Join In The Chant: Liars Interviewed

John Calvert meets Liars in an ugly hotel lobby to talk about beautiful music

The lobby of the chain hotel is ugly. Sickeningly, perversely ugly. It’s not shabby. If anything it’s almost too neat; laboriously maintained. Nor is it ugly in a utilitarian, severe way. It’s actually pretty ornate – plaster cornices and dappled marblework. And as for the décor: suitably pleasant. It says, ‘Welcome back, you’re home.’ But no, this lobby is ugly for precisely what it isn’t telling us, the secrets behind its devastating anonymity.

This identikit lobby is a lie. It’s a psycho-geographical hoodwink, designed to inspire in the resident a comforting sensation of familiarity. They have seen this place before, the milling tourists and tired businessmen. In some other city, on some other day. We like that feeling, we believe. It is how John Lydon once described suburban Britain. "This could be heaven/ I like the illusion."

This hotel lobby in Shoreditch has secrets. It’s an air-conditioned symbol for the culture of cultural recuperation. We design the system that euphemises the horrors of modern living. The system that manipulates language. Written, visual, whatever. This is the sinister reification of semiotics. ‘Evil is the product of the ability of humans to make abstract that which was once concrete,’ Satre scribbles. This is the culture in which mass murder becomes a ‘final solution’. To rationalize horror is to think it away. To objectify with reason is to remove ourselves from horror.

The latest in a long line of cerebral artists who’ve rejected intellectualism for primitivism, for irrationalism – from Iggy to The Residents to Swans to Venetian Snares – Liars are a senseless malignancy. They are the wolfen curses and lethal masculinity below the shopping mall muzak that spikes on Todd Solondz’s shrink-wrapped America. This hotel lobby, with its pleather brown sofas and plasma screen news portal, it’s the "bland, planned, idle luxury" Lydon refers to on PiL’s ‘No Birds’. It’s a "layered mass of subtle props" designed to hide the truth. Liars make concrete that which is abstract. They are the truth. They are a reminder that America is descended from blood; birthed in violence.

Like musical detournement, Liars turn the iconography of control – religious control – against itself. The recantations and the droning, hyperventilating dynamics – they mirror the ecstatic convulsions of religious reverie. The cadence – both vocal and rhythmic – mimic the sexual metric of extreme right wing preacher-men. These men – depressed, lost and corrupted – sell the lust for power as in the people’s interest. Not servants of God but the most dangerous vessels of lies in America. And Liars are nothing if not anti-lies, fronted by a latter day Dean Moriarty, reclaiming his reality by force and frequent trips into insanity, oblivion. The trio give form to the madness innate to a world that only five years ago was led by a man who, for the final stages of his presidency, believed that God was speaking to him. A man with his index finger on the big red button.

If Hitchcock designed Psycho to play on our fears of stepping outside of standardization and commercial familiarity, Liars are The Bates Motel arching gothically a little way off the interstates of pleasant America. They are the guttural howl that shatters the silence in that ‘room dim at noon’. Like Suicide once did, they offer a little of the horror that lay just beyond the nicely painted walls of Belsen’s own hotel lobby, where, as Vega explained, the doomed would relax on seeing that picturesque facade of normality.

After a decade of terror-stricken art punk, it’s as if Liars have existed in a state of perpetual horror since day dot, a frozen scream. Right from their debut’s ‘This Dust Makes That Mud’ they’ve displayed a mastery over psychologically resonant imagery, like a musical Poe, and a knack for the sound of ancient evil. In the process they’ve venally punctured the apocalyptic zeitgeist of the post 9/11 West like no other band currently in existence.

And who watches the Watchmen? Well, it seems they do. For latest album WIXIW Liars have, with unflinching honesty and frightening results, looked within. The decision to make a purely electronic album, so as to more effectively dramatise the psycho-circuitry of their tangled brains, has resulted in a kind of technological extension of their hive consciousness. The process became a kind of house of mirrors and a palindromic clasp, with walls on both sides. It isn’t pretty. "I knew you well" Andrews mutters from deep inside, as on ‘Octagon’ he comes face to face with the ghastly truth of the self.

This hotel lobby, with its mustard wallpaper and bay windows, with the weather bright but changeable behind the band. These three men, they leak the black colour of fear onto nice carpets. Counterculture is alive and well in Shoreditch, London.

To take you back to start of your careers, from your debut on there’s been a strong ritualistic element to your sound; originating with, I suppose, the rhythms. Every album you’ve ever made has been percussive.

Angus Andrew: I dunno. It’s like an ‘elemental’ thing, I guess. Music has a way of bringing you to a certain ‘other place’. If you think about it, that’s what’s unique to music as an art form. What I’m always looking for in a piece of music is its power to…deliver you. I suppose deliver you from yourself.

Yeah, I mean, if you look in particular at your live shows they play out like some kind of a techno-satanic rite. It’s as if Angus is working himself towards a sort of transcendental epiphany. He’s being ‘delivered’ to that ‘sex-death place in the pit of your stomach’, as Michael Gira once described it.

AA: Well, I suppose when music gets you to that trancelike state you are being brought to a ‘further’ place – that place where you begin to ask questions about yourself.

Is that a good place of a bad place?

Aaron Hemphill: I don’t think that the place where you end up, good or bad, is as important as the place where you begin. Music is only the enabler. It’s the key to unlocking and, like, executing your instincts. If a song makes you want to go get wasted or steal car stereos, or cry and write your girl, that’s probably how you were feeling to begin with, even if you didn’t know it. Music just kinda takes you further and faster to a place you were headed to anyway. I suppose our stuff is the way it is, like dark, because fear is just as much a catalyst for that ‘instinctual reaction’ as music is. It’s kinda the same thing.

Julian Gross: It’s not unlike like doing drugs, I suppose.

Michael Gira said of the genesis of Swans: "I didn’t care what was going on, I just wanted to rage." Was that an urge you felt? Aggression seems to have defined your music.

AA: We do care about what is going on, and no, we never set out to ‘rage’. The aggression in our music has been, for me anyway,less an expression of anger and more a by-product of nervous tension – either the result of feeling uncomfortable or out of place, or just, like, scared. The aggression has never been celebratory. But more importantly, it’s never been contrived.

What had changed in your outlook when you came to make the relatively softened WIXIW?

AA: I think the tone of the record was an extension of the subject matter. It’s an introspective, personal record – more so than any we’ve made before – and it felt like it would be ill-fitting to be boisterous, when the type of stuff we were revealing wasn’t stuff we were entirely proud of. If anything we felt shameful, or even just a little embarrassed. Besides anything, I don’t want our music to be defined simply as ‘loud and aggressive’… we’ve done all that already – that kind of stuff.

Like any creative epicentre in most cosmopolitan cities today, Williamsburg has been reduced to hybridising genres from the past. Which, incidentally, was a trend that began almost exactly at the same time as Liars formed in the borough, in 2000. Why is it you feel you’ve always resisted that trend, by staying both uncompounded and forward-facing?

AA: I think this happens to loads of bands, but what affected us a lot at the beginning was the first wave of feedback we ever got, with people saying stuff like, ‘Oh you guys are post-punk and you listen to Gang Of Four and Public Image and that’s what you’re about.’ And we were like, ‘Wait, that’s totally not true.’ We may have listened to this or that record but that wasn’t the definition of our band. I think it set us on a course of trying to always defy the accepted notion of what we music were into at the time, with each new album.

John Wayne Gacey described GG Allin as being "reflective of the sickness of society". I’ve always thought of Liars as, not satirists exactly, but certainly a mirror reflection of the worst manifestations of America: the ugliness and the absurdity. Prior to WIXIW were you’re thinking personally? Do you feel you’ve always been commenting on America?

AA: Well looking back, They Were Wrong is our political record. What you’re talking about is a witch hunt – the Americans scouring the desert for, like, a phantom. Or you’ve got this weird colonial type idea of finding this monster/villain [Saddam] in a hole in the ground. But maybe at the time it wasn’t so obvious to us that They Were Wrong was political. It wasn’t about making it so literal.

I kind of imagine that the protean nature of electronica empowered you on WIXIW to capture the theme of ambiguity much more effectively? There’s a limiting certainty to guitar/bass drums kit.

AA: Making WIXIW was kind of a extreme version of the process we go through every time we go to make a new record, in order to get us out of our comfort zone. We always search for a new way of working on every new album – experimenting with new tech. It was sampling and, like, rudimentary computers on They Were Wrong, for example. But when you use ‘electronica proper’ there’s an infinite number of options available to you. It’s kinda like how living in America sometimes feels. You go into a Walmart and there’s, like, 80 different brands of shampoo to choose from, or 80 different cable channels on TV But instead of empowering you there’s too much choice, which adds to the feeling of doubt. It makes you more uncertain about everything.

It’s always appeared that, perhaps, you don’t like America very much.

AA: I suppose it’s a love-hate thing. We needed to get out of America [2006’s Drum’s Not Dead was made in Berlin] and the Williamsburg scene, which was getting a little incestuous – kinda claustrophobic. I mean we weren’t doing like drugs off each other’s girlfriend’s backs or anything, and it was a great community. But Berlin was great for us in the way that it felt, like, cleansing or something. But then after a while we were like GIVE US TRASH [makes a gesture like the cookie monster scoffing cookies]!

What comes first when you go to make an album – a concept or a musical approach?

AA: It’s usually an idea. Like a subject matter. Witches; isolation in Berlin; or just Los Angeles with Sisterworld. Like, there’s always been a record centrepiece. But with WIXIW we decided not to have this overarching idea and instead have the idea emerge from the process – either from within the software we were still learning how to use, or from a different working method. For example, on WIXIW we worked collaboratively, whereas in the past we’d work on ideas individually before bringing them to the rest of the band.

So there was a weird parallel between the album concept emerging from the inside-out, rather than from an external source, and you as a band for the first time looking inwards.

AH: Yeah.

AA: I suppose in a way we’ve hid behind using these objective subject matters. Until now, we’ve never really turned the fuckin’ mirror round on ourselves.

And what did you see?

AA: Ha. Yeah like… it starts to get pretty frightening. I mean we should have known, really. It was always going to be harder to face the camera than deconstruct something else.

But… what did you see?

[At this point Andrews hesitates and Hemphill picks up the slack]

AH: Ok, well put it it like this. Let’s say you go to write an album about witches, and the depths of horror implicit in that idea. Then you write a new album in the same horrific vein, only this time the idea is you…


AH: Well… what we make, what comes from inside, doesn’t lie to us. What we were coming face to face with was, uh, tough. We learnt things about ourselves that at the time of writing the album we didn’t know.

So would you say it was the most psychologically exacting album to make?

AH: Yeah

For the musical aspects as well as the emotional side of things?

AA: Well the two sides were so intertwined. We’re making an album that is beginning to seem like an album about uncertainty, using tech we had no confidence with, which in turn was affecting how we felt about ourselves. At the same time, we’re writing together more immediately, so we aren’t getting the chance to develop confidence in ours idea before we show them to the rest of the band. So we’re in this room and our doubts are feeding off each other’s and multiplying. I mean we aren’t super-hot musicians, we’ve always been more ideas-based, so we’re never that confident when we go to make a record. We aren’t like ‘Hey, let’s just go into the studio and jam it out, man, and it’ll be awesome.’ And when you factor in the new electronic stuff we were having to learn on the fly. It was rough.

Well, what was [Mute boss and producer] Daniel Miller’s overall verdict on WIXIW?

AA: Um, I think the word he used was that it was more ‘accessible’ than he had anticipated. Which was, uh, surprising.

WIXIW is out now on Mute. Liars’ UK tour continues this week, visiting Cambridge (Oct 15), London (16), Birmingham (18), SWN Festival, Cardiff (19), Gathering Festival Oxford (20), Manchester (21)

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today