Interview: Aaron Hemphill of Liars on Performing Live, WIXIW and Songwriting
The largely experimental three-piece band Liars are something of an amorphous entity. Often bands that dabble and revel in noise-based music find themselves endlessly trapped in artistic niche. In just over ten years time, Liars have managed to avoid that pit trap through a series of ever-evolving and challenging albums. Each time they resurface the whole notion of what type of music they make they seems to have jumped by leaps and bounds. Having followed the band since their 2004 album They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, we relished the chance to pick the brain of the group’s Aaron Hemphill just a couple days after their performance at FYF Fest about live performances, their new album WIXIW and composing in general.
Photo credit: Raymond Flotat
Is it hard to replicate what you do in the studio live? Especially with limited soundchecks and having to get everything setup and get playing.
Playing festivals is a totally different animal. It’s insane, especially with our setup. Setting up something that normally takes us about an hour in fifteen minutes. It’s pretty brutal. To get ready to play these songs live, that was a whole other endeavor. It felt like making a record. I mean we finished the record and then we’re like, “Okay, how are we going to do this? And have it be interactive and fun to watch.” We need an element of risk or chance that’s hopefully exciting for people. That took forever. It was very daunting. It was a very scary process. It took us a long time to figure out how to play it live. And when you do that you have to think about doing things like festivals where it has to be compact, you have to do it quick, and it really just is at odds with creative thinking. You’re limiting yourself for reasons that have nothing to do with how good a song sounds, more about practical issues. You have to deal with it.
Did you guys draw boundaries for yourself? Musicians that I’ve spoken to in the past that have used lots of electronics or synths or samplers, they tend to have rules. They say, if there’s something they play on the album they have to at least trigger it. Others will be happy to have multiple things mixed down together and just sequenced. Were there certain rules that you had in terms of how it could be executed? Or were you just trying to make sure it happened the way that it sounded on the album?
Again, we’re limited. We toured with Radiohead and they have almost every original instrument that would make a sound recorded. They’ll have a gigantic modular synth that’s only used for the beat in one song. And that is of course the ideal, because you want to not only show people how you made that sound and have that tactile instrument with you. We’re limited. We don’t have that crew that Radiohead has. Bringing that stuff on the road, it could break. All these things that are totally at odds with creative thinking. Nonetheless, we’re forced to deal with it. As far as rules, I think we just wanted to try to identify the main parts of the song that people latch on to, like okay, “That’s sort of the bass line, that’s the melodic element.” Let’s try to play that in a way that’s interactive where we can have it echo out or come out differently so that we are providing a somewhat different version than the album. I think it’s really important to provide a different experience from the album. Hopefully the things that we’ve chosen to interact with are elements that are exciting to watch us play as well as add another layer of the song.
It shows. You guys are working real hard up there. I watched the three of you running around changing instruments constantly. That looks damn hard.
Once it’s set up and we’re playing that’s fine. That’s all fine. It’s more the stress, “Holy cow. How are we going to get all this stuff ready?” And festivals are a totally different thing. You’re very under the gun. Like I said, it’s very constant. It’s just the three of us and we have a sound engineer.
Did you guys get a chance to see any bands while you were at the festival?
We saw Atlas Sound who were on our stage. We went and saw Black Dice who were good. We watched a little bit of Yeasyaer. We heard a lot about the stage setup so we wanted to check that on out. Saw a little bit of Father John Misty.
Listening to the new album WIXIW compared to your earlier material—and obviously you guys have changed a lot album-to-album what you’ve performed and produced—this seems like the most sedate album of your canon thus far. Some of the earlier material sounded a bit more abrasive and challenging. And I’m curious is there anything that drew you guys particularly to this sound?
As far as it being less abrasive?
Ah, we made a lot of material. A lot of songs didn’t make the record. In re-examining there’s some material that I think is more abrasive. The songs that just kind of grouped themselves together and sort of stood out as far as being a cohesive album just tended to have that mood. I think it was just what we were going through. How the experience felt to us making this record. It takes a while to figure out what the album is about that you’re making. We didn’t have a concept that was outside of us. The album’s concept is literally about the making of the album and how we felt using these instruments, and collaborating more, and where we were at in our lives. We decided we’re not going to use a foil and bring in an outside concept. Not that that’s what we consciously did with other concepts, in making this record we found that we would normally lay a lot of our personal feelings into these concepts. Now it’s just about us. I think it naturally became a cover for a more sort of introspective record… the meaning of making this record seeing the songs how they came together and when they came together, it just became apparent that those songs would be the album. That group of songs that were more sedate so to speak.
Maybe it’s that process as you say. Maybe since you didn’t have an over-arching concept that it was less abrasive on you guys to come up with the material?
How I think I’ve always approached instruments—be it the drums, the guitar, anything—how you look particularly playing it is how the sound is going to come out. If you look like you’re spazzing out playing the drums it’s going to sound like that. When that physicality is removed and it’s more interaction with a computer and trying to find all these sounds that aren’t really on a computer, and you have a keyboard to interact with it’s not really all there. There’s this removal, and it forces you to be in this more contemplative state. “Why am I using this sound? Where’s it gonna go?” It’s a very different feeling than having a snare in front of you or a guitar where the physicality is expressed through the instrument and it can tend to be more visceral as well as more abrasive.
In terms of your process as you’re assembling things, putting things together, composing, I’m going to make a bizarre comparison, one of the bands I’m thinking of right now is Boards of Canada. Boards of Canada talk about how they spend a ridiculous amount of time on their sound design. They kind of craft a song and then spend months trying to craft the texture and make it sound the way they want it to. I can tell there’s a lot of time and effort put into the texture, the sound design of your music. I wonder, what comes first for you guys? Is it the melodic ideas or is it the atmospheres, textures and feelings of the electronics?
Well this record we were exploring a lot of sounds and that came first. We collected a lot of great sounds. Sometimes they can be melodic, but we don’t really have much faith in that melody. It’s from that song and it’s an idea for a song. The scary part was how to do we turn all these textures into a song. It could’ve been that the original seed had a lot of melody to it, but we just sort of—again we didn’t really have much faith in that. It would be scary, so we’d just add more and more melody and try to make sure that there was a song there. So what you were referring to as “sound design,” it’s rare that we have a vocal melody first, something you can sing. That’s the first part of your song. We usually start from the drums up. Even though we collaborated a lot more on this record, or a lot earlier. It’s still a very solitary experience. Some of us played all the instruments on certain songs. It’s rare that it begins with the vocal melody. I’d say that’s maybe happened twice ever.
Wow. That’s fascinating.
I think it generates an environment of again, doubt that you have this song or this melody that it is a song. I feel like what it does for us that it helps us to work a little harder to make sure that it’s all there.
How do you guys know as a three-piece when a song is ready? Is there a certain key between the three of you when you all feel comfortable? When does it feel right to you?
It’s tough. With this one we scrutinized the songs so much… it’s hard to say. It just happens. That’s still the part that is magical and unidentifiable. That’s what keeps songwriting interesting. There’s a moment where it comes together where you’re really excited about it and you’re ready to show it to your partner and see what they think. And there are times where we have to convince each other that songs are finished. That was a big deal too. Or one of us would advocate for a song to be worked on further when one of us thought it wouldn’t be worth it. You know, so it’s relying on each other to sort of you know help one another finish these songs. To give each other confidence, “Okay, this is finished. This is communicating what you’re trying to say.” It’s tough. There are some songs, where you’re just like, “This is incredible. I can’t wait to show it to Angus. It’s done. I just can’t wait for him to say it’s done.” Then there’s other songs where I think, “Yeah I think this is really horrible,” and the other guys end up liking it. It’s really I think basic with what makes music feel interesting. You can’t identify that from it. There isn’t a given. There isn’t a constant.
Many of the pieces of work you’ve done have been inspired by certain places, or feelings or locations where you were recording things. There’s a wonderful kind of atmospheric quality to all of your albums that kind of mood is pervasive in each. Have you guys considered or are you considering for the future, perhaps something experientially tied to the music? Like some kind of an installation experience that coincides with the over-arching theme of an album?
We’ve been approached to do something similar to that. It’s not that we haven’t considered it. You dream about things and how you’d execute something like that. Right now it’s just finding the time to do it you know. Right now the guys, we’re really excited about making songs, making records. More direct things of that nature. Where it’s just songwriting and how to make songs out of these sounds. I think it’s kind of an endless asset to be stuck on, rather than just being interested in percussion or something. It seems like making songs out of these sounds and making songs that hopefully connect with people and are catchy or they’re sad. It seems to be very rewarding at the moment. And it’s not too much different from what we always been saying it’s just more lead-in than what we recognize as the focus. It’s not that we wouldn’t be thrilled to do something like that where we create an environment and a soundtrack to it, but I think that there’s also a big mystery with us. Where again, it’s a matter of confidence of knowing what that environment is and do we know ourselves well enough to create something that communicates where we’re at. That’s bigger than a record. I sort of feel like we’re finding out a lot more about ourselves as time goes on. We’ve been a band for quite a while now but still there’s so many things that are being uncovered about us and how we work and what we’re interested in. Sometimes there’s things, not regrets, but they sort of go backwards with the same things that we were interested in when we first became a band and again that’s the nature of the album’s title being a palindrome. Again, it’d be a great honor but if we were to execute it would probably involve a lot of doubt and mystery at this point with where we’re at as people to create that environment.
What comes next for you guys? With WIXIW out there and you’re going to hit the road for a bit behind it what are you going to be doing next?
We’re just going to be touring for a quite a while. Tons of touring. We’re actually leaving tomorrow for a festival in North Carolina. We’re just busy touring on WIXIW. It’s been exciting for us to play. It’s still exciting for me to pull these songs off every night. That’s incredible after how many times we’ve had to listen to them which is a lot.
It’s good that it’s still engaging. It’d be a bad sign if you guys weren’t loving it too you know.
Yeah, totally. Yeah. [Laughs]
In terms of the evolution of your sound, your fans are probably well aware and acclimated to the notion that you guys go into bold new territory each time you hit the ground and start to recording more songs. With any of your releases or this one, have you ever encountered with your fans or have there ever been expressions from your fans, “Hey we liked it better when it was more like this”?
How much communication we actually get to have like that is limited. When you do get that sort of communication it’s great. That’s really good feedback. Of course. “Liars fell off after they made their second record.” Which it seemed like everyone thought was too noisy. Yeah, of course. It’s bound to happen when you make records that focus on different sounds. We don’t want to throw people off or confuse people. We’re not making records that are intentionally different so that it stings our audience—or anything like that. We don’t have: a.) the foresight to do that while we’re making these songs and b.) we just don’t want to do that to people. We want to make things that are interesting and engaging, and really sort of honest things in representing what we’re interested in. To us, it’s just how we’ve always have made music. And if we paid too much attention to that it would go against that and it would really change the formula and create a formula, actually. It just always just seems to be to please ourselves is the most important step in making a record. Because if we don’t feel like it’s something that represents us truly and the best work that we can do, then we can’t really share it with other people. Hopefully what happens is when people see the lineage and the continuity and see that they’re not that different, and hopefully one clarifies the next as they come out. That’s what I believe. I don’t think they’re all that different. I feel like each record sort of sheds light on the one before it. We see it as a whole big groove.Search for Aaron Hemphill albums on Amazon
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