Concert preview: Influential New Zealanders the Clean headline inaugural Helter Swelter

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From the August 14, 2014 edition

In recent interviews, the Clean singer/guitarist David Kilgour has noted this stateside trek could be the influential New Zealand crew's last, which has been a running theme going on more than two decades now.

“Every time we come to America I say that and people just laugh: 'Oh, the last tour, right? Ha, ha, ha! We'll see about that, David,'” said Kilgour, who joins brother Hamish and longtime bassist Robert Scott in a headlining slot at Helter Swelter at Ace of Cups on Saturday, Aug. 16. “I should just shut my mouth, but it might be the truth because the Clean aren't making any new music … and I wonder how long one can go on performing without new material. You can do it a bit, I think, but eventually it's going to become a hollow, shallow feeling. But that's an artist's dilemma, really. When is the right time to stop?”

Since forming in Dunedin, New Zealand, in the late 1970s, the Clean has generally lived an on-again/off-again existence. The group spent much of the ’80s on hiatus, and has been at best sporadically active since then, releasing its last album, Mister Pop, in 2009. A series of 2012 recording sessions designed to springboard work on a follow-up were eventually aborted when they failed to generate new material — a turn of events Kilgour dismissed with a shrug, saying, “It doesn't always work when we get together.”

Even so, the band's audience has continued to grow — Kilgour noted the audience gets slightly younger and slightly larger with each tour — along with the scope of its musical influence. Echoes of the Clean's gorgeous scuzz-pop can be heard in everything from the guitar fuzz generated by indie pioneers Sonic Youth to the scrappy output of locals Scrawl and Pretty Pretty, both of which are also set to perform at Helter Swelter.

“I think it was around the time Pavement came around in the early ’90s that I clicked on to [the influence our music was having on other bands],” Kilgour said. “Maybe it was the sound they were drawn to? Or maybe it was the [lo-fi] production? Or the naivety? The records kind of sounded old when we made them, and they still sound old.”

Kilgour, who maintains a busy schedule outside the Clean, recording and performing both solo and alongside his band the Heavy Eights, has little desire to cash in on the crew's increased popularity, and he said he long ago gave up on the idea he could amass some great fortune making music.

“In the late ’90s it was like, 'OK, I’m not going to hit that 50,000 mark every time I put out a record, so I might as well get over it and carry on,'” he said. “Before that I led myself astray in some ways, and I spent money making really produced albums and ... kind of got away from the source of the whole thing, truthfully, which is the music. I was aware of the shortcomings and pitfalls of wrestling with the music industry, but I was willing to give it a go at the time because I was encouraged to make songs that people might play on the radio [laughs].

“I’m not chasing that kind of dream anymore. The reason I'm coming here is because people asked me to play. That’s the great motivator now. It’s all about the music and where it takes us.”

Photos by Tim Soter and Craig McNab