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In Conversation with The Clientele’s Alasdair MacLean

Surrealist literature has a way of skewing reality in a way that appeals to the subconscious, irrational side of  the  brain. Suburban Light, highly indebted to this movement, is an album which does just that.

Released twenty years ago on Pointy Records, it has come to be appreciated by a small but dedicated cult following. Despite good reviews, it remains one of the most underrated British indie rock albums to be released since the turn of the millennium.

There could be no better time, therefore, to dive into what makes this such a richly rewarding listen, and get the thoughts of its auteur, Alasdair MacLean, who himself attended the University of Edinburgh.

“You read from A Season in Hell, but you don’t know what it’s about” Lawrence once sang in his typically haughty, Lou Reed-esque deadpan. Lead singer of 80s indie rock band Felt, one of The Clientele’s greatest influences, Lawrence’s reference to Arthur Rimbaud’s 1873 extended poem, a fundamental precursor  to Surrealism, goes to show the extent to which lyrics and their inexplicable unnaturalness shaped the album. “Tedium’s no longer my love,” wrote Rimbaud “my life is too insubstantial, it flies off and drifts around far above the actions that focus dear to the world.”

Contrarily, for Suburban Light, tedium stands at the fore. Like the literature that influenced it, the album considers the prosaic, the banal, and obscures it. In MacLean’s hushed world, the natural becomes subnormal, the quotidian off-kilter.

On its best-known track, ‘Reflections After Jane’, butterflies have gilded wings, motorways sigh and the narrator “searches for his loneliness.” Elsewhere, laughter turns to stone, and “crowds serenely flow / through carnivals.”

Snippets like these are revealed throughout every song and, though nonsensical, capture some sort of wistful otherness which is hard to put your finger on. As MacLean sings, “But I want you more than ever / And I want you still forever.” There is a real sense of isolated, fathoms-deep contemplation.

The album takes the bookishness of the British, jangly guitar-pop bands of the 80s; Orange Juice and The Field Mice as well as Felt, and adds to it the fuzzy production of dream pop bands such as Galaxie 500 and Spiritualized. But it really does exist in vacuum. Put on those headphones, and you float through a world of breathless, reverb-heavy enchantment for the full 44 minutes.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to hear Maclean’s thoughts on his first studio album, on its twentieth birthday,                no less.

Eitan Orenstein: Everyone talks about the distinctive reverby, hazy sound on the album, equating it to 90s shoegaze, dream poppy type bands like Galaxie 500 or maybe the Cocteau Twins.

To what extent would you say bands like these had a direct influence on your sound?

Alasdair MacLean: We were in no position to copy anyone’s production. We had the barest of setups when we recorded. The only way we could get the vocals to sound good was to run them through the guitar amps, with the spring reverbs turned all the way up – it gave them a warm, crisp, echoing sort of sound.

Then the tape compression on the tape machine squashed everything so it all kind of fell into place. We’d run the faders up and down on the vocal tracks to try and mute out the worst of the hiss. You couldn’t record any band dynamics – loud and soft bits, it was all just one same-y echoing, hypnotic, rolling feel. But whenever we tried to do it any different way, it sounded awful. Galaxie 500, who we loved, gave us some confidence that this approach was OK, I guess.

EO: The album lyrically is very focussed on natural surroundings; rain, sunlight, darkened halls, and banalities are often given a slightly surreal tint. What was your thought process (if any) in writing the songs? Did you have many literary influences that influenced your writing? Or did lyrics often come to you in the spur of the moment?

AM: I wandered into Compendium books in London one day and I found a volume of Surrealist writing, published by Dedalus books. I only knew about Surrealist painting, but the writing was nothing like that at all.

I loved it immediately – it was so beautiful and lyrical; it didn’t have to make any sense, it was images superimposed on images. I stole bits here and there for lyrics.

Around the same time I was in the George Square library, just browsing around and picking things up, which I used to love doing, and I found a volume of poems by Stephane Mallarme, which my friend Nick, who was studying French, patiently translated a bit of for me. there was one line, ‘the musician of hollow nothingness’ – ‘au creux néant musicien’. I felt like the floor was swallowing me. How can nothingness be hollow? It was a riddle but also showed how language itself can fold up into something that doesn’t mean much, but is still language. It seemed almost mystical.

From these two things, got the wind in my sails and I finally started to write. After that the words came as I walked round town or generally when I was supposed to be doing something else.

EO: How was the album aged for you personally? It was the studio debut for the Clientele, so how do you feel looking back on it in terms of how you’ve developed as a band since then?

AM: That was the time I found my voice, but making that record was not a lot of fun. The songs were supposed to be demos, which we would then try to improve on in professional studios in London. But everywhere we went they made us sound flat and grey, like Radiohead. We wanted the warmth of the  demos.

Eventually we just gave up and used the demos, which was ill- advised in terms of debuting the band, as they were too lo-fi for the radio of the time. It took Radio One 18 years to play us!

So I tend to regard that time as a huge breakthrough in terms of inspiration but really tricky and frustrating in many other ways. For a long time the songs have felt flavourless, like over-chewed gum, but I listened to them the other night and I enjoyed some of them.

EO: Thoughts on Lawrence? He seems so enigmatic in his quest for fame and in how meticulously he made music, how much of an important figure has he been for you in your creativeness?

AM: He’s an interesting guy. I probably get the most from his early Felt work. Part of the reason I like it, is that I don’t understand it. What is he talking about? You can almost grasp it but then it eludes you. That’s part of the enigma. And the great pop songs like ‘Stained Glass Windows in the Sky’ or ‘Christopher Street’ are part of that.

EO: Just out of curiosity, how was studying English literature at Edinburgh? Were there any texts that stood out as seminal for you?

AM: I expected it to be like a bunch of like-minded misfits and weirdos sitting round a table and sharing tips on how great their favourite authors were, before going on to become famous artists themselves. But instead I felt just as isolated as I had in the little suburban town I came from. I realised no one else thought like me.

Eventually the course opened my mind to stuff like post-structuralism, which seemed really fascinating, but I learnt more from the cinema and history of art courses I did on the side. By the last couple of years I actually felt joy at wandering into a huge university library and reading all day, but they were never the books from my course! 

Image: mooooonfox via Flickr