Liars – A mess on a mission?

A cut’n’spliced series of video chats with the three members of Liars, the endlessly experimental and consistently excellent rock/electronic/whatever outfit based in LA. For BEAT mag

Nate Walton

Viene la tormenta. There’s a storm coming. MESS, Liars’ seventh album, is a cyborg punk dance party of crushing synth riffs, modulated vocals and mile-high beats, delivered with machine precision and an infectious sense of fun.

The gleeful opening section alone could overload the electric grid, topple a repressive regime, and still have enough juice to throw the kind of warehouse rave that’s still going strong after three days and everyone has gone insane. Later, it stretches out into a languid, looped interzone of shifting rhythms and textures that crackle and pulse with hypnotic intensity. We know by now to expect the unexpected from this restlessly creative three-piece but the tonal shift from their last album WIXIW, a tense, neurotic journey of electronic experimentation, is extreme even by their standards. BEAT opened up a channel to Angus, Julian and Aaron in their LA hometown to talk anxiety, rave and how to get away with being different.

MAKING A MESS, OR BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WIXIW FOR

BEAT: Did you want this album to be such a contrast with WIXIW, which was intricate and delicate?

ANGUS: “With the last record, I got really stuck in doubt and uncertainty. Part of that came from the amount of time we allowed ourselves, which was infinite, and part because that was a new foray into making music with computers. In the past, we’ve sometimes over-intellectualised things. With this record, the main impetus was to be more immediate and have fun.”

JULIAN: “Normally, we’re very concept-heavy with what were making, so it was nice to not have this rigorous guideline to follow.”

ANGUS: “When we were writing the last record, we had to have the user manuals open in the studio! The reason this one came together the way it did was because we’d got beyond that – it suddenly started to feel we could use the technology in ways that felt more natural.”

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Daniel Miller (Mute Records founder) helped you with the last album – do you feel there is stylistically a connection from this album’s use of electronics to the early days of Mute and that heyday of DIY, industrial electronic punk?

ANGUS: “Daniel worked really as an adviser, he pointed us in some directions of software to use. And I was really paranoid making that record! I needed to know if using a particular snare brought up the idea of Kraftwerk or whatever. I had a lot of conversations with him and he was always like, ‘Stop thinking like that!’ I generally make an effort not to be too influenced, but I feel confident saying the Mute back catalogue is a place I can draw a lot of inspiration from – acts like Fad Gadget or DAF. They’re all artists that pushed boundaries with electronic music in ways that resonate with me more than, quote unquote, ‘professional’ electronic artists… who maybe scare me a bit.”

‘Professional’ electronic artists maybe scare me a bit…

ONE FOOT IN THE RAVE

Even though you’ve recently started making music this way, you clearly have a sensibility for dance music, which is obvious to anyone following your music. How far does that love go back?

AARON: “When we were writing our first demos for the first album, a lot of song structures came from Angus or I playing drums emulating a dance song, where you play the same beat for like seven minutes. And we’d mess up, because we weren’t skilled enough, so it would unravel and create a chorus or change in the song. Angus comes from more of a going to clubs and DJs background, I’m more from punk rock. But I’ve always loved hip hop and 80s music, so that obsession with electronic music has always been there.”

ANGUS: “It was the music I gravitated towards first when I was young. Dancing in clubs in the early 90s, Technotronic and KLF… that was the period I loved going out. With anything technologically based, though, there starts to be this separation between people who are really into gear and people who are into ideas. It’s intimidating when I come across people who are more gear-oriented, and they’re like, ‘Well, did you use the blah-blah on the blah-blah-blah?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I’ve no idea what that is.’”

JULIAN: “Some of the first records I bought were hip hop – six or seven years old… listening to Run DMC and Fat Boys, trying to beatbox. In 87 or 88, a friend had a fake dollar bill with an acid house smiley. When I first heard that music, I remember being so baffled! When does the singing start, where is the chorus? When I was 16, I went to my first rave. 1990, they were illegal… I fell in love and my friends and I were hardcore into it for like four years. I got my first drum machine when I was 20, in 94. Endless fun. I might have even played that before live drums. I’ve always loved electronic music and I think all of us went for it hard in the dance clubs at some point, as a teenager or whatever. LA was a good centre for all that.”

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PUBLISH AND BE DAMNED

This is the first time you’re publishing the lyrics, which is useful as some are quite hard to make out. There’s a lot of regret, doubt, maybe even mortality…

ANGUS: “WIXIW was the first record where I think we dared turn the mirror on ourselves and write something overtly personal. In the past, I’d written personal lyrics but framed in witches or LA or whatever. I think the difference is that with WIXIW, we were using the troubling feelings that have always been there in a heavy, dark way, but with MESS it felt like for the first time turning those issues, anxiety and paranoia, into something that’s POSSIBLY positive.”

Did you publish them because you’re more proud of these lyrics or because you think they’re key to understanding the album?

ANGUS: “It’s a really good question. I used to feel publishing lyrics was narrowing the scope of interpretation. But recently I’ve changed my mind. You spend a lot of time putting these words together and it would be nice for people to acknowledge them. I’ve always been proud of the lyrics but it’s a different way of thinking about it now.”

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STRING THEORY

Where did the inspiration for the visual motif of the big ball of multi-coloured yarn come from? It’s been getting around on Instagram.

JULIAN: “I wanted to transform something normal into something unrecognisable. We started the Instagram campaign so we can all participate. That’s one of the things we love about being in a band, there’s so much creativity in different areas. When you’re tired going over songs, you can go and take pictures or make a video.”

I’ve seen that yarn in all sorts of places, it must be getting dirty now.

“It works within the Liars budget very easily.”

Liars always have a strong aesthetic. Why is it important for the listener to have visual stimulus to go with the music?

JULIAN: “For better or for worse, we are extremely controlling about each visual element. A big part of music is art. When I was a kid, my favourite thing was to buy a bunch of records and then get home and put them on and look over the graphics and read the lyrics. Digital is annoying, you have to shrink it for a thumbnail. When I’m designing, the label is like, ‘We need the band name on.’ I’m like, ‘If you want that, it’s got to be 2-point type!’”

To be fair, you have a band name that is just five letters.

JULIAN: “That’s true! At least we can do it. Instead of, like, Godspeed You! Black Emperor.”

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THE ART OF FAILING UPWARDS

I first interviewed you in a Glasgow dressing room in 2004, it’s remarkable how much your band has changed stylistically over the years. Do you think this marks a definite new phase or is it another step in the band’s continued evolution?

AARON: “If history is any indicator, WIXIW was the birth of a new phase. It’s happened with our albums when we find a new point of obsession, and drop all our previous tools and find new ones, we usually make a very scary, sad or intense album with that initial phase. Then the follow-up, if we keep those same tools, is more comfortable or refined. At the end of this tour, it could be the end of this electronic period. It seems we naturally put ourselves in uncomfortable situations.”

JULIAN: “Someone said, ‘You’re the only band that’s really been able to get away with being able to change and not get hammered by people for it.’”

Do you think of yourselves as loners in that respect?

JULIAN: “I know we change and it’s not that ‘normal’ for people to do that, but I never thought about it until that person said that! I guess it’s exciting that we can. If anything, it makes us want to do it more – like we got the green light. So many bands get stuck, where they get dissed if they change.”

Maybe other bands don’t change because they’re afraid of failing. Do you have to embrace the potential of failure to create good stuff?

AARON: “We’re definitely worried about failing. Failing for us is different than it might be for other people, though. We like to highlight the mistakes. Any position we can put ourselves in where we will be prone to mistakes is creatively rich territory. Certain art movements consider an accident the purest act of expression.”

JULIAN: “The beauty of creating anything is not being scared to fail. I’ve always had a problem with artists like Mondrian – his work is great and I know it was revolutionary at the time. But at some point he just does the same things over and over again. I have a hard time with artists that do that, because it becomes a safe bet. I want more out of the artist and I guess that is what we are trying to do – what we would like to hear in other people.”

The second half of the album gets deeper and trippier and I noticed you’re high up the bill at a Texas psych rock festival. Do you consider yourselves a psychedelic band at all?

ANGUS: “Ha, I love that word but to me it conjures up Jefferson Airplane or a 60s revival. Sure, if it means inside your head and weird, that’s always something we’ve loved. In the past, I felt strongly in mixing songs up, but I felt this time it would be interesting to sequence things that way. Really, the second half of this record is for the people that want to go there. Maybe it’s not for everyone, but the people who do will really go deep.”

Not because west-coast mysticism has rubbed off on you in recent years?

ANGUS: “It’s always been there! We like to spin people out, saying one of the band’s favourite bands is The Doors, you know? People don’t always want to hear that from us but it’s true! I LOVE that music. We’ve spiritually been rubbed onto, haha.”

So, you all take loads of peyote out in the desert?

ANGUS: “Of course, but only before breakfast. We do manage to get some work in during the day.”

Originally published in the mighty BEAT magazine in March 2014

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