An interview with CLIENTELE
PT: Firstly, how did you all meet and get started?
Alastair Maclean (guitar/vocals): One day I walked into a history lesson at school and saw a fellow pupil had written the word "Felt" on his pencil case. That fellow pupil was James Hornsey and when I realised anyone in the world had heard of Felt apart from me, we decided to form a band, with me on guitar and him on bass, together with Innes Phillips on classical guitar and Daniel Evans on drums. In the same spirit as the bands we all loved, i.e. Galaxie 500, the Chills, Love etc. Innes later left to form a band called The Relict and Daniel quit to get a proper job. So we now play as a trio, with Mark Keen on drums, who was originally a friend of James’s brother.
Who writes the lyrics and music? Is it collective or are there more members than others involved in writing?
I write the words, melodies and the guitar chords. James and Mark tend to arrange and edit what I’ve done, as well as adding their own instruments.
How have you changed and developed since you began?
We play live a lot more confidently, and the guitar has come more to the forefront as an instrument. Lately I’ve been listening a lot to Archer Prewitt and Tom Verlaine’s guitar playing and I love that Jazz-based sound, being able to play without being tied to tight pop structures, I think that’s been influencing us a lot.
The first album is called ‘Suburban Light’ (though a collection of single cuts) and with the very English feel comes a feel of the suburbs. Whereas the Sex Pistols referenced the suburbs in as much as they railed against it with raw energy and stylistic rebellion, The Clientele’s suburbs seem dreamlike, yet still a little airless and trapping. I get this feeling on ‘Monday’s Rain’ and many other places on the album. Would you agree with this? It doesn’t seem like J.G. Ballard’s suburbs either, conservative family units twitching net curtains, walled off from the big bad city by the solid concrete of spaghetti junctions and high rise blocks. The Clientele’s suburbs seem leafier, more urbane, bookish even…
We grew up in the suburbs in north east Hampshire: a mixture of ugly buildings, parks and railways. A little further out of London than the suburbs Ballard talks about. They are trapping and airless, but there’s also a quietness there that is really weird. Nothing happens and you are haunted by the better lives you constantly see in TV and film. When you are in school, too young to move away, the only escape is through music, culture, libraries etc. So the suburbs are a boring place to be, but they also prompt people to form bands, friendships, vandalise things, do whatever they do very intensely, because life is so dull. The stuff on Suburban Light really documents that love/hate relationship, in particular the feeling of displacement, being forever on the peripheries. But of course, we all live in Chelsea now.
One article said the vocals sound "like he’s singing through gauze", is this a conscious effect? If so how is it done?
This ‘gauzy’ vocal sound was the only listenable vocal sound we could get from the spartan equipment we had to record the LP with: an 8 track tape recorder, a few guitar amps and some very cheap mikes. I like the slightly distanced effect you get by singing through a guitar amp, like you’re beaming your vocals in via Medium Wave radio.
The pop element in your music is finely crafted, satisfyingly minimal and I consider it the finest indie-pop I’ve heard for a long time. How do you feel about the state of the genre, what with acts like Travis and Coldplay being marketed as stadium acts/coffee table CD producers. Years ago they’d have been on Sarah records and gone not much further than that…
I always wanted to distance the Clientele from the mainstream British indie-pop thing as much as possible. I wholeheartedly despise that Oasis mentality that changed "music shouldn't have to be intelligent" to "music shouldn’t be intelligent": the stupidity and cynicism of the whole thing nauseates me, we just want nothing to do with it. I see us as more akin to the cosmopolitanism of El Records, or the best bands on early Creation. There’s a naivete in the sound, it’s something hopefully beautiful & intense that you just don’t see in much British indie music nowadays. It’s good to have something to hate, though.
I wholeheartedly agree! The narrator of the lyrics in your songs seem to wander the streets associating with familiar landmarks, triggering memories (often strolling with "Jane" so there may be another influence there). The idea of the strolling flaneur is in the lyrics (an idle dandy, observing detachedly, life in the streets and the streets themselves) would you agree?
I wish I could be an idle dandy. I think the associations and observations are more like stolen moments, illuminations that come out of the monotonony of daily life, and are all the more precious for it.
I find seasonal references in the lyrics, "Junebugs" "August has come" it reminds me of the Lake Poets in places, again this could be the idea of the poet or flaneur, someone with the time on his hands to observe the slow change of the seasons, the difference in temperature etc. Have you read the Romantics?
Yes, but I find the Lake Poets a bit gruelling. I’m much more a fan of the French and German Romantics, plus maybe De Quincey and bits of Coleridge. I love the story of Wordsworth writing majestic lines on the view from London Bridge without realising that there were a colony of murderers living directly underneath it who would reach up and slash rich travellers’ achilles tendons then rob them and throw them into the water. The fallout from the continental Romantics was Decadence and Symbolism, which I think take a more inconclusive and interesting look at the world.
Like the writing done by Ray Davies, the Clientele come across as being very English. On, ‘We Could Walk Together’ I love the line (and I hope I have this right) about observing the relentless flow of the motorway "watch the fools go rolling on and still feels that a darkness falls on England Green", there’s the dark side of England in that, enevitability, endings, yet also a sense of the infinite too. It’s like ‘Lazy Summer Afternoon’-era Kinks but with a sadness, like a sixties moment but with the foreknowledge that the Thatcher years aren’t too far away. It’s melancholic, would you agree?
Yes, there is always that dark side to nostalgia, the sense that you’re only being nostalgic to shore off meaninglessness.
The wonderful line "like a silver ring thrown into the flood of my heart" written by Joe Bousquet is
quoted on ‘We Could Walk Together’. (and printed in full inside the CD booklet) What gave you the idea to use that? How did you pick up on his writing and what other writers have influenced you in terms of lyrics?
Joe Bousquet was a Surrealist writer who was crippled by a bullet in WW1. He spent the rest of his life bedridden in his house in Tours, and he wrote beautiful, hallucinatory stories and poems, as well as philosophy and various commentaries. I was studying literature as an undergraduate, and I got very interested in Surrealism as this fantastic tonic to cure me of all the pious post-modernist crap we were being taught. Surrealist Literature isn’t widely known in the anglophone world, but to me it represents a third way, away from the sentimentality you generally get in old British writing, but also different from the heartlessness and dead-end nihilism of Post Modernism. Joe Bousquet, along with Paul Eluard and Phillipe Soupault, exemplifies that for me: he was very unconventional in style but wrote accessible and profoundly, traditionally beautiful things. One of his stories, ‘The Return’, is in English translation in the ‘Dedalus Book of Surrealism Vol. 2’ published in the UK by Dedalus Press.
In your music I hear ‘Time of the Season’ era Zombies, The Razorcuts, early Byrds, Scott Walker, Nick Drake (who also strolled with Jane, she gets about!) The Pretty Things on the ‘Emotions’ album only, Galaxie 500 and Felt. The Velvet Underground, Belle and Sebastian. ‘Suburban Light’ has all the classic Sixties pop moments, yet it is never derivative in the way other "retro" bands are. Would you agree with any of those comparisons? Could you list any more influences?
Yes, I’d agree with most of the comparisons you make, apart from Belle and Sebastian, who have never been much of an influence. Another big influence on Suburban Light was Nico’s early 70s stuff, the eerie production. Also, it’s less obvious, but selected Garage Punk tracks, and Television too.
What plans have you got for new records? Will there be any expansion on the trio or any change of direction soundwise?
We’ve got plans to incorporate strings, brass, maybe a rhythm guitarist. If we used strings, I’d like to have arrangements influenced by Bartok, much more dissonant and intricate than you usually find in pop records. I’ve also been listening to a lot of dub reggae, like Scientist and I love the spareness and abstract feel of his mixes. I’d also like to introduce some controlled, otherwordly noise a la Keiji Haino. Mark is playing drums in a cool jazz style these days and that suits the quieter songs very well. An EP is coming out on Acuarela records this autumn that should mix up some instrumentals with more traditional Clientele songs.
Interview and article by: Steve Hanson, (c) Ptolemaic Terrascope, August 2001