Four boys from Crosby with a penchant for thrift shops and themed stagewear, CLINIC are the masters of the darkly subversive. Ade, Brian, Carl and Hartley have come a long way since their days spent hunting for vintage organs in jumble sales, and they are now able to boast of being stalwarts of the Domino record label, with five albums and a Grammy Award nomination in their back pockets. And with the string-laden new album Bubblegum about to drop, I caught up with singer and chief songwriter Ade Blackburn to discuss the direction of the new album, DIY ethics, mainstream approval, and those surgical masks…
“With this album we have slightly moved away from the dominant garage, grungey sound. The new record is a bit more playful and more enjoyable; we have taken a few risks with these songs, had a look to see how we could play with them, but the album has still got a few twists.” Clinic certainly are a band who have earned the right to take risks with their music. In fact, such is the nature of their back catalogue that you would be disappointed if they weren’t taking risks and making leaps in to different areas: “It’s about sticking your neck out a bit, maybe making mistakes and playing around with a song a bit to see what works,” Ade tells me. Bubblegum marks a move towards the softer, more easy-listening end of the rock spectrum, but don’t worry, they haven’t gone pop on us. With over a decade in the industry behind them, Clinic have the freedom to explore a few more pop ideas, but they are accomplished enough musicians to know that these would be rendered meaningless if they didn’t impart some of the trademark dark Clinic twists to the added layers of harmonies and strings, and this is one of reasons why they have survived so long.
“The music is quite simple on this album, less dense, but it still has a charm to it.” As an album, Bubblegum is more coherent as a whole than any album they’ve produced before now, retaining as it does a strong common theme throughout rather than switching randomly through different gears as previous albums have tended to do. The punky-garage edges have been softened by heavier use of harpsischords and acoustic guitars, and the lush string arrangements have given the band another dimension. There is plenty of light on this record, especially on the summery pop of Milk & Honey and ooohh ooohhs of lead single I’m Aware, but it is in the shadows that Clinic really work their magic: there are plenty of twists permeating the album that prevent it from seeping in to the lifts and waiting rooms of your mind as benign background music. In Lion Tamer, Evelyn and Orangutan there are some genuine rockers, with off-kilter time signatures, mildly disturbing bass chord progressions, and Ade’s psychotically slurred vocals that are enough to chill you to the very marrow of your bones in that playful way that only Clinic can. Lyrically, too, Bubblegum is less abstract than previous efforts, with Ade admitting that relationships and fidelity were themes on his mind in the writing of these songs: “It has hints of the personal side to it. It suited the music more to reflect on real life relationships, but not in an obvious storytelling way.” This in turn makes the songs easier to relate to for the listeners, another slight change from the seemingly confrontational stance of times gone by, something enhanced by them surgical masks.
“The idea of the masks and scrubs was slightly taking the piss out of those bands who want to be up there on stage and have people looking at them, kind of pompous and strutting; it should be about the music.” They have always maintained that the masks were intended to be something playful, a bit of humour on their part, but the image has now become ubiquitous and it is hard to think of Clinic without them (in fact, I can’t help but wonder if Ade is wearing one right now as he’s talking to me on the phone?). While it has served to give them an identifying image, as well as showing their tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, I can’t help but think that it has to some degree prevented the public from truly connecting with them in a major way, so much so that Clinic really haven’t enjoyed the kind of popularity that they deserve. You would probably only describe them as having a cult following in this country, and they certainly wouldn’t be recognised walking down Church Street (except perhaps if they were in full scrubs gear), but do they deserve more recognition? Two tours of North America each year, and support slots with Arcade Fire and The Flaming Lips would suggest so, but the infuriatingly refreshing thing about them is that they don’t seem the band to thirst for that notoriety.
“We still leave the rough edges and the mistakes in so that the strings don’t seem overdone. There’s a real quality to it, so that it might fall apart at any moment. It shows that it’s made by real people,” Ade adds, with emphasis on the real. Sticking close to their DIY roots is another reason why Clinic have had such longevity, that they have resisted the glitz and sheen, the over-production and over-exposure that could have suffocated them. Working with producer John Congleton on Bubblegum is the first time they’ve worked with a producer for a while, but with the recording process still halfway between doing it DIY and getting a producer in, it still retains that garage authenticity. Some of the guitar and vocal parts were laid down by themselves in their own room at Elevator, with Ade adding “that way it keeps it closer to the original idea I think, without it going through too many people’s hands.”
“Bands often don’t get to make six albums now, you think ‘will they stay together that long?’ We’ve not taken it all too seriously, we’ve carried on because we still enjoy it. Some bands get in to the routine of writing hits, but not us, and Domino haven’t put any pressure on us to do that.” Of course, it is always great to have encouragement that what you are doing is pleasing people, and a Grammy Award nomination for 2002 album Walking With Thee, and a personal invitation from Kings Of Leon to provide tour support certainly give that. Ade: “Because we don’t really have that mainstream appeal it was nice to have that appreciation, very flattering actually. We were busy recording at the time so we had to decline [KOL]. But it’s also nice to have that approval from your peers, especially when you’re doing something that’s not necessarily mainstream, it shows that you’re not going mad!”
For the time being Clinic will be making do with receiving admiration from smaller crowds as they set about touring their new album on a seven-date tour of the UK this month, playing Liverpool’s Static Gallery on 23rd October, and I’m sure I won’t be the only one awaiting their appearance with baited breath.