Sad news reached us last week when we learned that Hamish Kilgour, co-founding member (along with his brother David) of the seminal New Zealand band The Clean, was discovered dead at age 65 at Christchurch, after going missing for more than a week, according to reports. No cause of death has as yet been given. A longtime favorite of ours, The Clean also massively influenced other favorites as something of a blueprint of what would come to be called indie-rock, including Yo La Tengo, Guided By Voices, and Pavement, among others.
I had the good fortune to interview both Hamish and his brother David at separate junctures during the early-to-mid 2000s, when The Clean had triumphantly re-grouped after a long layoff marked by the members’ respective subsequent solo and band ventures. Their return would produce several fine albums and tours, and set into motion a second act for a band that not nearly enough folks got to hear the first time around. Here’s my 2002 conversation with Hamish, conducted on the eve of a new American tour, for my long-running “Soundcheck” music column in Boston’s Stuff@Night magazine.
The Clean were to New Zealand underground pop what Wire was to British art-punk: groundbreaking, cerebral, and elemental; art-damaged seekers of new sounds who summarily disposed of convention in order to reshape it. Practitioners for whom form meant as much as content – perhaps even more so – out to remake what punk and pop could be, what it could mean, and what it could embrace.
In the Clean’s case, that approach meant synthesizing everything it had digested in the way of late ‘60’s British and American psychedelia, the then-fledgling punk movement, and of course, the Velvet Underground, and distilling those components into music that was at once synapse-familiar yet strangely new.
“There used to be this label in New Zealand that would release these records called ‘The World of Experimental Music’,” recalls Clean drummer-singer Hamish Kilgour, who founded the band in 1978 with guitarist-singer brother David and bassist Peter Gutteridge (who would be replaced by future Bats leader Robert Scott). “And you’d buy the album at the supermarket and take it home and listen to it in the country and you’d say ‘my God, the world is bigger than this little town’.”
Little did they know that, as the first group to record for what soon became New Zealand’s seminal Flying Nun label (think of it as the Matador or Sub Pop of New Zealand) in the early ‘80’s, the Clean would come to embody a “New Zealand sound” that would also later include bands such as the Chills and Tall Dwarfs, as well as Clean-associated projects like the Bats and Bailter Space. You can still hear elements of that sound – characterized by open-chorded, droning guitars, reverb-drenched vocals, and a melodic elegance that belies lo-fi production values – in American indie-rock bands like Yo La Tengo and Guided by Voices, among others.
Now, some 20 years after they released their first EP, “Boodle Boodle Boodle”, the Clean are back with a brand new (and equally sublime) disc called “Getaway” (Merge) and are about to embark on their first U.S. tour since 1990, including Boston. “It’s going to be a total gas to play the East Coast for the first time in 10 or 11 years. The last time we played, we were very nervous because we hadn’t played Boston before. So there was a certain amount of nail-biting going on. But this time we’ll be a little more relaxed, and that usually means we’ll be better than we were last time.”
The first flush of warm, silvery chords that launches “Stars”, the track that opens “Getaway”, makes one thing instantly clear: the intervening years have done little to diminish the alchemy of influences and impulses that make the Clean uniquely, well, the Clean. So how do they get that sound anyway?
“Well, you know what? We’ve been playing for 20 years and that sort of helps,” Kilgour says. “Also, when we go to do a record, we usually talk about the music we’ve always liked and then we just start playing and things kind of evolve. The funny thing is, with the Clean, we don’t really write with that (entity) in mind.”
More often than not, it’s circumstance not strategy that dictates when the Clean get together. Last fall, the Dunedin Arts Council persuaded the band, then on hiatus, to perform at a festival celebrating the history of New Zealand music. That’s when “Getaway” first began to take shape.
“For this record, we had nothing prepared at all. We’d just write on the spot,” says Kilgour, whose band was without a record deal until Merge pitched in $1,000 to help them finish the disc. “A lot of the stuff was recorded as we sat in the studio with the tape rolling, basically. That’s the way we work – it’s very spontaneous.” Musical spontaneity between the brothers, though, can only be taken so far: David resides in New Zealand while Hamish moved to New York in the early ‘90’s. Does the geographical distance help or hinder the band?
“It seems to help,” Kilgour says. “They always say that with siblings it’s good to have some space, so we’ve got quite a bit. We communicate by email and argue by email. David and I, like any siblings, have tension. But as Iggy Pop says, the good thing about having brothers in a band (as Pop did with the Asheton brothers in the Stooges) is they’ve got this blood thing going rhythmically. And I think David and I are pretty good about channeling our aggression toward our musical aims. We’ve always got on pretty well since we were kids. We discovered a lot of music together.”
And created a lot of it too, during a thrilling, tumultuous time when rock’s vanguard shifted from the old to the new. “The battle lines were drawn very carefully,” remembers Kilgour. “We definitely related to the punk scene. But the Clean, I think right from the start, had a pop element. We deliberately created pop music because it made us happy and we tried to make people happy.
“It was also a reaction to what was going on in New Zealand,” he adds. “There was a pretty violent punk and post-punk scene, with skinheads and all of that stuff. We definitely worked against that. We created music that we felt had an energy to it but that was also very positive.”
“I guess we’ve had a bit of notoriety about what we do, but we’re very low-key, very underground,” Kilgour says. “I remember Jim Morrison said he’d wished he had a quieter life with his creativity because it would have extended what he did. And I think that’s probably been to our advantage. Limitations can be a cool thing because struggle makes good art, as they say. In our case, I think it’s true. We’ve never been seduced by the decadence of the music industry – we’ve never been laid out and splayed out.
“There’s also a sense of aiming for something (musically) but never quite getting there,” he continues. “But that gives us the impetus to try again. Otherwise you just give up once you’ve made that masterpiece. So I’m still trying, and I assume my brother is too. And one day we’ll get there.
“In the meantime,” he muses, “We’ve got these little records and documents of our attempts.”
And for further Clean reading, here’s my interview feature with Hamish’s brother David Kilgour in 2006, published in the Boston Phoenix: https://bostonphoenix.com/Boston/Music/55643-Keeping-it-Clean/?rel=inf
Hey Jon, such a great article ! Also loved your piece on Charlie Watts. I cried, the’ll never be the same. And yet Keith rocks on. Will be in Boston today @ 300 East Newton st., BU School of Dental Medicine. Best b4 12.
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