Photo by Tim Soter
Legends of New Zealand's Flying Nun-era, The Clean are still writing classic slices of pop that continue to trounce most offerings from today's generation of indie bands. By marrying the trebly, 60s-inspired melodies of Love, Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan, and T. Rex's Marc Bolan with the otherworldly, motorik drones of The Velvets, Kraftwerk and Eno, the NZ post-punk band composed the rule-book for college rock. Formed in 1978 from the Dunedin scene that would also birth The Chills and The Verlaines, The Clean's '81 single "Tally Ho"–recorded for a mere $60–became a Top 20 hit in NZ and catapulted Roger Shepherd's fledgling Nun label to its first success. The brothers Kilgour –guitarist David and drummer Hamish–along with bassist Robert Scott, built The Clean's trademark lo-fi sound from spectacular live shows performed on the regional pub circuit. While the band initially split by '83, its unique catalogue of dreamy pop found its way onto the turntables of Ira Kaplan [Yo La Tengo], Stephen Malkmus [Pavement] and Dean Wareham [Galaxie 500 and Luna], all of whom expanded on the Kilgours' sonic blueprint to permanently change college radio. Since reforming in '89 on Rough Trade, The Clean has become a more casual affair, with the occasional release between the three members' own solo work. Without an LP since 2001's Getaway and a major US tour since 1990, the band's newest album, Mister Pop, to be released on Merge in September, teases Clean fans with a new collection of gems and a possible stop-over near you.
ERIK MORSE: Even from the beginning of recording as The Clean, you guys had this wonderful sense of dreaminess and melody that was absent from a lot of the contemporary UK and US punk of the time. What recordings were influencing you to step away from the Year Zero minimalism of punk in the late 70s and embrace a much more complex, introverted sound?
DAVID KILGOUR: Leading up to the first formation of The Clean, and, at around that time, I certainly had a great interest in the "folk boom", or as Dave Van Ronk put it, "the folk wars". Others called it "the folk revival". Whatever it was, I certainly loved and still love Tom Rush, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Buffy Saint-Marie, Muddy Waters, etc. Of course the Brits too–[Nick] Drake, Donovan, Incredible String Band etc. [Bob] Dylan led to me to all this stuff but you got to remember songs like "Tom Dooley" were huge in New Zealand, we had that single and I remember playing that over and over: the sound, the story, the arrangement, the voices, wow! Mum had a Harry Belafonte LP, Hank Wiliams 78s and classical music. One of the biggest "pop" stars of the mid 60s in NZ was a guy called John Hore, who sang folk and country ballads like "Streets Of Laredo". There was always music in the house as a kid. I was interested in soaking up rock 'n roll history and just basically went on a vinyl junkie spree in my youth. The radio in the 60s and 70s was still interesting. You could hear Deep Purple, followed by Andy Williams in those days! Apart from a little Kraftwerk–Autobahn was a big hit here–I really didn't start discovering Krautrock till the mid 80s, especially Neu and [experimental German rockers] Can. I was a big Eno fan by the late 70s, [with] T. Rex, Bowie, the Stones, lots of 60s garage music via the Nuggets LPs and the Pebbles LPs that followed. I'll stop ranting now, but I could go on...
EM: How did you first came across Eno's work in the 70s. Were you listening more to his art-rock albums like Another Green World or his ambient series?
DK: I bought my first Eno LP in 79, it was Music For Films. Previously Hamish brought Here Come The Warm Jets into the house. Marty Phillips from The Chills turned me onto Another Green World. Eno was a new wave punker before he even knew he was!
EM: Was NZ initially isolated from the explosion of punk in '76-'77?
DK: As Hamish and I were avid vinyl junkies we kept in touch via Air mail, and sometimes 3 month later snail mail–NMEs, even the odd New York Rocker, Zig Zag, etc. We had a friend who ran a record store that started importing early punk from the USA and UK, so we felt pretty much in touch, albeit from afar. A NZ journalist, Dylan Tait, actually interviewed the Pistols outside Buckingham Palace, possibly after the EMI signing, and that was run on TV here at the time.
EM: For those who don't know anything about Flying Nun Records, can you explain briefly how The Clean initially helped the founding of the label with the "Tally Ho!" 7-inch in 1981?
DK: The Flying Nun founder approached us in 1980 to see if we would record and release records on a label he was hoping to start up. It was simple as that really. For the first five years or so it was basically run as a DIY cottage industry with musicians and friends up and down the country helping in all manner of ways. Technically "Tally Ho!" was the second release. The Pin Group 45 was the first release. But "Tally Ho!" going into the Top 20 raised a lot of eyebrows, especially the fact it was a four track "garage" recording that got zero radio play. This was before we had college radio.
EM: In addition to some personnel crossover between a lot of the Flying Nun bands, was there a unifying working methodology that everyone shared? Did the label ever have a political bent?
DK: Oh yeah, it was the post-punk, indie answer to the corporate rock industry monster. The Clean carried many a punk ideal, and well before Roger came along with Flying Nun. We cared, maaaaan! Still do! I think it's fair to say that in the early days we did want to stick the finger at the MAN.
EM: What about the early days of touring? What was the club circuit like in New Zealand at the time?
DK: It was mainly a pub circuit, not unlike what the UK probably had, or has. You could arrive in a city and play three or four shows at the same venue over three days, then move on to the next town. Bedford Transit vans were a popular mode of travel. The pubs closed at 10pm in those days, later to be changed to an 11pm closing. There was a very healthy touring circuit in those days.
EM: After the initial breakup in 1983, how did the reunion of the band lead to England and a move to Geoff Travis' Rough Trade in 1989?
DK: In 1989 Robert was in London doing shows with the Bats. I was in London on holiday, and Hamish was living in NYC. A promoter put two and one together and suggested we reform for fun and support the Bats at a London show. Later the same promoter booked a USA/European tour and on that tour Geoff [Travis, founder of Rough Trade Records] saw us play, and, realizing we had new material, offered to sign us to Rough Trade for an LP that became Vehicle.
EM: What's the current working schedule between you, Hamish and Bob?
DK: Haphazard really. If we are all in the same neighborhood and events transpire, we usually do something together musically - whether it's a show, writing or recording.
EM: Has The Clean re-embraced a more regular collaboration or will it remain an occasional project amid all of your solo work?
DK: I think it may still remain occasional, unless we start selling hundreds of thousands of CDs or, should I say, downloads?
Mister Pop is out September 9th on Merge.