If Liars are to be believed, then nothing written about them is ever the complete truth—even what’s in their own press releases. It’s not that they—the trio of Angus Andrew, Aaron Hemphill, and Julian Gross—are out to intentionally mislead, but rather it’s that their intentions are often misconstrued. As if this were art class, and every day a critique day, Liars are constantly made to stand next to their work and be asked by everyone, “What does this mean?” The answers can seem abstract (“This album’s about witches!”), but that’s just the surface. In fact, to think of Liars as a concept band would be all wrong—their albums aren’t conceptual, they’re reactionary. Their 2001 debut, They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top, was a burst of hyperactive dance-punk; 2004’s They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, was decidedly not, and instead delved into moody atmospherics. The next release, 2006’s Drum’s Not Dead, was hugely thematic; the following year’s self-titled effort was not—it was purposely written without any unifying narrative. This year’s Sisterworld seems a culmination of all of that. It’s art-rock experimentation wrapped in insinuation and metaphor, largely influenced by the band’s collective relocation to grimy, shiny Los Angeles (the first time in years that all three members have resided in the same city). Andrew, on the eve of the band’s current tour—which makes a stop in Madison this Wednesday at the High Noon Saloon—let The A.V. Club in on the biggest truth about the Liars: That with everything they do, they’re just trying to be honest.
The A.V. Club: It seems like Liars are always being asked to explain the meaning behind the albums, rather than the creation of them or even what they sound like.
Angus Andrew: There are worse things a band can be known for than being overtly conceptual. If that’s the burden we have to bear for making the kind of records that we do, then that’s generally okay with me. Definitely with the record before this one, which was the self-titled record, it was really a reaction to what you were talking about. We tried to strip away any kind of meaning from the record so that we wouldn’t have to discuss our influences, etc.
But in doing that, we learned that actually what we liked about making records was giving them this sort of life of their own. And so with Sisterworld, we kind of went back with that, with the understanding that, yeah, we’re probably going to end up talking to people more about the theory behind the record than the actual music in it. It gets frustrating sometimes, but like I said, if that’s the one thing we have to deal with, then that’s okay.
AVC: Knowing that you’ll be asked about it, do you guys work it out beforehand as a group, like “Okay, this is what we’re going to tell people the album is about.”
AA: [Laughs.] That’s not too far from the truth, honestly. We really have to get on the same page in the beginning, and more and more we’ve learned it’s important to be cautious about how much you reveal. Otherwise, you’ll be caught in a whirlwind.
It’s a really tricky time [right after a record is finished]. The label asks you to write something to explain it, and that’s always a tricky thing. With any sort of artwork, it takes a while for things to really digest. [But] you’re sort of forced to put out a statement that says something, and then the label also gets involved and then they write something. And in the end, you edit things down to something you’re kind of happy with.
The press release we put out for Sisterworld was a real problem, because there was a line in there—it was a barely written line—that said something about us making this record “devoid of influence.” The intention in that was that we were trying project an idea of a place called Sisterworld that was devoid of influence. But we ended up being asked by a lot of people, “How can you make a record devoid of influence?” [Laughs.] And, actually, it was quite the opposite. We’re very influenced by L.A. and the media and everything here.
AVC: You’ve mentioned before how the darker parts of Sisterworld are direct references to being in downtown L.A. and seeing all this crime and homelessness. So you channel those frustrations into a song, but then what after that?
AA: That’s a dilemma from anyone’s perspective. [People say], “What can I do about it? I’m helpless.” That’s a universal. It’s not like I’m saying that we got any answers. It’s more like, I came to L.A. to make a record and the things that I saw really frustrated me but inspired me. I’m not ever claiming that what I’m doing is in any way an attempt to, I don’t know, make everything better. But I’m acknowledging what gets to me, you know? I think about it a lot, too. Like, what do you do? You’re aware of this massive amount of homelessness, so what should people be doing? My only answer to that is to get people to acknowledge it more. I was once thinking, why doesn’t the city buy a billboard that says on it, “Look around you at all the homelessness.” Maybe it would inspire people to do something—I don’t know. It’s not my goal really to be political or anything like that. I’m not trying to run for office. I just made something that, for me, I had to make. At the time and what I was seeing was so much of an influence that I had no real choice.
AVC: It’s hard for musicians to get political or to write songs about big social issues—people seem very touchy about that.
AA: The problem is that, realistically, the people that are listening to a band like Liars don’t need to be preached to. Our audience is smart people who have their own opinions, and I don’t need to tell them that the oil spill in the Gulf is bad. A while ago, just when the Iraq war was beginning, I remember Patti Smith came out with some big statement that said that she was really disappointed in this generation for not writing more protest songs. And I felt like that was really silly. It doesn’t really work that way, people don’t think that way anymore. People aren’t going to get their minds changed because they hear a cool song telling them to change their mind. People nowadays—you got to give them more credit. Our work is less preachy than a protest song, but still involves the same ideas. It requires the listener to come to understand those ideas by themselves, without being told what the answer is.
Our second record, They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, everyone latched onto the idea that it was a conceptual record about witches. But the real story is that it was a really political record. It was made at that time, the first invasion of Iraq, and it was really our way of talking about that. It just requires an understanding of your role, maybe, in people’s lives. We’re constantly being bombarded with information nowadays. It’s easier to get through to people using metaphors.
AVC: A lot of what you do seems to be a reaction, either to what’s going on in the world, your geography, even your own albums.
AA: We feel like we’re always learning, and that there’s more and more interesting ways to create music and to, in general, express yourself. And that’s what keeps us excited about being in a band. It’s way more difficult for me to understand how a group can repeat themselves over and over. The best part about doing this sort of stuff is that you get to re-evaluate with each record.
AVC: After 10 years and all these albums, what have you learned?
AA: I’ve learned that I can never stop learning. I’ve learned that I’m slowly, slowly becoming slightly more comfortable with calling myself a musician or a songwriter. It’s taken a lot of time. It’s been a pretty amazing journey, and each record in itself a whole world. I’ve learned that we did ourselves right by staying true to ourselves, and maybe that’s what the band name is all about.