Q&A With The Clean


Like a sunnier version of the throbbing pulse of the Velvet Underground before it, the sound of the Clean, from Dunedin (on New Zealand’s South Island), refuses to go away. With a permanent cast that, after a few early personnel shuffles, has remained the same for almost 30 years, brothers David and Hamish Kilgour and Robert Scott have survived the occasional band breakup, Hamish moving to New York, David releasing solo albums and Robert starting his own band, the Bats. With its most recent records (including the new Mister Pop on Merge), the Clean proves, once again, there is rock ‘n’ roll life after 40. The band members make music whenever they can assemble all the parts and remain a permanent fixture in the rock landscape. The Clean is guest editing all week.

“Tensile” (download):

“In The Dreamlife You Need A Rubber Soul” (download):

MAGNET: Did I come close to calling at the right time? I try to remember the time difference by thinking: You’re five hours earlier than California, but it’s tomorrow.
David Kilgour: You were right on. Actually, that’s quite unusual. People are usually an hour or two off, sometimes a day off. You live south of San Francisco, right? I’ve never taken that drive, south down the coast.

Well, you couldn’t do it now, because it’s on fire right at the moment, near Santa Cruz.
The last time we went to America, we flew into L.A. right in the middle of one of the biggest firestorms they’ve ever had. L.A. was shrouded in gray smoke. It was quite eerie. About 10 years ago, I swear we saw pink chemical clouds, sort of like gasoline clouds. They have cleaned L.A. up quite a bit, haven’t they? Last time, it seemed cleaner, the air.

Yeah, they’ve made a real effort to get clunkers, pollution-swilling cars, off the road recently. I have a dual purpose today. I’m also doing a piece on Chris Knox—how he’s doing after his stroke. I know the Clean played one of your early gigs with Chris’ first band, the Enemy.
Yeah, Hamish is about four years older than I, so he was friends with Chris, mainly through being vinyl junkies, I suppose. I got to know Chris through Hamish, as a kid, before they picked up instruments, really. Just before punk rock hit. But, yeah, the Enemy were great. I think we played our second or third gig as the Clean with them. They encouraged us. The Enemy were a pivotal point for a lot of people in Dunedin, really.

Those last two Clean albums (Mister Pop and 2001’s Getaway)—as they say over here, I think you hit it out of the ballpark. They’re really good.
Well, that’s cool to hear. One never knows, really. The last few since (1994’s) Modern Rock have been an eclectic bunch of songs on each record, but it’s always a hard thing to gauge whether we’ve pulled it off again or not.

What I like is that you may have added different elements than when you started out, but it still sounds like the Clean.
It’s funny. When the three of us get together, we always bring a little element of our own thing to it. The three of us just make this thing that sounds like the Clean, even if it is this odd, soundtracky, beach music or folk rock, it sounds like us three. We like to be playful in the studio. We’re a different band live, really. I guess we’re more of a rock band, live. In the studio, we always like to play around.

You have a female vocalist on some of the songs.
That’s Rainy McMaster from a local duo here called Haunted Love.

There’s one song on Mister Pop, “Factory Man,” that has a Ray Davies/Kinks feel to it.
Most definitely. Actually, I was lying in the bath in New York and Bob [Scott] was playing something downstairs, and I thought he was singing “factory man.” So, I got out of the bath, went down and thought, “I’m going to write a Ray Davies song.” I loved the Kinks. They were huge on the radio here. Went out and found all those early Kinks albums. He’s underrated in some ways, Ray Davies. Although I have noticed that Americans really do revere the Kinks. I hear rumors they might reform.

I talked with both Ray and Dave last year, and they say they will. But there’s always been this kind of thing between them. Is that something you and Hamish never had, that brotherly hate?
[Laughs] Brotherly hate! I read something recently about two brothers in a band, and they asked them, “I know you love each other, but do you two like each other?” They looked at each other and said, “Well, we like each other today.” Hamish and I never had any major violence, no, but we certainly tussled around a bit as youngsters. We were pretty good buddies. He was like my dad in some ways. He just turned me on to music as a very young kid—and art. My mother did, as well, but Hamish was a great influence, for sure. The Stones and Dylan.

Who turned you on to the Velvet Underground?
Well, we liked Lou Reed. He was very popular here after Transformer. “Walk On The Wild Side” was a big hit. The Rock ‘N’ Roll Animal album, for some reason, was a huge record here. Then one day, maybe in the mid-’70s, Hamish came home with this compilation of the Velvet Underground. I didn’t get it right away. Obviously, I did eventually. I remember loving the 1969 album, even though John Cale’s not on it. A big influence.

Anything new on the solo front?
I just put out one here recently, a collaboration with a local poet called Sam Hunt: me singing his poems. It’s called Falling Debris.

Who would have thought you’d still be doing this 30 years later?
Funny, I was thinking that this morning. No, I didn’t think I’d get this far with music. In my youth, up until my late 30s, I never thought more than a year or two ahead. But I certainly didn’t think I’d be making rock ‘n’ roll as a middle-aged man. No one’s told me to stop yet.

MAGNET: It’s not often I get to speak with someone who’s in two of my all-time favorite bands.
Robert Scott: I must be doing something right. I’ve just done a track with someone who’s putting together a Sesame Street compilation. It used to be very popular in New Zealand. I’ve done a song called “Run, Run, Everybody Run.” They’re pretty funny songs. I do a lot of kid’s songwriting, because that’s what I do for my day job here at Port Chalmers, songwriting with kids. I’m a teacher aide, so I help out with reading and math in the classroom. And for one session a day, I do music with the kids. We write songs together. I sit up in front with a guitar and do some chords, and they come up with things. We’ve actually done a CD.

I’m doing a story about Chris Knox recovering from his stroke. Do you remember Chris in the early days with the Enemy?
I started going to art school the same time as David, in 1979. I used to get the bus into the big town on Friday night, because I lived 10 miles out of Dunedin. I saw a poster for the Clean, before I joined them, supporting the Enemy. That was an eye-opener. Chris was very quick with an opinion, to tell you if what you’ve done is a load of rubbish. Take it with a grain of salt, but he was usually on the money. And you’d better take heed of it.

One aspect of New Zealand music that’s always intrigued me is the striking artwork that accompanies the releases.
For some reason, a lot of the people in bands here are also artists. Also there was no art department in any of the local record companies. The onus has always been on the artist. In New Zealand, the band throws together whatever the hell they feel like. More often than not, there will be someone in the band who’s talented, visually. For some reason, that’s always been the case. Every tiny little town will always have art galleries. It’s always been a very strong thing. It would make for a very interesting art exhibition if you hand-picked 200 covers that people have made.

For example, the cover of (1981’s) Boodle, Boodle, Boodle. I love that drawing of everybody in the tub.
That’s Chris’ drawing of a photo. There’s actually footage of that in the “Tally Ho” video.

No matter how you try to change things on the records, it always sounds like the Clean.
That’s what we bring to it. Even if we tried to bend over backward to make things sound different in any way possible, it would still sound like us.

Any problems being in both the Clean and the Bats at the same time?
Maybe a timing thing where someone’s album has taken longer to come out and a touring option comes up. But because both bands are not super busy, it’s not really a problem. The Clean are still looking at either coming to the States or Europe next year to see if it’s financially viable.

That’s funny. I spoke with David yesterday, and he said there was no possibility of touring for the new album.
Yeah, well he does tend to say that. Things change. I kind of think, with a bit of luck, we’ll be playing next year. There’s a lot of people hanging out to see us. I’ve got to work on the boys.

Melody is always central to a Bats record, maybe more so than the Clean. Were you into folk rock when you were a kid?
Yeah, yeah. When I grew up, I didn’t really hear any rock ‘n’ roll as such until I was maybe 16 or something. Then my sister started buying Neil Young, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and I listened to those a lot. Then started listening to T.Rex on the radio in the ’70s. And then in my 20s, it was everything at once: the Velvets, the Byrds, Suicide, Nuggets. There was so much of it around. And I have a huge collection of folk music, Scottish and English stuff: Nic Jones and Bert Jansch, stuff like that. That’s an influence on what I do in both bands, really, the folk stuff. Before that, it was pretty much music at home, because dad and mum both played piano and sang. Dad played saxophone in a dance band in Scotland in the ’50s, and mum played the organ in church. I guess that’s where my love of melody comes from.

The new Bats album (The Guilty Office) sounds as good as all the others.
That’s what they’ve been saying. I feel very relieved. When you go in to do an album, it’s very hard to tell if you’ve still got it, if you’re on the money and making the right decisions where the songs are going. You can second-guess yourself. There’s no button you can hit that’ll tell you you’re on the right track with this one.

Have you ever heard any of these younger American kids doing folk rock, like Devendra Banhart. I think you’d really like it, if you haven’t.
Yeah, I’ve got some of his stuff, and I also really like Sufjan Stevens, actually. There’s quite a lot of good young bands coming up, like Fleet Foxes. It’s an interesting movement, how these kids are picking up on older folk elements and giving it a new twist. It’s kind of cool.

In your wildest dreams would you have thought you’d still be doing this all these years later?
I think if I had asked myself, I’d say I would be, because it’s such a big part of my life, making music. Something I’m always doing. It’s like eating, really. I’ll be doing it until I drop off.

—Jud Cost