Progress Report: Liars dive headfirst down the the electronic rabbit hole on WIXIW.
Few bands that emerged in the early 2000’s have managed to remain as interesting — or as frequently confounding — as Liars. Albums such as 2004’s They Were Wrong, So We Drowned (at the time, one of the most scathingly reviewed records ever) and 2006’s Drum’s Not Dead were creative left turns in a career that has come to be characterized largely by reinvention and wily experimentation. This summer Liars will release WIXIW, yet another record that ditches the previous model (in that case the more traditional rock structures of 2010’s Sisterworld) and moves immerses the band something almost entirely new: a world of computerized soundscapes and spooky synth-based songs. I spoke with front man Angus Andrew about how the mysterious WIXIW came to be.
STEREOGUM: Hey Angus!
ANGUS: Hello there, T. Cole Rachel. Can you tell me what the T stands for?
STEREOGUM: Thurman. My name causes a lot of confusion. I got phone calls for Ms. Rachel a lot or people think my first name is Rachel. I generally don’t correct them.
ANGUS: I have to use my last name when I do the ordering, too. America’s really not so good with the “Angus” even though its kind of an obvious thing, it always ends up being “Agnus,” and that’s always a little embarrassing for me.
STEREOGUM: “Agnes” wouldn’t be so bad.
ANGUS: It just always makes me think of … is the Simpsons grandmother called Agnes? It always makes me think of an old lady when I hear that name.
STEREOGUM: It always makes me think of “Agnes of God” and Jane Fonda.
ANGUS: Oh, yeah. Yes.
STEREOGUM: Are you in California right now?
ANGUS: Yeah I’m in L.A. in our studio, downtown-ish near the 101 freeway.
STEREOGUM: Nice. Well, they sent me a stream of your new record the other day, so I’ve had a few days to listen to it.
ANGUS: Did it have titles on it?
STEREOGUM: No, no titles, no nothing. I asked them about it and they said “Well, we can’t really say anything about it” but in a way that makes it even more interesting — to listen to the record without even having the context of the title to attach some meaning to.
ANGUS: OK, that’s nice to hear because I’m a little bit upset with them that the titles couldn’t go out because you know in a way for me, I guess maybe I’m wrong, but I really felt like the titles were important … but it’s nice to hear from you that it’s a clean slate. I suppose that’s good.
STEREOGUM: It is important I think but it was interesting to come to it with no press kit, no nothing, so I could just consume it as pieces of music and think about it. I was listening to it today and I was thinking I’m so glad I’m not being asked to review it.
STEREOGUM: Well, because I still cant really wrap my brain around what to say about it, other than to say I think its really beautiful sounding.
ANGUS: Well, that sounds somewhat good.
STEREOGUM: No, it’s good! It will just take me a while to form some intelligent thoughts about it other than just absorbing it sonically and thinking that it sounds really really good.
ANGUS: Oh well that’s good. It’s good that it takes people a while to digest. That’s good.
STEREOGUM: For this particular column I’m usually talking to people about what their methodology is, how they work. So much of what is written about your band is often relates to the sometimes radical changes in direction between records. How, typically does a record evolve for you guys? How does the process reveal itself?
ANGUS: Well, it is pretty interesting in terms of this record also because I think the process for this one really shaped the record more than other ones. Like, in the past, Aaron and I like to do our writing alone. We pretty much have done complete songs on our own. In some sort of a way, like, not really wanting to show the other person what were working on until we really felt like we evolved it into something that impressed the other person, do you know what I mean? And that’s just the way we have done it and its worked for us well in the past but on this record we made the decision early on that we were going to change that and this time we were going to be much much more collaborative. The first step we made towards making that happen was that Aaron and I moved in together into this house out in the woods in this little cabin and just took our computers and holed up there for a month. It forced us to show each other our work every day, even when it was just an initial sound. Normally, like I said, we’d come up with something kind of cool but you didn’t want to give it away yet because maybe it could get shot down and you really felt like you had to like make into something more final so it really represented what your idea was. But this time it was like OK, I have this one basic idea and we would go back and forth over every little detail. So it was a big change for both of us in terms of writing. It’s not necessarily any easier to do it that way. Sometimes maybe I’m not the easiest person to work with in that way. I become a little headstrong about what my idea is and you have another opinion to work with. Also, with this record we wanted to involve Daniel Miller a bit more so we showed early ideas of songs to him way, way before we would have normally shown him, mostly because he’s a super electronic music guy and it was really kind of scary for us to step into that world. It felt like we should use him as a bit of a resource. So we got him involved as well, so suddenly it really felt like it was a lot of voices in the process -– much more than there were in the past. And, like I said, that was good for the end result but also kind of hard. We also gave ourselves a lot more time in writing this record than we have before so the back and forth you can go through can be really trying. I think this whole process to put in a nutshell, for me, adds a lot more room for doubt because you suddenly have someone else’s reaction to contend with and whether or not you are happy with that reaction, it can kind of fester a little bit you know?
STEREOGUM: I can imagine that would be difficult. Well, in previous albums you have dipped your toes into electronic music and electronic sounds, but this record is totally immersed in it. There are scarcely any guitar sounds.
ANGUS: Yeah, that was the thing. The other thing we decided on earlier. I didn’t even really want to use microphones. I wanted to see if we could generate as much stuff as possible within the computer. So, that meant, attacking these computer programs that we had no idea about how to use. It was a long process even at the start, just learning. You’d sit down and you’d be all excited to write a song and realize that you would spend the whole day reading a manual. That can be really frustrating, obviously, but also getting your foot in this kind of world is super exciting because of what’s offered there. Still, everything comes with a drawback. You are put in a situation where suddenly you have a program that has 100 instruments with 1,000 variations and the possibilities just suddenly become maddeningly endless. You come across a really interesting sound and you say “Oh my God I have to use that.” It influences the process in the way that is much different. You know, before I would sit around with a piano or a guitar or something and sit there messing with melodies and that would be the genesis of something. But, in this process you mess around with sounds and so you just have a lot of interesting sounds and the way things can sound. So you kind of build up this data bank of hundreds of interesting sounds and then you have to figure out how to apply those to some sort of “song.” There was definitely some point where we had to stop experimenting with finding sounds because we had too much sound and no songs. Like, you said, it can be really exciting but there is also a difficult side to it in that you have limit yourself somehow.
STEREOGUM: I can’t imagine. Even just being in the studio with a band when they are mixing – the sort of option paralysis you can have when there exists the possibility of a million choices and you cant make any. But I must say, for all the sounds on the record it does sound remarkably restrained. It doesn’t sound like you went crazy.
ANGUS: Even before we began we told Daniel what we had in mind and the first thing that came out of his mouth was “limit yourself.” And there are tons of programs and stuff like that and I guess the key for us was to focus on just a couple and not go too crazy. I still think we went crazy. The other big problem with it for me is, as you were saying, with the variables. When you get excited and you’ve started to create these sounds and you’ve made tweaks and adjustments to something to create this interesting sound, the proper directive is that you somehow have saved that preset or written down the name of that particular synth or whatever … and that is not part of my process. So then you have all these sounds and you realize that you don’t know how to recreate them which can be pretty maddening as well. I think I spent a week going through the record and trying to figure out where I actually got the sounds. It’s a weird disassociation that you get with working with the computer like that — it’s really hard to physically remember how that thing happened. It’s more the result of some sort of program and the effects that run through it. So, it’s definitely just a really weird, different way of working with music because in a way you’ve stepped away from feeling that, I don’t know, feeling that drum stick in your hand or whatever. And suddenly it’s these sorts of impulses that feel sort of uncomfortable not feeling as directly related to the sounds because they’ve come from somewhere else. There are so many different synths and programs and things and you just rifle through them. In some ways it feels like you aren’t creating it, more just that you are putting it together, you know? It’s definitely a different way in approaching music.
STEREOGUM: There is certainly plenty of electronic and computer-based music that is physical sounding, but when the literal physicality is removed from the process it does change it somehow, especially if you aren’t use to working that way. It becomes much more cerebral in a way.
ANGUS: Much more disconnected, which is weird.
STEREOGUM: How long did the process take? How long did you record or work on the record?
ANGUS: In total I’d say about a year. We did a couple of different writing periods –- we did that first one out in the woods together and then we took some time off to gauge what we created there. I think what we had made at that point probably would have been OK in terms of us being satisfied with what we had made. But again, with this kind of world we just felt like there were so many possibilities that we needed to explore. I really just wanted to give ourselves the opportunity to try and feel like we had extended ourselves as fully as we could. So, we did another two months of writing. It was at that point that we had to sort of say OK, stop writing, stop experimenting and really try and focus on particular songs. All in all the process took over a year.
STEREOGUM: Wow. Well, now that the record is done and you can step back from it and look at it as a finished thing, do you have a sense of thematically where these songs were coming from? Do you feel like you know what this record is about?
ANGUS: I think so. I can speak about it in relation to our last record; that album was a bit of a study in how you find yourself fitting into the environment and world around you. Which was Los Angeles for us at the time. I think this one is definitely more of an internal struggle and finding out how you fit in with yourself. I’ve mentioned to the guys that it was a weird time for us because Aaron had just finished a really long relationship and I had just begun a more serious one. And I think it was an interesting duality for us both and even though we were on different sides of the coin it still felt like we were dealing with similar issues. Sort of like, how do you relate and how do you feel about yourself in relation to someone else. And in the broader sense I’d describe that as doubt. And for me that started to flow into everything, particularly going into this arena of new technology. It wasn’t easy to ever feel very confident, or to know if we were doing the right thing or not. And I think overall this feeling of uncertainty bled through the way we wrote the lyrics and put together the songs. I’d define it as doubt and fear, which certainly isn’t uncommon for us but I think on this record it exists in a more personal sense than we have ever dealt with it before.
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting whenever you talk to someone about a record they just finished because usually they always say, “I think it’s the best thing we’ve ever done!” Now that you are finished with it and you’ve had the chance to have some time with it how do you feel about it within the context of your body of work?
ANGUS: I find it really difficult to make the sort of statement that you are suggesting. In some ways I feel like after having made a few records, it seems to me that the more concern and doubt and fear we have about the record, maybe the better it is. I feel like that means we have maybe pushed ourselves into this weird enough spot that maybe its become interesting in the sense that we don’t anymore know if its good or right or anything like that. I think in the process of our evolution of making these sort of things — or being a “musician” — this record is pretty interesting to me. I think the self-titled record we did and the Sisterworld record were similar in a sense that I felt like I was trying to refine this idea of being a songwriter. You come to realize that you are a musician in a band and you write songs, so I guess the idea is to refine the craft in that way. So there was this effort from me to try and explore that — like, I should know all the chords on a piano and I should be able to put together a song that works in a way that is coherent and understandable in a way that music usually works in a more traditional sense, a verse-chorus-verse sort of thing. Maybe on the past couple records there has been a preoccupation with trying to achieve that. I think that when you work that way, at least for me, and you get some results from that, you feel confident about it a little bit more because you get the feeling that people are going to be able to understand or relate to it. But with this record I sort of threw that out the window because I realized that maybe that’s not the music that I actually like? Maybe that is what you are supposed to do as a musician, but perhaps that doesn’t really anything to do with the kind of music I want to listen to or the kind of music I want to make. So on this record that was kind of all thrown out and the emphasis was put more on sound and intent. When you start to deal with more abstract ideas like that, it is harder to feel confident. It’s hard to know how people will react to it … but to me that is a better sign. When I feel really unsure about it, that is a better thing. In some ways I feel more confident because I’m unsure, if that makes any sense. I do remember the last time I felt like that was when we were recording the Drum’s Not Dead record and I remember being in the studio and Aaron and I turned to each other and said “Are we really gonna release this?” and that kind of question, that kind of doubt, I think is good … and I think I kind of wanted to return to that. We aren’t following any kind of formula so that results are uncertain, but if you’ve put a lot of effort into it must be something worthwhile.
STEREOGUM: I think that’s great. I think that’s the way it should be. I feel like too few people approach it in the way. Conversations I have with visual artists are much more in keeping with that way of thinking than the conversations I have with musicians. So much of the realities of being a musician and trying to make a living are so intense that it precludes that kind of experimental, “throw everything out the window” kind of thinking.
ANGUS: I can understand that and it’s something we’ve certainly been dealing with a little bit. And I think its something that you want to achieve in any field that you are in. You want to be able to refine your craft as best you can, but there is some point where you realize –- well, who am I actually refining this for? You have to sort of realize what actually interests you, and maybe it’s not notes and chords.
STEREOGUM: How will you perform this record? Are you still figuring that out?
ANGUS: Yeah. Again, that’s really another frightening part of it. Not only in the sense that a lot of the sounds we created are really difficult to replicate. That’s a big part of trying to figure it out. On the last couple of records we worked with other musicians on the road but I think this time we are going to strip it back to just the three of us and see if everything just falls apart. I think it is good when that happens, you know? What we are really trying to contend with is just the technological aspect of it all –- in a way with this kind of music it seems like it seems to be OK to go out there and have this complete playback, but then it’s almost like karaoke or something and obviously I don’t think we want to do that. Still, it just seems like there are so many variables and options in terms of technology and how to do it and we just need to figure it out what feels natural instead of what feels easiest.
STEREOGUM: Will you be spending the later part of this year touring?
ANGUS: Yeah, and most of next year too. So it’s a long road ahead.
STEREOGUM: Are you looking forward to it?
ANGUS: I am. It’s always hard to transition between this period where you are very private and holed up in your workspace to being in the midst of a lot of people and stuff like that. So, in that way it’s always a little daunting, but just the idea of trying to figure out how to perform these particular songs, I’m excited about that and that’s what gets you going. So, yeah I’m looking forward to it … but with an equal amount of dread.
STEREOGUM: Well I think that’s probably a good thing too. A healthy amount of fear means that you are probably still doing something the right way.
ANGUS: I guess so. People tell me that … even though we’ve been performing for a long time now I still can’t get over being nervous before playing any show and in some ways I really wish that would dissipate. It always feels like its nothing that’s so solid or worked out or by the numbers that you can really ever feel that confident about it … and that’s what keeps it exciting.
STEREOGUM: Well, again I think the record sounds really amazing, really beautiful.
ANGUS: Alright, Thurman. I really, really, really like that name.
Liars’ WIXIW is out 6/5 on Mute.