Frans Hals’ Baroque masterpiece the Laughing Cavalier isn’t just an example of fine, Old Master paintwork, it’s a curio that hides its true value behind a mask of reputation. When it appeared in exhibition at the Bethnal Green Museum in 1872 – deliberately kept away from the high-brow audiences of the West End – the portrait was originally known by the title A Cavalier. The painting was so well liked by the working-class crowds who flocked to see it that they dubbed it the Laughing Cavalier in honour of the subject’s enigmatic smile. The name stuck, and Hals’ stock grew with its popularity, despite the fact that the amused smile beneath the subject’s upturned moustache isn’t half as interesting as the spectacular detail in the embroidery of the cavalier’s garb.
The portrait’s grand flourishes, fine detail and air of mischief are hallmarks carried by another Laughing Cavalier – the track that opens CLINIC’s eighth studio album, Wheeltappers And Shunters. Clocking in at just over 28 minutes, the record is a brisk blast of vintage Clinic weirdness. It also shows that the Liverpudlian quartet haven’t lost the ability to surprise, which may be news to those unfamiliar with the cult group’s work, but for those well versed in the dark arts of Clinic, being challenged is what we’ve come to expect.
“Yeh, that’s the main approach we have to it,” agrees Ade Blackburn, vocalist, guitarist and one of the group’s principal songwriters. “The desire is that there’s always an element of surprise, whether that’s instruments or the way the songs are arranged. You know, try something that throws you, that would sort of still make sense but not in a conventional way. The kind of things that you wanna come back to.”
On first listen, the untrained ear may not hear past the absurdity of the bendy guitars or Jonathan Hartley’s distinctive warped clarinet; but, as with all Clinic’s music, it bears repeated listening. A cabinet of curiosities lurks in the background – amid the disconcerting whispers, hoots, laughs, phased samples and field recordings – that is an indication that this group is much smarter than your average.
The title of the new LP is a reference to a variety show from the 70s, which principal songwriter Blackburn and his collaborator-in-chief Hartley grew up with. The Wheeltappers And Shunters Social Club was compered by Bernard Manning, and depicted a stereotypical view of northern towns and their boozy, smoke-filled working men’s clubs. This album is neither a celebration nor a denigration of the culture of Blackburn and Hartley’s childhoods; more a satire of those who hanker for the simplicity of this era, which had so many dark undertones. “It was a show that both myself and Hartley could remember growing up, which was sort of bizarre, almost a kind of twilight world,” says Blackburn.
They play on the dirty glamour of that world throughout Wheeltapper And Shunters, inserting snippets of advertising segments about Blackpool Pleasure Beach in the margins, almost daring you to notice. “We’ve always had this thing about not making things too obvious or too straight,” Blackburn adds. “Using Wheeltappers And Shunters as a reference was our way of identifying if we were veering off into cabaret territory, which we’d steadfastly been trying to avoid!”
It’s been seven years since Clinic released their last album, 2012’s Free Reign. Which is something of an eternity for a band who had previously been used to putting out an LP every two or three years. A cosmically rich, jam-based effort, Free Reign came out when Clinic were at the peak of their popularity (the group headlined a stage at Austin Psych Fest in 2013) – and even that felt like a departure from the gentler, poppier album Bubblegum that preceded it. Wheeltappers And Shunters harks back to an even earlier version of Clinic, when a simpler rock ‘n’ roll template dominated – a fact that Blackburn agrees with. “When we decided to come back and do an LP, we just wanted to make it as natural and fun as we could,” he tells me over the phone as we chat about their long awaited return. “This must have just been instinctively what we reverted back to.”
The seven-year gap seems to have reset the band’s dial somewhat, and I wonder if what has come out on the new LP can be described as a natural, reflex version of Clinic that’s ingrained in their DNA. “I’d say it probably was,” Blackburn agrees. “With the Free Reign LP, there were a few more longer songs where we allowed ideas to develop on their own. But for this one we went back to all the songs being short and sharp – two and a half minutes or less. That’s the style that I enjoy doing the most; in that short space of time you can still do something disorientating or quite out-there, but it’s in more of a pop framework. There’s also a bit more of an edge back in it, I think.”
During their unofficial hiatus, Blackburn and Hartley kept themselves busy with a project of their own, Higher Authorities, releasing the album Neptune on Domino in 2016. Bassist Brian Campbell and percussionist Carl Turney also found time to pursue their own projects, briefly teaming up to indulge in some “ethnographic radiolore” with Lost Tapes Record Club. When it came to writing a new LP as a band, then, how much did they have to sit down and discuss how to do a ‘Clinic’ album again? Does it kind of just come out now, I ask Blackburn.
“Kind of…” he says, with a note of doubt in his voice. “During that time since Free Reign, myself and Hartley would just keep writing songs all the way through. Within that there are probably different influences that come in and out. The Higher Authorities album was more electronic-based and had loads of drum machine sounds on it, which came from Hartley’s direction. The songs were more his on that album. As a kind of a reaction, and with me having more songs on this album [Wheeltappers And Shunters], that steered it back to more of a short, sharp shock world on this LP. Kind of punk.”
Not all punk has to be deadly serious. I’ve always thought of Clinic as a playful band, even in the period when their music had those harder edges. One of the things the group have become known for is the scrubs and surgical masks they wear on stage, which lends an air of menace to proceedings. But even this has an element of mischief to it, allowing them to play it straight, or mix up the mood by swapping the scrubs for ponchos, Hawaiian shirts, or in this case, lurid shellsuits. Over the years, however, this has become something of a millstone in itself, and I wonder if the band begin to feel the weight of expectation that their cult popularity brings…
When you’re sitting down to write, do you feel any pressure because of your reputation?
Err… I used to, and luckily I think I’ve got past that a bit. Possibly around the time of Winchester Cathedral and Visitations [albums from 2004 and 2006, respectively], I really felt it then – that you’d built something up to a certain point, but it was very easy to lose it. I think I’m more laid back about it now, perhaps because you’ve established what you do a bit more then you take it a bit less seriously. When we’re going over the music, if we think it’s getting too serious then it’s usually crap! That’s the time to change.
Did you ever consider dropping the outfits?
Well, around the time of the Do It! LP, we’d kind of got to a point where there was a bit of a backlash – which there usually was with bands around then, when NME and all that was still going. Perhaps what would have worked in your favour to start off with – like having some sort of costume – became a bit of a stick to beat you with. I don’t think it was ever something we seriously intended to do [losing the outfits], but when you’ve been doing something for six or seven years, as it was at that time, some days you do just wanna escape from it. Especially if you’ve got that added pressure. You’re bound to want to question everything about the band, of course, and if you should be changing tack. I’m glad we didn’t cave in, though. It kind of comes full circle anyway, and if you stick at it, people sort of admire your stupidity!
With such a big break between albums, was there ever a temptation to not come back? I’m just wondering where the motivation comes from to get back in the room with everyone and do it all over.
[sucks breath in] Mmm, yeh, that is a really good point. Err… I don’t know whether it’s more common for bands to just do an album and go and tour, and perhaps not think about doing new ideas or songs that much until they reconvene later with the mindset, ‘Oh we’ve gotta do a new album’. It’s never been like that for us. There’s never a time where we’re not doing new songs, and in that way, I don’t even think about the process. I don’t think, ‘Oh I haven’t done any new music today,’ it’s just something that I instinctively want to do. I guess I’m probably quite lucky, in that sense. I don’t know whether, over time, that can go as well.
There’s a reference to the weird, darker side of that 70s aesthetic on this LP that isn’t quite the rose-tinted view of this golden generation as it’s often made out to be. Beyond the direct reference to The Wheeltappers And Shunters Social Club, what did you want to say lyrically with it?
The main theme which runs throughout quite a few of the songs is this escapist feeling. In amongst how difficult things have become in, say, Britain, you can still see a lot of people trying to have a laugh and being creative. The final song on the LP, the Copacabana one [New Equations (At The Copacabana)] – which is one of Hartley’s – is this daft, escapist idea. Again, calling the album Wheeltappers And Shunters is that idea of the old working men’s club, the kind of place where there’s still people who’ll go out and enjoy themselves even though they’re up against it.
Do you think there’s sometimes a bit of snobbery towards that whole aesthetic and generation? That it’s not high-brow enough?
Yeh. Especially if you compare the way that world is with, say, something like the Baltic Triangle, then it seems like just a totally different age. I think, because I grew up with all of that through the 70s, there’s a genuine sense of community and excitement attached to that memory. Because it was, kind of, a less cynical age.
You’ve been around since before the term ‘psych’ was popular, yet you’re often lumped in with that world. I’m sure you don’t set much store by labels such as that, but, if pressed, how would you describe Clinic as a band?
Well, when we did Festival No. 6, Jeff Barrett from Heavenly came up to me after the gig and said ‘Oh yeh, you’re a punk band aren’t you’. That’s kind of how I think of it as well. Not in a Pistols type of way, but ultimately it’s got that underlying edge. That’s always been the most important thing to us.
Though they’ve been around for a good two decades, Clinic have always felt like outsiders. Yes, they release on a big indie label, and yes, they have a cult following and the respect of scores of fellow musicians – but their fondness for being weird and operating on the edges has been their biggest strength.
Any self-respecting fan of Liverpool music must have one Clinic album in their collection. They’re part of the soundtrack of our outsider heritage, one that pushes you to take risks and ask, ‘Is this weird enough?’. Or, better still, ‘How weird do you want to be?’ One listen to Wheeltappers And Shunters will tell you all you need to know about why the current scene is as rich and daring as it currently is – because artists like Clinic have been there and done it, shown how you can be playful and fearless and damn fucking good all at once.
Clinic have always been at their best when they’ve been pushing the edges of freakiness. It’s good to be an outsider. It’s good to be weird. It’s good to do things that people don’t expect. Because no one wants to be predictable.
Wheeltappers And Shunters is released on 10th May on Domino Records. Clinic headline Inside Pages at Constellations on 22nd June, as part of our bido100! programme. Tickets are available now via TicketQuarter.