Direct, urgent, versatile: In its tersest form, that’s how the humble and engaging Ade Blackburn, Clinic’s lead singer and multi-instrumentalist, described his band’s fourth LP, Visitations, released last year via Domino. That album includes some of the best work the Liverpool four-piece (whose most salient visual characteristic is the surgical masks the members don) has put out since its 2000 debut, Internal Wrangler. It’s an unpredictable exploration of sounds, styles and instruments (theremin, zithers, autoharps, bongos, melodica, clavinet), a return to form for the band once regarded as the most promising in the U.K. Here, Blackburn talks about that album, as well as his band’s upcoming movie project about Liverpool, touring with Radiohead, and what he thinks about the new young bands coming out these days.
Clinic has been together for almost a decade. What are the highlights of your career so far?
The highlights have been performing with people I grew up with as heroes. I think the biggest highlight for me was playing a live session for John Peel in London.
He discovered you guys early on, right?
Yeah, he played our records, and we had done sessions, but this was an actual full live thing for an hour on the program. It’s just really flattering to be asked to do that. That was far and away the highpoint.
No. I think it’s quite healthy to make a lot of mistakes, ’cause then it leaves you room to improve on things. I think we’ve always managed to get something from anything we’ve done. That’s really only something you learn as you go along.
You’ve said that the surgical masks are really just a way to keep the audience focused on the music rather than you as performers. What would you like your audience to take away from the music on this album?
I think this album is generally really direct and urgent. When we play songs live — like when we played just recently in the U.K. — I think people just really enjoyed the shows. There was no division between the band and the audience. There was just dancing to music and having a good time — being carefree.
Critics have been throwing around words such as “primitive” and “tribal” to describe the sound on Visitations. Was that your intent? And how much of the album resulted from your return to working with Gareth Jones, who mixed your 2000 debut, Internal Wrangler?
That’s true, as far as it being primitive and tribal. I think with these songs we just wanted to make it so that there were no frills or trappings. So if there was a completely stupid guitar riff, we could just say, “Yeah, the more ridiculous the better!” That was the basic approach. I mean, we recorded the songs ourselves and then Gareth mixed them, so I think we got the smaller sounds ourselves. But we knew that Gareth could really bring it out and make it sound as live and full of energy as possible.
Would you say that there was more flexibility in working with Gareth than there was with working with Ken Thomas, who you worked with on Winchester Cathedral (2004)?
I think Gareth could just see exactly what you wanted to bring out. He doesn’t really add if something doesn’t need an extra element added. Gareth will just bring out what is good from the original source.
There’s a song on Visitations called “Children of Kellogg”: Is that a reference to John Harvey Kellogg, who was notorious for advocating sexual repression and breakfast cereal?
Ah, no, but that would be quite apt. Was he the founder of Kellogg?
That was his brother. His brother actually started the corporation, but John Harvey came up with the recipes and the whole philosophy behind the company. He was basically of a typical Victorian mindset, similar to that of Sylvester Graham.
Well, I think the theme of the song is quite tense, so I suppose it would be quite apt, especially in that respect.
What were you thinking when you wrote the song?
I think it’s basically a very “drugs and acid” kind of song [laughs]. That’s it.
You’ve toured with a number of amazing musicians, including Radiohead. Who are your favorite tourmates and why?
I really enjoyed playing with Radiohead because they were totally down-to-earth people. They were easy to talk to about music, seeing as they’re just music fans. So I’d say Radiohead and, after that, Super Furry Animals, just because of their imagination and the fact that they’re really unconventional.
Do you think touring with them inspired you to take your music in a certain direction?
I think it showed us we didn’t have to stick to the same formula within a guitar band to be successful. So that was inspiring.
What new bands are you listening to right now?
I really like Shop Fronts from Brooklyn. A lot of bands claim to be punk bands, and I think Shop Fronts genuinely are what I’d consider to be punk. They don’t just look the part.
What do you think about all of the new young bands that are coming out these days — Arctic Monkeys, the Klaxons and the View, which is made up of teenagers? What do you think about these young musicians?
With the View and Arctic Monkeys, I like the lyrics and how it seems like other teenagers can relate to them. Musically, I think it’s quite straight-ahead guitar music, but you don’t have to listen to things within a context of musical history. I mean, who cares? We can have a good time listening to direct music as well. Particularly, I like the vocals on the View: I like the character they express.
I got to see them a few weeks ago, and the audience reaction was just amazing. Like you said: It’s simple, straightforward music, but the whole audience just reacted immediately. It was really cool to see that.
Yeah, I’ve read interviews with them and they seem to be really, really enjoying themselves. You know, they go out every night, throw up and drink once again. I think that’s brilliant [laughs]. It doesn’t get any better than that.
There are rumors that you’re making a film about Liverpool. Can you speak about this?
The film is with Jason Evans who’s done a lot of photography work and has done a lot of the videos that we did. Liverpool has a reputation for being a very poor city. And after the ’60s, it was said that there was not that much culture there. But I think there’s a really underground, hidden side to Liverpool, and we’re going to concentrate on that. So the film really isn’t about us at all; it’s about Liverpool.
Do you know when it will be released?
We’re making it over the tail-end of the summer, so we’re thinking late this year, early next.
You tend to use a number of untraditional instruments on your albums. Do you have any new ones that you’ve used just on Visitations, and do you have a favorite?
Yeah, on Visitations we used clavinet and autoharp; they were two of the more exotic instruments. I think the autoharp is the favorite because it’s very medieval but has also almost like a vaudeville-sound to it. With all the strings, it has a slightly twisted harp sound, but you can also play it like a guitar. So it’s really versatile.
Is the melodica always going to remain an integral part of the band?
Well, we don’t use it as much as we did to begin with, but that again, that can kind of function in the way a harmonica can. Or, you can also use it in a way that you might use strings on a record, or any woodwind, or whatever. It’s not like you just have to use it in one way or another, you know? So, I think we’ll always be using the melodica.
It’s a very versatile instrument, and I think that in itself defines Clinic as a band.
Yeah, and it’s also really simple. You can just play a couple of notes, and you’ve got that big sound at the bottom — that cavernous reverb — and then it can sound like a classic-sounding instrument.