WE’RE all familiar with the idea of the wandering minstrel but Liars frontman Angus Andrew is more of a wanderer than most.
Quite apart from the usual round of touring which inevitably follows an album release in the traditional rock’n’roll marketing plan, Andrew has a need to keep on moving that sets him apart from even his most itinerant contemporaries.
Relaxing in the less-than-salubrious confines of the band’s dressing room before the band’s gig at the Bierkeller in Manchester, he explains that – born in the Philippines, brought up in Melbourne before moving to America at the age of 17 and then relocating to Berlin a decade later – moving around is simply something he has to do. It’s in his blood.
“My family has always been moving,” says Andrew. “My mum was born in Sri Lanka, my dad was born in China, and they met in London. My two sisters were born in Japan, and my brother was born in Milan. My dad was in advertising and they moved everywhere, for work and just generally cos they’re like that, y’know?
“So they lived in Tokyo for six years, then they moved to Italy, and then they moved to the Philippines, and a few years after they had me, it was either Sao Paulo, Brazil or Melbourne, Australia. And they chose Melbourne.”
So how has that affected you? Do you feel at home everywhere, or nowhere?
“I totally feel like it’s my right, like it’s everyone’s right, to explore the whole planet. I was very into that idea when I was very young, like 13 or 14. I’d already told my parents that as soon as I left high school, I was going to leave Australia.
“And that’s what I did. I was 17 and I got on a plane for New York. It just seemed like a natural thing to do.
“But yeah, for as long as I can remember, it was important to see the rest of the world because, maybe because I never felt like 100 per cent Australian, y’know, cos I wasn’t born there? And Australians can be very nationalistic in that way.
“I think I also felt like part of me was from somewhere else and maybe I needed to look around.”
Living in New York‘s artistic enclave of Williamsburg (after a stint at an art college in Los Angeles), Andrew began working with west coast musician Aaron Hemphill and Liars, almost by accident, found themselves as inadvertent leading lights in the NYC punk-funk scene.
Their debut album, They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top was released in 2001 but they were uncomfortable with, as Andrew puts it, “how quickly we were put into this ‘post-punk Brooklyn art-dance’ pigeonhole” and responded by quickly ditching the sound that had made their name.
Having relocated to a farmhouse in the New Jersey countryside with his then-girlfriend, Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Andrew got together with Hemphill and an old friend from LA Julian Gross and began to record the second Liars album.
They Were Wrong So We Drowned was a startling exploration of the hysteria which gripped the western world in the 17th century, when tens of thousands of women – and quite a few men and children, even a few unlucky animals – were accused of witchcraft before being ‘cleansed’ at the stake, on the gallows and in ducking stools.
They Were Wrong So We Drowned is an insane album, a densely oppressive and unsettling collection of sounds which simply defies categorisation. Whilst still a progression from their debut, it reasserted Liars’ fascination with texture and tone, where the sound of their songs is every bit as important as the songs themselves.
“I’ve never been a musician, y’know,” explains Andrew, running his hand through his mop of unruly hair. “I was into all sorts of other arts, and video was something I was doing before I got into music, at art school in LA.
“I was using these computer programmes which were all about layering, like you lay a track of video, then you lay another track of video, maybe make it a little opaque and then you can see through it and stuff. And literally the way it began was that Aaron and I bought a four-track and he showed me that it was just the same thing – you layer sounds.
“And we learnt to layer stuff, that idea of putting one thing over another, and then taking it back. The whole process of each song is all about either going to for another direction, but they also follow a very similar formula in the way they’re made in that they often it begins with the drums, right back from Trench, where I or Aaron, would make a drumbeat, and then you just layer on that.
“I think it’s a very straightforward and obvious way of looking at music, whereas other bands do everything at one time. We’re more used to figuring this one layer out, and we’ll spend a week on just the drum sounds, and then when that’s ready, we move on.”
The band have moved on again with their latest album, Drum’s Not Dead, which was recorded in their new base of Berlin. The barely controlled mayhem of Liars’ previous releases is now a little more ordered than it was – perhaps due to some of that famed German efficiency rubbing off on them – but their neo-primitivism, their love of loud feedback and heavy distortion remains largely undiminished.
“What’s been cool about this new record is that we’re doing a lot of this double drumming, y’know, and we mic the drums into like pedals and amps, so that the mics are picking up but the drums are also feeding back off the amps,” explains Andrew.
“And what we found is that, if Julian and Aaron play the drums together, the tones, even just between a lose drum and a tight drum, the tones are varying so much, you get this kind of melodic tonal thing going, where a lot of the time, it felt like I didn’t have to do anything over it.
“Maybe I’d just sing a few words or a little note or something, but most of the time the sound is filled by the tones, layering themselves, which was cool.”
You don’t use drums like other people.
“We don’t use them as a four-four thing,” nods Andrew. “Like I say, drums have always been the starting point, and I think that’s based in the idea of lacking musicianship, where you could lay down the drums and work from there.
“As that progressed, on the second record we really started to think about how we could make drums sound, not just like drums, but also natural. And it’s endless, the amount of different tones you can get from a drum, even if you’re just hitting it light or soft. It’s so instinctive, and really good for us. And yeah, the drums are pretty much the primary focus.
“The first record was like, how can we use hip hop drumbeats in the songs that we want to make? Most of the time it was like, let’s make a hip hop song, and then the failure would be the Liars song. And that was based on a repetitive, cool drumbeat, y’know.
“And the second record it was, okay, I think we’re still doing the same thing, but it’s about expanding this idea of the drums, how do we utilised the different sounds. We’d always been using pedals on voice and guitar, but then we started putting pedals into the drums and it opened up a whole new door for us.
“I think there’s a certain amount of hindsight in this, but when we were concentrating on drums for this last record, it became like the drum was another member of the band, it constantly needed attention and tuning. And the reason why I think that was right for us is this idea of us being very … of us relying less on talent and more on instinct.
“And there’s nothing more instinctive than hitting something, and also you need that much talent to know that if you hit if softly you get a different sound than if you hit it hard. It’s part of that primal idea of drums where, of course, in some countries drums are communication, obviously there’s a whole slew of things drums work for.
“And I think that is because drums are an instinctive thing. You hit something hard and the sound is louder than when you hit it softer. It’s not like your turning knobs or plugging anything in, it’s not electricity making this louder. It’s you doing it.”
So is your desire to always keep moving satisfied by being in a band?
“Yeah. You don’t need to have a place to live, and we learned that a little while ago. And that was part of my impetus to move to Berlin. I could afford to have a really cheap place – it’s like €150 a month, it wasn’t so expensive I had to worry about it, and it could be okay, whereas in New York, it was eight times that, and every time we went on tour you had to move out of your house, basically.”
“The other two guys are pretty much resigned to not having a place, and my place in Berlin is kind of the base for the band, and when we’re on tour, we’re on tour. If we’re in the States then they go to their parents’ house, if we’re in Europe, we base ourselves in Berlin, but that’s what the band thing is all about.
“I mean, I remember when we first started playing music and the idea of touring came up. We were in New York but nothing had really happened yet, and the first thing I wanted to do was play in Taiwan or somewhere like that. I thought, this is how you can go somewhere and really have fun with it.
“Since then, the objective has always been to go further and further away. I think we all really get a big kick, you need a bit of a kick, if you’re touring like this a lot.
“To play Manchester for example, four times, it’s cool but y’know, there’s this other element of like, well, if you play Slovenia for the first time, those kids man, they won’t see that much stuff, that often. You really feel like .. aw, it sounds weird, but you feel like you’re doing some sort of service. You’re going out of your way to open these people’s minds up. It feels like you’re doing it.
“Here, maybe they’re a little more jaded, they’ve obviously seen a lot more, but in those contexts, it really gives you a buzz. You’re like, wow, I just flipped these kids’ brains out, because the only thing they’ve heard is Linkin Park, so it’s really cool, yeah.”
“The way our trajectory has gone, for example in the States, we can play these massive big two-night things in New York and LA and San Francisco, but you go into the middle and y’know, the crowd would rather watch The Simpsons playing on the screen at the bar. It’s really weird like that.
“I suspect that won’t change too much, but I think instead of going to the middle of America to be ignored, we’d rather go to Zambia and see what would happen there.
“And those opportunities aren’t that hard to come by because if you say to someone, look, you don’t have to pay us anything, all we need is to get there and a place to stay, and we’ll play. We’ve said that to people and they’ve taken us up on it. It’s cool. We’re going to Turkey, where it’s not about a fee or a tour, it’s like, can you get us there? Yeah, we’ll come.”
“I made the decision early on, when I left Australia, that I was going to go somewhere and I was just going to keep going. I made this decision that I couldn’t go back there, until, I don’t know, I felt like I could. And I do want to go back.”
So what’s the problem? Do you want to go back as the conquering hero?
“No, it’s more that I know that when I move back to Australia, I can’t do what I’m doing now. I can’t travel and tour in a band in Australia, it’s physically and practically almost impossible. So I feel like Australia represents the end of whatever I’m doing at the moment.
“I moved to Berlin because I realised, on my 27th birthday, that I’d been in the United Snakes for ten years and I started to freak out. I was like, wow, I can’t believe I’ve done that. This was when Iraq was being invaded, and they were capturing Saddam, and I actually moved out of the city of New York into the suburbs of New Jersey in an attempt to try and separate myself, somewhat, from America.
“But I found that being in the suburbs it was only more intense. And at that point I realised, I really need to leave. It just dawned on me that, God, I’ve never lived in Europe, and that’s an important place. I was thinking about Barcelona, or Rome, anywhere, as long as it was Europe. With the opening up of the EU, Europe was a really exciting place.
“I just realised that there was a lot more about the world that I wasn’t thinking about. I was so caught up in the politics of America, I’d bloody watch the news every hour … My friends, would get mad at me, for being so involved in it. Why are you watching the news? Why do you let yourself get caught up in it? They were like, why don’t you do something about it? What am I going to do? I don’t know what to do. I’m not going to go around preaching about it, everyone knows what’s going on.
“At that point it hit me. The one thing I can do is not live here. I can leave. I don’t have to be here. For some reason I thought I had to be there.”
How scary was moving somewhere you don’t speak the language?
“Lots of people speak English In Berlin. I think it was scarier move when I was 17 and moved to the Lower East Side, and I started doing drugs and I had no idea what I was doing there. That was scary, and that was quite stupid as well.
“I could live anywhere, in isolation, and frankly that’s what I do in Berlin.”
Don’t count on him being there forever.
[Originally published by Flux in December 2005. Angus Andrew photo by Dejan Jovanović]