Laid-back punk pioneer is a world away
Before the Internet connected the entire world, New Zealand seemed like one of the most remote places on Earth. Even now, the tiny island nation about 1,400 miles east of Australia can feel like it's on another planet. But in the early 1980s, in a town called Dunedin - one of New Zealand's largest, even though it has roughly the same population as Stamford, Conn. - there was a musical explosion, the effects of which are still reverberating.
It was in Dunedin that a bunch of young, like-minded bands began playing music infused with the punk spirit but without the desperate need to be noticed. Less agitated, more laid-back. Less spiky, more droney. Such bands as the Chills, the Bats and the Verlaines all came from there, but the one that continues to cast the longest shadow is the Clean.
"It certainly seemed to come out of nowhere, really, the first burst of energy that came out of Dunedin," says the Clean's singer-guitarist, David Kilgour, from his home in South New Zealand. "I think the isolation certainly had something to do with it. Dunedin back then was incredibly sleepy, and there wasn't much for the young kids to do."
The Clean, featuring Kilgour's brother Hamish on drums and Robert Scott (who fronted the Bats) on bass, played songs with warped pop sensibilities, bursts of noise, psychedelic flourishes and experimental tendencies. Some had weird twists and turns. Others had none at all, chugging forward on the same blissful straight path. The sound would prove massively influential on multiple generations of American indie rockers, including genre kingpins Superchunk, Pavement and Yo La Tengo.
"What's so great about Kilgour is that everything he does sounds like him, and I want to hear all of it - both his singing and his astoundingly deep well of guitar magic," says Superchunk's Mac McCaughan. "It's like he found his voice 31 years ago on his band's first record and it has never failed him - or us."
Yet much of the Clean's career has been a happy accident. After a brief run in the early '80s, the group disbanded, with only a pair of EPs and various odds and ends to its name. But nearly a decade later, the band was lured out of retirement and made its first proper album, "Vehicle."
"It was a surprise to everyone," says Kilgour, "and it only really happened because [record label] Rough Trade said, 'If you want to make a new record we'll pay for it.' So when we did that we decided to just keep it open as an ongoing creative project and just do it whenever the planets aligned, or whenever we were in the same town or country, I suppose."
The band's "reunion" has lasted more than two decades and resulted in four more albums (the most recent was 2009's "Mister Pop") and a casual, successful career that seems to be getting only better as the years pass. "Last year we went to America twice and seemed to be packing them in. It's incredible," Kilgour says. And since the band works on its own schedule, there's no fear of burnout.
"As the years have gone on I just get so much joy out of playing with the Clean," Kilgour says. "I still have a lot of fun, even doing the old songs. We only get together every year or two [Hamish lives in New York], and we'll do a quick tour for two or three weeks. It's kept it fun. Of course it really does help when you look at the audience and it's young kids - or younger people - and it's invigorating as well."
In between, Kilgour stays plenty busy with his solo career. The new "Left by Soft" is his seventh album and solidifies his status as an unlikely guitar god. It was recorded with backing band the Heavy Eights and is filled with chiming chords, sparkling solos, heady drones and the elegant restraint that has defined his work.
"It's hard for me to work out what's going on with my guitar playing," Kilgour says with a laugh. "I still think I'm a pretty minimal player, really. People tell me it's good. I loved Jimi Hendrix when I was a kid, way before I picked up an instrument. And later on, of course, I loved the Velvet Underground. I think [they] gave me the freedom to experiment in the moment, take risks and try to do something different every time I play. I definitely like to do something different every night, whether I [mess] up or not. I don't mind making mistakes."
Because of the expenses and logistics of traveling halfway around the world, Kilgour will be playing alone on his brief American tour in support of "Left by Soft." It's "a real shame," he says of playing without a band, but the solo acoustic thing is also part of his repertoire and is something he has done on multiple tours in New Zealand. It won't be noisy, but it will be a rare chance to see a cult favorite at his most unadorned.
--David Malitz, Aug. 19, 2011
Album review: "Our Blood"
The Curse of Consistency has long haunted singer-songwriter Richard Buckner. Since his 1994 debut, “Bloomed,” he’s regularly released excellent albums that have gently toed the line between gritty alt-country and haunting experimental folk. They were always well received but with little fanfare — it was taken for granted that every few years he’d deliver another collection of expertly crafted songs about what happens on the other side of town. In the years leading up to “Our Blood,” some other curses afflicted Buckner — a film score fell through, recordings were lost (multiple times) and a headless corpse even showed up near Buckner’s home, earning him a talk with some authorities.
So his ninth album comes after an atypical five-year break, but Buckner is in no rush to make up for lost time. Like the rest of his work, it’s less an epiphany than a meditation, an album of moody, slow-burning songs that are better appreciated on 10th listen than first. He uses the same main ingredients as many other troubadours — acoustic guitar and a husky voice — but bolsters those basics with chilly electronics and some cinematic pedal steel. It makes the songs a bit slippery but easier to eventually get lost in.
Much of that is due to Buckner’s lyrics, which are more mystical than confessional. “The threads hang down / Pull one out the world falls away / Chased and caught / Begging to be found / Far from home / Bound to where we’ve been,” he sings on “Escape,” his once-sandpapery growl now considerably smoother but no less intense. The non-narrative style fits Buckner, who sings with the world-weariness of someone who has seen enough that he’s beyond simply recounting who and what. “Our Blood” isn’t a revelation, but if it were, it wouldn’t be a Richard Buckner album.
--David Malitz, Aug. 2, 2011