Everybody in his or her own life needs a hobby, and if you lived in New York in the early years of the 21st century there’s a good chance that hobby was a dance-punk band. Somewhere between late ’90s innovators like the Faint, Les Savy Fav, and the Dismemberment Plan and gleaming mid-aughts hit-makers like the Killers, Bloc Party, and Franz Ferdinand, a movement coalesced in the cooler corners of Brooklyn and Manhattan, founded on ultra-hip late-’70s touchstones like Gang Of Four and Joy Division and Liquid Liquid. There were bands making dance-punk all over North America in those post-Y2K years, from Vancouver’s zanily poppy Hot Hot Heat to Washington, DC’s breathlessly urgent Q And Not U to Toronto’s cock-rockin’ Death From Above 1979. But to those of us watching it arise from afar via the internet, this scene — if you could really call it a scene — was centered in New York, where, as we understood it, the white belts were plentiful and the cocaine flowed like milk and honey.
Flourishing in parallel with other retro-tinted upstarts like the Strokes, Interpol, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, bands like LCD Soundsystem, the Rapture, !!!, and Radio 4 were colliding punk and disco in ways that some critics heralded as the future (“making the indie kids dance” was a common trope at the time) while others sneered that there was nothing new under the sun. But Liars were lumped in with this movement at the time, and Liars were at least a little bit new.
Liars were not really a dance-punk band, though. Or at least they weren’t for long. To be clear, there are definitely some dance-punk jams on the band’s debut album They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top, released 20 years ago this Saturday via Gern Blandsten Records. Violently slicing rhythm guitar straight out of Andy Gill’s playbook, aggro funk basslines that seize control of the songs, disco beats garnished with the occasional cowbell, one track that quotes and name-checks ESG: Now That’s What I Call Dance-Punk! “We’ve got our finger on the pulse of America!” tall Australian frontman Angus Andrew announced on opening track “Grown Men Don’t Fall In The River, Just Like That,” and although his voice was dripping with sarcasm, he wasn’t wrong.
Yet despite releasing an album that overlapped with the trendy sound of the moment, Andrew was not really interested in riding that wave. “The city loves you,” he smirks at the end of one song, with so much disdain in his voice you can practically hear him rolling his eyes. “At the time, it was very difficult to stomach the idea of being so easily pigeonholed,” Andrew told me this year. “The general sense from putting out the first record that I got was like, ‘Wow, people really like to tell you who you are,’ and I just never really wanted to be so easily defined. I never wanted to be part of a scene or anything. I just was totally opposed to everything.”
It’s hard not to think of Liars as part a scene, inasmuch as Andrew dated Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O at the peak of the NYC rock resurgence and eventually shared a house in New Jersey with TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek. But he moved to Jersey in part to get away from the hype swirling around New York, and he says he felt more of a kinship with Black Dice, the experimental noise impressionists who once shared a practice space with Liars. Soon enough Liars would prove to be as trend-averse as they claimed, first scaring off a good chunk of their audience with 2004’s abrasive, witch-themed sophomore LP They Were Wrong, So We Drowned and then going on to compile a wildly morphing discography that marks them as one of the most staunchly original bands in rock. The lineup has changed — at this point Andrew is the only original member left — but the voracious hunger for reinvention has been a constant.
You can hear the group’s taste for more exploratory sounds manifesting before They Threw Us All In A Trench is even over: in the dub-leaning, noise-bombed “The Garden Was Crowded And Outside”; in the whimsically thumping “Nothing Is Ever Lost Or Can Be Lost My Science Friend”; in the endless, ominous groove of album closer “This Dust Makes That Mud.” Hell, “Loose Nuts On The Velodrome” is basically a dry run for LP2, what with its heavy skronking blasts and discordant lead guitar and howled gang-vocal chants. “They make what I can only describe as cyborg junkyard rock,” Chris Dahlen wrote at Pitchfork when Blast First gave Liars’ debut wider circulation in 2002, by which point they were already conceiving of their next phase. Their sound was aligned with the zeitgeist, but compared to many of their would-be peers, Andrew, guitarist Aaron Hemphill, bassist Pat Noecker, and drummer Ron Albertson, were causing a different kind of ruckus.
That said, Liars’ brief tenure in the microgenre that launched them was mighty successful. If you remember They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top, you probably remember it for the dance-punk, for tracks like the runaway-drumkit banger “We Live NE Of Compton” and the scraping, flailing, rip-roaring “Grown Men Don’t Fall In The River, Just Like That” and especially “Mr Your On Fire Mr,” the album’s closest thing to a hit single. That song — with its pogo-ing fuzz guitar, syncopated hi-hats, ultra-catchy call-and-response vocals, and the instantly memorable opening line “Do the twist! Beg for ice cream!” — was proof this band could have been the indie-rock equivalent of a pop act if they’d wanted to be. Liars were the ones on fire here, and they’d keep burning brightly long after the dance-punk flame was extinguished.