THE CLEAN: THERE WAS THE SOUND
dave van patten
If it weren’t for the Clean, today’s lo-fi basement dwellers would probably sound like budget knockoffs of solo Rod Stewart. Together with bands like the Chills, Tall Dwarfs and the Bats, the Clean helped local New Zealand label, Flying Nun, define “the Dunedin Sound,” “Kiwi Pop,” “lo-fi” … pretty much half the things people love about this certain kind of off-kilter music. Despite utterly demoralizing technical difficulties, Clean co-founder David Kilgour reaches across the hemispheres to talk about life before, after and during this most fundamental of bands—and to explain how his brother Hamish is exactly like Phil Collins. They play tonight at the Echo. This interview by Ian Marshall.
Can you describe the place you live—Dunedin, New Zealand—the town the Clean was formed in along with many other revered Flying Nun bands?
David Kilgour (guitar): Dunedin was one of the most southern cities in New Zealand—in the world, I suppose—on the south island of New Zealand. It was originally the capital of New Zealand, believe it or not, because of the gold rush. The city was pretty much built up around the gold rush. Weirdly enough the gold rush happened about the same time as the gold rush in California was finishing so it was kind of handy for them. Now it’s pretty much a university town. It has a huge harbor. It’s not a hell of a lot unlike maybe the feel of San Francisco, especially the weather.
How did your interest in music begin? Who, musically speaking, were your earliest inspirations?
Well, Hamish was born in the late 50s and I was born in the early 60s. We grew up listening to 50s and 60s music on the radio and also our parents’ music. As kids, my mother had records by Hank Williams and Harry Belafonte and people like that. It was probably some of the first music we heard actually. Of course, as kids we were mad about things like the Monkees and things like that. By the 70s we were pretty mad about music and we started collecting music. Vinyl junkies is what we used to call them back then. Out of that we got interested in playing music, thanks to punk rock. Punk rock gave us the inroad—showed us the way to do it, really. We had dabbled a little bit with guitars in our teens, but it seemed a bit too hard for us. So when punk rock came along we said, ‘Well, maybe we can do this.’
What was music like in New Zealand prior to the formation of the Enemy and the subsequent slew of early Flying Nun artists?
Pre-Flying Nun, I guess our biggest overseas export—one of our biggest bands generally—was Split Enz. In the 70s there was a really healthy pop-rock circuit, kind of similar to what England had, I guess. Lots of bands playing. Predominantly doing covers, I suppose, but there was still quite a lot of original music around in the 60s and 70s, even back to the 50s. There was a lot of proggy, guitar-oriented rock ‘n’ roll, there was your typical Top 40 dreck, throwaway pop, and the usual 70s schlock.
Is there any pre-Flying Nun New Zealand music you think people in L.A. should listen to that they may have missed?
That’s a hard question. I would suggest that you start with Split Enz. Their first album, Mental Notes, is a bit of a classic. I still love that album, actually. In the 60s and 70s you have Human Instinct. They were kind of a Hendrix-y psychedelic experimental band. There’s a guy kind of being rediscovered, I guess, a guitarist named Doug Jerebine. He’s kind of come out of monkdom and released an old album of his on Drag City, I think. There are a lot of great 60s pop bands in New Zealand. There were so many, it was sort of vibrant in the 60s. Bands like the Formulas and the La De Das … The list goes on and on.
Can you explain the significance of the Enemy in terms of the homegrown music scene in New Zealand?
The Enemy were friends of Hamish’s really before they picked up instruments. They were similar to us in that they were music mad. Chris Knox was the frontman. He went on with Alec [Bathgate], the guitarist, to form Toy Love and the Tall Dwarfs. They did a lot of work after the Enemy. I’m rambling now, but what I’m trying to say is that Hamish knew the Enemy and that they were music freaks and pretty much thanks to punk rock they started to pick up instruments as well and play. They were wonderful straight away—just a four-piece, three-chord pop rock ‘n’ roll band, but very punky and they made great songs straight away. They were probably the band that sparked things off in Dunedin, really.
Did Dunedin have a record shop in the late 70s akin to London’s Rough Trade shop—a place where music freaks would hang out?
For many years, we had a store that was called Astral Weeks; it was a second-hand record store and kind of an oasis to find new music, new old music I should say. But then there was another store that a friend of ours ran for a while called Eureka Records that was new music and he started importing a lot of stuff, so we were getting that early punk stuff and New York stuff pretty much hot off the press at the time. We were getting Sex Pistols singles a few weeks after they came out and it was a little bit of a revelation for us. Because then, the way things were, you might have to wait six months to actually see a new movie; it might not come to Dunedin or New Zealand for a few months. There were no email copies of magazines, so you might wait three months to get the new NME exclusive, which at the time was a little bit of a bible …
Do you remember the first record you bought?
It was either a really bad Jimi Hendrix album, like one of those ones he recorded before he was the big Jimi Hendrix, or the Bee Gees. I can’t quite remember.
When and how did you and Hamish make the leap from merely being brothers to becoming musical collaborators?
When we first started dabbling, Hamish and I were just making up kind-of comedy songs on a tape recorder, joking around, writing songs with pots and pans, banging away and being idiots. I remember we did a strange version of ‘Old Macdonald Had a Farm.’
Burger should put those tapes out! And then how did the Clean come together?
I met this fellow Peter Gutteridge in my last year or two of high school and he invited me out to his parents’ house. I went out there and we had an old gramophone and a horrible old electric guitar. So, we plugged it into the gramophone and wrote a couple of songs. And so I went home to Hamish and said, ‘Look, we’re gonna form a band with this guy! I just wrote two songs with him and you should be the drummer.’ So that’s how it all kinda started really … Hamish and I at the time were still really mad on psychedelic garage rock—it came from anywhere, whether it be New Zealand or America or England or wherever, through the Pebbles albums and Nuggets. And by that time we were really mad on the Velvet Underground. We went to the music store one day to buy an amplifier, and I plugged into this amplifier and there was the sound, I remember it. It sounded like the 60s and a bit like Public Image. So Hamish bought the amp for me straight off, and right away we had a sound. But it’s partly from the way I hit the guitar. I hit all the strings—I don’t worry too much about whether there’s dissonance there or not. Especially in the old days, it comes through a lot. Live, I just hit everything all the time.
Can you tell us about Peter Gutteridge? His name seems to pop up here and there in the credits on good Flying Nun LPs.
He was in the Clean there for a very short period of time. I think we only did four or five gigs with Peter, but we wrote some good music with him. We co-wrote ‘Point That Thing’ with him, and some other stuff. He later on joined us in the Great Unwashed. … After the Great Unwashed, Peter went on to form Snapper and made one album, one EP and one single with Snapper.
Why did he leave the Clean?
Hamish and I were keen to go live in Auckland, which is the biggest city in New Zealand. At the time there was a really healthy punk/new wave scene. Of course the Enemy moved up there and turned into Toy Love, so we wanted to go up there and live with them and give it a go up there. So we kicked Peter out for being lazy basically—he wasn’t coming along like we were. [Laughs] As Peter later said, ‘I wasn’t a brother.’
Is it true that Hamish was more of a frontman in the early days?
Yes he was—he was the frontman for a few gigs and when we were in Auckland. He started the first gig or two on drums and then we put him up front.
And then back to the drums! A case of the reverse Phil Collins effect?
Exactly. Hamish was exactly like Phil Collins. Still is.
How did you end up recording a single for Flying Nun? The label had more or less just started when ‘Tally Ho’ was released, correct?
Yeah, pretty much. Roger [Shepherd] tracked us down, he’d seen us play a few times I think and had been fantasizing about starting a label. And he tracked us down to go make a single to see what’d happen.
Cut to a few years later and we have ‘The Dunedin Sound’ and all that. Was there some comparable Dunedin version of the fabled Manchester Free Trade Hall gig with the Pistols and the Buzzcocks? A legendary zeitgeist moment after which scores of youngsters were inspired to form bands?
It did happen pretty quick. We did a gig at Logan Park High School, it was when Peter was still in the band, this was like the late 70s I think. It was a lunchtime gig and there were probably just 80 kids there but I think about 30 of them must have gone out and formed bands. I think Martin Phillipps from the Chills was there, and Graeme Downes from the Verlaines, and various other people.
What did Robert Scott bring to the band?
Probably a bit of sanity, perhaps! Hard to say! I’m not too sure anymore, but possibly! When things get a little wild between Hamish and I in a musical situation, Bob’s the one who will try and hold it together. When things fall apart, we can always go back to Bob.
What does Hamish bring to the Clean?
When he’s on form, we’re on form. It’s a drummer thing, that’s a no-brainer. He’s the heart of the band. And it’s not for me to judge but yeah, he’s eccentric!
Who writes the most material?
It’s hard to generalize cuz every bit of the Clean’s music is so different from the last. There really hasn’t been a main writer I think. Perhaps in the old days it was me and Hamish, but now it’s hard to say.
Was there a bit of a George Harrison dynamic with Robert Scott in the Clean? The frustrated songwriter only allotted a few songs per album sort of thing?
No, not really. Near the end we were doing a lot of his songs, actually. Well, a good handful anyway. He took a while to catch up with us. I think I’m arrogant enough to say that. He did catch up eventually with his songwriting, and I think by the time he started the Bats he was starting to peak really—he just started to shine as a songwriter.
How successful were the Clean during your first run?
Well, ‘Tally-Ho’ went into the top twenty pretty much right away. It got up to something like five in the charts, then I think Boodle got in the top twenty, and Great Sounds with ‘Beatnik’ as the single, I think it might’ve gotten in the top fifteen or something. So those three releases were pretty successful in New Zealand. Which was kind of unheard of, especially given what people considered lo-fi. It wasn’t considered hi-fi, it wasn’t considered radio friendly or commercially viable, and it got into the charts.
So ‘Tally Ho’ was being played on the radio alongside hits of the day by Air Supply and Sheena Easton?
Yeah, stuff like that. They didn’t play ‘Tally-Ho’ on the radio, but it still charted.One good thing about the period is that there were a lot of music shows on television. We made a lot of videos—that’s probably how it got across to a lot of people as well. Funny they’d play it on the TV but not the radio.
The cultural importance of Flying Nun and the Dunedin scene seems to be growing exponentially in stature. We music freaks here in the U.S. have over-romanticized the Dunedin scene …
Yeah, it was really vibrant. Most of us were unemployed, it was post- the oil crisis and the beginning of corporate hell really in some ways. There was a lot of unemployment, so a lot of young people with a lot of free time, and unemployment benefits really funded a lot of music and art in New Zealand, especially in the 80s, the old dole. This was the period of the Chills, the Verlaines … We were always doing shows and rehearsing, everyone was always checking each other out and everyone was writing songs. There was so much good music around; it was a little explosion.
How do you think the Dunedin thing went from being a healthy local scene to worldwide record deals?
I think by the mid-90s Flying Nun got into a bit of financial trouble, so they had to look elsewhere to find cash I guess. The Verlaines signed to Slash, the Chills to Warner Brothers through Slash. One of the reasons that Flying Nun was started was as an alternative to the corporate thinking. I guess everything gets gobbled up by big business.
Why did the Clean split for a while around ’82?
I just got sick of it really. I just wanted something different. I started painting for a while, actually, and then I went back to music.
At some point or other you joined the Chills …
At the time, Martyn Bull, their drummer who they made Pink Frost with, was very ill with leukemia and the Chills were kind of on recess. I was wasn’t really doing much so I suggested to Martin [Phillipps] that we should form a band and that kind of ended up being the Chills again because Martyn bounced back from his leukemia and started drumming again with us so we were doing Chills stuff and also some of my stuff as well. We never did any live shows but there are some recordings floating around.
How did the Great Unwashed get going?
The Great Unwashed happened because Hamish bought a 4-track and he started recording on it and I started recording on it and so we ended up putting out an LP called The Great Unwashed. At the time, it was kind of an answer to the Clean in some ways. I mean we were thinking about the Clean, hence the title I suppose. Funnily enough I had to listen to some of that stuff recently for the re-master of it on vinyl, and I was having a great old laugh listening to it again after so long. It was just so … loose. [Laughs]
So after many years off the radar the Clean reformed full-on?
Yeah, just before Vehicle. We went back and did a tour of Europe I think in ’89 and Geoff Travis came to one of the London shows and found out we had a whole bunch of new songs. We said we’d carry on doing it but only if there was new music. So he offered us a deal and we made Vehicle for Rough Trade.
Is the Clean trying to make a statement with its music?
I think we definitely thought we were saying something back in the day and it was pretty confrontational with our sound. We didn’t hold back. It was, ‘Here we are, take it or leave it—it’s not going to be nice. It’s gonna be confrontational.’
Why do you think there is a renewed interest in the old Clean stuff—especially the early stuff?
You know, I don’t know but there’s been some sort of upswing and interest in that kind of indie rock in the last five years. And I don’t know why that’s happened. But there has been a sort of upswing in that sort of music, hasn’t there? Like the bands Real Estate or MGMT. No one’s trying to start bands that sound like, say OMC from New Zealand, who sold millions and millions of ‘How Bizarre.’ Yet it’s cool to reference the Clean.
I love the Modern Rock/Unknown Country phase of Clean from the mid-1990s. Can you talk about the direction the band was going in during those years?
Well—Modern Rock was the beginning of the reformed Clean, I suppose. We didn’t have any preconceptions with that album, we just wrote all of that music before we recorded it. And we recorded it in a hall out on the middle of a peninsula, actually—surrounded by sea. And Unknown Country was definitely an attempt to do something a bit different than what we were usually doing. Hence the title, I guess. It’s almost like our New Age-y/World album. [Laughs]
How does your more recent solo work compare with your work with the Clean?
I don’t know. I guess the Clean is a bit more primitive and bit more playful, perhaps. A bit more off-the-cuff. Especially the later stuff. I guess my stuff is more song-based. … The first solo album, Here Come the Cars, which is coming out on vinyl, was a deliberate attempt to not sound like the Clean. Well the production was, anyway. Because there is no point really. The Clean’s already done that so … but you know everything I do is in the shadow of the Clean. I’ve made a lot more music as a solo artist than I have with the bloody Clean. That’s what’s keeping me the busiest, actually.
What sort of music do you take inspiration from these days?
I love Endless Boogie. I’ve been a fan of theirs for a while. I make myself buy modern music now and then. I bought First Aid Kit’s last album and Doug Jerebine’s album. I’m always digging. I always find new old music as opposed to new new music. You know, the whole reissue thing that’s gone on and the internet, there is always something to find.
Let’s talk about some of the reissues that are about to come out. First off the Odditties re-release?
Odditties is these recordings that we did on a Revox 2-track that we bought and we taught ourselves how to overdub on by bouncing tracks. So we kind of learned the rudiments of recording during that and the only reason we bought that tape machine was because we discovered that the Rolling Stones recorded their first album on a Revox A77 and we found out there was one of these Revoxes for sale in Dunedin. So we bought it.
And your first solo album, Here Come the Cars—are you glad that’s finally seeing the light of day on vinyl?
Yes, I’m fond of that record, I guess maybe because it’s the first solo one but I like the sound of it and the selection of songs on it. And yeah, it’s gonna get its first American release which is nice. We’ve tried a few times to get it out over there and here it is coming out on vinyl and I always wanted it out on vinyl.
What do you hope the legacy of your work with the Clean will be?
As a band that made people happy … made life better for people. That would do. That would be a fine legacy.
THE CLEAN WITH THE BLACK WATCH AND REGAL DEGAL ON WED., MAY 30, AT THE ECHO, 1822 W. SUNSET BLVD., ECHO PARK. 8:30 PM / $12-$15 / 18+. ATTHEECHO.COM. DAVIDKILGOUR.COM.