For the past 12 years, London's the Clientele have been steadily releasing poignantly whispery pop that took cues equally from the cult bands like Felt, Love, Galaxie 500 and the Zombies, yet had its own unique stamp on it. When 2000's singles compilation Suburban Light found a home the next year on Merge, the band began a long-term relationship with the label that resulted in some of the decade's finest records (The Violet Hour and Strange Geometry in particular). That could all come to an end soon. Front-man and chief songwriter Alasdair MacLean recently confessed that the new and rather brilliant album Bonfires on the Heath could be the band's last. Exclaim! checked in with MacLean to talk about the end of the band as well as the new album, what they didn't want to score the entire movie where Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock make love via the post and learn how easy it was to score acid back in the '90s.
You've said this could be your last record. Has that changed as you get closer to the album's release?
No, it's still pretty much the same.
Would you say for the band to keep going this album has to be more successful? What are your expectations?
Hopefully people will understand where we're coming from and enjoy it. That's about it, expectations-wise.
For Bonfires on the Heath you guys took it back down to just the four of you. What was it about making God Save the Clientele that triggered that decision?
I'd have been happy to fly in all sorts of other musicians to clear up the mess we'd made, but that had happened on God Save the Clientele. The others maybe felt as a result that they'd not exercised their talents to the full on that record, so they wanted the band to take control of the whole process, and have everything come from the four of us.
Bonfires on the Heath sounds refined, like you were going for a much more organic sound, fewer layers. It reminds me a little of Suburban Light in that respect. There doesn't seem to be any of Louis Philippe's strings this time around. What were some of the changes you were looking to make?
Yes, personally I envisaged a simpler sound, a rehearsal room sound, 'cause we've never really committed that to tape, the way we play as a band, where there's big spaces in the sound, primitively tape echoed vocals, and a bit of a groove going on. The Clientele can sound quite dubby or even post-punk experimental when we rehearse. But as the process went on we ended up with something quite different from that and a lot of it came from Mark and Mel who were crafting the arrangements for the songs.
The press release for the album says "Bonfires on the Heath is in a sense a return to The Clientele's roots." Do you see it that way?
Yeah, I think so. The acid pop side of things, that's definitely where we came from as teenagers. Everything the Beatles recorded in '67, which back then was not a fashionable influence to have at all! In 1991 to 1992, as a 16-year-old in Hampshire I could get hold of acid more easily than booze, we never got carded by drug dealers! So of course that led to lots of unexpectedly huge doses and comedy bad trips, and much later it seemed to trigger schizophrenic episodes in a couple of people I knew, who ended up being hospitalized. But we saw ourselves as sort of oneironauts, based in the lonely suburban countryside, and we wanted to reflect that, it was all very adolescent but something about the music we made was really haunting to me, it stayed in my imagination. I came back to that with the songs on this album, as a sadder, wiser man.
What made you cover your own song, "Graven Wood"? Did that song have any particular significance or was it something you were just looking to re-record?
It goes back to the teenager thing, it's a song that [former band member] Innes Phillips wrote when he was 16, and to me it's a kind of a primal song, it's really where the whole band and its sound came from. I suppose at a certain age you go back to what you did in the beginning and that song still stood up for me. So by covering it, we're closing a circle.
After four albums, four EPs and countless singles, does the band sit down and discuss how to make a new album?
No, in my experience that sort of conceptual approach tends to result in ugly music. Our working practice is to throw everything we can at the wall, and whatever sticks is the album. The concept comes after that!
The Clientele had a song in the chick flick The Lake House. Your music has always held a cinematic quality to it. Were you hesitant to lend your music to that film?
The producers initially approached us to write the whole soundtrack, which I was hesitant about, but only because for some reason I assumed they wouldn't have any money to pay for the studio time! Why I thought that I have no idea, I guess I'd been working with student filmmakers up to that point. Anyway we had no problem with them using our song, it's kept me afloat through dark financial times ever since.
You guys are much more successful in North America than you are in the UK, yet there's a definite Britishness to the Clientele. Why do you think you've done better as an export?
I honestly have no idea. It's exasperating.
Finally, you've been making music since 1991? Does it seem like an eternity to you?
James and I first played together in '91. The Clientele formed properly around '97. But yes, that does indeed seem an eternity!