Hamish Kilgour

The Quiet Struggle of Hamish Kilgour

Jesse Jarnow

By Jesse Jarnow

on 09.25.14 in Features

Hamish Kilgour is alone under the Christmas lights draped above the stage at New York’s Cake Shop. A succession of riotous indie bands has preceded him, but they’ve all finished now, and the room is nearly empty. “If this is chalk and cheese,” Kilgour says wryly. “I guess I’m the chalk.”

Kilgour is best known as the drummer for long-running New Zealand trio the Clean — beloved by bands like Pavement and Yo La Tengo – but tonight, he accompanies himself with only an electric guitar. He sings in a near whisper, the music sometimes droning, occasionally haphazard and almost always scarily intimate. His amp signal wobbles in and out. The 57-year-old Kilgour leans over his instrument, and finishes the set strumming under a wordless falsetto, both imperfect and intimate.

Kilgour has spent a lifetime in dim basements like Cake Shop, sometimes playing hushed, odd music to small crowds, sometimes playing loud, primal music to large ones, sometimes vice-versa. He is a veteran of the early New Zealand punk scene, a one-time lieutenant at Roger Shepherd’s legendary Christchurch-based Flying Nun Records, and a regular around New York since he relocated in the early ’90s. Over a 35-year career, Kilgour has played with perhaps a hundred different bands, some recorded, many not.

‘I’ve always been a little bit fragile.’

What he has never done, however, is make a solo record. That changed with All of It and Nothing, an 11-song “debut” (plus four-song bonus cassette) released by the label Ba Da Bing earlier this month. The songs are built on his shaky guitar, fragile voice and sense of experimentation. A supportive latticework of gentle marimba, muted percussion and soft electronics emit a subterranean lushness, the perfect atmosphere for his plain-spoken delivery and aching melodies.

“I’ve been thinking about how to make a solo record my whole lifetime, in a way,” he says. “I’ve just been doing other things.” Besides periodic tours with the Clean, many of those “other things” involved the Mad Scene, his band since 1991 with partner Lisa Siegel. But when their relationship dissolved last year, so did the group. Like many breakups, it’s complicated; the two have a young son together. If there seems to be a deep sadness running beneath All of It and Nothing, it’s because there is. “Working to make this was really quite cathartic,” Kilgour says.

One or two afternoons a week last autumn and winter, Gary Olson of the Ladybug Transistor remembers, Hamish Kilgour would pedal down Olson’s tree-lined block in Kensington, Brooklyn, with a guitar on his back and a loaf of bread under his arm. A five-minute bike ride from Hamish’s apartment, Olson’s Marlbourough Farms studios feels like it belongs in a distant, cheap-rent college town. The musicians would slice the bread, toast it and eat it with jam. “I’d supply the tea, and we’d go from there,” says Olson who also served as Kilgour’s affable producer, engineer, arranger and collaborator-in-residence. A plate reverb unit doubles as a mantle behind the living room couch and, downstairs from Olson and an ever-shifting cadre of musician roommates, the recording console is built into the bar of what used to be a nautical-themed rumpus room.

“I just really liked the way it made my guitar and voice sound when the microphone is close and turned up like that,” Kilgour says, “I got really excited about the way [Gary] was able to make it sound.” Like his speaking voice, Kilgour’s singing can be intense and quiet, and Olson’s techniques bring out a distinguished gravitas, part heartbroken dreamer, part aging bohemian.

Though All of It and Nothing contains tectonic levels of sadness, it isn’t mopey. Some of its songs could be dreamily thumped by the Clean or the Mad Scene (or the Velvet Underground). Much of it recalls the freewheeling textural catharsis of the Great Unwashed, the lo-fi weird-out psych-pop unit Kilgour formed with brother David during the pressure drop after the Clean’s first breakup in the early ’80s. Eventually, Kilgour and Olson called in bassist Miggy Littleton and marimbist/glockenspielist/vibraphonist Danny Tunick to fill out the new songs. Even so, All of It and Nothing has the unmistakable air of an album built around one idiosyncratic persona, in the spirit of Skip Spence’s Oar or Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Like its creator, it is open and big-hearted.

“Hamish’s voice has a ragged but melodic quality,” suggests Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley, a longtime devotee of the Clean. “Like there is a direct line from his soul to his lungs — and his fingers, and his arms and legs.” Like many, Hubley fell in love with the Clean via Compilation, the influential 1986 anthology of the band’s rare early singles, issued in the United States by indie label Homestead Records, and not to be confused with 2002′s excellent compilation, Anthology on Merge, recently reissued on LP. “What grabbed me was everything about them, sheer greatness,” she says. “It was not really like anything I’d heard before but reminiscent of many things I loved. Reminds me of when I first started listening to the Velvet Underground.”

Getting to know Hamish after he moved to New York, Hubley began playing guitar with the ever-shifting collective of the Mad Scene. “I especially enjoyed following Hamish’s guitar playing,” she says. “It felt instantly familiar to me, and the fact that I don’t know how to play guitar seemed immaterial. Whether he was playing guitar or drums it was the same underlying personality,” she says.

‘I figured out by myself how to put the components together and, voila, I became a full kit drummer.’

“Later on, he took up guitar more seriously and came to write more,” remembers Kilgour’s brother David. “But he always came up with ideas and sometimes fully formed songs. He could write off a drum beat.” This latter talent is a particular one, the ability to hear melodies in a snare pattern, and demonstrative of Hamish’s skills as a self-taught musician.

At the Clean’s first show in 1978, inspired by cymbal-eschewing Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker, Kilgour performed only with a single snare, and taught himself to be a musician one drum at a time. After a spell as the band’s frontman, he pulled a reverse Joey Ramone and wound up back behind the kit. A friend lent him a Gretsch snare, bass drum and hi-hat. “I figured out by myself how to put the components together and, voila, I became a full kit drummer.”

Recently, Kilgour played a show at Death By Audio in Williamsburg with Roya, a new band he’s playing with led by Haibibi’s Rahill Jamlifard. The music was lean and inside, the kind of appealing, smart rock that the Clean is said to have influenced. Kilgour’s drumming was spot-on, elevating the band and focusing its music in every way. Over the 35-minute set, he employed cymbals no more than three times and, each time, absolutely earned it, always working to locate another ragged, glorious melody secreted inside a beat.

While the bountiful extra-Clean discographies of his bandmates veer toward traditionally heart-tugging rock, Kilgour has long had his ears set on more outside realms, and Roya is an anomaly. “My brother and I have sort of been on different paths,” he says, his brother following “more traditional rock lineups” as opposed to Kilgour making “odd” music with the Mad Scene and now by himself. But lately the two have found new common ground in what Kilgour calls “psychedelic country, a celestial vibe.” The sound even lay the groundwork for a new Great Unwashed album during a pre-tour stop in Nashville. One can’t help but get a fuzzy feeling about those Kilgour boys.

When the Clean play live these days, they demonstrate a continued ability to catch fire in a variety of Clean-ish ways. In Chicago, there is some imbibing involved, and the Kilgours take to the stage in sunglasses. By the encore, in classic (if not always entertaining) punk fashion, an audience member is drafted to replace David on guitar for “Tally Ho.”

‘It was ‘fuck this dour Scot Presbyterian repression and control.’ We just wanted to know what was this social construct we were growing up in.’

Though the Clean are often referred to as “legendary” — and they are — it’s easy to forget that they were punks and have been combusting as such for a long time. “It was sort of an anything goes mentality,” Hamish says of their early days in Dunedin. “Especially playing shows with the Enemy,” the big brother band led by provocateur-in-chief Chris Knox. What’s more, the Kilgours weren’t merely punks, but well-read anti-colonial radicals, Hamish foisting French surrealist poetry and other pernicious influences upon younger brother David when the lad was merely 14.

“It was ‘fuck this dour Scot Presbyterian repression and control,’” Hamish wrote in a Facebook remembrance of original Clean bassist Peter Gutteridge, who died suddenly mid-September. “We just wanted to know what was this social construct we were growing up in — a displaced European culture at the end of the world in an Eden-like place — Fort Eden colonized and wrested from an incredible indigenous people.”

During Hamish’s Cake Shop performance, which fell during the latest Israeli/Palestinian conflict, he let the groove of the Mad Scene’s “Sweet Dreams” slip into a loop and suddenly was narrating a horrifying vision: “I’m manning the control tower and I see a 13-year-old Palestinian girl walking away with her bag,” he said to the audience. “I’ve got a machine gun.” He spoke gently but firmly. It wasn’t particularly a harangue, or even a rant, merely an expression of horrific news he’d encountered that afternoon. He spoke for a few long minutes, quietly, graphically, a little awkwardly, but vulnerably.

“I guess I’ve always been a little bit fragile,” he says, a sensitive barometer to psychic events, both local and global. There is a glint in his eye as he says it, but it’s not hard to look at publicity stills of the Clean from New Zealand indie-pop’s golden years, focus on the brooding drummer with the Syd Barrett haircut, and hear the melancholy in the hidden hit parade of his drumbeats.

One September afternoon, Kilgour sits in Dub Pies, a Kiwi eatery at the westernmost corner of Prospect Park, near his home. His son works on homework and reads while Kilgour converses in a warm and sometimes quizzical murmur, occasionally pausing to consult on a math question. On the wall, for sale, are some of his paintings. “In the past, New York has always been tough, but you could be resourceful,” he says, as some of his son’s neighborhood friends beckon from outside. “The ability to be resourceful is getting tougher. You either have to have a corporate job or you’re facing difficulties.”

‘I want to be more like Syd Barrett than Skip Spence.’

Brooding as he may be, he is immensely likable, a curious listener, and good company, especially if one is fond of discussing esoteric discographies. He rattles off some three dozen solo influences that he thought about when conceiving All of It and Nothing, from Michael Nesmith to Alan Vega, from the Keith Richards Toronto bootleg to a number of favorite New Zealand artists. He probably would have made a sad-sounding solo debut no matter when in his career he chose to record it.

But the world has been particularly tough for a sometimes-working musician and newly-single father in Brooklyn. “The rent bubble here has made it insane,” he says of New York life, where he has existed on the bohemian fringe since the early ’90s. “It’s the worst I’ve ever experienced it. The last couple years have been the poorest years I’ve had in this city, in terms of being broke all the time.”

Occasional tours by the Clean remain welcome adventures, the rewards from the life Kilgour long ago committed to, the trade-off for working crap jobs. In the early ’80s, around the time the Clean’s landmark Boodle Boodle Boodle EP sat on New Zealand’s single charts for six months, he took a job at a radio station where he helped fabricate in-house commercials. Each week, he and his co-workers would rush to finish their ads, and each week the program director would terrorize them, screaming and smashing the tape-carts at the wall next to Kilgour’s head. He was happy to quit, because he could quit.

Another influence on All of It and Nothing was Kilgour’s 2011 trip to New Zealand for a tour with the Clean. He recalls the visit in his storytelling mode of choice, part bemused, part wounded. What should have been a joyous reunion took a different turn when, the day after landing in Auckland, a 6.3 earthquake hit Christchurch — Hamish’s home for many years — and the Kilgour brothers found themselves driving their octogenarian mother away from a city in ruins as a full-on gas panic went into effect. Familiar sights and old haunts were leveled.

“There’s an image of the city just as the earthquake happened,” he recalls. He’s in New Jersey, having just recorded a session with the Sun City Girls’ Richard Bishop for the radio station WFMU. “The city is dropping, and the dust is coming up, and the whole town is starting to collapse.” When he returned home to Brooklyn after the tour, Kilgour says, he was in shock, temporarily homebound by post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It was a pretty unimaginable sight that would rattle anyone pretty badly,” says Olson, who was visiting New Zealand for the first time. “There may be a bit of an undercurrent that’s evident in the record.”

But All of It and Nothing isn’t a crisis record, either. Breakups and earthquakes aside, it is music that is real and raw, made for comfort and even companionship. If it’s a sad album, it is one in disposition only, the product of a fertile moment in Kilgour’s creative career.

“I want to be more like Syd Barrett than Skip Spence,” he says of the two off-kilter songwriters that All of It and Nothing perhaps most recalls. “Skip Spence went to Nashville, did his record, and that was it. He ended up homeless in San Diego.” He pauses, then deadpans, “Syd at least made two albums.” And then he boards the midnight train toward 33rd Street, a secret rock legend hidden among late night PATH commuters.