The Abandonment of Self
by Luke Winkie

Liars have been, over the last 10 years, once of the most innovative rock bands America has produced. Throughout their five albums, their sound has undergone so many mutations and stylistic changes they make other bands look lazy. Their latest effort, Sisterworld, is no different. It abandons the fuzzy sheen of their 2007 self-titled record and replaces it with a pummeling, introspective layer of white-knuckle tension. It’s already creeping into future top 10 lists.

I recently caught up with drummer Julian Gross by phone, and we discussed South By Southwest, Los Angeles, Tom Biller (the album’s producer), and not feeling comfortable in your own skin.

So what have you guys been up to lately?

Julian Gross: Well, right now I’m at our practice space. We’ve been practicing a lot.

Where do you guys practice?

JG: In downtown Los Angeles, pretty much in the heart of downtown. We’ve got a little practice space here that we’ve had for a really long time. We’ve been going in on the daily and going through the set three or four times.

Making sure everyone’s all tightened up?

JG: Seriously. Still, no matter how much you practice, the difference between playing the songs better in a rehearsal space and being on tour for a month is just a whole different ball game.

Do you just hate the grind of touring all together, or is it like a love-hate thing?

JG: Definitely a love-hate thing. (laughs)

Do you guys focus at all on writing music while on tour?

JG: Not really. There’s not much new stuff on tour, and if there is, it’s just a little bit with people in their own hotel room. There’s really just not a lot of time for that. When we’re on tour, we’re on tour. In the past, we’ve written songs for the live set, but now we have so many songs in our catalog that we don’t really need to write songs like that anymore. And when there’s time off, you just kind of want to sit in your hotel room and smoke pot, if you got it, and watch a movie, to just feel normal for a second.

You mentioned that you’re practicing in LA. Obviously you originated there, but you’ve recorded in Berlin and were based out of New York for a while. What exactly called you back to LA?

JG: Aaron (guitarist Aaron Hemphill) and I were born and raised in Los Angeles, so for us it’s family, friends, home... it’s like “this is where we grew up.” So there’s that comfortable feeling, whatever it is about your hometown that makes you feel good, that’s part of it. All three of us met here in art school 10 years ago, and it’s also just been great to have all of us in the same city. It makes it a lot easier and a lot more fun to be around each other to work and to be friends and hang out at the same time instead of just having it a one-sided sort of talking just for work because we’re far away.

How was South By Southwest for you guys? Any fun stories?

JG: Oh man, just like...

A dream come true?

JG: Or nightmare come true!

Wow, what happened?

JG: Well, it’s an interesting sort of thing. I don’t know how much South By Southwest has to do with the actual music being played. How much is about the music? We played what we thought was a really bad show and the response was that it was really great.

That’s a good thing, I would assume.

JG: It is, but it’s just bizarre when you know that that wasn’t your best. What does that mean, you know? It’s fine, but in a festival situation it’s kind of like an assembly line of sorts. You’re pushed in, pushed out. There’s no soundcheck, they wheel the drums in, then they wheel you off.

Very rushed?

JG: It’s super rushed. I mean, there’s no soundcheck, the bass amp breaks on the first song, the DIs are going bad—all those worst case scenarios happen, which is sort of good to get out of your hair, but it’s also difficult. We were pretty bummed about it until we were talking to other bands, and they were like, “Oh yeah, that’s just what happens.”

Let’s talk about the new album, Sisterworld. You guys have said that “it explores the underground support systems created to deal with loss of self to society.” Care to elaborate on that a little?

JG: It’s like that feeling when you’re not... sometimes I’m not comfortable with myself. I don’t maybe want to be in me anymore. It’s the idea of escaping you, into this other place.

External you or internal you? Is it a change of who you are in terms of where you live, who you know and what you do, or is it more a change of personality and a complete abandonment of what you’ve built yourself up to be?

JG: There’s no specific rules or set language or set ideas for it. The idea of Sisterworld is that place, and that place could be pulling your covers over your head and trying to go to sleep. Or it could be reading a book, or going to Big Sur by yourself and living there for a week. It’s this idea of an alternate reality and alternate spaces that people need to create for themselves to sometimes feel sane, or even just the idea of wanting to escape and wanting to leave and all those things that go with it.

So do you want to live in Sisterworld?

JG: Yeah. I mean, I want to escape myself every single day.

So it doesn’t really have a negative connotation then? You could see it as a positive thing.

JG: Oh yeah, definitely. It’s like trying to find a positive out of a negative.

Tell me about Tom Biller. How did you guys meet and what sort of impact did he have on the album?

JG: We met him when he was doing the Where the Wild Things Are soundtrack, and we really liked him. We liked how he worked with everybody. He seemed like a good, easy guy, and what we knew is that he would be able to work with us the way we work. We’re not a band that goes into the studio for four days and bangs it out and we’re done. We’re more all over the place, and we knew that he could facilitate that.

So you didn’t feel rushed or that you were wasting his time?

JG: Yeah, we told him what we wanted, what we needed, and how long we were thinking about working on it. We also knew that he had connections in Los Angeles and knew lots of people. If we wanted to put strings on it, then he would know what string players to get for us. That was another thing that was really big: being able to enable us to do what we wanted to do and understand it. We had German engineers on the last two records and sometimes the actual communication part was really difficult.

The last two records, Drums Not Dead and the self-titled album, came out in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Has it been nice to take a three-year pause between releases?

JG: It has. We did a year and a half of touring for the Liars record. It came out at the end of ’07 and we started touring in 2008, so we did this record in a year, which is probably the longest time we’ve taken to do a record. I think we loved being able to work on it for that long.

Do you think you’re going to try to recreate that pace for future albums?

JG: I think so. It worked, and we all enjoyed the process of being able to take our time. The problem is you could take forever. I mean, you could keep on going and going and going. But we liked the way that this worked more than making the previous record, where we really rushed it. We turned that record out so fast. That was like, “Let’s try and get this record out within a year.”

It seems that your sound changes a lot between records. There’s a lot of innovation and recreation between releases. Do you feel pressured or that you’re expected to constantly innovate and change your sound or is it something that just naturally occurs for you?

JG: That would just be something natural, something that we put in ourselves.

It’s not something like, “We need to change our sound or else people are going to get tired of it”?

JG: Right, we’ll get tired of doing the same thing. It keeps it interesting for ourselves. It keeps it scary, to do things that are out of the comfort zone, out of our element, so you have to struggle a little bit more and work hard to come up with the answers. And to try to follow what anyone else thinks is only going to lead you down a dark road that’s not going to work because you’re going against what you want and you’re not thinking about yourself. There’s no way to predict what other people want, so all we can do is try to make it fun and interesting for us. It’s like life: you learn more with each year about yourself, about things that you’re interested in. Influences pop up—whether it’s a reality show or a record—and they all help in the process of creating that final thing.