Interview with Liars
Art rock trio Liars should need no introduction to anyone familiar with the whole New York scene this past decade. Initially formed in Los Angeles ten years ago before relocating to New York a year later, the core trio of Angus Andrew, Aaron Hemphill and Julian Gross have collectively been responsible for some of the most outrageous, influential and genre-defining music this past decade.
Switching from discordant funk rock (2001's 'They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top') to experimental catharsis (follow-up 'They Were Wrong So We Drowned'), percussion heavy noise (2006's 'Drum's Not Dead') and then shoegaze (2007's self-titled collection). This year they've gone and put together a concept album entitled 'Sisterworld', its main theme evolving from the record's entire contents supposedly being "devoid of any influence".
As curious to find out what inspired such a record, Contactmusic caught up with frontman, voice and formidable stage presence Angus Andrew during their recent UK tour.
How did you arrive at such a concept as 'Sisterworld'?
Angus: I guess you could call it a concept although at the same time we have a bit of a problem with that idea because it means the listener has to figure something out in order to enjoy the record so we try to avoid classifying the record in that way. For us, when we make any of our records we definitely think conceptually but I'd like to think our music can be appreciated without all the back story which we inevitably have to give because of.journalism!
Does it worry you that a lot of people do perceive 'Sisterworld' as a concept album rather than just another Liars record?
Angus: That's inevitable really. There are a lot of worse positions we could be in than people seeing our music as being meaningful. There's a point where you wonder what's more important; the music itself or the stuff you talk about around it? It just so happens I think there are other things just as interesting to talk about that aren't to do with music that sometimes can overlay, so I guess the scenario we find ourselves in where we're known for being a band that makes meaningful records is quite a positive one.
At the time of 'Sisterworld''s release I recall you saying the record was devoid of influence yet there must have been something that triggered off the stories and ideas throughout that record?
Angus: I think the idea of "no influence" was about us trying to find a place or environment where us as people weren't directly influenced by the kind of things we'd normally associate with modern day society. For example, when we were making the record in LA it felt as if we were being constantly bombarded by influence, not just musically, but in all sorts of other ways as well. At some point, we really wanted to get away from all that and try to reconnect with ourselves. I think all sorts of people go through that and this was the whole point with 'Sisterworld', in that it doesn't necessarily mean you have to be a musician or creating something to experience these influences. I mean, whatever line of work you do, there's a whole load of stuff you have to incorporate and sometimes you just want to stay at home and pull the sheets over your head, which is what I'd consider to be taking a particular course of action without influence.
Lyrically 'Sisterworld' seems quite dark and repressive in places, 'Scissor' and 'Scarecrows On A Killer Slant' being two examples that spring to mind. Where did the ideas for those songs emerge?
Angus: For me personally, living in LA is a quite interesting dilemma. I like a lot of things about LA but then I also get frustrated by a lot of things that go on in the city as well. The homelessness and crime are two things that make me really angry, especially when people just ignore it. I wanted some of those darker thoughts to come out on this record and sometimes if you try not to hold back they can manifest themselves in all kinds of ways, which can be a little scary too.
Musically you've changed with every album, almost in a similar vein to bands like The Magnetic Fields for example. What inspired the arrangements behind 'Sisterworld'?
Angus: One of the big changes that happened with this record was that we were all living in the same city for the first time in a few albums at least. For a while I was into the idea of me living in Berlin, and Julian living in New York. I saw it as a very post-modern way to make music - we were all getting different viewpoints from around the world which as you can imagine is very interesting but I over-romanticised that because in reality, it makes more sense for us all to be in the same city because then you can call each other up and work together as a unit which in turn makes the recording process so much more fluid. The songwriting got a big kick from that in terms of just being able to rehash things.
'Sisterworld' also saw you collaborate with renowned engineer/producer Tom Biller for the first time. What did he bring to the record and would you consider working with him again?
Angus: When we work with a producer its more a case of us needing someone to facilitate ideas that we have rather than someone pushing their ideas onto us. Tom was great because he's a local Los Angeles guy who's lived there for years and his connections run very deep. He's the kind of guy who we could suggest an unconventional recording location to and he'd be on the phone straight away setting everything up for us. We actually recorded 'Sisterworld' in eight different places, largely because of Tom's ability to move us around from space to space, and that's why he was such a breath of fresh air to work with. He acted as a facilitator and made everything we suggested happen. For example, at one point I wanted my vocals to sound like they were in a church and a regular guy would just play that through a computer programme but someone like Tom would just go "Fuck it! Let's find a church and do it there!" I'd definitely work with him again, although I'm also interested in going towards the classic producer who does bring in some ideas like Brian Eno maybe.someone who tried to tell us how we should be making music!
Its interesting you say that because every album you've made so far has been different to the last one, and having crossed so many genres, where do you see yourselves heading next?
Angus: There are so many other ways to make music that I'd find it difficult to limit myself really. One thing we haven't done so far is a straight-up electronic record, which would be interesting. None of us have really dabbled in that genre yet which would be fun, but at the same time I'd also like to make a bossa nova record, a soft jazz kinda thing. There are so many options, which is a great feeling for us because it means the next album gives us the chance to do something completely new.
On the limited edition release of 'Sisterworld' there was a bonus disc of remixes by a lot of revered artists such as Thom Yorke and Suicide. How did those come about and were there any that got rejected from making the final cut on the album?
Angus: No not at all. It was an amazing process considering we're hardly the best people at social networking. We put together a list of people who we admire and emailed them or called them up and luckily they all said yes! We didn't put any restrictions on what they should do, which I think was one of the reasons why they all agreed to participate. We gave them all a track each and to be honest, even if they'd recorded themselves in the shower singing along or whatever it would have been awesome! I definitely didn't turn anything down. There were some artists who invited us to the studio to have a listen before they submitted their mix to us and even then we refused. I didn't want us to have an effect on it. The whole idea was to have these other interpretations of our songs without us having any influence on them.
Your recent live set at the Matt Groening ATP festival was very varied in terms of playing tracks from across your entire career. At the same time, looking back through your back catalogue, are there any songs you'd rather not have to hear or play live again?
Angus: Oh yeah, definitely. I wouldn't like to say its because I hate those songs - most of the time its actually a technical issue. There are certain songs we've made that are particular to certain types of equipment and unless you're prepared to drag those tools around the world with you its unlikely you're going to be playing those songs. When we were putting together the setlist for this tour it was fun because we're kind of renowned for doing the unexpected, yet when we actually rehearsed the set and started to play it live it became more apparent that there is a stronger connection between each of our five albums than most people might have thought.
I also noticed you'd expanded the line-up to a five-piece for the live show. Would you ever consider incorporating anyone else into the band on a full-time basis?
Angus: I don't know. I think I'd like to do that but then at the same time its really scary for me. This last record where we did collaborate with some string players did feel like the closest we've ever come to working with other people. It is quite tricky though because for me, making a record tends to be a very personal time and I do shut other people out, but I'd never say never so, maybe.it could be fun.
What you consider to be the definitive Liars record?
Angus: When we were discussing 'Sisterworld' and its main themes, which I guess are about isolation and alienation, again you can link that back through every album we've made so far. Each record has an element of that, regardless of musical style. When you play them all back-to-back its not as shocking as people first imagine. If anything, I think we've started to come full circle on this album, so I guess in terms of a definitive Liars record, it would be difficult to place any one as being more important than the other.
At times when listening to your albums, it does feel as if you're searching to find extremes, both lyrically and musically.
Angus: Sometimes people misinterpret us as deliberately trying to shock our audience, and we have got flak in the past because we've developed an audience with one record and now we're supposedly going to alienate them with the next one.but y'know, its never really been like that. We have a lot of respect for the people who like our music and I think we can relate better to those who can handle evolution in a musical sense. For us, its more a question of being able to keep ourselves interested. If I had to make the same record five times over with the same kind of instruments in the same kind of style I wouldn't bother doing this anymore.
The album 'Sisterworld' is out now on Mute Records. The band can also be seen later this summer at the Standon Calling Festival.
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