The music of the Clientele is defined by its shimmering mystery, by reverb-heavy single-note guitar and breathy, vaguely John Lennon-ish vocals. But one of the most enduring mysteries surrounding the group is why this most British of acts -- a band whose sound seems to emerge from a cloudy green countryside and whose very name is impossible to pronounce properly without an English accent (it’s Clee-entele) -- has its biggest following in the States.
To singer-guitarist Alasdair MacLean, 35, it’s “really annoying” but, in some ways, quite logical. “The English press says we sound American,” he said. “Which is a bit strange. But almost all my favorite bands are from L.A.: the Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, Phil Spector, the Byrds. The West Coast sound was formative for me.”
The Clientele’s love of English myth and mysticism and its grounding in ‘60s California come out in the new “Bonfires on the Heath,” which brings the group to Spaceland for shows on Friday and Saturday. Much of the album was inspired by a chemically altered stroll through London’s Hampstead Heath, where blowing leaves gave MacLean chills. “Not just wonder and light,” he said. “There was an element of menace to it.”
The roots of the band’s most recognizable sound, MacLean’s tremolo-heavy modified Telecaster, date to a childhood exposure to the Beatles that made him plead for a guitar.
“My parents didn’t really approve of me learning rock ‘n’ roll,” he said of a home halfway between London and the rolling South Downs. “So they signed me up for flamenco and classical guitar lessons. It’s about learning to play with your fingertips and fingernails, the arpeggiated style. That also comes from folk music.”
By his teenage years, his harp-like arpeggios had been shattered and redrawn by influences like R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, the Smiths’ Johnny Marr, the melancholy folk of Nick Drake and Television’s Tom Verlaine, whose music, like MacLean’s, is inspired both by poetry and post-bop jazz. He calls Love’s Arthur Lee his favorite songwriter.
“We’re not a rock ‘n’ roll band really,” MacLean said. “We’re kind of a chamber group disguised as rock ‘n’ roll.”
An early version of the Clientele formed in the ‘90s when MacLean and bassist James Hornsey met in school over a shared loved of the band Felt but little came of it. The group re-formed in 1997 and began to release singles and EPs; its first proper album, “The Violet Hour” was issued in 2003. (It was preceded by a 2000 EP collection, “Suburban Light.”)
MacLean said his most crucial goal is to give the band, which now also includes drummer Mark Keen and Mel Draisey, who plays violin and piano, a distinct musical perspective.
Future is unclear
“Rebellion is so adolescent, I think,” he said. “What is there to rebel against these days besides absolutely everything? It’s more interesting to observe, to create a world that brings you out of yourself and shows you that the limits are much farther on. It’s kind of a philosophical thing we do.”
MacLean, however, is unsure about the future of the group, which is now getting some of the best reviews of its career. He’s recorded a set of songs with the Spanish musician Lupe Nunez-Fernandez, under the name El Amore de Dia (“The Love of Days”) and might channel more of his creative energies in that direction.
“It’s got more difficult rhythms than the Clientele plays, based more on Latin music and jazz, with an element of spooky old folk music,” he said.
Feeling uninspired by the “drum-voice-bass format,” he’s looking to move away from the band’s very English rainy day music into more experimental, cosmopolitan territory.
“In the long-term, perhaps the Clientele can do a movie score or something and move forward that way,” he says. “What I don’t think we can do is a record like the five we’ve already done.
“I think it’s really important for an artist to leave a concise body of work,” he said. “If you can’t progress the way you want, better to cut it off than make boring records.”
The Clientele / The Wooden Birds Where: Spaceland, 1717 Silver Lake Blvd., Los Angeles When: 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday Price: $12 in advance, $14 day of show Contact: (323) 661-4380