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FILTER 48: Liars: Three Men, A Plan

By Marty Sartini Garner; photos by Liars on June 1, 2012


FILTER 48: Liars: Three Men, A Plan

Doubt has cast Liars into a vast and hostile heath. “This is what we all go through; we all have this sense of uncertainty and doubt that’s part of our process,” Angus Andrew says, talking both about the creation of his band’s new record and about human life, “but for us it’s important to go through that, so that you know you’re doing something that’s beyond your normal scope.” When the Liars frontman speaks about the relationship between the beginning and end of things, of venturing out and into the wilderness to be gashed and bruised, he speaks in earnest. Andrew is right, and if he’s right against all reasonable odds, it’s because he and his band are almost always right against all reasonable odds.

Over 10 years, Liars—Andrew, along with co-founder and co-songwriter Aaron Hemphill and percussionist Julian Gross—have strung together a series of records that don’t seem to belong in the same store, much less the same discography. A shuffle of the group’s catalogue is just as likely to draw the ur-dancepunk hit “Mr. Your On Fire Mr.” as it is the cobbled, pencil-scratched sound collage of “Read the Book That Wrote Itself.” For 2006’s Drum’s Not Dead, Andrew and Hemphill dragged tribally intense drumming to the front of the soundstage and reduced their guitars to fluttering in vain panic against the backdrop. Liars arrived 18 months later like nothing had ever happened, spraying furious guitar-buzz, and on 2010’s Sisterworld the group was as comfortable guruing back and forth like Nick Cave as they were scoring bassoons and woodwinds to the mouse-motor percussion of a camera’s zoom lens. Liars, it would seem, haven’t merely built their identity around a refusal to have a coherent identity; they’ve turned the juke into an aesthetic.

It’s inevitable, then, that the new WIXIW (pronounced “wish-you”) could only have come from Liars, if only because it sounds at first spin like nothing else Liars have ever done. Gone are Sisterworld’s howling fantods and Liars’ grated nerves. If the guitars of Drum’s Not Dead were reduced to worrisome bit parts, here they’re lucky to make the playbill. The record’s nearly all-digital landscape is loamy with the thump of padded drums, orbited by spectral washes of synth-string and scarred by rejiggered found-sound. “There’s this great period early on where it’s all about experimentation,” Andrew says of the album’s recording process. “You’re just developing and cataloging hundreds of interesting sounds that you’ve created. Let a razor loose on the floor—what’s that sound like?” They recorded rags dripping into a tin pan and mounted mics on the front end of a thick janitorial broom that swept the studio’s concrete floors, but the sounds themselves are smudged to the point of illegibility, buried beneath pitchshifting piles of distortion, reverb and delay, and finally subjected to some of the tightest, most controlled songwriting of the group’s career. While the first listen of every new Liars release can be disorienting for fans of prior records, the fact that Liars are able to turn in an album that somehow bears their sonic fingerprints without once turning to the punk blasts of their previous work is almost too dizzying to bear. The shift in sound is so stark that Hemphill calls WIXIW “the antithesis to what we did on Sisterworld.”

“We knew from the start that we wanted to approach the record from this electronic standpoint,” Andrew says. “It’s natural and normal for us to look for some sort of challenge every time we make a record. You want to take on some new way of approaching the whole thing, and I felt like this was one realm that we’d never fully tried to attack.” Mute, Liars’ record label since their 2004 album, They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, made its name on the pensive kind of dance music in which Depeche Mode (themselves life-long Mute artists) have long specialized. The label’s current stock, which also includes M83 and Goldfrapp, skews in that same direction. “We have a great relationship with Daniel Miller, who runs the label, and who is a kind of virtuoso, and who is well-revered in the electronic music world,” Andrew says. “We felt like it was time to take advantage of that base of knowledge and see what could happen.”

Despite Miller’s expert guidance, WIXIW did not come easy. Andrew and Hemphill have never been collaborative writers, choosing instead to sculpt and refine their ideas in private before presenting them to one another for criticism. “[For WIXIW,] we forced ourselves to play each other ideas that were very new and rudimentary, so we didn’t have the chance to develop the sense that what we were doing was absolutely what we wanted to do,” Andrew says. Exposing the raw scraps of sound to one another was a challenge, despite the decade-plus that Andrew and Hemphill have worked together. “It’s not like these were finished songs that we might refrain from criticizing because of the amount of work the other had put into it,” Hemphill says. “It opens the song to more criticism. It’s more difficult, but it’s also much more rewarding when you have to pass one another’s tests.”

“As soon as we started it, we were fraught with the anxiety of how to use this technology in a ‘correct’ way, and whether or not we could actually do that,” Andrew adds. “That anxiety seeped into the rest of the record.” Uncertainty does permeate WIXIW, from the streaking, paranoid synth horns in the title track to the skittish percussion that undergirds “Octagon”’s predatory lurch. An unnamed, free-floating angst is perhaps the strongest thread that laces together Liars’ discography, but WIXIW’s cold tones are inescapable. There are no bangers here, nothing to dance and get lost to, no “Scarecrows on a Killer Slant” to get the crowd moving. And that’s perhaps WIXIW’s most chilling effect. Even at its most discordant, it never seems to lose control of itself. Nothing is shambolic; deep in its recesses, there is no crack, and so no light gets in. Even at their most terrifying—Drum’s Not Dead’s house-intruder anthem “It Fit When I Was a Kid,” say—the sheer force of Liars’ playing has always served as a kind of totem; if nothing else, it reminded the listener that something was standing between them and the fear, mediating. WIXIW is far more insular, which makes it somehow more powerful, a convex void forever on the verge of swallowing its creators.

“The fact that the title spells such a simple phrase in such a complicated way is an underlining of our anxiety to say something simple, but it’s always heard as ‘X’s and ‘W’s,” Hemphill says. “We’ve always tried to make simple sentiments felt through our records, and sometimes that gets complicated, whether by us or by something else.” The nexus of angst, doubt and self-consciousness isn’t exactly uncharted territory for rock and roll; musicians have been building whole civilizations there at least since Black Sabbath first killed themselves to live. In fact, the area’s become so well-trod that it’s exceedingly rare for the raw vegetation of doubt to reclaim the music itself. In that regard, “wish-you” might as well be the sound of a hot breeze blowing through the weeds and jungle trash of an overgrown canopy.

Lost among the “X”s and “W”s of the group’s cubist discography is a band whose identity has become quite stable. For all of the confounding changes in the group’s sound, and for every suggestion that their art is forever in flux, their recorded history isn’t the splattered chaos that it sometimes seems. Despite its difference from the organic warmth of Sisterworld, WIXIW frequently flashes its sonic DNA. Andrew has perfected the falsetto that he’s been hammering out since Drum’s Not Dead, and otherwise sings in the shamanic rumble that has become his trademark. The synth that purrs throughout “No. 1 Against the Rush” melts against its own structure in the chorus, sliding back and forth against the beat in a rhythmic morass, and “A Ring on Every Finger”’s rhythm section is built around stalking bass and a tribal collage of clattering sticks and uttered backing vocals that are primal enough to make Drum proud. “In some ways,” Andrew says, “it’s important to cut the legs off of everything we figure out and start again,” and while each of the group’s LPs feels as though they’ve been hacked out of the creative wilderness, it’s the small coherences of personality—the leftover bits above the legs—that make such experimentation possible. A Liars album is always a ledger of disciplined creative confusion.

It’s the walk into and out of that confusion that gives WIXIW its thematic power. The record’s bookends, “The Exact Colour of Doubt” and “Annual Moon Words,” are wide open and loose, powered by acoustic guitars and handclaps and electronics that pulse like solar flares. The two songs stand in relief to their surroundings, in both senses of that word. “The Exact Colour of Doubt” rotates inwards, gathering the last of the dissolving light before the record closes in on itself completely, while “Annual Moon Words” rolls away the stone. Like its title, the record is a palindrome. It’s a mirror image of itself, an arduous journey that ends in essentially the same place that it begins, if not the same way. “If you think about that in terms of some sort of process, then it could be seen as a negative thing: you go through this whole year of work and end up at the same spot,” Andrew says. “But to me, and I think in terms of creative processes, that’s actually a pretty positive result. You start off with an idea, and go through a million different ways of looking at it, and then you end with the same idea. It’s like it edifies your original thought and it makes you feel like you’ve done something right. I think that, in some ways, that’s a hard thing for people who don’t go through this kind of process to grasp. You’d think that you’d want to end up with a ‘Z’ rather than a ‘W.’”

For WIXIW, that willingness to fling oneself into the unknown and confront one’s doubts head-on in the service of something larger echoes all the way back to the record’s humbling inception, to the group’s willingness to test their vaguest ideas against one another. “You have to deal at that point with much more uncertainty in regards to your band members and the other people who are listening, because you’re putting it out there in a more naked position,” Andrew says. “I think in the end, it’s totally beneficial.”

Andrew is right, and if he’s right against all reasonable odds, it’s because he and his band are almost always right against all reasonable odds. When the Liars frontman speaks about the relationship between the beginning and end of things, of the virtue of venturing out and into the wilderness and arriving back at his point of departure with a battery of gashes and bruises, he speaks in earnest. “This is what we all go through; we all have this sense of uncertainty and doubt that’s part of our process,” Angus Andrew says, “but for us it’s important to go through that, so that you know you’re doing something that’s beyond your normal scope.” Doubt has cast Liars into a vast and hostile heath. They’ve fought back. F

This article is from FILTER Issue 48