"It's strange Charlie but it's fun.":
 Kate Hennessy reports on sets from HTRK and Liars in Sydney. Photo by Zan Wimberley

It’s the working week’s end in the city that hauls in a great hunk of Australia’s GDP and people need a drink. Instead, they languish in a switchback-style affair at the main bar or two-by-two in a queue snaking the length of Carriageworks’ foyer, failing to mask their fury with expressions of urbane zen. To be clear, the masses are here to see Pet Shop Boys. Though a head-start into one’s high of choice would be more productive for HTRK, who are supporting Liars in a smaller room. 

HTRK are no support act. The duo isn’t in the business of "getting the party started", or ensuring "a good time was had by all". Their music has moved from its early abrasiveness to a shapeshifting haze of deep and dubby electronics but it’s still a heavy trip for 9pm. You’re all in or all out with HTRK, and the former state is easier in the later hours when the night’s remains are washing over you. 

Well before its release in April, HTRK began exclusively playing tracks from Psychic 9-5 Club at (Sydney) gigs. Jonnine Standish and Nigel Yang’s routine is unvarying – no banter, no smiles, standing close yet not seeing each other. Despite this, each show has been different, and better, then the last, with Psychic 9-5 Club‘s minimalist tracks growing fleshier each time.

Their live sound is what I imagine it would be like to hear a sea floor – tidal, pulsating, immersive; sounds swelling and contracting like the swim of a passing jellyfish. 

"We’ve got no blue light," Standish says. She’s not one to prattle, so its lack must be worth noting. And as the show progresses, it is. Haloed not by their usual anaemia of blue and purple but an aura of pinks and reds, the duo seem more flesh and blood themselves, their icy cool thawed.

 There are new and old visuals. An affecting version of ‘Chinatown Style’ is played to parts of the video for the Mika Vainio remix of ‘Poison’ (from Work Work Work) and during ‘Give It Up’ the screen fills with footage of normal things made strange, and vice versa, the camera’s gaze regularly straying from its subject, reflecting the detachment HTRK embody too – as seen tonight in Yang’s preoccupation with his pedals and Standish’s horizon-stare, fixated on some point in or out of herself, anywhere but here.

But in HTRK’s detachment is a respect for the space in which their music can feel powerfully personal. Their songs offer so little explication or resolve, yet such fortunes of obscure meaning; they supply us with the raw materials to shape into our own emotional configurations. "I’m dying just to be here," Standish repeats on ‘Blue Sunshine’, her words journeying from romantic to bleak and back again, finding no final resting place.

"There’s no earthly way of knowing / Which direction we are going / There’s no knowing where we’re rowing / Or which way the river’s flowing."

Liars’ pre-show sample is Willy Wonka singing as the Oompah Loompahs row far too fast down the chocolate river. Of course it is! What else? Willy was silly and sinister, in equal measures, just like Liars. Just like the beanie singer Angus Andrew wears as he dances blindly onto the stage, its eyeholes askew, pulled down to his chin where it unravels into a beard of loose threads.

"You can’t possibly see where you’re going Wonka."

"You’re right, I can’t."

I’m bitter with love for the U.S.-based three-piece. By my reckoning, they supported Yeah Yeah Yeahs in Andrew’s hometown of Sydney in 2003 (the gig where Karen O show-ponied herself right off the stage) and returned in 2012 to play an overpriced rock festival to which, with no sideshow announced, driven by antipodean FOMO, I went. Liars were fucking great, but oh my ire, when they ended their 45-minute slot 15 minutes early.  

"Angus really loves Sydney – it always means a lot to him to be back here," says guitarist, synth player and percussionist Aaron Hemphill. Liar. 

The show is flawless. There are the bangers to pogo to, like ‘Mask Maker’ and ‘Brats’ and ‘Mess On A Mission’ when we’re so pummelled by Andrew’s unhinged falsetto, most of us forget to dance at all. "Sydney, I’ve got one word for you: yeaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh!" Andrew bellows. It’s the start of ‘Let’s Not Wrestle Mt Heart Attack’ that coiling percussive treat from from 2006 record Drum’s Not Dead and the point of the gig when I realise Hemphill’s high ghostly hoots are key to Liars’ live sound.

The looks exchanged between Hemphill and drummer Julian Gross are laser-beams of intensity; those two focussed on making the music tight so Andrew can let loose and dance the wounded pelican. 

When the punk-rock volley of fire that is ‘Plaster Casts Of Everything’ begins, and scenes from the Lynchian terror of its video flash in my head, I realise why I feel so star-struck. Seeing Liars isn’t just about the music. My admiration for all their work comes in a rush: for their websites, their artwork and for years of artfully weird videos, most recently the apocalyptic video-game hunt of ‘Mess On A Mission’. Grafted onto Andrew’s plasticine face I see all his acting work – what else could you call it? – play out in remembered snatches. 

They close with ‘Brocken Witch’ from 2004’s They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, during which most people just stare slackly back to Andrew’s slurred mantra of blood, blood, blood, blood, blood, blood. Can’t think why.

The gig is over in an hour. "They left us wanting more," scrawl the rookie live reviewers into their notepads, accidentally nailing it. I scrawl in mine:  "This is kind of strange Grandpa." "It’s strange Charlie but it’s fun."

Buried in my elation after the gig, however, is a sensation I prod like a bruise only to discover it is regret or, more precisely, a sense of opportunity lost. I wanted something to happen. Something radical or hysterical or anarchic or profound – the things Liars’ music promises but the things a gig like this could never fulfill. That was never the deal. It’s time to go home.

<div class="fb-comments" data-href="” data-width="550">

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