The truth about Liars: an interview
Liars are one of the most dedicated bands in music today. Having been an institution since 1999, the band have spent over a decade pushing the limits and making records that are distinctively their own. Their latest album “WIXIW” finds them departing further from their abrasive origins then they ever have before.
“WIXIW” is by no means a mellow outing, however. While the guitars are sparse and unassuming, there’s an unsettling discourse within their newfound love of synthesizers, with each song sounding like a rhythmic cauldron of unhinged sounds. Its closest relative would be Radiohead’s most recent work, but to call this Liars’ “King of Limbs” isn’t entirely applicable since this is a group that basically started both literally and sonically at “Amnesiac.”
If there is any resemblance to “KOL,” however, it’s purely coincidental, as these guys have gone to great lengths to seclude themselves from outside influences — an insanely difficult feat considering the band recorded “WIXIW” in Los Angeles. During our interview at the Ace Hotel, the three-piece sprawled out across the room to discuss the reasons for such painstaking separation, how surroundings shape their music, and the charms of Australian basketball teams.
An incredibly friendly trio of gentlemen, Angus Andrew and Aaron Hemphill did most of the talking. It at first seemed like drummer Julian Gross wasn’t as interested in the interview as his two bandmates as he scribbled away on some hotel stationary, but in actuality he was drawing me two unique “WIXIW” illustrations, proving right in front of me that the multi-talents of Liars stretches beyond just music (see below).
I made the mistake of listening to some Queen, and had this kind of breakdown to Aaron saying “Are we ever going to be able to write a song that’s like…good?”
“WIXIW” is a largely more electronic based record than any of its predecessors. The obvious question here is what brings you towards this type of sound?
Angus Andrew: Part of it was a practical aspect — to make recordings that were more professional starting right from the start. Normally in the past we’d make demos, and we really liked them but the sonic quality of them wasn’t so great and we’d sort of have to translate that into a big studio production. So in this way we wanted to use the computer to give us the means to avoid that process.
What was the time frame of the recording?
AA: It was like a year. Around March of last year and we mastered it in February.
I had read that you guys don’t like to be influenced by anything and you tried to find your own sound through isolating yourself from all other music for this record. Aside from it just being difficult because there’s music everywhere, is it difficult as a music fan? Do you not even listen to the stuff that you know you already like?
AA: Yes, because in a way, speaking personally, my confidence level as a musician isn’t confident enough to handle listening to something really good when I’m writing. In the beginning of the writing process, I made the mistake of listening to some Queen, and had this kind of breakdown to Aaron saying “Are we ever going to be able to write a song that’s like…good?” [laughs]
Aaron Hemphill: Yeah, and I listened to a Led Zeppelin song and made that mistake. As far removed as that can possibly be from what this record is, as far as the tools we’re using, it’s the same sort of doubt. It’s like “Okay this record is made with guitar, bass, and drums mostly, and it’s so full sounding.”
AA: The same applies to shitty music too that’s popular. If I made the mistake of turning on K-Rock and I hear the Foo Fighters, and they play that non-stop — I mean I can see sonically some things that I like, like this cool drum sound or guitar sound or something. So it puts me in this mode of like “Well shit, maybe I should try that.” It’s that kind of level of uncertainty in relationship to other music that’s made that starts to become difficult in a way. I think our point was to remove that completely. It’s a really difficult thing to do but really completely necessary. But also what’s exciting is when you’re out of that period like now. It’s nice to be able to listen to something and appreciate it and enjoy it and not be worried about how it’s so much better than what we’re doing.
So was there a ceremonious emergence from that when the record was mastered?
AA: It’s not an established thing, but you realize “Oh wow I’m actually listening to something and I’m not freaking out.” But yeah it’s really nice to be able to play music and enjoy it for what it is and not have to be reactionary.
That takes so much self control. I mean the reason why you play music is because you like music.
AA: Yeah it’s true, and it’s funny because I guess there’s the paradigm in that once you become a musician it becomes harder and harder to listen to music in the way you have before. And you find yourself focusing on things you wouldn’t normally have and you maybe lose something, like a sort of immediacy that you would have had with music before you got involved in it.
[In Australia] we are allowed per team two token foreign players. So basically you get two Americans on each team and they…are…gods. They’re gods!
I had read that one thing you guys did to avoid outside musical influences was muting the TV during the commercials for NBA finals. Are you guys big basketball fans?
AA: Yeah, super. We’re big L.A. clippers fans. Are you a basketball fan?
No, not really but I’m always interested in the idea of things that interest musicians aside from music…So okay you’re Clippers fans, so with the exception of Angus you’re all originally from L.A.?
Angus, do you have basketball in Australia?
AA: Yes but we don’t have the NBA, we have the NBL.
How is that?
AA: Well it’s interesting because we are allowed per team two token foreign players. So basically you get two Americans on each team and they…are…gods. They’re gods! Even though they couldn’t make it onto a squad in the NBA, they become these absolute icons there. Which is interesting because they’re such rejects and outcasts, it’s kind of great.
AH: [to Angus] Do they have that in the NBA? Is there any rulelike that where they only allow a certain amount of foreigners?
AA: Nah, no, because a team like The Spurs is like the most international team out there. They have a lot of foreigners. But it’s converse in that way because they’re looking outside of America and we have all these second rate college players. [laughs]
What personal lives?
You guys moved to Brooklyn when you started, then Berlin, and now back to L.A. — do you like the idea changing scenery and do you see yourselves possibly living somewhere else for future records?
AH: Sure I mean I think the effect is less directly from getting the environment into our music and more about us as people and how we feel. To explain that more precisely – “Sisterworld” and this album were made in L.A. – we’ve made two records at every location and I feel that the records are quite different from each other. [It's been like] one record where we focus on incorporating our environment and then another where we shut ourselves in from it, so I think it has more of a practical effect on us before we can consider anything else.
AA: There’s never been a time where we’ve said “We should move to X spot because musically it’s gonna do something for us.” It’s more like a more personal or practical purpose like “Oh, we’re sick of living in a foreign country where we don’t speak the language, let’s move back to L.A.,” or when we were in New York, it was like during the time of the Iraq war and George Bush and it was really nice to get away from America.
Why did you specifically move to Berlin in the mid-00s?
AA: Just because it’s really cheap. And we’re on a label called Mute and they have an office there so it was kind of nice to have a connection there, but also we’re really interested in touring more in Eastern Europe and that was a nice location to jump in from.
AA: We always feel kind of exhausted with the place after two records. It happened that way not like a formula. It was never like “We did two records, gotta leave now.”
How does that type of system affect your personal lives?
AH: What personal lives?
Well I guess that answers the question.
AA: Well we’re just lucky that we can do that in our lives as they are. It’s plausible for us to say “Let’s move to Thailand to make the next record. It’s not something that we would really have a problem with in terms of making music or being a band or something. But in terms of personal lives, really Aaron summed it up. I mean everything comes kind of secondary to what we do.
AH: People fit into the personal life based on this. This is the only thing.
Okay so now it’s been over ten years since the first record. It sounds like you guys have a pretty grueling schedule…what is your downtime like?
Julian Gross: We don’t really have downtime.
AH: For us, the downtime really is the opportunity to write a new record. When we got off the tour for “Sisterworld,” we spoke to the label and we knew we would have a year where both financially and schedule-wise we were capable of living – meagerly — but where we could write an album. There wouldn’t be an instance where we would have more than a month off to start working on something. So really downtime, if you’re asking me, it’s just the opportunity to sit and write the next record.
JG: We don’t have the downtime that you hear from other bands where they’re like “we’re taking three months off and then we’re going to Hawaii, and so-and-so is going here, and then we’re gonna reconvene in four months and make the record.” After the touring cycle, we’re excited to be back home and work on new material.
AH: I mean I understand. There are days when you want to do something totally opposite, but what would I do with downtime if I worked a day job? I would look forward so much to making a new song. Our job is to make music and play music so yeah I don’t need anything else.
‘WIXIW’ is out now on Mute Records.
Liars — “No. 1 Against the Rush”