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Liars 2021
Photo: Clemens Habicht / Courtesy of Mute Records

Crossing Boundaries: An Interview with Liars’ Angus Andrew

Liars’ founding member Angus Andrew talks with PopMatters about revisiting the band’s past work and creating a new sci-fi album, The Apple Drop.

The Apple Drop
Liars
Mute
6 August 2021

Among the bands that emerged during the millennium rock revival two decades ago, Liars are responsible for the most varied discography of the bunch. While no debut album could absolutely foretell a band’s future flexibility, They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top (2001) offered tellingly contrasting modes; a dialectical approach that would continue through subsequent albums. A majority of the individual songs run three minutes or less, fueled by propulsive rhythms, an often brash vocal style, and a dynamic mix of guitars and electronics. Yet the bulk of the album’s running time is occupied by a final track that exceeds eight minutes, then loops and rides a locked groove into infinity.

While some of Liars’ stylistic turns have been more popular than others, to be mercurial was never the point. The eight albums following the group’s debut have been united by different dialogues and oppositions: between different sides of an individual psyche, between human and machine, and between civilization and nature. Speaking with PopMatters about the tenth album The Apple Drop, bandleader and founding member Angus Andrew distinguishes his new work as his first album that draws direct inspiration from the band’s past. Additionally, The Apple Drop is an album styled after science fiction narratives, shaping the previous oppositional themes of Liars’ music into a compelling new form.

I begin by asking how the characters and narratives of previous albums have influenced The Apple Drop. As Andrew reflects on his present methods, he acknowledges certain truths about his inclination to keep moving forward. “I’m not a person who enjoys the past very much,” he says. “I like to look forward. I’m always trying to move forward both creatively and in life. So I just prefer to ignore where I’ve come from and instead focus on where I’m going. I’m a person who is much more compelled by the process of making the thing rather than the thing itself.” His perspective on Liars’ past musical output sounds uncannily like Fred Madison in David Lynch’s famously dualistic Lost Highway (1997). Andrew says of his earlier records, “I prefer to imagine them how I like to imagine them rather than actually go back and reference them.”

Some musicians, Andrew says, “do that, you know, when they do new mixes of records, they kind of reference a past record. And I can totally understand that from a technical perspective, but I’ve avoided it. I did find myself in a position when writing this record that I realized that part of the journey that I was going on needed to include some sort of comprehension or understanding of where I’d come from. And I’d never really looked at it that way, and I wasn’t necessarily happy about the fact that I’d come to this conclusion.

“Nonetheless, I did do that. It did help me, it gave a sense of perspective for this record, and as you alluded to, it started to help me understand how I wanted the narrative arc of this record to work. I began to imagine what it would be like if I took the kind of characters or people or the state of mind that I was writing about in past albums, and what that would look like in the sonic landscape that I was developing for The Apple Drop.”

He clarifies, “When I say characters from the past, it’s funny, because essentially characters from the past records are still me, you know? But they’re just a different me from that time period. One example or the first one that I kind of started the trip on was I took the ‘me’ from the last song on the first album, ‘This Dust Makes That Mud’, which is kind of like a sprawling never-ending song. And that person in it is sort of like a delusional insomniac, and that was certainly like me in that time period and for quite a while. So I just decided to take that idea and, in my mind, imagine how that person would react to being put into the song that I was developing called ‘The Start’, which is the beginning of The Apple Drop.

“It made me compare and contrast my state of mind from 20 years ago to now and helped influence the way I wrote about the person who was beginning the adventure in The Apple Drop. And then, yeah, I realized this was a tool that was beneficial for me. In my going back and listening to the previous records, I seemed to always stumble across some sort of state of mind which felt emblematic of that period. I would bring that forward and plop them again into The Apple Drop and see how they responded. Or more likely, how I could see what the evolution had been more clearly.”

I observe that on The Apple Drop, there appears to be more of an interplay between styles and characters than was present on the previous two full-lengths, TFCF (2017) and Titles with the Word Fountain (2018), which seemed like more isolated affairs. “Yeah, I think that’s a fair point to make,” he responds. “Those records are much more insular and looking only at myself and ahead. But in general, yeah, The Apple Drop does contain awareness of many different me’s if that makes sense. And you’re right. In the past, as was with Drum’s Not Dead, there’s always this push and pull between a kind of brash confidence, which could be symbolized by the performance. It is usually much more sure of itself, on stage, for example, and then the uncertainty that goes on behind closed doors when you don’t feel the kind of technical prowess that maybe goes hand in hand with being a ‘musician’. So yeah, I think it’s a common push and pull in creativity, in general: confidence about what you’re doing and a complete lack of confidence, as well.”

Considered this way, is it fair to say one through-line for all Liars albums is the presence of warring or contrasting sides? “Yeah, I think so,” Andrew says. “There are more emotional points, and then there are more sort of, I would say, instinctual muscle memory points. For me, working with music has always felt like a very primal thing, like hitting a drum resonates with me in a sense. That it’s just this very base way of communicating. So there’s that angle. But at the same time, there’s a huge sort of intellectual component to putting things out in the world and laying yourself bare. There’s an anxiety in that, which is this constant push and pull.”

The most remarkable distinction of The Apple Drop is the science fiction influence, which is apparent within the opening track “The Start” and overt in several other songs. I ask Andrew at what point in the album’s development the science-fiction context occurred to him. He explains, “I had already begun writing the record and recording the record in a way that I imagined was more like an internal quest of the consciousness, of the mind, like a journey exploring where I’d come from and where I was going. But as I worked more and more on the record, I started to collaborate and try and realize where this project was going. Visually also, it started to dawn on me and others that this could lend itself well to all these classic sci-fi [elements] of space exploration.

So the dichotomy that we were just talking about before is similarly there in a sense where the attraction is this science-based element, which is all these facts and things that you can’t really dispute that may be about your life as well. The laws of nature. But then this fantasy and the dream-like side, which I think is again another sort of duality that we were referencing. As the record developed, I was quite far into it when we started to see it that way. But once we imagined it in a broader scope than just an inner consciousness, then it opened up to this very cinematic idea.”

Liars’ aural and visual turn towards science fiction may be new on The Apple Drop. Still, the band have always expertly paired singles with memorable music videos and other visual representations of the music. Drum’s Not Dead (2006) was the most notable example, as the CD was packaged with a DVD containing three long-form music videos, each running the duration of the entire album. This approach to creating overarching story worlds for sets of songs is consistent with the history of concept albums in rock music. How does Andrew feel about classifying his records as concept albums, given how some musicians bristle at that label for their work?

“It’s an interesting one because it’s true. There is a sort of stigma attached to the concept record that isn’t great. But the fact is, for me, it’s always going to be a concept. It’s the only way to imagine the record as a whole work of art. It’s got to be thought about in some way that connects the elements. The real question is, how much of that do you lean on or talk about in reference to the record? And in some instances, it just felt applicable, and maybe it’s also got to do with feeling bolder at the time. That you’re like, ‘okay, I want to bring everyone in on this idea that I’m working on.’ But then there are other times where it’s felt like I wasn’t as willing to open that door. I didn’t want people to get sidetracked with the concept that I imagined for the record. So, yeah, it’s sort of a back and forth. Often the way it works is that you work on a conceptual piece, and then following that, you inevitably want to make something that seems completely not conceptual.”

A defining feature of 2012’s WIXIW was not conceptual, but rather the shift towards a more electronic sound and process. Since WIXIW, All Liars’ albums have borne traces of that shift. The Apple Drop‘s science fiction influence would seem to give Andrew license to push even more fully into a technological soundscape. However, one of the surprises of The Apple Drop is how it synthesizes various modes from Liars’ history, including accepting the way the human touch always asserts itself despite technological advancements.

Andrew says, “you’re right, the record WIXIW was the moment where it was decided to try and, for the first time, sort of step into the world of producing within the computer using programs. That threshold hadn’t really been crossed before, so with the records WIXIW and Mess, they were both tied to this idea of exploring and trying to tame the massive landscape that is within the computer, that’s possible within the computer. So I do see what you’re saying in regard to the science fiction element. It could be more electronic sounding. There are two reasons it didn’t go that way. As I said, I wasn’t imagining it in this sci-fi way until a lot of the material was already recorded. Having worked within the computer on the last many records, I was yearning for this: the acoustic possibilities of sonic architecture and working within a studio with live musicians in there, the possibilities of that.”

He continues, “When I began imagining the record, it was always with that as a first step. But also, having said that, I’m keen to point out that the record owes itself to the computer as much as any other instrument, even though it sounds much more natural. Certainly, everything has gone through some kind of process within the computer to be stretched or changed. I still see it in a very technical way, but maybe it also represents how… I think good sci-fi, good ideas about the future are also aware of the human requiring that organic touch. We always do, no matter how far forward we keep going, there’s still this yearning for tactile and for organic, and so I like that in relation to sci-fi, as well.”

Regarding the acoustic instruments and live musicians, drums are another standout feature of The Apple Drop. Drummer Laurence Pike is new to the group, and his playing contributes many fresh layers to the band’s sound. Andrew says getting the right drum sound has always been fundamental to Liars’ process. “For me, the drums are the first,” he points out, “just technically, when you’re a musician, and you’re going into the studio, the one thing that is the most important to capture is the drums. They’re the one thing that’s going to react to the sonic space the most. So it’s always been my focus, when you go into a studio, is the drum sound, how to capture the right one. Obviously, working with an incredibly talented drummer like Laurence Pike, who went to school for drumming and has been a lifelong musician, a lot of the time in the jazz world, really has a great sense of the instrument. So that is a huge part of it. Yeah, I love the drums, and for me, it’s always the first place to figure out where the song is going.”

Across Liars’ discography, one notices an evolution of rhythm, in which rigidity has given way to experimentation, as rhythms collide and interrupt each other within songs. I ask Andrew to comment on that sense of rhythmic collision within his work. “That’s a really interesting question,” he remarks. “One of the things that impacted me the most about moving back to Australia, which I did about five years ago at the start of TFCF. I moved from Los Angeles to a place outside of Sydney which is extremely remote, you need to get a boat to get here, and it’s super in touch with nature. My day is very affected by the tides, just in terms of access and things like that. So I noticed that I felt like my work started to acknowledge or appreciate the imperfections you find in nature. There can be a constant sound in the environment but then is interrupted in this unique way that seems to only happen in nature. It’s a thing that I think is a primitive kind of connection that I wanted to try and figure out how to emulate more.

“Certainly within the beginnings of working within the computer, you can find yourself aligned to things like a grid very easily. That’s the way the computer wants you to think. So it was interesting to me to take the things that I discovered about working within the computer and try and apply them to something more natural.”

Many of the most interesting musical moments on The Apple Drop occur on the second side of the album, beyond the singles of side A. “King of the Crooks” is a throwback number unlike anything else in Liars’ discography. Andrew says he agrees that the song, “on the one hand, it felt like an old standard; almost something that I felt could have been on Drum’s Not Dead. I was also working with a musician called Cameron Deyell, who is also just a very accomplished and talented technical musician. I recall being at a stage with that song that I was still unsure of how it would develop. And we were trying to work on a bridge or something, and he played what is now the opening guitar part. It sent the whole thing in a much more traditional pop kind of way that I just found compelling, mostly because it’s somewhere that I had never reached that point. Yeah, I found it exciting to take what he had attempted in the bridge, and I ended up crafting the whole song around it.”

There is a brass ensemble on “My Pulse to Ponder”, which Andrew describes as “the turning point for that song because the song just needed to keep being pushed into this kind of absurd territory. I felt that it was not absurd enough (laughs) until we found the brass.” In the context of this cinematic, limits-pushing album, the final track, “New Planets New Undoings”, plays like closing credits that allow the listener to process the experience. Andrew says, “I always imagined it a bit more like the ghost leaving the project or something. It sort of floats in. I don’t know; it feels like an outlier. It’s moving on to something else.

“Often the last songs for me are really important on a record. And it was telling when I went back and did the listening I did through the albums, that the songs that resonated with me the most were the last songs on each album, which is either a coincidence or a very important detail.” Andrew’s image of “the ghost leaving the project” on the final song of The Apple Drop is another element that connects this most recent album to the band’s past, as the artwork for They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top could be interpreted as a spirit rising from where a body once was.

Whether the “examined life” approach will be exclusive to The Apple Drop or a part of Liars’ method going forward is unknown. As the album begins with a “Start” and ends with “Undoings”, the slate seems to have been blanked for whatever Andrew and his reenergized band choose to do next. One immediate goal is to play the album live, which the band has been able to do a couple of times already despite the uncertain position of live music during the pandemic.

Andrew says, “it’s really incredible” to play the new songs live with the musicians from the album. He adds, “It feels, to me, much more appropriate because I’m playing with them, just to play the new material … Of course, in Australia right now, we’re in lockdown, and there’s no foreseeable future, so it’s difficult. But we come in and out of lockdowns here, so we have been playing some shows with this material. It’s exciting. It’s a situation where I want to play just the new album as a whole rather than go backward. So in Australia, we’re doing that, but any international touring is still beyond comprehension.”

Liars 2021
Photo: Clemens Habicht / Courtesy of Mute Records
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