…I left Australia when I was young, so being anywhere – in America, or Berlin – I feel like an alien.
Angus Andrew, The Quietus, 2010
Formed: New York, USA, 2000
Featured album: They Were Wrong, So We Drowned (2004)
YOU NEVER KNOW quite where you stand with Liars. One minute they’re making you shake your butt and tap your feet with their funky dancepunk; the next they’re freaking you out with experimental concept albums, or creating their most intimate and personal music using synthesisers. It’s part of the appeal of this art-punk trio, for whom restlessness is a perpetual state of being.
You wouldn’t have guessed it from their beginnings. Alongside acts like Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars were one of the more promising post-punk revival groups to emerge from New York in the early 2000s. Formed by lanky expat-Australian Angus Andrew and microbiology student and multi-instrumentalist Aaron Hemphill, Liars recruited a rhythm section, bassist Pat Noecker and drummer Ron Albertson, through the time-honoured method of placing a want ad. A debut album, They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, soon followed. It generated considerable buzz with its danceable rhythms and spiky guitars; but its final track, a half-hour of bass mesmerism and oneiric textures called “This Dust Makes That Mud”, suggested Liars may have been harbouring more peculiar ambitions than merely paying homage to Gang of Four and ESG.
After two more EPs, Noecker and Albertson were replaced by Andrew’s art-school buddy, Julian Gross. Gross first appeared with Liars on Atheists, Reconsider, a split EP with fellow Brooklynites Oneida, its seven-minute noise collage “Dorothy Taps the Foot of the Tinman” further hinting at the strangeness to come. Escaping New York’s hipster scene in favour of a cabin in the New Jersey wilderness, Liars recorded their second album, They Were Wrong, So We Drowned. With its murky, batshit concept worthy of The Residents, and uncompromising experimentalism, They Were Wrong introduced a certain occult atmosphere and unpredictability, combined with a focus on rhythm and texture, that would become part of the band’s DNA. Ill-received upon release, the album began to be regarded in a more positive light with the arrival of its critically acclaimed follow-up.
In 2006, Liars relocated to Berlin to record what would become Drum’s Not Dead, a collection of ethereal guitar drones and eerie falsetto vocals, anchored by the polyrhythmic drive of two deconstructed drum kits – a percussion-heavy sound not unlike Hex-era The Fall or early Butthole Surfers. With a concept revolving around the battle between two characters – Mount Heart Attack, an anthropomorphisation of oppressive anxiety; and Drum, who embodies creative confidence – Drum’s Not Dead is Liars’ studio masterpiece and one of the best albums of the 2000s. Their self-titled 2007 follow-up put a schizophrenic twist on the more immediate rock of their debut, Liars clearly having fun bashing out ‘60s biker-metal, prog, garage rock, Madchester, and a spot-on Jesus and Mary Chain pastiche. These homages were interspersed with bizarre, cavernous dirges like “What Would They Know” and “Leather Prowler”, the latter featuring drones coaxed by Hemphill from a type of electric zither called the Moodswinger.
Moodswinger would have been an apt title for Liars’ next album. Not that Sisterworld (2010) wasn’t just as appropriate, a term the band invented to describe the dual realities of LA, where they had recently relocated. For the first time since They Were Wrong, Liars concocted a batch of songs as tuneful as they were twisted, vacillating between sonic calm and raucous violence with a persistent sense of unease and otherworldliness. A companion piece soon followed with remixes by Thom Yorke (Radiohead), Alan Vega (Suicide), Chris and Cosey (Throbbing Gristle) and Melvins, among others. Around this time Liars were also invited to contribute to Beck’s Record Club project, recording a track-by-track cover of the INXS album Kick with members of St. Vincent and Os Mutantes.
Having been signed for the majority of their career to Mute Records, home to Depeche Mode and Erasure, it was only a matter of time before Liars would turn their attention towards synthesizers. Produced by label boss Daniel Miller, 2012’s WIXIW was an insular, reflective album of electronic music, the band using their unfamiliarity with new equipment to expose their vulnerabilities. The more brash and upbeat Mess followed in 2014, and from the manipulated vocals of “Mask Maker” onward, Liars clearly hadn’t lost an ounce of their playful uncanniness, presenting a banging batch of rave-gone-wrong in the first half, giving way to more textured ambient material in the second.
As one of the few post-punk revival bands to really embrace the original movement’s inventive possibilities, where Liars will go next, musically or geographically, is anyone’s guess. This precariousness works to the band’s advantage, the constant reinvention and relocation keeping them creatively vital as they continue to leap outside their comfort zone into the great unknown. Despite their name, you can always rely on Liars to make it worth taking the jump with them.
“We Fenced Other Gardens with the Bones of Our Own” video from They Were Wrong, So We Drowned (2004)
Angus Andrew discusses conceptual art in an interview at his home in LA (2014)
Live with interview on KEXP, Seattle (2014)