Time Has Told Me: The Clean
Interview with David Kilgour, The Clean.
“Then there are other times people have come up to me and said “your music stopped me from killing myself”….“your music got me thru a very bad time in my life”.. I had that a few times……now that’s special, job done huh?”
Words: Mark Carry
Formed in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1978, The Clean’s unique blend of home-made garage rock, hook-laden melodies and swirling psychedelic gems has proved a trusted constant in a storied career that continues today. The Clean’s distinctive lo-fi indie-pop sound influenced an array of bands, particularly in the U.S. (Yo La Tengo, Guided By Voices, Pavement, Sonic Youth to name but a few).
The Kilgour brothers of Hamish and David formed The Clean in ’78. Hamish played drums, and David played guitar. After some rotating line-ups of those early years, Robert Scott (who would later form The Bats) joined on bass. The core trio of Hamish, David and Bob all wrote songs and absorbing the music that surrounded them – Richman’s rock ‘n’ roll, punk and dreams of bigger things – the band’s debut single ‘Tally Ho!’ was released by the renowned New Zealand independent label Flying Nun in ’81 (in fact, a fan of The Clean formed the label to release their first single). Second single ‘Getting Older’ followed a short time later. During the early 80’s, the band released two EP’s and two singles. ‘Tally Ho!’, ‘Boodle Boodle Boodle’ and ‘Great Sounds’ all charted in the New Zealand top 20.
Spanning from The Clean, David Kilgour has amassed a reputable solo catalog; Robert Scott later formed The Bats (lead vocals, rhythm guitar, keyboards), and Hamish Kilgour would become an enduring fixture in New York playing with assorted combos (forming The Mad Scene in the early 90’s). As part of the U.S. independent label, Merge’s 25th Anniversary, The Clean’s ‘Anthology’ (originally released in 2003) was released in splendid quadruple vinyl earlier this year.
Interview with David Kilgour, The Clean.
It’s a real honour to ask you some questions about The Clean – a band cherished by many the world over – who have released a plethora of indie pop treasures these past few decades. Firstly, please take me back to Dunedin, New Zealand in 1978 where The Clean were formed. What was the music scene like in New Zealand during this time? Leading up to the formation of The Clean, I can imagine the Kilgour brothers were always making music and swapping ideas with one another? Who came up with the name of The Clean?
David Kilgour: Hamish came up with The Clean title. Pinched it from an old surf movie (‘Free Ride’?) that has a character called Mr Clean, a shaven headed biker. Punk kind’ve “hit” here a year or two after it started really. Leading up to the formation of The Clean, the music scene was all over the place really: Disco, kind’ve post glam/70s soft rock and a touch of prog. Not a lot of independent labels. Yeh, Hamish and I started toying with the idea of music in our bedroom in the mid – late 70s.
As the trio of Hamish (drums), David (guitar) and Robert (bass), you all wrote songs so there was this creative spirit inherent in the group from the very beginning. Can you reminisce for me please when you made your first recordings for the Flying Nun label in 1981?
DK: We wanted to write our own music from the very beginning with Peter Gutteridge. As we couldn’t play anyone else’s music, it was much easier! After our experience recording we decided to go back to self-recording (we had been recording ourselves on a Revox 2 track previous to making ‘Tally Ho!’) with the Teac and Chris Knox and Doug Hood. We realised after making ‘Tally Ho!’ that we could’ve made a better recording with our 2 track!
It’s amazing to think the band’s debut single, ‘Tally Ho!’ was recorded for a total sum of $60. Can you remember recording this song to tape? The organ and jangle-sound guitars makes such an utterly perfect pop sound. Was this song recorded in a single take?
DK: I think it was one take, with a vocal overdub and a keyboard overdub recorded in a studio which was a heavy metallers living room! Really disappointed with the pressing when it came out, not realising it was probably the recording! I think the studio had an 8 track tape machine. I rang the guy who recorded it a few years ago to see if he still had the master to ‘Tally Ho!’ (yeh it was a longshot) and he said “oh no, we would’ve wiped over that the next week we were so poor and needed tape!”. I didn’t bother pointing out to him that we owned the master!
The early EP’s ‘Boodle Boodle Boodle’ and ‘Great Sounds’ have undoubtedly stood the test of time. Can you please discuss the writing and recording process for these songs? I imagine were the songs recorded onto a 4-track? There is such a special, raw and dynamic sound captured on these recordings.
DK: Both EPs were recorded on a Teac 4 track. Usually straight to tape without too much EQing etc. ‘Point That Thing’ dated back to ‘78, as did ‘Anything Could Happen’. We jammed and wrote together but we also brought in songs and ideas. In the early 80’s we would try and get together 3 times a week to play and write.
During this time, the band’s singles charted in the New Zealand top 20 charts. Did you tour extensively circa the early 80’s?
DK: Yes we toured NZ a lot in this period but no overseas tours.
I wonder did you play outside of New Zealand at all during those early years? What other bands were you impressed by during those early days?
DK: Punk, post punk, and the history of music in general. Hamish and I had a big hunger for checking it ALL out. We were vinyl junkies before we picked up instruments. All the obvious likes at the time: Ramones, Pistols, Buzzcocks, Wire, New York Dolls, Richman, etc etc
One of my all-time favourite Clean songs is ‘Slug Song’ with its dreamy feel and deeply affecting chorus refrain of “Don’t ever change your mind”. Who is responsible for writing this gem?
DK: Bob came up with the music/organ riffs I filled in with lyrics and melody. It’s a song directed to the love of my life, Genevieve.
Can you reminisce for me please recording this particular song and the space and time in which the song was given its wings?
DK: Jammed on the riff in our practice space in Christchurch, where we lived for a while. It all came together straight away from what I can remember. We didn’t bring the keyboards into the line-up (apart from the ‘Tally Ho!’ recording) till just after Boodle I think….the keyboards certainly helped paved our way and inspired a lot of writing.
One of the greatest possible compliments (and a fitting testament to the legacy of The Clean) must be just how hugely influential the band’s unique indie pop sound have been on a seamless array of bands in later decades. For example, I recall first coming across The Clean in the early 00’s in the form of a Rough Trade compilation in which The Hidden Cameras covered one of your songs. Looking over the band’s career, what were your most cherished memories? It must be a nice feeling to know many bands out there have drawn so much inspiration from your work?
DK: It continues to blow my mind that the interest is still there around the world albeit in that underground way. Cherished memories?….mmmmm, that’s a hard one, there were some magical moments recording, like wow we are quite good and we have caught something magic e.g. ‘Point That Thing’, ‘Getting Older’ etc. Someone asked my partner Genivieve about how great it must’ve been during those early 80s and she kind’ve nailed it by saying the really magic years was when it was all coming together, late 70’s period when we were all trying to get it together and seeing the “scene” grow outta that. Yeh it was a special time.
Then there are other times people have come up to me and said “your music stopped me from killing myself”….“your music got me thru a very bad time in my life”.. I had that a few times……now that’s special, job done huh? The music has given me a life outside of the norm, thank goodness, I’ve also made so many good friends all over the world really thanks to the music. The travel has been fantastic too though most of it has been in the USA, I know the USA pretty well! To write some music 30 years that still seems to resonate round the globe is also mind-blowing for the country kid from the bottom of the world!
After a brief hiatus, you recorded ‘Vehicle’, the band’s debut album in 1989. A collection of psych pop odysseys and enlightening garage rock gems are dotted all over this special debut record. How was the album received back in New Zealand when ‘Vehicle’ was released originally? The album was amazingly made in three days. What are your memories of these three days? I wonder did you all have the songs fleshed out before arriving to the studio?
DK: The LP was well received here, there was some scepticism about us reforming and recording but the tour we did to promote was really successful and people dug the LP.
I remember running between control room and studio…there’s a good explanation of the recording in the liner notes! I recently discovered it was actually four days recorded and mixed. Geoff and Alan later remixed 2 tracks. Yeh we wrote all the songs before we toured, we realised straight away that we could only reform if we had new material to play. We wrote most of the LP in Dunedin over a week or two.
In 2009, The Clean’s immaculate pop record, ‘Mister Pop’ was released on Morr Music. Two years previously, your toured New Zealand and celebrating a 50th birthday while playing a show in Auckland. It must have been a very special feeling to come back and make new music together again? Did the creative process change or alter in any way for the making of ‘Mister Pop’ in comparison to the previous LP’s? I love the tight sound that the band has on ‘Mister Pop’ and also the glorious production.
DK: Well we have been regularly getting together to tour over the years and making LPs so it wasn’t super new. But yeh it’s always refreshing to have breaks. We mainly jammed the songs up. Bob and I brought one or two songs in. No big change in the process.
One of the great hallmarks of The Clean is the wide range of sounds you effortlessly unleashed, lovingly reflected on The Clean’s ‘Anthology’ collection. The piano ballad ‘Franz Kafka At The Zoo’ is incredible. ‘Linger Longer’ is a classic. There are so many new discoveries and rarities present on this career-spanning collection. You must have enjoyed compiling these songs together? I must ask too who is responsible for the band’s beautiful artwork? If you had to pick (just!) one, what song are you most proud of writing? What’s next for The Clean?
DK: The art work on Anthology is Hamsih’s. I think ‘Getting Older’ is one fave. Also ‘Point That Thing’. We actually put the track listing together when making the CD many years ago. I think we sat in Flying Nun’s office and made it up in about 30 minutes!