The only British band which matters
Photo by Corinne Day
Interview by Joss Hutton (March 2002)Liverpudlian quartet Clinic may be blessed with consummate good taste - pictures of the likes of Roky Erickson, Serge Gainsbourg, Phil and Ronnie Spector, Silver Apples and Augustus Pablo adorn their sleeves - but, more importantly, they can deliver unalloyed musical thrills which are quite unlike any other band.
After surging forth with the rush of their NME-baiting debut single, "IPC Sub Editors Dictate Our Youth," on their own Aladdin's Cave Of Golf label during 1999, Ade Blackburn and his strangely-garbed compadres have so far turned out two albums of defiantly idiosyncratic, backwards-leaning but forward-looking nuggets. Melding disparate musical influences is an old game but the sheer skill, humour and intelligence which Clinic have brought to the table is a rare thing indeed. Suffice it to say, in the hands of Mr Blackburn, a melodica once again becomes a weapon of musical insurrection.
Clinic haven't courted success but instead kept to themselves and let it come knocking, safe in the knowledge that artistic control and getting to the point where they could give up their day jobs were primary concerns. To put it simply, despite the tours as special guests of superfans Radiohead and having their track "The Second Line" used in a Levi's jeans campaign, this particular combo don't fuck about with the fripperies of fashion, unlike almost every other British band of the past decade.
The recently-released Walking With Thee, Clinic's second set for Domino - who also put out an essential collection of their first three singles and debut album proper, Internal Wrangler - kicks-off with the John Carpenter-informed "Harmony," which sounds like the best nightmare you've never had. At the other end of the scale, squats the set's title track which boasts an organ sound which The Seeds' Daryl Hooper would kill for and a damningly humorous, starkly effective chorus that just seems to sum up the continuing flaccid state of the British music scene - namely "no."
A few days before witnessing them laying waste to the audience at London's Astoria, where they took to the stage clad in the sarcastic costume of the capital's historic Pearly Kings - button-covered flat caps, waistcoats and trousers with 19th Century-style white shirts plus those ever-present surgeon's masks! - I shot the breeze with the affable and strangely self-contained Mr Blackburn.
Q: Didn't you nick the cover design for your Internal Wrangler set off an old jazz LP?
We nicked it from an Ornette Coleman album…
Q: So you're fond of free jazz?
Yeah, stuff like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra, y'know I just like the idea that you can improvize, do whatever you like. Some of it can be complete crap and some of it can be completely inspired y'know. It's that kind of randomness, which I think is brilliant.
Q: Did you get into that stuff from the whole Detroit connection?
Well, I suppose that with the MC5 and The Stooges, and even things like Sonic Youth and The Velvet Underground, you can trace things back through their influences.
Q: Is that the kinda stuff you guys were into when you started out?
There's a garage, psychedelia influence, definitely: The 13th Floor Elevators, The Chocolate Watchband and the keyboard sound is more from "Sister Ray" by The Velvet Underground.
Q: You've talked about Clinic being "a unit", which reminds me of 60's garage groups like The Seeds and The Music Machine…
Yeah, they had a whole sort of philosophy to the way their look was and their sound. I think with The Music Machine and The Seeds, there's a real urgency in the music, that's the strongest thing we took from that approach, rather than copying any particular band.
Q: You've talked about how much you're influenced by Crime, who had a really strong image, which many bands don't seem to bother with anymore. Was a strong image part of the game plan when you started?
Yeah, it was because I think that when there's a definite image that runs through, like, sleeves and how it's presented live, that seems to me as much a part of it as the music. There should be that kind of passion or excitement to it. I can't really see the point of being in a band and being completely ordinary - there's no more entertainment value in that.
Q: Conversely, what attracted me to Clinic is that, unlike a lot of modern bands, you seem to have just appeared, fully formed, like groups used to. You seem to do your own thing and not care whether anybody else likes or gets it.
Right from the off, we decided that we didn't have anything in common with contemporary bands - at that time, which would have been '97 - and I think that's ongoing. It seem that in Britain each year, another conservative band is always being pushed as being the saviours of something and that gave us the freedom to do whatever we felt like. We felt that we were living up to anything or had to conform to a particular scene.
Q: Prior to signing with Domino, you put out three singles on your own label, Aladdin's Cave Of Golf. Did you approach any others?
No, we didn't. We just decided that it seems like you're putting yourself in an inferior position, sending tapes or CD's out to record companies and trying to get people down to your gigs. Erm, we thought it should just be a case of people coming to us on the strength of what we can do ourselves. I think that put us in a stronger position when we did actually talk to any labels.
Q: [Laughs] Well, yeah, although it's funny that the NME championed you, seeing that your "IPC Sub Editors Dictate Our Youth" single was such a statement of intent! Did you choose that track as your first single on purpose?
Yeah, we did. I think because with that there was, obviously, there was a sort of skittish humour to it - it would've been seen as po-faced to ignore it, which was something that went in our favour.
Q: I think that people often miss the humour in music. Do you think it's something that's worked to your advantage?
Yeah, I think that there's a strong sense of black comedy within the music and sometimes I think that can needle people a bit, if they do notice it's there but don't quite know which way to take it.
Q: All the idiosyncratic instruments you use, like the Philicord organ and your strange "psychedelic box" of effects… Was that a needs-must situation or did you consciously choose to use them, instead of modern gear?
It just seems that when you get into using digital equipment, especially if there's an overkill of it, all the sound becomes homogenized, there's nothing unique about it. For instance, with the organ sound, we just saw it in the paper - I think it was 30 quid - when you start off with something like that, it's on a unique basis. We stick it through a Vox AC30 but it's actually designed like a home organ so we have gotten a few nightmares when we're doing gigs. There's a reverb unit inside it, which sort of comes off and short circuits the rest of the wiring inside it, so we're constantly having to repair it. We've got another couple that we've managed to find but the whole thing seems set up to break down before we get to the first gig. [Laughs]
Q: Well, the Philicord sounds great on your new single, "Walking With Thee," which is a startling choice, with a vein of black humour running through it, what with the chorus of "no" and everything. What influences brought that song together?
Well, we'd sort on gone back and listened to some psychedelic stuff again - I like the way on the Nuggets album that there's a band who've just done the one single, which is based around some ludicrous progression or gimmick. We just wanted something like that (was), y'know, a sort of party-sounding song but which at all time veered away from the obvious.
Q: With reference to your second album [Walking With Thee], at what point did you start listening to John Carpenter, as it sounds like especially his Assault On Precinct 13 and Halloween soundtracks seemed to be a big influence?
Previously, we'd listened to obvious things like John Barry and Ennio Morricone. I just wanted to take that further, get a more expansive, spacier sound in it. John Carpenter has an eerier sound and I thought that was a way of maintaining an edge to the songs, without just having them guitar-based. I think that in the choice of the sound and the notes that he uses, Carpenter found it possible to get something which has got a kind of otherness to it. His stuff seems outside of anything and, in that way, it's something which doesn't date.
Q: As opposed to Radiohead's last two albums which, although they're the most interesting things they've done, they'll date pretty quickly…
Well, prior to touring with them, I'd really only heard singles and wasn't that familiar with the other albums. When we played with them, it was the tracks off the last two albums that were definitely the most interesting, rhythmically, and they're not sort of standard song structures either. As to how much they'll date, hmmm. I wouldn't say that they'll date as much as other albums made in the last year…
Q: With the new album you got an outside producer, although I thought you were doing pretty well on your own.
We wanted to have more of a spacious sound to it so we decided to get someone in. I'd say that it's still kind of split - half the album's kind of punk, hard-sounding, the other more spacious. With each record, we try to make it significantly different to the previous one. We thought that, this time, we could do with some kind of pointers in that direction.
Q: Clinic seem to subvert standard verse, chorus song structures - how do you go about putting things together?
We usually start from the rhythm so, in that sense, if you have got a strong groove under something, it's not so reliant on chord changes and you don't have to resort to conventional structures as much. If we have something that more conventional, we always play around with it. I think that if it's something that excites you and is hard to pin down then it's getting there…
Q: Whenever modern bands try to do a groove, it always ends up being a "Funky Drummer" knock-off, even a decade after The Stone Roses. At the other end of the scale, was your track "The Second Line" influenced by a love of New Orleans music? Did you ever go there?
Yeah, we did go. With New Orleans, I like the way that the rhythms are syncopated but danceable at the same time. I think that's definitely right, bands who have tried to get more rhythm within the music usually resort to that kind of ‘baggy' sound for the drums. I think they shouldn't do it! [Laughs] The difference with what we're trying to do, rhythmically, is it's not of that sort of tempo. I think there's more urgency in the pounding rhythms which we have so we've avoided the ‘Manchester' sound.
Q: A bloody good thing, I reckon! You're albums are pretty short, Internal Wrangler clocked-in at just over half an hour. Are you a fan of brevity and things that are succinct?
Yeah, I am. It seems very ego-based that you've got, what is it, 72 minutes on a CD and you think you're good enough to fill-up that time. Again, going back to how we do the songs, we don't have long solos or allow any room for self-indulgence - it's gotta be good for both the band and the listener.
Q: Do you dislike guitar solos on principle?
Yeah. [Sniggers] Brian May!
Q: Well, him, his girlfriend and their dog have got matching hair plus he's got a guitar made out of a fireplace or something!
[Laughs] You thought he couldn't get any worse and then he gets that dog and his girlfriend!
Q: So what current bands do you like at the moment?
Erm, I think The Hives are a quite good, fun band but they may be a bit too much of a novelty for me, I think. It's much better to have those kind of bands being pushed by the press - something which has an edge or is much more rock ‘n' roll based - rather than Starsailor or Turin Breaks or whoever else. I think it means that, when you're starting a band or a small indie label, it allows more room than just getting someone to think ‘I've gotta be signed to a major label and have a slick sound.' It seems clear everything fresh is going to come from that.
Q: Are you at all worried about the build-‘em-up, knock-‘em-down nature of the British music press?
I think we've got on because we've never fitted into any particular scene - we were never in or out of favour. We're not on a major label or being rammed down people's throats, which I think allows us to continue and gives us the freedom to do what we want.
Q: Were you worried that having "The Second Line" used in a Levi's ad would have an adverse effect on people's perceptions of you?
Well, we didn't look at it as the be all and end all of anything, in the way of ‘This is going to be the single which is going to break the band.' We didn't really push it as a hard sell. I think we were really wary of it but I felt that, as with the advert before, which Death In Vegas were on, it was tastefully done, compared to, y'know, Stiltskin on the early-90's Levi's adverts. I felt it wasn't that out of step with what we were doing. We ever actually got any jeans off them anyway! [Laughs] I think we got a jacket and some T-shirts or something, which were too big for me anyway. [Laughs]
Q: Speaking of clothes, onstage and in photos, you seem to have graduated from the surgical scrubs to the Freemasons gear. Is that out of any real interest or did you just like the look of the aprons, etc.?
I like that wheels within wheels, secret organisations thing. I like something that's enigmatic and draws you in.
Q: How come you guys don't do encores- just the half-an-hour and then off thing?
Well, I think that, in the old showbiz tradition, it's always good to leave people wanting more, in the same way that the albums have been really short. If we were to play for an hour, I mean, that'd be 25 songs or something so I think that, for the sake of sanity, it's good to restrict it. I think you can still maintain an energy within a short set.
Q: When you go to the States, which you're slated to do this spring, what sort of crowd do you attract?
It really is a mish mash of people. We get the sort of younger kids who've just seen, like, The Strokes or The White Stripes and are listening to things for the first time and we definitely get the older crowd, who are into our more psychedelic influences. I really enjoy all of it. We saw quite a bit of Chicago, New York and Los Angeles last time. What I'm more looking forward to is seeing some of the more obscure Midwest towns.
Q: What's your plan for the rest of the year?
I think the next single off the album will be either "Come Into Our Room" or "Sunlight Bathes Our Home." We'll be doing, perhaps, two more singles off the album and we're going to Russia in May. A promoter just approached Domino and asked if we wanted to do it so we thought ‘Yeah, why not?' When we played in Japan last year, it was absolutely brilliant so we're trying to conquer different places. There are some really good second-hand record shops in Japan."
Q: Are record shops and thrift stores a regular part of your itinerary?
Yeah, it's always getting together in the hotel room and sussing out where the decent record shops are. It is a lot easier than it was five years ago. Once or twice we've kind of got really obsessed and thought ‘Just one more', then get stuck on a train or something and realize that it's gonna take you're an hour or so to get back to the venue! [Sniggers]"
Q: So what are your current obsessions?
The last couple of albums that I bought were the first Tim Hardin one and a really nice original copy of Future by The Seeds, which reminds me of [The Rolling Stones'] Her Satanic Majesty's Request, as a failure [Laughs] that's brilliant at the same time! I think Tim Hardin's got a kind of medieval influence as well, which is what attracted me. Again, I really like Leonard Cohen, especially lyrically, which doesn't have direct bearing on what we do but I think it's good to have as broad a listening taste as possible, really.
I've recently been into Richard Brautigan, I've read nearly of of ‘em now. Sombrero Fallout is a classic comedy. I've recently read some Paul Auster and I think I've got Mr Vertigo and Timbuktu, which I'm going to take away with me. I've also seen the Arthur Lee book [by Barney Hoskyns] that's come out recently, which is a bit skimpy so I'll probably read it on the way to the airport!"
Thanks to Dean and Sophie at Some Friendly PR for arranging the interview plus, of course, the affable Mr Blackburn.
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