Liars - Angus Andrew on the Band's New Album: A Tidy Mess - Interview | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Liars - Angus Andrew on the Band’s New Album

A Tidy Mess

Mar 12, 2014 Liars
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Despite the fact that Liars first came to notoriety as representatives of New York’s early 2000s dance-punk scene, they’ve never really made music fit for the dance floor. Too eccentric, too chaotic, too misanthropic—their albums have placed them firmly on the margins, forming an idiosyncratic catalog of sounds that are constantly changing in tone and texture while largely remaining the same in spirit. That’s what makes their seventh full-length release, Mess, so surprising. The first half of the album is accessible in a way we haven’t quite heard from them—full of immediate hooks and anthemic choruses that nonetheless retain the band’s signature menace, with darkly snaking synth lines tangled around pounding drum machine beats and Angus Andrew’s yowling vocals. They’re the kinds of tracks that could, conceivably, turn up in the sort of dance clubs that once spun Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, even if the back half of the album settles down into a series of ethereal, mid-tempo grooves. Here, Andrew discusses the trio’s more spontaneous approach to songwriting, why Mess is more cathartic than bleak, and why being a mess is actually a good thing. [Note: There’s a separate article on Liars in our current print issue (Issue 49). These are portions of the interview with Angus Andrew not included in the print article. Pick up our current print issue to read more about Liars’ new album.]

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): You’ve described the process of making Mess as being more or less the opposite from making WIXIW. What were you intending to do differently this time around?

Angus Andrew: Just a more cleaned and refined kind of sound, a more immediate kind of thing. I just wanted the whole experience to be quicker and more spontaneous. So that kind of environment forces you to be that way a bit more, because you don’t have endless amounts of time, so the decisions you make you kind of go with them. That’s really what I was looking for on this record. Generally, I think we go from one extreme to the other, from record to record, and this one was really like the opposite from working on WIXIW. We just wanted to get in there and have a lot of fun and not think about it too much and just be immediate and off-the-cuff. WIXIW was very labored and very cerebral. It involved, for me, a lot of doubt and anxiety about working with computers and the whole process. I dove into that anxiety and used it as a concept to work with, but on this record I definitely wanted the opposite, where it was just about getting back to the idea of having fun and making music and not trying to overthink it too much.

Was there a particular reason you decided to spend less time working on this album than you spent on WIXIW?

With WIXIW, we went into it knowing that we wanted to take a lot of time, and when you go into a project thinking that way, you really do take a lot of time. [Laughs] We just made so many songs for that record, and when you do that it feels a bit like quicksand. You start getting stuck and mired down in all the material that you’ve made, and it’s hard to see through it and grab onto anything with much certainty, because you feel like, “Well, I have this other thing that I’m working on, as well.” With this it was the opposite. It was like, go in, make a bunch of songs, boom—that’s it. It really trimmed the fat off the whole process. It made it so much more casual and fun.

Did you know from the start that you wanted Mess to be a different kind of record?

Well, it’s interesting that the genesis of it really is a functional one. What happened was that after we finished WIXIW there was a lot of material there, and the label was interested in us putting out a second part to WIXIW that would be all that unreleased material. And they were interested in having us doing that pretty soon after we finished the touring cycle for WIXIW. So the first thing I did for this record was to go into the studio with all of that material to look at it and judge properly whether I thought we could put it out. And as soon as I went into the studio with that stuff, it was that immediate thing where there was a keyboard there and a drum machine, and you start doing something and you’re like, “Oh, my God! I love this.” It was more functionally this idea that the last record was this idea of learning how to use this computer programs and sounds—everything generated within the computer—and it was a pretty big learning curve for us, and it made it very anxiety-ridden for me. So [Mess] was much more immediate and visceral.

Do you think the spirit of those leftover tracks influenced the tone and texture of Mess?

I would think so. There were some ideas that certainly were coopted a bit, some seeds of some songs that never were taken care of properly when we were working on WIXIW, because we had too many songs to really nourish. So there were a few ideas there that I thought were worth continuing with. This is funny hearing me say this, but they came too easily, so for some reason we felt like they weren’t warranted, and we wanted to use the stuff that was much more of a grind or that took us longer to produce. So what it did was it left this space open to have more fun and create more of these up-tempo immediate things that we were so against before. That really is what comprises most of this record, I think—a lot of that stuff. I remember trying to explain why we made that decision, and I think we felt like when we were using these tools, the things that came most quickly and easily were this up-tempo dance music, and in a way we felt like because they were coming so easily it felt like the computer was dictating what we were creating. That gave us a weird feeling, I think. But this time, we didn’t really concern ourselves too much with that, because we spent too long in a cabin in the woods for that last record. It really spun out.

What was the first song you wrote for this record?

It was probably the most minimal song on the record, a song called “Can’t Hear Well.” Really, it’s just a simple keyboard line. Going into the studio, the keyboard there, you switch it on and you fool around with some knobs a bit and you get this sound. And you go, “Oh, my God! I love this sound. I’m just going to sing to it,” and suddenly before you know it, you have this song. And so that was the first one that came about and really easily. It was probably written in a few minutes. That doesn’t mean that you don’t labor over it; it doesn’t mean that I didn’t try to add a beat to it and a bass line. But you come back to it, and you go, “You know, it probably should just stay in its original form.” And that’s how it ended up.

How about “Mask Maker”? Those mutilated vocals really grab your attention, since that’s the first track.

I was interested in effecting my voice in an extreme way, and I was having trouble figuring out how to actually do that. I spent time looking at iPhone apps, some which would distort your voice in this crazy way, and I couldn’t really find anything, like proper tools, that did what I wanted. I ended up downloading a trial version of some voice manipulator, and basically the trial version said you’ve got 24 hours to use this, and you can only use these certain settings and that’s it. So I sat in my studio with this program and for the first 24 hours just sat there with a microphone talking to myself with this strange effect on and recording it, going on and on trying to get as much use out of it in the first hours that I could. So that’s where that ended up coming from, and it was a very off-the-cuff moment and another scenario that I feel epitomizes the whole view of the record. I think we could have thought about it long enough and said “I don’t think we should be doing this,” and [thought about] whether this is the right thing or the right sound for the first sound on the record, but it was really about having fun with it and enjoying it. We really didn’t question it too much.

How about the decision to frontload the album with the most up-tempo tracks and then use the second half of the album to feature the more mid-tempo and ethereal tracks?

Sequencing a record is something I can get heavily into and spend a lot of time thinking about. When you look back at sequencing you can go, “Whoa, that was a weird decision,” and I can see that in some of our past records. I guess my thought with this record was that I wanted it to feel like you could put the record on and maintain a certain level of mood for basically as long as possible. What I think I end up doing is sequencing a lot of these peaks-and-valleys vibes, where you have something up-tempo and then slow and then up—that kind of thing. I felt like I wanted to try and feel like you could put it on and maintain a level of something for a while. I also thought that the stuff that comes toward the end is—it’s debatable, but it’s a little more challenging on the listener, and part of me rationalized the idea that maybe people who listen through to the second half are more willing to take that challenge. I would go with the record on my headphones and go play basketball and listen to it and do different sequences. I think part of that first part of it was the idea that I’d be out there and I’d be at a certain level of intensity, and then something would bring it down and I’d be really frustrated. I wanted to put that all together in one side and have the first side be more up-tempo.

Some of the songs are really dark and aggressive, even for a Liars album.

I think naturally we’re pretty dark as it is. I think most of our records just inherently have that, and I think the only real difference here is how you spin that darkness. The songs about me having a fucked-up head, a messed-up head, but what do you do about that. How do you deal with that? Do you mire in that and utilize it in a dark way? Or do you try and take that and move forward with it? I think, if anything, the difference here is that there’s a darkness in what we do or who we are, but maybe this time it’s trying to utilize that in a way that’s more positive rather than just accepting it for what it is.

So Mess is a dark album, but would you say the darkness is more cathartic?

That’s in contrast to WIXIW, where it didn’t feel cathartic. It felt like acknowledging the difficulties and the problems and using them to make it even more difficult and problematic and wearing that as a badge. This felt more cathartic in the sense that it was like, “Okay, I’m acknowledging a problem, but I’m trying to move in a direction that makes me feel better about having a problem. It is a problem but I can make it feel like it’s something that’s useful, as opposed to something that’s a weight that is holding me down.” It’s just a question of perspective, really, and I think this one is a different way—an opposite way—of looking at an issue that has plagued us a lot in the past.

How about the decision to title the album Mess?

I think what I like is the idea of a mess is often in the eye of the beholder. I think there are situations or things that are created, an artwork for example, where one viewer could look at it and say, “Well, that’s just a mess of stuff.” But another viewer could look at it and see it as a piece of fine art, and that could generate a conversation. I think what is appealing about that is the duality of a mess and it not being a definitive idea. So with the mental state idea, it’s like “Well, you could be a mess in your head and that could be a problem, but you could see it in another way and use it as an ability to have a different perspective.” I think, in general, it’s this idea of a duality in terms of how a mess is perceived and how different people can perceive something in different ways. This record is off-the-cuff a bit more, so those intricacies and conceptual ideas haven’t been labored over, so I like the idea of a mess as being immediate, too.


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