Interview w/ The Clientele


Haunting reverberations bob and slink, effortlessly bringing fourth frayed images of meandering uncertainty and fallen loves, each time The Clientele’s music is heard. This is how Alasdair MacLean utilizes his hushed, buoyant and atmospherically drenched vocal delivery as the band’s frontman.. MacLean’s voice, a ghostly pulley that lifts monochrome memories and fluttering echoes of despondency from his mind, is an abyss of mystery and loneliness. Here, in a dreamscape that only The Clientele can illustrate, wafting notes thumb through the melodic rubble of an archaic time capsule. Minimalist pop comparisons are, when compared to 1960s bands like The Zombies and The Cowsills, very apparent. With the release of last year’s airy, sensationally crafted “Bonfires on the Heath,” The Clientele have pierced the core of an virtuosic, ageless reflection of loss. Cinema Spartan was lucky enough to catch up with the ambient voice of The Clientele, Alasdair MacLean, about the band’s newest tour and the accidental odyssey that led to their most recent opus.


Robert Patrick: You guys are about to embark on a colossus tour – but you’ve done it successfully before. What is the key to keeping such a steady momentum, show after show, during a tour this lengthy?

Alasdair MacLean: I’m afraid the only way to cope is by throwing down each and every night. That’s what we taught Beach House when they toured with us, they were a bit taken aback initially, but they’ve since personally thanked me for it. You can’t expect to be able to go for a run, eat healthy home cooked food or have much time alone, all these sacrifices combined are enough to turn anyone to the bottle.


You’re playing here, at The Casbah, in March. The last time the Clientele played in San Diego was with Beach House, in May 07. What are some of the things you remember from your last visit to San Diego?

We always come to San Diego after a very long but beautiful drive through the desert from Texas through Arizona. It’s great to see the light turn blue and green as you approach the sea. I’m always grateful I survived really, I tend to go for a stroll and get some Italian food. The venue may be right next to the airport but I tell myself I’m smelling a sea breeze.


The Clientele has a breathy, ethereal quality to it. The music evokes breezy memories through hauntingly effective vocals and instrumentation – in short, there is a lot of mood throughout. What were some of your influences when you first started molding the band’s sound?

Musically it was Arthur Lee and Love, The Zombies, The Beach Boys, Galaxie 500. There’s something strange going on in a lot of these records, behind the music there’s an ambience, almost a sense of colour and light, if you’ll forgive how pretentious that sounds. In a deeper way it was to recall states of being, states of grace from the past. That’s what music is really about for me, how it can transport you from your own life. Its mysteriousness.


Your music has been used in a soundtrack before, but would you ever be interested in scoring a film, whether a documentary or otherwise, at some point in the future?

Yes, I would be very interested in making a soundtrack. I think it could work very well. Sorry, that sounded like a job interview answer, but it is something I’d love to do.


The mediums of film and music seep into each other at times. Has film ever influenced you, even in the smallest of ways, when writing or performing music? If so, what are some of your favorite films?

Yes definitely. I think it’s something potentially fascinating; you had the way all these 1950s pirate movies have soundtracks that sound like Debussy – now whenever I hear Debussy I think of rolling oceans in early technicolour blue. It’s ruined Debussy for me, really. On the other hand you can have something like the final sequence in L’Eclisse by Antonioni, where the camera cuts between everyday objects like a bucket full of water or a washing line and you hear Giovanni Fusco’s atonal avant garde soundtrack of plinks and plonks, it creates this strange atmosphere of heightened tension and significance. My all time favourite soundtrack is from the Spanish 1970s film called The Spirit of the Beehive, it’s absolutely haunting.


You’ve been quoted as saying that this record might be the last from the band. What prompted that idea? And more importantly, has the thought subsided since you last spoke publicly about it?

i think it was prompted by the feeling that I was just running out of ideas for a bass/drums/guitar/voice context. I’d rather make more of a kind of chamber music with other instruments, different kinds of harmonies and songs, maybe even work on a film soundtrack type thing. My aesthetic is that bands shouldn’t out-stay their welcome, it’s far more important to leave an interesting body of work than keep plugging away because there’s nothing better to do. We’ve made 5 albums over a decade, most of which I think were worthwhile, so it would be good to leave that body of work and move on. Maybe I can do that with the band, maybe I can’t. I don’t think we can make another record like the 5 we’ve already made though.


This accidental consumption of LSD was at the vanguard of your newest album’s internal workings. You just made an appearance in Spain, which is where the whole transgression initially happened sometime ago, and played your newest record. Was it weird going back to the place that spawned this strange, unforeseen journey and playing the record that influenced it?

(Laughs) Yes, it was strange, although most of the inspiration for the record came from the after-glow of that experience, which carried on all through summer and early autumn back in London. I remember walking through Hampstead Heath one very bright summer day and the sound of the leaves in the wind and the empty space giving me the chills. Whenever summer comes round in a certain part of London I’m back in that space again.


Can you talk about the artwork on “Bonfires of the Heath”? It’s so much brighter and succinct than some of your earlier records, where bleak and despondent shapes were prevalent. But with that being said, it still retains the same ghostly aura of reflection and uncertainty. What’s the story behind the cover?

The cover image is a 16th century painting by Arcimboldo, of a lady whose skin is made of flowers. I guess she’s a kind of nature spirit. You have to remember Arcimboldo was painting at a time when they still burned witches, they believed in the literal existence of incubi and succubi and demons. There’s a kind of active unpleasantness about the way she’s looking I think. I found it very haunting, it seemed to echo a lot of the uncanny moments on the record. Very Wicker Man!


I heard you were working on a side project which is sung predominately in Spanish. What spurred you to begin this work, and how is it coming along?

It’s only about 20% in Spanish. I wanted primarily to make a record that had unusual rhythms and sounds (for me anyway); bossa and flamenco and a bit of jazz and musique concrete. It’s an odd mixture of those things and some spooky folk, old lullabies and things. We’ve recorded harps and cellos and saxophones and trumpets and stand up bass, lots of unusual instruments. I’m collaborating on it with Lupe Nunez Fernadez from a band called Pipas, we’re called Amor de Dias, which means Love of Days. The record’s being mixed now so expect to see it some time in 2010 I guess.


If you close out the chapter in your life, in which The Clientele wassuch a large part of, which song from the band would you want to show someone as the culmination of your best ideas?

That’s a tough one. I think Impossible from Strange Geometry is a good song; it’s complex but carries itself lightly, lots of different lyrical images weaving in and out, to me it has a real sense of atmosphere and intensity. It’s not afraid of complexity, it’s real.


For more information on The Clientele, visit and

Author: Rob Patrick

The program director of the Olympia Film Society, Rob is also a former San Diego Film Critics Society member. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. When he isn't curating a film festival, he is drinking rosé out of a plastic cup in Seattle or getting tattoos from Jenn Champion.

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