Hamish Kilgour, whose New Zealand cult band had reach, dies at 65

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Hamish Kilgour, whose New Zealand cult band had reach, dies at 65
He was a powerful drummer and, most notably, a founding member of the Clean, which inspired indie bands like Pavement, Yo La Tengo and Superchunk.

by Natasha Frost

NEW YORK, NY.- Hamish Kilgour, a founding member of the New Zealand band the Clean, who was celebrated among fans of underground music for his propulsive drumming and his countercultural approach to life, has died. He was 65.

He was found dead in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Monday, 10 days after being reported missing, police there said. His death was referred to the coroner’s office.

A central figure in the crop of freewheeling New Zealand musicians on the independent label Flying Nun that came to be called the “Dunedin sound,” Kilgour spent four decades as a musician, singing and playing percussion and later the guitar.

He eventually played with more than 100 bands, including the Great Unwashed, the Sundae Painters and Monsterland, and lived for almost 30 years in New York, where he formed the band the Mad Scene.

He also had a secondary passion for painting: He produced hundreds if not thousands of frank, idiosyncratic pictures, many of which were repurposed as album cover art.

A deceptively powerful drummer, Kilgour might start a song in ramshackle fashion, then build to a thunderous conclusion. He had early on been inspired by Moe Tucker’s single snare on live recordings by the Velvet Underground. “I thought, that’s kind of magical and that’s possible — I could do that,” he said in 2012. Tucker’s minimalist, driving style and her enthusiasm for the power of the tambourine, later colored his own playing.

Not every drummer, however talented, is immediately recognizable, said Mac McCaughan, the owner of the label Merge Records, which last year reissued the Clean’s first two releases. “But with Hamish — he had a voice on the drums,” he said in an interview. “He had his own style and his own character.”

In 1981, Roger Shepherd, a local record store manager who was in the process of founding Flying Nun Records, saw the Clean perform at the Gladstone Hotel in Christchurch. “They were pretty obviously the best band in the world,” Shepherd recalled.

Almost before the set had finished, he asked them to record with him. The first recording session produced “Tally Ho!,” a frenetic, surf-rock-adjacent single — made for 50 New Zealand dollars — that scraped into the Top 20 in New Zealand, buoyed by its popularity on student radio stations.

Flying Nun’s fortunes had been transformed. The subsequent EP “Boodle Boodle Boodle,” recorded that year on a similar budget, spent 26 weeks on the New Zealand charts. American indie bands, including Pavement, Yo La Tengo and Superchunk, would cite it as an inspiration.

For listeners outside New Zealand, the musicians on the Flying Nun label had a kind of legendary status, said American filmmaker Michael Galinsky, who became a friend of Kilgour’s.

“It just opened up all these worlds,” he said of “Tuatara,” a 1988 Flying Nun compilation on which Kilgour appeared. “It’s so far away — you don’t see pictures of these people, there’s no writing about them, there’s no internet. So they’re mythic, and incredible.”

Inspired by the Enemy, a punk group started by friends of theirs, members of the Clean had begun rehearsing together in 1978 — Kilgour taught himself the drums, while his brother, David, played guitar and Peter Gutteridge played bass. (Gutteridge was later replaced by Robert Scott.)

After its first flash of success, the members of the band made an early decision to split up just four years into their career. But as the Clean’s influence on do-it-yourself underground rock became more apparent, they reunited in 1988. Over the next 30 years, interrupted by long spells apart, the Clean continued to perform in the United States and elsewhere around the world, releasing several albums.

As a member of the Mad Scene, Kilgour recorded multiple albums and EPs, as well as two solo albums, “All of It and Nothing” and “Finkelstein,” and made myriad other guest appearances on other artists’ records.

Hamish Robert Kilgour was born in Christchurch on March 17, 1957, the older of two sons of MacGregor and Helen Stewart (Auld) Kilgour. He was reared mostly in Cheviot and Ranfurly, small communities in New Zealand’s rural South Island.

In 1972, the family moved to the coastal city of Dunedin, also in the South Island, where Kilgour’s father took a job as a pub manager while his mother ran the establishment’s kitchen. Hamish received a bachelor’s degree in English and history from the University of Otago in Dunedin in 1977.

After his father was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where he died in 1982, his mother worked as a nurse to support the family. She later supported her sons’ band, helping to fund both a van and a PA system as they performed around the country with the Clean.

Kilgour moved to New York in the late 1980s after the breakup of his first marriage, to Jenny Halliday. There he met Lisa Siegel, who would become his second wife and a bandmate when they formed the Mad Scene. The couple had a son, Taran.

But life in New York, where he worked as an art handler, house painter and carpenter in between music gigs, was at times precarious, especially after he and Siegel broke up in 2013.

He moved back to New Zealand during the coronavirus pandemic and played music there whenever he could, while eking out an existence that strained his mental and physical health, people close to him said.

He is survived by his brother and bandmate, David, and his son.

For his contemporaries in New Zealand, Kilgour was a testament to the notion that being from a far-off country of a few million people with no established rock tradition did not preclude people from making great music.

“Just because it comes from here, and not London or New York, it doesn’t mean that it’s not valid,” said Shepherd of Flying Nun. “That was a startling thing that we kind of knew was true anyway, but that hadn’t been articulated for us.”

Richard Langston, a music journalist and longtime friend, said Kilgour had “changed the way you could record indie rock.”

“He was that important,” he added, “and he lived a crazy, brave, solo life.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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