OLD GODS HIDING IN LONG GRASS: The Clientele’s Music for the Age of Miracles

theclientele_andywilsher1

Photo Credit: Andy Wilsher

Oh, hi there! Don’t mind the bobbing balloons and confetti streaming about, kids. We’re just having a little party. You see, here in the comfy, wood-paneled confines of RPM HQ, we’ve been celebrating the fact that one of our most beloved bands of the past fifteen-plus years, the Clientele, are back — at least for now — to making new music, having recorded a brand new album (their first since 2010’s EP, ‘Minotaur’), and touring the States for the first time in three years.

It’s been a long time since they rock and rolled, as someone once said. Oh, sure, we’ve had a few teasers to tide us over in the interim, such as the sumptuous reissue — on vinyl, no less — of the British group’s spellbinding singles collection-turned-debut album, 2000’s “Suburban Light”; as well as reissues (with bonus tracks!) of most of the group’s back catalog. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also been a best-of, “Alone and Unreal,” that served as an essential primer and lovely overview of what, in our estimation, was some of the most gorgeous pop music being made during the first decade of the new millennium.
But the announcement this summer that a brand new album, entitled “Music for the Age of Miracles,” would be loosed upon us (and yes, this ravishing new entry to the Clientele canon came out this past September) was, quite literally, music to our attentive ears. 
Recently, Clientele singer-songwriter Alasdair MacLean took some time to answer a few questions via e-mail from a longtime admirer of the music (that would be us).  He talked about what it felt like to get back together with his old mates (and reconnect with an old friend who helped inspire the new batch of songs); how fatherhood has shaped his view of the world; and how the thematic allure of “gods and monsters” (as Alasdair puts it) hiding in the long grass continues to fascinate him as a songwriter.
On the off chance you’re somehow unfamiliar with the Clientele (perish the thought), you can rest easy, for you’ve come to the right place. The perfect place, really. Just click on the links you see below to learn everything you need to know about this most sublime of musical entities, starting with the first-ever stateside feature and interview with the band, conducted way back at the dawn of a new century by yours truly. Of course, there are also some tasty audio-visual treats scattered about to guide your journey, or accompany your leisurely stroll once more down memory lane. Enjoy, and thanks for coming.
Original publicity still/press shot for "Suburban Light," circa 2000.

Wondering what the new millennium would bring? Strange geometry and bonfires on the heath?

Congratulations on ‘Music for the Age of Miracles.’ It’s great to have you back and to hear this marvelous new music. In terms of the new album coming together, I understand you had a chance meeting with old musical cohort and friend Anthony Harmer, with whom you had played 20-something years ago. You found out you lived three streets away from each other and began jamming. At what point did those casual jams morph into collaborations and then songwriting together? Was it a gradual progression or an immediate spark where it all came together quickly?607_clientele_2500 (1)
It was very gradual – it happened over three or four years. We put together a couple of songs for Merge Records’ 25th anniversary, then another for some friends of ours who run a club in London. But better songs kept coming and the arrangements were getting more and more interesting and ambitious, and about 18 months in it started to feel like something really good.
In the interim between the Clientele’s last working together and now, you’d been busy making albums and exploring new musical ventures and textures with/as Amor de Dias. What was it about the new material and collaboration that suggested itself to be the groundwork of a new Clientele album after a long layoff? Were there elements of your writing or mood or frame of mind that spurred them on in a distinctly “Clientele” direction?
Yes – specifically that it was a three/four piece band thing. People still seemed to remember and like the Clientele [because] of the Merge reissues and it made me think what we were doing was probably part of the same lineage. Amor de Dias is gentler, more vulnerable music whereas this had more of that combination of beauty and dread that makes me think of the Clientele.
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Photo Credit: Andy Wilsher

Even in the best of circumstances, bands who work together closely for long periods of time, as you know, can grow stale, sick of each other, run out of gas, or just lose inspiration. In retrospect, do you think the infusion of a fresh perspective, influence, and/or voice working with Anthony served as a necessary catalyst to re-charge the Clientele? 
Yes – partly because he wasn’t afraid to challenge me. In the time since we’d played together as teenagers I’d got a record deal and put albums out but he’d become a really, really good Santur player and had learned about, and could explain, Persian classical music. I’d been listening to people like Alice Coltrane or Indian classical musicians like Ram Narayan and I was really interested to try and learn something new from him musically. So we worked as equals – just like I do with Lupe from Amor de Dias – and I listened to him.
Without putting too fine point on it, what do you think is/are the over-arching theme(s) or subject(s) you kept returning to on ‘Music for the Age of Miracles’?
It’s a collection of images really- empty houses, falling towers, Orpheus, certain constellations which hold particular meanings. A long time ago I watched the (1966) film ‘Persona’ by Ingmar Bergman and it’s the same there – the first shots are all simple images – a collection of things which made him decide to tell a story. Presenting a series of images like that really interested me.
I also read a bit about the ancient idea of things metamorphosing into constellations, or echoing them – all cultures seem to view the Pleiades (the seven daughters of Atlas turned into a group of stars in Greek mythology — RPM editor’s note) as seven women, seven sisters running away. I thought that was fascinating – things becoming stars. And then maybe they map onto the everyday too – Seven Sisters Road in London near where I live.
I like the idea of old gods and monsters being hidden somewhere in the long grass, waiting to return when the time’s right. I also like the idea of Orpheus – something lost, unbearably, because you turn to look at it. I feel like that myth has a lot to say about where we are as a culture. We’ve begun to believe in magical thinking and irrationality because of a sense of loss or decline.
Is this a comeback album, or is ‘comeback’ a dirty word? On some level, did you think or know that at some point you would return with another Clientele record?
I had no plans to make any more Clientele records – I definitely felt we’d said all we could. I was equally happy for the band to be remembered and celebrated or be forgotten.
James (Hornsey), Mark (Keen), and I all have allotments where we grow vegetables in the same part of London so I saw them socially more during the Clientele’s hiatus than I did when we were touring regularly. A Danish festival organiser got me drunk and made me promise to reform the trio lineup for their 10th anniversary. We immediately remembered that it was really fun to play together and everything else stemmed from there. Lupe really encouraged me to play again with the Clientele too.
So what did it feel like to get everybody back together, plug in, and re-connect? Old feelings? New ones? Surprising ones?
 
The surprise for me was that everything was still there, completely intact – we could play together in a way that really worked almost without rehearsal. Mark is a tremendously musical drummer and James is a great bassist – I’d forgotten how easy it is to play with them.
Your life is, I’m guessing, dramatically different from when you first started the band. I read that you are raising a family, for instance. (Having become a first-time parent myself a few years ago, I know how much it changes your life and upends best-laid plans or intentions, while making terribly exciting, electric new realities). Given the dynamics of your life now, where and how does the Clientele, and music in general, fit in these days? What’s your relationship to your music? Does it reflect your reality as much as it did when you were 20, but in a different way perhaps?
I haven’t had much time to concentrate on music over the last few years, but the thing about being around a small child is you learn from them – you kind of rediscover a bit of a sense of wonder, and as they respond to music you watch and learn too. It’s an incredible gift.
When I was 20 I was interested in a lot of the same stuff I am now though I feel there was more of a sense of urgency –  a kind of desperation to communicate back then. I don’t have the same sense of my own importance anymore which hopefully has made me an easier person to be around!
When we talked years ago when ‘The Violet Hour’ came out, you told me you needed four things to inspire you as a songwriter: quiet, a Dictaphone, a Spanish guitar, and a contemplative hangover. What are the four things you need now?
I don’t need a hangover anymore as hangovers obliterate me. The rest probably still holds true.
Finally, do you anticipate more Clientele albums, tours, as well as more music with Amor de Dias?
I don’t know about the Clientele. Making this album took time and thought and I’d only want to start the process over again if I felt there was something new to say or another thing to progress to. I certainly hope I can do some more Amor de Dias but it depends on the same thing really.
The main creative thing I’m doing now is finishing a novel which has a lot of the same themes as ‘Music for the Age of Miracles.’ In fact “The Museum of Fog” is an excerpt from it. I hope I can find a taker for that and maybe work on something different.
Here’s a four-pack of videos made especially for ‘Music for the Age of Miracles’ (click on each link):
Visit Merge Records for all your Clientele needs (their other bands are pretty good too!):
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