Interview: The Clean head to Sydfest
Generally considered to be one of New Zealand’s all-time greatest musical exports, indie rock godfathers The Clean are bringing their jangle punk awesomeness to The Aurora for one night only for the Sydney Festival. Courtney Dabb speaks to David Kilgour from the band to find out more:
Hi David. Thanks for taking the time out to speak with us here at Something You Said. Do you feel that growing up/living in New Zealand gave The Clean an entirely different perspective and musical challenge whereby it is always that much harder for bands that are not based in Europe or North America do get a solid footing and worldwide recognition?
Well, I don’t think we would have been The Clean if we had grown up in Germany, it just would have been different. It wouldn’t have happened. Where it all came from was certainly that the isolation of it. People have said to me over the years that it must have been a hindrance but in some ways I have enjoyed the isolation as much as it has been a hindrance.
You were self-confessed vinyl junkies growing up and would, along with many other Dunedin youths, eagerly await new releases and listen to whatever you could get your hands on. With so much music available at the click of a button these days, do you think that this saturation and overwhelming choice has deluded the sense of a clearly defined trend or scene?
I’m not too sure about that really but it does change the feel of things. It’s almost too early to tell in some ways. Back in Dunedin in the late 70’s, I guess there was only really ten or 20 bands and it was a tiny wee scene. You would be buying the odd import or scour the second-hand record stores. All of that is gone really… I don’t know what that means.
You have been described as creating the Dunedin scene. That must be a humbling testament to what was, at the time, simply about creating your own music…
Yeah, at the same time we were pretty ambitious and we thought we were good enough to be noticed, although we were between a rock and a hard place here in Dunedin considering what we were doing, but we did have a belief we were going to do something with it. We were definitely driven and once we found Robert (Scott) we got going, so it wasn’t just an accident, not with The Clean anyway. Hamish (Kilgour) and I knew we were onto something pretty early I think [laughs].
Is it something you can put your finger on, where you knew that you were on to something?
I am not too sure really. Punk certainly showed the way, it didn’t sound like the bands you hear every other day. Punk had something to do with it definitely, but perhaps our love of music drove us to make our own music. Hamish didn’t start playing seriously until about 22 or something and I didn’t start getting my head around guitar until I was 17 so we were kind of late starters really.
The extent of your influence didn’t just end in the Southern Hemisphere, with many artists citing your work as an influence in contributing to the college rock scene, most notably Stephen Malkmus saying that Pavement was heavily influenced by your work. Was there something about growing up and playing in the university town of Dunedin that translated so easily to the college rock scene of America?
I don’t know what happened there, I really don’t. When we got started we discovered The Velvet Underground and not just punk and nu wave, but 60’s and psychedelia and all that stuff and also what came out of New York.
You have supported Pavement, how was it opening for them and did it feel like the masters opening up for the apprentices?
We did some shows in Tasmania and here in New Zealand, we toured with them and it was just on the cusp before they might turn into a massive band, which is the kind of the dream. It was an interesting time to be touring with them, for sure. They were great guys, fun to tour with, great attitude about everything.
Often an album is a reflection of what the band is thinking and feeling at the time. How have your albums and their messages evolved over time?
I don’t think they have really. Same old things. It’s hard for me to say sometimes, when I am the subject.
The same drive that has been there the whole time? The motivation is still alive for you?
Yeah it is. It’s frustrating. It’s the continual search to make a good song I like. It’s kind of like a disease really but a good one. It’s not as if I have to do it.
In an industry that is full of horror stories, where record companies and management restrain artists financially, creatively and musically, signing with Flying Nun records afforded you an opportunity to bypass many of the pitfalls of big business and gave you the freedom to call the shots. Was this one of the main reasons for signing with a local label?
Yeah pretty much. It came from being post-punk, DIY attitude. At the start of the label it was an alternative to the large labels, which is a post-punk thing and what was happening in London and the post-punk labels there. It just seemed a natural thing to do really. We were just doing our own thing, recording ourselves at the time and organising our own shows. Doing it all ourselves so it was a natural progression.
Losing Peter (Gutteridge) earlier this year must have been a very sobering reminder that we are not here forever. How do you view the legacy of The Clean for yourself as an artist, and for that of your country and the music community as a whole?
I feel that it’s a pretty privileged life really. I do kind of understand what happened in some ways, it took me a while to realise the depth of it I guess. You’ve got to put a few years in and a bit of work in before you realise what you’ve done I guess. But Peter was a bloody great talent, I tell you that.
Of all your work, what are you most proud of and why?
I think it’s just all the music. I mean I’ve made some crappy music and I have made some good stuff too with The Clean, solo and with different people. You’ve just got to keep working hard, I guess.
Your touring tends to come in fits and bursts, is it a case of finding the time or waiting until you get itchy feet and the urge to tour takes over?
All those things really. As far as making new music goes, you do it when the feeling is there but it depends. When it rains it pours… a tour, a recording and writing. You can’t force the music, that’s for sure.
Is that something that is true of the general creative process for you, or do you just wake up one night with a riff in your head?
Yeah it’s always been like that. Sometimes you get a few lines and then I won’t do anything with it until we record.
What can we expect at your Sydney Festival show, new material, guest appearances or a solid set covering your extensive career?
Well, I don’t know about guest appearances but there is always someone floating around. We haven’t really talked about the tour. I am not too sure, maybe some new material. We shall see.
And do you have any new projects or material in the pipeline at the moment?
With The Clean, no. But I will be playing some solo shows in Tasmania partly to promote the Anthology coming out on vinyl that Merge (records) put out earlier this year.
It must take you back to a time, when you are playing tracks from the Anthology, because it surmises your whole career?
It does take you take in time for two minutes when you are playing it, for sure.
For more information and to buy tickets for their Sydney Festival show on 20th January, visit the Sydney Festival website.
The Clean are also at MOFO in Hobart this January. Find details here. You can also catch them at the following venues…
Thursday 22 January – The Corner, Melbourne
Friday 23 January – The Rosemount – Perth
Sunday 25 January – The Brightside, Brisbane
Interview by Courtney Dabb.