• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

The subtle influence of The Clean

You don’t have to be in Dunedin to be true to the Dunedin sound.

berlin The Clean Dunedin band music review
Clean posters on a Hamburg wall, 2010.

‘An ideal spot for constructive loafing” is how Alex Ross once described Dunedin. Back in the 90s, before the American musicologist and author of The Rest Is Noise turned his full attention to the classical music of the 20th century, he wrote a piece for pioneering e-zine Feed on New Zealand rock, with a particular focus on the Dunedin sound.

How was it, Ross wondered, such a vibrant musical community, with its own distinct DIY ethos, should spring up in the world’s southernmost city? Isolation and the ­conditioning of solitude, he reckoned. Where there is no music industry as such, bands simply go about making the music they want to, irrespective of fashion. When the recording budget comes out of your dole, ingenuity has to substitute for technology.

The Clean were the premier example of this, and the latest in a series of reissues from Flying Nun shows just how constructive their loafing could be.

Although Vehicle was the Clean’s first full-length album, it marked the first reunion of the trio after a layoff of more than five years. Paradoxically, it was recorded not in Dunedin but in London. What’s more, it defied the DIY tradition of low-tech self-recording by being made in a proper studio (Blackwing) at the behest of a successful international indie (Rough Trade).

Yet by this point the Clean had perfected such a strong signature it hardly mattered how or where it was done. Vehicle is filled with the offhanded hooks, runaway train rhythms and David Kilgour’s thrilling, droning guitar playing that have made the group an influence and an institution to this day.

The vinyl reissue comes with a bonus EP, recorded live around the same time. Only previously available in a very limited form, In-A-Live-Situation has especially fiery versions of Clean classics Anything Could Happen and Point That Thing Somewhere Else.

Two and a half decades on, debut albums by a couple of relatively young bands show the enduring influence of the Dunedin groups in general and the Clean in particular.

Ghost Wave are a quartet from Auckland who have perfected the Kilgour-esque art of building a powerful song around a dominant drone. On the rare occasions they employ more than two chords, they ensure this doesn’t disturb the music’s forward rush. Sonically bold and rhythmically snappy, their album Ages sounds like a Clean that has been to finishing school.

The casual amateurism that was a hallmark of the Dunedin pioneers is more evident in Popular People Do Popular People, the debut of Dunedin-based the Prophet Hens. Founder Karl Bray writes sunny, sing-alongable pop tunes, reminiscent at times of the Chills’ Martin Phillipps, and the workmanlike production makes them sound like demos for a more polished product. Bray and co-vocalist Penelope Esplin avoid what Ross politely calls the “pedantries of exact pitch”.

Of course, the technology to render pitch-perfect, rhythmically rigid recordings is readily available now. Digital hits have been concocted in bedrooms. The Prophet Hens’ choices seem aesthetic ones rather than the kind born of economic necessity.

These sounds carry a sense of place. With virtually every piece of music ever made now just a mouse-click away, we might not be as isolated as we once were, yet in hewing to the sound Ross identified as being peculiar to New Zealand, the Prophet Hens and Ghost Wave are, in their different ways, fending off the homogenisation or loss of identity modern technology threatens us with.

The Clean, The Prophet Hens, Ghost Wave, album covers

VEHICLE/IN-A-LIVE-SITUATION, The Clean (Flying Nun); AGES, Ghost Wave (Arch Hill); POPULAR PEOPLE DO POPULAR PEOPLE, The Prophet Hens (Fishrider).

Short take

Dunedin band the Bird Nest Roys
The Bird Nest Roys

Mid-80s Flying Nun signings Bird Nest Roys actually hailed from West Auckland, but their resonant jangle was as representative of the so-called Dunedin sound as that of any of their southern labelmates.

ME WANT ME GET ME NEED ME LOVE (Flying Nun) is a long-overdue anthology of their work. Uplifting melodies and some of the strongest harmony singing ever to grace the illustrious indie.