Tropical Fuck Storm Stick to Their Guns
While touring their bold new LP Braindrops, the Australian band shares their secrets to being a rare innovative rock band in 2019.
“There’s a Nazi witch called Maria Orsic—it’s like a conspiracy theory kinda thing. People on 8chan and Stormfront, and all those right-wing websites think she’s real, but she’s not. It’s really stupid because she’s just fucking Kate Moss photoshopped—like who couldn’t tell that? They really believe she’s telepathic, and immortal, and she’s got plans for rocket engines that they stuck on the side of Nazi U-boats, and flew around the solar system during World War II. It’s just like…why would they do that? They’re losing the war, why the fuck would they bother starting this space program?”
This is Gareth Liddiard, chief songwriter for Australian blues-punk futurists Tropical Fuck Storm, walking me through the lyrical inspiration for the band’s recent album Braindrops’ epic eight-minute closer “Maria 63” prior to their show at Chicago’s Empty Bottle—which managed to sell out despite its coinciding with Slayer’s final Chicago show at Riot Fest just down the street. Although it’s the group’s only song explicitly about a conspired Nazi witch, it feels like a proper introduction to TFS’s unique brand of storytelling, which favors unexplored perspectives on relevant, typically political themes.
“Shit like that piques my interest when I’m looking for a song—how can I turn something as ridiculous as that into a moving song?” he questions, taking a break from doctoring a guitar strap with duct tape in the Bottles’ green room, joined by bassist Fiona Kitschin (a.k.a. Fi Fi), drummer Lauren Hammel (a.k.a. Hammer), and keyboardist Erica Dunn (a.k.a. RKO). “What makes a song like that good is the tension between that being so ridiculous and it actually working—when you go ‘Oh, that song! I like that song!’ it’s because it has that tension in it.”
Tropical Fuck Storm are a ridicuous band, but they actually work. Everything from their name, to their album art, to their stage presence—Fi Fi typically clothed in a totally acceptable jumpsuit, Gaz rocking a completely reasonable mullet—feels utterly unique without crossing the boundary of irony or pastiche. Or preachiness, as can be gleaned from the lyrics of a song about the looming threat of the alt-right completely eschewing “FDT” bluntness. “You can have [songs like ‘FDT’], but there’s different responses—surrealism or absurdism or dadaism,” RKO notes. “Writing songs in a weirder way.”
“We get trolled. We get called ‘feminazi,’ ‘social justice warrior’—but it’s just, like, one person, really. From multiple accounts.” — RKO
Our ability to express anger and anxiety, the band seems to believe, has evolved since it’s become channeled through often-anonymous and usually ill-informed comments on social media and in other online communities, and this is the exact type of meme-toting atmosphere they tap for their music’s sounds and lyrics. “If the internet were a record, it would be Braindrops,” Gaz theorizes. “The real internet—the one the young people run, and the one that the right wing, or peripheral people, run.”
While it’s nowhere near comparable to the brainworms-instigated corners of 8chan, I note the irony of TFS’s chart success on the aggregate music and film database Rate Your Music, inadvertently dominated by unprofessional reviews and unconscionable shoutbox convos instigated by an international community of politically and socially ignorant white males. It’s the result of widespread anxiety, Gaz posits, whether the listener has all the information they need to politicize the stress of a particularly uncertain period of history. “You’re gonna have someone who’s pretty up on what’s right and wrong, or you’re gonna have a fuckin’ dickhead, but they’re both scared. And they’re both writing in the comments section.”
It should be noted that with “blues-punk” thus far being the most accurate terminology attributed to the frenetic noise rock the quartet plays, it feels neither dejected nor fuelled by angst in any conventional sense. Fusing Gaz and Fi Fi’s past lives in the bluesier, punkier Drones with Hammer’s parallel life in the extreme metal band High Tension and RKO’s work fronting the post-punk trio MOD CON, each member feels equally comfortable letting their songs devolve—or rather, evolve—into rhythmic feedback, both in the studio and on-stage. Those of us fretting that the band glossed over Braindrops’s lead single “Paradise” at their Empty Bottle set were relieved when they not only closed with it, but stretched the six-minute song to last at least fifteen, Gaz reciting the lyrics from the top twice or more with less focus on keeping a clean sonic palette each time.
“I don’t think we have a broad audience at all,” Fi Fi replies when I ask whether they’ve ever had to reprimand their followers for expressing unsavory political opinions, though with their out-there live show in mind there’s no need for a follow-up question to her assertion. “We get trolled,” RKO adds. “We get called ‘feminazi,’ ‘social justice warrior’—but it’s just, like, one person, really. From multiple accounts.” Their niche sound and cryptic lyrics may be the primary reason there’s no political tension within their fanbase, though an earnest ignorance of much of this caustic online dialogue also seems to help. “We had to Google ‘SJW,’” Gaz recalls.
“I guess music’s a great resource for people who’re struggling with societal questions, and we can provide a weird fuckin’ soundtrack for airing those.” — Hammer
“I guess music’s a great resource for people who’re struggling with societal questions, and we can provide a weird fuckin’ soundtrack for airing those,” Hammer chimes in, suggesting the band’s unmatched sound and socially relevant lyrics might stir up something in someone initially listening to the music for the screeching electric guitar riffs and occasional odd lyric (the RKO-penned “Who’s My Eugene?,” another example, is about the relationship between Brian Wilson and his psychotherapist Eugene Landy, inspired by a dream RKO had where she was served Wilson’s face at a restaurant).
“It’s gotta be the right music though,” Gaz interjects. “It’s gotta be that kinda open-ended shit. I mean, that’s why Bob Dylan was so good. People say it’s preachy or whatever, but it’s not—what the fuck does ‘Hard Rain’ mean?” “It means really strong rain—he’s talking about how the wet season’s coming,” Fi Fi deadpans, offering the first bit of insight into the band’s chemistry. “A Tropical Fuck Storm. He’s predicting the band, he’s a prophet.”
With a taste for open-ended, inexplicitly political lyrics, an adamant distaste for chic resuscitation of previous decades’ rock sounds, and a name you probably can’t say in front of your grandparents, it’s a bit surprising Tropical Fuck Storm have gained so much traction in just two years. A deal with Joyful Noise for U.S. distribution of both of their records certainly helps, as does non-stop touring throughout most of their short existence, but an opening spot for Modest Mouse on a series of North American dates last year has been one of the biggest gets in terms of exposure—for better or for worse. “Gaz and Fi knew someone from the Modest Mouse crew, and I don’t know exactly how it got arranged, but they liked the band,” RKO explains. “It was kind of interesting because we played lots of larger venues and lots of people really, really hated us.”
“We played lots of casinos as well,” Fi Fi adds, “so it wasn’t even just their fans that hated us, but old people who won free tickets at the casino when they checked in—old mom and pop from the conservative Midwest or whatever were in the audience watching us.” According to RKO, they’d see posts on Facebook of boomers drinking large cocktails and gagging, with captions like, “We could not drink all the booze in this casino and like this band.” Let this be a cautionary tale for any new bands hopping on a bill with a group as ubiquitous as Modest Mouse—or any band playing venues prone to attract moms and pops from the conservative Midwest or whatever.
“On the other hand, there were a lot of people who liked us,” Hammer counters, “people who never would have seen or heard our music any other way. I don’t know what the crossover would be with Modest Mouse fans and ours, but I think it was great.” Even more optimistic, Fi Fi notes that “there is crossover—they play pretty freaky music.” “I’d never really heard of them,” confesses Gaz. “I thought they’d be a lot straighter than they were. I dunno what their albums are like, but it’s really out there for a popular band.”
As the conversation turns to the tribulations of starting over after growing an audience for nearly twenty years, Gaz is quick to stress that it’s been much easier building a following while fronting a ridiculous band the second time around. “The Drones and TFS, they’re not dissimilar bands,” he explains, “but I think more or less we’ve been doing something similar all the time, and it’s just been that kind of weird, distressed, freakin’ out thing? And the world wasn’t freaking out in the ’90s. We had September 11 and all that shit—the War on Terror, whatever. The levels of freak-out are way higher now, and I think everyone’s just caught up to us.”
“You’re gonna have someone who’s pretty up on what’s right and wrong, or you’re gonna have a fuckin’ dickhead, but they’re both scared. And they’re both writing in the comments section.” — Gaz
I wonder aloud if Tropical Fuck Storm will ever achieve the level of socially acceptable weird Modest Mouse has enjoyed over the past two decades before being cut off by Fi Fi: “Are you asking ‘Will we ever be socially acceptable?’ I think not!” With 2037 being her joking guesstimation of when, if ever, they become as en vogue as MM (“We’ll be dead,” someone chimes in), Gaz, this time, is the optimistic one:
“If you think about AC/DC, they wanted to be huge, and they wound up making the biggest rock and roll album of all time. It just sounds so aggressive, especially back then. I remember hearing that shit in, like, 1980 and going, ‘That is the meanest, most fucked up shit I’ve ever heard.’ And then someone like Guns n’ Roses where they’re fucking swearing their heads off, and it’s really full-on if it wanted to be a popular band”—suddenly I get why they chastised me for skipping the Slayer show—“but they just stuck to their guns and made themselves socially acceptable.”
“So you’re saying we should stick to our Guns n’ Roses?” Fi Fi proposes.
After a round of praise from the band on another great pun from Fiona, Gaz gets serious: “I’ve gotten used to the thing where if you’re gonna do something weird, something real, you’re always gonna be the bridesmaid, you’re never gonna be the bride.”
“Mainstream music has been the same for ages,” Hammer adds, looking for a more hopeful close to the interview. “People are getting bored and looking for something that’s gonna change them, something they can think about, things they can listen to and still on their thirtieth listen they’re hearing new things.”
Ever the soundbyte generator, Gaz concludes: “Just do fuckin’ weird shit. And everyone else can get fucked.” FL