Some records stay with you. Aside from the memorable music that usually accompanies, well, a memorable album, chances are that you were probably either doing or feeling something special the first time you heard those sounds — falling in love, finishing your finals, strolling down the memory lane of your old childhood haunts, or road-tripping with your best friends. Right then, everything felt alright. Or maybe it was a case of the music soothing your soul like a balm that got you through some especially tough times.
For me, I’ll never hear bluesman John Lee Hooker the same again; a man whose music is always funky, gritty, groovy, yes. But Hooker is an artist(John Lee has since departed this mortal coil, but I prefer to think of him as always present because his music remains timeless) and spiritual sage whose music was (and is) at times so desolate, so deeply dark, that it felt exactly right when I was feeling much the same way. When it wrapped around me during some dark days in a rented bedroom in a dead-end town many years ago, I knew I wasn’t alone.
The same can be said of Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, Big Star, Neil Young, and “Blood On The Tracks” -era Bob Dylan. But not just the sad stuff. Guns ‘N’ Effing Roses too, dude! (“Sweet Child O’ Mine” seemed to always be playing everywhere as Roxanne, my future wife, and I fell in love).
The Clientele’s “Suburban Light” shares that secret, sacred place inside me where the best music lives forever. It was, and still is, a thing of tender, softly rapturous beauty. The aural canvas reminds me of the pale amber sunlight of autumn, fading but holding on long enough to shine through the delicately veined leaves of the trees, breathing and bracing against an encroaching November.
Back at the turn of the new century in 2000, just after “Suburban Light” had been released in the United States (I remember listening to, and being enamored of, an advance of the disc for weeks beforehand — ahh, the perks of a rock critic on a record label’s mailing list), I conducted an interview with the Clientele’s Alasdair Maclean. The band was preparing to tour here for the first time, and I recall being genuinely excited to talk to the young man behind such striking music that struck such a resonant chord with me.
Theirs was the sweet sound of adolescence back-pedaling into childhood and everything that came with it: swing sets and invincibility; first crushes and unrequited love; the cozy comforts of home and the exquisite ache of barely dreamt-of possibility. When we talked, I recall Alasdair informing me, with some measure of surprise in his voice, about two things. One: I was the first person, apparently, to write about his band in any significant way for a “big” American newspaper publication. Two: Who knew that songs about rainy days, little lanes, and childhood playgrounds could attract such coverage?
All this is to say that it gives me great pleasure, and yes, a sense of nostalgia, to hear the news that Merge Records, the great Chapel Hill independent label in the midst of celebrating its 25th anniversary, is at last reissuing a deluxe edition of “Suburban Light” that restores the album’s original U.K. track listing, along with a bushel of previously unheard bonus tracks (covers, B-sides, rehearsals, and previously unreleased demos). Additionally, the Clientele are one of many cool Merge bands that will be performing at “Merge 25,” a four-day music festival happening July 23-26 in Durham and Carrboro, North Carolina.
The good folks at Merge have kindly furnished us (okay, so it’s really just little old me over at the “RPM” HQ) with some lovely links and press photographs that were used to promote the album back when it came out. The band has also announced a short Stateside tour in July (so far, nothing booked for us loyal listeners in Boston/Cambridge yet, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed).
And since we’re marking an extended Memorial Day weekend here in the States, why not make it an extended memory-lane stroll with the Clientele as well to celebrate, you say? Done. On Sunday, I’ll post my second conversation with Alasdair that happened several years later when the band’s second album, “The Violet Hour,” was about to be released. In the meantime, enjoy what I — and Alasdair — had to say about a most delightful debut, and be sure to check out the sample of audio-video links below. If you’ve never heard “Suburban Light” and have read this far, you are in for what I hope will be an illuminating treat.
The Clientele formed for the same noble reason every other male pop group has ever formed. “We’re like any people who start a band in their teens,” says Clientele singer-guitarist Alasdair Maclean, on the phone from his London home. “We just wanted to pick up girls, you know?” Maclean chuckles before attempting a bit of semi-seriousness about what his band really wanted to accomplish. “We really loved Arthur Lee and Love and we really loved New Zealand pop and we were just chasing the coattails of those two things. We wanted to make music that was as cool as that, and it was only really when we moved to London in 1997 that we really started to concentrate.
“I guess you could say that round about some point in 1998, we started to consider the people who were forced to listen to us, as well as what we were doing for our own pleasure,” Maclean continues. “And that’s when started to get people offering to put records out by us – certainly not before.” After the band released several sought-after singles in the U.K., independent labels in Japan and Spain contacted the Clientele about releasing a few more. Those too quickly became sought after examples of the kind of British baroque pop that made heartbroken romantics and record collectors swoon.
“It’s very odd, because really from the first moment anyone in America heard one of our records they were raving about it,” Maclean says. “Which is lovely but it’s not that we’ve come to expect it or anything, or been spoiled by it, because we’d always been semi-ignored in Britain. It just seemed really weird to be releasing a record in London and Time Out New York giving it a rave review and Time Out London not knowing who we were.”
Enter Merge Records, the Chapel Hill-based imprint run by American uber-indie rockers Superchunk, which has just compiled the Clientele’s lot of scattered, now impossible-to-find singles and released them as an album called Suburban Light. (The band, which also includes bass player James Hornsey and drummer Mark Keen, comes to the Middle East Upstairs on June 10 as part of a summer tour). Taken as a whole, the disc’s 13 tracks add up to a ravishing – and surprisingly cohesive – debut that brims with wonder and lovely, soft-focus symphonies about rainy days, dark October lanes, and mornings by the windowsill. It’s all very British, which Maclean supposes might be part of the group’s overseas charm.
“I think in England, people are very keen on (Merge labelmates) Lambchop and You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead. And Lambchop are edging toward almost being household names here, whereas in America they get far less press. And the last place they get any respect is Nashville, and they’re making country music. Maybe there’s a parallel there. Maybe there’s a certain amount of, I don’t know, us being quintessentially English that’s attractive to Americans.”
Maybe so, but what’s truly striking is how completely the material on Suburban Light creates its own universe of subtle shadow and delicate daybreak. Like Maclean’s gamut of heroes – the Left Banke, the early Bee Gees, Eric Matthews, and Cambridge, Massachusetts’s own late, great Galaxie 500 – there’s just the right amount of tenderness and tension that infuses self-explanatory songs like “Reflections After Jane” and “Monday’s Rain”. The fact that it all hangs together so nicely shouldn’t be too surprising. Maclean says that although most of the songs were written and recorded in one summer, it was only after the band consented to release the tracks one by one that the notion of the songs as individual singles took hold.
“We would have been happy initially to release them as a full album, and I think that’s much more of a natural way for them to be heard,” he says. “(Originally) they were recorded as demos to send out to people at record labels but they never got sent because we thought we were never going to be able to improve on them.” Also on the plus side, the material sidesteps the cloying preciousness that can bog down even the best-intentioned band playing this sort of stuff. So does success boil down to good taste and better instincts?
“I don’t know, that’s a difficult one,” says Maclean. “I grew up listening from a very, very young age to things like Neil Diamond as much as I did to things like Bartok String Quartet and obviously, when you’re three you can’t really differentiate between one being a bit kitsch and one being a bit highbrow. In some ways, the Clientele’s basically the two things put together – Diamond and Bartok. But I think it’s easy to be precious and I think it’s a really bad mistake to make. I think when you get too precious, you really lose the soul, the gospel-y element about your music. It’s not about how nice an orchestra is arranged behind you, or how well it’s recorded. It’s about how much soul your records have got.”
So far, Suburban Light has generated remarkably different responses from the press and public. “We’ve had people say that the album is wintry. We’ve had people say it represents the freshness of spring. People say it’s lazy as a sun-filled summer. People have said it’s as elegiac as autumn. And I think it’s really interesting because clearly, people listen in completely different ways.
“But all we’ve ever tried to do with recording is just try to catch something, catch an atmosphere. I think that if you catch a kind of atmosphere, then people will interpret it in the personal way that they can. And to me, that’s success, because you’re clearly communicating something to them that’s not just in the lyrics and it’s not really anything to do with words. It’s almost pre-rational. And that’s what music should be all about, if you ask me.”
Watch and listen to the Clientele’s “Reflections After Jane” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Hg1zIAh3rc
Listen to (and feel free to share/re-post) “We Could Walk Together” here:https://soundcloud.com/mergerecords/the-clientele-we-could-walk-together
Listen to “Monday’s Rain” right here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdWxMPoH7bc
For all Clientele-related happenings, doings, and pen pal stuff, visit the Clientele’s website right here: http://www.theclientele.co.uk/
Visit Merge’s website to pick up your copy of “Suburban Light” (and much, much more) here: http://www.mergerecords.com/
Everything you could possibly want to know about the “Merge 25” anniversary concerts in Durham and Carrboro, North Carolina, here: http://www.mergerecords.com/merge-25-festival