SOUNDTRACKING: 10 Minutes With Julian Gross Of “Liars” Before Their Biltmore Gig
by Daniel Colussi | Liars have proven to be one of the most consistently interesting bands of the past decade. Their career arc is a spiral of left turns, a steady course into unfamiliar territories. This is especially true of the their latest, the largely electronic WIXIW. Yep, these dudes decided to hang up the guitars and embrace electronic composition, something that none of them had any knowledge of or background in. Yeah, and then they christened the album with an unpronounceable title. It’s a radical departure in a career of radical departures, yes, but its also their most gorgeous, lush album to date. Drums skitter across the corners of the frame but its the waves of aquamarine synths that make the biggest impression. In advance of their July 9th show at The Biltmore, I spoke with amiable drummer Julian Gross about crossing borders, both literally and figuratively.
So far, how have the European shows gone? They were a lot of fun. It’s fun to be out there and a little bit frightening because it’s the first round of this record, which is always a little bit…you know…you can practice all you want but still you don’t really know what it’s like until you go out there and do it. And even then it’s so hard to tell what you’re doing, what it’s like that you’re doing. I mean, it’s usually when we get off a stage and we’re like, oh man, that fucking sucked, we totally blew it, I can’t believe how horrible that was! And then we hear the reaction — that was crazy, that was so awesome — and we’re like, what?! (Laughs). And then when we think it’s pretty solid, that we’ve nailed it, our sound guy will come back and be like…(affecting Italian accent) Yes, it was okay, it was…good. It’s always so hard to tell.
How has it been bringing this album out from the studio and into a live context? Well, were using different types of equipment, and we’ve got some analog synths and some sampling keyboards, and I’m playing a lot more electronic drum pads. We’ve scaled it back to three people live. It’s just the original Liars, the three of us, instead of hiring some people to play with us. You know it’s all different. We change shit up because it…it forces it to be scary, which is good because there’s that feeling of failure and that it’s all going to completely fall apart, and its right there, you’re just treading the line! You’re not moving further and further away from it as I guess a normal band would who become professionals in their set instruments, which we don’t really do! (Laughs).
The reception has been good so far? I think so. I don’t really read the reviews about it but I’m just going to say yes for our purposes! Because the reception to the album itself has been really positive, so that must be a relief for the band. It’s true, it feels good. We want people to like it, not to hate it. It also means we can buy cat food for our cats and make sure that the internet is on so that we can watch porn and do email!
I understand that there was a kind of self-imposed isolation during the writing and recording of the album. Is that an approach unique to this album? Well, we’ve sort of done that before with things. The world’s filled with earworms and music and you can’t get away from it. And sometimes it can distract from what we’re doing. We’re working in the spectrum of using a computer more and focusing on playing with that kind of stuff and then all of a sudden you hear some really shitty song by like Fall Out Boy or something on KROQ, and you start to think, hmm…those drums are kind of rad! I dunno, right now I’m trying to process my drums or use electronic drums, but I don’t know, that bottom end! So then it’s like, let’s try not to go too far off course in a sense. I mean, there’s no real strict rules that we have, but it infiltrates you and then makes you second guess your already-second guessing-ness.
It’s interesting that you mention not wanting to go off course. Because the songs on WIXIW don’t follow traditional song structures, which you consciously embraced on the previous two albums. So how did you determine what was on or off course during this new album? It’s more that Liars and Sisterworld were more about trying to make songs that were normal in the sense of how people make songs, you know? Like a verse and a chorus and a bridge, and hey, let’s try to make a melody and play off that melody. Trying to be more normal, trying to be like Nirvana. And now it’s like, let’s not do that at all anymore. We wanted to move far away from the rock and roll bit and then start playing more with sound again, and experimenting with sound. So that just sort of brought us back full circle to where we were in the beginning, and that sort of thing is us just being us, and us writing songs without an idea of structure, that there is no…we’re not trying to make a rock song, so there is no set of rules. We can just create and go off.
WIXIW definitely sounds like a Liars album, but you went out on a limb by embracing this electronic palette. What’s interesting is that that the album can be such a departure but at the same time retain the character of the band, a return to your core vibe. The title even worked for us, within the album and within what we’re searching for, a palindromic idea of where we are. I don’t know if that’s a real word, palindromic.
When was the album titled – early on or after the fact? It always sort of works in a way of when the record’s done we start talking about titles. And this title Aaron used as the working title for the song Wixiw, from the very beginning. And when we were thinking about album titles that one was thrown in with the list of tons of different album titles that we had. That was the one that was hard to deny, just the visual power of it. And it’s also kind of funny because in the beginning we knew that we were going to use more electronics and jokingly, it seems like electronic albums are always named some kind of weird made up word or some word that’s two-thousand years old in some other language. And its kind of funny that we actually did that. But you can’t deny it when everyone’s like, yup it looks great. It’s a palindrome, and all the things around it seemed to work.
I’d be interested to hear what your role is in the band and writing the album, what you bring to the table. Because the focus is often on Aaron and Angus. Some songs are from me playing in my house, either with electronic drums or live drums, putting mics on each drum and processing them. Or I’m just playing around with computer programs and I’ll make tons of loops and tons of drum patterns. And it’s not different from how I’ve done it in the past. And I’ll be making these things and just give them to ‘em. From there they’ll find bits. Either they’re using the whole three minutes or maybe its just a part of it that gets turned into a song. Lots of time most of them don’t even get used, but you just keep on making and giving back. And then there’s a bit of refining from there. Sometimes it works in that way, where I’m just giving them some loops and maybe even within the loops that I have, he will take a loop of it that’s in between two, or something, and use a piece of that instead of the way that I had it. Which I always like as well because it’s nice to have people hear the same thing differently. And so that’s sort how I contribute to songs. There’s also just the general discussions that we have of things, the passing around and walking into each other’s room and saying, I think this part is really cool. And then there’s a lot of the visual stuff which I’m in charge of more, whether it’s directing it towards somebody or just doing it. The visual side of the band these days is really important. You see it before you click on it. And there’s so many platforms, and we all love all those platforms. That’s the other exciting part.
Every time a Liars album comes out it feels like this conceptual shift for the band, and you’ve mentioned the band’s discussions. So with this album, composing on computer, I wonder how much spontaneity is there? It seems different from a band just jamming in a room, making up riffs. Totally. For one, we’re not really a jamming band. Angus and Andrew are mostly working by themselves on songs, and we’re swapping files at the same time. Sometimes it’ll begin as just a pulse and then I’ll add something and give it back and it becomes something else. So we’re not really jamming. The one big difference with computers is that there’s an instantaneous quality to just recording to a four track. So with computers, we were each of us not very versed in as far as taking on music programs. There’s a lot of tutorials involved, youtube clips, manuals. Even just like, How do I open this? Where does this start? So I find the program and I’m going through one of the sixteen tutorials, opening up the jazz-boogie tutorial track and using this slap bass, you know? (Laughs). So there’s a lot of that, which is frustrating but also kind of fun. And it’s interesting how a computer can become as clumsy and accidental as real life can as well.
And what did Daniel Miller offer during the recording? Well, he’s like the Gandalf of electronic music. He just knows everything. He’s been in the game for two-thousand years, so to have him on your side is awesome. His role was more as a kind of technical advisor to us, he pointed us towards which programs to focus on. And it was super exciting, hanging out with him and making something. It’s like being in the backyard casually shooting hoops with Michael Jordan or something!
Well, I’m psyched for the show, you guys haven’t been here in about two years. Fuck, the Canadian border, man. It’s easier to get into anyplace else in the world! What do they think we’re smuggling in or out of there? We’re driving into fucking Bulgaria and Serbia and it’s all right. It’s so crazy. We got hit last time for the manifest, with serial numbers of every single piece of equipment. It’s like, Oh my god we have ten thousand pieces in the back of this fucking van! But it’s worth it to come and see you guys!
Liars play the Biltmore Monday July 9th. Tickets available at Red Cat, Zulu and the venue.
Zulu Records veteran and tunage aficionado Daniel Colussi is the Music Editor of Scout Magazine.