The Clean
Popping Up Again
by Ron Wadlinger

With a career spanning more than 30 years, the Clean has long been a fixture of New Zealand’s notable rock scene. The trio, which has consisted of brothers David and Hamish Kilgour and Robert Scott for the majority of its lifespan, played a vital role in the formation of the influential Flying Nun record label. Its records showcased an energetic sound that evidenced an electric hybrid of punk and pop rock. The Clean’s influence and popularity grew throughout the ’80s, and, despite the band’s almost isolated existence, its songs were covered by groups like Pavement and Guided By Voices.

After taking a hiatus during which Hamish relocated to the States, the reconstituted Clean got together with Merge Records to release the Getaway LP in 2001 and an extensive compilation of the group’s early work in 2002. The members have focused on their own, separate endeavors as much as they have on the Clean, with David releasing a number of solo records, Hamish performing with his band, the Mad Scene, and Robert forming the just as vital New Zealand group, the Bats.

The group maintains a sporadic existence, but this past year, the timing was right, and the trio got together to write and record the excellent Mister Pop, released last week on Merge. The album shows that the Clean is still a vibrant entity, still putting together great pop songs and compelling instrumentals. I caught up with David Kilgour as he was sitting down for a cup of tea in New Zealand to talk about the band’s history and the ins and outs of maintaining a cross-continental existence.

Here in the States, there’s always seemed to be a particular bit of a fascination with New Zealand rock bands. Looking back on when the Clean first got together, what was the music scene in New Zealand like at the time?

David Kilgour: There was quite a healthy, what I’d call, “pub rock” scene in New Zealand that grew up out of the ’60s explosion and flowed into the ’70s. When punk rock hit, that was kind of at its peak—the pub rock circuit, similar to what England had at the time. So there was a mix of original New Zealand acts and acts doing cover versions. There were the punks, and that’s obviously why we got started there in the late ’70s. It was pretty conservative here, for sure, but there were a lot of great acts early in the ’60s and, to an extent, in the ’70s as well

What makes New Zealand a particularly fertile place for interesting music?

DK: I’m not too sure, really. I would say the environment, but the isolation must be a key. I guess I’m too close to it to really be objective, but the isolation definitely has something to do with it.

Do you think there’s a sort of national pride in that uniqueness, or is that something you’ve always accepted as you’ve grown up?

DK: I suppose it has instilled some kind of attitude in the culture, perhaps. I’m not sure—we just are what we are. We’re a long way away from anywhere, really. We’re born into it, I guess, at this colonial outpost at the bottom of the world. I mean, how did I get here?

What kind of changes have you seen in the music scene there over the years?

DK: Computers have been the main change I’ve seen. I was around when vinyl came out; I was around when cassettes came out; I was around when CDs came out; and now I’m around for what’s maybe the deconstruction of the music industry, which is probably a good thing. So that’s the main thing obviously.

Is it any tougher or easier to start a band in New Zealand now, or have the changes not really affected that at all?

DK: Well, it all centered around touring to get noticed back in the day. There was no college radio here until I think the mid- to late ’80s. So the live circuit really determined whether you were going to make it or break it, I suppose. But now it’s incredibly expensive even for me to go out as a solo act and tour, so I suppose the internet picks up that slack, the Myspace thing, and yadda yadda yadda.

In the future, do you see touring stopping, or is that something bands will always do?

DK: It depends. I think if music ends up being free, which it sort of is already anyway at the moment—but I don’t think it will be totally free—somehow it will be reined in and compromises will be made. But if music is free, the only form of income I can see for musicians is touring. Our only other option is publishing and selling your song out to advertising companies and selling your music to movies. I don’t see much else for musicians such as myself, indie musicians. It’s an interesting time, for sure. Anything that pulls down a corporation is a good thing.

Now we’ve got more of a decentralized approach.

DK: Yeah, that’s good. I think one bad thing is that more people are making music, so there’s more bad music. I think David Thomas from Pere Ubu said a long time ago there’s too much music in the world. I’m a music freak. It’s hard to keep up with it. I’d like to keep up with it, but I’ve kind of given up keeping up because there’s so much music out there. It’s insane, but the freedom is good.

When the Clean started out, did you guys have any particular ambitions or goals, or was it just something you wanted to enjoy doing on your own?

DK: We were pretty ambitious, but we always wanted to do it on our own terms. We certainly carried a lot of post-punk and punk ideals with us. So we had a lot of attitude, but we were ambitious. We wanted success, but we didn’t want to compromise in getting there. We wanted to put out good records and survive.

What is it like being in a band that has members who live across the world?

DK: It’s very haphazardous. We did our first tour in five years about three years ago, and it’s been about eight years since our last album, so that gives you an idea of how haphazardous it is. There’s no plan here. It’s all based on serendipity, really, being in the same town at the same time, or being in the same country at the same time, or someone gets us together for something. So yeah, we just do it for fun, really.

So it’s not something where the calendar turns, and it’s time for another Clean record.

DK: Yeah, there’s no business plan. There’s no managers, there’s no secretary. There’s no idea at all, really.

The new record is very cool. It definitely sounds like a Clean record, but it also has sort of its own unique identity. At the same time, one can hear elements of some of the band members’ other projects. Is there any certain quality that makes a Clean song a Clean song, as opposed to a Mad Scene song or one of your solo works?

DK: I’m not too sure. There’s obviously something that happens when the three of us get together that doesn’t happen elsewhere. Sometimes if there’s an accident or terrible mistake, we’ll make an album out of it. We have milked ideas to a large degree, but it’s always been an eclectic bunch, and that eclecticism is obviously still there by the sound of it.

What was the process in making this record?

DK: We met up in New York initially and jammed a little bit and wrote a little bit of stuff and did some demos there. We took a three-month break, then Hamish came down to New Zealand, where Bob and I live, and I had written a little bit of stuff during that break. Probably at least half the record was made up on the spot in the studio, which took a couple of weeks, recording and jamming. Then over the following six months we did more overdubbing without Hamish around and mixed it. It’s a pretty typical approach these days for the Clean.

So at this point in time with the band, you’re pretty comfortable with that approach?

DK: It works for us, you know. It’s good that we aren’t together all the time and that it’s a one-off thing. It just works for us that way.

One thing I’ve always liked about you guys is that there’s always a bit of levity in your records.

DK: We definitely have a sense of humor. We do take the music seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We definitely try to have a little fun. There’s a lot of laughter in the Clean, and there’s a tongue-in-cheek aspect to the music too, a kind of playfulness.

The new record sort of stands in a bit of contrast to your early material in the sense that it’s got a more mellow, relaxed sound, as opposed to the kinetic, almost frantic sound of the earlier stuff. When you get together and play, do you still go through the older songs with the same sort of approach as you first did, or have you tried to revisit them with the relaxed approach that you seem to take on the newer material?

DK: We mix it up live. When we went in to make this record, what I really wanted to do was make a guitar rock, jam-out record, a really indulgent, jamming record. We jam a lot live. And look at what we made—there’s certainly no guitar rock jamming on this record!

We don’t do the same shit every night, and we will never play a song the same ever again. Live we try to do something different every night.

You guys always include some instrumental songs on the albums. How do you go about putting those together?

DK: In the case of the instrumentals, the music came first, obviously. At some point we make the decision that the music is strong enough on its own, that it doesn’t need a vocal. A lot of the work happens when we’re jamming in the studio. The struggle comes from making a form out of those jams.

Merge Records recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. What’s it been like working with them over the years?

DK: They’ve been a complete pleasure to work with. I’m not sure there would be any interest in my solo work, let alone the Clean’s work, if it wasn’t for Merge’s work in the last five or 10 years. The fact that they put out the anthology has done a lot to help raise awareness in America and, to a degree, Europe. It’s been a really fortunate meeting, running into those guys and working with them. It’s lovely to work with a label that’s still trying to hang on to those old indie and punk ideals.

Quite frequently, I notice newer bands paying tribute to you in various ways, whether it’s covering one of your songs or doing something based on your sound. I also noticed that you thanked my Columbus neighbors Times New Viking in your liner notes. What are your thoughts on the Clean’s continuing influence?

DK: It’s always endearing. I really love playing with Times New Viking; they’ve got a great garage aesthetic. But yeah, it’s really endearing... what can I say? When someone likes your work, famous or unfamous, it’s fucking great. We make music to get it out there.

Have you seen interest in the Clean rise and fall, or has it been pretty stable?

DK: There’s always been some kind of interest. It’s a hard thing to gauge, but I think in the last year or two, it really has increased. It’s little things you notice, whether it’s the emails coming in or people covering songs. Brian Turner from WFMU has said he’s seen three or four waves of interest in the Clean since the early ’80s.

Do you have any plans for the near future?

DK: Not for the Clean, no. No plans, as usual. We are making some videos for the album, but that’s the only plans at the moment.

Any solo stuff you’re working on?

DK: I put out an album called Falling Debris here in New Zealand and Australia, and I’m currently working on another solo album, which we’ll see in the next year, I hope.

Any chance you’ll tour the U.S.?

DK: No plans with the Clean, no, but never say never. Maybe if this album goes really well, we will.