The Clientele’s Alasdair MacLean talks English suburbia, nostalgia and Music For The Age Of Miracles ahead of the band’s show at Scala.
It’s safe to say that over the past couple of years the world at large can be described, with a fair amount of understatement, as ‘tumultuous’ – an ever-changing smorgasbord of news events that have left news bulletins looking as hough they’re on a constant mission to both be crazier than the day prior and to leave us with a look of disbelief by their conclusion. While it’s provided a backdrop for a welcome surge of politically-charged records, there’s undoubtedly been a place for little escapist enclaves of comforting familiarity and faint hopefulness, which made last year’s return of The Clientele seem as timely as it was needed. Having long documented the British suburbs and their environs through an evocative mix of pastoral beauty and detail-rich observations their images, both wrapped in the familiar while simultaneously appearing utopian to the point of dreamlike and otherworldly – the aural equivalent to the distant smell of freshly cut grass and newly-applied creosote – seemed to offer a solacing getaway from the trials of modern life. But, as will soon become apparent, not all is at its seems…
“I think that when we stopped making records the first time around it felt to me as though we were just any other band,” says Alasdair MacLean in a tone full of warmth and quiet, subtle gravity when recounting on how Music For The Age Of Miracles marked the band’s first release, save for a 2015 best-of, since 2010’s Minotaur. “We were beginning to sound like a normal band and we didn’t have the weirdness and individuality that we’d had on the first three or four records that we’d made. I walked away from it for that reason, I just didn’t want to be another guitar band. Everybody’s in a guitar band. You need to be in a very special one.”
Perhaps fittingly given the album’s title the turning point came through a chance encounter with a former friend, Anthony Harding, who MacLean hadn’t seen in around two decades when the two last made music together and who was now living but two streets away from The Clientele frontman and songwriter. “ I felt there was an untold story there,” recounts MacLean, “and a story that needed to be finished”. Since last crossing paths Harding had taken to playing the santur – a Persian dulcimer – and had been learning about Eastern musical norms. For MacLean, “the minute we started it felt like The Clientele again, with this inherent weirdness and vividness to it. So I called up the usual gang and see if they wanted to work with us, and they did. At that point it became The Clientele all over again.”
But if the record’s conception was unorthodox, the end results were quintessentially Clientele, blessed with a prettiness and a characteristic gracefulness that has underpinned the band’s entire back-catalogue. While some musicians, forever trying to redevelop themselves, would be aghast at the notion of having a trademark sound that was almost expected, MacLean practically sees it as a badge of pride. While he concedes that “it can become a curse as much as it is a blessing, and something of a straitjacket” and that “It becomes something that people criticise you for not violently changing in some kind of speculative way in the same way that Picasso moved between his periods of art or Miles Davis between his records”, he also adds that “all good bands have their own sound, and our culture celebrates people who invent things rather than perfect things”. “The Clientele is different from sort of thing because we are trying to perfect a particular sound or a particular journey,” he continues, “and if you don’t understand that you won’t understand what we’re trying to do. If you come to our records expecting these epochal kinds of changes…that’s not what we do and if we did try and change it it’d sound crap. It works both ways and I’m proud of the sound that we have and we invented it ourselves, so if nothing else I see that as an achievement.”
Similarly the lyrics on Music For The Age Of Miracles, are on the surface at least, assuaging signposts to everyday sights, a world where playing fields, pylons, fallen leaves, numbered buses and returns to the pubs of formative years past take a turn centre stage and where lines like “we’ll put the kettle on and hear the school bells sing” leap out to offer reassuring snapshots of togetherness. Songs like album opener ‘The Neighbour’ and ‘Everyone You Meet’ feel anachronistically uplifting and hopeful in a time of relentless gloom, but put that notion to MacLean and it’s one that he rapidly dismisses. “It’s extraordinary to me that people feel that about this record. Someone came up to me in America and told me that ‘every time I hear your voice on this record it’s like someone telling me that everything is going to be OK’ and I’ve had people describe it as a healing record.” But if those elements aren’t the driving themes across the album, what are? “To me it’s very much like any Clientele record in that it’s about images and about symbols – almost like dream images being strung together. There’s images of falling towers or empty houses and they’re not necessarily comforting images.” As if to illustrate his point, he relates the story of Merge Records asking him to provide some background behind ‘Everything You See Tonight Is Different From Itself’ and subsequent horror at the subsequent revelation that it was the melding of dreamlike visions of the demolition of towers in Battersea and the collapse of the World Trade Centre on 9/11. “They said that they couldn’t publish it or send it out to journalists and it turned out that it was around the anniversary,” he admits, ruefully “but I was left thinking ‘why not?’ – it was an image seared into everyone’s consciousness.” He does agree, however, that “there are images of disaster on the record but I suppose there are also images of grace and images of beauty as well and they’re married together in a kind of contradiction. That contradiction is almost a pillar of our songwriting and our sound.”
One of the album’s centrepieces is ‘The Museum Of Fog’, a spoken-word track that begins with picturesque descriptions of a summer’s evening, passes through reminiscences of teenage escapades and underage drinking and after centering on the regaling of a surrealist, transformative live music experience ends with the bittersweet line “I wondered what had just been taken from me”. It recalls ‘Losing Haringey’, another spoken word track off 2005’s Strange Geometry, which presented vistas West of Broadwater Farm in similar poetic tones, saw MacLean finding himself transported back into a photograph his mother took in 1982 and having rattled off a series of childhood memories concluding, while feeling “inconsolably sad” how they were “all gone, gone forever”.
The two songs illustrate The Clientele’s complicated relationship with nostalgia, despite the frequency with which it appears in their music. MacLean references Proust when discussing the band’s anachronistic interconnection with the sensation, describing reading The Remembrance Of Things Past and how “it’s only when you get to the end of the series that you realise that every single person he’s talking about is now dead and all the buildings and landscapes have been demolished by the gun barrages of the first World War.” He adds: “I always feel that nostalgia is not a comforting thing. There’s a kind of nostalgia comes from complete emptiness and loss, and I think there’s a sense of that on this record. It’s not a comforting nostalgia but one that’s coming from emptiness and from having to invent. Again, I think that’s something that connects Clientele records from start to finish. I suppose that this record is less bleak than maybe some of the others, but it certainly has its bleak moments as well as its uplifting ones.”
That sense loss and the unstoppable passing of time has, perhaps surprisingly, also influenced their relationship with location and surroundings. From a first collection of songs packaged and released under the title Suburban Light, The Clientele have been a band seemingly irrevocably linked with British suburbia and city outskirts (and on first glance have always appeared to celebrate them) in the same way that Saint Etienne have always been viewed as a London Band, with songs littered with lyrically picturesque images of the sights and locations that these facets of the British landscape provide. Having talked about psychogeographers such as Ian Sinclair and the concept of ‘the edgelands’ and their attendant ambiguities and quirks that their work has brought about, MacLean says “I love that idea, but there’s no way that you’d go and live in South-East English suburbia out of a love for the edgelands or out of an interest in them – you’d carry on living in Stoke Newington and do it on the train! We grew up in suburbia and one of things about growing up in suburbia is that once you leave you never come back, and I think there’s this sense of loss.” He adds, with a mischievous laugh, “I think it’s funny that the whole edgelands concept and the mystery of suburbia is starting to become a thing, because the people writing about it all appear to live in North London…”
He goes on to describe how he – and others that he knows – repeatedly dream of places they’ve left despite having no intention of ever returning, and emphasises his point by recalling a memory with an evocative vividness that starts to feel like another of The Clientele’s nostalgic spoken-word pieces that find the extraordinary within the ordinary and the beauty in everyday mundanity. “I loved this one job I had just before I left Fleet in Hampshire, where I grew up. It was as a receptionist in a business park where no-one ever came, in winter, and I had to get there early and so I’d get to watch the sun come up and move across the sky throughout the day, and then I’d get to watch it set at the day’s end. I wasn’t allowed to use the computer and I wasn’t allowed to read so I just had to sit there for weeks doing nothing. At lunchtime I’d be allowed outside but there’d be nowhere to go except around to the back of the building where there was a skip full of office materials and a barrier, on the other side of which was the M3 motorway. But I found it was the most inspiring period for me because I got the sense of profoundness of true boredom and the images from that time are just burned into my memory. I’ve dreamed about that place and I still do, and yet I know that I will never go back there. But it’s still there as a part of my psyche and I think that’s where a lot of our images come from. It’s from a sense of loss really.”
Music For The Ages Of Miracles arguably marked the first time that their music resonated in Britain as it did in a the United States, where they’ve long been held in high esteem as something of a cult treasure (not to mention a Billboard staple). It’s something that remains something of a mystery even to MacLean. “It makes me laugh so much because I used to say that I’d never be confident as an artist until I have the same reaction in Britain as I do in the rest of the world and I do feel that if anything this time around people were more enthusiastic about this record here than they were abroad. But I guess it just catches up with you, doesn’t it? If you do something for long enough eventually everything comes around again. That’s my speculation, but it’s just been baffling and irritating for the past fifteen years!”
Not that their latest wave of appreciation has kickstarted a sudden rush to make a follow-up. “I don’t have a ready-made batch of songs that would constitute another album,” MacLean. “I just love the freedom of being able to keep our options open – when we we making records from about 2003 onwards we just had to keep making one every two years and that was part of what killed us. It’s a hobby now, and that’s the definition of a hobby, right? Something you enjoy doing but which isn’t a profession. So to have a hobby you don’t enjoy…I mean, only we could have a hobby we don’t enjoy! We’ll just have to wait and see which way the hobby goes, I guess.”
As out conversation comes to a close, MacLean is keen to emphasise that even though their music is often discussed as something firmly entrenched in specificity, his intention is to create something more universal. “Our music’s more than just alienated images of suburbia,” he argues, “it’s about good tunes and interesting arrangements.” So what, above all else, does he hope people take away from The Clientele’s music? “From a selfish perspective,” he answers, “what makes me happy as a musician is when people tell me that music that I’ve made has touched them in some way It’s an exciting and incredibly humbling moment and it makes it real, and offers a reminder of why you did it to start with.”
“When someone tells you they met their girlfriend in a bar while your song was playing or that your music has helped them get through tough times you realise that your music has a life beyond you, and it’s almost a relief because you realise you’re not the keeper of it any more, it belongs to other people.”