Q&A: Liars' Angus Andrew On Basketball, Experimenting With Electronics, And How Visiting New York Is Disorienting
The globe-hopping music deconstructionist wonders in Liars revolutionized and jumpstarted the stagnant Brooklyn scene in the early 2000s with a bass-thumping, clatter-soaked dance-punk behemoth (They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top). Then they switched things up, and founders Angus Andrew and Aaron Hemphill rid themselves of their friggin' awesomer-than-thou rhythm section.
Turns out that questionable decision turned out to be Liars' epochal moment. Liars instantly distinguished itself from the growing pack of stale disco-punkers, with the move allowing Andrew, Hemphill and drummer Julian Gross to reinvent themselves album by album. In 2004, they released a creepy gloom-n-doom witch hunt soundtrack (They Were Wrong, So We Drowned); in 2006 they put out a percussive-damaged, dissonant mind-bender (Drums Not Dead); in 2007 they dropped an album of from-the-dungeon sonic guitar avant-rock (Liars); and in 2010 they wrote a love/hate letter to Los Angeles (Sisterworld).
Liars have returned with yet another facelift, WIXIW (pronounced "wish you"). Fittingly, it's Liars' definitive "Mute record"a sinewy, electronics-heavy, disturbing-dream sound collage, done with the advisory of Mute founder and electronic master Daniel Miller.
Sound of the City caught Andrew at his hotel as he returned to New York for tour to talk not only music but lot of sports, including what it would be like to have a Liars song playing as Chris Paul and his fellow Los Angeles Clippers run up the tunnel and onto the court at the Staples Cneter.
I hear you guys are huge L.A. Clippers fans.
Are you following the NBA Finals or is it too bittersweet for you to watch since the Clippers were eliminated?
No, we've been following it. But what's tricky is we've just come back from Europe so we've had to watch games at, like, four in the morning, streaming on some pirate internet platform. But yeah, it's fun, man. I like being able to watch basketball. I like it.
Are you bummed the Clippers play in the same arena as the Lakers [the Staples Center]?
[laughs] I'm bummed that we have to share a city with those people. But, you know, in a way, it's been kinda nice cuz we've always been these kinda bastard stepson of the Lakers. But slightly more and more we're coming up to take over.
L.A.'s got a Stanley Cup champion now, the Kings.
I know! I feel like I need to get on that. I've never been a hockey guy so I am pretty out of it in that sense. But still it's kinda great because I do know they were severe underdogs and that's always worth rooting for.
When you lived in New York, were you guys Knicks fans?
Oh, yeah! That was like [the] Latrell Sprewell [era].
Yeah, the late '90s/early 2000s, when the Knicks still had that thug thing going on.
[laughs] ... and [they] did pretty well. I think we just ended paying Allan Houston a little too much money.
Oh, man. That dude works for the Knicks now.
[laughs] I know. I think they forced him to because he got such a good contract.
Yeah, he got like a ridiculous 100 million dollar contract. I can't remember how many years it was for.
I know, I know. It was crazy and it was cool because they had Van Gundy as the little, funny coach. Good times.
Then the Knicks sucked for so many years after that and still kinda suck.
Yeah, yeah. We kinda left [New York] right at the right time, I think, ya know.
So is it weird that Liars are debunking that theory that punks shouldn't like sports, that whole punks vs. jocks thing?
[laughs] Yeah, I mean, I guess. I kinda don't know if that's been a reality recently. I'm not too sure if that's weird or not. I think a lot of people enjoy sports; I'm just not sure if they admit or something, maybe they don't. We've actually talked to quite a few people and asked them if they are into it. I always find it pretty surprising that you can just avoid that, you know. But, well, ya know.
Do you go to Clippers games a lot in L.A.?
Yeah, I mean, we used to more when the Clippers were broke, get in there for cheap. But more and more we've had to, you know, just go less and less. I did get in to see a couple of the playoff games against Memphis.
The Clippers are way better now, so I assume they have a lot more fans.
Oh, yeah, yeah. Fairweather friends. [Laughs]
And on WIXIW, the song "No. 1 Against the Rush" references some football lingo. You guys are hardcore.
[laughs] It's all coming back to us now. I kinda didn't envision all that adding up but it's true, yeah. It's lucky we didn't include the song called "Clipper Vision."
Liars could write the theme song for the Clippers or something.
Oh, man, that would be a dream.
The Clippers would run out from the tunnel onto the court and a Liars song would be blasting.
Yeah, that would be a dream.
Is basketball your favorite part of Los Angeles?
Oh, I guess it is definitely one of the things which keeps me there [laughs]. I dunno, L.A., as with quite a lot like America, I kinda go through a bit of a love/hate relationship with it all, ya know? I definitely was excited about Los Angeles when we made the Sisterworld record and was really into sort of analyzing and discussing it. But by the time we made WIXIW, I'd just really, really had gotten to the point where I wanted to get away from it and isolate us from that. So, yeah, it's really if I ever think about leaving it, the basketball is probably what I'd miss most, probably.
What don't you like about L.A.?
Uh... I dunno. I think it's a great city, it's an interesting place. I just don't know if it's where I wanna be. There's particular, practical things obviously, like the area where I live, it's not necessarily the safest place. For example, I live with my girlfriend and she's got on her speed dial by the phone you can call this number that tells you why there's a helicopter hovering over your house [laughs]. And they gotta tell you when you call up and they are like "There's domestic disturbance. Shut your door." That happens frequently enough that we go on the speed dial. So, that kinda stuff after a while if you're not sort of into it in this critical, kind of analytical way, it starts to become a little bit too subjective.
When you come back to New York for tour or whatever, does it feel like a sort of homecoming because Liars began here?
In a way, I guess it would be nice if it felt like that but I think New York has changed so much. It's a place, one of the cities in the world, which I think evolves faster than any other. It's almost like the landscape has completely changed that it's almost hard to recognize, in a sense. But, we definitely have really fond memories of the time we spent here. It was such an important time for us so it is always great to come back. In terms of the places we lived or wherever we frequented, it's almost like it was whitewashed.
Yeah, it's all luxury condo high rises.
Yeah, it's amazing. It really is quite shocking. It's so disorienting when you kinda think "Oh, let's go down to that area" and you don't get any bearing on the landmarks that you used to use, ya know? It's really weird.
What do you recall about early-2000s NYC? Any memorable shows Liars played?
I don't know if the Mighty Robot is still going but these guysthe Twisted Onesthey used to put on a lot of our shows and we used to just mostly play in lofts and warehouses in Brooklyn. I really probably will never forget when we played our first record release at a show that they put on. It was just kinda like a sweaty pandemonium, kind of great event that I always have a really fond memory of. They were fun shows.
How weird is it you just recently played Berlin, are playing New York and then back to L.A. shortly thereafter, three places that have played a vital role in...
The trinity? I hadn't actually thought of that like that. But it is interesting because I did have this sort of moment of when we were in Berlin was playing that I had written there and being a little struck by that. I think that's the moment which is kinda interesting when you perform something that was actually made there, it kind of, in some ways and somehow, resonates.
You've worked on records and written in cabins in New Jersey and WIXIW started in a cabin outside L.A. What is it about cabins for Liars?
[laughs] Well, if anything, it's just this idea of isolation and sort of removing yourself from unwanted influence. Obviously it's great when you're working on a record to be able to really focus on your idea and not have to deal with any other unwanted noise.
Do you look at the early Liars incarnation with Pat Noecker and Ron Albertson [bassist and drummer, respectively] as something that needed to happen in order for what Liars ultimately transformed into?
Oh, yeah. I feel like that with every record is in some way a reaction to the record before and so it couldn't really exist without the one preceding it. They're all part of this process that we're obviously still going through. You can't really remove, and make sense, of the other ones, I think.
For the new record, would simply naming the new record Wish You as opposed to [WIXIW] be too predictable?
[laughs] No, to be honest, I think it would have been more appealing. I think we really struggled with this idea of using that title, just because we knew it would become this sort of issue of pronunciation and etc. But in the end, no, visually, it did emanate this kind of strength or this power that I think we couldn't really deny. I doubt we would have gone to just the word "Wish You" without the way it was spelled, if that answers the question. But, together they made the final thing work for us.
There's been some Radiohead comparisons in reviews for WIXIW. Is that something you don't mind?
It's always kind of tough to deal with how your work gets compared. Even since the first record we made, we learnt that lesson. I remember when we made our first record here, we were told we sound like Gang of Four and all we listen to is PiL and stuff like that. I think that's what pushed us off in this trajectory of always trying to sort of defy these, sort of, categorizations. You learn early on that it's a journalistic tool that is, in a sense, required and something that's obviously for people to help other people understand your work. So, it's best not take it too much to heart.
Daniel Miller, the founder of your label Mute, added production to WIXIW. Was his presence on the record inviting or threatening to you guys?
His role was mostly as an advisor, sort of a technical advisor because obviously he's kind of like an electronic guru. We've been working with Daniel pretty much for our whole career now and this was the first record which really felt like it was gonna be up his alley. From early on, we wanted to sort of involve him as kind of like an advisor, particularly in just talking to him about certain software to use and also to play him kind of sounds that we thought might be kind of rote or mundane in kind of the electronic sphere and see whether he'd be like "Ew! That's the fuckin' Chemical Brothers drum or something!"
How much was Daniel's advisor role responsible for WIXIW's direction into electronic music?
It came vice-versa. It was something that we had established that we wanted to do and then obviously realized we had this sort of great thing in our back pocket of Daniel and really utilize him as a tool.
So his presence didn't represent some sort of pressure on you?
Noooo, there's never been. It's weird because Mute is pretty much an electronic label, historically, and we've just solely not been in that vein at all. There's never been any pressure in that way.
Was it weird to have your self-titled record from back in 2007 on Mute, since it was essentially a guitar-based record?
[laughs] You should ask [Miller]. But he's always been really enthusiastic about what we do and it's really amazing because he has never pushed any kind of ideas or heavy criticism on what we do. He's really allowed to evolve and do whatever we like and that's really the blessings of being on the label, I think.
So you have the freedom to do whatever you want.
Yeah, I'd say complete freedom and we just feel so lucky we found ourselves in a position where we could do that.
Has recreating the electronics of WIXIW in the live concert setting been challenging more than for other records?
Really challenging. It's like a whole other project. One of the hardest things about working with a computer and software is this lack of physicality with what you're creating. There's not this relationship normally that you have with hitting drum or hitting a piano key. It's much more abstract than that. Part of the real challenge of making the live show is figuring out how to incorporate that physicality so it's kinda like another project.
Are you concentrating just on the songs of WIXIW live or playing older stuff, as well?
We play a lot of the new record but we also play some old stuff, as well. It's all kind of also informed by a whole bunch of new instruments and ways of putting the songs together. So some of the old songs are reconfigured to fit into that sort of paradigm. Yeah, it's bit of a mixed bag.
John Wiese of Wolf Eyes did the artwork for WIXIW. How do you know John?
We went to art school and he makes great music, too. We've taken him on tour a bunch of times with us. Obviously, he's a great designer so it was great to collaborate with him.
How much of an influence does noise music have on Liars?
Maybe not necessarily noise music, but their approach to the equipment and the technology definitely has an influence. When we tour with John, it's really interesting to see how he sets up and the tools he uses to create such amazing sounds and I think that was part of the reason why we wanted to explore different ways of creating sounds. For the Sisterworld tours, we did a lot of shows with John.
Vince Clark of Erasure did a remix of "No 1 Against the Rush." Were you an Erasure fan growing up?
I was, yeah. To be even associated with a guy like that, who I really think is a real genius, is kind of amazing and it's just a real complete honor and obviously when we found out he wanted to do it, we were just bowled over.
Liars play Webster Hall tonight.
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