The New Wilderness of Liars
Angus Andrew has stepped off alone with his group, and returned to Australia in the process. But if you’re still looking for a theme running through TFCF and Titles with the Word Fountain, he’ll be glad to talk through it with you.
Almost exactly seventeen years ago, Liars released their debut, They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top—a splintered blitz defined by post-punk guitars. Just over two years after that, they released They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, their abrasive, head-shaking response to the notoriety they’d garnered with a debut talked about in the same glowing language as New York’s other early Internet–lauded indie bands, all similarly releasing their debuts in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Almost exactly two years after that, they put out Drum’s Not Dead, a vaguely conceptual album recorded in Berlin with an emphasis on percussion and prog-like passages, which was followed by a 2007 self-titled rediscovery of what Liars was, 2010’s Sisterworld, a conceptual exploration of the nether regions of Los Angeles, and two electronic endeavors, 2012’s WIXIW and 2014’s Mess, each an experience unto itself, anchored by something—a concept, a place, a technique—markedly obvious or not.
In 2017, cofounding member Aaron Hemphill left the band, turning Liars into the de facto solo project of other cofounder Angus Andrew, who’s gone on to release two albums, last year’s TFCF and this year’s Titles with the Word Fountain, both recorded in Andrew’s Australian home in the remote wilderness north of Sydney. These albums mark more than just Andrew’s first projects on his own without the guiding editorial hand of Hemphill—“we’re still really great friends,” he assures—as they bear the weight of Andrew’s grief following his having returned to where he grew up to be with his dying father.
Crafted during that transitional period, Andrew has steeped both albums (“TFCF” stands for “Theme from Crying Fountain,” the fountain being Andrew and his lachrymose emotional state) in symbols of Liars’ new phase. The wedding dress he wears on their covers is an especially salient image, representing how his “marriage” with Hemphill has now ended, a still-acute loss considering that the final project the two created together, the soundtrack to Jeremy Phillip’s film 1/1, was released only a few months before Titles.
Calling from his Australian hideout, Andrew spoke about this new incarnation of Liars, the frightening freedom of having no one to validate you anymore (“I had become so used to the idea of needing acknowledgement or recognition from my creative partner for the worth of what I’d created”), and why he didn’t just start using a different band name.
Titles with the Word Fountain is your tenth album, considering the soundtrack, correct?
I guess you’re right, yeah.
Sounds like you don’t really keep track of that…
I don’t. I just was recently scolded by my wife because I haven’t kept a single copy of any Liars record.
Any particular reason?
I kind of assumed they’ll always be somewhere. I dunno if it’s my responsibility to document.
The band’s known for, album by album, ascribing each a place or concept or idea… Every album feels self-contained. Is there a throughline?
I think what comes through, what connects songs even though they’re stylistically quite different, is this anxiety. An intensity [having] to do with fear.
What about that fear, that menace, is worth exploring over and over again for you?
Well I think it’s just… I don’t have much say in it. I think I can try and make a record about a certain subject matter—say for example, Los Angeles—and then make a completely different record about a completely different subject matter and somehow anxiety and fear bleeds through. I think my best explanation for that is that it’s a modern condition, or a postmodern condition, where it’s not uncommon to feel anxious or fearful and maybe that’s just the state of affairs. I’ve certainly thought about what would happen if I really tried to make a super happy record, and honestly…it won’t come out of me.
I don’t have a huge amount of say in what happens, even though I can move through different styles and different subject matters, but somehow when you make art it is really yourself that’s coming out, and it’s hard to cloak that in anything else.
In press releases you’ve described the development of Liars into a solo project as the result of a “failed creative relationship.” What do you mean by using the word “failed”?
“I’ve certainly thought about what would happen if I really tried to make a super happy record, and honestly…it won’t come out of me.”
I suppose “failure” is an unnecessarily harsh word. All relationships run their course, don’t they? The best thing about my creative relationship with Aaron is that we were very different. We looked at music in almost opposite ways, and that was what was a great benefit to us. Then I think what happened was that the actual connection—the thing that kept us on a similar page—was lost. I call it the “failure of a creative relationship” just because our creative relationship ended. We did do a hell of a lot together, but as of this moment, I no longer have that relationship creatively. Which is sad to me, because it’s a real amazing thing when you can find someone in the world whom you can connect to in that way, but as I’ve said, there’s also a very empowering and freeing element to [being solo]. In terms of a creative relationship, it can only continue to be successful if it’s still functioning. As an artist, [I’m in] a different stage. It’s a different environment.
If I’m happy in my process, I feel like I’m successful. As it is with every record I make, it feels like a new beginning, really. I want to pick up a whole new set of skills and put away the ones I was using before.
What does “a new beginning” mean within the context of these two recent albums? One is more a sequel, a continuation, than something new.
With TFCF, it was one of my first sort of cathartic processes. It’s a question you get asked a lot: “Is making records cathartic?” I generally have always said, “No, I’ve found it magnifies feelings you’ve been working with into this final product.” But for the first time, with TFCF, when I finally got around to being on the road and playing live, I did actually acknowledge that it was a cathartic experience.
When the label came to me and said that they wanted to do a deluxe version of TFCF, I saw an opportunity to, for want of a better word, purge all of this material out of my system so that I could feel like the cathartic process had really happened. That I could firmly move on, you know? I think I was lucky to have that opportunity to release this other material, which was recorded in the same headspace, so it really is the same sort of stuff. It was nice for me to be able to let that go.
Do you feel like you have to explain yourself a lot? Do you feel like there’s a need to explain these ideas?
“That’s a very important part of making art: You need to be able to explain it. You can’t just make a sculpture and put it out there and when someone asks you what it’s about you say, ‘I dunno,’ or ‘You tell me.’”
I used to feel very strongly that I should not print lyrics. I thought that the listener’s interpretation was just as valid as my intention—that their interpretation was far more interesting than my intention. So for quite a few records I went with that. And at some point I came across whatever was the agreed-upon catalog of those lyrics, and…I didn’t love some of the interpretations. So then I started to get in on this thing where I was like, “OK, all the lyrics will now be printed, because it’s really important that people get these things right.” But I go back and forth on how I feel about people’s interpretations. Process is the most important thing for me, and once the object or the album is out there in the world, I have no control over it—which is obviously a standard [artist] trope—so I try not to engage with it too much. It’s out of my hands. Which speaks to why I don’t even own any copies of those records. It’s just kind of not something I can have any influence over.
I went to art school—I was there for photography initially—and the major thing you learn in art school is how to talk about your work. That’s a very important part of making art: You need to be able to explain it. You can’t just make a sculpture and put it out there and when someone asks you what it’s about you say, “I dunno,” or “You tell me.” And for me, talking about it is a way to flesh out exactly what you were intending to do. I don’t think a good artist always needs to have that figured out before they make the work.
You’ve had the same band name all this time, but you’ve notably kept it even through this time of transition. I’m curious about the origins of the name Liars, and what that name means to you now.
The origin is pretty simple: the intention of being kind of blue collar; I didn’t want anything too fancy or highfalutin. The old way of explaining this for me is that the most truthful thing that anyone could admit is that they’re a liar. I wanted the project to be very honest…but, in honesty, be an opportunity to fabricate.
Nowadays to me the name embodies my life’s work—which is a horrible expression [laughs]. But y’know, it’s everything that I’ve done, really. I had a funny interview with a guy here in Australia recently, and he was like, “What were the names of the bands you were in before Liars?” And I was like, “…there weren’t any.” I could not fathom it. It’s a rare thing—in Australia it’s super rare because everyone is in, like, nine bands. [Liars is] a project I’ve been working on since I was in my late teens.
I know you’re in a pretty remote part of Australia, but are you involved in any local music scenes?
Yeah, man, actually I had a policy that I stuck with for a long time, where I avoided listening to music when possible, because I felt like, in making music, it was so much easier to think about who I am [as opposed to thinking about], I dunno, the Foo Fighters or something.
Except when I moved back to Australia, I reverted: Now I’ll listen to only Australian music, contemporary Australian music. So I’m engaged. I know more about the Australian music scene than your average concept. And I actually started to do this playlist on Spotify which is about contemporary Australian artists. I work at that playlist; I update it every week. For now I’m really enjoying being connected. FL