Spring 2010 Interview
But it’s not all unsettling. There’s a transcendent beauty lurking in the depths of our current art explosion. With increased technological advances, more people than ever can exteriorize their internal realms of consciousness for less. It’s this desire to distance oneself in an alternate universe of creative information, combined with disgust at America’s obsession with “power of positive thinking” mind rape psychology, that inspired Liars’ latest album, Sisterworld. Following a string of brilliant full-lengths, Sisterworld finds the band continuing to challenge themselves. Some artists find their sound and pummel a pattern ad infinitum, but it’s always more exhilarating to watch artists take serious risks -– which is something Liars have never shied away from doing. Combine this with a fervent dedication to the visual side of the project (the full-length DVD companion to Drums Not Dead is a lo-fi video art masterpiece), and it’s not surprising that art rock megaliths Radiohead hand-picked Liars to open for them on their last tour.
On the verge of their latest release, Aaron Hemphill and Angus Andrew were nice enough to answer a few questions via e-mail. (Editor’s note: All formatting from their responses is original!).
ARTICLE CONTINUED BELOW
One of the underlying themes of Sisterworld is how people form their own worlds and social networks to deal with the continuing onslaught of our society brought forth by population expansion and new information technologies. Where’d the idea for this theme come from, and how do you guys personally build your own “sisterworlds,” as it were?
Angus Andrew: AARON AND I BEGAN TALKING ABOUT HOW WE OFTEN FEEL DISLOCATED FROM WHAT’S GOING ON AROUND US. SOME KIND OF LACK OF CONNECTION WITH THE MILIEU. WE SPOKE ABOUT THIS GENERALLY AS IT RELATES TO MUSIC AND CULTURE, AND THEN REFINED THE IDEA AS WE FOCUSED MORE ON LOS ANGELES. I THINK MUSIC IS OUR SISTERWORLD, BUT WE EACH HAVE LOTS OF WAYS OF CREATING THE SPACE WE NEED. FOR EXAMPLE WE’RE ALL PRETTY AVID GARDENERS.
Aaron Hemphill: IT WASN’T REALLY THE EVENT OF ARRIVING AT THIS IDEA, MORE THAT ANGUS’ AND MY SUBJECT MATTER AND MUSICAL MOODS CONVERGED ON THE SUBJECT. THIS WAS THE COMMON SUBJECT… ONE THAT COULD UNITE A BROAD SPECTRUM OF SOUNDS AND STILL BE COHESIVE. THE MORE I LEARN ABOUT MYSELF, THE MORE DETAILED AND SPECIFIC THE WORLD I FEEL I FIT IN BECOMES… THIS ADDS A LOT OF FEAR AND PARANOIA AS TO WHETHER OR NOT A PHYSICAL MANIFESTATION WILL EVER BE FOUND.
I personally use information technology as a means to deluge myself with a constant stream of art, books, movies, music, blogs, graphic novels etc. in an attempt to exist in somewhat of a parallel dimension of my own design. On that note, what other bands would you recommend right now for someone looking for a good escape from the horrors of our times? What kind of other artists, regardless of medium, have you been geeking out on as of late?
Andrew: I LIKE TO READ A LOT. FOR ME, A GOOD AUTHOR CAN TAKE YOU ELSEWHERE. LATELY I’VE BEEN REALLY INTERESTED IN FIRST-TIME NOVELISTS. TOM MCCARTHY, STEPHAN HALL, STEVE TOLTZ, JOSHUA FERRIS — ALL HAVE WRITTEN INTERESTING NOVELS RECENTLY.
Hemphill: NDS: THE LEGENDARY PINK DOTS, SIGHTINGS, ONEIDA, PINK DOLLAZ, WU-TANG CLAN, KING TUBBY, CHOPIN, MORTON FELDMAN. ARTISTS: CHRISTIAN BOLTANSKI. SADLY, ALEXANDER MCQUEEN’S DEATH HAS PROMPTED ME TO REACQUAINT MYSELF WITH HIS WORK.
Since your sound seems to vary so much from album to album but still retains a similar vibe, I was wondering how your songwriting process typically works. Does one person usually bring in most of the ideas or is it more collaborative? How does a typical Liars song come forth into the world? Do you conceptualize it beforehand or is it more of a spontaneous process?
Andrew: WHEN WRITING FOR AN ALBUM, WE GENERALLY DISCUSS CERTAIN IDEAS OR MOODS WE’RE INTERESTED IN. THEN WE GO AWAY AND WORK INDIVIDUALLY ON CREATING SONGS THAT EXPRESS OUR OPINION OF THAT MOOD OR IDEA. ONCE A GOOD AMOUNT IS COLLECTED, OR ENOUGH TO MAKE US FEEL CONFIDENT THAT WE’RE ON THE RIGHT TRACK, WE’LL LISTEN AND TALK A BIT MORE ABOUT THE MATERIAL. IN THE FINAL STAGES, WE DECONSTRUCT THE SONGS AND RECONFIGURE THEM IN THE STUDIO.
Hemphill: TYPICALLY, ANGUS AND I PRODUCE FAIRLY COMPLETE DEMOS AND SHARE THEM WITH EACH OTHER. FOR THIS ALBUM, WE ALLOWED MORE TIME FOR EXPANSION AND REVISION DURING THE “SHARING” PHASE OF THE PROCESS.
The last time I talked with you was right before you went on tour with Radiohead. How was that experience as a whole? Are those guys really telepathic androids from the 5th dimension phase shifting through our time space in order to blow our minds, or are they fairly down-to-earth guys? If you had to pick one nugget of wisdom you took away from the whole experience, what would it be?
Andrew: YEAH, THAT WAS A REALLY GREAT EXPERIENCE. AND THEY ARE EXTREMELY DOWN-TO-EARTH GUYS. I THINK ONE OF THE BEST THINGS TO WITNESS WAS HOW EACH OF THE MEMBERS IN THAT BAND CONTRIBUTED SO MUCH TO THE SOUND THEY CREATED ON STAGE. IT REALLY SEEMS LIKE EACH PERSON IS ABSOLUTELY INTEGRAL TO HOW THE BAND FUNCTIONS. THERE WEREN’T ANY TRICKS, EITHER; IT WAS ALL REAL.
Hemphill: GREAT. NO. THERE’S NEVER AN ACCEPTABLE AMOUNT OF PRESSURE.
You’d also mentioned before that you intentionally induce insomniac states as a means to bring about creative inspiration. Any such practices involved with the making of Sisterworld?
Andrew: YEAH, REALLY, WHENEVER I HAVE THE CHANCE TO GET FOCUSED, I LOSE THE NEED FOR TIME. MY BODY CLOCK GOES OUT THE WINDOW, AND I LET THE WORK DICTATE REST. OFTEN I FIND MY IDEAS GET LOOSER AND MORE UNINHIBITED IN THE HOURS BEFORE COLLAPSE.
Hemphill: I HAD 2 SEPARATE INCIDENTS OF NERVE DAMAGE TO MY SKULL DURING THE WRITING AND RECORDING OF THIS ALBUM. WHAT THAT HAS CONTRIBUTED IS LEFT ANSWERED BY THE LISTENER, I SUPPOSE.
As someone who thinks in a more shamanic or magickal context, I think dreams are often direct communications with what some would refer to as a “holy guardian angel.” With that in mind, what’s the weirdest dream you’ve had in the last year or so, and what do you think it was trying to tell you if anything?
Andrew: THE FIRST TRACK ON THE ALBUM WAS A DREAM. I DESCRIBE IT PRETTY LITERALLY IN THE SONG, BUT BASICALLY IT FELT LIKE SOMEONE CLOSE TO ME WAS DYING, AND I WAS INCAPABLE OF DOING ANYTHING TO HELP HIM OR HER. I WOKE WITH A HORRIBLE SENSE OF GUILT AND SOMEHOW FELT LIKE I WAS BEING REMINDED THAT I NEED TO BECOME MORE ENGAGED WITH MY SURROUNDINGS AND THE PEOPLE IN IT…
Hemphill: DREAMS FOR ME REMIND ME THERE’S A LARGE PORTION OF MY MIND I CANNOT CONTROL OR SUMMON. SCHIZOPHRENICS OFTEN RELATE THE LACK OF CONTROL IN A DREAM STATE WITH THE LACK OF CONTROL CONCERNING THEIR AUDITORY OR VISUAL HALLUCINATIONS. THAT BEING SAID, THE MOST HORRIFYING DREAMS I HAVE ARE FRIGHTENING DUE TO A LOOK OR DESIGN THAT IS COMPLETELY FOREIGN TO MY FAMILIAR TENDENCIES OR PRACTICES, YET OBVIOUSLY PRODUCED BY MY MIND. FOR EXAMPLE, I HAD A DREAM THAT TOOK PLACE IN A FUTURISTIC ENVIRONMENT WITH VISUAL ELEMENTS I WOULD NEVER CHOOSE, NOR IMAGES I WOULD INTENTIONALLY RECORD FOR MEMORY. THE FRIGHTENING THING IS THAT THERE IS A PORTION OF MY MIND THAT IS VERY ACTIVE, AND UNCONTROLLABLE.
Spring 2008 Interview
I was first introduced to them through the hoopla that their debut, They Threw Us in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, garnered. They got the requisite hype from the requisite publications, which rendered me immediately suspicious. Like I do with a lot of these bands, I casually picked up a copy from the local library while browsing, with the intention of making up my own mind on the matter. No need to waste any money on speculation. Yeah, more Gang of Four-inspired dance punk. Dismissed. Not terrible enough not to burn, though. Better than most of the clones. It made sense that they were getting the star treatment; they were doing exactly what the powers that be were trying to push at the time.
Fast forward a year or so, and I’m reading horrible reviews from the ginormo magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone for Liars’ follow up album, They Were Wrong, So We Drowned. But something about these scathing invectives intrigues me. Comparisons to early Sonic Youth? Accusations about them being too out there? Concept albums about witchcraft? If the man didn’t like what they were up to, they were probably onto something. Fortunately for me, my pot dealer just happened to have bought it used on a whim. His take: ‘I don’t know; it’s pretty fucking weird, man.”
Again, with the intrigue!
A few weeks down the road, I needed to score, and said dealer had just equipped his bong for VAPO hits. Now, I’d never tried them before, and if you’re unfamiliar, it involves frying your bud to a vapor with a heating gun. So, after a little of this and about fifteen minutes of straight coughing, it randomly occurred to me in my burgeoning haze: ‘Hey, why don’t you throw in that new Liars disc?”
For the next half hour, neither one of us uttered a word; both of us were wholly transfixed on the darkly hypnotic onslaught. We waded through the fractured beats, minimalist guitar loops, and unholy caterwauling, lost in unknown realms of infinite wonder. The next day, I ran out and bought the album for myself, to further replicate the insanity.
Since then, the band has put out two consecutive discs that have both managed to sound surprisingly novel, while still retaining a coherent underlying psychosis. The CD I got for Drums Not Dead included about the coolest bonus DVD I’ve ever purchased from any band, which consists of a brilliant lo-fi full-length video for the entire album. My girlfriend and I were both kind of blown away by the whole thing — especially because I’d actually bitched about paying the seventeen bucks for it, as if they were ripping me off. Then their self-titled debut dropped last year and further solidified their position as one of my favorite new acts. They are a band that somehow treads the fine line between neo-stoner mysticism and Pitchfork scenester cred.
So, it was more than a little cool to get to chat with their vocalist, Angus Andrew, over honey bear bong rips (his, not mine).
This might seem like a dated question, but what is it like to have the press turn on you so savagely and then get back behind you? I mean, you’ve got to feel kind of lucky. You took a big risk with They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, which I thought was brilliant, but some of the reviews I read for that disc were beyond brutal. Why do you think a lot of people didn’t get that record? I ask mainly because that’s where you won me over as a fan.
Angus Andrew: I think that still is our most important record… [It's] the one you know we went out on a bit of a limb for, but it was really important for us to do that. We were aware, to a certain extent, that we were doing something that wasn’t expected of us, and I think that’s where the press backlash came from. In hindsight, I wouldn’t have changed a thing about it, [but] I really thought that they were going to like it, so I was crushed. It’s hard, man. We really put a lot of work into that one. A lot of people tell me now that they really like it. I think the fact that certain parts of the press went really against it was in some ways to our benefit. It [helped] develop this dialogue that went on between people that agreed with that and those who didn’t, and there was this argument for a while there between the two camps.
Do you think that people expecting a repeat of your first disc were like, “Oh, what the hell is this?”
Angus Andrew: Yeah… the idea of a concept album or story record, which is what we did, is immediately difficult for [some] people. It [can seem] immediately grandiose, self-serving, and all these sort of negative connotations that go with it. But at the time, we finished They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top), and everyone was really into it. It surprised us a lot, because we just kind of put it out there without a lot of thought. Suddenly, we were on tour with Sonic Youth, and we were like, “We don’t deserve this with this kind of work. We need to go away and really lay something down that’s significant.” That’s what our motivation was for that, and you know, come what may.
On that topic, just because I have an interest in arcane things like black magick, was there any particular reason you made a concept record about witchcraft?
Angus Andrew: I think it had to do with the context and environment we put ourselves in. We went and lived in a house in the woods in New Jersey, and this was before we decided on anything. So we’re living there — the three of us — kind of recording in this basement. Around us was all woods. It started to get very primeval and spooky at night. I think I would lend it a lot to our environment at the time that set us down that path.
I read an interview years ago where you talked about the influence of the band Oneida on your music. Are there any other musicians more recently who have inspired you to that magnitude? Also, what kind of artists outside of music have had a profound influence on what you do? Any future plans for splits like the one you did with Oneida?
Angus Andrew: Yeah, well we’ve done a split recently with the band that was The Blood Brothers and now is Past Lives. They’re all really good friends of ours. It’s been difficult, in a lot of ways, for us to get together with people from other groups to make music. I think it’s a really interesting idea. But in some ways, it’s been difficult. Recently, we allowed people to make videos for us, which is kind of different because we normally make our own. That was a really strange process, because we ended up being actors, and that was a really new experience for me because I had no idea what was going on the whole time. It was just like, give this to Patrick and he can just do whatever he wants with it. It really made a big impact on me like in terms of [the fact that] I’ve always been really gated about whether or not you sort of let things into other people’s hands — like with remixes and stuff like that. They’re always a little bit scary to me. Umm, but what other artists? I don’t know; I saw a show by an artist I like named Lawrence Weiner recently, and he just works with text on walls. His premise is kind of that the artist doesn’t ever have to make the work. He just will tell you kind of what it would be. So, three rocks, some water, and a trampoline, and you kind of put it together in your own head. [The idea] is something that I really appreciate.
You guys have put out three consecutive discs now that I think are all pretty exceptional and astoundingly diverse. You seem to want to continually challenging yourself, rather than falling into a pattern. In your underlying creative process, is there a fundamental desire to not repeat yourself? If you could talk about that process a bit, that’d be sweet.
Angus Andrew: The thing to me, man, is that it seems more difficult and more abnormal to repeat in the way that I think a lot of bands are able to do. I’m kind of like amazed by that. If you could make one, two, three records that sound similar, I think it would be like, incredibly frustrating… and not very fun. It’s almost impossible for me to imagine doing that. So whatever this is, with this way of working, it’s sort of like… each album is a project — a new way to discover something, a new way of making music or writing. And then [we move] on. The next album is another project, and [we'll] look completely in another direction for inspiration. That makes it interesting.
I got a version of Drums Not Dead that had a lo-fi full-length DVD with it, which was like a music video for the entire album. Outside of like, The Wall, that kind of shit is almost unprecedented. I’m usually pretty disappointed with the bonus DVDs you end up getting with discs. Those things are usually fairly half-assed, but you guys really put in the extra effort. That shit is quite an achievement. How did the Drums Not Dead project come about, and what are your future plans for combining video with your music?
Angus Andrew: It initially came out of the idea that everyone’s dealing with… how we consume an album and [determining] whether that’s a thing of the past or not. At that time, we were really trying to keep it together. It seemed like everyone was blaming record companies, and we were like, ‘Well it’s not really that; it’s like our job to make things and put them into this album so people will actually want to pay for it.” Otherwise, I can see the reason that people wouldn’t want to [pay]. It’s like you just get this CD, and that’s it. It was like another sort of experiment with video, where we could learn how to use it, and learn how to make things; it just turned into this really epic project that taught us a lot about how to use that stuff. I think this last record was a complete about-face. We didn’t make videos for it. We lent them out to people. So that was just another way of experiencing the process and being directed for once, rather than being the director.
Along similar lines, how do you feel about the whole downloading music industry crisis situation? I mean, with bands giving their music away as a means to subvert labels and what not? I ask because I went to your MySpace site, and there was a free four song downloadable EP, which I thought was awesome. I downloaded it, and it was just some alternate versions of stuff from your latest disc. Any plans on releasing music exclusively online in the future?
Angus Andrew: I think it’s obviously a really interesting and great time in music. But I think it’s fairly frightening, too. And even though bands like Radiohead can do what they did, it doesn’t mean that a band like us can.
That was always my take. I mean, you get these bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails who are now circumventing labels and giving their music away, but those are bands that major labels have already sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into promoting. I mean, smaller bands can do stuff like that, but nobody knows who they are.
Angus Andrew: It’s not the solution, [but] it is something, and it is exciting, and it is stirring the pot. But at the moment, I think everyone that I know who actually works in the record business is sort of locked in their rooms… trying to figure out how to deal with it. Basically the way that I feel about it is just that — I make stuff. I make music, and as far as I’m concerned, when it comes down to it, the people who want to hear music are always going to want to hear music. And I don’t see that going away. However it gets to them is not really my concern. I’m happy that people like music, and I’m happy to be making it. In between that, there’s not a lot of concern.
Might sound like a weird question, but I find this kind of thing interesting. What’s the most profound or interesting dream you’ve had in the last year or so? When you hear someone like say a David Lynch talk about channeling ideas from another plane of reality, do you guys subscribe to that mode of thinking in any way? How does the subconscious manifest itself in your art, so to speak?
Angus Andrew: Yeah, yeah, I’m a big believer in that. Well, the sort of weirdest dreams I’ve had recently come from the fact that I’m actually very violent in my dreams, and as a person, I’m not violent at all. It seems like it’s not safe to sleep next to me at night. So that’s a little frightening, and I worry about that, to a certain extent. One of the methods that I apply when I’m writing is prolonging sleep. So then, I don’t sleep for days, and it brings me into this incredibly weird headspace where things aren’t exactly how they seemed when I was on a full night’s sleep. You know what I mean? And when I get into that sort of process of working, I can go days without sleeping, and towards the end of the days, things just fall out of my head. There isn’t anything constraining it anymore.
So, let me get that straight; you go days without sleeping? You actually induce insomniac states to facilitate the creative process?
Angus Andrew: Yeah, yeah, and you know, it’s a really weird sort of drug-like feeling, but kind of better.