Computer World: Liars' Angus Andrew talks WIXIW
Ever since they trundled off into the woods to write an album about witches (2004's They Were Wrong, So We Drowned) we've held an abiding concern about the safety of Liars' immortal souls. Whilst the pagan mantras of 2006's Drum's Not Dead didn't exactly put our minds at rest, it wasn't until we viewed the trailer for their forthcoming album WIXIW that our disquiet really started to froth.
Featuring the album's esoteric title (pronounced 'wish you') inscribed obsessively into various public and private spaces, it seemed that the band had jumped head first into the world of sigil magic – a visual method of accelerating the manifestation of one's deepest desires much popularised by Genesis P.Orridge's Psychic TV and his dong-handed acolytes Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth in the early '80s. With the fear in our hearts that Angus and the boys were but one catastrophic wanking-ritual away from eternal damnation, we calibrated our vocal cords to 'Daily Mail' and proffered our sophomoric concerns: So, have you boys been dabbling with occult forces or what?
"Mmm, that's interesting," replies Andrew. "I hear what you’re saying, like, somehow superstitious... (WIXIW) did seem to embody this kind of power in that particular spelling. No matter how much we tried to get away from it – and we did try – it kept coming back and resonating with us as this kind of really strong, visual thing. The nature of a palindrome is that it starts in the same place that it finishes and I think that in general that might be seen as a negative thing – but I think it’s interesting to go through this long process and come out on the other side even more into the idea you started with in the first place. I think the idea of wishing for something is seen as this kind of positive thing but in reality it puts you in a position where you’re not really going for the thing you want, you’re just... wishing for it. The sentiment is a universal, straightforward idea but in the nature and the context of how we work it’s never that simple. I like the duality of it: wish you were here or wish you were dead – could be the same sort of thing."
If all that sounds a little ambiguous then the music of WIXIW is even more so; a seductive Möbius loop of obsession and entropy that finds Liars breaking away from the rock historical canon, embracing electronic composition and creating what is arguably their most suggestive work to date. If 2010's Sisterworld was the band's attempt to delineate a series of discrete, but still comprehensible parallel worlds, then WIXIW is their very own twilight zone – a liminal space which, once entered, is almost impossible to leave.
"With this one we wanted to let the process dictate the way the subject matter came out and the result of that is this kind of almost a contradictory way of working," explains Andrew. "You think one thing but keep going back to this other thing. On this record the biggest goal for me was to spend a lot of time experimenting with sound as opposed to trying to refine our songwriting craft. Two records ago we were really into this idea of, well, how do you write a real song, you know? And now that feels completely irrelevant to me. We gave ourselves a massive amount of time to fuck around and experiment and that’s really great because we ended up with hundreds of really good sounds which we catalogued. But at some point we realised, shit, we’ve gotta actually make songs out of these things, and so we literally, physically, had to tell ourselves to stop experimenting with sounds and to concentrate on some of the ones we had to try and figure out how to use them.
"The process did influence the feel of the record, which I think has a lot to do with this kind of doubt and uncertainty. We put ourselves in a position were we weren't comfortable and in a lot of ways that was difficult. A big part of the process that we took on this time was that for the first time in ages Aaron [Hemphill] and I wanted to collaborate from a really early stage. Normally we just write full songs and bring them to each other after we’ve developed some kind of confidence about what we’ve done. [This time] we were showing each other stuff in really raw forms where we really didn’t have that confidence developed yet. It’s pretty unnerving... I found it a lot different but very rewarding."
WIXIW is particularly notable for its heavy reliance on digital audio software as a primary creative tool and attentive listeners will have no problem discerning influences ranging from dub and minimal techno to drone and experimental synth music. Talking about his experience at the Short Circuit Electronic Music Festival in 2011 (which included performances by artists such as The Residents, Mira Calix and Thomas Fehlmann) Andrew recalls that his conversion to the cause, whilst not exactly Damascene, was at least somewhat epiphanic: "[I just came around to] the idea that playing music with this kind of electronic basis was really fluid and more interesting than I had previously thought it was. The kind of sounds that were being produced were really inspiring. The sounds weren’t generic like, 'oh this is a bass guitar this is a drum kit', the sounds were much more experimental, and to me that really resonated and when we played I felt kinda boring.
"There's this sort of natural progression we have where it feels like each record we need to find some new way of challenging ourselves; and we had never really full-on gone into working within the computer and using computer programs and so we felt that we would be naive children going into that and that’s really how it felt. It was frustrating in a way; it’s kind of a big change to be, 'well today I’m gonna write songs' and then actually what you end up doing is reading manuals."
Whilst the technology involved resulted in a steep learning curve for the band, Liars didn't have to look far for expert guidance: "We’ve been on this label, Mute, our whole lives now and [label founder] Daniel Miller, who we have a lot of contact with, is primarily an electronic kind of guy and it just felt like at some point we needed to take advantage of his knowledge. The idea that I had the most trouble with is, when you're using these electronic sounds and creating things within the computer, it’s not like you’ve hit a kick drum and made that sound - you sort of find a cool kick drum sound and effect it or whatever but it left me really uncertain. Almost like, well, if electronic people hear this snare are they gonna be like ‘oh that’s the snare from Daft Punk’s whatever,’ you know? So in a lot of ways it was important for me to play him things early on and gauge his reaction to what I felt were these standard electronic tropes."
Although the band circumvented most of such pitfalls through the use of avant-garde sampling techniques (visit their blog at amateurgore.tumblr.com for extensive documentation) the tracks created for WIXIW have necessitated a re-evaluation of their live setup: "The past couple of records we’ve employed other musicians to tour with us but it’s just gonna be the three of us this time, which in and of itself is pretty challenging with this music. It’s brought up some pretty interesting topics. It seems that nowadays, more than before, it’s sort of OK for people to play their CD and sing along to it. It seems like a normal thing to do now. So it’s interesting to have that within the play of things. You know, shall we just do that? But no, we’re still working on it and trying to figure it out. It’s definitely more of a challenge working with this kind of electronic based music in terms of the instruments you've gotta use and stuff. Especially with some of the sounds we used on the record – I’m still in the process of trying to figure out how we made those sounds, let alone how to recreate them on the stage!"
From anyone else those words might seem like cause for concern, but coming from Liars you get the feeling that such technical dilemmas are as a red rag to their bullish creativity; just another dynamic variable to a band for whom complacency simply does not compute.