with futuristic subject matter, DIY aesthetics, and occasionally pompous lyrics. To celebrate, here's a chronological list of those Moog-infused tracks of 1980 that had the biggest impact.

Reading Pandemics

Poe, Pandemic, and Underlying Conditions

To read Edgar Allan Poe in the time of pandemic, we need to appreciate a very different aspect of his perspective—not that of a mimetic artist but of the political economist.

Books

'Yours, Jean' Is a Perfect Mixture of Tragedy, Repressed Desire, and Poor Impulse Control

Lee Martin's Yours, Jean is a perfectly balanced and heartbreaking mix of true crime narrative and literary fiction.

Music

The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.