Suburban Light was meant to be a complicated, high-production affair rendered in a major studio. From 1997 until 2000, The Clientele had released a sterling string of 7” singles on several labels—Pointy and Fierce Panda, Elefant and Johnny Kane. These songs were demos, preparations for the smash they knew they’d doubtlessly make. When it finally came time to record that debut, the four post-graduate friends entered expensive studios during off hours. Instead of finding their sound, though, they only found frustration.
“We were just waiting to get in a proper studio and have strings, brass, choirs—Phil Spector-crossed-with-Martin Hannett production,” MacLean remembers. “At the time, every engineer wanted to make every band sound like Radiohead, which just broke everyone’s heart. We couldn’t get a warm sound anywhere we went in those days.”
They went, then, with the demos, relatively primitive but especially intimate recordings they made wherever they lived and whenever they wanted. Perhaps that was all for the best: Though The Clientele would later add more flourishes and finesse to their records, Suburban Light establishes the unwavering, minimal core of the band. MacLean’s marriage of grace and tension on the guitar ripples throughout “Lacewings,” a brilliant reverie of chemicals and romance and young-adult lassitude. Drummer Howard Monk and bassist James Hornsey conduct a minor miracle of text painting during “Joseph Cornell,” capturing MacLean’s lyrics about evaporating happiness with a rhythm section that sits somewhere between rock bustle and blues languidness. Suburban Light is very much the sound of four pals, playing songs written from a place with which they all identify. They were living these scenarios.
“We drank then at this pub called The Queen’s Head. I woke up the next day, completely hung over, and I went out to play football at this field near my house. It was an autumn day,” says MacLean. “The sound of ‘As Night Is Falling’ is exactly how I remember that day, because I wrote it after running around those fields. Suburban Light very much does remind me of the suburban place we did come from. It’s quite poignant.”