The mark of a great band, or at least an interesting one, is whether it eventually self-destructs in a blaze of Behind the Music glory, rather than just “break[ing] up and everyone goes and gets a day job.” So said LCD Soundsystem leader James Murphy, anyway, in a long and fascinating recent interview with New York magazine, explaining his band’s own bombastic bow-out and subsequent return. Murphy spends a good portion of the interview ruminating about the early-2000s NYC scene that birthed LCD, and as justification for the idea that it was a special time and place for music, he offers the examples of several peers that got “super weird and freaked out”: the Strokes, who grew up and became real-life rock stars, with all the terrifying drug use and misguided solo endeavors that accompany that career path; the Rapture, who never really delivered on the promise of one era-defining single; and Liars, who pulled one of rock history’s all-time great second-album left turns and never looked back.
They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, Liars’ debut, was an album of taut and sardonic post-punk, with a funky drummer and bassist, some lo-fi electronic handclaps, and a prominent ESG sample to match. It put them squarely in line with Murphy and his stable of dancefloor-wrecking DFA Records artists, though it was released on the comparatively tiny Gern Blandsten label. But when their all-important rhythm section left the band shortly after the record came out, the two remaining members, Angus Andrew and Aaron Hemphill, did not attempt to replace them. Instead, they did what any reasonable group of art-school mystics would do: freaked out, decamped to the woods of New Jersey, and made a fantastically impenetrable concept album about German witch trials. More noise than rock, They Were Wrong, So We Drowned wasn’t remotely related to the debut, and a lot of critics and fans hated it. Murphy isn’t quite right to call it self-destructing, though. They Were Wrong, So We Drowned is much better than critics realized at the time, and Liars’ subsequent career—five more records, with a sixth, TFCF, coming on Friday—has largely followed a template first established during those rural recording sessions: uncompromising experimentation, rhythms that stutter and pummel rather than swagger and dance, songwriting shot through with dread, and moments of surprising tenderness.
Now, the band again finds itself on the other side of a drastic lineup change. In 2014, Liars released Mess, an album of ferocious electronic music that felt like an oblique return to their body-moving roots. Sometime after that, multi-instrumentalist Hemphill left the band, leaving Andrew without the partner that helped him shepherd Liars into the wilderness a decade and a half ago. Again, he didn’t quit, but immersed himself in nature, creating the bulk of TFCF in a studio he built in the bush country of his native Australia, working essentially as a solo artist. The resulting album is both intensely insular and playfully postmodern, exploring Andrews’ emotionally drained psyche while interacting musically with a host of reference points from outside the hermetic Liars universe. The latter quality feels like a distinctly new development for the band, inspiring Andrew to sing in a slurred conversational cadence reminiscent of MF Doom on “Staring at Zero” and channel power-pop curios the Knack on first single “Cred Woes.” Rather than self-destruction, TFCF signals yet another rebirth.
SPIN spoke with Andrew by phone from a tour stop in Norway this month, discussing the new album, the breakup with Hemphill, and Liars’ growing status as an eminence of experimental rock music. A condensed and edited version of our conversation is below.
One thing that’s fun about following Liars is that each of your albums carries a distinct sense of place. Sisterworld feels very much like an L.A. record, the first couple have hints of New York City. I know that you went back to Australia to make TFCF. For our mostly American audience, can you talk about where you were, and what sort of place it is?
I now live about an hour north of Sydney, in a national park. There’s no roads into where I live. My place is on the water in this forest. The only way to get there is by boat. I had to get myself a little boat, and learn about tides, and how to tie boat knots, and things like that. It’s very untouched. We catch our own water. Our shit goes out into the garden. It’s all very connected with reality. It’s just wild, man. My studio is just in the bush, in amongst trees, looking out over the ocean.
Before I left L.A., I went into a studio and I tracked a whole bunch of crap, really. I had no sense of trying to create a song. I just recorded myself playing a bunch of different instruments in a random, ramshackle way. I had every instrument you could think of: acoustic guitars, xylophones, organs. With the acoustic guitar, I said, “For this whole morning, I’ll just strum this thing, and walk around the studio.” About a year and a half or two years ago I took all of that information on hard drives with me to the bush, and I sampled myself, basically. I cut things up and put them back together in a way that makes it sound like I actually know what I’m doing.
Did the setting have an impact on the way the music came out?
Hell yeah. The last two records were made in L.A. They were computer-based albums as well. But in a way I think might have been influenced by the city, they were all created in this kind of grid fashion, with tempos and instruments that worked in time with each other. Computers make that really simple. With this record, the first thing I did was set up my studio out there. I put a microphone outside and I just started listening to the bush. For a while I was like “Oh my god, I’m not going to write any songs. I’m going to put out a record that’s just these ambient sounds.”
But I was listening to the rhythms. The movement of the trees, the sound of the birds, the waves crashing. These sounds are rhythmic, but they fall in and out of time with each other in this beautiful and organic way. I really wanted the music to follow that kind of idea. So everything I did felt like it was falling out of time, all the time. Putting things together that didn’t necessarily work initially, but if you leave them together long enough they just start to work. Songs like “No Tree, No Branch,” when I was mixing it, people heard it and were like “This is not in time! It should be in time!” And I’m like, “It doesn’t need to be!”
TFCF is the first Liars album you’ve made alone, without Aaron Hemphill. Can you characterize how your process was different from that of the last six or seven records?
I’ve always worked alone. I write alone. I’ve never been a guy who would go into a room and like, jam. I’ve never actually jammed, to be honest. And my creative relationship with Aaron was super important to me, for less of a collaboration and more of a critique. I’ve known him for so long, and from the start have had complete faith in his taste and his feelings about music. Everything I did, I would send to him, and he would tell me, “Yes, no, that sucks,” or whatever. And that was really important for my process. The difference here was, not only was I writing alone, I really didn’t have anyone to send it to. Without that feedback, it’s more instinct, and based off your gut. And the bottom line is it’s scarier, because you don’t have that other person to assure you that you’re doing what you should be doing. In practicality, it wasn’t that different. But certainly I was really sad about our creative relationship coming to an end. We’re still super close, but that was still sad.
As an aside, part of the reason I moved to Australia was that my dad was in his last year of life, and I went there to spend that last year with him. For part of the time that I was writing the record, I was living with him. I was also having a baby when I made the record. So there was a lot going on emotionally for me that made the whole process very personal for me.
Why did you and Aaron decide not to go on working together?
It wasn’t a really sudden thing. Over the last few records, for quite a while, it had become more evident that I was the one who was the most motivated to produce work. And more and more, I was making the work and Aaron was just critiquing it. I could see that that wasn’t the best scenario for him. I really wanted him to write this record himself, so we could kind of swap roles, and I thought that would reinvigorate him creatively. In the end, he chose to have a baby and focus his life in a different direction, and I completely understand it. It wasn’t an easy thing to come to terms with, but in the end I think it was best for us both.
Though it was created under what sound like emotionally intense circumstances, the album has moments of humor scattered throughout. I think about “Cred Woes,” which is narrated by some kind of aggrieved, aging retail worker character. And the bridge, whether intentionally or not, sounds almost exactly like “My Sharona.”
It’s always been important to not take ourselves too seriously, and I think that’s been evident in all the records. That’s just not who I am. I wanted the record to evolve as you listen to it. The second side unfolds a bit, and allows for a little bit more of the self-effacing humor, which helps give it a bit of levity. There were these push and pull emotions that were happening. I wanted it to evolve in a way that it wasn’t all doom and gloom, but a turning of a corner. It’s funny you mention “My Sharona,” because I always say that when we’re playing it. “You need to beef up that ‘My Sharona’ part!”
Earlier you mentioned that with your new touring band, you’ve been going back and plucking old songs for your set that Liars has never played live in the past, all the way back to the first album. Fifteen years ago or so, when you were making fairly straightforward dance-punk on They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, did you believe that the band was going to go on for this long, in so many different iterations, and produce such different music?
Absolutely not. No way. At the time of that record, I clearly remember just being interested in the idea that those songs were going to be put onto a vinyl record. I thought that was the be-all and end-all of making music. That was pretty much my goal then. It wasn’t long after that that we were signed to Mute, which I’ve been on the whole time. That record deal was for five albums, which was ridiculous to me. I remember saying to [Mute Records founder] Daniel Miller, “That’s awesome, but you surely are aware that by the fifth record we’ll be making a Christmas album.” And now I look up and it’s eight albums in and I still feel like I’m doing the first one. It still feels very fresh.
When your second album, They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, came out, it was panned pretty widely. People didn’t really know what to do with it. Did you ever get the sense that Mute regretted signing you to that five-album deal?
Well, you mean when the SPIN review came out?
Uh oh. Did the SPIN review really trash it?
It did! [Editor’s note: The review called it “unlistenable.”] But that’s OK. We were on some pretty strange shit at the time. And I remember Daniel coming over to our place and listening to the record. And this was basically us just shitting all over the first record. We weren’t being easy. And his only note was that maybe the vocals should be a little bit louder. And we thought, “Oh my god, this guy is amazing.” And from then on, it’s been like that, though I definitely get more of a critique out of him now than I did then.
Outside of the sounds of nature you mentioned before, were there any more strictly musical reference points you were working with on TFCF?
Usually, before writing a record, I set aside a couple months to really delve into music, to listen to music as a goal for the day. I had a weird progression with this one. I was in that two-month period before I’d written anything, and I was looking at our Instagram. Someone had left a comment on one of our photos that said “King Geedorah is here. You guys can leave now.” And I did not know what that meant. I looked it up and it was the title of an MF Doom record. And so I listened to that. I’ve always listened to a lot of hip hop, but listening to that record, it dawned on me, maybe for the first time: How do these guys clear all these samples? How do you use all these samples? I’ve used samples before, in a slight way, but never in that overt, hip-hop way.
From there, weirdly enough, I went deep on vaporwave. It’s not the coolest thing, but I really admire that little blip movement for its conceptual approach to music. The rebranding of consumer culture, the idea of taking things willy-nilly from everywhere, slowing them down, and repackaging them, and making them your own. All these things started to snowball a bit, which is what led me to the process of sampling myself that I described earlier. But for a while, I was like “What if I take a whole bridge from Justin Bieber, and I slow it down, and I sing over that? Is anyone going to really know?”
The album art, which shows you in a wedding dress at a chintzy restaurant, is pretty striking. Can you talk about putting it together?
I felt like for my whole career I’ve been married to my bandmates, and this is the point that I no longer was. I put together this shoot, and then I was like “Oh my god, this is the scariest thing I’m ever gonna do. Am I really going to put myself on the cover? In a wedding dress?” In bed at night, “I don’t know! Maybe I shouldn’t do that!” But ultimately it’s the kind of creative decision that’s important to me. Obviously, there’s a lot of conceptually sound ideas that I could have gone with. Images from the bush I was working in, maybe. But those things wouldn’t have kept me up at night. And I think that’s important. Even some of those songs, like “No Help Pamphlet.” Are you really going to put this out on the record? I guess so! Ahh! If it’s not scaring me, I haven’t really tried something.
I always wanted the album to be confrontational, because I didn’t want to shy away from the facts. And the fact is that this is a different iteration of Liars. This is me. You have to deal with it right from the start.