To my view, The Clientele are quite possibly the greatest pop band of the past fifteen years. Their dreamy, lovely music draws upon surrealist art and literature and hearkens back to sixties pop and psychedelica, but The Clientele’s best songs, with their evocative lyrics and instantly memorable melodies, ultimately sound timeless.
Lead singer and guitarist Alasdair MacLean announced in July 2011 that The Clientele were going on indefinite hiatus; in the meantime, he’s concentrated on his musical project Amor de Días, whose fine debut album, Street of the Love of Days, was released last year. I talked with MacLean via email in order to learn more about his musical career in both The Clientele and Amor de Días.
SCP: The Clientele’s first singles collection was titled Suburban Light. I’ve always viewed your lyrics as being rather uniquely situated between suburbia and the rural countryside—they embody a sort of suburban pastoral. Specifically, your music seems to position the suburbs as a liminal space, a place where magic and wonder leak into the human world from its natural surroundings. Would you say these are accurate observations?
AM: I once had a job as a receptionist in a business park just outside the town where I grew up. I sat there for three weeks and almost no one called or visited. I occasionally saw a security guard. It was December and every evening the light would fail a little earlier. The sun would fall across the window opposite my desk. I would listen to the wind and watch the light, and I was happy. I loved it.
We grew up on the line where suburbia became the rural countryside. It led to feelings of geographical confusion and extreme boredom. I think if you’re bored enough for long enough you start to see the magic and wonder on the other side.
SCP: The Clientele made brilliant use of the extended play format—eps like Lost Weekend and Minotaur feel thematically unified and contain some of your very best songs. Do you view eps as primarily a way to experiment with ideas and sounds between studio albums, or do you think of them as self-contained works in their own right?
AM: I always saw the EP as an aesthetic form in itself, something equally as valid as a two song single or a 45 minute album. Part of the aesthetic of EPs is that they should experiment with ideas and sounds between albums. Minotaur was a compilation of out-takes left over from the Bonfires on the Heath album, so it didn’t really count, but the Spanish EPs [on Acuarela Records] we did were supposed to stand in their own right–each one had its own themes and atmosphere, and we were trying out ideas that we would develop further or drop altogether on later albums.
SCP: I love your spoken-word pieces— “Losing Haringey,” “The Dance of the Hours,” and “The Green Man.” Were they originally written as short stories and then set to music, or were they conceived as spoken-word pieces from the beginning? Do you write prose fiction or poetry in addition to song lyrics?
AM: With ‘Losing Haringey’ we had an instrumental that seemed to lack something, and I had the idea to read a story over it really just as a final attempt to salvage it. Weirdly, the reading fit the length of the song exactly, and the whole thing clicked. ‘The Dance of the Hours’ was the same thing–we listened to the playback and it seemed too pretty, too easy listening, so the whispered voices were supposed to add an element of paranoia, of something just outside of earshot. I’d written the stories separately in both cases. ‘The Green Man’ was the first one where the music was written with the story in mind and I don’t think it works anywhere near as well as a result–I much prefer the clash of moods between the music and the words on the other two.
I’ve been writing a lot of prose lately and hopefully some of it will be collected soon–I think there will be an illustrated chapbook with a story of mine published early next year.
SCP: There’s something distinctively British about the way your lyrics engage with the natural world and the seasons. Do you consider the English folk tradition to be another major influence on your music and lyrics?
AM: If I thought about it deeply (which as a rule, I don’t) I’d like to say there’s something Celtic about the way I write. The Irish and Welsh and Scots in Medieval times wrote about colour and nature and the ephemeral in a way no English writer did. I’ve read a beautiful extract from the ninth century where an Irish monk pauses from his copying and writes in the margins of his manuscript ‘the way the dusk light falling through the leaves flickered over my book caused me deep delight.’ No one in England would have written something like that, but we have it still, a record of that moment, 1100 years later.
SCP: How does your work as a visual artist influence your music, and vice versa?
AM: I’ve never been aware of it if it does. I think both the art and the music I make are inspired by, and try to communicate, a sense of place. The sense of place comes first and the art and music grow away from that.
SCP: All of your studio albums with The Clientele and Amor de Días have been impeccably produced. Are you a partisan of analogue recording?
AM: Not so much anymore: I can’t tell the difference between analog and digital nowadays. Technology can now capture and reproduce the warmth of analog recording in a way it miserably failed to in the late 1990s. Having said that, using both in tandem tends to give the most texturally interesting results. So it doesn’t hurt to have a valve mixing desk, or an old compressor, or a tape echo in tandem with your Pro Tools etc. just to give it some grit!
SCP: Does Amor de Días allow you to explore musical ideas and styles that might not have fit in with The Clientele? There seem to be more chamber pop, jazz, folk, and world music influences than in your previous band, and the instrumentation is both more exotic and minimalist.
AM: Yes it does, specifically rhythms the Clientele probably couldn’t have mastered. Amor de Días also has more freedom from the band format, in that we don’t have four people owning four instruments who want to play on every single song.
SCP: I’ve heard that you’re currently recording your second lp with Amor de Días. What can you tell us about the upcoming album?
AM: We finished it a few weeks ago; it was recorded at Bark Studios where the Clientele made Strange Geometry, but it’s quite different from the Clientele or the first Amor de Días LP. It’s probably the most atmospheric record I’ve ever been involved in. Merge Records will be releasing it in January.
SCP: Alasdair, I can’t wait to hear it. Thank you!