‘An understated power’: Hamish Kilgour of The Clean remembered as a restless innovator

In July 1981, drummer Hamish Kilgour, who has died at age 65, went with his band The Clean to record their first single in Christchurch, New Zealand. Roger Shepherd, a local record shop manager, had given the band $50 to make a record that would kickstart his new label called Flying Nun.

Over only a few hours in a makeshift studio run in the back of a house, The Clean recorded Tally Ho!, a song that journalist Russell Brown said “starts stopped hearts,” and which rocketed up New Zealand’s singles chart.

It was a single that turned the country’s music industry on its head. A band from the South Island had made a song for next to nothing, released it on a local independent label and everyone loved it. Overnight Flying Nun was transformed into a legitimate label and The Clean became sensations with a sound that would reach around the world.

Hamish Kilgour had started The Clean two years earlier with his brother David (guitar/vocals). The brothers had grown up in the small rural communities of Cheviot and Ranfurly before they moved to Dunedin in the early 1970s.

Inspired by a local proto-punk outfit The Enemy, led by Chris Knox, and ‘60s acts like the Velvet Underground, the Kilgours formed The Clean. The Velvet’s Mo Tucker had a particular impact on Hamish Kilgour; he taught himself to play the drums miming along to the Velvet’s ‘What Goes On’ from their 1969 live album.

Early on it was tough going for The Clean, and local pubs showed little interest in them. But when bassist Robert Scott joined the group in 1980, everything clicked. They quickly became one of the best live bands in the country. Garage fanzine editor Richard Langston described it as a sound that just “swamped over you … with that pulsing dirty metallic pop.” And though records like Tally Ho! and the follow up Boodle Boodle Boodle EP were big sellers that helped finance label Flying Nun’s catalogue for several years, they also reconfigured common perceptions of how a record could be made.

Hamish Kilgour performs during the Yellow Dogs Memorial benefit at Brooklyn Bowl in 2013
Hamish Kilgour performs during the Yellow Dogs Memorial benefit at Brooklyn Bowl in 2013. Photograph: Andrew Toth/Getty Images

With the help of Chris Knox and Doug Hood, the Boodle EP was made in an old Auckland hall with just a four-track, yet songs like the Hamish sung Point That Thing Somewhere Else, sounded stunning despite being relatively lo-fi.

From the outset, Kilgour was strikingly independent and constantly looking for new inspirations to fuel his music and to challenge expectations.

“The music business is a business and it’s dollars and cents, charts, units and product, which is totally divorced from what I believe in,” he told Rip It Up in 1982. “Music inspires you. It makes life more enjoyable … You have to keep experimenting and remain open to things.”

These sentiments carried through to every band he played in. In mid 1982, while The Clean had two EPs riding high in the charts and playing to packed audiences, they suddenly announced they were breaking up.

There was no infighting or drama, everyone in the band simply felt burned out and uninspired. After The Clean split, Kilgour started another band with his brother David – The Great Unwashed, a name that seemed to refute everything that came before it.

Hamish’s idea for their first tour was to load up a van and visit holiday towns. He was committed to reaching the unreached. But when one of their tracks was played by John Peel and UK tastemakers took an interest in Flying Nun bands, Kilgour was hesitant to seize on the hype.

“I wouldn’t think of going over there in terms of chasing success,” he said. Instead, the Great Unwashed fell apart and Kilgour went on to start another seminal band Bailter Space with Alister Parker of The Gordons. Kilgore dusted off an old Clean favourite, I’m in Love With These Times, for their great first EP, but again it wasn’t long before he felt the urge for something different. When Bailter Space headed over to New York to play a prominent industry showcase, Kilgour opted not to travel back to New Zealand following the gigs.

New York became his home for more than twenty years. He arrived in America just as it was becoming apparent how much The Clean had rubbed off on many of the bigger bands in the underground scenes. Groups like Pavement and Yo La Tengo showed a clear debt to the Dunedin trio, and the former even covered the band’s song Oddity.

It was a perfect time for The Clean to get back together, starting with some reunion shows in 1988. But rather than tour and thrash out old favourites, Kilgour and his bandmates remained steadfast in making new music that challenged both themselves and their fans.

This started with their first full-length Vehicle in 1990, a record that featured some of his best vocal work from The Clean. Several other standout albums followed, many of which featured artwork by Kilgour, including the covers of Modern Rock and Getaway.

With members split between New Zealand and New York, The Clean were never a constant thing, and it gave Kilgour time to pursue other projects. He released several records with his band the Mad Scene alongside his then partner Lisa Seigel, and also issued two inspired solo records All Of It And Nothing and Finklestein.

While back in New Zealand he got together with old friends Paul Kean and Kaye Woodward of The Bats, and Alec Bathgate of Tall Dwarfs to form the Sundae Painters, who released a single in 2021 and had more records in the works.

With Hamish, the music never stopped. He was someone so enlivened with the idea of constantly exploring where his art could go, and filled with the hope that it would inspire others do the same.

In a statement after his death, The Clean’s US label, Merge Records, said Hamish “produced one of the most important and timeless bodies of work in rock music,” and as a drummer had a “instantly recognisable style and an understated power.”

The Guardian