Climbing Out of the Trench

An Interview with Liars

by Jin Moon


Angus Andrew from Liars
Photo credit: Jin Moon

Angus Andrew and Aaron Hemphill from Liars
Photo credit: Jin Moon

At North Six, a popular club in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, there are a couple hundred hipsters in uniform—you know, haphazardly shaped mullet-hawks, trucker hats slid slightly askew, and Converse sneakers almost as dirty as a New York City subway platform—waiting for the Liars, a local post no wave band, to take the stage.

A few in the front have started a mosh pit—a phenomenom I thought died with Kurt Cobain and flannel shirts—until now. Quite honestly, I was shocked at the crazy fans slamming into me and irked that one of these said psychopaths had stabbed my friend’s foot with a stiletto heel. But really, I couldn’t blame them. It’s almost impossible to stand still during a Liars show. And you’d be a liar if you didn’t admit it.

Then came the beer, capriciously hurled at Angus Andrew, the 6’6” Aussie lead singer with a twitchy, mic-swinging romp and aggressive, sometimes screechy vocals, until he was drenched and had to leave the stage to change his top. But all through the Liars set, Angus was a dedicated performer. Whether he’s hopping the length of the stage like a ballistic kangaroo, vigorously humping the drum set or sticking his mic in and out of his shirt, Angus, with his auburn mullet and red-neck mustache, isn’t afraid to break a sweat—and neither are his fans. Of course, Liars bassist Pat Nature, guitarist Aaron Hemphill and drummer Ron Albertson perform with just as much gusto—veins popping from their flushed necks as they scream song lyrics and heads thrashing to the booming drum beat. It’s refreshing to see an “indie rock” band who doesn’t shy away from tangling themselves in their instrument, grabbing their ass, or bursting a bulging blood vessel.

I recently got a chance to talk with Angus about hanging with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, how September 11th inspired him, and how he hooked up with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion for their upcoming fall tour.

PopMatters: So you guys recently went on tour with Sonic Youth. How was it?
Angus Andrew:

Oh, it was amazing. I think it’s probably one of the most amazing things I’ll [ever] do in my whole life. I think the best part was them asking us to go on tour with them. ‘Cause, you know, it just meant so much to me. It was more important than selling hundreds of records.

PM: How did Sonic Youth actually get to the point of asking you to tour with them?

Well, I think a lot of it has to with us being from New York and them, too, but probably mostly to do with the fact that Blast First, the label that we’re on, was the label that put out the first few Sonic Youth records. So we had some sort of connection there.

PM: Did they offer you guys any wisdom while you guy were on tour with them?

Uh, no, not really.

PM: Did you get to hang out with them and stuff?

Yeah, we did. But if you could imagine it’s the sort of thing where if you’re sitting in the room with Thurston Moore, the last thing you wanna talk about is anything relevant to music. You know what I mean? I think I talked to him about tennis or something. It’s just better to, like, go the other way. (laughs)

PM: Yeah, I guess it would be kinda lame to talk shop with them, but you must have learned a lot just by watching them.

Oh, totally. I mean just as a whole, there’s no other band that’s sort of kept it as true and as real as that band. I think they still make their music into art.

PM: This is a silly question. But who’s taller, you or Thurston Moore?

I am, actually! It’s funny. We stood back to back. And I really thought he’d be taller, but I am a little bit taller.

PM: I’ve seen both you and Thurston, so I knew it’d be close! Anyway, you guys are going on tour with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. How did that come about?

Well, we went out to Chicago to play one show with [Jon Spencer Blues Explosion], and they asked us after that show to go on this West Coast tour with them. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are going on it, too, and you know, their lead singer Karen O is my girlfriend. And we’re all sort of in the same boat. It just seemed to make a lot of sense for us to both go with them.

PM: So do you and Karen go to each other’s shows a lot?

Yeah (sheepish laugh). You know, when we’re in the same town. Most of the time, if we’re in New York at the same time, we’re playing together anyway, you know? But whenever I get to see [the Yeah Yeah Yeahs] play—like in London I saw them play at the David Bowie thing—so that was cool.

PM: How long have you and Karen been going out? How did you guys meet?

Uh, about a year and a half now. I think she saw me play. Like our bands started out basically at the same time. So we’re doing the same sort of crappy shows around New York. She saw us play, and then I went to see her play. But we didn’t get together straight away, it was just like going to each other’s shows.

PM: You guy just released your debut CD They Threw Us All In a Trench and Stuck a Monument On Top. But tell me about your upcoming EP.

We do have an EP—I think that’s what you’d call it—it’s just some songs. Do you know a label called Hand Held Heart? It’s from San Francisco. Sound Virus? It’s a small label that’s putting out our demo stuff actually, which is coming out soon, too. But then we have a single—a 10 inch single—that comes out in November. So the Trench record is out now. We’ve got the single in November, and the EP, I suppose, somewhere in between there.

PM: Ah, I’m looking forward to hearing those . . . Tell me about how the band formed.

Well, me and [guitarist] Aaron [Hemphill] were in L.A. I was going to art school, and he was working at a record store. We met like that and started making music together on a four track. And then when I finished art school, we moved out to New York, and we had all these songs. Eventually we put up signs for a bass player and a drummer. And we found Pat Nature and Ron Albertson. We’ve been together for two years now.

PM: Some critics have labeled your music as electroclash. How would you describe it?

Uh, I suppose it’s dance music. Nooo (laughs). I dunno! See this is the whole thing. I hate to not give you a straight answer, but the whole sort of, like, driving force behind our band—and that’s why our record is called what it is—is the idea that we don’t want to just make one type of music or to be easily categorized, you know. So it’s when people ask me what type of music it is, it sort of goes against my ideals of never deciding on one thing. You know, maybe two months ago “dance music” would have been appropriate, and I would have been happy saying that? We were making a lot of dance-y stuff then. But now, we’re making a lot of really slow, tired stuff. (laughs).

PM: What do you think of that term “electroclash”? It’s being thrown around a lot now.

It’s a cool word, I think. I don’t even know what that is, actually. I mean, I suppose it’s like synth and then there’s like performance? So that’s cool. I mean, we don’t use any synthesizers or anything like that. We just use the straight up drums, bass, guitar thing, but we’re definitely into performance and like a lot of the things like dancing—all these sort of things that I think is common to electroclash.

PM: Also at the shows, there seems to be a lot of beer hurling towards you. What’s up with that?

I dunno! Who told you that?

PM: I’ve just witnessed it like at a couple of shows like at Coney Island’s Siren Music Festival and Brooklyn’s North Six.

Yeah . . . well, I think that’s pretty just basic of New York shows where it’s like all your friends are there and they just want to make a fool of you, so they throw stuff at you. Usually it’s just a few people who can be rowdy and just throw stuff at you.

PM: Well, your music seems to bring out the wild side in people . . .

Yeah, bring out the ugliness in the room.

PM: Anyway, I guess you’ve already explained the title of the Trench CD.

Yeah, I mean, it’s to do with just not being pigeon-holed. And the idea that you dig a hole and you put a little stone on top of it and then forever, it’s known as that. So that’s not what we want. It’s just about being evasive I suppose.

PM: Who writes the music, the lyrics?

Well, I do. Me and Aaron basically write the songs on the four track.

PM: How do you come up with lyrics?

I always write the lyrics last. I try and just come up with some things which are gonna make people think. And if they can just hear or grab like one phrase or something from the song then that’s enough really, so they can stop thinking about it. The lyrics are definitely not narrative or anything like that. There’s no story, and there’s no real answer. Really there’s no real correct interpretation of them. It’s all about trying to have the listener be the one who is really deciding what the song is about.

PM: How do you think the Brooklyn scene has nurtured your band?

Oh a lot. I think we’re just really lucky that we’re here at this time when everything sort of just went so cool. I mean it’s like, there’s just so many bands around playing right now that are just so different but like so passionate, you know? And that’s really challenging, you know, because it’s not like just one sort of like type of music that everyone’s playing. It’s not like Seattle or whatever. It’s like everyone’s just pushing in all these different directions so it’s really inspiring. There’s just so much going on. It’s like you go . . . It’s like almost every night there’s a band playing that you have to see.

PM: Yeah, I know what you mean. How do you feel when you’re on stage performing?

Just completely oblivious and separated from like reality of being on stage. We all get really, really nervous before we play every show, whether it’s Sonic Youth or just a regular show. We’re so nervous in the dressing room before. And then we come out, and it all just all alleviates itself. For me the best performance is just completely when I’ve lost any sort of sense that I’m in a band or anything. It’s like I feel the best when I lose consciousness. It just becomes a sort of real, natural thing.

PM: What do you think makes your group stand out from others?

I dunno if I’d want to say that we stand out. I mean it’s like I really go against any idea of like competition in music or art. And that’s why I hate the idea of bands saying they’re the best fucking band in the world or whatever. You know everyone’s got their own thing. If we stand out at all right now, I would think it’s just because of timing. I don’t think the music we make really was supposed to get out as much as it has. I think there were so many lucky circumstances that has allowed it to get out there. I think it’s just a real off-chance thing. It’s just a lot of luck that people are hearing our music. I just think a lot of things went the right way for us. I think that we’re just fun, and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. And I hope that’s what people like about it. We’re not trying to be rock stars or anything. Our whole idea is just to urge people to create their own stuff. It’s not about “We’re the ones making the music”. We’re more about “We’re making it now, but you should be making it tomorrow.”

PM: It seems like the music has this carefree element to it where you can kind of let go.

Yeah. I mean who cares. That’s the whole thing. It’s not about being cool or anything. It’s about having fun. And if I wanna wear pink or listen to C+C Music Factory, then that’s fine too. It’s not about knowing the right people, or having the right influences, or wearing the right clothes.

PM: Yeah, I did read in Shout magazine that you still listen to C+C Music Factory . . .

(laughs) You read that? I haven’t seen that yet.

PM: Well, aside from C+C, tell me about what you’re listening to these days.

Oh, I just actually bought Blonde Redhead’s [The Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons]. They’re like one of my favorite bands for sure. I’m just really in awe of that band. Other than that, I listen to a lot of hip hop—Biggie Smalls, Kool Keith, and even Snoop Dogg. Now, because I’m so involved in making music, it seems like my goal is to always be listening to the wrong things. So I purposely try and listen to wack stuff. Like the new No Doubt record I really like. And it’s like anything that people sort of pass off as not cool—that’s sort of the thing that I want to pick up and figure out.

PM: So you do sort of listen to a lot of popular music.

Oh, I listen to a lot of popular music. There’s some Britney Spears songs I like. (laughs) It’s just about finding like something about it that you like. And not sort of discarding it because it’s popular music. I think that’s wrong.

PM: As a singer based in Brooklyn, how has Sept. 11th affected you?

Well, I mean, it was such a huge thing. Obviously for everyone it was very different. You kind of have to tread softly about how you react to it. For me it was a real invigorating thing. I mean it was like immediately after, we were getting questions like “Do you feel like you can’t make art any more because it’s sort of small in comparison to this massive thing that happened?” And I was completely opposite to that. It was sort of like this thing happened and immediately you want to start making stuff because it was so inspiring. I mean we were living in the center of mass destruction. I found it really stimulating, but a lot of people went exactly the opposite way, so I don’t speak for everyone. Obviously it was an incredibly sad thing and everything, but on the positive side, it was also pretty inspiring.

PM: One of your songs has an ominous title: “Tumbling walls buried me in the debris with ESG”.

But see, that’s funny. Obviously we wrote all that stuff and recorded it way before that happened, and then when we came back and started practicing again after that whole thing, you start singing those songs and they just have like all these different meanings to them, which is interesting. That’s what makes life interesting.

PM: What do you have to say to people who diss your music?

(laughs) Um, I think that’s fine? I mean I got no problem with that. If there’s anything I encourage, it’s opinions and freedom and all that sort of stuff. If people don’t like our music that’s totally fine with me. I’m not trying to convince them that it’s great or anything. I try to convince myself that it’s great, you know.

PM: Well, does it, like, hurt your feelings?

Uh, no. It’s a weird thing because it’s like you know on the outset, you’re like whatever anyone says it doesn’t matter because I’m making this stuff. I’d rather that there be a mixed opinion on [our music] rather than “Oh, we all love that song.” Or, “We all hate that song.” It’s kind of nice when some people really like it and some people really don’t. It makes it more interesting and more challenging. It’s about trying to keep on that fine line. I’d like to make music where people don’t immediately know whether or not they like it. And then also possibly, they don’t like it at all. I don’t want to be sort of spoon feeding people. And I don’t think people want that either. For example, something that’s been successful for us has been like cool bass lines, right? Then I think when we make music in the future it’ll be, “Well, OK, let’s have no bass lines and see how that works out.”

PM: So kind of just experimenting with everything.

Yeah, if you only like one thing, then we’ll stop doing that thing. You know, I don’t want it to be like something where it’s just like you’re catering to the audience. And so when people say they don’t like it, it’s actually really good because then you know something more. Rather than everyone just being like, “Yeah, that’s great.”

PM: OK, time for another silly question: What’s the best or worst lie you’ve ever told?

But I don’t tell lies! This is the thing. The name [of the band] is actually about being honest because the most honest thing that anyone can reveal is that they are a liar because everyone lies. I try my best not to lie (laughs), you know what I mean? [Our band name] certainly doesn’t mean we are like really good liars or anything. Actually, we’re pretty bad ones.

PM: Do you have any superstitious pre-performance rituals? (That’s hard to say!)

(laughs) Yeah, we all smoke crack! Nooo. (laughs). I think there are stupid ones like I always wear the same shoes. I have to stretch. I mean, not really. There are all the dumb boring things like drinking alcohol just to get ready. I told you we all get really nervous. So I think that’s probably the biggest ritual—telling each other how nervous we are.

PM: OK, well what’s something you think people would be surprised to learn about you?

Surprised to learn about me . . . Hmm. Oh dude, I dunno.

PM: Hard question, huh?

It is a hard question. I never thought about it.

PM: Well obviously they’d be surprised to learn you listen to C+C. . .

Oh right, OK. But something else? (laughs)

PM: Or that you talk about tennis with Thurston . . .

Oh right! (laughs) Gotta know that don’t ya? OK, Rambo: First Blood is my favorite movie.

PM: Oh yeah? That’s a good one! Did you want to add anything else?

Oh no, that’s fine. That’s good stuff, right?

//Mixed media

Tibet House's 30th Anniversary Benefit Concert Celebrated Philip Glass' 80th

// Notes from the Road

"Philip Glass, the artistic director of the Tibet House benefits, celebrated his 80th birthday at this year's annual benefit with performances from Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Brittany Howard, Sufjan Stevens and more.

READ the article