The Clientele :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

The Clientele has been constructing gorgeous, buoyant psychedelic pop for more than three decades now, distilling the languid beauty of a late summer afternoon into whispery gems that hide surprising complications.Yet there has always been more to the Clientele’s art than wistful elegance, and never more so than I Am Not There Anymore, the band’s ninth full-length. A sprawling double album, this latest missive incorporates the jewel-like pop songs you might expect, along with minimalist instrumental intervals, field recordings and one arresting spoken word piece set to the music, literally, of wind, transcribed for string quartet.

Alasdair MacLean talked about his experiments with Ableton software, his delayed grappling with his mother’s death and the persistent, lifelong suspicion that none of this, himself included, is real.He explained why he’d set aside the guitar, mostly, for this hour-long disc, but stuffed in everything else that he could lay hands on.“The only concept for me, really, was that I tried to put everything I know into this record. As if it were the last thing I was ever going to make,” he explained. | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: This new album seems very different from your work in the past. It’s longer, it’s got some unusual beats in it, it has some spoken word and it feels like a concept album. Can you tell me about how you conceived this record and how it was different from your perspective?

Alasdair Maclean: I always thought that the Clientele was best on 7”, you know, two sides. That’s how people got excited about us to start with. I always felt uncomfortable with 45-minute-long records. They went on too long and got boring. It was too much of the same thing.

With this record, we didn’t have a concept. We just recorded and recorded and recorded. Then we suddenly thought, well, if Merge will let us do a double album, we should do a double album. And actually, within the band, we feel that it works really well with our sound. We were able to do loads of different stuff. If you only had 45 minutes and for one of the songs you said, I want it to be an atonal string quartet with someone reading a poem over it, everyone would say, “Well, I’m not sure about that. Why don’t we do another pop song instead?” But at this length, you have room to experiment and slow things down and make people listen to different things in different moods.

The only concept for me, really, was that I tried to put everything I know into this record. As if it were the last thing I was ever going to make. That’s how it felt. I wanted to put everything I know emotionally into it, and all the things I love I wanted to put into it. I wanted it to be real and absolutely true and to have no self-consciousness about whether anyone would like it or what anyone would think about it. While it was being created, that’s how I was thinking about it. Now I’m very worried about whether people are going to like it.

AD: I’m really interested in this concept of not feeling real. Just as a bit of entirely unnecessary backstory, I’m famous in my family for, as a small child, waking my mother up in the middle of the night and asking her whether I was real. So I was wondering if you could talk about that, and how you were feeling about it and what it means?

Alasdair Maclean: That’s a beautiful story. I almost wanted to call the record Fugue States, but I stepped back from that because a fugue state is a medical condition and this is about a feeling rather than a medical condition and I didn’t want to be disrespectful to people who have the medical condition.

But all of my life, I’ve had moments of lightheadedness where I felt that I was not actually real. It starts when you’re very young, you’re right. I remember being at school and looking at the clouds. And the teacher was saying, the clouds are moving. And I couldn’t understand what that meant because everything was moving, to me, everything around me was moving. You know?

This wasn’t something that I wanted to make a concept album about, at all, but it was something that started to come into each of the songs. From the memory of just staring out from the school classroom at streetlights. Which is a real memory. Like a chemistry class. And just thinking, I’m not anybody. I’m not real.

AD: The whole vertigo thing.

Alasdair Maclean: Yeah. And I thought it was a beautiful thing to make a record about. No one will understand it, but that’s beautiful, too.

AD: Now did you think there was something that was real under the surface? Religions have this idea of the veil and everything being illusion but there’s something real underneath it.

Alasdair Maclean: Yeah, the protecting veil. But what does it protect you from?

I like the idea, in the Borges stories, the Argentinian writer, he writes about someone who spends his time dreaming someone else. He dreams what he would look like and what he would talk like and how he would react to certain stimuli and what streets he would walk in, and at the end of the story, he writes this beautiful sentence. ““With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he too was a mere appearance, dreamt by another.”

The infinite regress. I love the idea of the infinite regress. And for me coming from where I do come from. I was educated in the 1990s and a lot of people were talking about that. Philosophies. There are really interesting parallels with things like Indian mysticism. But the infinite regress of yourself was an idea that I didn’t enjoy in an intellectual way. It was a visceral recognition of the truth in my life when I read about it.

AD: I noticed in the song, “Claire Is Not Real,” which is a really pretty, buoyant, sweeping song. But it’s about this very disorienting feeling: “Sometimes I’m walking home/I’m at my door/I’m not there anymore.”

Alasdair Maclean: Yeah. That’s the beauty of pop music. You can have two levels. Someone can whistle the song. They hear it on the radio. But if you go a bit deeper, there can be a whole other message. The beauty of pop music, that it can work on two or even three levels simultaneously. They don’t have to connect. People can find what they want from each one.

AD: “Blue Over Blue,” is also a really nice one, sonically. It’s got that gorgeous chorus, with the trumpet and that funny, kind of sputtery beat. I was wondering what you could tell me about writing that one?

Alasdair Maclean: That one was written in the time it takes to listen to it. It came into my head. I can’t remember what I was doing. I was tired. I’d come home from a walk in the woods with my son. He was small. I think maybe I was giving him a bath, and the song just came into my head. And the way we did this record was, as soon as a song came into my head, I took the other guys into the studio and we recorded it straightaway.

AD: What kind of time period are we talking about? Are some of these songs from fairly long ago and others are more recent?

Alasdair Maclean: We started just before the pandemic, so that’s three and a half years. We really didn’t want to record all of the songs in one go over two weeks. That’s just a way to make everything sound the same. But we also didn’t want to rehearse them too much, because I think there’s often a freshness when something’s new. The imperfections make it fresh. There might be an extra beat. There might be a mistake on the guitar or something that you keep in because it makes it less predictable. So that’s how each of these songs were recorded. As soon as they were in my head, we recorded them.

AD: Do they sound on the record, pretty much the way they sounded when you recorded them for the first time? Or did you work on them afterwards?

Alasdair Maclean: Yeah, once the rhythms and the vocals were done — the first vocals were often the final ones — but the arrangements we worked on.

AD: The arrangements are pretty intricate, in some cases.

Alasdair Maclean: Yeah, we would take them home and say, what should we have on this? We could really have almost anything. We brought in a stringed quartet for a few sessions and some horns. We had a celesta. We just decided to use whatever we thought of.

The way the album was working was as a chamber record by which I mean that every instrument is distinct and can be heard separately from every other instrument. There’s no mush. There’s no big syrupy, echoey sound. Each instrument has its place as part of the equation. And that works best with the string quartet. Without overdubbing them. You just have the violin playing in counterpoint to another violin playing in counterpoint to cello and a viola. It was a challenge to do that. I wrote about 70% of the arrangements, and I had no idea what I was doing. Sometimes if you have no idea what you’re doing, it’s better, because you just go into it. So it was just like well, I suppose if other people can do this, I might be able to. So it was just sitting there with a computer and a notepad and doing it.

AD: What about the “Radial” pieces, these short interstitial things? How do they fit into the structure of the album?

Alasdair Maclean: Mark wrote those, not me. Mark is a piano tuner, and he works in a piano shop, and the beauty of that is he can just get a recorder and sit and play piano. He had all these ideas for tunes, and we did actually record them all in one go. We took him into a really nice, very professional studio in North London with a grand piano. And just said, “You’ve got a day. Just record what you want to record.” And brought in a celesta there as well to play.

AD: A celesta, that’s a keyboard? What is that exactly?

Alasdair Maclean: It’s like a percussive instrument with a keyboard. So I guess John Cale played one on Nick Drake’s stuff. The most famous celesta piece is the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from the Nutcracker. That’s the celesta. And I thought let’s just get some of these piano pieces and do them on celesta, because they’re kind of spooky and it’s a spooky instrument. So we had all the piano pieces and we had all these pop songs, and then we had these beats and we had atonal strings. And I was like, how the hell do we sequence this? There’s over an hour of music. And the answer was just to intersperse everything with field recordings and people pieces. It’s like looking away. Or looking towards something else, looking in another direction and then looking back afterwards. It’s less heavy. The songs are heavy songs. They’re not happy songs. It’s good to have a minute to catch your breath before the next one comes along.

AD: They’re heavy, maybe, thematically, but there’s a lot of light and air in the sound.

Alasdair Maclean: There’s a pastel drawing on the inside of the sleeve that I did, and it’s like every space is filled with color or shapes. I feel like my guitar playing is like that, too, I play, I overplay, I fill every quaver with a note or a pattern. I look back at it and I think, oh my god. There’s something almost manic there. And while there is negative space in the arrangements, when the arrangements come in, everything’s happening at once. There’s no space to breathe in it. That’s the mindset I had at that time, and I’m so glad I don’t have it anymore, you know?

AD: I did want to ask you about the track “My Childhood,” which is mostly spoken word with some really agitated string playing. Who is that speaking? How did that track come about?

Alasdair Maclean: That’s Jessica Griffin from the band, the Would-Be-Goods. They’re still going, but they started in the 1980s on él Records, which is quite a legendary label. And they were a legendary band, too.

There’s some recording software called Ableton, which probably most people who record on the computer know about. I’d never done it before. So I was like, let’s try this out. Let’s try Ableton out. And I found that it did this thing where you could play an audio signal into it. Like you could play a recording. You could record me, humming a tune, and there was this function where you could transfer that to a MIDI file, which means it would transfer to a digital file. You could then give it a voice with other instruments. So you’d capture the melody and the timing of what I was humming and you could send it into a cello voice. It was like voodoo. I don’t know anything else that can do that. It doesn’t make any sense to me at all. But it does this thing, right?

I thought, let’s push it as far as it can go. I had a lot of recordings of the wind. I’d made field recordings. So I said to Ableton, transpose the melody of the wind. And of course, it was trying really, really hard to transpose the melody, but the melody was constantly shifting. The wind doesn’t have a single melody. Or even steps between notes. It just goes up and down. And so I took the MIDI of that and scored it for a string quartet. So that string quartet is the sound of the wind transposed to four string instruments.

AD: Holy cow.

Alasdair Maclean: There’s nothing particularly impressive about it. It was just messing around with a computer. For me, it’s something impressive if it serves some aesthetic purpose. I thought, well, this sounds like Ligeti or maybe Messiaen with all the bird calls.

AD: That was a big thing in the early modern era, trying to transcribe bird noise.

Alasdair Maclean: Yeah, Messiaen did that. And then I really want to do a disembodied voice. I could hear a Boards of Canada-like dead computer voice saying things over this. And we tried that and it didn’t work. So I thought, who’s the person with the loveliest voice I know. It’s Jessica. Jessica Griffin. Can we ask her to read something out? Can she read out this poem, which is pretty flowery?

AD: She didn’t write the poem?

Alasdair Maclean: No, no, no. The poem was written about 75% by me. The other 25% are taken as fragments from things I was reading or quotes. I added the “My childhood is” part and then the descriptions afterwards, these impossible descriptions. The Shelley quote, “This life that seems ordinary but is not.” That’s from a letter by Shelley, the romantic poet. And then we kind of put it all together, and I was like, oh my god, the other members of the band are going to shoot me. This is the most pretentious thing they’ve ever heard in their lives. But they didn’t. They really liked it,. And I also thought, well, I don’t care about being pretentious. Pretentious is good. Not enough people are pretentious. We just stuck it there in the middle of the record.

AD: And also come back to it at the end?

Alasdair Maclean: Yeah, the same poem is revoiced with a different field recording at the end, which is a field recording of bees. Bees buzz in the key of C. They buzz at 440 hertz in the key of C, so if you record a hive, you’ll get — unlike with the wind where the tonality is very fluid—you’ll get a note, which is the key of C. Which I find quite interesting. People talk about the music of the spheres, the axis of the world, the music of the universe, whatever, that’s such and such a note. But actually it’s not. There isn’t any scientific proof. But bees do buzz in a C natural at 440 hertz, so there was that drone. It’s bees. Underneath it. And then there’s some modal stuff that we put on top.

AD: I feel like that poem, those words are maybe kind of a throughline for the whole album? Or would you say that’s not true? It felt like that was how you got into the subject matter, which is about childhood and loss and nature and all that stuff.

Alasdair Maclean: The descriptions in that poem describe things that are so self-contradictory, they fold into nothing. What I’m really saying is “My childhood is” and you can’t say what it is. But you’re still saying it. You’re still saying the words. There’s an element of voice but no meaning. That’s the key for me.

I used to read Mallarme, the symbolist poet. I asked my friend to translate it. He was studying French, and he said, “It means ‘the musician of nothingness.’” And I just stood there, and I thought no way, this is what Tom Verlaine is doing. Lightning struck itself. Corners turn in on themselves. It’s using words, and they almost fold in on each other, the meaning, like a flat pack furniture that collapses. So this is something I’m trying to do here. But the meaning somehow still stays. It’s mysterious. Like there is a meaning. But you can’t define what it is in words. If there is a golden thread that runs through this record, that’s what it is.

AD: Part of what you were working through on this album was the death of your mother, which happened quite a long time ago. Why did that rise to the surface now?

Alasdair Maclean: I never talked about it before. I hadn’t talked about it for 20 years, and I thought it was time for me to come out and face things that I had only been able to face implicitly before, and I wanted to face it head on. It’s embarrassing, you know. It’s embarrassing to share those songs or even that knowledge with people who probably aren’t very interested or feel uncomfortable about it. There might be some people who find some sort of commonality and might help them in some way. It’s embarrassing, but it was something I wanted to write about. It seemed to cast a shadow over all the other things we’ve talked about. Like who are you? Where do you come from? What do you know? Somehow it fed into all those questions for me. And just kind of facing it down. I don’t want to make it sounds like the album’s a therapy session, because it’s deliberately kept blurred. It’s out of sequence. The wrong bits are at the start. The right bits are in the middle. You know, but I suppose that sense of grief or the return of repressed grief, that’s something that I wanted to write about.

AD: But for instance you’ve got this song “Dying in May” which I assume is part of that whole subject, and it’s the most rocking and propulsive of all the songs on the album. Did you feel like you had to translate these very personal, inward-looking feelings into something that was more outward facing?

Alasdair Maclean: To some extent. I mean, the beat on that song…the actual drumbeat is in 9/8 timing. Whereas the rest of the stuff in that song is in 4/4. So it constantly shifts underneath. The emphasis in the beat and the emphasis in the melodies and the singing, they constantly shift. Each bar is different. I thought that was really interesting. It was another interesting but not unpleasant disorientation.

I was listening to things like “On the Corner” by Miles Davis, some jazz drummers like Rashid Ali, where there isn’t even a time signature, just a pulse, and of course, flamenco music. Flamenco music is incomprehensible if you don’t have it in your blood. I’m talking about the rhythms, the palettes. You can’t notate them. You just don’t know where they’re going to spring up. So that’s where that came from, but it sounds like a death rattle, too. I’ve always thought that records should be made of images rather than ideas. You should be writing about an image that’s happened over and over again. And a lot of the images in this record are about staring out of a hospice window. Which sounds bleak, but I found an odd beauty in it. I wanted to make it beautiful and to save it.

AD: I can see that. Was she in the hospice long?

Alasdair Maclean: No. She wasn’t. I don’t want to go on too much with this. It’s not anything that anyone should really be interested in. I’m not John Lennon with Julia.

AD: It’s a very common experience, having a parent die.

Alasdair Maclean: Yeah, I guess so, by the time you get to a certain age.

AD: There’s a lot of really beautiful natural imagery in the lyrics. Flowers and weather and woods and rain. You said you were making these songs in the pandemic. Were you spending more time than usual outside?

Alasdair Maclean: I guess I was, now I think about it. There wasn’t much else to do in this country at least. There were times when we weren’t even allowed to leave our houses.

There have always been natural things in Clientele songs. We grew up in the suburbs outside London. You were never really quite sure where you were. You were on the edge of the city, but you were also in a horrible, rough, nasty town, where people hated each other and hated anyone who was different. And then there was the countryside after that. The edges of where everything started and finished, you could never find where they were. They moved every day. The natural imagery uses the things I dreamed of from those days. And so it’s often polluted with a suburban feel rather than a bucolic feel.

AD: The hatchbacks are rolling…

Alasdair Maclean: Yeah, that’s people rushing off on the orbital that went to London, the motorway. People would leave because they were going to a rave on the orbital around London. And you’d watch them all go when the pub closed. Sometimes my friends would go with them and sometimes I did. It was quite striking to see all these little cars with kids driving them heading up to the motorway.

We lived in a motorway down. We were next to the freeway. We could hear it the whole time, all through the night, all through the day. It was a liminal place, that’s what they would say nowadays. Psycho-geographically, people would say it was a liminal place where all the edges met. It was very confusing.

AD: Aren’t they all, really?

Alasdair Maclean: Yeah, it’s everywhere, you’re right.

AD: You sometimes get inspiration from unusual instruments. Is there any of that going on in this record?

Alasdair Maclean: You know, I’m a guitar player. I can’t play any other instruments. I’m hopeless. I can play Greek bouzouki on this record, but that’s easy because it’s tuned like the top four strings of a guitar. That’s what I’m actually able to do with my hands. So having a computer where you could plot notes and voice them for other instruments was so interesting.

On the last record, we had a santoor, which was played by a friend of mine called Ant, and that’s a hammered dulcimer, a Persian instrument. It’s from Iran, and I guess this time we had a celesta. But I don’t know if I’m necessarily inspired by strange instruments. I play guitar. I have a classical guitar background. I like playing classical guitar. I like playing electric guitar. But I needed to take a holiday from that for this record because it was getting too predictable. I needed to think about rhythms and violins and other instruments.

AD: Is there no guitar or less guitar on this record?

Alasdair Maclean: There’s much less guitar. There’s some tracks where there’s no guitar and there are some tracks where I’m not on at all. I just did the arrangements. And the guitar really moved back a bit.

We’d been on a tour in America, where I’d been playing guitar solos. And the more I played them, the more I saw that people in the audience were responding to them. They had a faux primitive sound that Tom Verlaine had. Tom Verlaine had this crazy classical vibrato in his left hand, which I’ve got too because that’s the way I was taught guitar. And so I couldn’t play as well as him or as fluently or as fluidly, but I could play in a way that sounded like him. I could play fast and I know the scales that he used. And at the end of the tour, I just looked at myself, and I thought, what are you doing? Why are you copying someone else’s style? Why are you trying to please the crowds? This isn’t something that a real musician does. This is what a performing monkey does. Someone who copies other people’s ideas. I can’t even explain what purpose those ideas were being put to. I felt really ashamed and I decided not to play guitar for a while and work out other ways of making music. Because the temptation is always, if you can play guitar to a reasonable degree, to throw in someone else’s ideas, to steal something. I didn’t trust myself to do that in an ethical or a healthy way after that tour.

AD: In all the arts, people borrow from other artists. It’s part of the endeavor, I think.

Alasdair Maclean: I agree with that. They borrow inspiration, perhaps, or they borrow something that is more than just a mechanical copying. If you borrow George Harrison’s slide playing style, what’s the point? But if you borrow George Harrison’s ways of approaching the spiritual or some of the interesting scales and bends he used on some of the Beatle’s records, that’s a bit more interesting to me. I don’t see the point in stealing someone’s style just because it gives people something that they already know, that they want. It’s cheap, I think.

AD: Do you get ideas from other art forms like books or movies or visual art?

Alasdair Maclean: Yeah. Definitely. More from those than from music itself.

AD: What are some of the things that have struck you lately, outside music?

Alasdair Maclean: There’s a lot of really good poetry that I’ve been reading lately. There’s a Swedish poet called Tomas Tranströmer who writes in images. It’s like what I’m trying to describe, he does already, without having to conceptualize it or talk about it in an interview. He just does it. I think he’s dead, actually, but his poetry is beautiful. It’s in Swedish, so I’ve only read the translations.

I’ve also been enjoying a French writer named Anne Serre, and of course, the joke is that if you pronounced in French like “on-sahr” it’s like “answer.” But she’s really interesting because she seems to be the only French person at the moment following the line of the early 20th century surrealists like Andre Breton. She writes fairy stories, you know, but like Angela Carter but Angela Carter always seemed a bit twee and British. Like, “We’re not going to talk about anything too nasty, because we don’t want people to get uncomfortable.” But Anne Serre, she gets pretty uncomfortable pretty fast, and it’s really, really interesting. It’s beautiful writing. Those things definitely feed into ideas for me, images and from images come music. The music fits the images in some way. I can’t explain. It’s like the music encapsulates the image, and then the music and the image can become a song.

AD: What are you working on now? I assume you’re getting ready to convert this into a live experience somehow.

Alasdair Maclean: Yeah. Right. Well, we have our first rehearsal tomorrow, so we’ll see how that goes. I think we’re going to be scratching our heads about how to do it, but we’ll work out a way. I’d like it to be just three people. I’d like it to be a bassist, the drummer and the guitarist translating this. It’s interesting. I’m not sure how we’ll do it. That’s part of the fun, not knowing how you’ll do it.

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