Interview with Liars
Experimental Band Hits Doug Fir Tomorrow Night
Inconsistency is the essence of the art rock band Liars, who have spent over ten years moving literally and figuratively all over the map. The group met in Los Angeles, earned their name in the dance punk scene of New York, and experimented with avant-garde rhythms in Berlin before returning to rock music in L.A.
“It started out a little bit more straightforward, then it got really weird for a couple of years,” says drummer Julian Gross over the phone before a show on their current tour. “And then we sort of brought it back to straightforward. Now we’ve sort of opened it back up again…anything goes.”
This return to experimentation is immediately visible on their most recent album WIXIW (pronounced “wish you”), an electronic effort rife with interesting contradictions. It is both exceptionally offbeat and strangely accessible. It’s boldly futuristic, yet easily tied to the new wave of Mute Records founder and album producer Daniel Miller. It’s also a culmination of the band’s previous works that is unlike anything they’ve done before.
One might get the idea that Liars are aware of their increasingly spontaneous reputation and are simply trying to keep their audience guessing. However, the joy of watching their stylistic shifts is just a fortunate byproduct of the group’s unending desire to challenge themselves. “The audience isn’t really involved in our process, outside of if we make it interesting for ourselves, then we would hope that the listeners will equally find it interesting,” Gross explains. “We need to make it interesting for ourselves, which means making it challenging and scary for us. I think that that’s what we’re looking for -- creatively and in life -- to be pushing ourselves to areas that we haven’t gone to yet.”
Unlike some of its predecessors, WIXIW is a deeply personal record that is stranger in sound than in concept. Rooted in the romantic fears of bandmates Angus Andrew and Aaron Hemphill, it explores further contradictory dualities of doubt and comfort, dread and desire. Such human emotion should be more readily accessible than the intricate storylines of albums like Drum’s Not Dead, but Gross argues that it makes the material much harder for the band to grasp. “There isn’t an overlying theme of witches or Los Angeles or something like that, so you’re forced to look to yourself to find the inspiration. And then inspirations become about you, and that is a scary place to go into,” Gross reveals.
This idea makes WIXIW a richer experience for fans and the group, who are still trying to figure out how to approach electronic music in a live setting. “When we’re making it, we’re not thinking about the translation of it live,” Gross tells me. “We’re just trying to make the songs and create the sounds we like. This time, it proposed a little bit more of a problem because we can’t always do specific sounds live. We ask ourselves, ‘How did we make that sound? How do we recreate that sound?’ And that part of it has become…sort of a challenge on how to do it.”
By no means does this suggest an attempt to perform the album verbatim. Gross says WIXIW is proving to be just as unpredictable live, for both the audience and the band. “We’re not meaning for it to be the same, and with all songs, it is sort of strange how sometimes you’ll start playing it one way and then you’ll go back and listen to the actual song six months later or something and be like, ‘Whoa, we’re doing totally different,’” admits Gross. “But that adds to the fun part of performance, that it’s not going always be the same and that it’s not just going be a playback basically. That it’s a performance, and it shouldn’t be exactly the same. There’s a recorded version of a song and then there’s a live version of a song. And we’re all into the accidents and the tunes being pulled apart. It adds to the greater scheme of things.”
This should mean Portland is in for an exciting show when Liars appear at Doug Fir Lounge tomorrow night. Gross expects their new material to fit right in with Portland’s diverse musical tastes. “Portland is a pretty forward-thinking music town, so I think that they’re always going to be very receptive to what we’re going to do,” he explains.
Gross should know from experience, as he first started playing music during a short stay here. “That’s where I first started playing the drums,” he reveals. “I moved there when I was about 20, into a house that had drum sets and all that stuff. I started playing drums in the basement. Every time you go out there, everybody ends up going back to someone’s house all drunk and you just had to do a round robin on instruments ‘til wee hours of the morning. That was huge for me.”
Portland’s open approach to the arts helped shape Gross into the experimental musician he is today, he says. “Portland had a massive impact on my life, in a musical sense and in a broader sense,” he says. “There was nobody saying, like, ‘Oh, can you play this chord or do this?’ It’s like somebody just hands me a guitar and you’re like, ‘Alright, I can make noise come out of this thing.’ It gave me this feeling that you don’t have to be a technical master or even really understand theory of music at all to make music and to make good songs, and that was one of the biggest things. The accidents are great, and to look for that and maybe try to exploit them as well is part of the process.”
What will come of his continued explorations with Liars is hard to tell, as Gross says they’re having too much fun with WIXIW to think of what’s next. “We still like these songs,” he said. “We don’t know what the next record’s going to be, where we’re going do it, what it’s going to be like, and that’s what excites us about it -- that right now, we’re just where we are. We’re working on tours and the live shows and making that really good as we can, but we’re as excited about what happens next as anybody else.”
See Liars tomorrow night at Doug Fir Lounge.