When The Clientele's Alasdair MacLean decided he wanted the band's third album, Strange Geometry, to have "an even more sharply focused baroque feel than the stuff we'd done before," he approached BBC broadcaster, composer and world-renowned enfant terrible, Louis Philippe, with the ideal way to achieve that: strings.
"I just said, "Louis, take these songs and make 'em sound like "Eleanor Rigby!"'"
At that moment, the shit hit the fan with an intensity rarely, if ever before, felt in the annals of British music. "He said, "I hate "Eleanor Rigby"! Those are the worst string arrangements I've ever heard in my life. And I hate George Martin, too!'
"And we said, "OK, Louis, just do whatever you want then.'"
Philippe, who once called Imagine "a totally unforgivable piece of shit by a conceited, self-obsessed, humorless git," did just that.
"The day he came into the studio, I didn't come in 'cause I knew it would be a stressful day," MacLean remembers. "He's a perfectionist: Anything less than perfect and he starts to get angry. He'd drunk the best part of a couple of bottles of red wine by the time I came in in the evening, and the string arrangements were recorded. I had to sit down because it sounded so amazing. I think that it was good to get Louis doing what he did because it was so different from a Beatles record."
Much of Strange Geometry's beginnings date back to MacLean's uneventful tenure as an ad-agency desk jockey, an experience he likens to "a very dark tunnel that there was not really any light at the end of." Said day job has since been happily dispensed with, which leaves MacLean much more time to work out tunes on his Spanish guitar, which he began playing as a youth ("I wanted to learn how to play like George Harrison, but that was not middle-class enough so they forced me to go into Spanish guitar instead"). It also afforded him more opportunities to plumb the depths of British literature for inspiration.
"It's something not many people take inspiration from, and it's a shame because there's a lot there," he ponders. "There's so much that you can find that's still so relevant and so beautiful."
Backed by Philippe's masterful string arrangements and the input of a proper producer, Strange Geometry's polished sheen effectively cranks The Clientele from lo-fi to hi-fi. Rooted firmly in "a lot of depressed Victorian poetry," the songs' impressionistic imagery was splendidly rendered through lavish production, and, for the first time, a professional recording facility.
"We were very confident about our musical talents at the time, very optimistic about the future," MacLean recalls. "It played quite exuberantly."
As Lord Byron once wrote, however, "The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars/ Did wander darkling in the eternal space," and Strange Geometry became the most melancholy Clientele outing to date, sending any and all misconceptions of tweeness straight out the window.
Listen past the shimmering guitars, buoyant rhythms and '60s reverb and it's Scott Walker's wistfulness and Joy Division's despair you'll hear, not Belle and Sebastian's coy musings on naughty bits. Even the cover art, borrowed from the estate of Dutch surrealist Paul Delvaux, conveys a sense of chilling bleakness.
"It was just lucky that they weren't too snobby and high-art-ish," MacLean chuckles. "They could appreciate that the things [Delvaux] was interested in, the feelings of estrangement and alienation and otherworldliness you can as vividly express in pop music as you can in a more traditional art form like painting."
Where past songs like "Reflections After Jane" went about breaking your heart slowly and gently, "Since K Got Over Me" and "E.M.P.T.Y." get the job done in one fell swoop. In discussing that song, MacLean cites Robert Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" as a partial inspiration.
"There's kind of a nobility under pressure, under the terrible weight of depression that I wanted to write about," MacLean confides.
But the album's most ghoulish moments were inspired by 18th-century literary figure Mary Lamb, who was almost as famous for translating Shakespeare for children as she was for slashing her mother to death at the dinner table.
"She had spells of madness that were always started up by the feeling that someone had put a hole in her head and was blowing in warm air," says MacLean. "The rest of the song grew around that, that sense of being stuck, wandering around a street and not being able to choose which way to turn at each crosswalk and wondering, in an ominous way, what's 'round the corner."The Clientele plays with the Radar Brothers and Annie Hayden at the Casbah on Nov. 9. Doors open at 8:30. $10. 619-232-HELL.