IT'S ONE OF THE most indelible riffs in pop music: a four-note descending phrase so simple and catchy that it's astounding no one came up with it before. So begins 1981's "Tally Ho," which kicked off the Clean's recorded career, as well as the second-ever release on seminal New Zealand label Flying Nun, which showcased the fledgling sound of South Island city Dunedin and became a figurehead of in- dependent music in New Zealand.
If "Tally Ho" was the only thing the Clean had committed to wax, their legacy in the annals of rock history would be assured, but the trio—brothers Hamish and David Kilgour and bassist Robert Scott—continued with a long, if fitful, career that sprawled onto several EPs and full-lengths, as well as into other projects such as the Bats, the Heavy Eights, and the Mad Scene. Outside of their native New Zealand, the music of the Clean has been passed around as one of the most important touchstones of independent music, but they've never approached anything close to household-name status. I asked Scott via email what it's like to be an influential band, as opposed to a wildly successful one.
"There are a lot of advantages," Scott responds. "People are very keen to help us with things, whether it is gear or hopping onto a great bill. Also, there is no pressure on us to tour or write another smash album. We are quite happy with the pace and way in which we operate. It suits us—not that I wouldn't mind making a bit more money, of course."
It is true that the majority of American ears have only heard the music the Clean influenced—Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Times New Viking, virtually every independent band of the last 30 years—rather than the music of the Clean themselves. Which is a shame, of course, as they're responsible for one of the most delightful, odd, diverse catalogs in music. In fact, it's surprising the Clean has a reputation for a distinct, signature "sound," since one of the hallmarks of their career is their wide-ranging, varied approach to music, never sitting still with one sound for too long. Their latest, 2009's Mister Pop, for instance, is nothing like the addictive, peppy "Tally Ho," but rather a collection of gentle, drowsily enveloping songs that deconstruct the pop aesthetic.
"People do look at us in terms of sound very much for some reason," says Scott. "I guess we have a 'certain' sound that has elements that change as per the song and a lot of other factors that stay the same, maybe in terms of the way we play and approach our instruments. We do discuss how a song should sound sometimes; other times it just comes out a certain way and we don't analyze it too much."
The Clean are hopping back to the States for a rare string of dates that includes a show at Holocene as well as a Q&A session with Scott at Bunk Bar on Wednesday, October 6, conducted by Mike McGonigal. As for Scott's thoughts on if the Clean's role as musical ambassadors for New Zealand is ever a distraction from their music, "It varies on occasion as to the ambassador feeling," he says. "It does feel a bit like that overseas at times, and it feels good coming from somewhere down the bottom of the world and playing all the hotspots. The music and how we want to do it always comes first, though. Nothing gets in the way of that."