Liars interview: “The fear and pain in his face was real.”

19.07.10

You wake up at 8am to an update from JLS on the current living state of ‘the club’ that is so irritating you smash the radio alarm to bits and wake up half an hour late for work. Next some selfish sap decides to delay you still further by throwing themselves in front of a train, so that when you finally arrive at work you receive a stale, coffee-breathed bollocking from your boss and begrudgingly agree to make up the time by working late. This at least ensures that the train home is empty enough that you can get a seat – in between a grotesquely fat woman whose humongous sweaty breast constantly jiggles against your shoulder like an overexcited jellyfish, and a sunken-eyed twitcher, head conspiratorially cocked towards you, mumbling something about foreskins. Finally you reach home to find your flat has been broken into; but your meagre possessions are so pathetic that the would-be thief has done nothing but leave a pile of smashed glass where your window was and completed the crossword you’d left on the kitchen table. The one you’d been really looking forward to finishing.

All of us have shit days, where impish irritants are sent by some unknown malevolent force to disrupt every micro and macroscopic aspect of your life. And on days like this we all need somewhere to hide from it all. It can be half an hour contrasting your own misery favourably with that manifest in Albert Square. It can be getting lost in an airfix haze modelling your loneliness into a model spitfire. It can be a dozen chapters of Twilight. It can be a syringe full of heroin. For some of us, recently, it’s been 40-odd minutes spent immersed in the most recent Liars album, ‘Sisterworld’.

As the press release has it, “‘Sisterworld’ is Liars’ own space […] somewhere remote from the false promises and discarded dreams amassed in LA. In it Liars explore the underground support systems created to deal with loss of self to society”. Frankly, theirs is one hell of a support system. By sheltering from the alienation of big city society in LA studios they’ve created an album that sews together everything that’s worked over what has been a constantly contorting and (self) challenging career. Sisterworld has the energy of frantic debut ‘They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top’, the creepy horror of second album ‘They Were Wrong, So We Drowned’, the atmospheric cohesiveness of high water mark ‘Drums Not Dead’ and the really fucking big riffs of its self-titled follow-up.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a band famous for never resting on their laurels (or even in the same city too long) can serve up something so uniquely rewarding having already explored so many avenues of their own collective creativity, but somehow it is. In a music scene largely devoid of artists who strive to surpass previous achievements rather than revert to tested formulas, they occupy a sparsely populated island of bands dedicated to pushing the boundaries of what they consider themselves capable of. Along with Radiohead, Broadcast, Oneida, PJ Harvey and precious few others, a new album is anticipated as much to discover what’s different as to wallow in what’s the same. Though they modestly (and rightly) distance themselves from press release hyperbole claiming they make music “completely devoid of influence”, there’s no denying their music – the nauseating drones, the high-pitched paeans, the desperate pounding of drums very much not dead – has always been possessed by some indistinguishable ‘otherness’. Somewhat similar to the films of Harmony Korine. Or the forehead of Landon Donovan. In this context the video for lead single Scissor, featuring the band adrift in the ocean, without company and without explanation, seems strangely fitting. In an attempt to understand how they got there, we grilled Julian Gross and Aaron Hemphill from the band.

‘Sisterworld’ features a wider variety of instruments than your previous albums – not many people associate Liars with strings or brass. What inspired this and how did you manage to keep it sounding unmistakably like a Liars record?

Julian: The idea is to challenge yourself and propose new problems to solve, fail at and become excited to work with more and expand on. That keeps things changing and fresh, keeps you nervous yet enthusiastic.

Aaron: It’s the sound of novice and naïveté that makes any addition sound familiar in our body of work. We like elements of the process, unfinished or uncertain, to remain in a well groomed finished product.

I read a (fairly pretentious) blog recently comparing the atmosphere of Scissor to that of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Have you read it? What are you reading currently?

Julian: I did read it. And I liked the book somewhat. The movie was horrible. So boring. I liked Old Country… (sic) better as a book and movie. I just finished a book that was given to me by a friend, Hunger by Knut Hamsun. Such a great book: about a writer who is slowly going insane from not eating due to poverty in Oslo, Norway in the 50s. It is pretty dark but parts are very funny and endearing. I recommend it to everyone. He got the Nobel prize for it, son! I just started Light Boxes by Shane Jones, so far I really like it. It is a surreal story about February (the month as a sentient being sorta) taking over a town. It instills a law saying no one can fly or even talk about flight. They loved to fly in balloons. They are now waging war on February who has also kidnapped their children. Written very nice.

Aaron: I’m reading Gestalt Psychology by Wolfgang Köhler.

“I love the ocean!” – Julian

The video to Scissor -is fantastic. Who came up with the concept and where was it shot?

Aaron: Andy Brunel directed the video and wrote the treatment for it. He assembled the crew and did the video on an extremely tight budget. The video was shot of the coast of Los Angeles.

Julian: I love the ocean. I was born on the coast and waded in it as a youth. But I have never been good with boats. Surprisingly I didn’t throw up this time. It was pretty cold and brutal out there. Aaron and I were on a regular boat and could go inside. Angus was in the water! It was January water. The fear and pain in his face was real.

You’ve spoken about Sisterworld being a place of shelter from the pressures and alienation of society. Is music itself your ‘Sisterworld’ where you escape to from such demands? Or does being in the band, with the associated expectation from your fans, peers, critics and label, add to the burden?

Aaron: It can be a “shelter”. It can also be a prison…it depends on how well structured the division is between the outer and inner worlds, and how well the individual can bridge the two. No to the latter.

Julian: When I am making something, all my focus is on that thing: that drum beat, that sound, that line on the paper I am making with this brush. It takes over all the other thoughts looming in my head, all wanting to make me miserable. I think all three of us find that escape in creating, though the escape is not from fans, peers, critics or labels. Those are the easy things in life: “thanks fans, hello critics, see you tomorrow peers, thanks for your help label.” But what do I do about me? Get me out of me for like one fucking second. Shut the world down. I love that title, “Goodnight Everything”.

Can you tell us about the song Scarecrow on a Killer Slant? Someone told me it stems from a real-life incident.

Aaron: Angus lived above a marijuana dispensary when it was broken into. The security guard was shot and killed, and left to death on the street. The incident left him feeling differently than maybe he felt he was “supposed” to […] that you’re “supposed” to feel a certain way when death is a linear and unstoppable trajectory.

Julian: LA is a tough place. People see it as glitz and glamour but there are a lot of areas in that vastness and most of them are fucked up. It is a horrible truth that growing up in LA or just living here in the wrong areas (most areas) you will run across something that you wish you hadn’t seen or hadn’t have happen to you. That song is about all those things.

“The idea of reinterpretations fits the theme of the album…taking what is given to you and somehow making it your own.” – Aaron

The bonus disc that comes with the ‘deluxe’ edition of Sisterworld features an impressive roster of artists reworking your tracks, particularly as most of them are not known for doing remixes or reinterpretations. How did this come about, and was there anyone you wanted to do a remix who turned down the opportunity?

Julian: We have a great friend named Brian Roettinger (Hand Held Heart ). I have known him for over ten years and Aaron has been best bro’s since they were like 10 years old. He made this amazing packaging for us, he is such a great designer. The label wanted to put another disc in it and we played around with some video ideas, but we did that before with Drum’s Not Dead and nothing really stuck that we worked on for it. We didn’t really like the idea of a standard “remix” album – a 4-4 beat turning every song similar – so we thought it would be fun to have people and bands we really love take the song and do whatever they wanted. Don’t worry about radio, just have fun. It was really a fun project cause of that, besides working with some heroes and good friends.

Aaron: The idea of reinterpretations fits the theme of the album…taking what is given to you and somehow making it your own.

I was lucky enough to catch your performance at Matt Groening’s ATP, where you were part of a really unique line-up. Were there any performances over the weekend that you particularly enjoyed?

Aaron: The Residents, Broadcast, Toumani Diabete, The Raincoats, James Chance, The Boredoms.

Julian: I loved Boadrum! The Boredoms show was great! I caught it both nights. I liked Konono # 1, Deerhunter. The Oh Sees were fun. Ya know honestly, I got so drunk that night I don’t really remember too much. I was in good form though, ask Moses from Deerhunter.

Your music sounds so otherworldly that it’s always kind of a shock to see these normal guys onstage creating it. Sometimes it feels like it shatters the mysticism. Have you ever considered changing your stage-show – dressing up in hooded robes like Sunn 0))) or playing in pitch black or something – or do you feel that would detract from the music?

Julian: We used to put on much more stage show antics and fashion faux-pas. It got way more stupid and that was fun. Aaron was always the rock in Angus and I’s wardrobe disasters. We have always used projections. I don’t like lights off. I would love to have “stuff on the stage”. I really liked Beach House’s use of stage props. I need to think of a way to copy them.

Aaron: Ultimately I’m happy you seem more shocked at us coming onstage looking like “these normal guys” making “otherworldly” music than guys in hooded robes. Personally I’m more intrigues by the outfits at a horse track than I am with wizard costumes. I think Sunn 0))) would be very scary if they chose that path.

“The musicians we performed with were Lil Touchy, Suck Sink, Double Thumbs, Slippery Manatee and Cocaine Spatula. They came from LA.” – Julian

There were so many musicians on stage with you at ATP. Who are they? Where did they come from?

Julian: I think that was Lil touchy, Suck Sink, Double Thumbs, Slippery Manatee and Cocaine Spatula. They came from LA. We are having a rotating cast these days. Keep your peeps open for Nick DeWitt and Jesse Jackson soon to be setting fire to the stage.

Aaron (somewhat more seriously): Samuel Bing – guitar and keys, Alex Myrvold – bass and keys. Los Angeles.

I just finished reading the Oral History of the Pixies and it got me thinking about the personal dynamics of bands. Do you socialise outside the band or is it a purely creative/professional thing?

Aaron: I don’t think we know the line between personal, creative or professional when dealing with one another.

Julian: We have our lil’ fights like any normal relationship, but they extinguish fast. We are very lucky, we are happy in our relationship and dare I say, but I will, we all have a lot of love for each other and hang out and talk on the norm. No homo, but yea, total bro’s. Totally boring for Rock.

Keeping in the Pixies theme, do you think your music will be greater appreciated retrospectively? Your sound is hardly commercial but I get the feeling, not to gush too much, that albums like ‘Drums Not Dead’ may be seen as masterpieces in the future…

Aaron: Thank you for the very nice compliment. I don’t think about this idea of people in the future having a better understanding…it doesn’t really help the music I write today…if that makes sense.

Where next for Liars?

Aaron: More tour dates…maybe we’ll see you again.

Julian: Touring, quantum physics…

Quantum physics be damned. The world needs more Liars.

Liars play Standon Calling festival on the 8th August. Go HERE, for tickets