“All the beautiful things are opaque,” Alasdair MacLean sings on ‘Lady Grey’, a shimmering highlight from the Clientele’s astonishing new double LP I Am Not There Anymore. The stories on the album don’t cohere in any clear or narratively revelatory way, but the beauty that pervades it – haunting, surreal, inexplicable – reveals itself through recurring images, signs, and symbols that feel persistent and strangely resonant. Although there’s definitely a musical thread between the band’s previous records – including 2017’s wistfully elegant Music for the Age of Miracles – and their latest, it really sounds like the group has taken a frightening leap into the unconscious, opening up a well of inspiration. “What happened with this record was that we bought a computer,” MacLean has said, and beyond electronic instrumentation, they also fold in spoken-word passages, minimalist piano instrumentals, string and horn arrangements, as well as influences from everything from jazz to bossa nova across its 63-minute runtime. For all its dazzling scope, the Clientele immerse us in the sonic, emotional, and geographic landscape of I Am Not There Anymore so fervently that it immediately feels both out of time and close to home, like an echo of a memory that only gets bigger and more elaborate the further away you get from it.
We caught up with the Clientele’s Alasdair MacLean to talk about the inspirations behind I Am Not There Anymore, including Alan Garner, Michael John Fink, hypnosis, motorway towns, and more.
Roger Caillois’ 1985 book The Writing of Stones
The writer, Roger Caillois, was a French thinker, and he was from the generation that produced the surrealists. He probably would have been caught up in the currents of thought that made them who they were. French thinkers are often really different to Anglophone thinkers, because they like to be playful with ideas. He was interested in the way children would play, and he actually made a taxonomy of the different games that children play. But this book is not about that. It’s a book about stones, and it’s about the images that you can see in stones, and how weirdly pictorial some of the images in stones seem. It’s really fascinating to me, because just like him, the longer I look at the examples he gives – which, of course, are just chance creations of geology – the more I start to see certain traits of different art; there’s a pink and red rhodochrosite stone from Argentina that looks like a Jean Dubuffet painting. The really interesting thing is that he keeps his best example till the end, and it’s just uncanny. It’s limestone, and he calls it the Castle. It clearly shows a building, people, and trees, and you would swear it was painted. But it wasn’t. It was formed randomly by geothermal forces tens of millions of years ago. You can get a PDF pretty easily – you have to see this because you will not believe your eyes.
I loved that, the dreaminess of looking at stones and saying, “What is in this stone?” And knowing that you’re misrecognizing what’s there – it’s not like he’s saying these are images that were stored in the earth to give us revelations. He knows that it’s completely by chance, but he still goes down that path of misrecognizing them as pictures, and he does it in a playful way. To me, it’s kind of heroic misrecognition, because he knows it’s not really there, but he still wants to write a whole taxonomy and a philosophical tract about the different images you get in stones and what they look like.
For me, this kind of misrecognition of things is a way of using chance and patterns that only you really see, that don’t actually exist outside of you, to create art. It’s totally what I’ve done with music. The clearest example is the song ‘My Childhood’, where I recorded the wind and got the computer to try and translate it into MIDI files as if someone was whistling a tune. But the wind doesn’t have steps the way notes do; the wind goes in a glissando and through different frequencies and cadences. So the computer, when it rendered it into notes, it rendered it more or less as chaos. But it was easy then to split up the file and voice the four different elements of the file: two as violin, one as viola, and one as a cello. That’s the string arrangement for ‘My Childhood’. It feels like the same way of thinking, the process of presenting art that he’s using in The Writing of Stones. It certainly inspired me to make those kind of experiments, but also to misrecognize patterns and signs in the world and turn them into art. If you let go in that way, if you use your imagination in that way, you can surprise yourself. You can find new sources, new wells of inspiration, and quite powerful ones sometimes, too.
I do think the work of being an artist, in many ways, is about identifying the dreaminess, as you say, of the patterns around us, whatever objective explanation for them there might be, and being able to play with and translate them into art. That sounds like exactly what you’ve done with ‘My Childhood’.
I hope so. One of the things that this book also inspired me to do is start to collect stones myself. There’s stones called dendrites, which have thin white veins on a very black background, and they’re quite angular, and they look like early Greek ceramic art. I’ve got one that looks like the minotaur surrounded by figures. I’ve got one that looks kind of like strange calligraphy. I can’t explain to you why, but it makes me so happy. I find it so precious that I have this stone that looks like the minotaur. There’s some really weird seductive magic about it that I cannot explain. But when you see the stones in this book, you don’t think, “What a fine example of an agate,” for instance. You think, “Wow, that looks like a horse with eyes.” In some way, that’s how our brains are wired to start with, I think, and the contextual and scientific explanation always comes later. To exist in that moment of wonder when you first see it, that’s almost to me what an artist should be doing. This book helped to give me confidence in that approach.
People in Britain will read him when they’re kids, and he’s become a very beloved children’s writer. But he describes his books as being for children of all ages. You can read them as an adult and enjoy them too. What I feel he taught me was about being rooted in a sense of place, because all of his books, his children’s books and adult books, take place in the same part of Cheshire outside Manchester, which is called Alderley Edge. His family has lived in Alderley Edge for hundreds of years, and there’s a legend there – I think it’s in really all of English folklore, the idea of the King who’s asleep under the hill. And it’s usually King Arthur, he’s had his last battle, and he and his knights go under the hill and fall asleep until they’re most needed again. They’re kept by a wizard, and there is a well called the Wizard’s Well that this legend applies to. All of his books are set around these beautifully named hills in Alderley Edge, like Shining Tor and Stormy Points. Again, it’s a heroic thing, I think, that he spent all his life in one place, writing about the land and about the things he’s found in the land; a prehistoric ax, for instance, that he discovered forms the basis of one of his stories in Red Shift.
He writes about deep time in a way that’s actually incredibly convincing, and it’s very beautiful, but also terrifying. He really is a frightening writer. Even his books for the youngest readers, they’ll haunt you afterwards. His best children’s book is called The Owl Service, and it’s based on a story from the Welsh myth the Mabinogionone. One of the stories of Mabinogionone is about a lady who is made by a wizard out of flowers, for a man, and she cheats on the man, and the wizard turns her into an owl, because the owl is the bird the other birds hate, and they’ll chase it away. The Times Literary Supplement described it at the time as having “a terror-haunted beauty,” and that’s the best description of it I know. It’s really short, it’s diamond-hard in language, and it’s rooted totally convincingly in the twentieth century and deep time. It’s this repetitive cycle of the story happening again and again and again, and it’s happening now in the modern world.
That sense of being very concentrated and patient about the place that you’re rooted in, and writing about that almost exclusively, and never feeling ashamed or afraid that it’s not a famous place or a place that has glamour – that absolutely influenced me, because a lot of what I’ve written about is about suburbia, the place where I grew up outside of London. Which is almost like a different country in some ways, because it’s so different to London, but it’s still in the Southeast of England. He was such an inspiration and a teacher in that way, to make the magical out of everyday objects. And once you do, you almost can’t stop. You just keep going and going. That was a formative influence, and as with every record I’ve made, it’s been an influence on this record.
Something I can hear in your music is this ability to combine elements of myth and autobiography, which seems inspired by his work too, given that it is so rooted in the landscape of his upbringing.
His books are about echoes, the same things happening over and over again through time, and my work is more personal. But it’s always hidden, the autobiography – this album probably the least, but before it was always hidden. And even with this record, when I talk about things that happened or give names, they’re always kind of disguised. They’re always fragmented and broken up so that we start at the end, and in the middle is the beginning, and at the end is the middle. Garner was just fully imbued with the sense of landscape as a child, it became part of his character, almost. I definitely identify with that. I feel that the same thing happened to me. It’s the same as The Writing of Stones; it comes before you start to make explanations. It’s something that is just there instinctively, immediately.
Mark [Keen], our drummer, was walking through a gate, and a man came up to him and asked him, “Could I come through the gate?” and then made a strange hand sign. And Mark said, “No, you can’t come through the gate.” He told me afterwards, “I think he was a street hypnotist,” and I said, “What’s a street hypnotist?” [laughs] He said, “Someone who walks around the streets hypnotizing people in order to take advantage of them.” I’d never heard of this before, and it really tickled me to think that there was an army of street hypnotists walking around London using strange, arcane gestures in order to bring people under and rob them.
But then later, actually, when we were having our son, we went to the hospital to do hypnobirthing, which is where the woman who is going to give birth is taught to self-hypnotize while the labor happens, to make it less traumatic. And I found that my partner was not susceptible to it at all. We had lots and lots of three, four-hour long lessons about it at the hospital, and every time, within about 15 seconds, I was hypnotized. It was the strangest thing, because it felt like dreaming, but it wasn’t dreaming, and it didn’t feel in any way unpleasant. But I remember always having the same vision, the same image, like a cameo brooch with the same three things – this is probably as boring as someone telling you their dream, so I’ll be really quick – but it it was a dark hedge, and it was the sun very hot above the hedge, and there was a doll on the floor, and I was in the image. Every time I was finding the same thing.
The more I went into it, the more I started to elaborate. When I wasn’t hypnotized, I’d start to elaborate what these things meant, like the dog going around the sun was like the dance of Shiva, and making these connections that were coming up from somewhere in the unconscious. And then it occurred to me that, actually, I feel like I’ve spent a lot of my life hypnotized. I feel like just going into a trance is something that happens to me all the time, and people who are close to me complain about it. “It’s like you’re just not there, you’re somewhere else.” And I remember as a kid as well, just being told this Scottish phrase, “You’re away with the fairies.” That tendency towards hypnosis, or self-hypnosis, or going into a trance – that’s where a lot of the images from my songs come from.
Do you feel like it’s almost necessary for you to be in that state, where you’re almost hypnotized or dissociating or not totally there, to be able to write?
Definitely. But it makes it sound like there’s a teleology there, where you want to write. But it writes you, it’s the other way around. I find that I suddenly slip into this state, and then I have to beat the first crumbs of the song from it. I almost feel like if I get self-conscious about it, the spell will break. And I don’t want it to, because it gives me personally so much comfort and shelter. Sometimes in my life, I’ve felt the main thing I don’t want to be is me and here and now. I’d rather be anyone else anywhere else at any other time. And this is perhaps a way of dissociating and stopping trauma from happening, almost.
I don’t want to sound too much like a therapist, but all I know is that that’s where the songs tend to come from, that hypnagogic state. And then an image comes from somewhere, and the song starts to adhere itself to it. And then maybe, if there’s two or three images, they can work in harmony with each other, and those are the more interesting songs. So that’s why sometimes I’ve repeated images across albums, because they are the images that seem the true images that set the context and set the boundaries for where a piece of art was going to go. And I do think it just comes from that same feeling I had in the hospital, where I was completely lost.
Did becoming more self-conscious about it – you’ve even titled the album I Am Not There Anymore – end up negatively affecting your creativity in any way?
No, it didn’t in the end. I think it’s the same as the other things we’ve talked about, but it happens without conscious control or thought. It’s almost like it’s a biological thing, and there’s no escape from it.
Michael John Fink
I read a review of one of his albums, I Hear It in the Rain, so I ordered the CD. He’s a classical musician, as far as I can tell, a conservatory-style composer, but it’s not like other contemporary classical music. It really speaks to me very much more, and it’s very hypnotic. It has these very slow but beautiful piano pieces; it’s not jazz, really, and it’s certainly not anything to do with pop music or rock music. But it has this really ominous, tightly wound beauty that actually reminds me of Alan Garner’s books; it feels like it’s almost geological as it moves. I bought the CD around 2001, and I’ve listened to it ever since, so that’s 22 years.
The funny thing was that the ‘Radial’ pieces on our record – I had nothing to do with them, they’re written by Mark and recorded by him. The only thing I had to do with them was where to put them on the record once he’d given them to me as finished pieces. They sound a little bit like Michael John Fink, so I said to him, “Have you been listening to my Michael John Fink?” And he’d never heard of him. [laughs] Again, it’s talking about seeing patterns where they aren’t there. It just feels to me like a beautiful coincidence that these things sound so similar, just very feverish and spare and ominous in the same way. Mark’s pieces perhaps have harmonies more from jazz music, or potentially he’d be more influenced by Debussy. The only person I can think of that is like this guy is maybe Satie when he does things that are really out there harmonically, like Vexations.
Love at first sight
It’s a trope you explore on ‘Chalk Flowers’, which is a real pivotal moment on the record right after ‘My Childhood’.
I don’t know if I believe in love at first sight. It’s like the famous Citizen Kane quote, where the old guy is telling the young guy, “I don’t know why Charles Foster came and said Rosebud as he died, perhaps he just has a memory. I can remember the face of a woman I saw in a Staten Island ferry 50 years ago…” There’s a friend of mine called Louis Philippe, he’s a musician as well, and we were talking about love at first sight. And he said that kind of memory, that visual memory of a face, is something that he believes only men experience. He doesn’t believe women experience it. I never did find out what his evidence for that was, but I haven’t really asked around, like going up to female friends and saying, “Have you ever remembered a face from a crowd in a romantic way, and it’s never left you in years and years?” But yeah, ‘Chalk Flowers’ is about finding someone and seeing them, and them seeing you, and then nothing’s ever the same again. I’m really interested in that visual side of it, that sense of: Why would face a stay with you forever?
I have examples, too. I remember driving on a bus through Stamford Hill in London, and looking out at a bus stop idly as we drove past, and I saw the face of a girl who was a Hasidic Jewish girl. And I never have forgotten her face. It’s not like I wanted to marry her or anything, in a way it’s not even really romantic. It’s more just, I never, ever forgot it, and I know that I will always remember it. That is so inexplicable. These kinds of encounters – again, they’re chance, but they feel as if they have some kind of external nudge towards them. It’s the kind of thing that inspires me to write without necessarily having a full understanding or belief in it.
The people who formed the Clientele grew up in a motorway town. It’s what’s sometimes unkindly referred to as a dormitory town, where people who work in London just come back to sleep. It’s greener and emptier than London, and that’s where I grew up. And it was a good place to grow up, definitely. But you would hear the motorway at night, you’d hear the sound of the cars, particularly if it was wet. It was extraordinary, it sounded like a breaking wave, but a wave that never actually boomed; you know, how when big waves by the seashore actually break, you hear a boom boom, and before you hear a hiss. The hiss was the sound of the cars. It felt like a wave that was always breaking, but never actually broke. You would hear it most clearly at night, but you’d hear it all through the day, too – wherever you went, whatever you did, the sound was there. Because those kinds of towns, not many things happen there, culturally at least – a lot of fights happen, a lot of hatred, a lot of cruelty, but not many things that are cultural or imaginative. And so into that space, you start to project your own imagination when you’re a kid, and because there’s nothing to do, you populate it so vividly, so intensely.
Almost all of the inspiration I have around landscape, which we are talking about earlier with reference to Alan Garner, it comes from this blank suburban landscape, where you have flat fields and new houses and the side of the motorways behind everything. I’ve lived in London now for about 23 years, and I’ve long left it behind, but it just feels like a really strange, feverish, magical place. It went into my mind and my thoughts in such a way that it never could leave them again. Still, when I hear even the sea sometimes, if I’m on holiday by the sea, I think it’s the motorway, and I think I’m going to wake up in the bed of my old house. In some ways it’s sad, and in some ways it gives you a sense of dread, but also in some ways it’s beautiful. And I think those three things – the sadness, the beauty, and the dread – are what I’ve tried to express. They’re all there in the town where I grew up, where nothing happens, and mental illness, it felt, was always just a step away because of the isolation; without your friends, you would have been swallowed alive. That’s where the Clientele was formed, and that’s where we come from. And as with every Clientele album, it just goes through it, I don’t know, like a stain.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.