The Clean: New York Getaway

NZ Listener

If there’s a key to the greatness of The Clean it’s their ability to improvise their way out of disaster. Twenty years ago the Dunedin trio made their first EP on an outmoded four-track tape recorder in an old hall, roughly fashioned into a studio. At a time when the vast bulk of local music aspired to the high production values dominating the overseas pop scene, the disc seemed destined for oblivion. There were no convenient sub-genres like ‘alternative’ and ‘lo-fi’ yet, and student radio was still in its infancy. Yet in spite of such unpromising beginnings Boodle Boodle Boodle became a benchmark, a disc that would later be cited as a model by lo-fi leaders like Pavement and Guided By Voices.

This September the Clean assembled in New York to begin a tour of the East Coast to promote Getaway, only their fourth album. David Kilgour and Robert Scott flew into New York City on the night of September 10 to join David’s brother Hamish, a 12-year resident of Manhattan.

“We woke up to Hamish banging on the door saying ‘Get up, get up, you’ve got to come and look at this’, so we went up on the roof of Hamish’s apartment, and one tower had already gone and the other was on fire. So we stood there for a while, completely numb and shocked. Then we went and had breakfast, as you do, went back up on the roof twenty minutes later and the other tower was gone.”

In spite of the city’s state of emergency, the tour went ahead as scheduled, opening at the Bowery Ballroom a few nights later. “Our rehearsals were cut down to virtually nothing because Manhattan was completely locked down for a day or two. We had to walk over the Williamsburg bridge just to rehearse. I suppose the performance side of things was just like a great release in the middle of all that mayhem, for us as musicians but also for the audiences. To still be able to go out and be with people and try and carry on as normal. We did a really great show, rather brittle and tense, but a great show.”

That the Clean could transcend the chaos is further evidence of their skill as improvisers. Most rock bands reserve their jam sessions for the practice room, and even there it is becoming increasingly rare, as bands work their tight arrangements around samplers, sequencers and pre-recorded sounds. Yet the Clean boldly leave chunks of every concert up to chance. “A lot of our performances are, I wouldn’t say spontaneous, but free-form, and down to communicating with each other when the next change is going to happen. There’s always a tension there and we like to keep that, to make it interesting every time we play.”

The improvisational element is a source of the group’s continuing freshness, and perhaps the crucial reason the Clean are still around when almost every one of the groups they originally inspired – the Chills, Verlaines, Straitjacket Fits - has gone. Another factor is that, with the exception of a brief period around the time of their 1981 debut, the group has always been part-time. Robert Scott has myriad musical projects, from the Bats and Magick Heads to solo ventures like last year’s intriguing Creeping Unknown album. David has made three solo discs, with another in the offing, while Hamish has his New York-based group the Mad Scene.

“I think we’ve actually kept the Clean alive by keeping it as a part-time thing, and haven’t, like, flogged a dead horse. We’ve never ever had a grand plan at all. The fact that we made this LP was a fluke, really. Hamish came back for the Dunedin Arts Festival last year, and we actually made a decision before he came that we wouldn’t make another LP, we’d just do a tour and have some fun. But we started jamming and writing stuff, so it sort of happened by accident. Which is what’s happened with the last three or four LPs”.

Getaway is classic Clean. Most of the fifteen tracks have the feel of jams shaped into songs, sometimes by a mere handful of lyrics (“sun shining all of the time” goes the rudimentary refrain of David’s “Stars”), sometimes by a virtual torrent of verbiage, such as Hamish’s parable of the “Poor Boy”. And there are tracks where it’s left up to the music to say it all: the tumultuous raga of “Jala”, the evocatively minimal ”Twilight Agency". Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley of cultish New York band You La Tengo (to whom David was seconded for a 1999 tour) join them for a couple of tracks. And there are more of David’s wonderfully distorted guitar tones than we’ve heard on any Clean disc in recent years. Again, it was a happy accident; the group left their keyboards behind for the tour preceding this recording.

That the Clean still get a tremendous kick out of playing together is evident from Getaway; that there is an audience for their occasional, erratic tours is a continual source of amazement to Kilgour. “I always think ‘Well, maybe this is the time that no one will come out to see us play, maybe this is the last tour’, and in some ways I was thinking that in America. But it just surprises me that it’s still there. The last couple of New Zealand tours we’ve done, it’s been a real mix of people. There’s lots of young people but there’s also the older set or our own generation. And it’s sort of the same in America too.” So we can expect the Clean to continue for another twenty years? “As I say, we have no plan. But, yeah, it seems possible”.

Tags: new zealandflying nundunedindavid kilgourrobert scotthamish kilgourthe clean

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