Once, in 2001, Liars were on the razor’s edge of the Brooklyn soundtrack. They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, their first album, landed them in a trench with TV on the Radio and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, with a big monument in the shape of a condo on top. They were probably in many of stereos in that condo too.
Nowadays, they couldn’t sound farther away. That’s what stints in New Jersey, Berlin and now, Los Angeles, will do to you. Not that strange exile has been a bad thing. Their clangy, dark sound has gone through the experimental wringer, and, with their new record Sisterworld, come out to a dumb awe across the music internet. What other band today could get TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimple, Devendra Banhart, the Melvins, Atlas Sound and Thom Yorke to reinterpret the record for a bonus disc?
Motherboard spoke by phone with Liar No. 1, Angus Andrew, about the importance of getting away, the mine field of political music, technological experimentation, and his hopes of finally scoring some reality TV.
The new video for ‘Scissor,’ directed by Andy Brutel.
This is Motherboard. How are you?
Good, good, good good. Where are you calling from?
I’m in Williamsburg right now. You’re an old Williamsburg hand, aren’t you?
I am. I lived there once when it was still affordable. That was on Lorimer on the other side of Bedford.
What was it like when you were living here in terms of hearing and making music?
The biggest thing then, the real deal, was the idea that all of the clubs that you would normally play were in Manhattan, and all the people that we knew were in Williamsburg. There was this really strong effort to get more shows into Williamsburg, and people like the Twisted Ones were putting on shows in lofts, warehouse spaces, and junkyards, and stuff like that. It felt important in some ways because we were reacting to what it was like to be thrown on to a bill with people you don’t know in a normal Manhattan club. All of our goals were to play in a normal club, but the worst thing was you were slapped with all these people you don’t associate with. So we were playing all these shows in warehouse spaces and stuff – it was a really visceral time. We were obviously younger, and it was all very new, and I have really fond memories of how inspired we were to keep on pushing musically. We felt like there were a lot of either interesting things going on around us.
Is there an interesting moment that sticks out in terms of that era, that period, for you?
There were quite a few of them. I guess one of the most immediate ones is our first record release party, which we put on in a warehouse on south 5th or something. It ended up being out of control, to the point where it was questionable whether we could actually play. So it was that kind of cool feeling where you feel like everything is on edge. It was summer, and there were too many people in the space, and it was practically unbearable. On one hand, it was really awesome, and on the other hand, it was a kind of realization of we needed to get out and go somewhere else. I think right after that we went on our first three-month tour around America. It was a realization that the rest of the country wasn’t in the same boat that Brooklyn was at that time. We were playing to nobody in people’s basements.
Where are your fans most hardcore or diehard, among the places you’ve been to?
In the states, it’s the major cities: L.A., New York, possibly Chicago or San Francisco. Europe is quite more welcoming to Liars. It’s a strange scenario in Europe, particularly their whole festival deal. It’s quite different. I remember a couple of years back playing this outdoor free festival in the middle of Paris, there it was a ton of people that came to see — and this was the bill — it was Wolf Eyes and Liars.
It was like, really? There were families there. That sort of thing is really awesome. It makes you feel somehow like you’re not seen as on the fringes of society, but you’re interacting with it.
And what was that concert like? How did people respond?
I think it was great. We all had a lot of fun in places like France, and Italy, and Spain. It’s some kind of general idea that I think all people have of southern Europeans being a little more chillaxed, you know? A little more open to being shocked, or something. It’s something that you can see in the advertising that comes out of those places. It’s just a different culture, and it went down extremely well. I remember saying to people at the time, a couple of years ago, when noise was super big, or at least in terms the people we knew, and I was like "wow, noise is going to break through in Europe, now. It didn’t quite happen that way.
You guys left Brooklyn for Berlin, is that right?
A brief stopover for a second record in New Jersey. That was the first way to escape, just go across the river, and up a bit. We found a house over there, which was very isolated, and had a little basement in it. I moved there first, and we just decided to make the second record there. Once we finished that, that’s when sh*t really hit the fan. I always felt like, I mean I had really been living in America for ten years at that time. It was also the time when America was invading Iraq, and the images were coming back of Saddam in the hole, remember that? That was right when I kind of freaked out, and was like, what the f*ck am I living in America for? I don’t have to live here. I tend to not be able to help myself when it comes to media. Especially in quote-unquote wartime, which we are still in, obviously. At that time, the coverage was so intense, I couldn’t help but watch it and get really involved. At some point I realized that maybe that’s not the best thing for me. So I left and moved to Berlin, which was the ultimate extreme. I didn’t speak the language, so I wasn’t able to really interact, or watch much media.
I remember at the time of the invasion, I was interning at an entertainment magazine, writing music reviews. It was a pretty weird time to be doing that.
Did they put together a soundtrack for the invasion or anything like that?
Yeah they might have, or they might have just not known about it at all.
Oh yeah, just ignored it (laughs).
I remember thinking, “what am I doing? What am I doing here writing music reviews?” You guys were popular then. Did that moment in time do anything to your music?
I don’t know if I was thinking necessarily about it musically. Basically a lot of impetus for doing that kind of move was the idea of being too defined. It felt like suddenly a lot of things that were going on in my life were very figured out. I was in this band that people knew about in New York, and there was this idea of what we were. To a certain extent, we’d made a name for ourselves, which is all really good. I was maybe getting a bit relaxed into the idea of, ok, this is America, and this is terrible, and all that sort of stuff.
I just felt it was really important for me to find somewhere I could go where I wouldn’t have these defining elements around me. That this is who I am when I’m living in New York, or in America. But who am I, and who is Liars when we plop them down into Eastern Europe. There are not the same signifiers. There are not the same things that you lean on for definition of you who are or what you’re doing. There’s was more the idea of completely claiming this place, there’s a chance to start again on even terms. It just felt like everything was so, I don’t know, solid.
There’s also that frustration, that I’m sure you had at the same time too, like what can I do about it? I’m watching the news and I feel like because I’m interested, and because I’m interacting, that means that in some way I’m doing something, but really, what can I do about it? Should I be writing protest songs? I remember at the time actually, that Patti Smith came out with a comment, “why isn’t this generation of music makers taking the challenges of making moral protest music?” That idea was so sickening to me, because it’s just so obvious.
Really, what starts to frustrate me is this idea that people are preaching to themselves, or really just to people that already agree with them. People who are going to buy a Liars song that’s about the war aren’t going to be the people that work at TV Guide, like you said. They’re going to be people that already agree that the war is fucked up anyway! There’s nothing going on there. You feel really helpless, but also frustrated by the fact that everyone’s talking off they’re mouths so much about how we should be able to stop it. It’s like, “really?” No. It’s like, why don’t we all read. Why don’t we all just not be American for a while until this all stops. Maybe they’ll get the idea then.
Who needs a protest song when a lot of your stuff is so emotionally powerful already.
That record in New Jersey at that time, They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, it was a difficult record for people to swallow, but inherently that pretty much you could say now a straight up political metaphor for what was going on at the time. It really was just our way of trying to get involved somehow with what was going on, but obviously not literally as saying take up your peace pipe.
The title alone of They Were Wrong… isn’t disconnected from that moment, either.
It’s an interesting period because that was right after 9/11, which, in any consideration of what Brooklyn or New York was like, that’s always going to be taken into consideration. At least for me, I always feel like because of what happened, there was this giant arrow pointing at New York. It felt like, for me, working and living, that New York was the center of the world, and everyone was listening. And I don’t know how all this traces to the music that was coming out, but it did feel like something really important was happening.
And then you went to Germany. With that next album, when you guys were recording in Berlin, how was that different? Obviously there were significant sonic and technical differences.
Our relationship with anything technical is kind of childlike. It’s always with a sense of naivite that we explore these things. That record we were just talking about, Drowned…, that was the first record that we made using Pro Tools and that sort of gear, where you could sample things and use them as instruments. It was a big thing for us at that point, because we were really interested in not using the regular instruments that we had on the first record, and trying to figure out how can we make a song without bass or drums. At that time, we picked up some things like a Roland sampler and stuff like that, which are way more popular nowadays. You could sample a bus driving by and that could be the bass line.
For me, basically the technology in relation to Liars, what it means to me is the prospect of opening up the possibility of avoiding technical prowess in musical ability. It just means that I might not be the best guitar player, but use it to write songs a lot of the time. To be able to take a sample of something I’ve played that may not be something I can play again, is huge. It’s really a massive step in being able to create something, because you have an immediate record of this moment that happened untouched. I’ll put something in the tape records which have all helped in that way. The idea that you can actually use that sound and play back in your piece is quite different. It’s always something to do with maybe trying to use it slightly the wrong way, you know?
When you were talking about the record in Berlin — that was a really interesting scenario, because we didn’t speak the language. We were working with a lot of Germans who didn’t speak the greatest English. It’s very ill communication, and some of the time, we were just completely baffled the engineers, because we were going to use some piece of technology so backward that they were unsure that this was really what we wanted to do. There was a lot of ‘Are you sure?’ It has a lot to do with the fact that at the time we were making our own drums, beyond what was being used by the engineers to record the music, to bring the drums back into our pedals, to create these types of drum sounds.
There were so many instances where the engineer would just literally stop it half-way and be like, "are you sure? That sound doesn’t sound right.” And we’d say, “no, actually we were actually trying to get that f*cked up sound from the pedal.” It’s not a relationship where we necessarily were always aware of what the results were going to be. It’s more like another tool to experiment with.
It’s funny you mention the sound of a bus passing by and sampling it. I was listening to the new record, which I love, on the subway the other day. At the end of a song, I heard a sort of elegant screech, which actually turned out to be the sound of a subway train in a tunnel. It sounded to me like it was part of the song. Do the sounds that come out of Liars and this album in particular tend to be inspired by the outdoors, or directly from field recording, or is it generally something that happens more in the studio?
It’s certainly something I like to dabble with, in the sense that you could call it maybe field recording. I did a fair amount of that actually for this record. Less of it made it onto the record than I would have thought, because fidelity-wise, it’s tricky sometimes, unless you have a specific idea that you want to utilize a certain time or something. For me this time I was doing more wandering around LA trying to record certain ambient sounds. Sometimes even the idea of recording people talking is really interesting.
I love the feeling of listening to most of your records and not really knowing where the sounds are coming from, whether it’s a synth or a guitar or a drum or something else. You left Berlin at some point, and you came back to our fair country.
That’s right. I have a really strong love-hate relationship with it. After a few years in Berlin, which was very isolating, I was eventually craving everything American, including the media. As soon as I got back here, I had Judge Judy on, and was watching terrible Fox News and getting the LA Times and all that stuff, and it just really inspires me in a lot of ways. I like to get more of an understanding of what is going on in American that isn’t just the circles that I run in. For me, watching bad TV is often one of the best ways to get an idea of what’s going on in America. Nowadays there’s so many interesting reality TV, like Wife Swap and whatever, you get a view into someone’s house in Alabama. It’s really interesting to me.
Man Versus Food, I saw that the other night. Maybe you guys should get in touch with some soundtrack people while you’re out in L.A.
Yeah that would be good. It would have to be for one of those really scary ones!
Yeah. Ghosthunters – I saw that the other night too. Spellbinding.
We were talking about this one the other day, where they catch pedophiles?
To catch a Predador? Is that it?
Yeah that’s it. That’s it. I haven’t seen that one yet, but I think I think I want to score that one.