HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF
Liars make it witchy (again). Jay Babcock finds out why.
Originally published in Arthur No. 9 (March 2004)
Liars boiled up in the midst of New York City’s earliest 21st century underground rock resurgence, when the same style-era of music — angular guitar-driven art-funk circa 1979 a la Gang of Four/Public Image Ltd./Pop Group, etc.– was simultaneously revived by several bands within miles of each other. The whys are tricky but they can also be a distraction from considering what really matters: How was the actual music? How were the performances? Did you witness something that moved you…moved you in the head, moved you in the heart, moved you in the shoulders and in the hips? In other words was this electroclash or was it something significant?
Whatever it was, Liars seem to have been the most defensive about observations that the music they and these other bands was slavishly derivative.
“That was brought up a lot, and we had not heard the Pop Group,” acknowledges Angus Andrews, on the phone one recent morning from his home in the New Jersey woods. “We went to England and someone gave us a CD of it and we listened to it and we got really depressed about it.
He laughs. Why was it depressing?
“It was all these ideas that we had that now we couldn’t do! I dunno. I listened to them once, then. Didn’t really get that much into it. Maybe it was just because…you start rejecting all these influences that people tell you that you have.”
And so, apparently resentful at being categorized, resentful at being lumped in with a herd of copycatters, resentful perhaps even towards the authority represented by the categorizing itself, Liars made a strategic redirection.
They split town and changed their sound, jettisoning a genuinely tuff rhythm section. They worked in the woods, recording in a home studio instead of in a too-sterile studio bunker in the world’s capital. Musically they travelled just a little bit laterally: the distance from early Gang of 4 and Public Image Ltd. records to further-out, less dancefloor-oriented records from that same era (more or less) by bands like The Fall and This Heat.
“We discovered This Heat very recently, actually while on tour some guy made a tape of the two records on one tape for us and we ran that tape til it broke,” says Angus. “It gave us inspiration to do anything, because what made that time period really good is that they did do a lot of mix ‘n match.”
Liars’ other principal, obvious inspiration was one of the few contemporary local bands they dug.
“We’d played with Oneida a bunch and listened to their music quite a bit,” says Angus. “I think we like ‘em because they don’t give a fuck. They’re from Williamsburg and Brooklyn and they are the epitome of Not-Cool: they’re these crazy hippie dudes who are in the middle of this really chic world. We just really liked that. And their drummer is just INSANE.”
Oneida invited Liars to do a joint EP, with each band covering at least one song by the other band. It was a challenge.
“I just didn’t see how we were actually going to physically play one of their songs, they’re really good musicians,” says Angus. “So, we had to re-think how to actually tackle it. Aaron [Hemphill, the band’s guitarist] and I went into a room, sampled ourselves and noises and then completely fabricated this cover of this song–and it worked out fairly well, well enough that we were like, This is a whole new way to approach to making music. So we used those things we learned on the new record.”
It is a menacing, mournful sound Liars make now. A spooked, sometimes irregular pulse: spectral, flickery, throbbing. Like the band’s earlier sound, this may be little more than the sum of its inspirations–but here, consider how much those inspirations have to offer, and to what use they’re put on They Were Wrong, So we Drowned, the band’s new album on Mute. The music isn’t just spooky: the music is about spooky people… about feeling spooked…about what people do when they feel fear. About how people deal with nature, and with things they can’t control, and how they place blame where it doesn’t belong. So yeah, it’s a concept album, a “simple sort of fairy tale“ says Angus, about the persecution of witches in 16th and 17th century Europe. But it’s also about the stuff that’s apparently always gone on and apparently always will.
“It happened that Iraq was being invaded when we were making the record, and I felt a little bit connected with that,” says Angus. “Here AGAIN the majority was making some sort of ridiculous decision that was going to affect the minority AGAIN. I always feel like whoever is the majority is [always] making bad decisions.”
Both of Liars’ album titles are written from the point of view of a persecuted collective.
“It’s funny, that,” says Angus. He muses, with a chuckle that seems kind of sad, “I guess we identify with whoever’s not in the majority.”
Which is interesting cuz Angus hails from Australia: a place where indigenous people who perform a form of ‘folk magic’ that is utterly other and incomprehensible (and therefore either evil, or backwards) have been persecuted by Europeans in much the same way that witches (or accused witches–or single women) were in the 16th and 17th centuries that form the album’s setting. In Australia, Aboriginals seem to always be viewed with suspicion. They’re not to be trusted. They’re permanent suspects because of…
“Their whole way of doing things,” finishes Angus. “And they’re looked at as like freaky and they need to be persecuted. I’m almost…I’m at a loss for words, to talk about that situation. All I can say is that I think that maybe things are turning around a bit there at least, y’know? But it’s the same thing that happened here, with the Indians.
“I think what’s going on is just that there can be this sort of mass mindset and there can be this paranoia that poisons people. In the 16th and 17th centuries, especially in Europe, if your crops failed then the finger was pointed at a witch, or at the devil, or whatever—it’s that sort of paranoia that comes with religion. I think there was just severe paranoia and misguided angst. What’s interesting is, that that’s not the only thing that what was going on. Because at the same time you have people writing a lot of stories and telling stories about witches, this fantastic imagination comes into play. And then equally at the same time, you actually had women being killed…”
“So it’s an incredible sort of mix of emotions and imagery, all of that was really useful… It could’ve been fairly easy to sort of regurgitate fairly similar songs to the first record, but I think it makes it so much more interesting and fun for us when we start again from scratch and forget everything that we know.”
So what’s next, then?
“We’re trying to cover the Doors’ song ‘The Soft Parade,’ which is proving really difficult. Aaron and I have both always loved them. When we started recording the record we got a hold of a DVD of their TV appearances and the first song that comes on is them doing ‘The Soft Parade.’ When we saw that, we [were reminded] how original they were and how difficult it is to even sound at all like them. It’s just amazing. It’s funny: the Doors, they don’t get much credit. They’re so…un-trendy.
“Cuz almost every other band gets ripped off, a lot. But I don’t know if they did.”