Surviving the music industry isn’t brain surgery, but Clinic thinks it soon will be.
“Piracy is so old-fashioned,” chirps the salesman in the machine, amiably interrupting my full-body scan of Clinic’s discography. I didn’t pay a cent for any of the half-dozen albums, or the battery of supplemental EPs and outtakes—but the invisible interloper hasn’t descended upon my listening experience to chide me. In fact, I feel as though I’m being congratulated.
“Every single track you listen to on Spotify makes money for the rights holders and the artists. Without them, there’s no music for us to enjoy!” The five-note piano theme and muzak acoustic return reassuringly to the tonic, stabilizing like the entire music industry in the none too distant future of Spotify’s prophecy, and Clinic is back in my ears, effortlessly earning its mechanical royalties. Everybody wins.
It’s a nice thought—especially given the convenience. The Sweden-based streaming service has become a household name in recent years thanks to its insatiable approach to label catalogs major and indie, from last week’s One Direction ballad to everything Duke Ellington recorded in 1926. For five bucks a month, I could gain entrée to this veritable all-you-can-eat without the occasional piracy PSA; for five more, I could even enjoy the feast from my phone. But like the majority of Spotify’s 15 million active users, I opt to stomach the adverts every couple of albums and leave it at that.
By the time Clinic put out its previous record, 2010’s particularly pop-minded Bubblegum, Spotify had already conquered the Liverpool four-piece’s native Britain, and much of the surrounding territories. While promoting that record, frontman Ade Blackburn occasionally mentioned how nobody in the band had yet seen a paycheck from the growing digital empire that had recently laid claim to its music.
Since then, plenty has changed: Spotify has finally cracked the hugely scalable American market, and Clinic has logged another two years of labor limae to make Free Reign (Domino), its seventh album, and the most focused and singular of the band’s career to date. But when I ask Blackburn what’s up on the monetary tip, he sounds weary and wary both.
“Still nothing,” he replies with a sigh. “I feel better when it’s a simple transaction, when someone’s just buying your record, or your mp3. All the kinds of arguments that promise you can get better exposure (from free streaming) and then, in the long run, see some kind of return, I think are a load of bollocks, really.”
A lot else has changed since Clinic first shell-shocked the scene in the late ’90s with a waxen trio of blitzkrieg EPs, and the many rave reviews and rarefied Radiohead comparisons that followed its earliest albums, 2000’s Internal Wrangler and 2002’s Walking With Thee. Born during those final twilight hours of the music industry’s money-minting heyday, Clinic has defiantly survived the many upheavals and unthinking revolutions that surround the working band in the internet age: rampant file-sharing at century’s turn, a global recession of historical heft in the past half-decade and various social-media upstarts that redefine what music is worth without asking any musicians, to name a few. Most recently, of course, there’s the infernal tritone formed by all these challenges sounding in unison.
“We’ve managed to survive just about with the way things are,” says Blackburn, audibly grateful, but not without a damning prediction for where music is bound. “I think that’s where we’ll see the effects of downloading and streaming: The art will suffer because people have less time to make records, and everything will be cut to the bone. The full extent of that probably won’t even become apparent for, say, another five years.”
If it’s any coincidence then that Free Reign is the darkest and most pointed album of Clinic’s career, it’s an apt and timely one. In Blackburn’s words, the band made it a priority on most of its previous records to “make them sound really varied,” so that it could even feel “like a different band playing from one song to the next.” Punk-rock rave-ups in Stooges style sandwiched between Ennio Morricone spaghetti-Westerns, while an anxious thrasher like “D.P.” might suddenly collapse into a sedative Velvet Underground tribute. Even the recent Bubblegum—for which Blackburn adhered especially to verse/chorus song structure, emphasized memorable melodies, and commissioned the high-polish production of hired gun John Congleton—is a record that feels footloose and freewheeling by comparison to the band’s current strictures.
Blackburn and the ever taciturn Jonathan Hartley, his fellow multi-instrumentalist and primary creative foil since the two’s shared teen years in mid-’80s Liverpudlian suburbia, laid the foundation for Free Reign by turning almost exclusively to their massive stock of analog beat machines and synths. Relegating the guitar from Clinic’s centrifugal riffs of old to a more coloristic and ornamental presence was the first of many deliberate limitations set forth to inspire new results for the band.
“We were listening to this old Los Angeles band, the Screamers,” says Blackburn. “And, of course Suicide, where the music’s obviously not reliant upon guitars, but can still be something abrasive and rock ‘n’ roll.”
Likewise, programming rhythms rather than relying as much upon longtime drummer Carl Turney imbued the record with the motorik insistency of classic krautrock—the album even averages 110 bpm throughout, with only slight and occasional deviations. There, too, Blackburn was looking to push himself: “It would’ve been cheap to resort to something more frantic, or faster in tempo,” he says.
That said, the members of Clinic have been wide-ranging generalists since long before eclecticism became indie-rock de rigueur, and the band’s signature ability to synthesize variegated sources finds its subtlest and most refined expression to date on Free Reign. “Sun And The Moon” sublimates the raucous simplicity of an old Nuggets gem or early Kinks single via the extraterrestrial calm of Cosmos-era Sun Ra; “Cosmic Radiation” envelopes both Charles Mingus and George Clinton; “Misty” blends Bends Yorke melody with Martin Rev synths and Perrey-Kingsley electropop; and it all percolates so fluidly around Free Reign’s central beats that one might never even notice the wild juxtapositions in play. New York City sound artist Daniel Lopatin, better known by his alias Oneohtrix Point Never, even swings by to add electroacoustic shades of white-noise variables to the record’s hypnotic dyad of “Miss You” and “You,” courtesy of an inspired suggestion from Domino head Laurence Bell.
On the whole, Blackburn’s melodies and lyric sheets here are just as stark and circular as the instrumentation. As with Free Reign’s tempo and guitars, he sought in his vocals an economy through self-limitation, and a reaction against Bubblegum’s more familiar pop forms. Nagging themes of obsession and desire result, the record’s many amorphous strophes revolving mostly around desperate mantras: “I see you,” “I want you for your soul,” “I miss you,” “For your love,” “Give me your love.”
“I only really realized it after we finished all the songs, that there’s this thread running through all of them,” says Blackburn. “It’s not so much an unrequited love I’m talking about, but more a longing for something, to preserve some kind of contentment. Missing that feeling of being at home … wanting to escape chaos … ”
It’s all pretty heavy as it is, so I wonder where Clinic’s trademark sense of humor might be now. The playful surgical masks that have been a part of the band’s stage costume since the beginning remain, of course, and one has to have some sense of levity about an album of theirs if they’re issuing it in “UFO” format—essentially, a glow-in-the-dark Clinic Frisbee with a download code. But what about the music itself?
“It’s mostly in the title,” says Blackburn. “We called the album Free Reign because being in a band, at the moment, it feels like you have anything but. It’s not like we’ve got endless amounts of money or freedom to continue making music, so I like ‘free reign’ as a good piss-take.”
And a better album. Five years from now, we’ll see—for now, it’s all just another limitation that works.