The Clean had already broken up before their music gained its first taste of long-lasting reverence on distant shores. Formed in Dunedin, New Zealand by brothers Hamish and David Kilgour in 1978, The Clean signed with Flying Nun Records. Even though their first single “Tally Ho” hit the Top 20 in the New Zealand charts in 1981, the band prematurely called it quits just a year later.
During their hiatus, the Kilgours eventually learned that their influence was crossing continents– even if their records weren’t readily available overseas. Flying Nun quickly became the most important independent label in New Zealand music history, and The Clean began being referenced as influences for standout US indie rock acts like Yo La Tengo and Pavement.
The Clean’s notoriety seems to come in waves, with each generation of in-the-knows gaining proper knowledge over time. Back in the day, Homestead, Rough Trade and Matador made portions of their records available to anyone who cared, but most recently, it’s Merge that has given The Clean a label in the States. Giving a home to their two most recent studio records and a 46-song anthology, The Clean have done everything from punk to pop and the comfortable combination in between. And there may even be a new record down the line.
I was lucky enough to speak to David Kilgour last month in the midst of a North American tour to talk about the then, the now and the future.
So first off, I know it’s probably old news, but I wasn’t privy to it while it was happening, and there isn’t a lot of information out there… How and when were you guys able to break out of New Zealand and make a name for yourselves overseas?
It seemed to be a word-of-mouth thing I suppose. But at the time, when the Clean first broke up in 1981, we had very little feedback from the rest of the world at that time really– except for vinyl junkies from around the world. So I didn’t really click on to the interest of the Clean and my solo work until probably the late 80’s. It seemed to just be a word of mouth sort of thing. It was just music freaks turning each other on to the music and it made its way through the grapevine. That seemed to be the way it worked I suppose. I didn’t really click on to the world spectrum til the late 80’s and the Clean performed a series of shows in London in the late-1980’s and I was astounded at the amount of press we got and the crowds we got. It’s a very valid question.
How did the fans and friends and alliances between other musicians come to be? Did they come to New Zealand or was it from you guys touring the States?
American friends you mean? Because of touring, the Bats and the Chills had already done a few tours of Europe and American before the Clean started up again in the late 80’s. We started touring sporadically from then on. I guess the first one was Yo La Tengo. We had been touring Europe in the early 90’s and just bumped into them. We had known of them because we had just had a track on a compilation at the time, I think it was called Hannibal Music. I think Homestead put that out and we kind of knew each other through that and we bumped into them and things became as well as they could have ever been and they’ve been very good buddies ever since. You know, you tour and you meet people. The more were toured, the more friends we made. Back then the so-called “indie-rock” thing was alive and happening through the 80’s and 90’s.
Were your records even readily available in the US at the time you were releasing them at home, or is that something that came later?
No, it was later. Flying Nun exported a lot of stuff back in the day and Homestead put out a few things. They might have put out a compilation of Flying Nun stuff, but the first major release we had was, because of the reunion shows in the late 80’s was when we were signed to Rough Trade and we made the Vehicle EP on Rough Trade. That was the first major release we had in Europe. And then Flying Nun did some licensing deals here and there with Homestead. Later on we landed up on labels like Matador and Merge. We had little deals here and there.
Did you guys ever officially break up or were there just breaks and hiatuses?
We broke up in 1982 and got back in the late 1980’s. When we got back together we decided to keep the Clean as an ongoing project, an open book, as such. We thought we should just get back together, keep making music and play. We found that the old magic was still there and we still loved playing, but we never treated it from that point on as a serious career option or anything. It’s just something we wanted to do and it’s been that way ever since then, you know?
Is this tour the biggest one you’ve done in awhile?
No, we’ve done a bunch of touring recently. We toured the States about 18 months ago and we toured Europe the year before that. But I guess we haven’t done a long month or more tour since the early 2000’s. But this is a short tour for us really.
Is there any new Clean material in the works?
It’s hard for us because we like to write together. We don’t much like to write secretly and bring stuff in. It’s kind of difficult, Hamish is living in America, so it’s kind of difficult. We’ll try to write stuff together on this tour I guess at soundchecks and stuff, but nothing new at the moment.
Have you been doing anything besides music since you started playing way back in the 1980’s?
Not really, just my solo career, the Clean, and on the side I paint a bit. That’s pretty much been my life really.
Do you know anything about the current New Zealand scene? You guys are part of an era which will always be defined as the height of New Zealand music. Is there still a strong and unified scene in NZ today?
I don’t know how united it ever was, but the music scene there is still very healthy. There are a lot of things happening now, a lot of different types of music going on. The government funds a lot of new acts, and even some older acts. It’s a small country, but it’s still quite active.
Were you guys celebrities at home back in the day?
I don’t know if I’d use the word celebrities, but “Tally Ho” went on the Top 10. We were in the high rotation on video shows. If that’s celebrity, I guess we were. We sold a lot of records in New Zealand. I have a couple of gold records actually.
If you guys were the first people to break out of NZ, who were the people you looked up to and influenced you, both home and away?
In world music? New Zealand had a very healthy scene in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Some people broke out, like John Rowles. He toured around the world. The Thin Boys. Crowded House. A lot bands did pretty well. But the one kind of music that made me pick up instruments was punk rock.