When Liars’ second album dropped a couple of weeks ago, it didn’t quite receive the praise that their 2001 debut garnered. In fact, reviews this bad almost never happen in grocery store shelf tastemakers like Rolling Stone or Spin, especially in both at the same time.
But there’s a lot to be said about being made an example, especially when pan jobs like these are more about toeing editorial department lines than actually reviewing Liars’ brilliantly crafted concept album They Were Wrong, So We Drowned. While the record is undoubtedly a stylistic about-face, Rolling Stone’s one-star rating and Spin’s grade of “F” — as well as accusations that the band has “contempt” for its audience — are emblematic of something much more insidious than a few critics simply disliking a record. The pans could represent a couple of different things: a desire on the magazines’ part to declare the post-punk-heavy Williamsburg scene dead, or a sly way of calling attention to what might prove to be — in 10 years’ time — a landmark album.
Despite his band’s moniker, I believe frontman Angus Andrew when he says, in either case, he couldn’t care less. And it’s not just the band’s recorded output that’s had a facelift. Liars’ live shows, known to piss off some folks to the point that they demand their money back, have turned into Wolf Eyes-like orgies of noise and entropy, thinly threaded together with hints of conventional song structure and Andrew’s menacingly intense stage presence. It’s not their intention to lose fans, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll be hearing anything from the first record either.
“We’ve always looked at it as a responsibility to ourselves that if we wanna keep doing this, to keep it interesting it has to be honest. The press wants to put a spin on it, that we’re trying to diss on our fans or whatever by putting out a record that’s different, but the reality is much different,” Andrew intones in his thick Aussie accent, affected with only a faint strain of American colloquialism. “You can find music that we were playing a couple years ago still being played around now by bands. If you wanna see that, it’s still available.”
Without revealing any disdain for his no-wave revivalist peers, Andrew admits to being shocked by the quickness with which Liars were tagged with the “dance-punk” descriptor following their debut, They Threw Us All In a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top. Almost in protest, he and co-conspirator Aaron Hemphill decidedly killed off the old Liars before the fickle press had a chance to. Actually, the nihilistic thread runs through just about all of Liars’ work, even down to the cover art of the album’s first single, a plundered Einsturzende Neubauten graphic that now cheekily bears the paint of Liars-styled graf art.
“I just thought that what we were putting out was not exactly what we were capable of,” says Andrew. “A big part of it was that we’d been working with [bassist] Pat [Noecker] and [drummer] Ron [Albertson] for a while and it was working well except for the fact that we were interested in not using the bass and the drum patterns that Aaron was usually coming up with. So the departure with Pat and Ron was fairly amicable in the sense that they understood we were going to simplify what we wanted to do.”
Along with a directional change also came a geographical one after Andrew returned from Australia with girlfriend Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs: The couple decided to trade in the bristly bustle of Brooklyn and head out to the country to a two-bedroom house deep in the New Jersey woods.
When the Yeah Yeah Yeahs took to the road last spring, Andrew, Hemphill, and producer Dave Sitek set up shop in the basement and set out to turn the Liars’ sound on its ear. Andrew and Hemphill had been heavily immersed in witchy folklore and the regular night strolls through the forest outside added to the album’s pagan tone. Drowned’s biggest influence, however, came from the Internet, of all places. When Andrew accidentally Googled “Brocken Witch,” rather than “Broken Witch” — the proposed name of the disc’s first track — he was deluged with sites about Walpurgisnacht (a day of celebration that honors the Catholic saint and protectoress against witchcraft and sorcery Walburga, and the witch-hunts of Brocken, Germany.) Coincidentally, Walpurgisnacht was that very night. “That wealth of imagery … just sort of popped up. I walked in the other room and said, ‘I think we found what we need,’” he explains.
They Were Wrong, So We Drowned — the title itself a reference to the Catch 22-style trials by water that accused heretics faced centuries ago — examines the history of witch trials and their surrounding folklore from all sides of the tales. And while it may be a bit of a stretch, the very next day after Walpurgisnacht, American witch-hunters speciously declared an end to the war in Iraq. “You can see its application in the present,” Andrew says, indulging my somewhat tenuous theory. “Any good story has a good moral no matter what period it’s from.”
Liars are at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit) with Young People and Goldfish. Call 313-833-9700 for further information. Friday, March 19. Tickets are $10.E-mail Ken Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org