For New Zealand’s drone-pop pioneers The Clean, there is no escape, especially when the dreamy, fog-shrouded merry-go-’round that is “Are You Really On Drugs,” a hypnotic track off the group’s upcoming release Mister Pop, emerges from the late ’60s in a beautifully disoriented daze.
“Hmmm … the old ‘V’ word,” muses Robert Scott. “I guess there are similarities in our approach, although they did have more members.”
Acknowledging the common ground the two groups share, Scott doesn’t hide his admiration for Lou Reed and company. And The Clean do work off the VU template from time to time. It’s just that The Clean have expanded on it in such a unique, and often brighter, way that they have influenced a slew of indie-rock luminaries, like Yo La Tengo, Pavement and Sonic Youth.
“We both do long drone-y kind of things, and concise pop songs, too — noise, ballads, etc.,” says Scott. “For me, I always like the chords and structures they go for; it’s to my taste, and the solos, too. They are not over the top. The organ/keyboard sound, too, is what we go for. I think they were way ahead of their time trying the things they did back then — no light onstage, confronting the crowd with walls of feedback.”
Like VU, The Clean, founded in the New Zealand town of Dunedin in 1978 by David and Hamish Kilgour and guitarist Peter Gutteridge, could be considered trailblazers. Critics have long raved about their singular ability to synthesize Syd Barrett/Pink Floyd psychedelia with kraut-rock experimentalism, an economical, yet endearing, lo-fi aesthetic and a keen, some might call it quirky, pop sensibility that keeps it all from coming apart at the seams. Still, Mister Pop, released Sept. 8 on Merge Records, may just be the band’s crowning achievement.
From the jangle-pop innocence of “In The Dreamlife U Need A Rubber Soul” to the acid-trip instrumental “Moon Jumper” and beyond to the sparkling melodic simplicity of “Factory Man” and the colorful blend of natural sounds, tinkling piano and tight acoustic-guitar knots that is “Simple Fix,” The Clean have concocted a wonderfully diverse and ear-catching love potion of pop styles and instrumentation.
“We have always tried to have a mixture on our albums to keep them interesting,” says Scott. “Also when we write, jamming-wise, it does throw up a lot of different things; then there are the tunes like ‘Dreamlife …’ that David had pretty much written so that sounds more like a classic pop song, as apposed to something like ‘Moonjumper.’”
Not as gleefully noisy or stridently lo-fi as the material The Clean used to drop in the late 1970s, Mister Pop, for all its warmth, remains a mischevious delight. In spots, though, the long-awaited studio successor to 2001’s Getaway does harken back to when The Clean were at the vanguard of a burgeoning New Zealand punk scene.
Scott joined up long after Gutteridge had departed; Gutteridge left just before the Kilgour brothers decided to establish The Clean’s beachhead in Auckland. As The Clean carried on with a revolving door of bassists, the uncertainty surrounding the band became too much. David quit and moved back to Dunedin. It was there that David struck up a musical partnership with Scott. Hamish then moved back to Dunedin to be a part of what David and Scott were doing.
But even before all that, The Clean were a sensation.“We did start a scene, but it was already there to some extent, too,” recalls Scott. “There was, of course, The Enemy, who pretty much started that kind of thing off. There were a few other punk bands, too, like London SS.”
Scott did witness the gathering storm of Kiwi punk before joining The Clean. Seeing them live and hearing their dissonant melodicism left an impression. The details are fuzzy, but he remembers, “I came into town one night, and the first band I saw was The Enemy supported by The Clean. I thought, ‘This looks and sounds like fun, very exciting.’ The Clean were very rough at the time, but that didn’t matter. The scene really took off in ’79-’80; a lot of bands formed and were playing all the time wherever we could. We would often hire a hall and put on our own shows; sometimes the bodgies/hoods/thugs would come break in and try and beat us up. Sometimes it was the police.”
The Clean would become the lifeblood of the country’s celebrated Flying Nun record label. Throughout the years, the members would go their separate ways, creating other projects like Scott’s The Bats, David’s remarkable solo career and Hamish’s Mad Scene. Occasional reunions would result in more music. Gutteridge even joined the Kilgours for a more acoustic project called The Great Unwashed.
To much of the world, however, The Clean were a mystery until 2003’s definitive Clean collection Anthology, also on Merge, opened eyes, and ears, everywhere to their underappreciated brilliance. Now comes Mister Pop, and it is classic Clean, even if the instrumentation is a little more full and rich.
“I guess it shares our sense of adventure, fun love of songs, chances taken, themes explored, instruments tried,” says Scott. “It has our love of instrumentals and jam-style pieces and our continuing struggle with the pop-song format.”
After all these years, The Clean seems to be winning that struggle.