Published on March 30th, 2015 | by Johnny Saito0
Interview: David Kilgour
If you’re reading this, then chances are you’re already familiar with Dunedin indie legends the Clean and their jaunty take on melodic garage rock. Through most of that band’s 30-year on-again-off-again career, guitarist David Kilgour has led a double life, recording a steady stream of uniformly agreeable solo albums. The latest of these is End Times Undone, another superb batch of choogling strummy jams and mellow pastoral explorations.
In a 2012 interview with the L.A. Record, Kilgour spoke of wanting the Clean to be remembered as “(a) band that made people happy… made life better for people.” Naturally enough, the Kilgour philosophy carries over to his solo work. It’s in every chiming chord and every daydream melody. And it takes lyrical shape in Christopher Columbus when he sings, “Spread a little light around; send it in the right direction”. Here and elsewhere, End Times Undone is an album that conjures a cosy and colourful aural space, invites you in to hang out, and leaves you feeling somehow better about the world.
But don’t think that it’s all rainbows and unicorns. Far from it. The Heavy Eights provide an intuitive and at times muscular foil to the Kilgour guitar attack, which can get gloriously twisted and hard-strumming on tracks such as album highlight Dropper.
There’s also a sense of spontaneity permeating the best Heavy Eights and Clean music. That’s no accident. The Merge Records promo page for End Times Undone notes that the album was recorded in sporadic bursts of creativity spread out over three years from 2012 to 2014. To capture the creative moment as early as possible, the band would typically have the tapes rolling almost from the get-go. The creative process itself is even the subject of one of the songs, the serenely evocative Comin’ On.
In his Pitchfork review of End Times Undone, Jason Heller called it “a record that… exists in the interminable, indefinable now—a rapturous purgatory of memory, images, and slippery wisps of emotion. It’s as anti-ego as music gets.” No song on the album better illustrates this idea than “Lose Myself in Sound”.
That lack of egotism is a very Dunedin attribute. Be assured, the last thing you’ll get from a Heavy Eights album is look-at-me rockstar theatrics or angst-ridden confessionals. You’re also unlikely to hear any ill-conceived forays into Auto-Tuned dubstep or nü metal. After three decades of making timeless and canonical indie rock, David Kilgour knows—and plays to—his strengths.
We sent Kilgour a grab-bag of questions to which he graciously replied. Read on to find out about new recordings, the Heavy Eights’ policy on hacky sack, and David Kilgour’s exclusive financial relationship with God.
BNU: Since the release of End Times Undone last year, have you been working on any new music?
Yes, we recently spent two days recording tracks for the next LP. Give us a year or so, and we’ll have another one ready.
Last year saw a first-ever vinyl reissue of Here Come the Cars. Any plans for further vinyl reissues of DK or Clean stuff? How about CD reissues?
Merge made a vinyl box set out of The Clean’s Anthology last year. No solid plans for future vinyl releases, though I do think about releasing some more of (my) solo stuff. I really should!
In a Quietus interview last year, you mentioned a “very different mix” of The Clean’s Boodle Boodle Boodle EP. Any chance of that one seeing the light of day?
I doubt it, but you never know!
You mentioned maybe doing an all-instrumental album one day. I’m a big fan of William Tyler’s guitar-based instrumental albums Impossible Truth and Behold the Spirit. Any progress on a similar project of your own?
Yeah, William’s a wonderful guitar player and writer. There’s usually an instrumental on every (David Kilgour) LP… But no serious intentions to make a solely instrumental LP. If I run out of melodies and lyrics, it will happen.
A lot of your music has a laid-back and summery vibe. It’s easy to envisage chugging along in an old Holden station wagon with your arm out the window and a surfboard in the back, cranking one of your albums as you head out to the beach. Do you ever listen to your own albums like this?
I rarely listen to my own LPs!
We want to write and record music we like—simple as that, really.
You recorded Left by Soft in a remote old lodge down in the Catlins. It’s pretty obvious that your physical surroundings will affect how you play and how inspired you’ll get. I wonder if you have any plans for another such recording session off the beaten track. Say, in the lighthouse on the Otago Peninsula?
After years of recording in such places, we have reverted to recording in very comfortable situations—a bar! But (there are) no plans for wilderness recording. I doubt I’d ever do a recording like Left by Soft again. It was a little too rustic and cut off, perhaps, but I’m glad we tried it out. There’s a few places/studios around the world I’d like to record in, from LA to Nashville to the deserts of the USA.
How did you meet the Heavy Eights—Taane Tokona, Tony de Raad, and Thomas Bell? Are there any simmering rock-band rivalries—like the bass player wants to play lead zither and take the band in a more progressive/darkstep direction?
I met all the 8s via other friends, though I saw Tom playing on stage before I met him. If anyone starts talking about big changes in direction, the room goes quiet. We want to write and record music we like—simple as that, really. To change for the sake of change at this stage seems a little late!
You talk in interviews about trying to avoid overthinking your music. Whether it’s music or sports or acting, performers often talk about trying to get “in the zone”. Is there anything in particular that you and the Heavy Eights do to get yourselves in that frame of mind? Group games of Twister, say, or hacky sack?
Ah no. If a Heavy 8 started playing hacky sack I’d probably have to kill him.
Dunedin is a groovy town, but nobody would ever accuse it of being balmy or tropical. Have you never been tempted to move to warmer climes, somewhere you can surf without a wetsuit? What is it that has kept you in Dunedin all these years?
I’m lucky I get to travel a lot; that’s helped. But it’s also been a cheap place to live for quite a long time now. And, yeah, I’ve been very tempted to live elsewhere—especially the States—but I’m pretty well entrenched in my life here now!
When I was living in Dunedin, you had three choices of beer: fridge Speights, freezer Speights, or room-temperature Speights. (And depending on the time of year, the last two would sometimes be one and the same). I wonder, has the craft beer revolution hit Dunedin? Do you have a favourite tipple?
Emmerson Bookbinder or Emmersons Pilsner, (two) local craft beers.
As a self-described vinyl junkie, where do you get your fix nowadays? Is there anywhere in Dunedin like Roy Colbert’s old shop in Upper Stuart Street?
I stopped buying vinyl many years ago. There’s two shops in Dunedin: Two Tone Records and Relics.
There was recently a Flying Nun Meets Classical performance in Dunedin, with Graeme Downes (of the Verlaines) creating orchestral arrangements for some old Nun songs, including one of the Clean’s. How did that go? What was it like hearing those proudly low-fi tracks rendered in pristine symphonic hi-fi? Did it make you feel like Emerson, Lake & Palmer?
It was interesting.
Everyone in the wider Flying Nun community was saddened at the passing of [Snapper’s] Peter Gutteridge last September. Are there any plans for a musical tribute, something like the wonderful Chris Knox tribute album Stroke?
Not that I know of. Peter has left a lot of unreleased recordings of varying quality. I guess it’s possible some of that may come out one day. The Gutteridge family now looks after all things Peter.
A lot of the early Flying Nun bands were able to pursue their music while living on the dole. The past 30 years of free-market capitalism has really put the squeeze on anyone that doesn’t want to grind it out for the man, so I imagine it’s harder than ever for artists nowadays. How different do you think it would be for The Clean if you were starting out today as wide-eyed teens?
We fought in the punk rock wars, and I’m afraid sport was one of the enemies of the freeform punk state.
I can’t answer that question really. It’s certainly a hell of lot harder to make a living out of music. It never was easy; now it’s almost impossible for a young band starting out.
An old Dunedin friend of mine, Demarnia Lloyd (of Cloudboy), secured funding for a residence/recording project back in 2002. Does the NZ Government still provide these kinds of grants for the arts?
Yes they do. They gave us some money to tour the USA last year promoting End Times Undone.
Are you into cricket at all? Have you been following the Cricket World Cup?
I follow the big names, especially if we’re winning. But I’m not sports mad. We fought in the punk rock wars, and I’m afraid sport was one of the enemies of the freeform punk state.
The culture seems to be devolving, if that’s possible.
Right, punk was a rejection of the old “rugby, racing, and beer” mentality that dominated NZ back in the 1980s. Sometimes it helps artists to have something tangible to kick out against. How much do you reckon NZ culture has moved on since then? Is there less to get het up about nowadays?
I think most artists are up against “it”. Punk was about being up against “it”. The culture seems to be devolving, if that’s possible. It’s almost as conservative as when we started out under Muldoonism, with the Springbok tours, the oil crisis, welfare beat ups, etc. But we didn’t have the “war”; now we have the “war” to contend with. Oh boy… have we evolved?
If you could get together and jam with any band or musician, past or present, who would you choose?
Endless Boogie. Can. Hendrix…
Many of the greatest bands of all time—the Velvets and Big Star, to name just two—went relatively unappreciated during their time. Is there any band or artist in the world today that you think should be more widely heard?
Yeah, there’s heaps, Endless Boogie being one.
Spotify, Pandora, and Amazon use algorithms to present listeners with something they may like based on previous selections. On one hand, it’s great when you discover new stuff you like; on the other, it’s kinda creepy having bits of silicon sussing out your taste in music. What’s your take on technological developments in music distribution and promotion?
It’s all about the Internet, simple as that!
For your musical contributions, you were awarded the NZ Order of Merit in 2001. Did that come with a peerage and a country estate?
David Kilgour, MNZM. That’s it, and a medal.
“Make shit and carry on”—a quote from your Quietus interview—is a great motto for creative people to live by. Have you thought about getting that printed on a coffee mug? Could be a good little earner on the side.
I just sold the idea to God.
You heard it here first. David Kilgour, the Dunedin deity of ditties, has a direct line to the guy in the sky. End Times Undone can—and should—be purchased from your favourite music retailer.