“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.