Several months before the formation of the Clientele in 1997, frontman Alasdair MacLean was working his self-described "Kafka-esque desk job" at Bloomsbury Publishing in London when a manuscript of the first Harry Potter novel arrived.
"We'd have these editorial meetings and talk about different books, and it was my job to read a lot of them and not really say how good they were, it was more like I had to make a commercial assessment of how well I thought they'd sell," the genial MacLean recalls over the phone from his trio's tour stop in San Francisco. Thinking the book was crap, a watered-down version of similarly styled tomes he'd cherished in his childhood, MacLean advised his bosses to pass on Potter. His recommendation was ignored, Bloomsbury published the book, and the rest, of course, is Harry history. "You can see how good I was at my job," MacLean chuckles wryly.
The inverse might be the case for the Clientele. Significantly more adept at songwriting than literary prognostication, singer-guitarist MacLean along with his longtime friends and bandmates, drummer Mark Keen and bassist James Hornsey has delivered some of the finest guitar-pop to come out of the UK in recent years. Clearly inspired by a plethora of late-1960s baroque-pop acts, the Paisley Underground movement of early 1980s Los Angeles, and such dream pop masters as Galaxie 500 and Kitchens of Distinction, the Clientele's plaintive miniature symphonies of reverbed and tremoloed guitar strums and arpeggios, graceful rhythms, lilting strings and thickening Hammond organ, and MacLean's erudite, breathily sung lyrics of lost love and perpetual longing are poised and sophisticated but hardly pretentious. Sentimental and quaint, yeah. But well short of twee.
The albums the 2000 singles compilation Suburban Light, 2003's The Violet Hour, and the most recent, 2005's Strange Geometry, all on Merge Records are perpetual critical favorites. And yet, after nearly a decade, the Clientele enjoys only a cult following and struggles to sell records both in the United States and back home in England.
MacLean is philosophical about the band's lack of commercial success. "No one's ever happy. If you're in the Clientele you're unhappy because you don't have the same kind of audience as Spoon, and if you're in Spoon you're probably unhappy because you don't have a mainstream audience, and, y'know, if you're a mainstream band you're unhappy because you're not the Beatles, and if you're the Beatles you're unhappy because you're not Shakespeare, so ... it's a road to nowhere, really."
Still, he doesn't cherish obscurity. "Nobody wants to play to 100 people every night for the rest of their career. I think everybody wants to find a path to riches and an easy life, but by doing it without compromise and by doing something artistic. That's the ideal way, isn't it? I suppose I'm happy that we have any kind of an audience, but there's always been a lot of ambition in our band."
MacLean's primary aspiration seems to be crafting songs that approach the greatness of his most beloved album, Love's 1967 classic Forever Changes. The Clientele's music draws from enough different sources so as to not to seem like a total Love-in, but the album's influence on MacLean's songwriting is unavoidable. On Aug. 4, after hearing that Love mastermind Arthur Lee had died of leukemia the previous day, the Clientele performed Love's "Signed D.C." in Chapel Hill, N.C.
"He was really the only hero I've ever had in my entire life," MacLean says of Lee. "I first heard Forever Changes when I was 16 we used to hang out with this older couple who would play us kids really good music and give us pot, and listening to that record, it was one of those formative moments when your world turns upside down and you realize, 'Wow, this is perfect music.' I didn't even know who they were or anything, it was just the whole thing the eerieness and the menace and the paranoia and the beauty of it all at the same time. ..."
MacLean's voice trails off, and he's silent for a few seconds before softly resuming. "I was very shocked and very sad to hear that he had died, and the thing that made me the most sad is that everybody thought he had that one last great album in him, like Johnny Cash. I always thought, 'If he could just hook up with the right people, he could do it,' and now he never will. There's something very bleak about that."
And he understands bleak. Strange Geometry, though sonically warm, is a lyrically downcast album that MacLean says is about the death of his mother. Recurring images of dark, shivery London streets, fleeting spirits, shadows and fog permeate his vivid lyrics. But he promises the next album, which the Clientele plans to record in Nashville immediately after their current tour ends, will sport a much different mood.
"Don't worry, we're not gonna make a ghastly British country record or anything like that," MacLean laughs. "There's gonna be a lot of McCartney-esque pop on it, I think, and there's a Bacharach-y bounciness to some of the new songs. We're gonna experiment and make things a little more carefree and light, that's the way the wind's blowing for us at the moment. But, y'know, if you love Suburban Light or Strange Geometry, unless someone breaks into your house and steals them, you'll always have those records to listen to."
And whether that next offering proves to be the Clientele's big breakthrough is anybody's guess, but don't ask MacLean to make any predictions his track record, after all, isn't exactly sparkling.
"Yeah, I didn't do so well with Harry Potter, did I? So many people who love that book say to me, 'Thank God you weren't the guy in charge.' Well I thank God I wasn't the guy in charge as well, because now I'd be doing TV interviews alongside the guy that turned down the Beatles."
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