Ask the average punter on Church Street if they’ve heard of CLINIC and they’ll probably direct you to the GUM in the Royal.
It’s not that said band are a hushed secret or shirkers of the spotlight. They’ve soundtracked a Levi ad, been nominated for a Grammy, appeared on David Letterman’s Tonight Show, and next month they release their seventh and starkest album yet, Free Rein. Ever since debut Internal Wrangler (2000) pricked the ears of the underground press with its smörgåsbord of sonic textures and surreal psyche-punk structures, Clinic have wavered little from the three components that comprise their sound: ideas, tone and melody. Plundering the goldmines of 60s garage rock, surf, new wave and even elements of the more hypnotic Black Ark dub-reggae, Clinic have created a landscape of wild eclecticism, though one issue has remained a dogged talking point for both audiences and journalists alike: their infamous visual attire.
The flippant decision to disguise themselves with surgical masks may have its roots in high-jinx but it’s since been twisted by myth to represent a darker, more disturbing element of the band’s image. Take this YouTube comment for example: “I was shitting myself when these lot walked on when they were supporting Arcade Fire. Really good band, but bloody scary.” So, as I meet singer/lyricist Ade Blackburn who is in turn both engaging and thankfully mask -free, I wonder whether he gets confused by all the hoo-ha regarding the costume. “Well, it all started as a mode of entertainment that tied in with the name but it seems like it’s tipped the balance in how a lot of people perceive us; they may think we’re being too arty or even intimidating but we never initially anticipated any of the more sinister connotations.”
Even though a detachment from comfort is integral to the band’s visual image and sound, there’s also an inherent playfulness to Clinic, like Barrett-era Floyd or Devo; a quirky humour that’s often lost to those who merely scratch the surface of the band. “There doesn’t seem to be many people who pick up on that side of it, like the album titles, songs like The Return Of Evil Bill or the surreality of the instrumentation. People are surprised when we turn up for interviews because, I dunno, they may be expecting us to be wearing capes or something.”
That they’ve remained this mysterious entity is no accident though and here lies an intriguing sub-plot in the Clinic narrative. As US college radio began playing tracks from Internal Wrangler, major label Universal became involved and, thus, something of a commercial crossroads presented itself. “It was all a bit strange: we had these external expectations to make that next step with the second album [2002’s Walking With Thee] but it was the other people around that were pushing us in a certain direction and that kind of tested the water for what we wanted our band to be.” Instead of snapping at the dangling carrot, Clinic remained grounded, focused and resolute in their ideals. “If you make that transition and it’s a big mistake, people see a chink in the armour and you’ll no longer have that credibility.” Even if mainstream enticements present themselves, there is another force within the band who will derail such thoughts. “In our band you’ve got [long-time musical collaborator and multi-instrumentalist] Hartley, who has a very extreme non-commercial approach to music, and even if we wanted to explore a more poppier side, he would probably end up doing something to sabotage it.” Since their debut, Clinic have pulled off the rare feat of releasing an album, a new set of ideas, every two years and it’s this philosophy of never replicating, never looking back or becoming too comfortable with a particular sound or style that fuels their desire and longevity.
Their close relationship with Domino Records puts Clinic in the envious position of enjoying a huge amount of creative control and the opportunity to record themselves. “We always go with what our instincts are on and not what’s expected of us, and they’ve [Domino] been really supportive. They let us get on with the recordings, then they might suggest different mixers to see it from another angle, like with Free Rein we got Daniel Lopatin [Brooklyn-based experimental artist aka Oneohtrix Point Never] to mix a few tracks.” With (the perfectly-titled) Free Rein, they’ve exited the tighter arrangements and Beach Boysian whimsy of Bubblegum (2010) altogether to cruise the metronomic neon night of the autobahn. It’s an album that’s sounds like it was made at four in the morning, all purring analogue synths and lyrical snapshots that hint rather than interrogate. The result is Clinic’s most contemporary-sounding album so far, pulsing electro (King Kong) and sparse washed-out soundscapes (You), though they still retain that ability to chill the bones of the listener. Album closer Sun And The Moon has to go down as one of the most unsettling pieces of music I’ve ever heard: a morbid carousel of saxophone, freak-show organ and delayed vocal, underpinned by a drum pattern that sniggers in the face of the beat. It all unravels gloriously and I’m left thinking it must be an extremely skilful drummer who can play so chaotically, though Hartley tells me it’s himself attempting to play the drums. Even Blackburn was dubious of its inclusion: “I thought we may have gone too far.” Twelve years on from their debut, Clinic are still free to do what they want. If they trawl beneath the mainstream radar, so be it, though as a result they remain as fresh and wonderfully deranged as ever.