20 Questions With David Kilgour

The Clean guitarist comes, well, clean for Chaos in Tejas

Vintage Clean
Vintage Clean

I first heard the Clean early one spring morning in 1989 while working a 5-8am graveyard shift at KTSB, the student-run cable radio station at UT that preceded KVRX.

As soon as I segued into the Dunedin, New Zealand, group’s pensive surf-fuzz instrumental, “Fish,” a rush of discovery cut the torpor. It was unvarnished psychedelia crossed with incipient indie-pop out for a day at the beach on the other side of the world. This was music worth getting out of bed for.

Homestead’s 1988 retrospective Compilation broke the Clean on American college radio. Yet guitarist David Kilgour and his drumming brother Hamish actually formed the band 10 years earlier. Their 1981 debut single “Tally Ho!” was a Top 20 hit in New Zealand. Its success kick-started Flying Nun Records, which opened a fruitful “Kiwi Rock” pipeline that delivered the Chills, the Verlaines, and Tall Dwarfs, among others.

Some 34 years after forming, the Clean arrive in Texas for the first time this Saturday at Club de Ville. Kilgour, who was awarded the prestigious New Zealand Order of Merit in 2001, describes the band’s origins.

Austin Chronicle: How did you and your brother get started playing music?

David Kilgour: As children there was always music of some sort in the house. My mother had a varied record collection. I have very fond memories of listening to Hank Williams 78s, Harry Belafonte's Calypso LP, Liberace 45s, “Tom Dooley” by the Kingston Trio, etc. etc. Our mother Helen also sang and played the piano. She even acted and sang onstage once!

Later Hamish and I became vinyl junkies. By about 12 years old I was buying Dylan LPs, Hamish was mad on the Stones. Hendrix was my first great musical love at age 10.

At around about 14 years old, I bought an acoustic guitar but struggled with it, had no help. I did manage to work out how to play “Good King Wenceslas” on the thing though! Soon punk arrived and we figured maybe we could do this thing.

Hamish bought an electric guitar, which I took over and we formed a band with my school friend Peter Gutteridge. Friends of ours had already formed a band called the Enemy, which kind of spearheaded the whole "movement." This is around about 1977.

AC: Is your family from Dunedin?

DK: More of a South Island thing, but Kilgours settled in Dunedin back in the late 1800s. Farming goes way back in the lineage to Ireland and Scotland. As I like to remind everyone, we're predominately Irish.

AC: Musically speaking, what was Dunedin like around the time of the Clean's formation? Was there a "scene"?

DK: The early days of punk I guess. By ’77, there was a small group of vinyl junkies who took up guitars, basically. At the time, the whole snowball seemed to come from a group of about 15 people. Especially the Chris Knox/Doug Hood house. [Ed note: Knox fronted the Enemy prior to forming Tall Dwarfs, while Hood was lead singer in an early version of the Clean.] Hamish befriended them in ’76, I think. By the early Eighties, there were younger kids sniffing around.

AC: How did you keep up with music outside of New Zealand during this time?

DK: It was hard. You had to be obsessed to track new music. Things like the NME arrived here by boat about three months after the fact. Thankfully, outta the blue around ’76, a friend (yes, one of the 15) opened a record store and starting importing new punk, etc. So we started getting the odd airmail NME, New York Rocker, etc. Plus things like the Sex Pistols singles only weeks after they came out. A well-known New Zealand music journo named Dylan Taite actually interviewed the Pistols outside Buckingham castle... so we noticed that!

AC: What were you and your brother listening to?

DK: Sixties pop and rock, garage music from the Sixties, punk, psychedelic music, New Wave, etc.

AC: Where did the name "The Clean" come from?

DK: A character from the movie Free Ride called Mr. Clean.

AC: Where did the guitar sound on those early records come from?

DK: Me! Ha! I had a New Zealand made amp called a Gunn Classic with JBL speakers and a wonderful reverb chamber. I also had a Japanese Ibanez guitar. Full treble, no bass or middle, full reverb and hit every string at all times, whether its dissonant or not. Lotsa open strings. Lotsa droning. No other effects, straight into the amp. Probably recorded with a (Shure) 58 mic and lotsa band leakage recorded into a Teac 4-track.

AC: Was there a moment when you realized you'd found a unique sound?

DK: Maybe after Hamish bought me the Gunn Classic. It opened up my playing a lot. It had the sound we were looking for without actually knowing what we were looking for. Trebly, chunky, not a lot of sustain, lotsa reverb. I suddenly sounded like my favorite guitar players, or at least some of them.

AC: Was the band's sound influenced by the remoteness of New Zealand? If so, how?

DK: Isolation possibly allows for a nothing to lose situation.

AC: Did the audiences in New Zealand get it right away?

DK: Oh no, we had a lot of detractors. Probably still have! I’ve been bottled, spat on, had the power turned off on us live, told to get off the stage. I’ve even had people swing at me while playing. But in the early days we were uncompromising in our approach live. Loud and nasty, but still a pop band.

AC: Did you or Flying Nun Records founder Roger Shepherd expect "Tally Ho!" to be as successful as it was?

DK: No. But we all knew it was catchy!

AC: When did you realize the Clean had a substantial fan base outside of New Zealand?

DK: Late Eighties.

AC: After your initial success, why did the Clean disband for much of the Eighties?

DK: I was tired of it, needed a rest – a recurring theme! From 1980-81 we were very busy. Even in downtime we would practice and write three times a week! We toured a lot and when the success came it was fast. I had a go at painting and gave that up and went back to music. When I left school, I went to art school for about three months.

AC: What prompted you to come back together in 1988?

DK: We reformed for a London show and really enjoyed it so we keep it as an ongoing side project, so to speak. That was the time I realized the music had traveled to the other side of world.

AC:1994’s Modern Rock seemed to take the band in a softer, folkier direction, particularly on songs like "Safe in the Rain." What made you go there?

DK: No plans, really. We tend to write quickly and what comes comes. We have never tried to capture what the band was like live in the studio. We have always wanted to make interesting recordings. Live, the Clean is a very different kettle of fish, but it’s made by the same kettle company.

AC: It's pretty easy to pick up hints of the Clean's sound in modern-day indie rock. Are there any bands influenced by you that really stand out?

DK: Got any names?

AC: Are there any plans for a follow-up album to 2009's Mister Pop?

DK: We did some recording last year, but due to the Christchurch earthquake that kind of went wayside with it. As for the time being, no plans to record.

AC: I couldn't find any record of the Clean ever playing Texas. Have you ever played here before?

DK: No. I think Hamish has played there with the Mad Scene. Perhaps [bassist] Bob [Scott] has played there with the Bats.

AC: It was big news when Chaos in Tejas announced you were playing. What did Timmy Hefner say or do to get you on the bill?

DK: Timmy has been trying to get us on the bill for years. Thanks to his persistence we are coming to the U.S.A. We basically got it worked out that the tour will pay for itself, and that ain’t a bad thing in these days of recession, especially with the international flights.

AC: Was there anything else I didn't touch on that you wanted to get across?

DK: Our old cassette release Odditties is coming out on Timmy’s label as a double foldout on vinyl. Also De Stijl Records is releasing my solo LP Here Come the Cars on vinyl. Also The Great Unwashed LP is coming out on vinyl to coincide with the tour. [The Great Unwashed was the Kilgour’s experimental offshoot of the Clean between 1983 and 1984.]

UPDATE (Thursday, May 31, 10:06am): If you can’t make Saturday’s show, Kilgour's also slated to play an in-store set at End of an Ear on Sunday at 5pm. Thanks to Jennifer Leduc for the tip.

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The Clean, David Kilgour, Hamish Kilgour, Flying Nun Records, Chills, the Verlaines, Tall Dwarfs, Harry Belafonte, Sex Pistols, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Timmy Hefner, Chaos in Tejas, Bob Dylan, The Great Unwashed, the Bats

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