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Sunlight and dread: A winning combination

This pop band is not afraid to embrace their inner Monkees and play upbeat pop you can dance to and think about. By Paige Newman
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The word “silly” comes up a lot when Clientele front man Alasdair MacLean talks about the band’s latest album “God Save the Clientele.”

“We’ve been threatening to call a record ‘God Save the Clientele’ for a long time,” MacLean explains, “In our silly moments, just trying to make our record labels worry, and then we made a silly album, so we thought, Why not use a silly title?”

The band’s last album, the wonderful “Strange Geometry,” was decidedly not silly.

“If (‘Strange Geometry’) had got any more miserable people would have been jumping out of windows after they heard it,” jokes MacLean. For “God Save the Clientele” the band (which includes bassist James Hornsey, drummer Mark Keen and multi-instrumentalist Mel Draisey) decided to go in a new direction.

“I wanted to change,” says MacLean. “And do something a little bit cleaner and fresher. Let some air into the room. Write music that was fun and playful and rhythmic and that people could dance to. I didn’t want to carry on in this band that seemed like they were poets writing in gloomy rooms as autumn fell in a suburban town somewhere outside London. I wanted to just write happy music like the music I remembered listening to when I was a child, like the Banana Splits or the Monkees or the Beatles.”

It’s not every day you hear the Banana Splits or the Monkees called out as an influence.

“Yeah, as I understand in North America, people are very snobbish about the Monkees,” says McLean, “But I think they have a better reputation in Britain, where the philosophy is a little bit more that it doesn’t really matter who plays on the record or how manufactured it is, what matters is how the record sounds. And the Monkees had the greatest songwriters to write them songs and they had a great band to play those songs. And Mickey Dolenz has a beautiful, mournful white soul voice. The only thing I can see wrong with the Monkees is the syrupy Davy Jones ballads.”

And there is something nostalgic about “God Save the Clientele.” At first glance, the songs  seem very joyful and sunny. But there’s a subtext to the lyrics that stretches across nearly every song.

In “Here Comes the Phantom,” MacLean sings “summer waits in the leaves / as lovely as I’ve ever known / happiness just comes and goes.”

There’s a sense throughout of wanting to grip onto those daydream moments and live in that artificially sunny place. But the flip side is the futility inherent in trying to shove reality to the side.

“You run out of energy, don’t you, when you daydream all the time?” says MacLean. “It’s no way to live. There’s a darkness there as well as an escapism. Some of my favorite bands, like Love, the ’60s L.A. band, there’s so much dread in their music at the same time as there’s so much sunlight in it. The whole L.A. ’60s scene is all sunlight and dread — the Beach Boys and Phil Spector as well. And I find that music — that really speaks to me.”

Though he writes the melody and lyrics, MacLean gives the other band members free reign. “I’m not going to tell them what to do. They have carte blanche to do whatever they want.” And that’s especially true for strings arranger Louis Phillipe, who doesn’t even tell the band before the recording sessions that the string quartet will play.

You won’t see that string quartet during a live performance (the band couldn’t afford to pay their union wages), but Draisey handles a lot of those arrangements on her violin. The band just started its tour and is having a great time playing the new songs to puzzled fans.

“It’s a little quixotic to be playing all these new songs to people who are ‘Strange Geometry’ fans. They seem to be reacting fantastically. People can dance to what we’re playing now, so it’s a lot more fun for everyone, I think.”

The Clientele are definitely having fun now, but MacLean makes no guarantees when it comes to the band’s future.

“It’s just album by album really,” MacLean explains. “The terrible thing is, once you get money as a band, it’s almost impossible to move back and have less money. It’s just too depressing to carry on. You just want to make a change and start something new. Last year, we didn’t know whether we would get more money or not. And we did. And I’m glad we did because it let us make this record, which is my favorite Clientele record, but we don’t know how easy the next record is going to be.”

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