As promised, here’s the second installment of my Clientele Memorial Day Weekend Special Edition of “RPM.” Wherein I catch up with Alasdair MacLean a few years after our first interview — this time to talk about his band’s sophomore album, “The Violet Hour,” as well as discuss the growing pains of learning how to play the songs live (and initially sounding “awful”), how surrealist artist Joseph Cornell influenced Alasdair’s way of looking at the world, and how a newfound appreciation for jazz informed the sensibility of the songs. For your convenience and pleasure, I’ve included a few links to listen to as you read (don’t say I didn’t ever do anything for you!). This piece became a profile/unofficial introduction of sorts to the readership of The Boston Globe, which ran the story as its Arts/Music section lead feature, right as the band were flying in to Logan for a few Northeast shows. Alasdair told me later that the band knew they had truly arrived in the households of America when they picked up a copy of the Globe upon de-boarding and saw themselves splashed across the pages of a major U.S. daily newspaper. I told him I had hoped, in writing the story, that a few readers who were still unfamiliar with the Clientele might be curious enough to take a chance on the record. Alasdair hoped so too.
It always seems to be raining softly inside a Clientele song. A shaft or two of amber light may slant across a verse or a melody and linger for a moment, but what scant sun peeks through the British band’s melancholic skies usually precedes the next inevitable poetic downpour. The cumulative sensory effect – a sort of saturnine, wistful ache that suffuses the music – makes Clientele singer-guitarist Alasdair MacLean very happy. He rather enjoys, he says, capturing “that feeling of things slipping past.”
In fact, the group’s almost fetishistic preoccupation with the subjects of time, seasons, and the elements has haunted its music ever since the release of 2001’s “Suburban Light”, its critically lauded first album that was actually a compilation of the Clientele’s early singles. The band’s latest album, “The Violet Hour”, which came out this summer to instant raves, expands on those themes with even greater delicacy and sophistication. Arrangements are fashioned mostly from interwoven threads of glistening guitar, pastel washes of percussion, and cavernous chambers of echo and reverb that transforms MacLean’s dewy sigh of a voice to liquid glass. Again, slanted and enchanted songs about strolling through secluded churchyards, hidden lanes, and vanishing days are the order of the day.
“All of the members of the band grew up in very suburban, dead-end areas, and there’s that sense of airlessness in the suburbs,” says MacLean on the phone from London, referring to Clientele drummer Mark Keen and bassist James Hornsey, respectively. The inchoate desire, discontent, and reservoir of memory that tugs at compositions such as “When You and I Were Young” and “Everybody’s Gone”, it seems, was built into the band’s psyche from the beginning.
“Everybody does things very intensely, whether it’s making music or vandalizing property, because there’s nothing else to do,” MacLean adds. “And with that, you get a paradoxical sense of longing because you see lives and aspirations on the TV all the time that just can’t fit your reality. It really breeds this strange, surreal feeling. That sense of disconnectedness really has haunted me, and the way I’ve always tried to explain it is through music.”
This kind of heightened sensory perspective, MacLean says, has much to do with the group’s admiration for the work of surrealist artist Joseph Cornell. “The very most basic thing about surrealism is that it’s found in the everyday,” MacLean says. “(Cornell) was finding very beautiful things and very incongruous things in the everyday flotsam and jetsam of life. And that’s really what our music is about too.” Indeed, MacLean’s favorite track, “Voices in the Mall”, exquisitely recaptures the sensation he had as a teenager taking a weekend trip to a sparkling new suburban shopping complex with his mother. “It just seemed very beautiful, this kind of yellow light spilling out everywhere, and the music, and the people talking,” he recalls. “That feeling always stayed with me.”
Initially, more fans in America seemed to embrace the Clientele’s impressionistic approach than did listeners in England. When “Suburban Light” was released, for instance, publications like Time Out NY called the Clientele “one of pop music’s best kept secrets.” It’s sister publication overseas, Time Out London, meanwhile, apparently had no idea who or what the Clientele was. Even the band’s label, Merge Records, is based in North Carolina, and run by the Chapel Hill indie-rock band Superchunk. Steady touring, however, and the glowing press surrounding the release of “The Violet Hour” has raised the trio’s profile considerably. “Even the NME (the British music magazine New Musical Express) gave us a really good review which shocked me, you know?” MacLean says with a laugh. “So we’ve kind of come out of our doldrums of being a prophet everywhere except our hometown.”
“The Violet Hour” is much more musically nuanced and subtly adventuresome than its predecessor. There are, for example, shades of the Velvet Underground’s darkly inquisitive brand of instrumental exploration that MacLean believes is the difference between fledgling musicians struggling to find their creative footing and a fully integrated, intuitive live unit that’s played together for six years now. “The first gigs we played were humiliating. We could tell how awful it sounded,” MacLean remembers. “But it does take awhile to learn how to listen and to predict how another musician is going to play, and I think that has gradually happened.”
The other thing that happened was that, instead of merely taking their cues from the pop artists whose work informed “Suburban Light” – Love, the Zombies, Galaxie 500, Felt – the trio began devouring jazz albums by Archie Shepp, Alice Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, and John Coltrane. They listened to the ebb and flow of the rhythm sections, and marveled at their fluidity and elasticity. “What we really wanted to do was capture that feeling of flowing,” MacLean says. “I can’t claim that I play the guitar as well as Pharaoh Sanders plays the sax, but in our own humble way, we were trying to use a lot of the ideas that they did. It would take a lifetime to learn how to play like them, anyway.”
Strapped for the cash necessary to work on “The Violet Hour” in a proper studio, the Clientele opted to test the embryonic new material on the road, where the songs routinely stretched, metamorphosed, and took unexpected instrumental detours in performance. “As always, the financial side of it helped shape how (the album) turned out,” MacLean says. “The process of selection happened that way, and how the songs were going to sound happened that way. It got thrashed out at various festivals and shows, so in the end it kind of wrote itself and sequenced itself.”
Still, there’s an intangible, enigmatic quality to the Clientele’s music that can’t be deciphered by such a simple formula as touring. MacLean claims there’s no big mystery. “The only thing I need to write is quiet and a Dictaphone, and a Spanish guitar, and a certain type of contemplative hangover,” he says. “Those are the four ingredients to a Clientele song. And I think having given away that secret, anyone can write Clientele songs now. It’s not that hard.”
Watch and listen to the Clientele performing “Lamplight” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWfaC5mUmBo
Listen to “I Can’t Seem To Make You Mine” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyO-0j2azKM
Watch and listen to “House of Fire” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5p3Lkql6xkM
Listen to “The Violet Hour” in its entirety here (and then go buy it! You will not be disappointed): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Og2OYoSDvA