The Clientele's Alasdair MacLean on Miles Davis, Nostalgia, the Music Industry, and the Future of the Clientele

The Clientele's Alasdair MacLean on Miles Davis, Nostalgia, the Music Industry, and the Future of the Clientele
Photo by Andy Wilsher

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Alasdair MacLean and the Clientele have been responsible for some of my favorite music in my entire life; I'm also unsurprisingly of the belief that they are one of the greatest indie-pop bands past, present, and (hopefully) future. Their new album, I Am Not There Anymore, is utterly magnificient even by their standards—the kind of record where you hear it and think to yourself, "How are they on their third decade and still making music like this?" I had a great time talking to Alasdair a few weeks ago about the unbelievable achievement that I Am Not There Anymore represents, as well as a host of other topics as well.

This is the band's longest record to date. Did things just shake out that way while you were making it, or was it intentional?
The way we made it was to record the songs very quickly as they were written, with guitar, bass, and drums—then, we'd take the stems away from the studio and edit them at home. It wasn't about curling the curl and fiddling with them, it was more about waiting for counter-ideas to come into the songs. We'd realize, "That's not a song, that's a bit of a song, so let's add another bit," and we'd go back and record some more. Those type of ideas took forever to come. Sometimes you'd wait for six months, sometimes it took two or three years.

That's how it was recorded and put together—but then, we just kept recording, because we didn't really have an agreement to even put this music out. We had a budget from royalties that we'd go into the studio and record off of. All three of us knew that if the music was embarrassing or a failure, we wouldn't need to release it. At the end, we said, "Oh my God, we have more than an hour of music. How do we edit this down?" But when Merge see something ambitious, they jump on it—they're great at that sort of thing. So when we said to them, "Please sir, can we make a double album?" they said, "Yeah!"

Did you ever see yourself putting out a double album previously?
Never! I'm typically against them, really—it's not a very punk thing to do. But it felt like it told a story over an hour, and if you took bits out, we would've ended up more conservative. "Let's take out the atonal bits with the spoken-word and just put the pop songs all together." I really felt strongly that I didn't want to do that. It felt like a thematic piece, so it felt important to release it as it was.

There's obviously been plenty of double albums over the years that are legendary in terms of repute. Any you've liked?
No, because I've always run away from them. I remember being forced to listen to Pink Floyd's The Wall when I was younger and thinking, "You could make one side of a record with the good stuff on this—why did they do a double album?" What good double albums are there? Is Bitches Brew a double album?

I think so. I always think of the White Album, which is an easy choice. It's overlong, but it has very nice songs on it.
Yeah, people love that record. I've never really liked the Beatles past Sgt. Pepper's. Some of the songs are brilliant, but as a whole I've never grasped what's good about the White Album—it just irritates me. I've always thought, "Half of these songs, you could've gotten rid of." I think it comes more from recitals, where if you go to see an orchestra they'll play for over an hour. It's not bound by technology, and perhaps I was thinking more about a contemporary classical thing for this record, where it's more about the performance as opposed to the way it will be shown and packaged.

This is a really ambitious record, but you've also moved things forward in terms of new territory for the band on certain records as well. Tell me about incorporating electronic music more on this one, as well as your relationship with electronic music at large.
I've always loved Boards of Canada. I heard their first record around the time that the first Clientele record came out. We used to go to this club called Metalheadz inm Notting Hill, which was a drum'n'bass club that Goldie used to DJ at. I've always loved electronic music, but I didn't know how to make it. I'd listen to Boards of Canada and think, "These people are like magicians." How can you make a beat if you don't have a drummer? I could just not understand it.

But being in and out of studios over time, you see other people doing it and you start asking them questions. When we eventually bought a computer, belatedly a few years ago, I started to fiddle around with it, and I was really nervous. I thought they would say, "What is this idiot doing? Why is he adding all these electronic beats?" I also thought Mark, our drummer, wouldn't be into it—but he really embraced it.

The way it seemed to work best for us was having a bunch of electronic beats put together on the computer while Mark played over it. There was more complexity, and it was more polyrhythmic because Mark was playing against the beats. I really liked that, because it reminded me of Miles Davis' On the Corner, where you don't know where the measures start and end. I've always really loved that record, but it also always baffled me. "How on Earth do you do that?" But he, as I understand it, would get the band to play it and then he'd edit the tapes together later, adding things afterwards. That collaging way of doing it was exactly what we did on this record. So in a way, we copied his approach.

On the Corner is also my favorite Miles record.
It's a fantastic record, but I can't listen to it very long, even though it's incredible. The musicianship and grooves are out of this world, and it's so sophisticated.

You've brought up Miles a few times in this conversation now. What's your overall relationship to his work?
It's not just Miles for me—I love John Coltrane too, as well as Rashied Ali's drumming. I know a lot of people feel that, after Elvin Jones left Miles' band, there was a drop in the quality of drumming. But I love Rashied Ali, and I love the stuff he did with Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders as well.

There's a particular John Coltrane record, The Olatunji Concert, which is the final live record that his band did in New York. It's quite badly recorded—the drums distort the tape heads, and it sounds like a rampaging elephant. It's an exciting drum sound. I love that sort of free-jazz drumming, where it's a pulse and you can't really grasp the measures or where the bars start and end, but it has an incredible elegance to it too. There's also the more grooving side of Miles, particularly On the Corner—they're like the alpha and omega, aren't they?

You mentioned Boards of Canada before, and I do affiliate the same magical sensation with their music as I do yours. You both also conjure this sense of nostalgia, possibly for a time that never even existed. What is your relationship with nostalgia?
It depends on what you mean by "nostalgia." One of the most really exciting ideas for us as a band was to make music sound like a memory. I think Boards of Canada do that—a thousand other bands do that too—but the idea is that once the music starts, the atmosphere is so heady that you forget where you are. It becomes a world that you inhabit. That was a very exciting idea for me.

I was saying to another chap that I was talking to about this—in the '90s, when you listened to music in the 1960s, it meant something different than it does now. It's become accepted as canonical, but in the '90s it felt like it was going to disappear—like a special secret that only a few people had. I always felt, as I listened to the production of 1960s records, that they were somehow recorded through stained glass. You looked back at those records and it felt like they were coming from a world that was real and true, and that your world wasn't.

Later, that became very boring, because it became the accepted view. But the idea that music is leading you somewhere that's real and true, and that the place you came from before you put the record on wasn't actually real and true—that's an idea that I really love. A lot of musicians would agree that that is their aim, but to build it for the listener so that you're creating a world you can share...I think Boards of Canada definitely do that. I'd be weary of comparisons between us and them, because they're a more original band than we are, but I suppose on some level we're doing the same thing. It's a flattering comparison, they're my favorite band.

You mentioned recording off of royalties before. What's the financial situation like for the band?
It's gotten steadily worse, in common with most other industries, I suppose. People still want to listen to music, and they still pay listen to it, but the profits have been concentrated more and more in the hands of less people. Now, you have to have an inheritance to make a living from it—you can't really do it. We all have jobs.

But when we first started, it was different. Music held a different promise in 1997. There was always the chance something would go really right, and you'd become financially secure for the rest of your life. For a lot of young men—and women too, I suppose—that was one of the reasons for forming a band. It was super fun, you'd get lots of love, and you'd get rich from it. For the first few years, we signed a publishing deal, which meant we didn't need to work. And that was good, but on the other hand, I'd be sitting at home thinking, "I should be writing songs because I don't have anything else to do." If I didn't have any songs to write, there was no one else around, and it got incredibly depressing really fast.

It's a funny thing with us. The way it works is that we do it when we want to do it, and we take time off when we do—but it's not something we can make a living off of for a band of our level, at all.

The first section of the band's Wikipedia claims that you guys have made more money touring in the U.S. than in Europe at large. Is that still accurate?
It's not true now, because we have more of an audience in Europe now. But when we first started, we couldn't get arrested at home. We were putting out these 7" and about to give up, but someone sent through a press clipping from Time Out New York, where the third single we'd put out was deemed the top single of the year or something. We couldn't believe our eyes! Then, emails started coming in saying, "When are you coming to the States and playing?" It felt like someone was playing a practical joke on us.

For the first three records at least, we had an audience in America, and we didn't have an audience in Britain—and the people that did know us were actually quite hostile towards us. Nobody saw what made the band special, at all. It's so funny, because it's changed so much now in Britain. People are almost more excited about us here these days than in the States. We queued for a visa the other day in the American Embassy, and I thought, "It's so much fuss to do this." It's always great to go across, but if I could just go up to Leeds in my car, I'd do that quite happily. [Laughs]

The visa situation seems particularly dismaying for many these days.
There's a whole industry built around it—lawyers, specialists scheduling appointments. It's a bit baffling, but I suppose it's better to do it above board. When we first started doing it, it just took a wink to the guy in security in Boston or wherever. "Yes, we're taking these drums to play around a campfire—honestly!" And he'd let us in. But after 9/11, that all changed.

Sometimes when I talk to people about touring these days, it seems like everybody in the industry makes money off of it except the musicians.
I think it's always been that way in terms of records. It's the streaming companies that are making money now. The labels are folding and the venues are folding. It's the same in every industry, really—there's a kleptocracy going on.

Speaking of labels, the Clientele have been on Merge for almost the entire existence of the band. That's a long relationship to have with anybody, let alone a record label. Merge is also one of those labels that have always meant something to indie listeners in general. Tell me about being with them for so long and your relationship with the label over the years.
Someone in America spoke to them—perhaps it was Gail O'Hara from Chickfactor. We looked at their website, because we didn't know who they were, and we saw that they had Lambchop and the Magnetic Fields and the Clean, and we were looking for an American label and we said, "That is who we want to be with." When they dealt with us, they felt so human, and we'd spoken to a lot of other labels at that time because there was a bit of buzz about us in America—and they weren't human at all. "You're gonna have to wait a month until our head CEO comes back from India." We were like, "Just tell him to stay there."

I've spoken to a lot of musicians about labels, and they complain that their labels don't like music, which is so counterintuitive. [Laughs] Like, how does that work? But with Merge, there was never any doubt that they love music. I've always admired the way they manage to keep going and finding new bands that sell records. They're just lovely people, and so are a lot of the other bands on the label who have since become our friends. We were lucky they picked us up rather than vice versa, and we've never really forgotten that.

What are your recent listening habits?
I listen to a lot of jazz—not a lot of guitar music. I've been rediscovering a lot of dubstep records. I love the deep bass stuff. Ultramarine put out a new album out this year, I've been listening to that. I love a lot of Afrobeat. I listen to a lot of different stuff. I've been too nervous about my record to catch up with what's been going on this year. [Laughs] There's some beautiful contemporary stuff—Michael Jon Fink, Phillip Schroeder. They record for a label called Cold Blue, which is very hypnotic and slightly ominous classical music, or at the least, played by classically trained musicians. The music sounds a lot like the radio songs that Mark wrote for the new record—slightly ambient, slightly ominous.

It's very nice to be listening to a band like yours for so long and hear evolution in their sound. When it comes to being creative, what are the challenges of pushing yourself in new directions versus being in more familiar territory?
It's an attitude thing, mostly. They're not really challenges. To call them "challenges" presupposes that you feel a need to keep making records, and I don't. I'd be happy for this to be the last record we did, if I didn't have any new ideas. We did that run of records from Suburban Light to Bonfires on the Heath, and it felt like something weird and interesting in the band was starting to fade—so I wanted to stop it for that reason. I said to the others when we got back together seven years later for Music for the Age of Miracles, "We have to do something new, we have to change—otherwise there's no point." There's no point to remaking Bonfires on the Heath eight more times, because each time there would be diminishing returns, and it would get really depressing.

The idea for this one was that I wasn't going to be precious about the Clientele's legacy or what we stand for—let's just make music that's uncompromising and interesting that we all enjoy. That's what we did, and I was not convinced that anyone would understand it or that it'd even find an audience. But my instincts are always wrong, because the critical reaction to this record is better than any we've ever made. People seem to get it, so I must have very low expectations. I don't expect people to listen in the age of streaming—I expect them to skip. This record makes a lot of demands on the listener. It's not an easy listening record. But maybe it's just a moment for it. People seem to be happy with that, which is just wonderful. It really delights me, so far at least.

I want to go back to that notion that putting out music isn't a necessity for you. Two albums into the Clientele's "comeback," do you feel like you're still playing things by ear in terms of the band's future and longevity?
A lot will depend on how this album does—and I don't mean critically, I mean whether it breaks even, because it was an expensive record to make. But I like the idea of a trilogy of late Clientele records, and I'm writing, which is good—and some of the stuff I'm writing is a lot like the more left-field things on this record, but pushed even further.

Every time we do this, we always get together and say, "We should just make a record in a really good studio with classical guitar, bass, and drums. We should just make it about the songs." We always start out that way, and we end up with a dubstep remix at the end. [Laughs] I can never tell what's gonna happen, but it feels like there's more petrol in the tank, and that people are interested. I will say that the signs are better than they have been for many years.

I have one more question for you: My friend asked about what you've been reading lately.
I've been reading an Argentinian author from quite a long time ago called Silvina Ocampo—she was friends with Borges and was part of that scene, but kind of got overlooked, probably partially out of misogyny. Her short stories, my girlfriend told me I should read them, and they've been blowing my mind. Anna Serra, a French writer, is also great—she does slightly surrealistic fairy tale stuff. There's also Lyn Hejinian, a New York poet who wrote two books called My Life and My Life in the '90s. Audrey Golden, who's a really good writer, told me I should read her. I've been struggling with her, but there was one line that opened it up for me: "If you stare at an object for long enough, its uncanniness will reveal itself." I thought, "Right, that's going on the next record."

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Jamie Larson