Liars have gone through this decade's hype and destroy cycle and emerged victorious. Rather than return to the dance-punk party long after the keg had run dry, the band took the widely panned tribal sounds of sophomore release They Were Wrong So We Drowned (2004) and refined them toward the excellent Drum's Not Dead. Now, with nothing to prove to the critical establishment and armed with the most easily accessible album of their career (Liars), the boys have hitched a ride on Interpol's massive stadium tour. On the afternoon of that trek's New York City stop, the band's principle members -- Angus Andrew, Aaron Hemphill, and Julian Gross -- talked in their cluttered Midtown hotel room about bringing their uncompromising live show to a larger audience, the nerve-wracking personal revelations of Liars, and why Oasis wasn't really so bad.
Tonight you guys will play Madison Square Garden.
Angus Andrew (vocals): MSG!
When you started out as a band, did you ever think that was going to be a possibility?
Aaron Hemphill (guitars, drum machine): We never even thought we'd get to see a basketball game at MSG. I remember when we did it was just like, "Oh, my god."
AA: We once snuck into an Iron Maiden concert at MSG.
Was it awesome?
AA: Not really.
AH: Little letdown. Me and Angus got really geared up. We cut the sleeves off our flannels and wrapped the sleeves around our head, really went for the kill, and we found a lot of pschyobilly guys. It was really bizarre.
AA: I wish we could say that our first thought was to play MSG. You can print that.
Are you going into it like you would play a smaller club gig? You're not tempering your show at all?
AA: Well, we started to think about that for this tour, but we've played a few stadiums so far. At the hockey arena in Boston, we really tried to utilize the size of the stage, but actually it seems like, after a couple nights of experience, that maybe it would be preferable for the crowd to see us as tight as possible, as small as possible, with the least lighting as possible, you know?
AH: It seems to be the most natural and profound thing we can bring is letting our mistakes and rough edges flourish.
AA: Obviously we're in extreme opposition to Interpol, and so there's the opportunity there to almost let the crowd in more, because we fool around a bit. And those guys are business.
I don't think it's a stretch to say Liars is your most eclectic record.
AA: Do you want to call it our pop album? [Laughs.]
There are certain parts of it that you could definitely call pop, but as a whole I wouldn't say --
AA: I mean, we wrote it originally for Britney, and then she said no, I think it's because she's a bit crazy right now, but . . .
AH: You feel it's the most eclectic?
Right, you're hopping from style to style.
AA: We did that kind of intentionally. It seemed like on a lot of our previous records we've made albums that were really our own, and people kind of struggled to connect the dots with reference points, which is interesting for us, to throw people some curve balls. But what was really interesting for us this time was to really let those influences out. To let people know that we love Metallica as much as we do the Ramones.
You've been talking about it as exploring the stuff you loved as teenagers right? The Cure, the Smiths, big teenage records?
AA: Yeah, yeah.
You've gotten the tag over the years as being sort of a difficult band. Is engaging with the stuff that appealed to you back then a conscious decision to try to make that same connection with an audience?
AH: It's not in reaction to people saying we're a difficult band, because we don't think we're a difficult band. People seem to think we're a difficult band, but it had less to do with anything outside of us . . .
AA: We definitely did want to simplify. Drum's Not Dead was a heavy record, with a lot of theory and whatever, and people had a lot to digest with that. We didn't talk about it much, but initially it was clear that Aaron and I were more interested this time in the song as opposed to the album.
Do you think that with Drum's Not Dead that you didn't get credit for the melody on that record? Because there's a pretty strong melodic component there.
AH: I don't know about that. I think people who may have appreciated the melody in it don't write blogs. It seems to me there's a trend in how things are reviewed. I think the proof of that is to look in hindsight at the purported lack of melody or tune in our second record. I think it's very laughable at how that seemed to be noisy among the more vocal audience.
But do you think that people definitely get that record more now then when it came out?
AA: Oh, yeah. They love it now.
Is that vindicating for you?
AA: We always loved it, you know, and we always thought it was a really important record. I think we still think it was our really important record.
AH: At the same time, I think that we acknowledge the fact that it --
AA: -- that it was difficult.
AH: Yeah, but I mean, we're not people who tell other bands we see immediately after that we appreciate this or we love that, and I think you sense that hopefully people understand that if you put your complete effort into it . . .
AA: We knew it was gonna be a little hard for people to understand, but it was something that we really had to do and a statement that was important for our whole career.
Lyrically, the new album, with a song like "Protection" for example, it seems a lot more autobiographical. At least you can read it that way compared to some of the more surreal stuff in the past. Is that a fair assumption?
AA: True. True and honest, yeah. It ties in with this idea that you mentioned about looking back at our past. At those teenage years, those formidable times when music and experiences really mold your personality. And I think those years are important. So in this process of looking back as we did, these sorts of things come flooding back, and, yeah, that's a day in the life of Angus at fourteen.
But you know, we did a lot of hanging out and recording in Los Angeles, where both of these guys were born, and that was kind of the same thing for them and for me. We took a trip down their memory lane as well. So the whole project was kind of looking back.
Does it seem strange to be offering up something that personal in relation to previous songs, where it was more pure imagery?
AA: It was frightening.
AH: I think that was a challenge, and that's the challenge with playing these songs live as well. That's what we wanted, and it seemed to be challenging to head in that direction.
AA: It's really scary, man. We were scared in the studio before we were putting it out. Like, "Are we really going to put this out?" It was so devoid of any packaging. We were just giving this kind of straightforward invocation of where we came from, and that's really scary.
You mean there's a comfort in abstraction?
AA: Exactly. When you utilize these themes you tend to bury yourself in them, but this was very autobiographical.
Are you guys at a point in your career now where you can see yourselves as a tangible influence on younger bands coming up? I mean, can you hear your music in them? I know Deerhunter has sited you as a big influence. Do you hear that yourselves?
Since your albums tend to shift so much from place to place, what albums do you consistently go back to as listener no matter what you're working on?
AA: Those things have obviously grown and changed over the years. I like to listen to classic rock, early Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett, Led Zeppelin. Just for me, these things evolve. I'm always hearing things that I think are important, even if it's a crappy song on the radio, like a Linkin Park song. I really like to hear that. I think it is important to keep myself aware of that. What else do we always listen to? The Doors, we always love.
JG: Yeah, I'm trying to think of that record I always loved as a kid, that I'm still putting on.
AA: Biggie Smalls.
JG: Always the hip-hop.
AA: We always loved hip-hop. I guess that's the best thing. We all have very varied tastes, but we can all listen to Led Zeppelin and we can all listen to Biggie Smalls.
JG: I think the Cure, too.
AA: Yeah, but not always. Don't like to always listen to the Cure.
JG: I was going to say the Smiths.
AA: I love the Smiths.
JG: As a friend.
AH: I guess if you mean totally, just for listening enjoyment, yeah.
AA: But they obviously go through seasons.
JG: I've been having a big hankering to go back into my Jane's Addiction catalog. [Laughs.]
How do you think that's gonna go? [Laughs.]
JG: I'm pretty excited about it. Yeah, "3 Days." I'm ready.
AH: But are you ready for the six-song acoustic EP? [Laughs.]
AA: I've been recently doing the Britpop thing, with Pulp's This Is Hardcore, Blur's Blur. You know, Oasis, man, they write good songs. [Laughs.] The lyrics are just so stupid. It's amazing.
So when people go back and try to find meaning in some of your older, more surreal lyrics, do you think --
AH: There's no connection to the Oasis story!
But is that even a worthy thing for them to do?
AA: It's a cool thing. I don't know if you know, but we never print our lyrics, and it's kind of an important part for us because we love this feedback that we get from kids. They'll write to us an say, "You know, I was wondering what "Mr. You're on Fire" says. Does it say, "House in the world," and all this really weird stuff, and I write back and say, “Yes, that's exactly what it says.” Because it's so well written.
This idea that they can be involved and think about it and develop their own ideas for what it is. So maybe when we use some surreal words or ways of using lyrics, it's really an attempt to allow people to have their own interpretation of it. To take it where they want to. With a literal song like "Protection," I guess I don’t know what it's like for a third party to hear it, but I wonder are you thinking, “Angus on the beach smoking a cigarette.” I don't know if it's so literal that you stop thinking that way. But with a more surreal song, when it's like "Wonderwall," it's like, “What?”