The Clean
  • Tim Soter
  • The Clean

Punk’s wake reached the shores of Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1978 when brothers David (guitar) and Hamish Kilgour (drums) formed the Clean. With Robert Scott on bass, the band’s 1981 single “Tally Ho,” the second single released on the beloved Flying Nun label, zoomed up the national charts. A combination of periodic recording, fruitful reunions, a gentle grasp of the untrained melodic guitar scratch that makes its hooky tunes so particular, and the likes of Pavement singing their praises have kept the act alive (at least occasionally) to this day. Fortunately, they’ve also been fairly immune to industry machinations.

This year finds David Kilgour particularly reenergized. He’s been touring on the new David Kilgour & the Heavy Eights album End Times Undone and the Clean’s U.S. label Merge is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a quadruple LP edition of the band’s Anthology, originally released in 2002. We’re lucky enough to see the on-again, off-again switch flipped up for a night when the Clean take the stage at Lincoln Hall on Monday (part of a twelve-date U.S. tour). In anticipation of the event, I traded e-mails with the sometimes-elusive singer and occasional painter.

Reader: Despite all I’ve heard about the Dunedin sound, I really don’t know much about the city itself. What’s it like and how was it possible that it birthed so many of the Flying Nun bands and their music?

David Kilgour: Isolation had a lot to do with it. Also it’s really a university town [with a] medical school, school of dentistry, etc. Population 120K; sleepy but still has a city-like feel, though sometimes it really does feel like a large village; gorgeous surrounding environment.

I saw a video of you pulling some of your favorite records out and there was a lot of folk, rock, psychedelia and punk—Incredible String Band, Stones, Syd Barrett bootlegs and a few punk records—but I noticed you made a point of explaining how important the Saints album was to you. Can you elaborate on that?

I think we heard the Saints not too long after Ramones, maybe even beforehand. Great songs, great approach and they’re Ozzies! Who would’ve thought?! But yeah, brothers across the ditch were doin’ it for themselves and “made it” in London.

You also mention liking the Doors, as a band, that is, which makes sense in a way considering those keyboards on the early Clean singles.

Oh yes, I would say they were a big influence on Hamish and me, especially in those days. And yes I always loved Ray Manzarek’s playing, but what a band! People in the U.S. seemed to see the Doors as a teenybopper band, and I can see that, but what’s wrong with teenybopper anyway?

What else were you listening to in those early days?

Punk, new wave, and old music.

How did you find out about new records in those early days? Were Sex Pistols singles, say, hard to get your hands on?

NME and a local friend had a record store and we would get Sex Pistols 45s a few weeks after release.

Forming a band with your brother seems like a natural move. Do you remember the moment when you convinced Hamish that you could make music together. How did that go down?

After jamming with an early Clean member, I went home and convinced Hamish he should buy a drum kit.

And does that brotherly connection have something to do with the longevity of the Clean?

The family that plays together stays together.

Where did Hamish’s drumming style come from?

Hamish! He is also open-handed which really changes the feel of things.

Do you find yourself caught up in learning new guitar technique or do you prefer keeping a bit of your original approach intact?

I’m always searching, till the end. Recently I’ve been experimenting a lot with guitar tone.

The Clean really took off right away in New Zealand, your singles charting, etc. What made that possible? Did making videos help, perhaps?

Some kind’ve word of mouth explosion and videos that got played on mainstream TV and also a lot of touring.

[2009 album] Mister Pop has a psychedelic feel to it. If the Clean were heading into the studio today, would you be delving further into that sound?

I doubt it, but we don’t make plans so who knows?

Does interest in the Clean sometimes swell when you least expect it?

As Brian Turner (WFMU music director) once said: the Clean’s popularity seems to come in waves, and I’m continually surprised and amazed that the interest is still there.

Is there anything special you do to keep things fresh and inspired after decades of making music? In terms of writing and recording or your attitude towards your bands . . .

If I think too much about the music it stinks. Keep it fresh, don’t overrehearse, and try to record the first take.

I get the sense that you like to keep things casual, not just in terms of sound . . . that there’s something about slick, professional-sounding music or a professional process that you want to avoid. Does this ever feel ironic? You are, in a way, a professional musician continually refining your craft.

I’ve never felt that comfortable with “produced” music though I’ve been guilty of that in the past, too. I like a rough edge or a blurred line.

You’ve said this tour feels like a “some kind of last hurrah-style adventure,” does that mean the Clean are likely to hang it up after this one?

People laugh when I say things like that: “Just shut up, David.'” Like “‘Yeah, right”—I should just shut my mouth!