Alasdair MacLean of The Clientele
The shuffler: Alasdair MacLean, lead singer and guitarist for the lyrical British folk-rock band The Clientele. The band’s latest album, Bonfires On The Heath, is available now.
Boards Of Canada, “Hey Saturday Sun”
Alasdair MacLean: I’m a huge Boards Of Canada fan. They’re my favorite contemporary band.
The A.V. Club: That’s strange, because your music shows almost zero recognizable influence from them.
AM: The interesting thing about Boards Of Canada is, they use analog and digital recording techniques, and nobody really knows how they get their sound. But I think that very warm, enveloping analog sound… I mean, sure, The Clientele aren’t an IDM band, but there’s a similarity of approach in there somehow, I think.
AVC: In that you’re both sort of atmospheric?
AM: Yeah, I think so.
AVC: Have you experimented at all with trying to work some electronic stuff into your music?
AM: [Laughs.] I wouldn’t know where to start! I’d absolutely love to, but it’s like how when you can’t play guitar, and you stare at someone playing the guitar, you have no idea how they’re making the sounds they’re making. It’s the same thing for me with this kind of music.
AVC: You have no idea what button to push?
AM: I have absolutely no idea how to make a beat or anything like that.
Vashti Bunyan, “Winter Is Blue”
AM: This is from her first record, which I absolutely love now, although the first time I heard it, I hated it so much, I threw the CD across the room and nearly smashed the jewel case. My reaction to it was that it was repulsive. I’ve never had a stronger turnaround on a record.
AVC: Why did you hate it so much the first time, and why did you turn around?
AM: I think I found it very precious and a little bit too twee for me. But as time went on, and I listened to the songs more and more, they became timeless, you know? Very mysterious. I think that’s one of the problems with downloading mps these days. You never really get a chance to attune to a different logic, a different musical logic. If you hear a song and don’t like it, you’ll just delete it off your hard drive. But with this one, I’d bought the CD, so I played it again and again and again until I actually liked it. I remember doing something similar with The Fall when I was a teenager.
AVC: You had to force yourself to play it a second time since you spent money on it and had a physical copy of it?
AM: Yeah, it was just like “Come on, I bought this, so I might as well listen to it again, if only to confirm how much I hate it.” And I found I loved it.
AVC: Do you think state of mind affects people’s reaction to art more than they’ll admit? Like, we think that we’re having an objective reaction, but our opinion is actually being subtly shaped by our mood, or the events of the day, or our immediate environment?
AM: I think that’s very true, but I also think that some artists end up in very different musical places from what you’re used to, and it takes a few listens to get there with them, you know?
AVC: There are some who might say that maybe you’re trying too hard. That maybe there’s nothing there to get, and you’re forcing yourself to like it.
AM: Well, that’s not exactly the crime of the century, is it? [Laughs.] Trying to force yourself to like something. Everything’s subjective.
Cornelius Cardew, “Octet ’71”
AM: This is from a concert that was arranged after his death. They played selections of his work. He’s a British composer from the ’70s. He started off avant-garde, and ended up literally a Stalinist, playing and writing glum folk songs like “Smash The Social Contract.” This is one of his avant-garde pieces that’s a little bit atonal. I think it’s for a string octet.
AVC: I’m entirely unfamiliar with this artist; how did you find him?
AM: Well, he’s very famous in Britain, because he was the darling of the avant-garde, and he played in a band called AMM, which was an improvising band in the ’60s. Paul McCartney used to come watch them. Later on in life, he became disenchanted with avant-garde music, because he felt it couldn’t reach the public. It didn’t have a wide enough appeal. So he’d take these tunes of old English folk songs and write Stalinist lyrics over the top of them. He was killed in a mysterious hit-and-run road accident in the late ’70s, and there’s still conspiracy theories to this day that it was actually an inside job by the British Secret Services. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you subscribe to these theories?
AM: I’m agnostic about them. But I do think that when he changed to folk songs, he actually lost the tiny audience he already had, which is quite interesting.
AVC: Are you a fan of the folk songs as well, or just the avant-garde stuff?
AM: His folk songs? No, I don’t really like them. Folk songs in general, I like. The old spooky Scottish folk songs. But his folk songs were very, very literal, and they were just about workers smashing their chains. It was like reading Das Kapital over a folk-song melody, and it’s a spectacular failure, in my opinion.
AVC: But admirable for the attempt, maybe, in some strange way.
AM: I give him points for attempting it, yeah. I mean, it’s very interesting to read why he became disenchanted with academic avant-garde music, you know? He wanted to reach as many people as possible and change their consciousness. He wanted to reach the “working classes” in England. The kind of music he was making was very much from the academy, even though it had a lot in common with things like free jazz and improvisation, and he felt that it was the music of the elite, and that he wasn’t really speaking to the people.
AVC: But “the people” really love hardcore political folk songs?
AM: Well if “the people” are Paul McCartney and his friends, yeah. [Laughs.] He could never get over the rejection.
The Dreamers, “One Day In The Woods”
AM: This came out a couple of years ago. The Dreamers is a band with a girl from another Swedish band called Action Biker, and a guy who recorded for L Records back in the ’80s in a band called Always. It’s a very spooky song. It’s actually very brutal, if you listen to the words. It sounds like a kind of nice, folky song about going into the woods, but the lyrics are very, very dark.
AVC: The Clientele’s music often is very pretty on the surface, yet has something darker going on beneath it.
AM: I do like that idea that music can work on two levels, and you only pick up on the second one after a few listens. But this one’s just nasty. It’s about kicking hedgehogs down the stairs, you know? [Laughs.] That’s not something I would put my name to, but I still very much admire it.
Piano Magic, “The Canadian Brought Us Snow”
AM: Piano Magic is a British artist who’s a bit similar to Boards Of Canada. They’re much more song-based than Boards Of Canada, but they use a lot of very interesting atmospheric sounds in their songs—electronic sounds, like static. You know, the sound of electrical generators, or waves. They work with Vashti Bunyan as well, and kind of helped bring her out of retirement. They are a fantastic British band from the ’90s, and almost forgotten now. I mean, they’re still going now, but people probably would say their best work was in the ’90s. They somehow managed to color their music. You listen to their records and you think, “This sounds autumnal.” Very, very strong feeling. It’s mysterious, but that’s how it actually sounds.
AVC: Do you generally find music from reading about it, or just from being in a band and having people push things on you?
AM: One of the great things about being in a band is that you meet so many other musicians who will turn you on to stuff you would never have otherwise found out about. But Piano Magic was kind of a big name in the ’90s in Britain, and I think they’re actually still huge in Spain. They’ll play to thousands of people out there.
AVC: Do your bandmates have the same taste as you, generally?
AM: No, not at all, no. James [Hornsey], the bass player, is very into New Zealand music, and Mel [Draisey] is much more into Spacemen 3, Spiritualized-type music, and Mark [Keen] loves Dionne Warwick. So we have a lot of overlap, but we all definitely have our own separate musical personalities in terms of our record collection.
AVC: When you’re touring, do you take turns controlling the stereo, or do you just all have your headphones on?
AM: Well, we take turns, and then if you look back in the van and everyone’s got their headphones on, you realize you’re doing something wrong. [Laughs.]
Trees, “The Great Silkie”
AM: This is an old folk song about a mermaid that comes to a headland and makes a deal with… oh, I don’t know, it’s got a long and very confusing narrative. But it’s kind of a mermaid/human romance story, I think. It sounds beautiful. Trees was a very weird band, because they sounded a little like Fairport Convention, and they were always criticized in their lifetime for how close they were to them, but they actually had a very odd, ghostly sound all their own. They didn’t seem to deliberately manufacture it; it just was there in their recordings. This is a really good example. It’s definitely acid-folk. They have a very sensitive, good lead guitarist who plays all sorts of weird, hypnotic, almost psychedelic guitar solos over the top of it. So it’s a really interesting kind of crossroads between folk and psychedelia.
AVC: Do you think there are certain styles that you can connect to quicker and easier because of where you’re from? Is music like Trees part of your cultural heritage, the way country music or the blues might be to people from certain parts of America?
AM: It is, actually. And I think the music that’s part of your heritage is what you spend a lot of your early life rejecting. The very idea of folk music would break me out in hives until I was about 28. But I think it’s nice when you eventually do come back to it. It’s like coming home, and you realize it wasn’t so bad after all.
Ornette Coleman, “Focus On Sanity”
AM: This is probably one I’ve got least to say about, because I’ve never understood the great mystery about Ornette Coleman. I put this record on my iPod again, just to listen to it, see if I could catch the logic of it. Give it a few more listens, you know? He sort of started to play in a more atonal way, didn’t he, and it was called the new thing, and everyone was desperately trying to work out what he was doing, right? Well, I love jazz if it becomes more atonal and free. I love Pharoah Sanders and what have you, the later John Coltrane and Archie Shepp and stuff, but I can’t get my head around Ornette Coleman at all.
AVC: Do you think maybe it’s that he was just starting something that became more interesting later when others picked it up?
AM: It’s very possible. I’m not a historian of jazz, so I don’t know, but I can believe that. It’s very minimal. The couple of records I have of him are with a trio, so it just feels small to me, whereas something like The Olatunji Concert, with John Coltrane and Jimmy Garrison and the rest of his band, is enormous-sounding. Again, I just scratch my head at that one.
AVC: At what point in your life did you start getting into jazz?
AM: Well, I was very lucky, because when I was at school, I had a great music teacher who would just take out these free-jazz records and play them for me. So it was in my early teens that I started to listen to jazz.
The Autumn Defense, “Bluebirds Fall”
AM: Autumn Defense is Pat Sansone and John Stirratt from Wilco. Their psychedelic side project. Pat helped us a lot on God Save The Clientele, doing a lot of vocals, piano and such. This is my favorite song by them, actually. I think it’s as good as anything that was released in the psychedelic ’60s. It’s as good a song, and it’s got a very haunting melody that goes over all sorts of other beautifully put together and mixed instruments. It’s just a very dreamy song. This is one of those songs that makes the hair on your arms stand up, and contradicts the whole idea that people shouldn’t make music that sounds old. Because this is just as good as anything that was made in 1967.
AVC: That said, can you see The Clientele at some point moving away from a vintage sound into something more contemporary?
AM: Not really, no. I think whatever we’ve done as a band, we’ve done because it’s so natural. Our “old” sound isn’t really like any actual bands from old times, you know? We take elements of past music styles and past sounds as a way to… this is going to sound very pretentious and perhaps overly thought-out, but as a way to strike chords of vague nostalgia, and strike chords of, “I’ve heard this before somewhere.” That’s what a lot of our music is about in terms of the words and ideas behind it, so we really use old sounds as a way to serve that agenda.
It does sound like I’m just trying to justify boneheaded nostalgia. [Laughs.] And to be fair, there’s definitely an element of that in The Clientele’s sound.
AVC: You mentioned being friends with the guys in The Autumn Defense. Does having a personal relationship with someone affect the way you hear their music?
AM: Well, in this case, it’s a moot point, because I heard this song before I ever met them, but yeah, you definitely look on things more kindly if you know people. Or maybe it makes how you feel about it feel smaller, because you think, “Well, these are just people I know,” and therefore it takes some of the mystery away. But it never did in the case of The Autumn Defense, I hasten to add.
John Tavener, “The Protecting Veil”
AM: This is piece of devotional music by a British composer who was actually discovered by Ringo Starr, believe it or not, in the late ’60s. He’s gone on to become, in Britain, hugely popular. He’s like the establishment contemporary classical musician. He actually converted to Greek Orthodox faith. I’m not sure exactly when, but sometime in the ’70s. This is a very beautiful piece of devotional music to be played in church, and it has an incredible… I think it must be a viola. Could be wrong about what instrument it is, but it has an incredible amount of vibrato, and it plays these kind of Eastern scales that also sound kind of very melodic as well. It’s a beautiful piece of music.
AVC: So did every Beatle have their pet avant-garde composer that they were really into?
AM: [Laughs.] Well, two of them did. And John, obviously, we’ve got “Revolution #9.” I don’t know really who would have inspired that, whether it would have been some of the musiques concrète, people like Pierre Henry or someone. But yeah, I guess they do. One more reason to love The Beatles.