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Interviewed by
Courtney Sanders
Monday 5th May, 2014 11:13AM

In 2001 Liars released their debut album They Threw Us In a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top and were excitedly grouped into New York’s indie rock revival, alongside The Strokes, Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and into the city’s electronic, post punk renaissance led by the likes of !!!, The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem. They proceeded to release six studio albums, and absolutely obliterate genre categorisation with each. The only thing that’s remained constant in Liars’ work over the past decade is that they write concept albums: grand, meaty things with narratives about How We Live, supported by artwork and videos and internet presence. There was the one about witch-hunts (They Were Wrong, So We Drowned in 2004), and the one about the insidiousness of the American Dream (Sisterworld in 2010). The band’s sonic about-turns weren’t random at all: they were chosen to support the album’s story.

More recently, the album’s story has been chosen to support the band’s sonic about-turns. Liars’ 2012 album WIXIW was an experimentation with new, electronic equipment; an excruciating, challenging recording process that made the band turn inward, as Angus Andrews noted in an interview with UTR at the time: “This time it was more about letting ourselves talk about ourselves, really. In the past we’ve decided on a subject matter, like the last record was about Los Angeles. In that way you study something and avoid having to talk about yourself too much, and on this record I think we just left that space open. So we inevitably started to discuss our inner feelings a bit”. A song off of that album, ‘Brats’ – a pulsing, onslaught of a thing – was obviously the kicking-off point for Mess, which finds Liars continuing to explore, well, themselves, albeit in a much more “immediate” way - according to Aaron Hemphill (pictured centre), via Skype from Los Angeles...

UTR: Hey Aaron, how are you? What are you up to?

AH: I’m doing band stuff I can’t tell you about it. It’s classified and if I told you it may either be boring or rob us of the mystique we may or may not have.

Where are you guys at the moment?

We’re in Los Angeles.

And you’ve just released a new album, Mess. It sounds as though WIXIW was a difficult album to make, and that after that process you guys wanted to change the process entirely, right?

Well, I think the process of going into Mess was much more immediate and less cerebral, and I think that’s a natural reaction. Any time you spend a long period of your life mentally grappling with anything, you need a break. And so I think with this album we just sort of tried to treat it as something that, you know, simplifed things.

Have you done that in the past, or is this the first time you’ve allowed yourselves to simplify things down? Because I don’t see you guys as a particularly ‘simple’ band...

I should change that term actually - it’s not ‘simplify’. It’s more ‘immediate’: less combing through the finer details so much. I don’t know if we were successful at it but it seems to sound like that to me.

And to answer your question: no, I don’t think we’ve been able to do that in the past. I don’t think there’s been a call for us to do it in the past. Not that every record we make doesn’t feel intense at the time, but WIXIW was very different – and I can’t explain why, because part of it was such a personal thing as well as a creative thing – and after that we needed to feel like we were having fun again – pure fun. Not that WIXIW wasn’t fun either, and that we don’t appreciate making music, because it’s always fun, but you know what I’m saying: we needed a change, and to be able to just let it all go.

You usually remove yourselves from society when you record. Was that the case for Mess?

No actually. It was such a quick process. No matter what, Angus [Andrews] and I focus so much on what we’re doing that no matter what situation we’re in the record is going to engulf our lives, even if we’re in the same city we live in. We didn’t go to a cabin or isolate ourselves literally, but we still didn’t talk to anyone outside of our homes, and we didn’t do anything except work on the record. We can do seclusion and shutting out of the world in any set of circumstances.

How did you approach Mess musically? Because that’s the thing that made WIXIW really challenging right - you were grappling with a whole lot of new technology?

You’re absolutely correct. I don’t know if it made it more fun or less fun. Again, we don’t compare it to other albums because we’re feeling so differently when we’re making it. All of the things we put into a record, I can’t stress enough - it’s always natural. If we decide to use banjos on our next record it’s not that we’ve sat down and decided to be weird or different, we just spend so much time on the previous record that with the new record we just want to try something new, so that we can get excited about making things again. It’s all very natural in that sense. You know, that being said, it’s hard to gauge if we were happy or not, it’s almost like a blur, the situation when we make an album.

How do you construct the thematic countenance for each record? It seems like it’s something that is heavily worked out before you start recording?

I think the concept is always extremely worked out – not worked out, but pondered upon. We try to think about any facet about it that might be weak or have a flaw. It’s changed from the past in that depending on the album, we sometimes feel that it’s not as important to share the concept with the audience or stress it so much, because maybe we just want people to enjoy the album as a quote-unquote, and for lack of a better word, “normal” album. We don’t want people to think that it’s a concept album to the point where they have to “get” something in order to understand the record. Every record we’ve ever made has been a concept record, where we do work out a strong through-line, but the thing that differs is how much we stress this or how important we feel it is to communicate the line. So with Mess – and I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious – the concept was hopefully that there wasn’t a concept, and that it would sound very immediate, and fun. I know that there are a lot of moody and dark elements in Mess too. Maybe fun is the wrong word: immediate is the right word though, again. We wanted it to feel like the songs came very quickly to us and in succession.

From reading interviews with you guys around Mess it seems as if, rather than looking at the world around you and deriving a theme from that, you’ve looked into yourselves instead. It’s a more personal record, right?

Correct, yeah. Instead of conceptualising a character or linking some personal quest with something that’s happened outside of our lives, the immediacy allows us the option of just laying it out there in a more personal and direct and connected way. It doesn’t mean that we’re singing necessarily about ourselves all the time, though. We really just want people to have their own meaning and to understand that there’s no wrong way to interpret it. I know that a lot of bands say that, but I think the reason why we need to say it is I feel that sometimes people think that there’s some bigger thing that they’re missing out on and that they may not be getting correctly and they need to check with us on. And of course there is a deeper thing to our work, but it doesn’t need to be checked out. It’s a personal thing that hopefully the listener will establish if they care to, rather than worrying about whether they’ve figured out the ‘ultimate’ definition.

And maybe there’s something profound about letting listeners construct their own identity from it, too?

Yeah, I mean I realise that that could sound pretentious and lazy like “Oh, the concept is…you figure it out!” But it needs to be understood in context. It’s us we’re talking about, and I don’t read much press but I am aware that people feel that our records are very conceptual and like I said, sometimes they can have a universal concept that we’re trying to put forward, but with the last few records it’s been more about, hopefully, giving the listener their own freedom to establish the gaps between the words.

Throughout your career the visual accompaniment has always been a big part of what you’ve done and the artwork for this album is pretty fascinating. I guess the idea of using string ties into that idea of figuring it out for yourself?

It’s very similar to how we were talking about concept and how severely that ties in with it. The concept behind the artwork is that mess is a matter of perspective. You have this machine that is covered in string that, if you came across it at somebody’s house, would look like a piece of junk that’s got more junk attached to it. But if you focus on it and frame it and look at it all the time, you associate it with it being something else. It’s very primary semiotics of course, but mess can become something meaningful. 

How that ties into the music portion is that how all of the songs were to us: we felt that they were just a mess of songs that really had nothing to do with one another. But after hours of obsessing over them and framing them in different ways, they sounded like an album to us, and a very clear album at that.

You were saying before about stressing over how these songs would sit together. The arc is interesting – how Mess starts off really aggressively and fades into etherealism...

It was a way to try to stress the immediacy – I’m using that word to death! It was about taking a gamble on a one-way trip, and not doing what we’ve done in the past where we’ve sort of put a soft song in between two upbeat songs which sort of tempers the journey. We just tried a different way of sequencing things to further drive home the spirit of the record.

Here's the video for Mess' lead single 'Mess On A Mission'...

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