For an experimental rock group that initially found an audience as part of the New York dance punk scene in the early 2000s, Liars have come a long way. They’ve relocated from NYC to Berlin to Los Angeles and recorded five albums in the process. Each has been remarkably different from the last, the instrumentation bouncing from atmospheric church hall drone to stabbing guitar freakouts to heart-melting ballads (the song “The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack” was recently used during the climatic surgery scene in the film 50/50). Like Radiohead, Liars are the kind of band critics and fans respect for their miscues, their ambitiousness, and their potential to pop off albums and songs that are at once strange and familiar, music that leads to a point on the horizon which we might not have seen, but that was always already there.

I spoke with guitarist/percussionist/synth player Aaron Hemphill over the phone from the East Coast about the new electronic elements on the band’s 2012 LP WIXIW. Fresh off a European tour, Hemphill gladly explained the band’s motives for replacing guitars with synths, the WIXIW recording process, and why the first single “No. 1 Against the Rush” is named after the 49ers’ defense. You can purchase tickets here for their July 5 show at the Great American Music Hall.

Bay Bridged: So you guys are gearing up to play New York City on Wednesday and just returned from Europe. How’s the tour so far and translating WIXIW to the stage?

Aaron: I think it’s been amazing. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been really scary. We’re dealing with instruments that we’ve never used on stage before; it’s somewhat out of control. I think it makes it really exciting. I really enjoy playing the new songs live.

BB: Are you guys mostly using synths, laptops, and samplers?

Aaron: Something like that, yeah. A lot of new equipment that is new for us to have on stage.

BB: Back in 2007/2008 I remember reading an interview where you talked about wanting to make a more ‘electronic’ album. This was back around the self-titled album. A few B-sides were more electronic-oriented, like “Mimic the Hurricano” and “Volcano Police”. But then you followed up with the much more rock oriented Sisterworld. Was it always your intention to head in this direction after Sisterworld or was there something else that made this the right time for the new sound?

Aaron: It was a pretty natural decision. It was after Sisterworld and with Sisterworld, as you mentioned, it was more of a rock sound. The recording experience was much more traditional because we went to a studio and had an engineer who miked things for us, etc. And so the transition to the electronic based album was in part due to that we wanted to record it ourselves. We wanted to eliminate the demo and have the demo be a good enough fidelity so that it could be on the album.

That kind of started it but — we’ve used electronics before on other records — the difference with this record is that we’ve never used computers as instruments. So I think that’s one of the biggest differences with this album. It was a combination of a reaction to the Sisterworld experience recording, as well as just having access to software that’s musical and being excited to have new sounds and use those in making songs.

BB: Nowadays there are tons of programs and synths to choose from when recording electronic music. Was it daunting when you first set out to record an electronic album?

Aaron: Yeah, it definitely was. I think it contributes to the themes of doubts and anxiety that the record has. There were times where

[lead singer/guitarist Angus Andrew] and I would set out to write a song all day and end up reading manuals. It was pretty scary. We really tried to accept the fact that it’s just like any other instrument, that it doesn’t matter how good you are at using it, it’s more about the idea and how well you place it.

BB: What was your favorite piece of gear or software to use?

Aaron: I can’t say a favorite because really when we’re making songs it is such a rabid and crazy collecting of anything that sounds good. So for some of it we don’t have the presence of mind to lean on one sound. We used anything from analog synths to software synths and there really wasn’t any other discretion based on analog vs digital. It was more just does it sound good, can we make a good song out of these sounds. And so there’s a much more visceral selection process and less of a planned or thought-out selection process.

BB: The Amateur Gore blog you used to promote the album consisted of short, cryptic videos with abstract electronic pieces played over them. Was the album you were working on more abstract in the early stages or did it always have the natural Liars song style?

Aaron: We wrote a lot of material – roughly 60 tracks. The songs on the album have a lot of variation to them and it took awhile for a couple songs to emerge and seem like the album we recognized it to be. So you know there’s a lot of experimentation with sounds and there are plenty of styles that they formed into. But there’s anything from that to really dance-y tracks.

It was just sort of a matter of time before a group of songs collected to each other and stood out as having something in common that made sense, and something that we felt resonated with the experience and the process that we encountered in making the album, so I think that’s how we decided on what ended up on the album.

BB: The B-side “We’ll Never Learn” from the No.1 Against the Rush single was used to tease the album in some of the videos on your blog The song is really great. I really think it is up there with the material from the album. Why didn’t it make the cut?

Aaron: [Laughs] There are B-sides that we have that are some of my favorite songs that we’ve made. It’s just somehow to us didn’t fit with the whole or it would tip the whole in a different direction that we didn’t want to express at the time. So it’s not an issue of quality control – they’re all pretty important to us – it’s more the songs we chose that we thought would fit the best together and that have some common ingredients in them.

B-side stuff isn’t relegated to this netherworld or abyss, especially these days with how music is consumed — a B-side has just as much of a chance of being heard as any other track.

BB: Are there more gems to be released from this recording period in the future? You mentioned you wrote several songs in the vein of “Brats”. Do you have any plans to release that stuff at this point?

Aaron: It’s really too early to say. There was a period of time where we were super gung-ho on releasing another album within months of this record and we decided not to. And I think through the years of making records, one of the things we’ve realized is the more time we’re able to spend just thinking about things and passing things back and forth to each other, the better it seems to turn out. I think we just need to think about it for a while and see what this record means to us.

BB: We also have two awesome remixes of the first single, “No.1 Against the Rush.” What was it like having two electronic music giants, Matmos and Vincent Clark of Depeche Mode, taking on your material? Can we expect more awesome remixes soon?

Aaron: It’s an incredible honor. It’s pretty insane. They’re both sort of people we approached as a wish, like, “Oh yeah wouldn’t it be great if they did it? Let’s give it a shot,” and the fact that they both agreed to do it is just amazing. I think they did an incredible job.

BB: Are there any more remixes in the works?

Aaron: Yeah, there are actually. We’re going to release another single or two and I think the plan with this album — contrary to Sisterworld in a sense — is to get more remixes of that nature and just see how it plays out.

BB: Our blog is located in San Francisco and I read that you named “No. 1 Against the Rush” after the 49ers. Can you talk about that a little bit more?

Aaron: Yeah that’s definitely true. I think we spread ourselves so hard over song titles or any word or any type piece that fits into a song. It just seemed to fit the mood of it and the 49ers are Angus’ favorite football team, so I just wanted to have a title that was sort of a present to him.

I think we all like what that phrase can bring to mind. Some people may not get the sports reference, which is fine, but it has this sort of suffocating and skillful claustrophobia to it.

BB: So we have the official endorsement for the Niners this year from the Liars?

Aaron: [Laughs] That would be from Angus officially. I can’t front and say I’m a 49ers fan. I’m from LA, so I’m still a Raiders fan. But I am a Giants fan because my mom grew up in San Francisco. But I’m not a big baseball fan. We’re all big basketball fans.

BB: I was reading Pitchfork writer Matthew Perpetua’s blog and he was talking about your new album and I thought he brought up an interesting point. Basically, he thinks there continues to be a lingering sentiment from the late 90s that songwriting with a guitar is limiting and that turning to electronic music is the answer as a more forward-thinking or experimental type of music. But at the same time right now, pop music and indie music are becoming more and more electronic. How do you see WIXIW in this dynamic?

Aaron: I think that our album has a lot of organic instruments involved in it. I think that the move towards electronic music and maybe sometimes the false pretense that it’s more liberating is due in part to the internet and how people live and interact with each other.

I think people communicate through the computer and in a solitary fashion way more than they did, say, in the late 90s. The idea of a garage band and people having a garage to play loud music in is such a luxury these days. Whereas these days I think musicians or artists live in more of a solitary environment and use their computers for everything.

I really don’t believe in saying that electronic music is more a) experimental or b) liberating as they said. I think it always depends on what it sounds like or what the intent is or what the concept is. I think you can make incredible music with the guitar. We didn’t bury the guitar. I would disagree strongly with someone who would say that guitar is limiting or traditional off the bat.

As that pertains to our philosophy of WIXIW, we didn’t use much guitar or live drums and it wasn’t because we felt that they were sort of limiting. It was more out of excitement at having all these new instruments available to us.

BB: In other interviews, you guys mentioned isolating yourselves while recording. Do you find that that helps you guys? That it’s really important for you?

Aaron: Well, [drummer Julian Gross] is a little bit more social but Angus and I are pretty isolated people anyway. In terms of recording this record, we just tried not to listen to music or anything like that and tried to hole ourselves up. And it wasn’t with the intention of making something that we thought was uninfluenced or completely original. It was just to get what we were trying to express into the music in a pure way where it wasn’t influenced by another song immediately.

We’re happy to talk about songs if they sound like another band after the fact, but it makes us happier knowing that we didn’t intentionally dilute what we’re thinking or trying to do with another person’s idea. It’s not a criticism of how to make an album, it’s just what we did with this record and how we were feeling and I think we went to pretty great lengths just out of anxiety or doubt. We wanted to make sure we were making a record that came from us. I think we subject ourselves to situations that are above and beyond the call sometimes to do that. And again, I think that has to do with a degree of insecurity.

Liars, Cadence Weapon
July 5, 2012
Great American Music Hall