The Clean and the beauty of isolation

A look back at New Zealand's first indie rock trio

As musical genres evolve, certain facets and traits eventually reach a critical mass of ubiquity, at which point they appear to have always been there. It seemingly ceases to be possible to trace their growing influence in retrospect; it's hard to find the diminishing road in the rearview, reaching back to a point on history's horizon.

Such is the nature of the Clean's influence on the indie rock landscape. Formed in sleepy Dunedin, New Zealand in 1978, the group's modest beginnings as scrappy amateurs would go on to heavily inspire an entire planet of sound. You can hear it in Robert Pollard's home recording heroics or Pavement's fuzzed-out verve — the group's praises have been explicitly and implicitly sung by many. What is the "Dunedin sound," as defined by the Clean? It's heavily melodic, full of wildly spasmodic guitars, and urgent rhythms. It's a couple of shades too bright to be considered a gray-scale take on post-punk, but it's not slick enough to pass as straight pop. Trying to pin it down is like trying, to paraphrase David Foster Wallace, to explain water to a fish. It's simply an inescapable aspect of modern indie rock. But it had to start somewhere.

The group formed around brothers David and Hamish Kilgour, and would eventually be joined by long-standing bassist Robert Scott. Guitarist Peter Gutteridge would perform with the group sporadically throughout the 1980s. The Clean launched its enterprise in something of a vacuum: With a few minor exceptions, New Zealand was not a place where original music "came from." As fans of Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and other American exports, these young record collectors wanted to traverse the artificial gap between consumer and producer. But without any sort of real resources or established avenues for up-and-coming bands to take advantage of, the Clean went DIY out of necessity; by now, we're all familiar with what leads from necessity.

"All the bands in Dunedin did their own recordings early on even if it was just recording a practice session, so everyone learnt sic a bit about the process," Scott states via email. "There weren't any big studios in Dunedin anyway so it was more like portable set ups put into practice rooms. Of course, there was nothing digital back then, so it was all tape reel to reels; it was all about the song and the performance. We wanted to get all the songs down quickly.

"We were all very rough on our instruments at the start, and slowly over time have improved," Scott continues. "It's the ideas that are important."

With the help of Chris Knox, of the equally influential Tall Dwarfs, the Clean set about making music as best they could. These early recordings are scrappy, spontaneous, and severely fun. The plan, adds drummer Hamish, was simple: "write material, experiment with whatever possibilities were on hand with limitations, don't labor too much over it, get it all down while fresh."

That emphasis on exploiting each moment and thereafter moving on has yielded great creative dividends. Among these nascent treasures, one will find such songs as "Tally Ho!" and "Beatnik," which are somewhat like pleasantly memorable electric shocks. The directness of the recordings and the affably snotty vocals create a vivid world all their own, a conspiracy of energy. The first recordings of the Clean were released beginning in 1980 by a Christchurch, New Zealand-based label Flying Nun, a now-venerable outlet for the emerging scene of so-called "kiwi punk" bands to reach the public. These early singles and EPs are collected on the first disc of Anthology, a collection originally released by Flying Nun in 2003.

With the other six continents seemingly worlds away, the group worked in relative isolation, cranking out art for its own sake. "We didn't really talk much about ambitions, just planned a few gigs," Scott says. With the possibility of wider commercial success presumably precluded by their DIY beginnings and limited geographical reach, the group was able to make good on its purest intentions. "We wanted to make inspirational stuff both for ourselves and others," says Hamish. "It's the same desire now. ... Not too much has changed there!"

The Clean has not been a consistent band in terms of commitment; over the last 35-plus years, the group has been on and off. This attitude is, perhaps, another consequence of their alienation from the commercially competitive scenes elsewhere. The group seems to operate on a collective whim, coalescing when the time is right and not otherwise. In the meantime, they've stayed busy: Robert Scott leads his own very-much lauded group, the Bats, and both of the Kilgours have solo albums to their names.

But despite (and maybe, in part, due to) the Clean's intermittent inactivity, the band's legacy has maintained itself at a steady clip. When the group briefly disbanded in 1982, "our records were exported to Europe and America, where they were played a lot on college radio," Scott says. The BBC's respected DJ John Peel championed the band (as well as other Flying Nun exports). Soon their recordings began selling out at London's Rough Trade store. "And we soon were getting a lot of letters and reviews coming back. They were all very glowing, so we realized we were having some impact with our music, and it has carried on. Quite amazing."

Beginning with 1990's Vehicle, the Clean got into the habit of getting into proper studios to make quirky, punchy albums that they would go on to release every few years or so. Selections from those more contemporary releases make up the second half of Anthology, which was reissued as a four-LP package by Merge Records this summer. While the group is touring the States to support this re-release, many fans are waiting on new music from these wholly unique innovators. It's been five years since 2009's Mister Pop, and as to whether the fellows will find themselves in a creative mood anytime soon, Scott is cagey. "Hard to say," he says. "We have talked about recording again, so you never know. I sure would like to do some; it's a case of the time being right and the moon being in the right phase."