Bluefat Archive June 2007

The Thing That Is Not

Over the years and down through time, one has tried and failed miserably to pinpoint what exactly it is that the modern pop music ensemble Liars is all about. One must take solace, however, in the very fact of said band's name, which infers that this arcanely noisy yet eminently rocking combo from the git-go had no intention of letting on re the whys and wherefores of their Musical Art Concept. The band's relatively (stressing relatively) more straightforward and thrashing new album, Liars (Mute), somewhat addresses this obscurity-of-intent issue. But in fact, and indeed, since its inception the group has had mere mild flirtations with clue-giving about all the really big, heady theoretical stuff, 'cause they weren't too sure about it, either.

"To be honest," says singer-guitarist Angus Andrew, furrowing sincerely his Australian brow, "when Aaron [Hemphill, on percussion, guitar and synth) and I started making music together and writing songs, our biggest goal was to hear it on a record we were just excited by the idea of making music that we could actually play back to ourselves. We were a bit shocked that people did listen to it; that made us stop everything we were doing and think a lot more about it."

We should stop here briefly and point out that Angus and Aaron titled their debut album They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top (Blast First/Mute), on which the pair plus a couple of dudes from Nebraska played what they regarded as just plain good music like they'd enjoying hearing on the radio, but which was, in retrospect and right on up to this very day, an acutely weird collection of ambiguously clanking buzzing whirring and howling sounds propped up and spilling over attention-deficitedly by a veritable heaping treasure chest of ferociously feral funky-punky teenbeat and assorted electro offal.

Though the Concept hadn't perhaps quite yet congealed, nevertheless the Liars were simply loaded with ideas, and, more importantly, through all the joyously mayhemic cacophony could consistently be heard...hummable li'l pop tunes. Yes, they were, almost in spite of themselves, strangely catchy, thus immediately swooped down upon by a big bag called Punk Disco or even, heh-heh, Electroclash, and paraded before huge sweaty throngs on tours with the likes of Sonic Youth.

But the band themselves saw the limitations of being gifted with great toppling stacks of fresh ideas being given inadequate time for deepening development. It would, they thought, give their stuff a limited shelf-life, something like that.

"We were part of what happened in New York at that point and it seemed very lucky to be grouped in with those people," says Angus. "Obviously when we made our first record, it was full of dancey-punky beats and stuff that was just what we were into, and I don't think we realized that that was gonna become a more generic thing. It was really annoying being told that it was like Gang of Four or whatever."

Angus and L.A. native Aaron proceeded then to make a concerted effort to come up with something more "original." (That's Angus' term, though thinking about it now it'd be hard to find any debut album more heavily reeking of originality than the above-mentioned Trench.)

In the wake of all the popular and critical high-fiving that Trench had inspired, the pair, who'd met while attending CalArts ostensibly to study visual arts but spending most of their time writing songs together, sought to extend and even slightly clarify their concept. They replaced their Nebraskan rhythm section with another L.A. buddy named Julian Gross, and shortly thereafter did what any seriously career-oriented rockbiz hopefuls would do, that is to say, hole up in a cabin in the New Jersey woods to record a concept album about witches called They Were Wrong, So We Drowned.

While an undercurrent of minimalism la Tony Conrad and La Monte Young, or the Krautrock model of Can or Neu, had long prevailed in everything Liars set out to do, They Were Wrong proved that a minimalist mindset "less of a theoretical approach than a practical one," says Angus can produce startling, maximal effects. A disorientingly epic and profoundly metaphorical look at the legends surrounding Walpurgisnacht (the night in German folklore when witches fly to the mountaintop to carry out rituals ensuring spring's conquest over winter), They Were Wrong is a simply played but densely blended electro-punk-dance miasma that fills a goblet with thrillingly juxtaposed mlanges of musique concrte, industrial clank, clattering din and great, dark slabs of menacing quiet, whisped through ghostly sea shanteys...With its deceptively basic fairytale woven through the songs, the album adds up to a memorably, chillingly atmospheric work, far from a wild jumble of disparate electronic and rock musical strands.

"We felt it was really important to make an album that was cohesive and had songs that were relevant to each other," says Angus. "We began to look at the narrative, and how the songs could be used in a way that without one of them it'd seem like there was a hole in the plot. With that sort of basis in mind, we started to make music but kept our eyes open for what was gonna be the thing that held this all together."

Trench's fairytale of witches and attendant folklore had its inherent humorous aspect, of course, not least the idea of anyone bothering to deal with such matters in this hard-edgedly ironic day and age; though with the humor built into that sort of folklore comes the darker side of the coin you know, women being burned at the stake and etc. Knowing of their interest in such duality is perhaps the key to unlocking the mystery of Liars.

Subsequent activity in the Liars camp has included the band's move to Berlin, where in 2006 they recorded another concept album, the bewitchingly obscure Drum's Not Dead, in an old radio broadcast studio whose rich acoustical varieties allowed them to further explore the outermost expanses of timbre and texture in the scarily evocative "story" of two opposed energies, Drum and Mt. Heart Attack. The term story must be used advisedly here, as anyone would be hard-pressed to pinpoint what the story's all about; it's quite a head-scratcher.

Berlin's thriving electronic scene might've rubbed off a bit on Angus and the boys, but, he says, "everyone was using drum machines and programmed beats and stuff, and I started to really yearn to see a band that had a live drummer in it." Though Liars had long resisted the idea of conventional rhythm sections, that yearnng for a return to rocking basics, and perhaps not so much thinking about big grand schemes and, uh, well, rocking out! brings us to the brand-new Liars album, where the band has brought it all back home in a blistering set of garage mess cum total visceral catharsis.

Liars boasts its fair share of intensely hairy riffrocking splendors, like the opening buzz cut of "Plaster Casts of Everything" or the shaggy Black-Doggy wonders of "Cycle Time." Apparently, the time had come for our art-rocking experimentalists to turn off their brains and immerse in that obscure concept called "having fun."

"The realization that we could actually make a song like 'Cycle Time,' that's really all it is," says Angus, laughing. "I don't think we'd ever tried anything that was so straightforward and direct most of the time we're looking to sabotage anything that's a good riff."

"Sailing to Byzantium," on the other hand, is a brooding and baroquely layered piece featuring a falsetto-mode Angus in a slow, stately, mysterious journey beyond what? Aw, this band can never get through anything straight. Again and again the "good old rock" gets warped and wrangled in oblique Joe Meeky angles, this dub-style morass of gnarly spring-reverbed hash: sound/mood/meaning, much like the intoxicating charm of that technically crappy but completely sincere and organically bizarre band in that mid-'60s film you know the one where the real cool spy stumbles into the druggy party and all the hipsters snap their fingers to the weirdness...

All in a day's work for Liars, who've made a career of defying expectations, not least their own. "Yeah," laughs Angus, "obviously the minimalism we were talking about has been thrown out the window."

Read new (April 2010) Liars article at Bluefat.