Words By: Laurent Shervington
It’s been a pretty big year for Gareth Liddiard, releasing his seventh album with The Drones, playing sold-out shows on the back of it, hosting rage, a cameo in Courtney Barnett’s music video and touring with members of Band of Horses as MK-Ultra – it’s been a wild ride.
I spoke to Gareth on the phone from rainy Central Victoria to have a chat before he and his band come back to WA for the Fremantle Festival.
The release of Feelin Kinda Free in March feels like a long time ago, but there’s still a sonic freshness to the record that will no doubt keep it on many critics top end-of-year lists. The band however came out of the recording process expecting the worst and were awaiting pans from all sides – but it never really came. “Critics have been very nice to us over the years, you would think that would make us more confident but it almost does the opposite, you think “oh this next one will be the one they trash the shit out of us.” Liddiard explains. “We thought this would really piss people off, but we’ve only really had one or two lukewarm response.”
The band’s anticipation of negative reviews were perhaps more warranted this time; Feelin Kinda Free sounds nothing like any other album from The Drones – from it’s noisy, pitch-shifted guitars, drum machines and ever-present electronic element – it harked back to music founding members Liddiard and Rui Perrira made when they lived in Perth. “Before we left Perth, we were doing stuff like that anyway. It’s not really anything new for us and that stuff has been around for a while: Silver Apples, Kraftwerk, Stockhausen in the 50s. It was more a matter of getting around to it.”
While the young band definitely had an ear for “crazy whacked out noise” , when they arrived in Melbourne they found themselves under pressure to “be something” to play gigs, coupled with the high cost of transporting synthesizers and drum machines lead to them ditching their excess gear and focusing on a more punk-blues sound. Back to present day Liddiard’s decision to go back to their early sound simply came from him being “sick of this fucking guitar shit” and proclaiming, “let’s do what we’re capable of doing and want to do.”
While the sonic variation on the album is probably the first thing you notice, lyrically Liddiard is channelling a similar level of strange, thanks to his interest in works of Latin Magical Realism at the time he was writing. “There’s a really famous Argentinean guy called (Jorge Luis) Borges, he’s a short-story writer and poet who made a lot of fuckin’ weird poetic stories. It’s literature but it’s also science fiction in a way as it’s based on physics – you really need to look into it to find out what he’s talking about. It’s really bizarre shit, so hard to explain. It’s kind of like Franz Kafka but in a more sci-fi, Argentinean way.”
Aside from the “dreamlike” and “weird philosophical nature” of his lyrics, he found himself equally influenced from reading the news at the time and being puzzled at the state of the world. I asked for his prediction of the state of Australia in the next ten or so years, a difficult question no matter the interviewee. “It’s always easy to see what’s going on now but hard to see what will happen. The whole Pauline Hanson thing – is it heralding a new epoch for the far right? Is it to do with the idea that Malcolm Turnbull took over Tony Abbott’s position so all of Abbott’s supporters voted for Hanson? Fuck knows. Every now and I again I have an idea but then I change my mind.” Despite the unfortunate “rise of the far right”, he sees light at the end of the tunnel, expressing support that “Feminism is on the up and sooner or later Aboriginals will be considered cool – like MIA is considered cool in England.”
Liddiard holds a lot of importance with tastemakers in the modern age, claiming that popularity has the ability to create social change among future generations. “Once upon a time people from India, Pakistan that weren’t considered cool but became cool [thanks to popularity in social media] – which holds a massive amount of social currency – to be cool is to be able to dictate what’s cool and what’s not. To be brown-skinned, that’s very handy – you’ll get the ear of a lot of kids, which has the potential to change things socially.” Liddiard feels this trend is occurring in Australia, which will lead to “more women in higher places” and “Aboriginals might being considered cool, and then therefore listened to.”
When asked whether he liked the current crop of Aboriginal rappers in Australia, he expressed his wholehearted support. “Yeah – it’s good! Briggs is probably one of the bigger ones, he is cool as far as people go. I imagine kids in the suburbs will say “yeah Briggs he’s fuckin’ cool”, in the same way they would say Kanye, RZA, GZA or Method Man is cool. It means that when Briggs will say something is uncool, kids in high schools know that it’s uncool, which can work for things like racism. People would think being cool doesn’t mean very much but it actually comes with enormous social-political clout because it means people under 25 – and there’s a lot of them- will listen to you and then they will think those things for the rest of their lives.“
Going for a bit of a drive down memory lane, Liddiard discussed his relationship with his hometown of Perth (“The Bakery was fucking great – it’s a real shame”) and his take on whether he thought of The Drones as a Perth band. “It’s a weird one because you know on the flipside of that, are we a Melbourne band? There are so many bands in Melbourne who aren’t from Melbourne, they’re from Sydney or Brisbane or wherever. If you look at it that way well it’s like – well what are we? It gets confusing, at the start it was three people from Perth and Chris [who was from Melbourne] but it’s changed a lot since.
Liddiard found starting the band out in Perth incredibly difficult with the lack of internet and correspondence – hence the move over east – but feels that nowadays Perth bands are able to make it big without moving over to the east side. “90s Perth was just so fuckin cut off from the rest of the planet in that decade – there was no Internet, no nothing. There was literally nothing to do, we were out of touch and just had to make shit up off the fly. I’ve recently been going through a bunch of records we made in Perth and we really made some trippy stuff, cos we just had nothing to go on except our own imaginations. No scene, no social life. It’s not like we could reference current bands in LA or London because there was no Internet so we just made shit up.”
“Look at Tame Impala – they’re massive and they didn’t have to leave Perth. I can’t remember anyone who did that on that scale without leaving before. It’s simply the tyranny of distance – no amount of Internet will solve that really – although it improves it dramatically. Perth is night and day compared to when we lived there – it was fuckin’ midnight when we lived there. We were the only people who knew anything about music in Perth; it was hard to find someone who had heard of the Velvet Underground let alone Jesus Lizard or Fugazi. So it’s completely different now, everyone’s all up with it now because of the Internet. But then the tyranny of distance still counts as it counts between Melbourne and New York and Melbourne and LA. I would probably do better if I lived in LA, I just can’t be fucked.”
Liddiard is playing a solo set at St John’s Cathedral in Fremantle two days after the full band set, a curious location for any artist. I traced the elements of religion in the title track of his debut album Strange Tourist, finding references to the more abstract and eccentric interpretations of religion such as Heaven’s Gate, “harakiri weirdos” (as a sub-sect of Zen Buddhism) and of course the central symbol of the Bowerbird turning the birdbath black, all of which seem to present religion as a potentially corrupting force. When quizzed about this it became clear that Liddiard appreciates religion for what it is and believes that “to dismiss religion is to dismiss art, which includes things like Borges and deep psychological art – the really heavy subconscious kinda stuff.”
“It’s also to dismiss things like Freudian theories and political shit too like Communism and Nazism and the role religion plays in politics.“ “I think people are hardwired to be religious, y’know the cathedral is very different to the Louvre in Paris. If you’re looking at a Goya painting or a Da Vinci piece – the way your brain works on art is very similar to the way you perceive religion. Music too, is using the same path – I’m not dismissive of it but I’m not like Nick Cave, no “God is in the House” or any direct references.”
Concluding the interview I had to ask if there were any plans for a follow up to Strange Tourist, which led to Gareth talking a bit about viewing his oeuvre in all his projects as solo material. “I’m not comparing myself to Bob Dylan in talent but it’s like there’s Bob Dylan and the band he’s had for 20 or something years and there’s something like Wilco, it’s not just called Jeff Tweedy but Jeff Tweedy writes all the songs. Tweedy might write all of the lyrics and none of the music some days or some days he would write absolutely everything. What’s the difference – what’s the difference between him and Bob Dylan? It’s just one has a band name and one is an individual. It’s the Drones too – it’s me being helped by those guys.”
As for what lies in the future for Liddiard – a lap around the country supporting the album before a year off from The Drones to work a new recording project with his partner Fiona Kitschin.
Catch The Drones at the Fremantle Festival on the 3rd of November and Gareth’s solo set on the 5th.