Monday, March 12, 2012

'A spade's a spade' Interview: Gareth Liddiard

This interview was originally conducted for, and syndicated by ToneDeaf. Who originally published the article here, which in turn spawned this scoop, the article is re-produced here in its entirety for the AMR readership, enjoy, I think it's one of my best.
“With your songwriting, it’s very much storytelling – do you have your own favourite storytell-“

“Fuck. I just found a bullet.”

I am speaking down the line with Gareth Liddiard,
The Drones frontman himself – to some, his band is considered our nation’s most important rock act; in other circles his muddied tales of Australia, with their gothic poetry, are as revered as Paul Kelly’s or Nick Cave’s – and he’s just found a bullet.

“Just sitting in the middle of the bush – cause I get phone reception,” the ocker twang of his songs and his speaking voice one and the same, “and there’s an unused .22 bullet just lying here. Looks real old.”

It’s a surreal yet fitting moment. Who else but Liddiard would be able to spot, let alone identify and carbon-date such a projectile? In the foliage of Western Australia, no less. It’s wholly appropriate for a man whose own work looks past the tourism-friendly image of our country and its picturesque bush to pick out the true, gruesome details that lie beneath.

If the popular instinct is to write snappy, slightly repetitive three-minute pop songs that aim for universal appeal, then Liddiard flees in the opposite direction. Particularly with his solo debut, Strange Tourist, an album of sprawling acoustic numbers with nary a hook nor modicum of compromise in earshot. Though it lacked The Drones’ squalling feedback and noisy blues rock, it lost none of his incendiary core, culminating in the sixteen minute narrative of Radicalisation of D.

Loosely inspired by the incarceration of David Hicks, it brims with a life’s worth of character-forming minutiae, winding through oppression, abuse and the socially ostracised, concluding with a damning cultural cadence with Liddiard howling “you are living in a nightmare.”

For a figure who famously repudiates the “nightmare” of modern consumerist living, the sallow idea of promotion doesn’t seem to sit with Gareth, so why do interviews at all? “Well, I don’t really see the point of being a musician if no-one hears it.”

His exasperation reminds you that he doesn’t subscribe to any pretence of being an artist ‘above’ the process. “When people say ‘Oh, I do it for myself – I’d do it if no-one else hears it’ that’s just bullshit. They’re just saying that because no-one comes to their gigs. So yeah, it’s gotta be done otherwise it’s pointless.”

As much as there’s Liddiard: the artist, there’s also Liddiard: the everyman, the fiercely humble demeanour of the latter more often prioritising his worldview. He’s the kind of guy you’d knock a few beers back while you shoot shit, except his fertiliser contains more rare and fascinating insights than most.

For instance, when pushed about the idea of honesty, that stripping back to acoustic and voice for his solo album gets him closer to a mentality of pure truth, his coarse sense of modesty kicks in. “It just is what it is. A spade’s a spade, I’m not scared of spades.”

“I like really raw stuff, any sort of music I do. Speaking of myself – it’s at the savoury end.” This is the other joy of Liddiard’s perspective, why wallow in pretentious rumination when a witty bit of symbolism will do? “If the whole thing’s a fuckin’ MasterChef, then I’m on the savoury end of music.”

Excited by his own metaphor he goes on, “there’s sweet and savoury. You look at the trends, you find adults prefer the savoury over sweet and the kids prefer the sweet over savoury. And I’m savoury.”

It certainly takes a bit of maturity to savour his unique brand of storytelling. Those turned off by his gnarled, accented delivery miss out on the treasures of his lyricism. Characterised by furious emotional outbursts and cleverly veiled political and social polemic, weaved with the artistry of a natural storyteller, albeit a brutally honest one; none of his barbs cushioned, none of his topics sugar-coated.

So who are Liddiard’s favourite storytellers? “Well, the one that blew my mind completely early on was [French writer and physician] Louis-Ferdinand Céline. See now hipsters are down with him – which is weird. He was basically the first one in the twentieth century to do it how he wanted to do it. He didn’t use rules.”

It’s easy to find parallels between Céline’s controversial fiction and Liddiard’s insurgent methods. That and the work-man-like approach to his art, that “it is what it is” and let others figure it out, or as Liddiard puts it “they’re retro-fitted – rules and things like that – to any kind of art. Someone like [Russian composer] Shostakovich will come along and just make shit up on the fly and then critics and scholars will look back in hindsight and see how he constructed these things; but he didn’t mean to construct them like that, he was just using his imagination.”

He never explicitly says it, but Liddiard implies there’s a similar process happening with his own output, “like I was saying, how other people retro-fitted technique onto what they did, but there was no inherent technique. It’s not something I set out to do [either].”

As The Drones leader, he is already typified as a ‘uniquely Australian’ performer. Singing about the dangerous, unpopular side of our country, his knotted vocals on Drones staples like Sixteen Straws” or Jezebel deliver bludgeoning reminders of our violent colonial history.

Liddiard laments the ‘Americanisation’ of our nation, something that’s played an ever stronger role in his music. The conversation quickly dovetails to the kind of spooling cultural analysis that has given rise to the industry consensus that Liddiard always give good interview, as long as you ask the right questions.

“It’s something I noticed early on, like ‘This guy who has an Australian accent suddenly becomes American when he sings.’ It just struck me. People don’t realise speaking with a fuckin’ American accent in a song; it’s as ridiculous as a French guy getting up and singing a song in a fuckin’ Japanese accent. But people don’t realise how weird it is because they’re used to it, they grew up in a climate where that’s the norm.”

His take on the cultural cringe (“which is not a uniquely Australian problem’’), the ambivalence with Australia’s sense of identity cannot be unthreaded from our ugly history of colonisation. “It’s the English that did that, they’re the masters of it. They did it to Canada, to Africa, to India and Pakistan. The yanks will go in and point a gun at you and tell you what to do and that’s their idea of imperialism.”

“But the minute they’ve got the gun off you, you’re back to doing what you did before. But the English make you hate yourself, then they piss off, and you’re still under their thumb because you prefer them to you. They’re very clever psychologically, and that’s what they did to us.”

He begins waxing philosophical about “the seduction of superpowers,” how “America and England are fascinated by each other” even reaching a borderline- rant about “the nukes keep the adults in line, the pop culture’s there to keep the kids in line.” To many, this would seem like the ramblings of a conspiracy theorist, but Liddiard’s belligerence is less combative opinion than it is a kind of exasperated fatigue. A sickly distaste with Australia conceding to its natural disadvantage, already playing the underdog, “it’s a temporary climate so hopefully Australians will get some balls to be themselves.”

That’s the clincher, ‘having balls and being himself’ it seems, comes as naturally to Liddiard as it does a new band to mimic the pop culture of their Atlantic cousins. Which is precisely why he’s such a valued figure in Australa’s musical landscape. When quizzed about it however, he reverts to a atypically diffident response, “I don’t know… it keeps me real.”

Luckily, he’s got a lot more to say musically. Hunkering down with writing new material, not for himself but for a new Drones record “I just did that; the thing by myself – I don’t want to do that twice in a row. So this is The Drones, I need a band to flesh these out. It’s still in an early state.”

He lets slip that he’s been distracted by working on a new project, admitting “it’s Fiona [Kitschin, Drones bassist and Liddiard’s partner] and me, with James Baker [legendary Perth drummer from bands such as The Scientists, Hoodoo Gurus and Beasts Of Bourbon] and Spencer P. Jones [equally renowned Melbourne guitarist].”

The dreaded ‘supergroup’ comparison lingers in the air, but that famous Liddiard humility strikes again, “we’re just making an album really, but it’s heaps of fun.”

It’s worth noting that we’re conducting our interview on the prestigious SLAM (Save Live Australian Music) Day, and what is Gareth Liddiard getting up to? “It’s today? Oh right, I was writing songs – so I’m doing my bit, I guess. I’m out in the country, so I didn’t really know, I’m just sitting on the ground avoiding ants.”

Down amongst the dust in the aggravating part of nature? It seems he’s where he needs to be and we wouldn’t want Gaz any other way.

Gareth Liddiard plays a rare solo gig on Friday 23rd March @ The Regal Ballroom in Melbourne before heading to Tokyo with The Drones as part of All Tomorrow’s Parties “I’ll Be Your Mirror” Concert in Tokyo, April 14 & 15.

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