Liars Didn't Want Us to Use the Word "Vaporwave" in This Headline
Dear Angus: Sorry for the headline, but we think the eighth Liars record 'TFCF' is fuckin' great, so we hope you'll forgive us.
The first time I heard about Liars, I was working at The Strand Bookstore and one of my co-workers told me about a rap art-punk band he was in. Having been dragged to more than a few co-workers' rap art-punk band's shows already, I was wildly not intrigued. Being, even then, historically wrong about everything, I was soon to know that Liars were far beyond a dreaded "Friend's band." They took the already set and soon to be oversaturated dance punk template and upended it with a chanting cacophony and savage existential dread. It was tremendous.
A lurching Australian named Angus—whose on-stage jeremiads belied a gentle, thoughtful in-person nature—fronted Liars. The band signed to New Jersey hardcore label Gern Blandstein before somewhat acrimoniously jumping to Blast First (and then their current home, Mute Records) and released the disjointedly anthemic They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument On Top. It was a massive hit with the kids (the "kids" being the 20-something Lower East Siders and Brooklynites concurrently losing their shit to the like-minded Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Ex-models, and Twisted Ones block parties). Then, in 2004, Liars released They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, an album so "difficult" and in direct opposition to any then-accepted notions of "dance" or "punk" or "fun" that I figured "welp, so much for that, guess all the old bartenders were right to snipe about how The Lyres were better." And I figured the band would disappear forever up its relocated to Berlin butt and that would be that.
As I've mentioned, I'm historically wrong about everything.
On August 25, Liars (now just Angus Andrew) release the band's eighth full-length album, TFCF, and it's absolutely lovely. The first Liars album without co-founder Aaron Hempill, TFCF is glitched out and mournful collection of space-folk balladry (interspersed with a couple sunnily NIN-esque bangers to keep the listener on his/her/their toes). Relentlessly introspective throughout, the songs range from 60s baroque to pop-industrial dirge to shambolic beats-driven twee that wouldn't be out of place on the Kids soundtrack. Angus maintains the sense of exploration consistent with that band's catalog, but now the exploration seems like he's feeling out the corners of a dark room with zero gravity. It's a delicate and prettily claustrophobic work about a man in an obvious state of pained transition.
Angus, talking on the phone from Croatia where Liars had a day off, tells me, "I've always written alone. That's how I make my work. My creative relationship with Aaron was less a collaboration than a form of being able to critique. We're still super good friends but as time went on it became clear that he'd rather not be in the project, he wanted to have a baby. Doing it on my own; not frightening at all but…. super sad. Because I was sad! You know, this relationship we had for a long time was coming to an end. And I think we both knew that that was OK, and the right thing, but that didn't make it less sad for me. As I was writing the record, I don't think I was initially aware that I was writing about what was happening. In the end it felt like I was documenting the end of this creative relationship."
I tell Angus that in all the press about Aaron's departure, care was clearly taken to squash any rumors of conflict or drama. I haven't heard the word "amicable" used so often since my parent's separation.
"It's important to make people understand that this isn't a crazy breakup. But still, while I was making it, I felt like I was making a break up record. As cliché as that can sound. It had all those elements of loss and the tyranny of distance and all that stuff and really felt heavy in that way. Ultimately I found a lot of freedom in that, not that I ever felt boxed in," he says. "But in any collaboration there's a discussion that goes on, a back and forth about the merits of this and that, and that's great. But there's something to be said about instinct and going with your gut and not deliberating on things."
Absent the collaboration, the new Liars has taken in a new field of influences. I hear (though Angus doesn't necessarily agree) a ton of 60s psyche and pop, from Scott Walker to Syd Barrett. To this, Angus says, "You're the music journalist. You can probably point these things out better than I can. I want to explore different ways of doing it. It's definitely not a case where I went in thinking 'I want to make this weird folky pop song.' It's just what happens when I worked the way I did. I went to a studio in LA, before I moved to Australia, and recorded myself playing a whole bunch of instruments, a whole bunch of crap, which I put on hard drives and took to Australia and then I kind of deconstructed and put them back together, so my connection with even strumming a guitar is really abstract. It never feels quite the same to me as it would if I was Syd Barrett playing the guitar. It's not quite as authentic as that. It excites me when something comes out and I'm like 'whoa, that does not sound like anything I've made before.' After eight records, you do wonder 'am I going to start to repeat myself.' People expect change from Liars."
I wonder if that expectation can be a bit exhausting. New can be oppressive and novelty is always lurking just around the corner, especially if, through your own history of experimentation, no one will accept a simple, comforting Gang of Four revival from you.
"It's not exhausting," Angus says. "It's a full on blessing. Because what it means is each time I sit down to think about making a record it's to find something I've never tried before and that keeps it super exciting. I mean, you can't force the desire to do that. You have to want to try new things and make scary decisions. I totally admire blues musicians or the Ramones who can just refine their thing. They're awesome and they did their thing… but it's not what I do."
An influence on the new record that one may not expect (I sure as shit didn't) is vaporwave. Angus is slightly embarrassed to admit it. When I joke about that being the headline to interview, he is—after laughing easily and often throughout our entire chat—not entirely amused. Vaporwave came in early though. The initial recording for TFCF was done in a studio in LA, before Angus moved back to Australia. He had a set-up of keyboards and "nice" mics and drums and guitars and he "didn't have a song in mind, just played." Putting all the song formless formations on hard drives, Angus took them to his new home, a national park north of Sydney only accessible by water where he currently lives with his wife. ("It's been a steep learning curve. It's only accessible by boat so I had to buy myself a little boat and learn about tying little knots and when the tide goes in and out. We catch our own rainwater, septic tanks and the whole bit.") There, he sampled his own performances, drawing on his lifelong of hip-hop and newer, odder inspiration of vaporwave.
"You're able to map these samples to keyboards and pads. So you can take everything apart. You can manipulate it in any way you want. I had a massive folder of resources. The idea of sampling is somewhat taboo in my world. I did embrace the idea of sampling. In this record I really thought about it a lot. The [vaporwave] idea of slowing things down and repackaging was revelatory. It was a blip of internet culture five years ago, that came before witch house. It's a naff reference and tacky but I really think I could defend the merits of this little movement because I think it's really fascinating. Just being able to make music even though you're not a super good musician. It gets a bad rap but it's maybe something that people will tell you privately that they like it… but maybe they don't want it to be the headline of an article about them." Then he laughs.
Andrew's affection for a genre often a punchline—if referenced at all—is representational of a career and life that's never been overly concerned with being cool. Arguably when "Maps" is written about you, one has a bit more leeway in that area anyway, but Liars' disinclination to please tastemakers must be admired. Angus and I touch briefly on the backlash towards the band after their second album, but he seems not only disinterested but also largely unaware of posterity. (For the record, They Were Wrong, critically slammed upon its release, has it's pleasures and thrills if you're open to them). We talk about critical drubbings can't do what they once did, though he's more curious about why I think that is (the internet! More voices! It's a good thing!) He agrees, adding, "There's no authority."
When I say that people in bands might be the last people who give a shit about reviews because it still hurts our feelings, he says, "That's why I stopped reading those things. The Drums Not Dead period. I was like, 'this does no good.' It used to be so important to get the right review."
Being a consummate sweetie, he adds that he can't complain.
Zachary Lipez is a writer based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.