Liars have never been a band to conform or be easily defined. Since the reactive title of their debut, We Threw Them All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top, they have consistently challenged expectations of what type of band they should be at every step of their career. From exploring percussion, through the use of fictional characters on the fan-dividing Drums Not Dead to creating a whole story album about their hometown of LA on 2010’s Sisterworld, Liars have never been anyone else’s band except their own.
This has never been more apparent than with the release of their sixth album, WIXIW, an album that has Liars vigorously shaking-up the formula once again. Revealed via cryptic clips on the band’s tumblr earlier this year, the record, unlike previous releases, was written by the band as a group and also saw them experimenting with computer software for the first time. Critically lauded, WIXIW is an awe-inspiring listen that tilters on a tight-rope between tension and calm and feelings of extreme hope and absolute loss - it's an unnerving yet utterly rewarding listen.
Meeting the Liars in the lobby of their Hackney hotel the day after their sold-out XOYO show, Angus, Aaron and Julian are sleepy yet in good spirits. Assuming the natural role of band’s spokesman, Angus answers every question with equal heartfelt interest and intensity. Aaron, softly spoken to the point of a whisper, occasionally joins in to flesh out Angus’ responses, whilst Julian for the most part sits quietly watching the others in-between plaiting his hair and taking sips of much-needed coffee.
As Maroon 5’s ‘Moves Like Jagger' (a sonic moon away from the topic at hand) plays over the bar’s PA, the band talk in-depth about using computer software for the first time, the need to keep on challenging themselves as artists, and what prompted them to let some guy wrap them head-to-toe in cellophane and bundled them into a transit van.
How was last night's show at XOYO?
Angus: It was fun. It’s kinda tough sometimes for us, because of the smaller clubs and getting our very elaborate stage set-up correct and sounding right from a technical standpoint. But, generally the feeling there was really nice.
You played at Field Day too at mid-afternoon on the main stage when the sun was out. It was quite strange to watch.
Angus: Yeah, that was really weird. Maybe this record shouldn’t be played in the sun.
The atmosphere on WIXIW is very introspective and there’s tension running throughout. What did you want to achieve when you started recording it? What atmosphere did you want to create?
Angus: I think the kind of atmosphere started to dictate itself by us focusing on the process more this time. And because the process was so internalised with using the computer and doing a lot more work collaboratively, it just started to evoke more personal anxiety and fear. I think on our records in the past we’ve kind of talked about that but mostly in a way by projecting it onto other subject matter, and this is the first time it went very introspective. I don’t know if we necessarily decided that that was what we wanted to do at the start, but we did decide to let the process dictate what happened with the theme and mood of it and I think that’s the result.
It does seem like a more personal record, especially in comparison to Sisterworld . Lyrically, from the outset this record seems to have much more of a personal narrative. What experiences influenced that?
Angus: Normally, as you mentioned with Sisterworld, when we begin a record we agree on a subject matter and, almost always in the past, it’s been an objective subject matter that we can study and analyze and say, ‘ok, we’re going to talk about this’. This time we just kind of left that space blank and I think sort of naturally as part of the process we began to talk more about ourselves, which is obviously a lot more frightening. It’s not something that we ever really wanted to do.
Aaron: I think that in this album coming out more introspective, it’s not that we felt a certain way to write a song that expresses that, it’s often sometimes we find out something about ourselves that we didn’t know in making the song. That can be very frightening as you may not be able to gauge how far off the deep-end you may be in one spectrum or the other.
Our work doesn’t lie about our state, it says more than we can verbally, if that makes sense? It’s like a snowball effect as we’re working and things are coming out more introspectively. It seemed to get more and more intense and dark through the release of it and not the work process - it just formed a picture of ourselves, parts of ourselves.
Sisterworld was quite an aggressive record whereas WIXIW is more reflective and existential.
Angus: Yeah, it’s true. Maybe this is the first record where we’ve not been aggressive and haven’t had to shout about it and that’s a big step for us. I think it’s got to do with this inward-looking way of working. I think, overall, it’s kind of a good step and a difficult thing to do, to sit back and bit and be more relaxed with the approach.
Rather than working separately and then bringing your ideas forward like you’ve done on past albums, for this record you worked together in one location. How did that work? Was it a harder process?
Angus: It was a bit more difficult in the sense that in the past we’ve felt comfortable going-off in our own directions and working alone, because you have a chance during that time to develop your own confidence about your own ideas and take them to a point where you feel they’re strong enough to bring to the band. In this way of working you don’t get that opportunity - it’s very back and forth with a lot of moments of, ‘I feel really shitty as it’s not as good as I thought it was’. It’s harder maybe just because we haven’t done it in a while and maybe because collaboration is hard in that way. In the end, we both agree that it feels a lot more rewarding.
Do you think it’s something that could only happen now, because as a band you’ve been together over a decade and there’s that level of trust there to share those ideas?
Angus: Yeah, but also we’re always trying to look for ways to shake-up the process and look for ways to not get caught in a comfortable pattern of working, and that’s definitely one of the ways we’ve been working that’s been going on for a long time. It seemed that it was about time that we shook it up as since we began we’ve been doing these individual style of working. It was just another way we thought of to make things more interesting.
Critics have describing WIXIW as your first electro album. Do you agree with that?
Angus: Yeah, it’s tough with that label as it connotes this idea of electronic music, but I do agree with it in a sense that our process was electronic - we really relied on a computer to do everything. Whether the results sound like a stereotypical electronic album is maybe beside the point, maybe if you just focus on the way that we made it then yeah I think it’s an electronic record.
With the record you used computer programmes for the first time and you were learning as you went. Was that an intimidating and challenging experience?
Angus: Yeah. With a lot of the first parts of writing we’d be excited to make a song, but really had to sit there and read manuals all day. Like I said earlier, that way of working and that process really started to inform the subject matter and the way the record feels lyrically, as there’s a lot of doubt and anxiety and fear about the way we were doing it. Also, we were stepping into this world of using software and programmes that we didn’t know how use and that we knew a lot of other people would know how to use better than we did. Stepping into this world that was foreign to us and where there’s real experts you get this real sense of, ‘I don’t know if we’re good at this or not’.
You had Daniel Miller [producer and founder of Mute Records] helping out. Did that ease the process of working with new technology?
Angus: Absolutely. He’s an electronic guru...genius, so what we really wanted was his advice to get into that world and he did alleviate some of the pressure of us not really knowing the typical tropes of doing electronic music - like whether this snare sound is a common sound or not. On the other side of the coin, it was another element of more collaboration than we usually do where we brought Daniel in and allowed for his opinion much earlier on in the process, so again there’s this doubt brought into the process. Before, we used to make something that we felt really strong about and say, ‘here you go, Daniel’. Whereas in this way we would play him scraps of things and would say, ‘I don’t know, do you know?’ There’s much more of a possibility of questioning yourself.
It seems like a very brave thing to do as a lot of bands stick with doing what they know and what their fans like, whereas on each album you challenge yourselves, whether that be in you moving location or coming up with a story for an album. Is that one of the main things that’s important to you as a band? What makes you want to keep doing it?
Aaron: I think so, it’s something that we can control and have a perspective on and it’s a non-creative objective that we can all agree on and stick to - it just makes sense. I don’t know if we see any other way of doing it to stay interested and excited about what we make and doing whatever it takes to make the best with what we can.
I watched video clips that preceded the release of the album, which you uploaded to your tumblr account. Did you create the clips to illustrate to fans how the process was working?
Angus: Yeah, kind of. But also not to show too much as well. We’ve never really interacted with this social networking medium, or whatever that’s really prominent nowadays, and it felt like it was about time that we thought about how we could tackle it.
I think we weren’t interested in doing what is common, which is just to reveal standard information about the process like, ‘this is where we’re recording, this is where we’re sleeping, this is what we’re eating’ - the banal information. We were interested in bringing up ideas of disinformation and the idea of almost the natural way that people feel when they get information from the internet that it’s kind of somehow true, especially if it’s coming from a band about their work immediately then it’s assumed it’s the real thing. What we were interested in is seeing where that line can blur and making it a bit mysterious and involving their imagination more in the posting, rather than giving out these blocks of information.
I suppose that’s how art should be - it should be open to interpretation, rather than someone telling you how it should be.
Angus: Exactly. I think we just needed to be able to approach it in a more conceptual way than giving out personal information about ourselves, which we’re not interested in giving. It’s nice to interact in some way, so we tried to tread the line between reality and disinformation.
The clips are very random. One shows a woman watering a garden and another one has fruit being hooked-up to an effects pedal. Where did you get inspiration for the clips? Were you behind the creation of each clip?
Angus: Yeah, we decided early on that we had a plan for how we wanted to approach it - we didn’t want to do this rudimentary sort of thing. We started off with a framework within how we wanted to approach it, which was to reveal ideas but not make them too literal and let them evolve and to really have fun and be creative with it.
Did you work on them at the same time as recording the album?
All of your albums have a strong visual aesthetic, Sisterworld had an interactive website and pull-out artwork and you did three films for Drums Not Dead. Is it important for you join up the visual side with the audio on your albums?
Angus: Yeah, I just think we have a lot of fun with it.
Julian: We’re all creative people and it’s nice to take breaks and work visually on things.... We just enjoy it and we also can’t give too much creative control to anyone else as we’re sort of dictatorial and like to be hands-on.
What was the visual concept behind this album? It’s very monotone and stark compared to your other releases.
Angus: Like you said, the last album we did had very elaborate packaging and I think part of our goal on this one was to make it simple. We all really felt strongly about the title as sort of a visual kind of thing and really wanted to just allow that to take the centre role, which isn’t often the case - I don’t think Sisterworld had the title on the cover.
Aarron. No, it doesn’t.
Angus: We go through a lot of back-and-forth in terms of that kind of decision, but in the end it just came down to the simplicity of relying on how strong WIXIW looks as a word.
Julian: A title that worked visually and aurally in both ways. We wanted to focus more on that rather than what the artwork was to represent it.
Is it related to the message of the album of wishing for something or wanting something? Where did it come from as a concept?
Aaron: That’s one of the meanings behind it. There’s reasons behind the title and it ranges from it being a pretty looking word to it being a palindrome. It’s explanatory to the process that we went through and sometimes to the solutions that we found in the song-writing process that were sometimes very old and primary solutions, which did feel a bit disappointing after so much hard-work.
The idea of wishing for something also came from the idea that sometimes if a wish is fulfilled it can take you back to where you were before you wished for it – like a palindrome.
It’s now public knowledge that the title means ‘wish you’, but before this what was the weirdest interpretation you had of the title?
Angus: The obvious one that came first, and I don’t think any of us had thought much about, was the association with roman numerals; it’s kind of interesting, I like the idea of people trying to add up the numbers or find some sort of meaning in that. I think one of the exciting things but something that also deterred us was initially when Aaron came up with the title for a song we all really loved it, but we also saw how it could be really difficult - the pronunciation and the explanation of it was going to be something that we were going to have to deal with.
I think it was nice in the early part that we liked the way people were pronouncing it. I think it is interesting how people can have so many different ways of saying it, but I think eventually we had to make it clear because otherwise every time we sat down with someone they’d ask us how it was pronounced. I think that’s one of the most exciting things about it is the possibility of it being interpreted in different ways.
It seems to be part of your overall process of wanting to engage your fans.
Angus: Yeah, sometimes people ask us why we never print our lyrics and I think that’s also another reason why as it leaves this door open for possible interpretation as opposed to a listener listening to it and saying, ‘what’s he saying? Oh that’s what he’s saying’ and it kind of ends there. It’s nice to have this open ended possibility of interpretation where people can hear completely different things.
Do you think that’s why your lyrics are more sloganeering rather than full-on prose?
Angus: Yeah, it’s interesting to work in both ways. I think with this record we were trying to evoke a mood rather than anything literal and so our approach generally to the songwriting was very different than the last record, where we were dealing with much more traditional ideas of song-writing...how to write a song that is verse-chorus-verse as a challenge, as an experiment. With this record we realised we were generally more interested in sound and mood as opposed to these normal tropes of song-writing.
The lineage of the album is very loud-quiet-loud. Did you deliberately arrange the tracklisting to also evoke that mood?
Angus: Yeah. I mean we’ve spoken about it, but in a way you can also use the album title to reference how the album moves; it starts and finishes in a similar way and in the middle there’s this sort of intensity. Laying out the sequencing is a really important part for us to help the listener get through the work in the way that you want them to.
I think the album is, and I hate to use the phrase, a grower as it gets under your skin after time.
Angus: It’s a common thing that the ones that aren’t immediate to you are kind of the ones that affect you the most, right? I mean, I don’t know if that’s always true but I think we always understand or we’ve always understood that our music isn’t necessarily the easiest or simplest to grasp. I think we’re interested in challenging the listener a bit and I think that’s what we do, if we like it or not, it’s inherent in the work that we do. It’s not necessarily going to be super easy, even if we tried to do something straight forward and pop people would then be a little flummoxed about how to deal with that.
Where did the idea for the video for ‘No.1 Against The Rush’ come from? Were you involved in the concept?
Aaron: That video was developed by Todd Cole. Basically since the ‘Plaster Cast [Of Everything]’ video we’ve been interested in the idea of the director having free reign over their interpretation of the song as in their story for the video. We select the video more on the visual elements; like the 'Scissor' video we really liked the idea of it being shot on the water. We didn’t really meddle with the story-line, it was all really his idea that he came-up with it after listening to the song.
How did that sit with you when he said, ‘I want to bundle you into the back of a van and wrap you in cellophane’?
Angus: I mean, the other thing is we get a lot of treatments when we put out the idea that we want to make a video and sometimes we’re really surprised about how varied and off the mark they can be, it’s really quite surprising. Like Aaron said, we’re really keen to narrow it down to something simple that we like about it and Todd had said that, apart from all the abduction stuff, that he wanted to shoot it at night in Los Angeles and show a night portrait of Los Angeles and that in itself, like the water in the Scissor video, was really something that grabbed-us and then beyond that we were hands-off.
Going back to what you said about challenging people’s perception of you Drums Not Dead really polarised people and it didn’t have a great reception when it was originally released, whereas now people do have a lot of praise for it. Do you feel vindicated in a way?
Angus: It’s the case with a lot of our records, and to be honest, I don’t know if we keep track of it that much... it’s kinda of hard to. Some people like some of our stuff and some people like other parts of it and in the end that stuff is really peripheral to us. I mean it’s important for us to be into what we make and the only way for that to happen is for us to be honest about what we’re excited about, and beyond that I think we’re really lucky that people want to talk to us about it. We do hope that people can connect to it, but it’s hard for us to ever think about tailoring it to any specific group.
In the twelve years you’ve been together as a band you’ve appeared to be able to do what you want with your career, which is quite unique in the current climate where bands are getting a lot of pressure to do what their record company tells them to do. How do you think you’ve managed to maintain that creative independence?
Angus: A lot of credit has to go to our label - which is Mute - as they’ve really allowed us this freedom to do what we want. We have a lot of friends in bands where they’ve been in situations where they’ve literally been told what they’ve got to do or they can’t do it. I think in a way we’ve been lucky that we got in the right situation early on with our label, and I think also we’ve never really allowed that outside influence to bother us. Right from the start we’ve taken the initiative to make what we want and I think in the end people respect that, if you take the chance and the risk in doing that.
Finally, at your shows and in your press shots you’ve all smartened up and started wearing suits. What’s with the suits?
Julian: We’re mature now, we’re older.
Angus: In our normal lives we don’t do things where we get to dress-up and it’s kind of fun when we can take on that way of dressing-up when we go onstage - it makes it an event for us. In a way, it puts you in a different mindset as opposed to getting up there in your street clothes.
WIXIW is out now.