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Brave New Sisterworld

Liars flirt with 'traditional' but stay urgent and artsy on new LP

By Jason Gargano · July 13th, 2010 · Music
Over the course of its now 10-year existence, Liars has gone from off-the-cuff Art Rock punks to, well, slightly more evolved Art Rock punks. Formed in 2000 by lanky Aussie native Angus Andrew and fellow Los Angeles art-school veteran Aaron Hemphill — the only constants in the band's shifting lineups — Liars rode in on the wave of NYC-based bands known for resurrecting the gritty, angular sounds of the city's late-’70s heyday.

Yet there's always been something more subversive, almost sinister, about Liars' vision. The band's 2001 full-length debut, They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, is all tension and little release, a funky, skronky romp marked by Andrew's inscrutable lyrics and wild-eyed vocal delivery. With song titles like “Tumbling Walls Buried Me in the Debris with ESG” and a surreal, Beefhart-ian soundscape to match, Liars transcended a post-millennial scene that rarely strayed from the Post Punk playbook laid down by Gang of Four, Television, Joy Division and the like.

Typical of its mercurial, ever-restless nature, Liars' next three albums — 2004's They Were Wrong So We Drowned, 2006's Drums Not Dead and 2007's Liars — were all over the stylistic map while still retaining the band's longtime preoccupation with alienation, dislocation, rhythmic propulsion and unpredictable live shows.

“For me, personally, it's been a constant learning curve,” Andrew says by phone from Los Angeles, his Australian accent much more obvious than in its musical guise. “The way I started out with music and writing songs was definitely from the backdoor in terms that I was more interested in using sounds rather than notes. But as time has gone on, and with each new album, I've definitely become more and more interested in how a ‘traditional’ song functions.

It becomes more and more of a challenge for me to go in that direction rather than just be happy making sort of abstract sounds.”

That transition to more “traditional” songwriting is evident on the band's latest, Sisterworld, an atmospheric, tension-laced concept record of sorts about the gathering places certain people (aka outsiders) carve out in a sprawling city like Los Angeles, which is where Andrew and Hemphill originally met while studying at Cal Arts.

“I’ve always felt with every album a sense of real urgency,” Andrew says. “I was almost panicked because I felt like someone else was going to make the record that we were going to make and put it out before us. It's taken me this long to actually realize that doesn't happen. I felt, for the very first time, that I could work on this one for, well, indefinitely really.”

The more discerning studio approach is immediately apparent as Sisterworld opens with the ethereal, otherworldly sound of harmonizing voices and pensive violin before, nearly two minutes in, being hijacked by a menacing, almost operatic, semi-chorus that quickly recedes back to down-tempo melancholy. It’s a compelling start to a surprisingly subtle album that feels cinematic in its evocation of place and mood — the often creeping underlying feeling of alienation that Los Angeles conjures in even the city's most ardent supporters.

“It's interesting in that the idea of an outsider is in some ways romanticized, but I don't think anyone really wants to be one,” Andrew says of the album's overriding theme. “I think it's really cool to be an outsider and part of a group of outsiders, but when you can't find that group, it's very lonely and disconcerting and I guess all of that is compacted when you put yourself in a place like L.A., which is so sort of, in many ways, false and colored with this kind of gloss.

“How it came across on this project was, 'What do we want that art to do, or how can it function?' I suppose the only thing we could do was offer some hope to other people who feel dislocated. And not just people in Los Angeles; I think the idea is universal.”

Andrew would know. Since migrating to the U.S. from Australia for art school in the late-1990s, he's lived in various places — including a recent four-year run in Berlin despite not speaking German — all of which has informed his worldview, a perspective that permeates his work in Liars and beyond.

“Since I left Australia when I was a lot younger, I've always been in the position of the ‘outsider’ being able to look at things with a slightly different perspective, you know,” he says. “One of the great things about being in a band for me is the idea that there is no sort of geographical boundaries.

"I have a pretty strong love/hate relationship with America and particularly American culture. Sometimes I really just want to live in it and sometimes I'm so completely disgusted by it I want to escape.”

LIARS play the Southgate House Sunday. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.



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