The Clientele interview: "What we try and do is reflect things you can't really verbalise - that's what music is about for me."
Today sees the release of The Clientele’s new album Music For The Age Of Miracles, the band’s first release since 2010, and one that seemed unlikely to ever happen. Thankfully, for those who follow the cult favourites, a chance encounter spurred singer and leader Alasdair MacLean to refocus his energies on his original band, and with his old band mates Mark Keen and James Hornsey, as well as new member Anthony Harmer, has created a gorgeous new album.
We had the chance to chat with MacLean about the rebirth of The Clientele, what’s changed, what’s familiar, and what makes it Music For The Age Of Miracles.
The first and most obvious question is: did you ever think this was going to happen? It seemed like you thought you'd finished with The Clientele?
Yes, I completely did [think it was over]; I thought that that was really the end after The Minotaur. I think that was partly just because the lineup we had at the end could only do certain songs, could only do certain things. We were then asked to go and play in Denmark with the classic lineup, a three piece, and that opened up a whole load of songs for us, so that sort of made us think "well hang on there's a back catalogue here," and then in the end playing again with a new member Anthony Harmer on the dulcimer, it just made it feel like a different thing again, and worth doing again.
Tell us how Anthony Harmer came into the picture.
Well he kind of literally walked into the picture. I was walking around in Walthamstow and he was walking around too on the same street and I bumped into him! I hadn't seen him for twenty years; we used to play music together before The Clientele started, but we found ourselves unable to collaborate because we were both too bossy basically. And so we were sadder and wiser men when we met, and we got talking and he said "why don't we play some music? I've been playing the Persian dulcimer," and I said "Well, I've been doing the same thing, let's see if we can combine them in some way." And the songs sounded like Clientele songs, so that's kind of how it happened.
Did it feel familiar going back to working as The Clientele?
It's just very easy to play with James and Mark in the rhythm section, because we grew up playing music together; it's very intuitive. But I wanted to make sure that we were doing something slightly different from before, and that's where Ant came in, because he would rearrange songs and he would take more of an editing role than Mark or James had in the past.
Do you still live in London?
Yeah I still do. I live in North London. I'm just about holding on in London before being priced entirely to somewhere like Watford.
What are the biggest changes you've seen in London in the last 7 years since the last Clinetele album? It's been an interesting period of time...
Interesting, not in a good way. When I came to London it was 1997 and we moved to Docklands and Island Gardens because there were these enormous expanses of luxury flats that no one wanted to move in or use. We had a view the Thames and all that kind of thing, and now you can't open a shop in London - you can't do anything independent anymore. It's just turned a really really... you know... you live there I assume yourself?
It's just become a desert! You go to Brompton Road, near Harrods, and there's no one living there! You can walk down the street at night and there's no lights on in the street. It's getting bigger and bigger this space where no one lives and nothing happens. It's really weird, it's really curious.
Does that feature in the album at all?
Well 'Lunar Days' is about that entire thing, where there's just nothing there. There's streets and streets of no one living there; that's what the song's about. I think that what we always did as a band was we kind of like used where we lived to try and fill in the blanks. We used to live in Wood Green, we used to live in Haringey, and we'd turn that into songs. So whatever fringes you live on, it almost makes it more interesting in a way. Because nobody needs another song about Old Compton Road.
The album starts with the words “Evening’s hymn conjures the park/ and now, out of the dark…” that's such a classic Clientele line, did you feel like you were reintroducing people to the spirit immediately?
It's like starting the motor. It's like "here we are again."
Does it feel good?
It felt good at times, but at other times it felt difficult or frustrating. I think on the whole it feels it good. It's nice to be able to be able to work with the same people but move things forward a little bit, try new ideas.
There's a lot of lyrics about stars and constellations on this album; but isn’t that kind of anathema to living in London with all its light pollution?
It links into what I'm saying about living halfway out to Watford - but even still we have the same light pollution. I think it probably links more to where we grew up in Hampshire where we could see the stars.
Why do you think it came back around on this album so much?
I read that the Pleiades, which are a constellation of seven stars in the sky, were always given the same symbolism in all cultures, which is of seven women running away – fleeing. And then I was reading about the Lyre and the Orphic element of it, and there's a lot of hidden Orpheus references hidden throughout the album. It's kind of trying to make the imagery match up with the stars, making that part of the inspiration that's shaping the words - that probably sounds awfully pretentious, but that's the way it is, that's the way it was written.
I was also wondering if the Pleiades is a nod to Seven Sisters - another North London area.
[Laughs] It could be if you wanted it to be. I think my way of writing is to chuck a load of images at the wall, or let things cohere around certain images and then people can find their own way into it. There's all those kinds of links and connections there if you want to find them.
I wanted to ask about the sample at the start of 'Lunar Days'; where's that from?
That's a carousel in a shopping centre in Fleet in Hampshire, which is where James and I grew up. I don't know why we decided we decided to put it in; there's also bits from Trujillo and Extremadura and there's a field recording of the wind outside Derek Jarman's house near Dungeoness. I wanted to bring in ephemeral sound effects from places that meant things to us and stick them throughout the record.
How did the dulcimer come into the writing process?
That came after the songs were written, really. I would turn the songs over to Ant and he would maybe cut it up a little bit on his computer and add dulcimer or other instruments. So it wasn't an integral part of writing the songs, the chords, but it became shortly afterwards. It did shape how the songs went generally, but the songs weren't written on the dulcimer; they were written on the guitar or piano.
But in a song like 'Falling Asleep', the dulcimer is so crucial, it feels like it must have been woven in from the beginning.
It was... I mean initially when I sent it over I had a Morris-B, Banky type of guitar solo over it all, but that got taken out and we put the dulcimer in there. So it was in there from like day 2.
There seems a lot of falling asleep, or lack of it, have you been suffering from insomnia?
Yeah, I always have really. I think half The Clientele's catalogue is about insomnia.
But that leads to a lot of good songs.
[Laughs] It's worked in the end I guess.
On 'Everything You See Tonight Is Different From Itself', that's quite a different sounding Clientele. Is that programmed drumming?
It is. It was the last one we worked on, and so it's kind of where what we were doing got to its fullest expanse. The programmed drums on 'Lunar Days' and a couple of the other tracks as well but they're much subtler. This is an interesting one I guess because it's not got guitar in, it's got harp, we got Mary Lattimore to play the arpeggiated nines on the harp, we got a brass section in for it, we got programmed drums. We were trying for a long time to get the blend of instruments on that one to give it a feeling of lightness, but also dynamics. We wanted it to sound like Sea & Cake or Boards of Canada or Ultramarine or a cross between all three of them. It took a while to get it, so that was the last one.
In that one you have the "ballerina, breathe" moment, which is amazing. There are a lot of dance references on the record, is that another theme?
Yeah, I mean the sanskrit stuff on the last song is all about the dance of Shiva, so that links in again. The theme is the dance as opposed to thoughts, and stars moving, constellations moving and dancing, it's definitely one of the themes of the record.
I have to ask about 'The Museum of Fog'; when you knew you were going to make another Clientele album, did you know you would do another spoken-word song?
No! Again that was kind of like more a fairy tale type song with the singing in the background, and then I thought "this would sound good with a story on it," and the story I had fitted the story exactly from start to finish - in exactly the same way that 'Losing Haringey' from Strange Geometry had. There was no editing around it, I just wrote the story and it started where the song started and finished where it finished, so I took it as a sign that it was a good idea to put it on there.
I think it's great. Do you write a lot of stories that don't end up as songs?
Well, I have been. 'The Museum of Fog' is an extract from a novel I've been writing since forever; for about the last five or six years. As always seems to be the case with these things, I've got an editor that keeps telling me to rewrite it and rewrite it and rewrite, edit it down, make it clearer. So this is just me going "oh well I'm just going to stick a bit of it in a record anyway."
I think it's a great trailer for the novel; I want to read it now! Do you think it will come out?
It depends whether we find a publisher for it. I think it's almost there now.
Are you excited about it?
I will be if anyone wants to put it out. Otherwise it's just a bunch of pages in a drawer.
I want to ask why you named the album Music For The Age Of Miracles and why the last track is 'The Age Of Miracles'?
Again there's different threads running through it, and ambiguity, but it's partly a kind of a reference to the outbreak of magical thinking that we've had in both America and Britain, where people are starting to believe in miracles again. It's not necessarily critical of that, it's more a celebration of the irrationality of it. The song itself is more about fatherhood and the fact that that's something of a miracle. So it's a mixture of things; it's a contradictory thing as usual.
This is the first album you've made since becoming a father; is there a lot of fatherhood in the songs?
Yeah, it's the first time I've been able to, I've not had much time to do anything else. There's probably some references to it, but it's all veiled and it's all mixed in with other things; you can find it if you want to find it.
Is it a coincidence that the album is coming out on the first day of autumn?
That's a record company thing that I've had nothing to do with, but I get the impression it's not entirely coincidental.
Yeah, because the seasons are such a big factor on your albums, especially this one.
Yeah I think this is an autumnal album; everybody says we sound autumnal. I think that what we try and do really is reflect the changing light, that feeling of changes in light that happen as the year changes; you know, things you can't really verbalise - that's what music is about for me.
Tell me about the cover art.
It's a picture by a Royal Academy artist called Carel Weight, I think war-time generation, who was later to teach Blake at the Royal Academy. It's a painting called 'The Battersea Park Tragedy' and it just has that beautiful feeling of London in November. When I saw it I thought "I really want to get that as the record cover," so we spoke to Bridgeman images who owe the copyright and they kindly let us use it.
Where did you see it first?
I have a friend who sends me books. He lives in the Lake District and he works in a book shop, and if he sees an art book or a poetry book that he thinks I'll be interested in he sends it down to me, so that's where I saw it.
One of the things it says on The Clientele's Wikipedia page is that you've found more success in the US than the UK, do you think that's true and why?
That's definitely true, we're about ten times more successful there. As for why, I haven't the faintest idea, it puzzles me. But it's not something I'm going to complain about!
Are you going to do a US tour behind this album?
We're there for three weeks in November, but we might go back in 2018. The option is there for it. It can be a bit of a trek, but I'd like to go and play in some of these unlikely Clientele places like Arizona and whatnot.
Is the prospect of touring different now that you're a father?
Yeah, I have to cut down on it a lot. I know that I can't go away for two months; I wouldn't want to. So it makes it more of an interesting proposition, it's just like more of a hobby.
What can we expect in the setlists?
I think we'll largely do it from the new record and maybe just a couple of things from the back catalogue. I think it's important to stand looking forward rather than back.
What are you most excited about with releasing this new album?
Hopefully people will respond to the record in the way the first people who have heard it have; which is that it's a beautiful extension of the old Clientele sound, and it's opening up new palettes, new ideas, that we can use for future records.
So there are going to be future ones?
Uhhhh... maybe. We'll see.
The Clientele's Music For The Age Of Miracles is out now on Tapete Records.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 22nd September 2017.