Liars' Angus Andrew goes solo: "It's a break-up album"
We speak to Angus Andrew about break-ups and idyllic nature ahead of the release of TFCF, his first solo record as Liars
For almost two decades, there haven't been many projects like Liars. Constantly shape-shifting, the Australian-American band have frequently moved locations (Brooklyn, Berlin, Los Angeles), managing to escape the perils of sterility that befall many other acts who have been active that long. Liars started during the Napster-years with their 2001 debut They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, moved seamlessly through the hype-blog era where "noise" became briefly trendy on 2004's They Were Wrong, So We Drowned; hit the Vice Music Berlin hipster scene before it became over-saturated (Drum's Not Dead / Liars), predicted indie's increasing turn to LA (Sisterworld), and then electronica (WIXIW / Mess), always remaining fresh and innovative with each release.
However, life so often gets in the way, even of the most established or respected acts. For the majority of their existence, Liars were a trio: Angus Andrew, Aaron Hemphill and Julian Gross, who would collectively play as many instruments as humanly possible across their ever-changing material. Gross left in 2014 after the completion of the band's last album Mess, leaving the original core of Liars, Andrew and Hemphill. When the time came to write the follow-up, things started normally enough, in a Los Angeles studio – where the band had been based since the late 00s – recording new samples and pieces towards a new album.
"I would just set a drum kit up and play an interesting sound or bass guitar or whatever, and ended up with thousands of files upon files to work with," Andrew explains on the phone from New York. However, what he didn't yet know, was that his partner in crime, Hemphill, who had returned to Berlin, announced he was done with the project and the band. It was initially a devastating blow for Andrew, who had all of a sudden lost his creative partner of 17 years.
"Don't get me wrong, we came to a mutual understanding and we are still good friends, but creatively that relationship is over, which was a very difficult thing to understand but also very inspiring," Andrew explains. "It was like writing a romantic break-up album as if I was writing directly to Aaron." So while Liars traditionally stayed unpredictable and ahead of the curve due to their restless abandon for experimenting and challenging themselves, this time around, the new element is pure unbridled emotion, something rarely shown in the electronic, noise or indeed post-punk genres.
But, that is where we find Liars' eighth album, TFCF – short for Theme From Crying Fountain – the first as a solo venture from Andrew. It's something of a spiritual sister to Björk's Vulnicura (also her eighth, coincidentally enough) in that it's a brutally raw album, about a break-up, in which both Andrew and the listener have to confront the situation. This can go a long way in explaining the album's striking artwork too, an image of Andrew as a jilted bride, left at the altar with his/her wedding cake, after his/her partner has left them.
"I felt like I was married to Aaron and I had been abandoned. I liked the idea of being the bride because, for so much time, you get the impression that your music is only appealing to men. I wanted to create something for the men to digest, which was me as a woman, which I hoped would make people feel uncomfortable." This idea of discomfort and juxtaposition, against the relatively warm sounding music, is something that has constantly driven Andrew as an artist: "I want to feel frightened with a decision that I've made and the whole process of putting out this record was that, so it only made sense to make something consistent with that in the artwork."
After realising he would be creating this album solo, Andrew retreated to his native Australia and effectively became a hermit. "I always made the conscious decision to live in certain cities as part of my creative process, whether it be Berlin, New York or Los Angeles, and they suited me at the time. However, I always knew I would come back to Australia eventually," Andrew recalls. "I made quite a drastic change because I moved from LA to an island in a national park just north of Sydney, completely cut off from roads, and to get here you have to travel by boat. I always wanted this idyllic place to live."
These idyllic surroundings are featured in a series of recent teaser videos promoting his latest album. To him, isolation has always been a central focus of his music, though he does admit he wasn't sure if this would work in his homeland. "I felt a bit worried because I was no longer an outsider as I always considered Australia my home. So I set up this studio out in the bush, and for the first few weeks I would just sit and listen to the surrounding nature, all alone, which was pretty inspiring."
Andrew used his isolated surroundings as the literal background noise while recording TFCF. "I always had a live microphone pointed outside towards the bush while I was recording inside the studio, so I could use these natural rumbling sounds. Nature has an irregular rhythm. There's no consistent beat or time signature, just this constant movement which meant I wrote this much more free-formed music. Compare that to Mess and Wish You (stylised: WIXIW) which were very rigid, computer-based albums because technology forces tempos on you but that matched the rhythm of living in a big city. It's very tough to isolate yourself so drastically but also very rewarding creatively. I loved making this record as a result."
Using his surroundings as a backdrop to his music, Andrew began putting together the myriad samples and ideas he had recorded in LA. Inspired by Detroit house or hip-hop, he used the "chopping and screwing" technique with his recordings to create something new. "When I began thinking about this record it was the first time I had really considered sampling. I had done it previously but without really recognising what potential it had, I would just use stuff to suit me as and when. Hip-hop was certainly one of the big touch points for this but I also discovered Vaporwave. It's become kind of uncool now but I found it really interesting the way those guys would re-appropriate certain everyday recordings into new songs."
As a result, much of TFCF feels like a weirdo-hip-hop record, such as recent single Cred Woes, reminiscent of Beck's work on Odelay! with the Dust Brothers. However, this only tells half the story, as for perhaps the first time in Liars history, the album opens with an, albeit very warped, acoustic guitar ballad. "The idea was to completely mess around with these samples of live instruments, with pitch and tempo, to create something completely new and open up new possibilities in my music. The chance to completely change stuff was very exciting."
There is a deep emotional resonance created from this technique, something similarly displayed on Nicholas Britell's score for the film Moonlight, which is consistent with the 'break-up' motif. "This is certainly a very emotional album and while I didn't necessarily know that's what I would create when I started, it naturally progressed that way. I was writing about this deeply personal time in the breakdown of my relationship with Aaron and I wasn't even sure at first if I was even going to be able to release this material. But at some point, you just have to take the plunge and go with it."
Despite the amicable break-up, Andrew is excited for his upcoming tour with an entirely new live band and the opportunity that brings. "When you have a large back catalogue you tend to think about your own music in a certain way, so it was really exciting to have some new talented musicians to join in and say, 'Why aren't you playing these songs live?' It's meant there is a new lease of life on some songs that are well over a decade old, so expect some material we've never played live before," which surely, is just as exciting for any fan, old or new, seeing Liars this year.