“The world is an awful place. That’s what kept the USA in charge for fuckin’ 75 years. And now Trump’s going to throw that all away. It’s scary, scary times.”
“The world is an awful place.” There’s no malice or fear in Gareth Liddiard’s voice. It’s not even a declaration, it’s just a passing, accepted fact. For the man who’s fronted two of the 21st century’s scuzziest rock bands, Liddiard appears thoughtful, relaxed, his melancholy offset by a wonky, charming humor.
But on record, Liddiard is a firebreather, a furious tornado of noise and political rage. When he and long term partner in crime Fiona Kitschin put Aussie rock institution The Drones on hiatus, they got even weirder with their next project. Tropical Fuck Storm isn’t just a pretty name. Their debut, A Laughing Death in Meatspace, is boiling with anger, loping on crazed beats, apocalyptic visions and sickening guitars. As re-introductions go, it’s one of the finest rock albums of the decade. We sat down with Liddiard and discussed Ice-T, Sun Kil Moon, American imperialism, Artificial Intelligence and how the end times won’t be like the movies.
The creation of Tropical Fuck Storm felt like a trial by fire sort of thing. Finding other band members, not having all the songs, creating the album in eight months. For me the album feels very frenetic. Did that short recording time impact those feelings?
Yeah, it was all done in a rush. We were trying to figure out what each of us were meant to be doing while we were doing it. Figure out our internal modus operandi. Yeah, it was weird. Mad experimentation really, at the same time trying to keep it groovy and succinct. Trying to figure out what kind of weird angle can each of us fit. Everything was written fast, it was deliberately written not to be as long winded as shit we’ve done in the past like with Drones, which is super heavy, super fucking weird, every song is two hours long kind of vibe. It was a good way to make a record. We didn’t have much time to reflect which is good. We just banged everything out and got on the road.
That’s interesting because the first thing I noticed with the record is how fucked up some of the rhythms are. Especially “The Future of History” feels so stop-start, herky-jerky. I wonder how you’re jamming over this, but if you’re not thinking about it, it’s easier.
Yeah, we’d jam then record some drums, put it in ProTools, chop it up or loop a little section and then get the most unlikely sort of beat. One that a human rock drummer wouldn’t normally default to. And then choose that. Get away from that four on the floor, classic John Bonham mimes “When the Levee Breaks”. That was pretty much how we did it. It’s gotta be groovy. If we were doing this and it wasn’t groovy, it’d be fucking torture.
My introduction to the album was “You Let My Tyres Down” which feels much more intimate than the other stories on the album. Why did you choose that as the start of the record and where did it come from?
When you’re writing stuff, it’s a desperate struggle to get something on paper. Beggars can’t be choosers. I don’t know why I come up with a certain song at a certain time. But that song, the positioning of it, it’s the most “normal” song I suppose? Though it goes off the rails at the end. So it’s a good intro to the album, one of the other tunes could be too weird too soon. It just helped with the arch with the story. It kinda goes banana which leads into the rest of the album which is all pretty bonkers.
If you actually write down the shit that’s happened in your life, like weird events, you find your life is a lot less boring than you thought. That shit was a small handful of things I’ve been through personally. But if you ask me about my life, I’d say “I don’t know, nothing ever fucking happens.” And if someone else came up to me and said, “I’ve been to prison!” I’d be like, “Wow that’s exotic.” But then, I personally haven’t been to prison, but half my fucking family has. But it never registers to me. Everything that happens to you seems so dull. Just because it happens to you.
Your day- to-day, you become so used to it that no matter what you just say, “it’s whatever.”
Yeah, it’s just mundane. You’d be terrified if someone wrote a fucking book or a movie about you. But you’d probably be pleasantly surprised at the result. “Oh, when you condense all the exciting bits down, I actually seem to be interesting.”
My favorite song on the album is “Soft Power,” where you recorded half of the video in Arkansas and were accosted by rednecks. Was the second half of that video shot after that?
That’s after, when we got home. That’s us at our house. The song is about cultural-imperialism-done-quietly kinda vibe. So I had my Boy Scouts of America shirt on. And a “Kum and Go” There’s that fucking gas station in the Midwest called “Kum and Go” had that hat on. I had my Americana on that day and my shotgun. That’s the soft power effect.
On the musical side, that song rises and rises and gets crazier until it just cuts out with you mid-scream and goes into a much quieter section. How’d you map that out?
I don’t know, it just had to go somewhere and it couldn’t go up any more. A lot of the stuff was done with happy accidents. That’s how we played it. We just had to figure it out from there. We had to do the second bit separately obviously. And yeah, I don’t know why it ended up like that. I can hardly remember doing it. I just remember the bass line was cool ‘cause it sounded like an Ice-T song called “Colors” which was a huge hit about 1986 or ‘7. I remember seeing it on TV and thinking “Holy shit, what the fuck is this?” It was the heaviest thing I’d ever seen, heaviest music I’d ever heard. The music video that accompanied the movie—it wasn’t Boyz ’N the Hood—it was a movie called Colors! About cops in Compton.
Yeah I remember going, “Oh that’s a good bass line, reminds me of that.” It was quick after that, we just recorded that song, fuck knows how we figured out that cut off bit.
And then the lyrics about a fading America.
Yeah, there’s that then—you know America is the cop of the world. Or the boss of the world since War World II. A lot of people go “Fuck America, fuck them, they’re in charge.” Thing is, you’re not perfect but, ok would you prefer to have China in charge? Or Saudi Arabia? Or Russia? Or—you know? It’s the least of a bunch of fucked options, having the US in charge. Mainly what the end part of that song is about, “Bye-bye scarecrow” it’s taken from The Wizard of Oz but the scarecrow is the USA. Scarecrows are useful, they’re not perfect, but they’re fucking better than a lot of other options. That’s what that end bit is, we’re gonna miss you more than you miss us. With Trump, turning inwards, turning the country inwards and abandoning the rest of us to China and Russia. That’s the scariest thing, that frightens me more than Trump starting a nuclear war with North Korea or whatever. It’s more just being abandoned to fucking Russia. Russia would have us if they could. Only reason they didn’t turn the west into a bunch of communists is because we nuked Japan. We didn’t nuke Japan because we wanted to necessarily finish their war, we were showing Russia what we could do. It’s awful. The world is an awful place. That’s what kept the USA in charge for fuckin’ 75 years. And now Trump’s going to throw that all away. It’s scary, scary times.
Going onto one of the other stories on this album. Did you keep up with the World Chess Championships?
No I only caught a little glimpse that somebody won and somebody lost.
I found it interesting listening to this album and watching those matches because chess isn’t a pointless endeavor, but it’s almost more of an artistic endeavor now because we’ve built these machines that can beat all of us in things we once thought were humans only.
Yeah, I see your point. There’s that danger with the A.I. just making us redundant. I don’t think it would do any Terminator shit and wipe us out, I think it would just make us redundant. Like if you built a time machine and you grabbed someone from 1819 and you threw them in the time machine and dragged them back here and took them for a walk in the country. If they saw a horse in a paddock, standing under a tree, doing nothing they’d be like, “What the fuck is that horse doing?” And you’d be like, “What?” “What is that horse just standing there for?” Because for them a horse is meant to be pulling a cart or plowing a field or running around with someone on its back. But the car made the horse redundant. That horse under the tree in the paddock, that’s potentially humanity’s future. Computers will do that to us. And it’s not the worst fate standing under a tree in a beautiful place, but it’s a bit fucking pointless. That could be us. Just like the chess game, what’s the fucking point of doing that? laughs
That works into “Antimatter Animals,” which I thought dealt with coming to terms with being forgotten. And being made redundant, that’s really forgotten.
Yeah, that’s potentially where we’re headed. And part of that song “The Future of History” is these are real concerns for me and a lot of people have obviously. But there’s a tongue in cheek element. I do see doomsayers talking about A.I. that this thing we’ve created will destroy us. There is a conceit in that, I find. We are a bit full of ourselves if we think we can build a god which will just fuckin’ smote us. It’s classic human behavior to think we can destroy ourselves with our own creations.
Have to make everything cinematic.
Yeah, it definitely won’t be cinematic if we’re wiped out or lose the race to A.I. it’ll be the most mundane shit you’ve ever seen. The A.I. thing there won’t be malice, it’ll just ignore us to death. It won’t even acknowledge our existence. At least Terminator has malice. At least Donald Trump… he’s barely got a soul, but he’ll have the human touch.
Did you feel like expressing all this darkness was cathartic or did it become poisonous?
Yeah, there’s a catharsis and the poisonous thing can be remedied with a bit of humor, black humor. There’s definitely a catharsis and it comes from a genuine place. There are bands with great lives who write depressing shit and it’s never very convincing. But where we came from is a bit different, a bit more fucked up. If you listen to the Drones you might go, “Wow, these people are a fucking drag,” but we had a rough time when we were young. We all had funny upbringings. We’re all just maniac depressive sort, but we’ve managed to work through that I think using the catharsis of music and black humor.
It brings me back to the line on “You Let My Tyres Down” “I snorted half a gram of Australia’s finest home-made coke.” You know, “finest home-made” is not a set of adjectives you usually have in front of coke. It does paint a “what the hell” sort of picture.
I think Australians really like that line too. We grew up in Perth which is like a really small version of San Diego. Many times more remote, like Honolulu-level remoteness. And there’s nothing to do apart from surf but you have to be able to punch on really good because the surfers are just thugs. You end up just falling into groups of people who do a lot of home-made coke or speed or smack or burgling houses and fuckin’…by the time we left, we had to leave. Everything was just in ruins. Everyone was dying or going to prison or just becoming fucking losers. When there’s nothing to do, bad things happen. What’s that… idle hands do the devil’s work? So we moved to Melbourne, it’s much better. A city where there’s a culture. A city that doesn’t ignore you to death.
Like the A.I.
When I was first writing about this album, I thought it was like a Twitter feed being directly plugged into your mind. Not just that you can see everything in your world, but everything else everyone is doing at all times. All the bad, all the good, you start comparing yourself.
God knows what it would be like growing up being completely normalized to something like Twitter. The world like that, it’s so strange to be connected to just the most fucking superficial parts of people’s psyches, their age or vanity or all these fucking weird primal things. The need to be accepted and validation. Those are the things most evident online, I find. And they’re the things you should avoid the most. They’re so undignified. laughs The internet is fucking weird.
People of my generation are very used to constant surveillance not just from the state but from each other.
I find that—I was talking to someone recently about that. I get shat off by people younger than me judging each other so harshly all the time. Just trying to be morally superior to everybody else. That’s definitely not a good trait and doesn’t endear you to anybody. If you want to win something you have to endear yourself to it and its participants. You don’t just crush them, unless you’re dropping a fucking atomic bomb on them. Which people aren’t doing. I don’t know, they’re on a war footing on Twitter the most extreme parts of it. And yet they’re not prepared to go to war. I find that fucking weird. And on the flip side, I have lots of younger friends that have what you just said about surveillance. The anxiety is just so high, they just cry when they’re talking about it. Feeling like they can’t say anything, so constricted in their social movements, they don’t want to be outed for some tiny misdemeanor, destroyed completely fucking out of proportion way. It’s like torture. This constant Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. I feel bad for them.
It does seem like Facebook either presents us at our best or our angriest.
There’s nothing in between, which is where we all live really. That little grey area. That’s inside our minds, that’s our scenery. No one’s perfect. And that’s the beauty, the beauty of humanity. It’s why puppies are beautiful. They’re cute and adorable but they’re dopey little fucks. They’re not perfect.
That brings me to the line “The day you’ve got nothing to say is the day I check your pulse.” For Americans, there’s a constant need to talk. Americans abroad are 20 decibels louder than anyone else, our restaurants have to be blasting music. I found that an interesting line because it’s like “Are you alive if you’re not making noise, because making noise has become a part of your being.”
Yeah, and the whole you’re required to have an opinion on absolutely everything. Which is just fucking stupid. I remember once upon a time you’d say “What do you think about what’s happening in the Senate?” And now you have to say “Well, I think” you have to give your take on it. Once upon a time you could say “I have no idea how the Senate works. That’s not my bag, sorry. I don’t have an opinion on that.” You don’t hear that any more. Everyone has to voice an opinion about everything, even when they’re completely unqualified. And then they put it out into the internet and there’s all this bullshit information out there made by people who don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. It’s crazy.
Yeah, Americans, they’re very friendly. Which is great! But I wonder where that comes from, is that as genuine as it seems or is there an anxiety where you become quiet and you don’t exist. But the upside of Americans, compared to other English speaker is, you have a warmth that we don’t have. Australia is just a farm for England. It’s an outpost, we can dig up iron ore and grow sheep and cattle and send it to England. And England has a rod up its ass. But then America, you were founded on religiously persecuted people running away go to America to be safe. It’s bizarre you might have mass shootings but you also have an enormous warmth and a really good way of engaging with your fellow human beings. Whereas we don’t engage. The rest of us Anglos don’t engage with each other very well. Isn’t that weird?
On the music side of things, I wanted to ask about the contrast on “Two Afternoons.” It’s another song with a weird change. The choruses are beautiful and come out of nowhere. For recording the vocals was there a different process or was it more off the cuff?
It was a song we were already playing live so we kind of knew how to play it. It was just about making the chorus as much of a contrast to the rest of the song as we could. The nuts and bolts stuff— that’s a Beatles thing, a classic Beatles thing. Here is the verse, then there’s middle eight and the chorus. And each of those pieces need to be so different from one another that we’ll literally record them completely separate from one another. On a different day in a different place. And the only thing we’d have in mind would be the tempo, it would be the only common thing.
I wanted to ask about some of the political and geographic things in “Rubber Bullies” mentioning all this stuff happening in Brazil.
My dad grew up in Rio, he was born in Rio. My best friend who was in the Drones, he grew up in Rio. My grandma comes from Buenos Aires. They’re all English, but English migrants to Brazil. There’s a lot of Rio in me in a way. And we went there last year and hung out for a bit. It’s a city that’s part of my family story. It has an effect on me. And plus it’s fucking Rio de Janeiro, it’s a wild city. If you don’t have a reaction to it, it’s because you just got fucking shot. It’s all just subconscious stuff. I really haven’t had time to reflect on that, or any of the songs really that much. Because you generally write stuff and, as long as it doesn’t sound like a bunch of stupid teenaged poetry, it will go into the song. Generally you’re writing lyrics because you need them and you need them now. I just check to see that they’re not corny or I check that they kind of make a little bit of sense, that they go from A to B. And I check that none of my bandmates are fucking cringing at me. And that’s about it and I don’t look for the deeper meaning. It could be two weeks or two years later or a decade later I see a little aspect of it in a different light. And I’ll go, “Wow, fuck I was writing about that and I didn’t even know it.” It was almost automatic. And that can be quite weird. You’re putting parts of yourself out there, quite obviously on display, that you wouldn’t if you’d given it a second thought. But I never get that second to think. So “Rubber Bullies” probably has a lot of shit that’s personal, but I haven’t gotten around to figuring out.
That puts it in an interesting context. Considering the political tones on the album there’s definitely a feeling that you were at a desk, slaving over the lyrics.
I used to do that, but it’s more like a hip-hop thing now. Just get the lyrics out. Or like someone like Mark Kozelek from Sun Kil Moon, he does something similar. Have you heard any of his recent stuff? It’s fucking insane. It’s all about nothing, you go “this guy’s not singing about anything” but then he’s singing about more shit than any other white person is. It’s about everything and nothing like “Seinfeld” or something.