Few returns in 2017 have been as welcome as that of London’s the Clientele. It feels like a couple lifetimes have passed since 2010’s Minotaur, but Music For the Age of Miracles, released this week via Merge Records, shows no discernible wear and tear on the band’s unmistakable sound. Airy, autumnal, and possessing a twilight magic, the subtle “comeback” LP is the most adventurous outing yet from songwriter/guitar/vocalist Alasdair MacLean, drummer Mark Keen, and bassist James Hornsey. Alongside guests like harpist Mary Lattimore and Anthony Harmer, who plays a santur dulcimer, the trio gently expands on its jangle pop roots, incorporating cinematic strings, touches of Eastern classical music, thumping disco, and hypnotic psychedelia. It’s a record about altered states; singing breathily, MacLean evokes the logic of stars and myth, his surrealist lyrics hovering in the space between sleeping and dreaming.
AD spoke with MacLean on the eve of a trip to Spain about reactivating the Clientele and finding unlikely beauty in our present moment.
Aquarium Drunkard: It’s been some time since we’ve heard from the Clientele. You started a family, so I imagine it’s been a busy couple of years for you personally.
Alasdair MacLean: The last two and a half years have been a write-off, really. There’s been a small child in the house; everything’s been turned upside down. [Laughs] [Over the last seven years] there’s been Clientele reissues and two Amor de Dias records as well. There’s been a certain amount of creative activity but you know, it kind of gets pushed to the side in a way.
AD: From the outside, it more or less seemed like the Clientele was done. Were you surprised to find yourself making another record under the name?
Alasdair MacLean: It absolutely felt as if it was done for me. We’d basically done everything we could do, I felt. But I remembered playing with this guy called Anthony Harmer, before the Clientele. I must have been 18 or 19. He was somebody who really challenged me as a musician and songwriter, to the extent that I couldn’t really handle it as an 18-year-old. We were both very bossy and went our separate ways.
A couple of years ago, I bumped into him on the street. It turned out we lived about three streets from each other. We hadn’t seen each other in about 20 years. He knew about the Clientele, strangely, but I asked him what he’d been doing and he’d been learning the santur, which is an Iranian dulcimer. Rather than making records or writing words, he really mastered this instrument. That really got me interested. I’m interested in Eastern scales and I know a bit about Eastern classical music. It was actually him who suggested we play together. So we did. The songs just started to sound like Clientele songs. I played them to the other guys and they said, “Let’s make a record.”
AD: What about the sound of the Harmer’s santur helped spark new songs?
Alasdair MacLean: A long time before I met him – well, met him the second time – I used to walk to work across this foot tunnel underneath the Thames and there’d always be this old man on one side of it playing a Chinese dulcimer, which is very similar sounding. I always used to stand and watch him and try and get my courage up to ask him to come and do a session on a record, but I never did. I’m sure he’s long gone now, but it was always something I held in my mind, this beautiful instrument that sounds like a cross between a 12-string and a harpsichord, almost like a fairground carousel. It just seemed like a coincidence too many when [Harmer] said he was playing a similar instrument and lived so close to me and that he was actually glad to see me, which is by no means guaranteed.
AD: Did settling into family life change the way you approach songs?
Alasdair MacLean: It changed everything. From my perspective, I was writing songs at a glacial pace. I was doing a lot of the childcare for our son. I’d play the guitar for him when I wanted him to go to sleep. There would be certain things he’d respond to and I’d think, “Oh yeah, that would be a good first chord for a song.” Walking with him for miles and miles in the pram, I kind of wrote the songs as I walked.
It was really the first time I properly collaborated in terms of nuts and bolts of songwriting. I’d give the songs to Ant and he would change them around, put verses in different places. It was a very different approach, really. We’d record the songs very, very fast, but spend a long time preparing them. We had weeks and weeks for melodies to form, in terms of arrangements, counter-melodies, harmonies, vocals. It felt very much like Suburban Light in that sense, as those songs were written over a period of years rather than being something we had to produce over the course of nine months. It felt like there was more time to gather quality material and really let it take shape.
AD: You didn’t have to make another record. You were simply choosing to. Did that feeling free you up creatively?
Alasdair MacLean: What funded this record was occasionally, we’d play shows around the reissues. We’d just use the money we made from the shows to buy studio time. If at any point we decided, “Oh, this is a horrible idea,” we could just walk away from that. I think everybody, when you’re sort of semi-successful like we are, gets to a point were they want to make a record for fun. That’s very much what this one was all about. It’s a healthy thing.
AD: I love the contrast in your songs. In “Lunar Days,” you sing about these beautiful wintery scenes – the leaves in November, so on – but you also invoke a monster on the way. There’s a contrast in your words. Does the title, Music for the Age of Miracles sort of make space for those extremities? We live in miraculous times, but also kind of frightening times. Where was your head naming the record?
Alasdair MacLean: We live in a time that’s characterized by a mass outbreak of irrationality and magical thinking. I think in both our countries, really, there’s this sense that if we don’t step on the cracks in the paving stones, everything will be OK. It was to reflect that in a way. We’re starting to almost come to this juncture where we’re thinking like medieval people again, with all the bad things associated with that, but some of the good things, too. I think you’re right. It’s a mixed message. It’s not either good or bad, it’s kind of a mixture of dread and beauty.
AD: I can think a lot of the destructive qualities associated with the kind of thinking you’re talking about, but what are some of the things you find beautiful in it?
Alasdair MacLean: I think what’s beautiful about it is we’re starting to change after so long where culture and politics has stayed them same. I think we’re starting to enter into this transformative process. You know, I always say that surrealists would have loved this time because of the mass irrationality. They really valued that. They thought it was a kind of fire that remakes the way we think and the things we do. It’s not exactly hard to see the bad side to that, but I think when you look at what’s going on in the world, I think the wrong side has made the first move, and now it’s the right side’s turn. That’s an enormously optimistic thing. The ball’s in our court now.
AD: It’s easy to get caught up in depressive thinking about our current moment, but that’s an interesting way to think about it.
Alasdair MacLean: It’s usually the other way around: they’ve had the revolution and we can have a counter-revolution. There’s always a counter-revolution.
AD: All throughout the record, the lyre of Orpheus serves as a theme. You’re singing about “the old gods,” Lyra, the contrast between dark and light, the relationship between sleeping and dreaming. Have you always been attracted to heavenly bodies and the stories associated with them? Are you a stargazer?
Alasdair MacLean: Heh. I said to my partner Lupe [Nîºî±ez-Fernî¡ndez, of Amor de Dias] that if I wanted to learn anything new, it was astronomy. What I’ve learned instead, as much as about the celestial heavens or the stories associated with the stars [is how common they are]. Like the Pleiads, the seven sisters; [that constellation] has the same meaning in every culture, ancient or modern, from Aboriginal to the ancient Greek. There are seven women who are running away, fleeing or departing. That really fascinated me. [There was this] kind of metamorphosis from our everyday world to the stars, which you do see in a lot of ancient literature, Roman or Greek. That was a theme to me that was very interesting to me. There’s a Rilke poem called “The Neighbor,” which the first song on the album is named after, which talks about how wherever [the narrator] goes, there’s someone in the next room playing the violin beautifully, he wonders who it is. And it’s clearly Orpheus. The idea of Orpheus in the modern world — there’s a Cocteau film about it, and there’s all sorts of literature about it. I felt like there was a way to situate it in my world. It sounds awfully pretentious, but the myth of Orpheus is a big part of this record.
AD: You sing about the relationship between the dancer and the dance. Were you reflecting on your own music making and writing? Were you thinking about music and the way it’s framed your own life?
Alasdair MacLean: Maybe, but more as a vehicle for [exploring] this longing for what’s lost. We can’t justify our own culture or our own set of beliefs, even to ourselves, anymore. That just leads to this longing for what’s gone. That’s very much what that myth is about for me. It’s about trying to go find somebody who’s gone forever. That’s the real emotional core of it.
AD: Is why that story still speaks to us?
Alasdair MacLean: The impossibility of doing it is so embedded in that story. That’s what we’re facing ourselves, as part of our own condition.
AD: “The Museum of Fog” is a beautiful spoken word bit. Another one of your spoken pieces, “Losing Haringey” from Strange Geometry, is one of my favorites of your recordings. Do those start off as long-form essays when you write them?
Alasdair MacLean: “Losing Haringey” was like that. [“Museum of Fog” is] an excerpt from a longer book I’ve been writing for about five or six years. It’s a chapter from that book. It was never really my intention to do another one of those pieces, but when I heard the music of “Museum of Fog,” I just started to hear this story in my head. I tried to put them together and it worked, very weirdly, like “Losing Haringey” in terms of the length of the music, but with a mood, too. It was just another example that if you sit on something long enough, you find the right way to add to it.
AD: What kind of book are you writing?
Alasdair MacLean: It’s a novel. It’s a deeper kind of trawl through the Orpheus myth. You start to see Orpheus appearing in the streets around you, in the suburbs, in the noises you hear, you start to hear notes resonating with each other, in the sound of the motorway or a plane landing, different hums and unexplained noises. It’s kind of a like a ghost story, but the ghost is inside the music that you hear, you know? It’s still not finished, I’m afraid, but I’m working hard on it.
AD: Do you have a title or are you not ready to share that yet?
Alasdair MacLean: It’s currently called Orpheus in the Wires and it has a literary agent but not a publisher yet.
AD: There’s a very particular sound associated with Clientele records. This album brings in threads that you can trace throughout the band’s discography. You’ve got little elements of dance and disco, minimalist pop, and soft psych. When friends ask you –- people who aren’t associated with underground music –- what kind of music you play, how do you answer?
Alasdair MacLean: I usually try and shut down the conversation as quickly as possible and the best way to do that is to say, “Guitar music — kind of like the Beatles.”
AD: Are you playing the fuzz guitar on “Everything You See Tonight Is Different From Itself?”
Alasdair MacLean: I am. We are very lucky. We got sent a consignment of pedals from a company out of California called Acid Fuzz. We wheeled them out for that song.
AD: I love the way that sounds. So often a fuzz guitar takes on the characteristic of being a song’s rock & roll moment, but you used it more texturally.
Alasdair MacLean: I’m more of a classical guitarist, I’m not a rock guitarist, so it was always gives me a little bit of anxiety to use these things. I like to actually use vibrato from my fingers and actually control the sound of the guitar that way. They sent us a pedal called the Sonic Boom pedal, which is actually a recreation of the electrics inside of a Vox Starscreamer. You hear that sound all over the Spaceman 3 records. You can play with it and you’re in a Spaceman 3 album. So the challenge for us was to use it imaginatively. So we used it for a single note, texturally.
AD: You’ve been playing with the Clientele since 1991. Were there moments making this record that surprised you?
Alasdair MacLean: Other than the fuzz guitar…the guitar playing on that record is on a Spanish nylon string guitar, and there’s all sorts of other instruments: harp, French horn, santor, a Turkish instrument called a saz. It was kind of fun just to put them all together, to make bigger instruments with the sounds of all of them. We’ve never had friends able to help us or the time in the studio to do that. We’ve always had the ambition, but we’re always been too poor and too impatient to do it in the way we wanted to. I feel like we’re just starting that journey, really. I feel like we can do a lot more in terms of electronic beats and a lot more in terms of instrumental textures. It really sets you free, it’s like having a whole different palette of colors to use. I said I’d only do another Clientele record if we [grew]. We couldn’t keep on making Bonfires on the Heath indefinitely. We had to break through and do something else. We were actually able to. We had people like Mary Lattimore play harp for us, we had Ant play the santur. We got some really, really good musicians to help.
AD: How’s adapting the music for the stage been?
Alasdair MacLean: That’s a nightmare. [Laughs] We rehearsed last night and managed to get abridged, late night jazz nightclub versions of the songs working without all the orchestral elements. But that’s never been my worry. People see you live and they might talk about a show, but many more people will hear the records. It’s the records that really matter.
AD: Has the process of making another Clientele record cemented in your mind the idea you’ll make more?
Alasdair MacLean: I think we might. But it would have to be the way we made this record, where there’s always an ejector seat if we need it. What is just death to me as an artist is being told, “You have to make a new record now because otherwise there will be a new generation of college kids who don’t know about you.” In fact, that turned out to be not true at all. The minute we stopped promoting our music and we stopped playing, we started to get royalty checks. We really only started to sell records, it feels to me, after we stopped doing anything. It’s hard not to take it personally on one level, but it’s a nice surprise on the other. words/j woodbury; photos/Andy Wilsher