Over the last twenty-odd years The Clientele have been diligently sculpting a world of their own: a unique, autumnal sound experience that straddles the line between the sensation of lying half-asleep in a warm, dimly-lit room, and battling torrential rain in the streets of London. Since the premiere of 2005’s Strange Geometry, the trio’s most successful album to date, their fans haven’t been able to leave the room; even when the band announced they were taking an indefinite break in 2011. Fortunately, a chance encounter put them back in the studio. After singer and principal songwriter Alasdair MacLean accidentally ran into long-lost friend Anthony Harmer, the two decided to jam together. “Ant and I now lived three streets away from each other, it turned out” says MacLean. “He started to arrange my songs. He let me write and sing them, and he came up with ideas for how they should sound. This carried on until we had an album. I called up James and Mark and asked them if they wanted to make another Clientele record did, and this is it.” Music for the Age of Miracles, the band’s sixth album, came out on September 22. Later this fall, Prefix had the pleasure to talk to MacLean about the experience of making the record and the difficult times that shaped it.
Prefix: You’ve titled your latest album Music for the Age of Miracles. Given Brexit in the UK and the rise of Donald Trump here in America, how are we supposed to interpret this title? Are you making a political statement at all?
Alasdair MacLean: I think it’s a reference in some ways to the fact that we’re living in an age of magical thinking; the irrationals are on the rise. The surrealists would’ve loved the way the world is going; they would think it’s hilarious. But it’s always really difficult for me to explain what our titles mean. I tried to explain what Strange Geometry meant once on the radio and I just sounded like an idiot. There’s supposed to be different layers of meaning to it, and there’s definitely that feel that our culture is unable to justify itself anymore. It’s this very grim kind of “end of empire” type of feeling.
I know that you’ve recently become a father; how do you then feel about raising a child in this kind of climate?
It’s hard for me, through lack of sleep, to philosophize over it, but I think it’s very worrying. I suppose that you could say that the rise of the irrationals sets us free, it’s almost a way for us to progress. But I think everyone is kind of terrified, aren’t they?
So you are optimistic about what will happen next?
Gosh, I don’t know if I can predict what’s going to happen next! It’s not in my nature to be an optimist [laugh]. I think that what everyone agrees on is that things can’t go on as they are. In a lot of ways, while we’re seeing a very ugly side of things, it’s a positive thing, because things are bound to change. I don’t think we’re in Weimar Germany. The interesting thing for me really is that we had such a long period of saying to the world “here’s our culture and here’s our code of ethics; of course you want to join us, of course you want to be part of it.” But we can’t justify it anymore because other people don’t want to part of it, and we can’t even justify it to ourselves anymore. There’s something missing; some connection that’s not hitting. It’s a transitional time for us; what we’re transitioning to I don’t know, but we’re changing.
Do you think that the experience of fatherhood has influenced your songwriting at all?
Yeah, I think so. I was quite a footloose and carefree person for the first half of my life, and suddenly not being able to do that anymore has completely turned my world around. I mean, my son’s given me inspiration, but not the kind of inspiration I can easily quantify. For instance, the last song on the new record, the suspended D chord that starts it, that chord came from me trying to play guitar to get my little boy to go to sleep. Whenever I’d play that he would smile and the song came out of it. So small things like that, but in a deep way, too.
You’ve mentioned that reconnecting with Anthony Harmer was the impetus behind getting the Clientele back together. Aside from that, what do you think he’s brought into the band?
If I’m brutally honest, he’s threatening (laughs). In a sense that he’s very, very talented. I’m not used to collaborating to the extent that I did with him; I’m used to being the boss. He threatened me in the sense that he was as good as I was, or better. And that made me raise my game and that then made him raise his game. In a nutshell, he’s not afraid to challenge me and really hold out for his ideas to be added in to the songs, and infuriatingly he’s usually right. It’s been a real education for me to collaborate with someone because all the way through the process I was trying to take back control and say “No, no, no, we’re not gonna do this, we can’t do that,” and then I’d go in and listen to what his ideas were, and I’d say “actually, he’s quite right.” And you can kind of feel the band just moving kicking and screaming into something new on this record, new structures, new ways of doing things, new orchestrations, and that is really what made me think maybe we can cover new ground with this band. It felt like the old days; we were surprising ourselves again.
How involved were Mark [Keen, drums] and James [Hornsey, bass] in the process then?
Everybody’s feet got tread on a little bit, because Ant [Harmer] would have ideas for drum beats, and even some basslines for them to make sense harmonically with his arrangements. Mark and James were passionately involved, and they did what they always do, but they were checked and balanced just as much as I was. He really built everything from the ground up; he made all of us think about what we did. And we made him think about what he did, too. Also, a lot of the most vivid music on that record is written by Mark: the lovely harp and piano and cello pieces.
Do you think that his role has expanded over the years?
We knew Mark for years and years before he joined the band, just before our first American tour. We thought he was great: he plays like Damon Krakowski, he’s got that Galaxie 500-like jazzy feel. It then transpired that he was actually a piano player in a jazz band and he could play things like The Sidewinder by Lee Morgan. He played us some pieces and we said this is crazy… he writes piano pieces like Martin Duffy from Felt or even Debussy, some people have said. So, he’s contributed to a few tracks here and there to various records, but he has the biggest role yet on this one, and that really was because the pieces fit so well here that it made the album coherent in a way; it breaks up the sound of my voice and the guitar tracks.
You’re a big Felt fan, aren’t you?
Oh yeah, I’m a huge Felt fan. When we were 16, 17, we used to listen to Pictorial Jackson Review, which has got a lot of spacy jazzy type instrumentals on the B-side. But also all the classical guitar on the first record by Maurice Deebank, the virtuoso guitarist. For me, who came from a classical guitar background, it absolutely put a lightbulb above my head. I was like “Wow! You can do both at once, these things that I absolutely love and I always thought were sort of different worlds,” and it was an incredible moment. It just remained an inspiration. I can’t say I listen to those records anymore, but the idea of them is still very fresh for me.
You said you’re used to being the boss; is that also true when you’re making music with Lupe Núñez-Fernández as Amor de Díaz [MacLean’s side-project]?
Oh, no (laughs). That’s a different kind of collaboration. Lupe is very good at coming up with ideas, and I’m probably better actually playing guitar or working out how they could be executed. It’s less of a natural rivalry with Lupe, it dovetails in a way that works effortlessly. With Ant, I wouldn’t say it was a rivalry, but it was challenging at times. It was threatening, like I said.
That could explain why Music for the Age of Miracles sounds so much richer in instrumentation and arrangement than your previous albums. Can you see yourselves taking your sound into even further into territory?
On the new record, the very last track we did was “Everything You See Tonight Is Different From Itself,” and we were moving towards that kind of sound with “Lunar Days.” Before, everyone in the band said, “You know, we gotta be careful doing this electronic music stuff cause we’re just gonna sound like we don’t really know what we’re doing,” and then we recorded “Lunar Days” and we said “Well, you know this sounds alright, so let’s go a step further.” Because of the generation I’m from and the country I’m from I was kinda like “Well guys, you just write a song and then you put a funky drum beat to it and then you have a hit, right?” and the rest of the band said “No, no, no, you start with the beat and then you write the song over the beat” and that’s what we started to do. I would go to his [Anthony’s] house and we’d sit and work on the beats, and then we could take them to Mark, the drummer, and Mark would say he can play something over that. And then we’d go to the studio and record it. I can’t see ourselves being able to turn back now; I’d like to do something even more glitchy and fractured. You know, that song’s got a little bit of guitar on it, but it’s mostly Mary Lattimore on the harp playing the arpeggios, and I love that song: it’s my favorite song on the record. I can see us going more in that direction, definitely. It suddenly felt like we could reach out to some of the other things we like, like Boards of Canada, Ultramarine, and even some drum and bass and some techno, things we’d always listen to, and that was thrilling.
Those influences are mostly instrumental; are lyrics an important part of music for you?
I think that they’re as important as the music. The first Clientele record, Suburban Light, I always kick myself for not working harder on the lyrics. ‘Cause there’s some repetition there and some weakness in the lyrics. It’s a record written and recorded by adolescents, and some of the words are a bit adolescent! But after that, with Violet Hour and onwards, I was always very, very conscious that there were things I wanted to express and that I should really think about how to do it.
Another lightbulb moment for me was when I was in the library one day, reading a book called Notes for a New Culture [by Peter Ackroyd]. It’s got a poem in it by this French poet Stephane Malarmé, and I asked my friend who speaks French to translate it, and it translated literally to “the musician of hollow nothingness.” And I just sat there for a while, and I was just thinking that that’s using language to turn itself inside out, you know. But it still has kind of a structure and a meaning at the same time. And it fascinated me. And later on other people, like Tom Verlaine [of Television] when he uses phrases like “watching the corners turn corners” or “lightning struck itself”… in a very kind of anti-romantic, anti- Anglophone way of doing things. It’s a very French way of writing, and it absolutely fascinated me, and I’ve tried to write words like that ever since.
Like, how can nothingness be hollow? It’s an oxymoron, but it still kind of makes sense. And he does this throughout his poems. I’ve got his complete works translated into English. And that’s what Malarmé did, he pushed language to its limits in a very elegant, kind of structured way, as did the surrealists after him. And there’s very little of that kind of thing in English or American writing; it seems very much like a continental thing.
What in particular did you want to say with the lyrics on Music for the Age of Miracles?
I think that what I was trying to express was a dangerous world. A world that doesn’t cohere anymore. The images of the old gods, the Greek gods coming back. I feel like we’re living in an age where the inscrutable and violent Greek gods make more sense than any other religion does. I think I was trying to express that and the fear of it; the anxiety of it and the nothingness behind it. Like, the last verse of Lunar Days describes walking through the streets in West London, just two or three streets back from the main shopping avenue where Harrods is. And if you go there at night, there’s no light there at all because there are these streets after streets and house after house of beautiful stucco houses that were bought as investment; there’s no-one living there, they’re empty. So it’s like this hollow opening in the middle of London where there’s nothing, and no-one lives there, and nothing happens. It’s just the literalness of it, the visual evidence of it; it’s like a sclerosis of the city moving outwards, and you stand in the middle and there’s nothing there, and the dread of that is partly what that record is about on an emotional level as much as a political level.
Last question: when describing The Sound of Young Basingstoke (the compilation of early Clientele recordings) you said that “it is a sort of >>before the dream has faded<< snapshot”; so, how does reality compare?
Reality’s ok. We’re older now. I think that that kind of music we were making is a young man’s music. I think all the best bands meet at school. They don’t like, say, “Oh hey man, I’m into the Sea and Cake and I play drums; let’s jam.” No, they’re gonna say “We’re gonna form a band and you play drums, now go and learn.” And that’s what that band did, that’s what we did. We had Innes Phillips on guitar. I love that man like a brother. We played together and drank together and worked together and talked together. That was our entire adolescence. That’s the sound of it to me. It became very quickly [apparent] that we weren’t gonna make the kind of impact we wanted to when we came to London. So it couldn’t carry on. We’ve since had a sort of weird underground existence; doing okay in America but not really popular in Britain. It became a sort of transfiguration of what we hoped and dreamed we would be able to do. But back at that record was when the dream was still intact. Perhaps I’m being self-indulgent and perhaps it’s a very personal thing, but to me, that band is somewhere there still waiting to go, still waiting for the first day at a big recording studio and the first hit single.