First published on 8 Mar 2013. Updated on 30 Apr 2013.
“Things always need to be calibrated and recalibrated,” Gareth Liddiard says of people’s perception of the world. Lyrically, he’s veered away from folklore and colonial history with I See Seaweed, the Drones’ sixth album, and turned his attention to the human condition. But while his outlook may run to bleak, he thinks you should just consider him the linesman in your vision of utopia. “It’s good there’s people out there to keep things on track, whether it’s in the case of the church thinking eventually Christ will return, or a communist believing that shit will work, or an anarchist wanting to go back to agricultural times and have communities where people can govern themselves. If you want to get that you’re gonna have to kill all the people who don’t want that. So how’s that going to work? It’s probably better to acknowledge: this is what we are.”
It’s a fertile period for the Melbourne band, who have in the past couple of months curated All Tomorrow’s Parties and supported Neil Young (“I leave them be,” is his ethos on meeting people like Young and Patti Smith, who the Drones have also played with. “It’s like with Nick Cave. My relationship with him is, ‘Can you pass that bottle opener?’”). Their self-released album should send them on a few orbits of Australia before they take off overseas again – they made Berlin their home for quite a spell and are renowned for touring countries into submission.
Presently, Liddiard and partner/bassist Fiona Kitschin are settled near Nagambie on some land with a few cottages dotted around that they share with friends. Previous recording sites have been atmospheric to say the least, including a mill (2006’s Gala Mill) and a mansion (Liddiard’s 2011 solo album Strange Tourist), but I See Seaweed was recorded in a 1960s demountable classroom ordered from a company in Kyneton that has this rather niche market sewn up. “It’s beautiful,” Liddiard corrects of our assumption that it could be comparatively sterile. “We renovated it all so it has a nice wooden floor with windows all down the sides. It’s our lounge room, too.”
As producer, Liddiard admires the roomy, boomy style of engineer Andy Johns, who worked on Zeppelin albums and the Stones’ Exile on Main Street. “Something like that, or Steve Albini – he’s kind of the opposite – he’s more modern. But the Andy Johns stuff, I read his interviews and they go, ‘How do you approach a mix?’ and he’s literally like, ‘I don’t know…you just fuck with it till it sounds good.’ You know what I mean? And that’s what it is.”
The album’s sonically more aggressive than previous releases, but this is tempered by an increase of vocals from Kitschin and the permanent addition of ivory-tinkler Stevie Hesketh (Jet, You Am I, Archie Roach). “I gave him a brief: ‘Keep it weird and stay away from the boogie woogie scales’,” says Liddiard. “I gave him a huge compilation of all the early twentieth century Bela Bartok kind of classical records, because they never play a normal note, you know?”
Being mentally and technically able to amble down the road of, say, Russian rock opera, if the desire so takes them, makes the Drones one of those bands that have earned the envy and respect of most others. And perhaps there may be a bit of anthropomorphisation and projection going on in the tale of ‘Laika’, the “stand-offish stray” launched alone into space, because Liddiard’s never modestly viewed the Drones as one of the pack. Spending his early twenties doing lighting and backline work at festivals meant he’d wind up watching bands side of stage, thinking: I can do this better. “I’ve always been competitive,” he confirms. “That helps.”
Used to being the underdog, the band were not prepared in 2005 for their sophomore album, Wait Long By the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By, to win the Australian Music Prize and make them the name everyone was dropping. “We were playing at the Corner and the publicist came in and went, ‘Wow, the place has sold out and there’s still a line around the corner’,” he recalls.
It was confronting for a “hostile, nasty little band” that was used to supporting the likes of You Am I and winding up those crowds. “Our whole shtick was everyone else was shit and we’re the best band in the world,” Liddiard laughs. “Then all of a sudden people were coming because they liked us and our old shtick had become obsolete. But this is entertainment and it’s a bit conceited to think otherwise.”
And another thing…
Liddiard’s off-topic observations are too good to miss.
On becoming a republic
“There’s no point becoming a republic, unless we went to war with the English, because it wouldn’t give us a sense of self that it did for the Americans. The Yanks kicked the English out in a violent way, but for us it would just be something on paper. There’d be no monumental event, so we’d still be in that existential funk. I’m a first generation Australian who was born here and grew up in London, so I’m allowed to trash the English.”
On the book everyone wants him to write
“I’m not writing a book! I write songs. I’m a minstrel. I do it in a framework. Prose is all this space and I don’t know what to do with that space. It’s like a guy coming out of solitary confinement and getting dumped in the middle of the Pilbara; he wouldn’t know which way to go.”
On his chewy vocal style
It was listening to Keith Morris, the original singer of Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, that first convinced him he could be a performer, even with his unconventional sound. “My vocal style hasn’t changed much over the years. It was always full-on, but I try to mumble less these days.”