pop for all seasons: q & a with Alasdair Maclean of the clientele
by dave heaton
For the last few weeks I've been preoccupied--OK, downright obsessed--with a song called "Saturday" by the clientele, from London. It's a pretty pop song that sets a vivid scene right from the first phrase: "The taxi lights were in your eyes..." The song delivers a calming, gorgeous mood that I want to return to as soon as the song ends. And I do. I can't stop listening to it. "Saturday" appears on a 4-song CD by the clientele called A Fading Summer, recently released by March Records . The other three songs are just as good: gentle, melodic pop songs that convey an atmosphere as perfectly as a pop song can. This is "in your head" music that captures how it feels to be in a certain place, at a certain time, with certain thoughts and feelings. The songs' perfect delivery of feelings and detailed depictions of places, seasons and circumstances makes A Fading Summer remind me of other albums with a similar sense for atmosphere, like The Blue Nile's Hats and Red House Painters' Ocean Beach (the kind of album that seems like a "rainy day album," but then you realize it's also a "summer afternoon" album and a "winter morning album" and really that it's all-the-time music which just keys into that undescribable feeling induced by a combination of certain sounds, sights, settings and weather patterns), but the clientele does not sound like those bands. Neither do I hear most of the other bands mentioned by critics or by the band members themselves as influences (the Zombies, Galaxie 500, etc.). Sure, pop songs, by the very nature of musical history, carry with them tints of what's come before, but these songs are their own beings, and they're beautiful ones.
The Clientele formed in the summer of 1997. They had a track on the Cry Me a Liver double 7" compilation on Fierce Panda records which introduced them to the public. From there, they've released a series of 7" singles on various labels, and had some songs on compilations. Hearing A Fading Summer has me searching for sounds by the clientele. Most of their recordings are scarcely available, these days. A Fading Summer is their first CD release; their 7"s are mostly out of print (one can be found at insound, one at darla, and I believe roughtrade in the U.K. has some too). The band's Web site has sound clips of a handful of these songs, and others can be found in MP3 form on another site called All The Dust and Glass (a fan site).
To get more information on this fine band, I e-mailed some questions to them, and got some great responses from Alasdair Maclean of the clientele. Both my questions and his answers can be read right now, right here...
Oh, first would you please let me know who is answering these questions, and what his role is in the band?
this is Alasdair, singer and guitarist
Like I said before, I like the A Fading Summer EP a lot. Could you tell me some of the story behind this CD and how it came about? How did you hook up with March Records? Half these songs are previously released but out of print; how did you decide which songs to include? Were the other two songs recorded recently?
the CD came together as an entity after March Records approached us asking if they could release anything by us. We were getting stupid amounts of emails from people trying to track down our out of print 7"s, so we thought a re-issue of some of those tracks along with a couple of new songs would be nice. The songs begin at the height of summer with "An Hour Before The Light," through late summer and autumn with "Bicycles" to a wintry, Christmas-y feel on "Saturday," so they seemed to go together quite well, although they weren't written with that progression in mind. "Driving South" was recorded recently during an epidemic of gastric flu, and its understated feel is because we were too ill and weak to work out any complex arrangements. "Bicycles" is an old song.
Until this CD, all of your releases so far have been on record, am I correct? What is the reason behind that? Is it a matter of chance or do you have a personal preference for vinyl? If so, why?
I prefer the warm sound of vinyl personally, but CDs aren't a bad format. We released 7"s because that's what new bands with no budget do in Britain: it's cheaper here than making a CD.
I noticed that you just recently played two shows in the United States. How were those shows? Have you played in the US before? Did you get a chance to travel and sightsee much while you were here? What did you think of the cities you saw?
The shows were good, it's lovely that we get so much encouragement and praise in the US, we originally thought it would be the last country we'd be popular in.We've played there twice, once for a crazy 5-day tour which took us to 4 cities along the east coast and was exhausting but a beautiful journey of discovery,and more recently for one date in Boston and one in New York. I like the English feel of Boston and New York is of course unique.
I have a related question, about touring in general. Do you enjoy playing live? How are your live performances different from your studio recordings? Do you tour often?
I enjoy playing live a lot at the moment. This is because we're rehearsed enough to get a really nice feel when we play together, it's a pleasure to play the songs, because you can be so subtle and really get the songs out to the audience. We play about once a month in London, and if someone offers us enough money for rail or air fares, we play elsewhere. We're not really a touring band, though. Live, we tend to play with more of a jazz bias than our studio recordings. The idea is to play a beautifully minimalist, stripped down version of what we've recorded. (doesn't always work out that way)
What do you do with your spare time, when you're not making music?
I love to read, paint, go to the cinema, speak with my girlfriend, smoke, drink beer.
Most of the reviews which I've read mention Nick Drake, Felt, Love, the Zombies: are these bands you feel you have something in common with, or are writers just looking for the easy way out? What musicians have influenced you?
Felt, Love and the Zombies are major influences. But so are Television, Wire and Joy Division, and I wish reviewers would mention them occasionally. Really good bands always have their own, idiosyncratic sound anyway. I hate most music journalism, it's so smug and formulaic, it resembles stand up comedy more than writing. The correlative in music would be if bands were lazy enough to endlessly write and re-write the lyrics of "Light My Fire" or something equally trite.
I love the photographs on the front and back covers of A Fading Summer. What can you tell me about those and why you picked them? In general, I think you use neat cover art. Are they generally photographs by a band member or an outside artist?
Always by an outside artist, in this case from a book about London in the 1950s.The front cover is the Greenwich foot tunnel entrance in East London, and it's pertinent because we used to live in that area the summer before we got any records out, drinking every night and working in noodle factories or as bankclerks.
I also noticed that your web page features what look to me to be boxes by Joseph Cornell (are they?). Are you art enthusiasts? What other artists do you like?
They are Joseph Cornell boxes. I love the Surrealists, Pop Art, Situationists, Joseph Beuys. Older stuff like Boecklin, Piranesi etc., I'm into a lot of the High Renaissance, as is everyone... The funniest book I've read in a long time is Benvenuto Cellini's autobiography.
In an article about you, I came across a reference that said you had made a super-8 film, but it didn't say any more about it. What can you tell me about this?
Yeah, we made a 3 minute film to go with "Reflections after Jane," from the All the Dust and Glass 7". It was just a fun way to make a promo, it shows us walking along a disused railway line, inter-cut with shots from a train going from London to Woking in a rain storm. It's in black and white and a lot of it is in slow motion.
At times, your songs seem to depict really specific settings, occasionally even mentioning places which I would assume are in London (though I've never been there). What connection is there between the city where you live and your music? In what ways does the environment in which you live affect the songs you write?
That's a big question: there's a relationship between our environment and the references to places in the songs, but it's not always a straightforward one. How much London affects the Clientele's music is something I prefer to be completely out of control of. There are also references to Edinburgh, where I studied, and New York. But references to places can be exotic name drops as much as a clear effect of the city you live in creeping into your music.
One last question, the one I ask everyone: If there has been a CD, movie, or live performance that you have really loved so far this year, please tell me what it is.
Sonic Boom playing "Transparent Radiation" with Yo La Tengo in London. Just like the old days, which sadly I'm too young to remember.