By Alexander Laurence
Liars formed at the end of 2000 when Aaron Hemphill and Angus Andrew, friends from Cal Arts, reunited in New Jersey. They had previously recorded some rough tracks when they met at Cal Arts. Angus Andrew is from Australia and reminds people of a deranged Nick Cave. Aaron Hemphill is from San Diego and played guitar and drum machine with the band. Two Nebraskans, Pat Noecker and Ron Albertson soon joined their sessions.
Liars' debut album, They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, was released in October 2001. The album was recorded in just two days. The sounds of synthetic keypads, vocal effects, mixed with their guitar-bass-drums intensity, reminded people of post-punk bands of the late 1970s and early '80s. A more chaotic and drunk Gang of Four. Liars were the soundtrack of Williamsburg in 2001. They soon began opening for Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
In 2003, Noecker and Albertson left the band. Old friend from Cal Arts, Julian Gross was recruited as a replacement and new drummer. In March 2003, the trio began recording the second Liars album at Andrew's house in New Jersey with Dave Sitek (TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs). They Were Wrong, So We Drowned was inspired by avant-garde electronic music and witchcraft, and was released in early 2004. Song titles like "Steam Rose From The Lifeless Cloak" and "We Fenced Other Houses With The Bones Of Our Own" marked a new period.
In November 2003, they played some of the new music to shocked audiences. Even after a year of losing some members, medical problems, and more, Liars are back with their uncompromising sound. Reviews have been mixed, the favorable ones calling the record "challenging." I spoke to Aaron Hemphill about the new album and the new direction.
AL: You played one of the first shows with the new lineup and the new material at Bowery Ballroom in November 2003. What was that experience like?
Aaron: It was scary. It was the first show in New York. We were having technical problems. It was fun.
AL: Many people know the first album. They hear the new album and think: what is going on? Is this the same band?
Aaron: It's all about making what you are into. There are no real rules. We are doing what we feel like. The albums are made the same way. The same people make the songs. If it sounds different, it's because it has been three years since the last record.
AL: Why did Pat Noecker and Ron Albertson leave the band?
Aaron: Basically, they wanted something that we couldn't give them. Angus and I have always worked the same way. We have always written songs on the four-track. That is how we met Pat and Ron. We gave them a tape of our songs. We met them through a sign that we had posted. We were looking for a bass guitarist and a drummer. They come from a background where you write songs in a garage with a band. They wanted to jam it out all together. We couldn't make songs that way. It got hard. You can't tell those guys what they are playing is wrong. They are good musicians. You can't criticize them for not playing the songs the way I did on the tape. Some things get lost in the translation. It wasn't very fulfilling for them and things weren't coming out the way we wanted either. It was a mutual decision.
AL: Did you present them some songs that were the beginnings of the second album? They decided to leave then?
Aaron: No. I don't think we would have been able to make this album with them. On the record, most of the time, I play drums. They were more traditional. They thought that the drummer in the band has to play the drums on the record. Some moments were accidents. You can't recreate that especially if someone else is doing it. We wanted to have things come out the way that we had worked in the past. They wanted to be just more traditional. It wasn't working.
AL: A few years ago you said in New York Magazine that the second album was going to be stranger. You said that all the more commercial aspects of the first album were going to disappear.
Aaron: Yeah. It's not like we are trying to make a weird record or anything. Think of it like if you were keeping a journal. You know how you used to be and you know how you are: it's not current. If you have people reading about how you were three years ago but you know how you are today. You can easily predict what you are going to do next in contrast to what people think you are.
AL: You were going to do a West Coast tour back in May 2003. You cancelled the whole tour. What happened then?
Aaron: Angus had a stomach ulcer. It was twisted in a knot and coming out his esophagus. It was really bad. We had to cancel the tour.
AL: When did you record the new record and how long did it take?
Aaron: It took two months. We did it in March and May of 2003.
AL: How did you write the songs?
Aaron: We wrote it all in the studio as we went along. We worked in the same way. We came up with a beat that we liked. We would then base some music around that. Or we would start experimenting with things.
AL: Did you buy a lot of gear this time?
Aaron: Not really. We recorded more tracks of instruments. There is a lot less gadgetry than one might assume. It's more organic than people would think. Trying to recreate that sound live with three people we have to use samplers.
AL: Is Julian Gross a member of the band now?
Aaron: Yeah. He's a full-time member of the band. I met Angus and Julian in Los Angeles. They both went to the same art school at Cal Arts. I met them at the same time. I ended up living in their studio at school. We played with Julian way back when before we met Pat and Ron. We took Julian along on tour to sell merchandise. Julian was the first person we called when we had the idea to do this record. We thought that Julian had the same collective approach that we had.
AL: What did you guys study at college?
Aaron: I went to Junior College in San Diego and I studied Microbiology. Angus studied Photography. Julian studied graphic design.
AL: What do you think of the New York music scene? What do you think the differences are between when you started four years ago and now?
Aaron: I don't think there are any differences. The only differences are how people perceive it, who I guess misperceived it to begin with. It's just like a bunch of bands that are in any town. I don't know what the scene meant. I don't think what people said about "The Brooklyn Scene" was accurate. I think that was a misconception. The same bands are in New York making music. I don't think the actual structure of the scene has changed. I think people's perception and excitement about it has changed. I don't think bands have ever acknowledged what people think is this scene. It's always going to change.
AL: There was a lot of attention from especially Europe in New York bands like The Strokes. There was also a focus on New York for things that didn't have anything to do with music, like the 9/11 attack. All that attention and focus moved to a lot of other bands that were around at the time.
Aaron: Yeah. I would agree with that. But if the Strokes hadn't been a band, I am not so sure that 9/11 would have brought attention to the arts and culture so much, just because it was in New York. I think the Strokes had a lot to do with bands being lucky receiving so much attention.
AL: Was doing the split CD with Oneida influential on doing the new work?
Aaron: Actually it was. How we made that was very similar to how we made the new record. We had no concern how we were going to recreate it live. We were just having fun with it. Oneida is a band makes a different record every time too. They are a big influence knowing how they work.
AL: What was that show you did on the Williamsburg waterfront two years ago about?
Aaron: That had really nothing to do with where the bands were from. We were all friends. Our friends Fitz and Arthur put on the show. I don't think that we ever represented Williamsburg and therefore I don't think that we abandoned it. All that was something never in our minds. You just live in a certain town. People called us a Brooklyn bands when we were living in New Jersey. It's all based on assumption. We never turned our backs on the Williamsburg scene. There was a lot of attention placed on it, by luck. I still live there in Williamsburg, so I can't say that I have abandoned it.
AL: What do you think about the Hipsters in Williamsburg?
Aaron: I am sure that you run into that in every town. Paying too much attention to how someone dresses and looks is like criticizing someone who pays too much attention. That is everywhere. It doesn't upset me.
AL: Does anyone in Liars have a musical background?
Aaron: I had some classical guitar training when I was a kid. My dad a sax player and my mom was a clarinet player. My parents did not teach music to me. That was always something in their past. I am not sure if any of that affects any of the music we make or not. Maybe since none of us pay any attention to the training of it.
AL: Some of the subject matter on the new record is very dark. Why is that?
Aaron: We thought it would be fun to try. It's what came out. The whole witch story was giving the album was a whole other element that you could have fun with. We wanted to make it multi-layered. If you wanted to pay attention to the story you could. If you just want to listen to an album you could. It's all very loose.
AL: Some of the songs seemed to be organized around some motif or the repetition of a word like "Blood."
Aaron: All that is not pre-conceived. It was all spontaneous. We do it as we go. Those things just happened that way. We do think about ways the songs are organized where the verse/chorus/verse is not so obvious. That is the only thing intentionally done. We don't pick a sound and go "This is the thing." It is more accidental.
AL: How has the live audience reacted to the new songs? Have you scared many people?
Aaron: I think so. Some people like it, some people don't. It's been mixed.
AL: Angus was wearing a dress at the show in November. Is that a sign of things to come?
Aaron: It's more like if it something is lying around, I'll wear it. It's not a commitment.
AL: What should people expect on this new tour in April and May 2004?
Aaron: We are not playing anything from the first album. The show will be half the new album and half new songs. We have written some songs since then.
AL: Are there any bands that you like?
Aaron: There are so many. There are some that we are touring with like Young People and Get Hustle. We like them a lot.
AL: Have you read any good books recently?
Aaron: Yeah I read a lot. I am reading Heretics of Dune right now. I am a big fan of Dune. We are big readers.
AL: Have you seen any good films recently?
Aaron: Julian and I saw The Passion of The Christ recently and we thought it was really stupid. School of Rock I thought was really good.
AL: Do you have any other hobbies?
Aaron: I like to cook and sew. When I lived in LA I liked to surf. I might buy a surfboard and hit the waves in New York. I am excited about that.