Interview with Liars: Surviving The City Of Angels

Rangy world-traveling Australian-reared vocalist-guitarist Angus Andrew came to America in the ‘90s, settling in New York City to form the Liars with a few aspiring local musicians. Now residing in the Los Angeles area betwixt Venice Beach native, Aaron Hemphill (guitar-synths), and Highland Park resident, Julian Gross (drums), Angus recently moved out of his second floor apartment (atop a medical marijuana dispensary) after a few dangerous crimes informed the Liars latest undertaking, Sisterworld. Yet these post-punk revivalists have always relied on volatile discordance to put across their decadent missives.

The precariously satirical title of 2001 debut, They Threw Us In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top, matched caustic deconstructive dissonance to superstitious anecdotal phantasms. A primal inaugural effort less formal structurally than each subsequent studio session, the Liars debased abstractions struck a chord within Brooklyn’s thriving avant ‘no-wave’ underground community. Dense lo-fi production and a distant sonic tonicity give this ambitious prelude a deliberately askew design. Angus’ vengeful boast, “We’ve got our finger on the pulse of America,” is part braggadocio confidence and part tongue-in-cheek snicker. His static-y disfigured vocal snarls, purposely buried in the muddy mix, plow forth with ranting rage. Clamorous pings, pangs, clinks, and clangs reinforce the percussive clamor forcefully heightening the downcast fervor.

Original bassist Pat Noecker and drummer Ron Albertson (replaced by Gross) left by the second full-length, a cataclysmic noise-rock affair inspired by European witchcraft and filled with inharmonious calamities. Recorded in a supposedly haunted New Jersey cabin, the twisted poetic bloodlust, cacophonous electrode bleats, and discombobulating disconnect prodding They Were Wrong, So We Drowned left wandering indie rock heads bewilderedly bewitched.

Relocating to Berlin, Germany, the Liars pit drums against electronic noise on ‘04s Drum’s Not Dead, where Angus, Aaron, and Julian create a fictional thematic thread connecting mysterious catacombs to cathartic eruptions on an ominously subterranean journey beyond the abyss. Big toms and clicking percussion inundate spellbinding cinematic drama, “A Visit From Drum” and wiry guitar shimmers through death-marched grumble, “Be Quiet Mt. Heart Attack.” Transcendent Africano dirge, “It Fit When I Was A Kid,” and tribal bass-drummed mantra, “Hold You Drum,” append the allegoric calamity.

The Liars then headed to L.A. and brought back the nervy delirium of their earlier recordings on a bravely whimsical self-titled ’07 album containing more perceptive lyrical notions than previous endeavors. Starting with the menacing organ-bleated guitar-frazzled drum-charging “Plaster Casts Of Everything” and moving on to the psychedelic fuzz tones infiltrating “Sailing To Byzantium,” this retro-styled dance punk maneuver found the investigative trio broadening horizons while finding a convenient middle-ground between melodic accessibility and abstruse digressions.

Soon living atop a La Brea marijuana dispensary, Angus received all the inspiration he needed from the criminal activities taking place below his loft apartment. A security guard he knew was killed. Then, a few souls with the Jaws Of Life tried stealing a weed dispenser. Later on, Angus’ apartment got sledge-hammered by an unknown pot bandit. These gloomy real life misadventures instigate the eerie upheavals heard on jarringly penetrating prog-rock depressant Sisterworld. For the first time, cello, violin, as well as bassoon (by Angus’ girlfriend, Mary Pierson, of the High Places), bring orchestral anxiety to the Liars severe guitar-bass-drum landscape.

Right off the bat, storming lead cut, “Scissor,” explodes outward as buzzing six-string, rumbled bass, and slashing cymbals abut lilting Beach Boys harmonies until its murky neo-classical organ meltdown diverts the phantasmagoric dread. Nearly as combatively incensed, chilly diatribe “Scarecrows On A Killer Street” stammers along a clamorous industrial setting as bleak as the City Of Angels’ seedy underside. The slow-burned string fervor of “No Barrier Fun” and the trippy piano sullenly soldiering depression-bound nightmare, “Drip,” counterd the louder ramshackle outbreaks with low key atmospherics. And unison reassuring chant, “I Can Still See An Outside World,” begs to escape urban grief in one seismically foreboding whirlwind.

Since you’ve lived on both Coasts, how does Los Angeles compare to New York City?

Angus: When you talk about Manhattan and compare the two cities, even geographically, the idea of L.A. is so difficult to grasp. It’s downtown, many areas are just homeless shelters in this big sprawl.

Aaron: You wanna go to New York to experience people being rude and in your face. You’re gonna move into a shit hole with roaches and the pizza guy’s gonna call you a fuck head, but he’s gonna get your order right. You’re prepared because you know it’s tough. Out in L.A., it’s the exact opposite. The weather’s nice. You could get a job standing in front of a camera. When we moved here, you’re amazed when you order a coffee and bagel and the guy asks if you want sun-dried tomatoes. You’re like, ‘What the hell is this?’ Whereas in L.A., the greater majority of what you experience is, ‘You want sun-dried tomatoes with that?’ It’s so gigantic. From top to bottom, it’s a two hour drive.

Angus: It’s the cars and the freeway. The way the city works has more to do with America than it does in Europe. It’s fascinating. It’s an arrow everyone looks to in order to see where everything is going. It’s pretty frightening.

‘Scissor’ may be the most dynamic song the Liars ever did.

Angus: It’s about a dream I had about coming home and my girlfriend’s cut herself with scissors. The kick of it is how I reacted. It wasn’t heroic. I felt incapable of dealing with it and had no powerful, admirable reaction. I sat there and let it happen. At the end, she wasn’t actually dead. If she had died, she wouldn’t see how badly I reacted to her death. The fact that she was alive and witnessed it all made me feel doubly worse.

‘Here Comes All The People’ sounds like Pink Floyd with violin.

Aaron: That song took forever to make and doesn’t sound very complicated. But the little cello-violin breakdown was written on guitar in Prague. It’s actually titled in incorrect English as a paranoiac response.

Angus: This was our first chance to takes the melodies further by experimenting with strings.

Much like fellow post-millennium New York no wave noise-rockers such as Black Dice, Oneida, and others, the Liars treat each album as a separate entity roughly unrelated to past studio sessions.

Angus: We got fed up with the idea of people seeing our records as more of an intellectual endeavor that had more to do with the concept than the music itself. We do a whole year’s worth of interviews to hear ‘Who’s Drum and who’s Heart Attack’ (referring to Drum’s Not Dead). It felt like we were talking about a lot of stuff we didn’t need to reveal so much. With the self-titled album, we worked on completely stripping away all meaning from our songs and throw them together to see what it felt like. It was a great experiment. But we realized we appreciated doing a project as a whole in terms of conceptualism. It brought back some of the raw, manic freneticism of yore—but more discernible song ideas.

Our records are all different. But we’re more interested in songs and the language. In the past, we avoided the traditional way of putting things together. But when you allow yourself to—especially if you haven’t done it before—play a blues riff, it feels amazing. You think, ‘Wow. Maybe Jimmy Page did this once.’ You feel some connection. Before, we seemed to be severing all attempts to create our own sound. This time, we connected with our past and what we like about music and that carried over to this record. The idea of songs is important to us. It’s quite experimental for us to work on a song and its structure as opposed to when we first started and it was all about the sound.

Who were some formative influences?

Angus: At 17-years-old, after high school, I left home to go to the Big Apple, where I felt it was the center of the world. My early influences were nothing spectacular. I didn’t have an appreciation for music until I met Aaron. I was always intimidated by musicianship and hadn’t been introduced to a more artistic side of creating it. The band, Suicide, was so awesome. That way of approaching things where it didn’t have to be perfect was where I was coming from

Julian: I was born in what is now a Scientology building. I grew up in Venice not far from where Aaron now lives. I also loved West Coast music, like Suicidal Tendencies, as a kid. I remember them before I even knew their music. I remember the hats and how people dressed. Iron Maiden was another huge one in elementary school.

Aaron: I think more about doing music kinetically. If you could imagine your body movements when you approach your instrument, generally the sound will match. If you approach a guitar with a rigid posture, the sound is like DNA’s Arto Lindsay. Whereas, Jimi Hendrix’s kinetic motions are smooth and buttery and the sound is effortless. With drumming, especially, there’s a direct kinetic relationship with a bunch of objects and the pattern which you approach it, if you flip it, it’s more naïve to create a different pattern from stylistic whims.

Angus: Primal drumming’s instinctive. You don’t need a musicology degree to hit it hard or hit it soft.

Liars performs at Brooklyn’s Northside Festival on June 26.