When Liars released their first album, 2001’s They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, they were part of Williamsburg’s then-burgeoning music scene alongside bands like TV on the Radio and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But while the other bands grew into indie-rock titans, Liars got weirder: Their second album, 2003’s They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, dropped their debut’s swaggering dance-punk for songs mostly about German witch folklore. 2006’s Drum’s Not Dead, which sketched out a relationship between the fictional characters Drum and Mt. Heart Attack, was another fascinating doozy, and maintained the band’s sterling critical reputation. Then came 2007’s Liars, a surprisingly straightforward batch of awesome rock songs. With their latest, Sisterworld, out yesterday, the band seems to have found a balance between their two poles, providing both exceptional standalone moments and a unifying theme. Vulture chatted with Liars’ Australian front man, Angus Andrew, about the dark side of L.A, not fitting in, and Whitney Houston. (Fun fact! Andrew and Karen O dated, and “Maps” is about him.)
Hey, Amos. That’s a cool name. I wrote a story about a guy named Amos. I think it was about me, but I didn’t want to call myself myself, so I called myself Amos.
Ha, nice. So, your last album was more accessible than your past conceptual albums. Did you guys have a discussion before the recording as to what kind of album you’d be trying to make this time?
Yeah, you bring up a big point, ‘cause it’s a real tricky line that we walk, with our records being quote unquote conceptual. The last record was an experiment to see what it would be like to make a record that didn’t have a wealth of meaning overarching the whole thing … just to put songs together, in a way that we see other bands doing it. It made me realize that what I enjoy about making albums the most is giving an album a sense of its own life and identity. It’s not just a bunch of songs. That experiment made us realize what’s important to us and to stick with that, regardless of how complicated it can get.
Without forcing you to spell it out, what does the term Sisterworld mean?
With this one we wanted to make sure that it wasn’t too defined. One of the problems about this conceptual notion is that it’s almost like the listener needs to get the answer before they can enjoy the record, you know what I mean? Which is not a good position to be in. Sisterworld should really be a loose definition of somewhere or someplace that people can escape to, when everything that they’re dealing with in their real world is just too much. It could be something completely mental, like a digital space: They get on the Internet and find freedom there. It might be as simple as you have a horrible day at work, and you decide you want to spend the night with your bed sheets over your head. Being in L.A. and witnessing some of the parts that are disturbing about it really was an inspiration for us to find this “sisterworld.”
What about L.A. disturbs you?
L.A. is really interesting for the idea of what people think it is. Its image around the world is of a beautiful celebrity haven with palm trees and expensive cars — which is obviously here, but L.A. has so much more in it than just that. For me, it’s probably one of the most violent or frightening places I’ve ever lived in, and I’ve lived in quite a few places around the world. It’s got to do with the idea that people are in their cars and they feel safe, and then the actual landscape that they’re traveling through is pretty much left untouched … there’s a massive stream of homeless people, and downtown is kind of their world. People gaze out the window when they’re driving down the freeway, but they don’t really interact. The reality of what’s going on is really disturbing. At the same time that I’m being critical, it’s also kind of a love/hate. I feel that way generally with most of America.
You’re classified as indie rock, but you don’t really fit in right now: You’re often loud and aggressive, when most of the popular indie-rock acts right now, bands like Vampire Weekend and Grizzly Bear, are very pretty and intricate. Is that something you think about?
Man, I feel you. I’m glad you say that. You’ve hit a nail on part of the reason of our general issue of alienation with … you know it’s hard to describe with what, but with the milieu? [Laughs.] Our generation? We feel a disconnection with a lot of the music that we hear coming out, especially when it is so positive and celebratory. It is beautiful, too, and I can understand that, but there’s this loss of visceral connection. It seems to be describing a world that I’m certainly not living in. It can be really troubling, and it filters through a lot of the American culture. Being optimistic and upbeat is practically how you can define American culture, in comparison to a place like … I don’t know, I just heard this thing about the Danish, who I think are regarded as the happiest people in the world, because their expectations are just a little lower [laughs]. In America there’s this idea where you should always be giving up this notion of happiness and cheerfulness because it’s a sign of prosperity and success. It’s tricky to deal with if you can’t connect with that. Especially in a place like L.A., that attitude is really prevalent, it’s almost like people surgically have smiles put on their faces. Sometimes you’re at the checkout at the supermarket, and you’re assaulted with friendliness. And when you feel like you’re not on that same level, well, it makes you question: “Well, why don’t I feel that way? Is there something wrong with me that I don’t have this celebratory positive party attitude about what’s going on?”
There’s this lack of this other voice in the culture, and I think that’s what we need to be. I feel like it’s a more realistic view. Some people take it as a down, negative thing. It’s more, we wouldn’t bring it up if this other idea weren’t so prevalent. I don’t know if it’s Obama getting elected that makes people feel like everything is going to be okay, but certainly it just doesn’t feel like that here, and I’m sure it doesn’t feel like that to a lot of people.
On a similar note, you guys came up as part of the early aughts Williamsburg scene. Looking back, did you feel a real connection with the bands back then, or was it a media-buzz thing?
Generally I would say, yeah, it only comes to fruition when it’s a media idea, but certainly when I look back on it, being in New York at that time was really important to us, and also really exciting in terms of the other work that was being done there. And particularly the idea that Brooklyn was still a little bit uncharted: It made the idea of playing in Brooklyn, which was usually in someone’s loft or warehouse, really special, compared to when we had to play in a normal club in Manhattan. I remember we felt a real bond with the other bands when were playing in these Brooklyn spaces. I guess some of that got lost a bit. I really felt like there was a connection. I don’t know if it was a musical one, but it was an exciting period. To me, at the time, you can’t help but point at what happened on September 11. It was like this big arrow pointing at New York, and saying, “This is the most important place in the world right now, so listen to it.” I felt like that when we were working there.
The visual component of Liars has always been incredible, and you also have an arts background: Does the traditional gallery space interest you at all?
Nooo … that’s the great thing about art school: It teaches you great ideas about how to express yourself, but then it makes you realize how vapid and superficial the art scene is, and the whole gallery world. By the end of art school, you’re fighting to get out of the gallery space, and music, to me, is such a much more immediate way of connecting with people that doesn’t involve this hierarchy of intellect and white space.
You’re also putting out a Sisterworld remix album featuring contributions from Thom Yorke, Blonde Redhead, and a lot more great acts. What was the process of soliciting the remixes?
We sat down with the list of tracks, and we put a name next to each track considering what we thought an artist could do with it. We sent out e-mails and phone calls to people, some we knew, some we didn’t, and just asked them. The amazing thing was that no one said no. We were like, “Wow, really, you’re going to do it? I mean, should I try and think of some crazier people to ask? I don’t know, Whitney Houston?” I think possibly the reason why everyone said yes was because we were so adamant that there were no rules. There wasn’t a need to try and attempt to make some sort of common understanding of what a remix is supposed to be, you know, a 4/4 beat and a long intro. We said to them, “You can go away and record your toilet flushing for three minutes, and that would be really interesting.”