It's almost ten years since they first started making music together, but at the start of a new decade Liars find themselves in the unlikely position of being art-rock elder statesmen.
This is unlikely because, while some of the other bands lumped into the Brooklyn post-punk revival scene that first brought Liars to prominence have floundered, this is a group that have constantly challenged themselves and their fans, daring to explore different textures, sounds and themes with each step that they take. It's a sad state of affairs that Liars should be so unusual for this willingness to push themselves, but the fact that they've consistently made music so daring, frightening, funny and downright odd means that we should cherish them now more than ever.
From its title onwards 2001's debut album, They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top, announced the arrival of a group ready to challenge preconceptions. Taking the New York dance-punk sound as its starting point, the record was full of sharp corners and unexpected twists, sounding defiantly unconventional when some of their peers were looking to the past.
Shedding original drummer and bassist Ron Albertson and Pat Noecker and regrouping as a three piece, the new (and current) line up of Liars - that's Angus Andrew (vocals/guitar), Aaron Hemphill (percussion, guitar, synth) and Julian Gross (drums) - changed direction for underrated second album They Were Wrong So We Drowned (2004), which was recorded in the woods of rural New Jersey with legendary producer Dave Sitek and explored themes of witchcraft and eldritch folklore.
Drum's Not Dead came accompanied with a DVD featuring three different short films for each track and made number 6 on Pitchfork's list of the best albums of 2006. It was followed by Liars (2007), a set which stripped back some of their earlier sonic experimentation in favour of a collection of songs which prized concision, hooks and dumb rock noise.
In 2008 the band were hand-picked by Radiohead to join them as support act on their eco-friendly US tour. This experience reinforced Liars' desire to constantly find new modes of working. 'Radiohead just keep trying new things,' says Aaron Hemphill. 'They inspired us to think about how we can evolve, not just creatively but as a band and how we work.'
Now the group return with their boldest and most exhilarating record to date. Sisterworld was written and recorded in Los Angeles by Liars and Tom Biller (Kanye West, Beck, Where The Wild Things Are/Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind soundtracks) and is an invigorating summation of their career so far. Building on the back-to-basics approach employed by Liars (the album) Sisterworld is a dense art-pop thrill from start to finish.
Sisterworld's songs are thematically linked by experience - in this case the recent experience of living in Los Angeles, the city where Andrew and Aaron first met while studying at Cal Arts. The first Liars album to be recorded in the US since 2004 also saw Andrew relocating from Berlin and exploring the possibilities of the underground fringes of the City Of Angels.
'The earliest seeds of this record grew out of a strong distaste for America's love affair with positive thinking,' explains Andrew. 'The almost mandatory cultural attitude of being upbeat, cheerful and optimistic and how it's supposed to be the key to success and prosperity. How this can make people feel unworthy - full of self-blame for not having the right sunny outlook - and make it easy to develop a morbid preoccupation with eradicating 'negative' thoughts. Our experience of this was everywhere and compounded by living in the land of lost dreams - LA.'
Thus the symphonic menace of tracks like Goodnight Everything act as a warning to this self-satisfied America - holding up a cracked mirror to their vision of perfection. 'Positivity can be a crippling habit,' continues Andrew. 'The people who are sick or jobless - they just aren't thinking positively.'
'When we began writing Obama was just elected and the country was perfecting its science of happiness. But at the same time the anger in LA was palpable with protests over the outcome of Prop 8 banning gay marriage in California. Simultaneously, the big economic downturn, based on some giant refusal to consider negative outcomes was everywhere. It was an interesting moment that seemed to encapsulate how the great tide of positivity could leave many stranded in its wake.'
This flipside of this culture of positive thinking was all-too obvious in a city built on illusion. Renting a room in a gutted recording studio above a weed dispensary, Andrew rapidly became a witness to a whole underground scene, a cabal of like-minded and nocturnal low-lifes. 'I shared an entrance hall with these guys who, when they weren't shooting porn or selling weed, would put on after-hours parties,' he explains. 'Each Saturday night, after the bars and clubs shut down, this place became filled with the dregs of LA nightlife - some strange mix of outcasts and loners from the clubbing/porn/alien sc-fi world.'
Following both a shooting on his doorstep (captured in the song Scarecrow On A Killer Slant) and a break-in, Andrew finished writing the record in a slightly more salubrious neighbourhood ('the safest, most leafy place I could find' he laughs), but the impression left on him by his glimpse into this underworld lead to one of the record's main themes - how we all create our own alternative spaces in order to survive. For the band this is Sisterworld - the place that they are currently allowing us a glimpse into at their website www.thesisterworld.com, where three videos of static natural scenes are disrupted by ambient white noise which, on closer listening, actually turns out to be wind and water noises. 'Sisterworld is a place that isn't defined by anything,' says Andrew, 'not history or some expectant future. An environment let loose from the constraints of order.'
The website is accompanied by new press shots featuring the band as post-apocalyptic modern primitives, three salarymen gone feral, swapping suits and ties for mud and branches. It's a startling image, to say the least.
'The images we created helped invoke our understanding of being misplaced and out of context' explains Andrew. 'It gave us the chance to isolate ourselves in an environment devoid of human intervention and without pre-existing definitions. We wanted to depict ourselves apart from any obvious reference - somewhere based on rules of our own creation - none others.'
Playing it safe is something that we can be assured that Liars will never do. Welcome to their Sisterworld.
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