“We’re the biggest band that no-one’s ever heard of basically” – an interview with Gareth Liddiard
Gareth Liddiard, frontman of The Drones, has spent nearly 20 years delivering some of Australia’s most distinct and uncompromising music in recent memory. Between embarking on an East-coast tour, producing the new Gold Class record and forming brand new group National Cocktail Favourites with fellow Drones member Fiona Kitschin, he’s showing no signs of letting up. I spoke to him in the midst of his current tour which reaches Brisbane on April 21st at The Brightside.
So you’ve already played a couple of solo shows last month in Melbourne, are you happy with how the tour’s going so far?
Yeah it’s going well, we’ve had some long breaks between shows which is always good. Doing solo gigs is a different mind-set, because when you’re playing solo and you fuck up it’s always catastrophic. If I do that at a Drones gig, it’s par for the course.
How much new material is incorporated into your current set?
Not much, because I haven’t gotten around to writing that much. I mean I have been writing, I’ve started about seven songs but I haven’t finished one. I should’ve tried to finish one or two and see if they work, so I’ve spread myself too thin.
Do you like working out songs as you play them live, as in playing songs before you record, or are they usually fully fleshed out before you play them?
They’ll be kind of fleshed out a bit but it doesn’t matter, as long as you get it ready, even if you’re a band and you rehearse it doesn’t matter how much preparation you do, when you play it live you can see how shit it is. It’s pretty weird having a room full of people there, like imagine writing a poem and you’ll be like “wow that’s amazing, I am amazing” and you go up at Christmas in front of your family and say it and you realize you’re just a massive dickhead.
You’ve put together a new group recently called National Cocktail Favourites, what led to the creation of the band and how does it differ from what you’ve been doing with The Drones?
Well it’s a work in progress in a way, we’re still sort of getting a full band together. But it’s not gonna be that much different from The Drones, if I’m involved in it it’ll be kinda like that anyway. The main thing is that me and Fiona haven’t had a different band for a long time and everyone else has. I mean we did that thing with Spencer Jones a while back, but that was us just backing him up. We just thought let’s do something different for once, lets just start something new and fresh and exciting and have that sense of vertigo because you don’t really know if it’s gonna be good or bad. We’ve been doing that and slowly writing songs and slowly getting people in the band. It’s going to be really cool and weird, but it won’t be a shock, we’re not gonna suddenly sound like something completely different.
Is it kind of a relief to get out of The Drones for a while? To work on a different project?
Oh fuck yeah, because I’ve been doing that full on since 2000. The longer it exists the more it has to be reinvented and sometimes it’s a burden in a way. But it’s a fun burden to have, because it’s a challenge. Last year it occurred to me that “Oh yeah right, I can just kinda do whatever the fuck I want”. I mean I’ve done a solo album but The Drones is pretty close to a solo thing anyway. I think the big difference is that we’re trying to get more girls in the band and less of a kind of male vibe, not that that’s a bad thing, but just for something different. You know, 15 years of dudes in vans drinking beer.
So you don’t really have a different concept for the band, it’s just that you’re getting different people to play your new songs?
Well I would do that with every new album with The Drones anyway, so I’ve always got new concepts going. Everything is mainly working on similar concepts as The Drones, and it’s always limited by my voice being my voice and my guitar style being what it is. We do have touchstones and ideas, I want to do a more rhythmical thing, which is pretty vague. I mean the best way to explain it is for me to record it all and send you the CD (laughs).
Was the last Drones tour really draining? Because I saw you guys a couple of times last year and it was really energetic and it seems like it takes a lot out of you to do that every night for a long time.
Yeah it always is but that’s okay. I had a fucking shocking bout of gastro right before that tour and I’m a skinny dude so I lose all of my reserves really quickly. If we walked across the desert, I’d be the first to die, I don’t have the fat reserves. So I lost my muscle mass which is a drag because I generally prepare before a tour, because it’s quite athletic. I do like jumping up and down and going berserk.
Yeah that’s one of the things I like the most about seeing you guys live, you don’t just stand there and run through the songs, you really throw all your energy into the set.
Yeah I mean, that’s always what I like when I see a band.
You don’t want to see a band that just goes up and doesn’t talk to the audience and just trudges through their songs.
Yeah you want them to really give it to you. I mean even if you’re going to see fuckin’ Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto you want to see the solo pianist work it you know? You don’t want to see him breeze through it, that’s just boring. You want it to be kinetic and you want it action-packed. Fugazi was like that and John Coltrane was like that, Jimi Hendrix, Dirty Three all that shit. It’s all fuckin’ go. That’s what live performance should be, you know?
Yeah I agree. Do you see a lot of importance in audience interaction?
Yeah totally. I mean it’s the reason you’re there. It seems really conceited and selfish to just sort of get up there and pretend like they’re all watching TV or something. They’re all in the room together. There’s 400 people there in the room and the band makes up 5 of those people. We’re no different. You know, when the fire alarm goes off, we’re all the same (laughs). It’s the same thing, if it’s a Saturday night, everyone’s having a beer, we all want to listen to music and it just happens that the 5 of us are playing it and we want to hear it too. That’s what it should be, not just paying money to come and watch us ponce about.
There are some bands you see that seem like they think they’re above the audience and they’re just performing for you and it’s not really an interaction so there’s a distance that’s created.
Yeah and half of those bands aren’t even doing it deliberately, they just haven’t thought about that part of the performance. I mean my job is I write songs, then I arrange them and the band helps me, then we record them, putting that all together and another part of my job is to perform. It’s a different thing and you’ve gotta focus on that separately. I was fortunate enough to see Fugazi in the early ‘90s and The Jesus Lizard and shit like that where they really included the crowd in the whole thing. Like it’s Saturday night and everyone’s having a fun time.
The Jesus Lizard and Fugazi are two of the bands that I’d like to go see live if I had a time machine, because I obviously wasn’t around back then. But just even watching clips of them, it’s everything I want a live band to be.
Yeah they were amazing. I mean they were kinda different. Fugazi would literally come out and then tune up on stage. It would be 5 or 10 minutes before they struck a chord and during that time they would talk to the crowd and start a little conversation. A bit of heckling, a bit of funny shit and everyone felt together. So when they kicked in, it’s magic because you just feel like you’re part of that, you’re allowed in. There’s not an otherness, they’re part of the gang, and now you’re part of it. Then The Jesus Lizard was hilarious, like David would come and jump into the crowd immediately and then just be floating around and he was fucking funny so it was really inclusive. That’s what it should be, like in a gospel church, it’s a very inclusive thing, everyone’s singing along. You’ve got your primary school teachers up there playing piano and singing, everyone’s singing along, it’s what it’s meant to be. We try to do that but I mean it’s hard to sing along to The Drones stuff but I’d hope there’d be that communal vibe.
I saw Shellac a couple of years ago and I sort of got what I thought I was missing by not being able to see Fugazi or Jesus Lizard shows. They’re one of the last remnants from that sort of circle of bands.
Yeah it’s exactly like that. I saw them last time they were here and it’s funny too, like people forget that you can be heavy as fuck but still be funny. Like early Rollins Band, the first few times they came out here, you’d have fuckin’ post-traumatic stress after all of that but in all that horror and all of that heaviness they were funny, there would be moments of humanity. But, you know, people take themselves very fucking seriously these days, they forget whether they’re a fucking member of ISIS or a member of some indie band. Like, lighten up man.
You produced a record with Gold Class a few months ago, how were they to work with?
Yeah they’re cool, we had a good time. It’s getting mixed at the moment. I knew a couple of them reasonably well. They’re one of those bands where everybody is really fucking good, and their style is quite singular. It’s like The Dirty Three again, where everyone has a lot of character. Not many bands are like that, sometimes you have two people in the band with really strong character and the rest are kinda there to fill in.
Yeah it’s rare to have a band where everyone is sort of equally important and you can’t really take out any members without ruining the dynamic.
Yeah that’s it, they’re one of those bands, they really complement each other. The sound of the band is pretty angular and having Adam Curley provides a great contrast. If they had someone like me singing for them the contrast wouldn’t be there and it wouldn’t be as good. So it’s an awesome combination.
Had you done much production work before this record?
I’ve done a little bit here and there, mainly for friends’ bands and for a lot of The Drones’ stuff.
But I’d imagine there’d be quite a lot of difference producing for someone else’s band because you don’t have a say in any of the creative decisions, and you’re mainly just dealing with the pure sound?
Yeah and how to get it on tape. But also suggesting things that didn’t occur to them. It’s really nice in a way though, because I go to parties and bore people with music talk, just talking about nuts and bolts but producing for a band it’s essentially the same thing but we can talk about the nuts and bolts and no one yawns. It’s the time to talk nuts and bolts. I find that really fun I guess. It’s a good way to bond because it’s music and it’s about people, it’s good to get in deep with another band and talk about why it’s working or why it’s not working. I just love that shit.
Do you think it’s harder now for newer Australian bands that are starting out that are more unique or strange to find popularity or a large fan-base than when you guys were starting out? Or has it not really changed much?
I don’t know really. I mean there was a lot of luck involved for us and we were pretty weird. We weren’t the band everyone was thinking would do well, and then we just surprised them. But ultimately I think it comes down to things like songs. There are a lot of really cool bands that have a good thing going but they don’t have any songs you can remember after the gig. I go home and I can’t remember any songs to hum.
When bands have been around for 20 years or so like The Drones and have built up a pretty steady following, it kind of seems like they’re doing it alone and they’re not really attached to a scene anymore. Do you still feel an acquaintanceship with other Australian bands?
Yeah I mean there was a while where me and Fiona moved away from Melbourne and we were completely out of the loop but now we’re back and the last couple of years we’ve been kind of back in the scene. I guess there are bands like Harmony and who else? It’s one of those questions where I can’t remember anything off the top of my head. It’s like you’re walking into a DVD shop and you don’t know what movie you want to pick. What were you saying before?
It just seems that when bands are starting out there’ll be a bunch of other bands they’ll congregate towards and sort of build a community but once they’ve built their own following they can kind of just detach and go off and do their own thing, if that makes sense?
Yeah and we’ve done that. I was thinking about that this morning actually. It’s quite interesting in the way that smaller, underground bands in Australia wouldn’t necessarily have an affinity with us because they’d think that we’re “big”. But then we’re not that big, we are actually underground. Maybe we’re just the biggest underground band. We’re the biggest band that no-one’s ever heard of basically (laughs). I think an “underground” band from America could come over and a Melbourne band wouldn’t have anything in common with them. An American underground band would sell 10 times more records than they do. Like these guys are buying houses off their records. You know what I mean? It’s a very weird thing.
So just a couple of quick questions before we finish. What are some current Australian bands that you’re really into at the moment and what music have you been listening to lately in general, anything you’d recommend?
Umm… Oh God, I’ll have to text you them, I’ve just had a mental blank, like someone put a cork in my brain. Yeah I’ll text them to ya. (Gareth texted “The new Lost Animal record, Molten Metal by Ella Stiles, Fia Fiell, You Beauty” and later texted “Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Bill Orcutt, Ummagumma by Pink Floyd, Sarban (1970’s Afghan stuff), Soutakata Koite from Mali, Shostakovich, Joel Silbersher’s Greasy Lens just coz its an amazing album that no one’s ever heard of, new Missy Elliott”
I’ve been listening to a lot of North African stuff, this guy Mohammed Rouchia from Morocco. He practically invented his own genre. I’m always listening to a million things, it’s hard to keep track of it all.
Gareth Liddiard East Coast Tour Dates
Thursday, 20th April
Byron Theatre, Byron Bay
Friday, 21st April
The Brightside, Brisbane
Saturday, 22nd April
Sunday, 23rd April
Newtown Social Club, Sydney (Doors open 3pm)
Sunday, 23rd April — SOLD OUT
Newtown Social Club, Sydney