Hamish Kilgour, co-founder of influential New Zealand indie-rock band The Clean, was found dead Tuesday in Christchurch after being reported missing on Nov. 27. Merge Records, which released and reissued much of The Clean’s catalog, confirmed the reports of Kilgour’s death in a public statement posted on social media, but no cause of death has been announced. He was 65.
Inspired by punk bands like the Ramones and the Buzzcocks, as well as pre-punk groups like The Byrds and The Stooges, The Clean coined a melodic garage-rock sound that was both charmingly rough and buoyantly catchy. Kilgour’s drumming provided both steady-driving rhythm and edge-teetering swing, while never getting too complicated. “Often in simplicity, you find magic things,” he said in 2012. “You’re looking for this magic spot where beats sit.”
Kilgour was born March 17, 1957 in Christchurch. He first got serious about music while attending college in Dunedin in the 1970s, buying a cheap drum kit and learning to play along with Velvet Underground records. In 1978, he joined with his brother David on guitar and their friend Peter Gutteridge on bass to form The Clean. “In Dunedin, you can start and be terrible,”‘ Hamish told New Zealand magazine Rip it Up. “You can be absolutely shocking and get away with it and get better.”
The Clean got better quickly. After Robert Scott replaced Gutteridge, the trio released the frantic “Tally Ho!”, the inaugural single for Roger Shepherd’s label Flying Nun. The record made it to No. 19 on the New Zealand pop charts, and the band’s next two EPs hit the top five. That success, along with Kilgour’s work as Flying Nun’s first employee, helped spawn a vital scene with other pioneering groups including The Chills, Tall Dwarfs and The Verlaines. The Clean’s subsequent records — particularly 1988’s crackling Compilation and 1990’s jangly Vehicle — spread beyond their homeland to college radio stations and indie record stores across America and Europe.
Though The Clean’s career was filled with stops and starts, Kilgour was always involved in music. In the early 1980s, he and David formed The Great Unwashed; a few years later, he helped start the heavy-guitar trio Bailter Space. Moving to New York near the decade’s end, he helmed The Mad Scene, collaborated with numerous musicians and released two solo albums, including 2018’s Finkelstein, based on a fairytale about a goldmine that he wrote for his then 12-year-old son. He sustained himself by painting houses, while also making cover art for Clean and Mad Scene albums. “There’s no point worrying too much about the commercial viability of your music,” he told Stuff. “Fads and fashion come and go.”
The Clean’s open, do-it-yourself approach certainly stood the test of time, crystallized in a lyric Kilgour wrote: “Anything could happen and it could be right now / And the choice is yours, so make it worthwhile.” That aesthetic heavily impacted later indie rockers such as Pavement, Yo La Tengo and Superchunk. The band’s influence extended into numerous scenes around the world, from the Elephant 6 collective in America, to current bands like The Courtneys in Canada and The Beths back in New Zealand. They’ve all found inspiration in The Clean’s impulsive creativity and lack of pretense.
In his 2019 Stuff interview, Kilgour recalled his reaction to an early Jeff Buckley show that exemplified that outlook. “It felt like I had gone to heaven, in the company of angels,” he said. “That’s what you want when you play. You want it to be as real as it can be.”