The drummer for Dunedin’s cult indie band the Clean, Hamish Kilgour, tells Rebecca Barry about life in the Big Apple and how he remains Kiwi.
Hamish Kilgour says Flight of the Conchords aren't far off when it comes to the frequently amusing experience of living in New York City. One night he and his band, the Clean, turned up to play a gig in the East Village when they noticed they had a flat tyre. As they were busy unloading their equipment, a man emerged, completely lathered in soap. He'd been washing himself under a fire hydrant.
"This guy's like, 'hey man, I can help you change the wheels'," says Kilgour. "Back in the day, if anybody offered to help, within 30 seconds they'd be running up the street with your guitar under their arm. So we're trying to get to this club, trying to change the wheel, just totally panicking. But that's the kind of thing you run into all the time."
A friend recently woke up one morning to find his car on blocks, all the wheels removed.
Perhaps it's not surprising then, that after 18 months in New Jersey and 14 years in Manhattan, during which time he witnessed 9/11, Kilgour now resides in a quiet neighbourhood in Brooklyn. The years immediately after the terrorist attacks had taken a personal toll on Kilgour, and he was keen to remove himself from the chaos of downtown.
"It's like someone puts a blanket over this neighbourhood. Everyone sleeps well here," he says, removing his beanie and leaning his bike against the coffee shop door by Prospect Park, five blocks from his home.
Despite his desire to find peace, he is best known for making noise. As the drummer for the Clean, Kilgour is happiest when he's either on stage with his bandmates, brother David and bass player Robert Scott, or making music with his American wife Lisa Siegel in their project, the Mad Scene.
Kilgour says the preparation for Homegrown began about a month ago, when the Clean arrived in the country to record a new EP.
Speaking to Canvas in New York before their return, he said, "We usually do things by the seat of our pants but we don't want to this time. So we might have a set of newish material, mixed with the old."
Since emerging in the late 70s as one of the founders of Dunedin's indie rock scene, part of the Flying Nun legacy that also spawned bands such as the Chills, the Verlaines and the Bats, the Clean have retained such a presence in New Zealand it comes as a surprise to learn Kilgour has lived in New York all this time.
Frequent trips home to record and tour have meant that over the course of five studio albums (including 2009's Mister Pop), several EPs, compilations and live albums, the band have never lost their cachet. Neither have classic tracks such as Tally Ho, Beatnik and Getting Older.
Even back then Kilgour was looking to the US for inspiration - the Clean's understated sound based on organ melodies, simple chord progressions and distorted guitars saw them frequently compared to the Ramones. That love affair with America is ongoing but Kilgour has no desire to become a US citizen. He's lived there long enough but it's his own staunch statement against a bureaucracy and political system he dislikes, and a pledge to remain patriotic to his home country. He hasn't lost a trace of his Kiwi accent nor gained any American inflections. He has a 5-year-old son with Siegel, so a move back to New Zealand would be difficult.
Finding work would be too, he says. Kilgour has no hefty royalties to lean on, although the band make a bit of money through touring. It helps that despite their relative cult status outside of New Zealand, they have fans in the right places.
Among them is Pavement, who were curating the three-day music festival, All Tomorrow's Parties in May, and invited the Clean to do a show. Last year the Clean also did a three-week whirlwind through Europe in April and a week-long tour through the US.
It was around that time there were talks the band were about to be recognised in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame but when that went "kapooey" says Kilgour, they decided to play at a music festival in Kansas.
That led to a jetset tour of the US in about seven days, playing gigs in New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. Although touring wasn't new, getting to each destination by air was. They walked on stage having had no rehearsal.
"We've always done the low-budget Led Zeppelin/Rolling Stones tour except we've always done it in coach class."
Having played at most of those US cities before, they had no trouble drawing decent crowds. But they were brought down to size in Paris and were promptly told by the Parisien club owner that they'd be playing support to the latest "It" band.
"We were like, okay, whatever," says Kilgour. "We'll play. The band played and it was sweet. We met some nice people, and afterwards we were firing our equipment into the van as this police car was honking to get out. Then we went off to the Holiday Inn at the airport. 'Goodbye everybody, it's been really romantic'. We're drenched in sweat, you know, and we've just spent 10 hours in Paris. That's what it's like, compared to the supposed glamorous lifestyle."
Kilgour once had a job as an art handler at Manhattan's Morgan Library, which houses one of the world's greatest collections of art, literary works and music. But these days he picks up building and carpentry work between gigs. He even helped to rebuild this coffee shop, owned by fellow Kiwi, Gareth Hughes.
"Basically I've lived a bohemian lifestyle for 20 odd years and still am, and I'm 53."
He looks at least a decade younger. His olive complexion belies the wintry climate. "I'm never lost here. I imagine being an older person in New York wouldn't be so bad because there's lots to do. You can be an eccentric artist here until you die."
He would frequently spot the late writer Quentin Crisp (Sting's "Englishman in New York") sitting in a diner on Second Ave in a fedora, purple shirt and purple suit, waiting for someone to recognise him and buy him breakfast.
Kilgour is confident he won't meet a similar fate. It's unlikely, given the Clean's loyal fanbase in the US. Many of the fans who turn up to their shows are Kiwis, but there are just as many locals who have discovered the band through word of mouth or after seeing them play at festivals.
The Clean play in New York only about twice a year, when Kilgour's bandmates are able to join him from Dunedin. The Mad Scene, in which he drums and sings - Siegel plays bass and sings - sees him playing gigs around the city nearly every month. The line-up constantly changes. Sometimes Georgia Hubley from Yo La Tengo (another of the Clean's famous fans) plays guitar, former Go-Betweens bass player Robert Vickers often joins them on stage; occasionally they enlist a violinist. Kilgour sees other bands a lot too. On the Friday night before we met he'd seen "cool spacey, freaky-folk act" Metal Mountains. Next on his list of gigs was Rossini's opera, Armida, at the Met Museum.
But Kilgour still misses home. His last visit to New Zealand was about a year ago, during which time he bought a collection of New Zealand 60s psychopop CDs to cheer him up during the New York winter.
"I came to New York when I was 31, pretty well formed and conscious of not modifying myself. You've really got to make your way here. I've had some tough times here. But I've always been very interested in anything coming out of Europe and New York. I'd always wanted to come here. There's always something to see. So it's a great place to be."