Just over a year ago, experimental rockers Liars released TFCF, the band’s eighth studio album. TFCF, short for “Theme From Crying Fountain”, was one of the best albums of 2017 and yesterday the band released a kind of sequel with another acronym as its name, TWTWF – for “Titles With The Word Fountain”. Both albums were created during a tumultuous time for Liars, arising out of the departure of co-founding member Aaron Hemphill. After 15 years, Liars had essentially been reduced to a solo project for Angus Andrew, its other founding member and principal songwriter. Although the music didn’t suffer, it’s very apparent Andrew himself did. On both albums, his songs are filled with anxiety, disappointment, pain and sometimes anger. For Andrew, making TFCF and TWTWF was a cathartic process but it ultimately resulted in transcendent art.
Although I described TWTWF as a kind of sequel, the songs on it were all written during the sessions for TFCF. Andrew had set them aside at that time, deeming them incomplete or surplus to requirements. Many of the album’s 17 tracks are very short, with only four of them exceeding the three-minute mark. Two are less than a minute each.
The opening track, “97 Tears”, is one of the latter, its name being a pun on “96 Tears”, the punk classic recorded in 1966 by Michigan band ? & The Mysterians. “97 Tears” is a collage of found sounds, vocal samples and other noises that Andrew assembles into a stately rhythmic pattern, before letting everything collapse into a gently clattering echo. It lasts a mere 51 seconds. It’s an off-putting way to begin an album, but then Liars have always made a habit of being oblique.
“97 Tears” immediately segues into “Face In Ski Mask Bodies To The Wind”, which opens with a machine-like groove accompanied by a low drone. I haven’t been able to fathom this song’s lyrics yet but I’m pretty certain Andrew sings about fastening something “two ways for days and days”. A synth attempts to establish a “proper” riff but soon gives up as an oscillating sawtoothed sound takes over. Soon the whole thing dissipates, like an ebbing tide, and it’s all done in just over two minutes.
“Murdrum”, which comes next, was recently released as a single, however it’s not the sort of thing you would ever expect to hear on pop radio. That said, it’s an insidiously catchy song. A rudimentary drum sample pneumatically hammers a primitive rhythm as an organ plays simple minor triads that, for some reason, remind me of the simple rhythm guitar from Funkadelic’s demented epic “Maggot Brain”. Andrew sings a surprisingly engaging melody in a rich falsetto:
Out on your tippy-toes where you won’t listen
Outside on tippy-toes where you won’t listen
I don’t wanna be saved, we gotta beat them
I don’t wanna be saved, we gotta beat them
Difficult, yes, this is farcical
Ooh, subliminal (mind tricks)
Although the same, we gotta beat them once
Although the same, we’re undefeated
Again, lyrics such as these aren’t designed for mass consumption but, of course, Liars couldn’t care less about that. They’ve never made any concession to mainstream tastes or prejudices, merely following their creative instincts wherever they may lead them. Still, “Ooh, subliminal” is a sneaky earworm that has become a big hit on the radio station playing in my head.
TWTWF is not a conventional album and Liars are far from a conventional group, but they make music that is very appealing and satisfying in a way that is difficult to pin down. Melody, rhythm, structure, sonics, even the lyrics themselves, are all malleable in Liars songs, with Andrew manipulating and twisting them as freely as potter’s clay. He approaches music the way Henry Moore approached sculpture; Liars songs are shaped rather than constructed and counterintuitive as most of them are in terms of traditional songwriting, they are deeply affecting.
Two years ago, Angus Andrew returned to live in Australia after more than two decades abroad, setting up a studio in a remote spot on the northern edge of Sydney. Surrounded by national park, Andrew’s house is only accessible by boat and when I went to interview him there last week he picked me up in a small runabout. In the couple of hours we spent together at his home I gained considerable insight into his creative process, as well as the environment that proved so crucial to the making of TFCF and TWTWF.
Liars’ albums have always been intimately connected to the surroundings and circumstances in which they were born, and Andrew has often sought out challenging or unusual places for musical inspiration. The band’s debut album, They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top (2001), was recorded quickly in New York – the city where the band started – but for their second album, They Were Wrong, So We Drowned (2004), they repaired to a cabin deep in the woods of New Jersey. Their next two albums – Drum’s Not Dead and Liars – were a product of feeling culturally isolated in Berlin, mostly due to the language barrier, while the three after that – Sisterworld, WIXIW and Mess – were recorded while experiencing a different sort of cultural disconnect in Los Angeles.
Andrew never felt settled in any of these locales and he strongly believes that alienation gave his work a keener edge, something he was worried about losing upon returning to his homeland. “It just felt like an advantage,” he told me. “Living in different cities where you’re an outsider and you have that perspective of a voyeur, and it gives you a chance to sort of comment, you know? And I was always really afraid if I moved back to Australia … I was going to feel at home – and what am I going to write about? Maybe that’s why I had to go to a little bit of an extreme and go out into the bush a bit.”
Moving from a place of cultural isolation to one of literal isolation, Andrew found inspiration from an unexpected source. Early on, he decided to set up a microphone to capture the natural sounds outside his studio. Whenever he was working, that mic was constantly recording, and every song he made ended up with a concomitant atmosphere track. Some of these made it into the mixes of TFCF but they’re far more prevalent and noticeable on TWTWF. Birdsong, insects and even the sounds from a neighbour’s boatbuilding business in the next bay can all be clearly heard. Less obviously, many of these sounds have been sampled, processed and mapped onto a keyboard, turning them into eerie synthetic instruments. At one point, Andrew even toyed with the idea of making an entire album out of this external ambient noise.
On TWTWF, cicadas chirrup loudly in “Absence Blooms”. On both “Fantail Creeps” and “Extracts From Seated Sequence” the squawking of a sulphur-crested cockatoo features and there is general forest twittering throughout the pensive instrumental “Gawking at the Accident” – all sounds that randomly occurred while Andrew was working. The one exception is the sound of Melbourne tram passengers talking at the beginning of “Double Elegy”.
Liars songs often have abstract or inscrutable titles and Andrew explained to me how some of them come about, using “Fantail Creeps” as an example. “When I name things, generally I’m naming them when I’m thinking of the song or playing the music,” he said. “So ‘Fantail Creeps’ is a creepy guy giving out Fantales to kids. I heard the music that way. And the problem with the way I name things is that doesn’t necessarily have any relation to the lyrics.” That is clearly the case on “Fantail Creeps”:
Message in the book says you left
Listen to the cowards they call
I was at the airport with my passengers against the wall
We were in a conference
We were entertainers
We had faults
Rather than being about a suss character, this song is clearly another reference to the end of his musical partnership with Aaron Hemphill three years ago. Andrew had felt that Hemphill was dissatisfied for some time but, despite his best efforts, Hemphill couldn’t be dissuaded from leaving the band. In the end, the split was amicable, but it triggered a career crisis for Andrew, and his desolation afterwards was exacerbated as he watched his father’s health decline, which was the principal reason Andrew chose to relocate back to Australia. It’s little wonder TFCF and TWTWF are so bleak lyrically. Most of the songs explicitly deal with feelings of doubt, loss and abandonment, but the dark clouds also hover over the purely instrumental tracks.
The expanded titles of both records are enough to give the story away without even requiring lyrics, as these ones from TWTWF attest: “Past Future Split”, “On Giving Up” and “Sound of Burning Rubbish”. This last one features the snap and crackle of an actual fire, as you might by now expect, but in the context of both albums I imagined it was about Andrew setting fire to his recent past, something he acknowledged in our interview. For Andrew, making all these songs, releasing TFCF and then touring afterwards was a cathartic experience. The entire process had expunged him of all his angst about the band and he had proved to himself that Liars was still a vital, viable and valid entity.
It was only when his record company asked him earlier this year for a few bonus tracks for a deluxe edition of TFCF that he seriously re-examined the tracks that make up TWTWF and discovered to his surprise they had taken on a new resonance. Rather than just provide the company with the few tracks they wanted, he gave them all 17, fully mixed and arranged into a complete album track list.
It’s hard to know what to really label TWTWF. Is it a totally new Liars record, part two to TFCF or something else again? On digital platforms the two are packaged together as a “deluxe edition”, but TWTWF also is available as a standalone album on cassette and it will be released on vinyl in November. Loving both albums as I do, I see them as two sides of the same coin but, if forced to decide, I’ll simply say TWTWF is another great Liars album.
THEATRE Faith Healer
Space Theatre, Adelaide, September 26—October 13
SCULPTURE Eva Rothschild: Kosmos
Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, September 28—November 25
LITERATURE National Young Writers’ Festival
Venues throughout Newcastle, September 27-30
VISUAL ART Void
UTS Gallery, Sydney, September 25—November 16
The Playhouse, QPAC, Brisbane, until September 26–29
Arts Centre, Melbourne, September 26-30
VISUAL ART Electric! Portraits that pop!
National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, until April 22
Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, September 28—October 21
VISUAL ART Energies 2018
Home of the Arts, Gold Coast, until October 14
CLASSICAL Mozart 39, 40 & 41
Melbourne Recital Centre, September 28
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 22, 2018 as "Bold-faced Liars".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.