David Kilgour: A Circus of Golden Sound

[This was originally posted here on 13 July, 2010]

David Kilgour. Killer guitarist, wild painter, choir-worthy lyricist. Member of The Clean. Solo artist of at least seven albums (including one that puts Sam Hunt’s poems to music). For more than 30 years he’s been a central and essential presence ‘of’ New Zealand’s music scene, but not ‘in’ New Zealand’s music scene, such that it is. He doesn’t play the music industry game – at least the game that the so-called mainstream (“the circus” as DK refers to it) sets the rules for – though I wish he would sometimes, if only so that the crowds were bigger at his gigs.

But, you know, it’s the Mighty DK. You don’t come to him through his live shows. The Clean, maybe, because the music’s great and sometimes there’s a scrap onstage or Robert has to wrestle Hamish off the drums long after a gig has finished and his sticks are carrying on. But DK? He’ll steal your ears with his twelve-string and his repetitive, chanting words long, long before he’ll steal your soul with his shoe-gazing stage presence.

Speaking of words. They fail me most of the time when I’m called upon to explain why DK is up there in my Top Five. Usually, I just buy one of his albums and hand it over. I think I sent seven copies of Frozen Orange off-shore the month it came out. So this interview – which was gifted to me by my lovely man for my birthday this year, and conducted via email just after David’s return from a mammoth trip which included the incredible Chris Knox fundraiser in New York City – is mostly link-free, because I encourage, I implore you to explore for yourself the music of one of our greats.

On with the show!

Who or what are your default musicians/albums, i.e. what do you put on the stereo when nothing else will do?

Maybe Dylan or Eno, or even an old Stones LP.

Frozen Orange (which is one of my default albums) was recorded under pretty different circumstances to your others – in another country, with another band (Lambchop). How does a change of view change your writing? (If at all…)

I didn’t do a lot of writing in Nashville, some arranging and last minute lyrics ,which were affected somewhat my surroundings ( eg, conversations etc). I find travel in general a “reflective” time. But traveling affects us in many ways. It is interesting to fly to the other side of the world and make an LP with musicians by pretty much winging it, i.e. not a lot of practice!

Whether it’s intentional or not, the sea, the coast, seems to always have a place in your music – on Frozen Orange that’s especially curious since most of the recording was done in land-locked Nashville. Is the seaside thing a conscious element, or something that the audience hears after you’re done with it?

Well most of the music was written in NZ, which is basically two large islands. I’m usually very aware of the weather in general. The natural environment is continually inspiring. Though it’s not a conscious element in my writing it will always seep through – after all I AM an animal living in a wild environment! Actually there’s quite a bit of water in Tennessee! Not that salty though.

Do you write always with a guitar close at hand, or are there times when it’s about the lyrics alone?

Songs pop into my head pretty well formed sometimes, or certainly melodies and snatches of songs/lyrics/beats/sound. Sometimes boredom makes me pick up the guitar or play piano and something may come… no real set formula! Sometimes 3 words might set off a complete song, etc etc. At the moment I’m only gonna write if a song/idea is screaming at me. Every month is a little different!

Do you have a preferred guitar for songwriting? Which one?

Nope! But most likely an acoustic guitar or piano.

What’s your process when a song starts to form? Do you have a basic dictaphone that you record it into, or do you jump into your studio?

Play it over and over (I soon find out if it’s worthy this way too) ’til I can’t forget it, or write the lyrics / chords down OR usually whack it down on my laptop.

Are there times when you know a song has to be put down (or at least given away to some kindly neighbours) because it just won’t behave?

Yes. In the past 3 years I’ve been trying to get a definitive version of a new track, and have recently decided to “let it go”, I’m gonna release the last good version we did! Good work usually stays with you, but repetition and too much thinking can seemingly kill good ideas. Sometimes I obsess over songs that are pretty crappy and look back and wonder why why why did I ever bother? Works all ways really.

Do you expressly make time for songwriting, or do you act on a song when it comes?

I like tinkering in the mornings and evenings, but no set times and, as I said, at the moment only when I really “feel it, man”.

And with The Clean, do you save yourself for the times you guys are together, or do you save up songs over the course of a year?

Usually jam on ideas. I certainly don’t think any of us have stored songs for the Clean. Maybe a riff here and there, maybe.

You’re not really one for hitting the publicity circus hard, nor for touring incessantly (the current Clean tour aside). Why is that?

Well I think I’ve toured a lot over the years! Especially the USA as a solo act. Like I’ve toured the USA around 20 times solo and with the Clean. I only tour NZ when a new LP is out (once every couple of years). I’d tour more but it’s almost too expensive for me to do it.

The Clean makes some money on tour but not solo DK. Also over the years the harder I’ve played with the circus the less it’s worked for me. Backing off has worked more to my advantage, or so it seems to me. The circus also has evil elements which I try to avoid! Performing animals spring to mind. Also, caged animals, poorly paid workers etc etc. The Slumlords, the barkers, the turnstiles (with thanks to Neil Young). The carrot and the donkey, ha! The clown, the strongman and the tightrope walker are probably the good side of it all!…..all seeing and knowing, double HA! ……but let’s not forget the dung collectors and the traveling Carnies!

Actually not so long ago I saw a great old fashioned circus. The highlights were – a family performing feats of strength and beauty, an angry rebel pony amongst the pony pack, biting other ponies included, the smell and the pure old tradition of it all.

Did anything or anyone inspire you on the tour you’ve just done?

The crowds/fans, an Ibanez copy of a Gibson Firebird guitar, Spain, Primavera, the Raincoats, Endless Boogie, The Fall, Beefheart: Through The Eyes of Magic, Tex Houston, Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso paintings, the Chris Knox fundraiser in NYC, ATP in Minehead. Spring in NYC, Neil Innes at McCabes, the human ability to move through various countries without knowing the language and surviving, and – GPS!

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve been told, or read, about your music?

I think I forget the weird ones ‘cause they seem too unreal! Like, huh?

One of my favourite reviews of your music stated “Kilgour is both emotionally lucid and literally complex — you know just how he feels even if you don’t know what he’s talking about”. What do you reckon about that?

It’s all about interpretation, that’s one of the beauties about life and art. Minimalism can be complex, sometimes the money is in the space. When I hear a bird singing in the morning on a clear spring day – I’m pretty sure that bird is happy or looking for a friend, though I have no idea what it’s saying. And what if I got it wrong? Does wind have language? Ha! I’m not sure I want it explained to me. Ha! We is all on our own trip! You DIG sister? If I let people do this to me- I could explain most of the lyrics I’ve written, even the most obtuse and seemingly wacky, but that doesn’t mean you’re gonna understand my explanation. Let alone believe it. I think humans are becoming more and more obsessed with information! Also people’s feelings can often say much, much more than rational word play can. AND after years of singing sometimes I don’t wanna hear my voice, my ideas, my word play. The media in general keeps bringing this up. I do have a lot of songs with more than one line! I think this comes from a comment I made many years ago that keeps getting thrown at me, but it was a comment taken out of context as usual!

Repetition – of a word, of a single line – is one of your signature moves. Is it poetry or laziness or rhythm or all of the above?!

It’s not poetry. Sometimes I call it chanting. Chanting is a very old human pastime. Whatever it may be used for – meditation, poetry, communication, healing, relaxation, sending simple messages that can be understood, gatherings etc etc etc. But also, if I think I have said enough, and got the message or vibe across, why fill the rest in just cause you’re supposed to? Am I supposed to make myself look more than I might be during the time I’ve written the music? Sometimes I leave ‘em as instrumentals. I don’t like to completely finish something, its good to leave some raw if possible. Direct.

Dave Dobbyn recently said for him, an album isn’t done until the audience completes the contract (by listening to it)…. Bruce Springsteen said a similar thing about live shows – that it’s the connection with the audience that makes his music make sense. Do you have the audience that much in mind during your process?

About all I can say is that I don’t purposely try to alienate a listener. I’m unsure what my audience is, so never really second-guess this stuff. I don’t mind if no one listens, but I do want people to listen to it. Initially I make music and respond to it for primeval reasons and I try not to second-guess that. But of course I do second-guess from time to time, but try not to! I’ve never really known what to do with an audience, apart from play to them, to tell you the truth!

There are some unspoken rules/agreements, I guess, about the artist versus audience scenario. I don’t think I need an audience to sign it (the music) off, so to speak. I really do make recordings for myself initially. I’ve also never been in the situation where I’ve had to “protect” my fanbase, as it’s so small if it gets any smaller I’ll hardly notice!

How many ‘snippets’ of songs would you estimate you have sitting around after all these years?

326 and a half. Seriously – most snippets still floating around are probably crappy, that’s why they’re still flyin’ round.

I had a boozy argument with a mate recently. I said your music is for ladies and he said it’s definitely for men. Can you settle that debate for us or is that one we’re going to have to figure out for ourselves?

By the looks of it I’d say it’s 50/50!

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