The members of Liars have the spent the better part of the decade exploring the outer bounds of art rock, with a punk flair and an appetite for influences ranging from ambient to noise. The group has reconvened in Los Angeles to record Sisterworld, due out March 9 via Mute Records. On a frigid December night, I hunkered down with Angus Andrew, Aaron Hemphill, and Julian Gross in a cozy Williamsburg apartment to discuss the Los Angeles DIY scene, the advantages of performing in a chair, and the madness that is New York.
Are you guys all living in Los Angeles now?
Angus Andrew: Yeah. We haven’t been all together in the same city at the same time for a while.
Was this record influenced by that? I know the last one, Liars, was six months from writing to recording. Was this one much more of a process?
AA: Yeah, really. It was a real effort to get back to an environment that was conducive for us to be in, as opposed to being out in Berlin, where engineers don’t speak the language and it’s really kind of tough to do stuff. So we moved back to L.A. so we’d all be together and we could make a record we had a chance to really think about and make cohesive. Like you said, we rushed the last one. This one was like, “Let’s get back to making a serious, big record.”
Julian Gross: L.A. kind of influenced the record. It helped with having us living in the same city, one that we were all comfortable with, so that we could really take our time with the record, work on it, play with it. Just getting together, and not always just to work, helped too.
Do you guys have a home studio setup?
AA: Not really.
So how did the demo process — the first germinations of the record — come to be?
AA: I moved into a space in La Brea that was an old, gutted-out studio. It wasn’t a studio, but in parts of it you could do demos, and these guys would come over and play drums. And a lot of the demoing I was able to do there. But generally, the guy we were working with, Tom Biller, knew so many people around L.A. that we found ourselves working in about 10 different spots, just moving around and getting a different perspective, I suppose. It was really different in that way, because we’d never worked in so many spaces. We just had a lot more time and a lot more chances to do things that we never had a chance to do before.
JG: In the last year, all three of us have moved houses a lot. At one point there were three different studios. There was Angus’s place, and then we had our regular place that Aaron was doing work in just by himself, and I had a little shed I could play drums in and just record it. Swapping, messing around.
And then you moved and it changed?
AA: We moved around to all these different places. At one point we had this loft space on skid row in downtown L.A. We would play there a lot, and that was a real interesting trip to be down there. Then we moved over to this big house in the Fairfax district, which is really nice on the outside and dark on the inside — a really good place for us. There were a bunch of different spots that came up, and we just kept on moving around — a month here, a month here.
Aaron Hemphill: One of the places we did a lot of the demoing is really close to USC, around 23rd and Adams.
When you were doing press for Liars, you did an interview where you mentioned that you were spending a lot of time in L.A. and checking out No Age, the Smell scene and stuff like that. Geographically you were in L.A., but in terms of that scene, which broke in the last two or three years, was that an influence on the sound of the record?
AH: I don’t think any of [the Smell bands’] sound had any influence on this record at all.
AA: Maybe going against that sound.
JG: Any of that kind of stuff, maybe just because Aaron and I sort of grew up in L.A. and we were going to the Smell forever. It used to be this really long hallway in North Hollywood. And Aaron brought up a club [in an earlier interview], the PCH club, that was around forever.
AH: That will always sort of have an influence, an input on the music, but in a way that’s different. I don’t think we reference No Age’s songwriting. I may have grown up similar to [No Age’s Dean Spunt and Randy Randall], so there are certain things we might have in common that are a result of being Los Angelenos.
JG: At a really young age, getting excited, finding this little thing, and being like, “Oh my god. I wanna go to Jabberjaw. I mean, what is this place?” You’re young and you’re scared and everyone’s all super cool, but you get introduced to this stuff that will forever change how you approach things and what you love and what you enjoy about music. At that time, everyone was really going for that aggressive kind of punk-rock style and it was exciting.
AH: The thing about the Smell, to clarify what it is and what it always seemed to be to me: It’s bands from all over the country and the world that play there any given night. What is also inspiring about the Smell is the guy Jim, who runs it along with other volunteers, is forming a space to fit within a city that has so many circles of people and types. If you don’t see the city welcoming you, you form your own circle where you feel welcome, a safe place where you can be yourself. That relates loosely to some of the lyrical content. But, you know, our songs aren’t about indie-rock clubs.
When I was in college in L.A., I discovered the Smell and some of the small labels around L.A.
JG: It’s such a great place for an international scene. You could go see Ruins there; that’s where they play.
AH: It’s comforting to learn about small labels happening in a city like Los Angeles, a city so dictated by industry, which therefore dictates who you associate with. Loosely, maybe, the Smell does influence us in that way, but I wouldn’t say that any of the quote-unquote “Smell bands” influence us musically.
You guys have had really strong concepts behind some of your records, including the packaging and art and the DVD for Drum’s Not Dead. I know that the last record was an attempt to get away from that and focus on songs. What is the concept of Sisterworld? What does it mean to you guys? It seems like you guys are coming back with a more conceptual approach.
AA: With really cautious gloves on. We’re so frightened of the idea of a concept record. It has never done us much good in the past to elaborate on what the record’s about. It’s so weird, because if you tell them what your idea of it was, it kind of blocks the way people hear the music. Some of it freaks people out. Like, “These guys are weird.” The Sisterworld concept isn’t a concept; it’s just an idea of another space. It’s better that it’s left undefined, but it’s just an alternative. I think we need to keep a lot of it open for interpretation.
AH: I think for the last record, what the listeners picked up on was the lack of content equaling a set of songs, which was sort of our intention. I think with this one, the goal would be to have it enjoyed as an album.
JG: As a whole, but not as a concept. It’s a complete album. The songs are picked because those are the ones that embody it, but it’s not about witches or mountains or heart attacks. [Laughter.]
AH: I think the process we went through when writing this record is much more complicated than what we would want to subject the listener to. We want it to be more personal. There’s no “getting it.”
And you want to consciously avoid talking about the concept of the album.
JG: Like AH says, it takes away from the music part. When you make the music, that’s what the focus is.
AH: The last album, we wanted to make a record where you could pick out a song and extract it and still enjoy it in any way you wanted. This one, we tried to make an album with the flow of an album.
JG: Drowned was a concept album. We did have the idea of doing it about these things as we were actually making the songs, and it was about that. Drum’s Not Dead wasn’t even like that. We were trying to package an entire album, but as we did some other stuff sort of made it seem like it was a concept album. Which was maybe more on us — titling things, some of the drawings. It’s not bad. But we saw that people now think that that’s a concept, and they focus in on that or they want that from us, and any little thing that you do that suggests it will now take away the focus from the songs and focus it on something else.
Are you excited to tour this album. Have you thought about what kind of live setup you’re going for?
AA: Well, it’s actually interesting because we know we can’t physically play the songs with just the three of us. So, there’s a question of just how many people we’re gonna need. We have some ideas of possibly utilizing an entire other band to play our songs with us so that we can make it work in the proper way on tour.
And that would be like an established band that you would bring on tour as the backing band?
JG: They would play themselves as well.
So they would be the opener and then play with you?
Do you know who its going to be?
AA: Not yet. But it’s a tricky scenario because obviously you’re connected together for a long amount of touring. It’s logistically a pretty tricky proposition, but we’re trying to figure it out because it is important to us that we play these songs in the way that they should be played and not just try and get by.
JG: Or rely on having to trigger a whole bunch of backing tracks to play over it. Trying to really make it so we’re doing it live.
AH: I think technology and embracing what’s available is good and we did that in the past, playing with samplers. It’s in no way to disrespect the use of those, because we’d be open to those in the future. But I think, as we always seem to do, it’s a new challenge to make it more live.
[Editor’s Note: Fol Chen has since been announced as the group that will be touring with and playing with Liars on the North American Sisterworld tour.]
Do you think that you’ll mostly play stuff from this album or will you go back to the older stuff? Are you ever going to play anything from the first album again?
AA: We’ve been doing that, actually. We played some of that at Coachella. Like Aaron said, it’s a whole new avenue. You could look at past songs and see how we’d like to make them sound in a fuller scenario as opposed to the ways we might have been playing them before, pared down. It always seems to be we’re fighting a battle to get the song to sound the way it should.
Are you going to reissue any of the earlier stuff on vinyl? Some of it has gone out of print.
JG: That is something we’re working on right now. We’re trying to get some more of that out. Drowned is available on our website.
The last time I saw you guys was in 2008 in San Francisco just a couple days after Angus threw out his back.
JG: Oh, with No Age.
AA: How was that show?
Honestly it was a really great show.
JG: Was he in a chair?
Yeah. Did the experience of touring like that affect how you thought about the live show going forward? Because you immediately had to change tack about what you were going to do live.
AA: I think it made it clear for us. I mean, I’d like to not play an instrument. And I had to sit and focus a bit more on singing, which isn’t something I’d really done that much in the past. It had sort of been the third or fourth thing on my list when playing live. Concentrating a bit more on singing for me has been something that has helped. And maybe it’s something I can try and look at more when we tour. I’d like to be able to sing more as opposed to handling things on stage. Having more players, making things more solid for me is great, because I can do a bit more singing.
How do you guys like all being back in New York together again?
AH: It’s weird. As we heard it from people when we first moved here, it has changed a lot and changed in a way that’s harder to relate to.
AA: It’s such a place, it’s such a thing.
JG: It is. And I like that part because L.A.’s such the opposite of it. And it’s kind of neat to be somewhere where you’re like “I’m gonna get a coffee” and — whoosh! — you’re exploding into the world and there’s smells and people and stuff and cars and yelling and all of a sudden you’re yelling at the guy because you have to for some reason. And it’s kind of intense. So it’s kind of fun, like going to Magic Mountain or something.