Even by Liars’ standards, their sixth record WIXIW is a bolt from the blue.
Liars’ Aaron Hemphill lies prone, unconscious, in the back of an unmarked laundry van. Cellophane pulled across his face, his shock of white blonde hair is pressed tightly against his head, limbs bound. Alongside him, similarly trussed up, lies the band’s rangy vocalist Angus Andrew and drummer Julian Gross, the trio having been accosted by the vehicle’s seemingly inconspicuous driver. The scene is soundtracked by a bubbling, bleary, engrossing electronic backing. It’s the music video for No. 1 Against The Rush, the first single from Liars’ sixth album, WIXIW. Two years ago, Andrew could be found alone in a dinghy drifting in a vast sea, barraged relentlessly by a tidal wave of rocks; three years previous he was driving a muscle car wildly through a barren desert as an endless beam of white light spewed from his mouth. When it comes to dropping a new record with a resonant thud, Liars know what they’re doing.
Since early this year a steady, curiosity-tweaking stream of video clips have dribbled onto Liars’ website. Building over time, a gradual mesh illustrating the assembly of the record has revealed itself. The videos display a band falling in love with a process, discovering, exploring, pushing themselves and celebrating their difference. These are tens of fascinating creative bursts in themselves, in turn capturing the method behind the record. Some of the footage of the band accumulating unusual samples is fabulously eccentric; an apple being plugged in and eaten, an electric razor left alone to clatter on a table, the distinctive hum and clang of a halogen light; fluid dripping onto foil from a height; a microphone encased in ice, attached to a broom or simply dragged along the road. God knows how long this collecting process went on, and god knows how many of these sounds were used, but it’s clear these steps were integral to the creation of WIXIW.
Multi-instrumentalist Aaron sees these videos as key to the band’s interaction with their audience: “It’s a fairly new standard with the internet, how bands or artists interact with fans via these new media of communication. I think really it was exciting for us to find our footing in this world.” But plenty of artists manage to maintain fan interaction without going to such lengths? “For us, we like to maintain an element of mystery, so the record is open for interpretation. We love to have a connection with the people who listen to our records or are interested in our band, but we also don’t want to dictate how people interpret things.”
This interpretive nature is none more evident than in the album’s title. When the listener is allowed to choose how to say an album’s name, you know they’ve been handed considerable control. “We don’t want to dictate meaning”, Aaron continues to stress. “We just want people to enjoy it and take it as far as they want to go. It’s not meant to be a concept that people either get or don’t.” There is so much to draw from the name both visually and audibly (we’re plumping for a loose, kind of ‘wishoo’ pronunciation, in case you’re wondering); it is not only palindromic but also symmetrical to the eye, a seductive blend of capitals that immediately rings of Roman numerals and begs, rather than asks, questions.
A history of the Brooklyn three-piece’s album titles displays a band placing painstaking thought into each aspect of their presentation. Digging into the catalogue, They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top was a seriously bold and knowingly ostentatious title for a debut record, its follow-up also referring to a demonised ‘they’: They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, based around American witch folklore. 2006’s Drum’s Not Dead, meanwhile refers to the album’s conceptual main character, Drum. Yet between those creations and 2010’s Sisterworld came the unimaginable; a simply self-titled effort. Aaron is clear about each respective title’s relation to the record behind it. “[The self-titled album] wasn’t a statement in terms of rock history, it was more where we were at the time. We felt we wanted to make something that was more … straightforward. We spent a lot less time on that record because we wanted something more immediate and simple. Drum’s … and … Drowned were perceived as having an all-encompassing concept, and I think at every point we wanted to make the title as indicative of our feelings at the time as possible.” And creating WIXIW – the word, the idea, the image, the sound – is a reflection of a band looking to challenge both themselves and their audience.
Because this record sees the Liars template, ever the experimental, percussive, atmospheric patchwork, pushed sharply into electronic territory. A bold move by a band defined by bold moves, it sees the aforementioned banks of samples spread across a glitchy, beaty, programmed sound that few could have predicted. See Octagon, with its pulsing bass and sample held together by Andrew’s monotone, droning vocal and distant, irresistible melodies, or the unpredictably drawling title-track and album centerpiece that features layers of far-reaching chords set against a backdrop of clattering percussion. Most strikingly, Brats’ sudden and striking pop-techno is an excursion into wholly alien territory. All in all, WIXIW is probably the last place you expected Liars to go, which if you were playing hide-and-seek with them should always be the first place you look.
“We’ve always used electronics in some aspects”, explains Aaron, “but I think the biggest difference is that we learned new programmes and techniques. This is electronic in a different way. It comes up frequently that we always steer away from our past and that we’re always changing, and I think that’s true to an extent; we change the tools that we use, but I think we’ve always been interested in beats. I’d hope there’s some continuity or a thread that runs through all the records despite the change in tools.”
This severe departure towards an untested realm required a reliable sounding board; an esteemed filter to ensure the band’s electronic wanderlust did not turn to misadventure. For that role the band needed look no further than the head of the label that has released their output since 2004. Having formed the legendary Mute Records in 1978 and played a key role in the incipient, experimental days of electronic music, Daniel Miller is a figure of considerable authority. Mute released key records from the likes of Erasure and Depeche Mode, as well as countless less celebrated but pivotal peers, so Miller knows a thing or two about the creative bravery of an artist extending into an uncomfortable, unknowable electronic realm. It’s fascinating to hear Aaron become animated when waxing lyrical about some of the label’s output, gushing, “the Mute catalogue never ceases to amaze us” and “it’s hard to believe how current it sounds with where music is today”. The implication is clear; that this latest release on Mute owes a great deal to many which have come before.
It’s difficult to make inroads into what has prompted Liars’ latest deviation. The band’s recording process appears to be a combination of chaos and insularity. External factors and influence are at a minimum; each development is a direct result of where Liars were and where they want to be next. “It was a natural development”, Aaron tells us. “With Sisterworld we attempted to refine and express our attempt at traditional songwriting in a rock context, so all of the instruments were recorded traditionally. This time we wanted to record an album on our own, through computers, in less of a studio environment.”
Curiously, the band recorded the majestic, pounding, moving single piece Drum’s Not Dead in Berlin, yet WIXIW might be considered more in line with the heritage attached to that location. Aaron is quick to dismiss any residual influence. “Any sound parallels with Berlin within that record were coincidental. If we wanted to make a ‘Berlin’ electronic record and listen to those records and attempt to be a part of that, it wouldn’t work. When we make songs it’s so chaotic, in a sense that we’re really just trying to create sounds we’re excited by. We’re not really capable of intentionally incorporating sonic influences. It’s all coincidental.”
It’s perhaps this inward-facing nature that makes this such a personal and at times anxious release for the band to make. “Certainly,” Aaron confesses. “It’s been hard. We’re still nervous and somewhat doubtful. It’s scary, this record, for us.” When it’s put to Aaron that perhaps putting traditional instrumentation aside breeds a certain vulnerability, he immediately disagrees, before double-guessing himself. “No, I don’t think so … actually, know what, you’re right. I think the fact that we used programmes we’ve never used before does open up another area for us to be scared. We’re really novice at the electronic world, so that is an element of it. But also, there are far bigger factors. It’s a very personal record and the whole process was so rewarding and so exciting, but it’s really scary, we feel like we’ve put a lot into it and there’s a lot on the line.”
Much of this ‘personal’ nature refers to the album’s lyrical content. From previously playing with telling stories and creating images, at times being direct and at others stunningly cryptic, this appears to be the band’s most introspective record to date. “This is where we’re coming from personally and what we’re trying to address. This is doubt and the emotions associated with that.” Kicking off with a song entitled The Exact Colour Of Doubt and lets the listener know exactly where the album is thematically headed. That Liars chose to simultaneously put themselves on the line in terms of their sound and their words explains doubly why this release is riddled with such doubt. “When we finished the record I was very proud and confident, because we love it so much. But the fear and anxiety comes when you factor in the listener. It’s like, ‘oh god, I didn’t even think about that.’ I don’t know if we’d have even had the capacity to think about that until the record was done.”
In truth, it’s genuinely surprising to hear how a band so freely associated with ruthless creative evolution, seemingly without a care for trends or reception, can find themselves so anxious about a release. If anything, the most surprising step they’ve taken in ten years was in making two records previous to this that were so relatively accessible. Don’t forget, this is a band who had the temerity to end their first album withThis Dust Makes That Mud, a 30 minute piece, the last 25 or so are made of the same hypnotising, intoning riff, looping until it ingrains itself on the inside of your skull. We’ve listened to it all the way through a dozen times. “I would normally never listen to that back”, Aaron comments, “but I recently did. It just reminds me of how much fun we had and how … not lightly we took it, but how playful we were with recording. ‘We’ll leave this to loop until the CD can’t go any more’, and the vinyl has a lock groove that replicates that effect.” It’s intriguing that doing something so daring, so perverse, and so silly came naturally to the young band. “I remember the thinking behind that song, that it’s the song that comes on at the end of a rave and everyone’s drugs are wearing off and it’s a huge bummer. Reality kicks in and the longer the song goes on the more you have to think about reality.” The anxiety that one day people would actually listen to that sound never really dawned on them; never mind that people might still be listening to it ten years later. “We just made these decisions on the fly. ‘Let’s loop it forever!’ It’s good to listen to that stuff and think back on that sort of spirit and try to maintain that six records in.” He becomes pensive. “It’s hard, but we still manage to make decisions that are captured on the final product that make us say ‘god, did we really do that?’ And that’s what keeps it feeling fresh and exciting for us.”
And maybe that’s what’s kept it fresh and exciting for us too.
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WIXIW is out now on Mute Records
Words: Geraint Davies