Alasdair MacLean has fashioned the hushed temper of the British pop band The Clientele for around a decade now, and yet he is a self-proclaimed non-veteran in the record making business, despite what his years of writing would suggest. When Paste caught up with MacLean to discuss the band's latest, Bonfires on the Heath, he conveyed that the production experience panned out to be the most didactic for him. Whether these lessons will come in handy for The Clientele is a question as murky as the group's future; they could be teetering on the fringe of breaking up.
Paste: So tell me about your new album, Bonfires on the Heath. How is it different from the other records you've been putting out since 2000?
MacLean: It's more of a folk record than the ones we've made before. And it's more deeply psychedelic for us. The first two records we made, I produced, so they sound terrible. [laughs] They sound very scratchy and reverby. And the two records we've done since have been made in a proper studio. This one was made in a proper studio but it was made in the days between Christmas and New Year's deliberately, that very dead time to try and get a very bleak, December feel, to see if we could bring that into our playing.
Paste: Was this specifically your idea to have this theme for your record?
MacLean: Yeah, well that's the way the songs seemed to be going, so I wanted everyone to play that way. You know, to concentrate, and just be at that time when everything is really still.
Paste: Now that you're no longer producing your own records, has this made the process of making an album easier or harder for you and the band?
MacLean: Well, I suppose it's much easier in terms of time and not having to worry about the sound. But it's very hard to give it to someone else. You always kind of regret it. You always kind of think that if you'd been left in charge, then it would have been more of an unusual piece of art, you know? The problem you always have with record producers is that they're always trying to make bands they work with sound like other bands who are currently popular. So you spend a lot of energy and time fighting against that, because we really just want to sound like ourselves.
Paste: How has the addition of percussionist Mel Draisey impacted the sound of The Clientele up to this point?
MacLean: Well, this record is really Mel's record, and Mark's record, the drummer. They came up with all of the arrangements. I just provided the songs and I sang them and played the guitar. But the whole feeling and arrangement all comes from them, so this is the record where Mel really shines I think. She adds a lot of keyboards and pianos and violins into the mix.
Paste: In light of the sound and feel of Bonfires, are you inspired to write your songs the same way you did, say ten years ago?
MacLean: No, I'd say it is different. You know, 10 years ago I was a very young man, with very teenage obsessions, you know? [laughs] These days I think, maybe, I don't know. I'm inspired to write, but maybe I'm not so inspired to write for a four-piece rock band or pop band. I've been writing other music with jazz musicians and on Spanish guitar and things, other projects. But I think this record came from a moment of inspiration, really. The songs were inspired and the arrangements are inspired. So it might be the last normal pop record that I'm inspired to make.
Paste: Do you see yourself putting out more records with the Clientele, seeing that you have these side projects you're working on?
MacLean: Well, I don't know. It depends on whether this one makes us rich or not. [laughs]
Paste: [laughs] I guess that makes sense. I was intrigued with the track, "Bonfires on the Heath" when I listened to it. What was the motivation and/or inspiration for this song, and how did it become the title track for the record?
MacLean: I suppose that it's a song about mental illness, really. And that's what a lot of this record is about, that sort of slightly uneasy feeling, that very creepy feeling you get that nature is sentient in some way. So, that's what a lot of the record is about and that's definitely what that track is about--kind of a nervous breakdown track.
Paste: Was this brought about through your own experiences or from the experiences of others?
MacLean: Well, my own and reading. Reading poems written out in mental distress. It's definitely a sum of mental distress. I think a lot of the record is, too.
Paste: Are you still inspired from various forms of poetry and literature?
MacLean: Films, paintings, literature. They're huge influences. It's all part of the same things these days, isn't it? There's not really any separation between pop music and literature or art. It's all taken pretty seriously these days.
Paste: If you continue to make records with The Clientele, do you see the band's sound as progressing more to the folk spectrum and away from that "reverby" sound of your earlier records?
MacLean: I don't know. I hope so. The thing is, when you make a record, you plan how it's going to sound. And you think it sounds that way and then someone will immediately pop up and say to you, "No, it sounds exactly the same as all your other records." So, maybe we can combine the more folky sounds with the same kind of reverb production.
Paste: So do you have any upcoming tours to promote Bonfires?
MacLean: I'm coming to New York just on my own to play a couple of solo shows in October. And then in 2010 we'll be doing the full band, continent wide American tour.
Paste: What type of music will you be playing for your solo shows?
MacLean: Well, I'll be playing songs from [Bonfires]. But it'll just be me. There won't be bass or drums or keyboards or violins or anything. It will be kind of a minimalist version.
Paste: Have you had any unique methods of adapting those songs to fit your solo performances?
MacLean: Not really. It's just great to be able to hear myself think. It'll be the way the songs were written, actually. A very pure, stripped-down version of the songs.