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The Clean Make Steamy U.S. Return at Austin's Chaos in Tejas Festival

Influential New Zealand band benefits from persistent promoter, vinyl revival

The Clean perform during Chaos in Tejas in Austin, Texas.
J. Dennis Thomas
June 5, 2012 9:55 AM ET

"It's not the heat, it's the humidity" was literally true for influential New Zealand band the Clean in Austin this past weekend: Going from the air conditioning of the band’s hotel room to steamy outdoor Texas venue Club DeVille played some tricks on frontman David Kilgour’s guitar. 

"I've never, ever experienced a guitar go out of tune so much," Kilgour says. "It should have been sitting at the venue for a couple of hours to get used to the atmosphere. But it was just too crazy around there."

Sounds about right for something called Chaos in Tejas. Extra tuning breaks aside, the New Zealand trio did not disappoint as one of the big names (by-punk/indie-standards) among the 100-plus bands at the four-day Austin festival.

What really sets Chaos apart in a city that might otherwise be festival-saturated (SXSW, Austin City Limits, Fun Fun Fun Fest) is that it remains the brainchild of one person, Timmy Hefner, with no national sponsors and a booking principle that couldn’t be more pure and simple: what bands does Hefner want to see?

That’s what got the Clean to Austin – a booking that was years in the making.

Hefner, who also runs a record label, 540, originally approached the band about putting out a 7" reissue of their classic 1981 debut single "Tally-Ho" – but with New Zealand’s iconic label Flying Nun then in transition, the rights were not available.

"But he also said 'I'd love you to play at my festival,'" says Kilgour. "Finallly it just all worked. He was persistent, and kept coming back."

In some ways it was simple economics – a decidedly part-time band since reforming in 1988 (they’d broken up a few years earlier), the Clean don’t tour too often. "We never make plans but if someone asks us to do something and we can do it we'll do it," Kilgour says.

In its eighth year, Chaos was finally big enough that the payday was sufficient to cover the costs of flying Kilgour, bassist Bob Scott and the band’s soundman over from New Zealand (drummer Hamish Kilgour has lived in New York City for 23 years), with a few extra gigs to make the time away from home and family worthwhile.

And Hefner’s dream of putting out a Clean record also came true: concurrent with the Chaos show, 540 released an outrageously elaborate double-vinyl reissue of the band’s Oddities cassette, with the first 200 of the 1000-copy pressing hand spray-painted, on colored vinyl. 

"He’s done a wonderful job with Oddities," says Kilgour. "It was pretty much his idea to do that."

The vinyl revival has actually meant some busy times for Kilgour and the Clean. In addition to 540’s release, two Portland labels (Social Music and Exiled), are reissuing Oddities 2 (which includes material from both the Clean and David and Hamish Kilgour’s post-Clean band the Great Unwashed). In April, Austin’s 12XU Records (which is owned by Matador Records co-founder Gerard Cosloy) put out the vinyl of David Kilgour & The Heavy Eights Left By Soft, which was originally released by Merge in 2011. And Kilgour’s first solo record, Here Come the Cars, is about to be reissued by De Stijl.

As for a new Clean record, that was sidetracked when the band gathered last year on the same day that an earthquake struck in Christchurch. But considering their original reunion album, 1991’s Vehicle, was written and recorded in three days, they are bound to take another shot eventually. The musical language that the trio share demands it. Whenever they are back on-stage together, the chemistry returns "instantly," says Kilgour. "For me that’s what got us back together really. I was amazed how easy it was to slip into it (the first time they reunited). it really is magic."

The Clean had never played in Texas, so even though Hefner himself was able to catch them in New York on their last US tour (which came on the heels of the 2009 Merge release Mister Pop), he was able to make lots of other people happy by giving them their first chance ever to see the band. And not just Texans either. Bob Scott talked to people who had come from as far away as Oregon and Kansas.

And thanks to Chaos’ punkish vibe (the Clean’s show may have had the fewest tattoos and black clothes, though the teal-haired door girl drew anarchy symbols as the hand stamp), "Tally-Ho," while always a manic song, inspired something new.

"You've got the whole front five rows of people just pogoing to 'Tally-Ho,'" Kilgour marveled. "It's kind of like, wow. I know it's taken 35 years, but it still surprises me."

The Clean play in New York tonight, followed by gigs in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Chapel Hill.

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