As author Garry Mulholland once observed, if the artist wants to rock they look west, but if it’s art they aspire to then their sights will turn to Europe. There’s a lot of truth in that.
From Ultravox and Bowie in Berlin to the No Wave bands with their predilection for Teutonic composers, from The Belleville Three with their Kraftwerk fetish to NIN and Reznor’s love affair with the körpermusik, history is awash with would-be sophisticates who’ve mined the old world for sensibility.
Liars, though – well, that’s a different story. Forming in 1999, the trio of Angus Andrew, Aaron Hemphill and Julian Gross arguably have a stronger claim to the label ‘art-rock’ than any American rock band in the last decade. But the fact is, not once have the band subscribed to the art-rock blueprint as defined by their Europhile predecessors.
Assuredly Liars are everything you could ask for from a modern art-rock band, and indeed modern art. Boundary-pushing, conceptual, thought-provoking and cuttingly provocative, particularly remarkable is their music’s headily representational nature. The trio’s genius has always derived from their ability to generate a startling wealth of implied meaning through their sonics as opposed to Angus Andrew’s lyrics. If you take the purest definition of art-rock to be, literally, ‘art in the form of rock’, then in that respect Liars are total. No matter how they’ve reinvented themselves over the years, their music has time and again proven able to articulate the zeitgeist, to illuminate the mysteries of the human condition, and to communicate complex notions – i.e to fulfil the basic functions of all art – by the use of form rather than content.
And therein lies the acid test for all great art-rock bands: when the music speaks louder than the words. With a keen sense of absurdism and an undervalued way with irony, through their music Liars have said a great many hard-hitting and profound things on the subjects of the politics of sex, the evils of religious repression, the foolishness of masculinity in the modern era and the fascist utopia at the core of capitalism, almost entirely with sonics. However, if you take any stock in the rock-vs-art US-Europe thing, since forming in 1999 the trio have spent the last 15 years bucking the trend. From the gaudy dance-punk of their debut to They Were Wrong, So We Drowned‘s occult farce to Sisterland‘s Californian nightmare, despite the band’s obvious artistic sophistication, Liars have forever plied a vaguely American strain of art rock. Robust and organic, shrill and untrammelled, and possessed of a sweat-dripping physicality and hysterical, machismo-imbued directness, this is un–European music.
But with 2012’s WIXIW everything changed. A major departure for the band, WIXIW was insular and contemplative, emotionally nuanced and musically subtle with the hyperbilly wrath of past albums replaced with the finely rendered electronica of Euro synth pioneers such as Foxx and The Normal, A.K.A their label Mute’s boss, Daniel Miller. A Liars first, WIXIW was morally unassured: prior to their sixth L.P, the tone of their music was declarative, but WIXIW saw the band were asking questions – frequently on the subject of their own culpability in the rotted world – unsure as to what the answer would be. And this right here is the European way: objectivity, balance, and ambiguity, rendered in shades of monochrome and shot through with the jutting masonry of the mind.
This month sees the release of Liars seventh studio, Mess, and true to form the art-rockers have once again reinvented themselves from the ground up. But there’s one element that did survive the transformation and that’s the European sensibility.
On first listen this seems not to be the case. Seemingly a much needed blow-out for the band after the anxiously coiled WIXIW, on Mess the violent delirium, apocalyptic fatalism and punk vitriol of their pre-WIXIW catalogue has been re-discovered and duly repurposed in the making of, well, straight-up dance music. On the aptly named Mess, the world does indeed end with a bang (not to mention a couple of bangers), and gone, at least for the most part, is WIXIW’s air of self-examination, muted reserve, its sensitivity and its textures, replaced by music as wilfully broad, mindless, extrovert and gleefully cheap as the trio have made in their lifetime.
But here’s the kicker. You might remember that was one track on WIXIW – the pounding ‘Brats’ – stuck out like a sore thumb on an otherwise fragile album. Evidently ‘Brats’ has served as some kind of starting point for the gaudy Mess, but crucially this isn’t the American kind of gaudy. Finally putting the trio’s well documented love of British post-punk front and centre, ‘Brats’ and the Mess tracks do gaudy European-style, taking inspiration from what in some quarters is broadly known as ‘Stern’: the style of Euro techno derived from the avant funk/industrial-dance/Sheffield-pop end of post-punk with less direct connections to Belgium new-beat, British ‘ardcore and second-wave Detroit techno. This is dance music but with all of the existential dimension and philosophical connotations you normally associate with the European avant garde. Nihilism as hedonism, you party to Stern because when the world is going to shit, what else is there left to do?
You’re increasingly referred to in the mainstream press as “electro-punk band Liars” How do you like the sound of that?
Aaron Hemphill: It reminds me of the Williamsburg electroclash days, back in 2004.
Angus Andrew: Oh streuth – I’ve had trouble with these kinds of labels ever since I started with the band. It’s always interesting when journalists tell you what you are. I dunno…it’s probably not how I personally would describe Mess, but I suppose as descriptions go it’s not the worst in the world. And, OK, I understand the need for these snappy press classifications given that I’ve never been able to define Liars myself.
Speaking of which, would you define Mess as Liars’ ‘dance record’?
AH: I think we are yet to fully commit to the ‘Liars’ dance record’ concept. But then, it’s always been my opinion that you can dance to most of our records: why it’s Mess that’s dubbed ‘Liars’ dance record’ I feel has to do with its sense of abandon. After WIXIW, where we were so caught-up with intellectualising everything, on Mess we just wanted to let go, to forget about everything. And I suppose essentially that’s what dancing is all about in the end: losing yourself, or your mind.
AA: Like Aaron says, I think pretty much all our records are ‘danceable’. I guess Mess is seen as the ‘dance’ record on account of it being our most overtly uptempo and ‘beat-orientated’.
Are you actually clubbers? If so, who is the best dancer in the group?
AH: Well, it was Angus who grew up going to dance parties and stuff like that. Me, I grew up as a punk rock / hardcore kid. But as far as going clubbing these days, often we’ll go check out new artists that way.
Artists like who?
AH: I don’t know if this counts as ‘clubbing’, but recently we went to see Andy Stott and Holly Herndon. Other than that, we’re really into going to see our friend Silent Servant play. But to be honest, going to see dance acts is for me more of a kind of ‘intellectual exercise’. Like, I’ll go to these clubs to work out how they make the music, or what the crowd react to. It’s more a kinda research thing. As far as who the best dancer is…I would say that, yeah, it’s probably me. Angus will say it’s him, but it’s not.
AA: [laughs] Aaron, we’re gonna have words about this later. Yeah, we definitely go out to clubs less than we did. say, five years ago. But as a kid in the early ’90s I would go to these underage clubs and dance to like Technotronic and The KLF. That was really my first experience of music, so I think dance music’s always been in my blood. I suppose what I’m really saying is that I’d go head-to-head in a dance-off with Aaron any day of week.
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I dunno. He sounds pretty confident.
AA: Well, like, I’m even more confident.
Well, I saw him dance once and he’s really good.
AH: Well, Aaron is one to hold a lot back, so you never know what he’s got up his sleeve. For all we know, he’s doin’ stuff in the privacy of his own home that’s going to blow our minds.
AH: But seriously, Angus is totally the best dancer. Before forming Liars, at CalArts I was living in Angus’ studio, and we were writing our first ever songs. In many ways the genesis of Liars, on Thursday nights what we’d do is write on this 4-track until around 2am then head out to this art-opening/DJ-night thing. And we’d hit the floor. And Angus was a killer.
Have your roles changed on Mess, now that there aren’t any guitars in the sound? Do you each have your own area of electronica that you specialize in? Or maybe a certain bit of hardware?
AA: Well, that’s always been the great thing about being in this band. There’s never been, say, a ‘drummer’, or a ‘guitarist’. It’s always just been whatever anyone feels like doing at the time. And it hasn’t really changed with the electronica. With electronica, different people take on different, like, ‘assignments’.
Did you use the same kit here as you did on WIXIW?
AA: We used a lot of the same programs and software that we used on WIXIW. The difference is that, when we were making WIXIW we had the bloody manuals open on the desk the whole time. Which, as Aaron said, was really tricky and frustrating. But this time around, because we already knew the kit we were able to manhandle it to get what we wanted.
Do you use a mixture of software and hardware on Mess?
AA: I’d say it was about 60/40 in favour of software. We do use a load of old synths and old drum machines, but it all ends up going through the computer and being manipulated anyway.
Which synths and drum machines in particular?
AA: Well, we used lot of classic MPC drum machines, where we’ll put samples through them and ‘play’ the samples that way. For instance, the Roland SBX. It isn’t that interesting a machine, but it works for us. And as for the synths, we have a whole array of dusty old machines. We used the Korg MS 2000 a lot, ’cause it’s a favourite of ours. But then we also did things like using stupid guitar pedals you’re not supposed to use with electronica, which helped a lot with making things sound ‘wrong’.
Was Mess an easier album to make than WIXIW? A less intense process? In the past you’ve spoken of WIXIW as an emotional ordeal.
AH: Yeah, writing WIXIW was really intense. When we were making other albums, writing songs was always an escape from the things going on in our personal lives. Like, if I was feeling like shit I could always go over to Angus’ house and work on the tracks. With WIXIW, however, because we were struggling with getting to grips with all this new electronic technology, making the songs became frightening in itself, so it was like we had nowhere to turn to for escape. This I think was the reason why we ended up looking internally for subject matter on WIXIW, and why it became such a painful, personal record. On Mess, however, I think that after having toured with the electronica with WIXIW we were more comfortable with the tech this time around, which meant there was a lot less pressure. As a result, Mess was kind of just vomited out. It was a lot less fussed over – more instantaneous and fun to make.
Recently you’ve talked about not wanting to intellectualise things too much when you were making Mess. However, despite the record’s ‘fuck art, let’s dance’ vibe, was the sound still guided by some or other concept or subtext?
AA: The way I see it, the one theme that connects all Liars records is the theme of anxiety and fear. Mess in my opinion is an attempt to take all those anxieties and fears and make them work to our advantage, for a more confident, immediate result.
AH: We sped through the making of Mess precisely so we wouldn’t allow ourselves the space to try and insert these ‘subtexts’ or ‘meanings’. That said, if there is a common theme running through Mess it’s the theme of not feeling like you belong. At the same time, as an album of populist, communal dance tracks, in a way Mess is also a record about wanting to belong.
I dunno. This is gonna sound pretentious, but when writing Mess I found myself thinking a lot about Fassbinder, and how a lot of his movies were really about Fassbinder making sense of his place in the world. He wrote a lot about the importance of creating your own world, which, what with the self-contained movie ‘universe’ he created over the course of his career, was really something he succeeded in doing. And I suppose Mess is about how creating your own world too, but also how by doing that it can help you fit into the world at large. That probably doesn’t make much sense, but that’s how I see it.
How many of the tracks were written at the WIXIW stage?
AA: I dunno…maybe just a couple. I mean, what happened was we found ourselves in this situation shortly after putting out WIXIW where we realised how much additional material there was. Mute [Records] were really interested in putting out a kind of ‘WIXIW 2′ featuring all this stuff, so in the end I went into the studio to look at the music. But I didn’t like how it was. Consequently I started to experiment with the music, as well as experimenting with new stuff, and before I knew it we’d made a whole new record.
Arguably, Mess is your most ‘pop’ album to date, what with the abundance of choruses, hooks and, as the Yanks call it, ‘big drops’. Do you agree?
AH: In my opinion, we’ve incorporated pop elements into our sound from day one. Actually, we probably take more offence to the term ‘experimental’ than ‘pop’. So if people are going to classify Mess as a pop record then I’d take it that as a compliment. Because it means that there’s something immediate about Mess that people can latch on to. I mean, for me, making strange sounds and forcing them into a hook is the most exciting thing about making music. But in the end, I suppose Mess is really about not thinking too much, and if that works for Miley Cyrus then why not us? I mean, Miley Cyrus doesn’t sit around pondering what her fuckin’ favourite Fassbinder film is, does she? Well, maybe she does, who knows?
AA: In my opinion, it’s all very subjective. If what you really mean by ‘pop’ is ‘accessible’, I remember loads of people telling us they thought WIXIW was our most accessible record, which I always thought was our most experimental. It certainly was in terms of making it.
Do have a favourite pop artist?
AH: Definitely Prince. Prince fans will probably be all piss-y about this, but my favourite Prince music is his stuff with The Revolution, in the way that it seemed to defy all pop boundaries at the same time as working within them. And it was like it was everything all at once: heavy metal, pop, funk, hip hop.
AA: I’d have to say Britney. Britney’s whole incredible career of massive ups and downs really draws me in. And also, ‘Toxic’ is definitely in my top-twenty tunes of all time.
Have you played the songs live yet? How’d that go down?
AA: Yeah, we took the songs on tour at the end of last year. We played them in various festivals and the reaction was good enough that we thought, yeah, we should put this record out. I mean, if everybody had been like ‘BOOOO’!’ then I think we’d have probably thought twice. But we were surprised at how immediate the response was from the crowds. They kind of went mental.
Any remixes of the Mess tracks in the pipeline?
AA: Yeah. We have three remixes completed for the first single [‘Mess On A Mission’]: one by Silent Servant, one by SFV ACID and one by Black Bananas. And I know that Factory Floor have started work on the second single.
Who produced the album?
AA: I did. Talking about ‘assignments’ earlier: it was my assignment to keep it all together, and do all the work to get the material to the point where the album can be mastered.
Is that a sample at the start of ‘Mask Maker?’
AA: No, that’s actually from a recording of me using a voice effect and talking to myself for a few hours alone in the studio. Basically it’s me trying to freak myself out.
Out of all the Mess tracks, what’s your personal favourite? Which one are you most proud of?
AA: Um…I’d actually have to go with ‘Mask Maker’. In my mind it epitomises our policy of immediacy and not thinking about stuff too much on Mess. Like, had I been given another month to work on the track, I’d have probably meddled with it endlessly, ended up second-guessing myself and then changed it. For instance, I’d probably have gotten cold feet with the whole voice-sample part.
Lastly, Liars are kind of a apocalyptic prospect. Any thoughts on the crisis in Ukraine?
AA: Oh. Well, probably I’m a little naïve when it comes to like, geo-politics…but the way I see it, isn’t American opposition to what the Russians are doing a bit like double standards? I mean, America’s always been quite happy to drop into foreign soil if the results of, say, an election aren’t to their liking.
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