The Drones: "I'm not addicted to love"It’s a busy time for Melbourne rock band The Drones – or so I thought. When singer/guitarist Gareth Liddiard (main photo, far left) calls in early February, their sixth studio album I See Seaweed is less than a month away from release, and the second All Tomorrow’s Parties (ATP) festival to take place in Australia – curated by Liddiard and his bandmates – is but a fortnight away. Yet the singer is lazily strolling around at his home in the Victorian bush, oil can in hand, searching for strong mobile phone reception. A picture of calm.
I’m being slightly disingenuous in this depiction, of course. Late in our half-hour interview, it emerges that Liddiard’s had little time to himself lately. While their ATP curating duties have long since finished – judging by what I hear today, it seems there’s little more required of The Drones beyond showing up next weekend, shaking some hands, plugging in, and playing some songs – completing I See Seaweed has been a full-time concern of late.
It shows in the songs. I’ve played the eight-track album perhaps 25 times by the time Liddiard and I speak, and I’m convinced it’s a contender for their best yet. Our conversation contains in-depth discussion around songs that, at the time of writing, you won’t have heard. Album spoilers aside, Liddiard offers a typically expansive conversation that touches on space-bound canines, alternative ideas to programming festivals, The Drones’ newly-confirmed fifth member, and experimenting with topless photography.
The lyrical themes of I See Seaweed are as varied as ever; it seems that nothing’s out of bounds for you. How do you decide what to write about?
It’s more what not to write about. Some things are boring, and they’re done to death, so I steer clear of them, really.
Any sort of clichés. I don’t pick cotton; I’m not addicted to love. You know what I mean? Some things have been done before, so I try not to do that.
I’m just trying to think whether I’ve ever heard a Drones love song before. I don’t think I have.
There are love songs, but they’re not really obvious. It would be retarded if we did love songs, because I’d either get into trouble from the bass player [Fiona Kitschin, Liddiard’s partner] for being in love with someone who isn’t her, or if I wrote a love song about her, imagine me showing her the chords and telling her how to play it! That’s really wrong.
Point taken. You mentioned avoiding clichés; has that always been something you’ve aimed to do? Has this changed since [2002 debut album] Here Come The Lies?
I’ve always tried to avoid it, but I wasn’t always successful. I wasn’t always aware that some things were clichés. It’s self-awareness, that’s all. And being self-critical, I guess. Everyone has their blind spots, but you’ve got to work on those. Some people go, “check this out, man!” as if it’s some amazing thing, but they’ve just copied someone else. They have this enormous blind spot.
I think the best example for all that is something like American Idol, or Australian Idol. There’s some severe fuckin’ blind spots going on there; people who aren’t self-critical at all. They think they’re good at what they do, but they’re not. If they just rationalised it – or if they used rational thought – they would see where they’re going wrong. But often that’s painful to do.
I don’t find any clichés in your writing. Certainly not in the last few albums.
Like anyone, I fuck up. I just try. I like it; it’s fun. It’s interesting. It’s like science. I’m sure a lot of scientists would be a wee bit striking [in their approach] when they initially put their hypothesis out there. People shoot ‘em down. But I’m sure there’s a large part of them that would be excited to see where they went wrong.
It’s all about the truth; it’s getting close to the truth. They’re trying to find out what the hole is. I’m just trying to figure out what I’m capable of. I mean, I’ve got limits. I’m just using up everything within my limits to make music that’s interesting. Because I want to hear interesting music. That’s all that is.
Last year I asked you some questions about Dirty Three, and you said: “They made me realise that if you’re going to have words, they need a fucking good excuse to be there in the first place. They better be good, otherwise - why bother?” How much shit do you have to sort through, writing wise, before you find the gold?
Heaps. There’s a lot of embarrassing shit, but with the advent of computers, you can delete that now. I pretty much write everything on a computer, now. It’s good; I can delete all the garbage I have to wade through before I get good at writing again, after a break from writing. There’s plenty of crap. It’s pretty embarrassing.
Do you actually delete it, though? That surprises me. I thought you might keep that stuff, even just for future reference, so you know what you were writing at a particular point in time.
I used to [keep it], once upon a time, but I don’t bother anymore. You hold onto that stuff because you’re frightened that you might not be able to come up with anything ever again. But I’ve sat there, in front of a blank fucking screen enough times to know that eventually you come up with something. So yeah, it doesn’t bother me as much.
Where are you calling from? It’s kinda windy where you are.
I’m just trying to find a spot where there’s good reception. I’m walking around in the bush with an oil can that I’m gonna sit on. [laughs] Sorry.
You’re at home, then? [At Havilah, in rural Victoria]
Yeah. Hang on - in two secs I’ll be in a good spot. But yeah - ask me another question. [laughs]
What attracted you to writing ‘Laika’? [A song about the Soviet space dog; the first animal to orbit the Earth]
It’s a fascinating story. That thing is like an allegory for the lack of free will, in a philosophical, biological sense. You have inherent drives, inherent delusions, inherent fears, and inherent... all sorts of things that come with being human. Woodpeckers peck, and skunks smell; things like that. Anyway, on the most general scale you could think of, what happened to Laika is that evolutionary lack of free will. It’s rather convoluted.
The end result of her life on earth, up to when she died, was basically ejecting her from the place of origin of life. Everything worked up until that point, almost. She was rather seriously ejected by life itself. And you could say, “well, it’s not nature that ejected Laika, it’s people.” Well, people are nature, you know. As much as ants are nature. It’s not part of our choice. We don’t make a choice to go into outer space; it’s part of what humans do, we explore, as we did when we left Africa.
The whole thing is just really sad because she was born… she was a stray, so she didn’t have anyone there; then she was snatched up by the Russian space program, shot into outer space, and then left to die. It’s a crazy story. It actually happened.
You like dogs, don’t you.
Yeah, I love ‘em.
I know you have at least one - Max.
Oh, no, Max died about six months ago. I’ve got two more now. It’s their first birthday today, which is good. They’re little fox terriers. Our neighbours have fox terriers. I never thought I’d have a fox terrier; it’s one of those weird looking terriers with a skinny head for sticking down rabbit holes. I’ve never been a pedigree guy, but yeah. Now I am, all of a sudden!
Tell me about the string section and choir in ‘Laika’. At what point did they enter the picture?
That one... it doesn’t often happen that I collaborate with someone, but Dan [Luscombe, guitarist] came up with the melody pretty much. [He briefly mimics guitar melody.] I added the rest, and made it into a song using what was there, and adding a bit more, but it popped its head up and got a look-in because... I dunno, I listen to a lot of Russian stuff. Shostakovich. Prokofiev. Stravinsky, blah blah blah. I thought it just suited the whole thing.
Originally that song was called ‘Angry Hans Christian Andersen’. It was heading in the way of an allegory, a little child’s’ tale, hence the children in it. The “white dwarves”, and “dim companions”; white dwarves are the dying stars, and they have dim companions like a teacher has students... blah blah blah.
The album title is a bit of an ugly duckling as far as the rest of your catalogue is concerned - it almost seems playful compared to the others.
It was just the first line of... the first song. What’s that called? [laughs]
‘I See Seaweed’.
Well, there you go. It’s just the first line, and it made sense. There were other [ideas], but they were kinda just normal. It’s weird; it doesn’t sound like an album title. It shouldn’t be an album title. So we stuck with that.
I don’t understand the first line. [“I see seaweed on the lawn / There’s nobody coming here no more”]
Well, if you lived in Vanuatu, or Fiji, you’d get that.
Ah, so it’s about rising tides, then.
Yeah, well kind of. The whole [song] is a big bad dream full of ‘modern fluff’.
There’s a nice moment of breakneck noise-rock in ‘A Moat You Can Stand In’, which reminds me of Here Come The Lies, but for the most part you’re steering clear of that sound. Is that because you’re all getting bored of that style of songwriting?
No, not really. I like listening to things like that. I wouldn’t say we’re bored of it; it just gets harder in your old age to play that fast [laughs]. We do what we do mainly because we enjoy it. If you had a whole album full of songs like that, you’d stop enjoying it, because it’s just hard fuckin’ work, really. We still love doing that, but not all the time.
It’s nice to hear Fiona’s voice again on a few of the tracks, particularly ‘Nine Eyes’. Is she a reticent singer?
Yeah, she can be. She’s not one to love the limelight. She’s cool with backing vocals, and I think female backing vocals offset my voice, and the sound of it. This time... we live with Amanda Roff, who sings with Fi on everything. She’s one of the three girls from the band Harmony. They did everything together, and Fi enjoyed that more than she usually would, I think. Just because she had a mate in there with her.
Did [keyboardist] Steve Hesketh sit in on the songwriting sessions, or were his parts added later?
No, he was there pretty much from the get-go. It’s like any Drones album; I write all the songs, then go in, and everyone figures out what they’re going to do in those songs. He was there. It was a process of him not doing major/minor kind of fuckin’ same old, same old rock and roll thing. We said “let’s not do that; let’s go augmented, and diminished” blah blah blah.
I listen to more Debussy, or Béla Bartók; shit like that, 20th century piano stuff. The birth of rebel music, you know? They started using their imaginations, and then came jazz. We went down that track. Anything Steve did had to steer clear of Chuck Berry, "go more with Béla Bartók", or something like that. Yeah, Steve was there from the get-go.
I know he has a long history with the band, but I’m guessing you kept him around for this record because of what he added to the 2011 tour around the DVD [A Thousand Mistakes]?
Yeah, for sure. We’ve played with him live heaps, but never as a permanent thing. He’s great. He can do all sorts of different things, and he’s just really fun to be around. That’s the main thing with a band: if you can’t get on, then why bother?
Steve is appearing in the band promo photos now - he’s a full-time member?
He is, yeah. He’s a full-timer. It’s different now. If we go overseas, I’m not sure what he can do, or if he’s available for that. But he’s in the band. He might be able to do some things, not others. It’s a loose thing. But then I always thought, if I listened back to Wait Long By The River or The Miller’s Daughter, he’s on that. He’s in that, so he’s part of the band.
Tell me about your relationship with Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.
Umm... how did you know that existed?
Well, The World According To Gaz by Andrew Ramadge [a 10,000 word ‘online novella’ which describes Ramadge’s weekend with Liddiard, while he finished recording Strange Tourist] has a few photos in it, and in one of the photos, that book is front and centre.
Ah, okay. Yeah, it’s a good book. It’s got lots of weird, left-of-field stuff. If you’re stuck for ideas, you can open it up. Once you’re sick of making stuff up... all making stuff up is making connections, really. Generally your mind will get good at that during the writing and creation of an album.
That’s a great book; you can flick to any page, and within five minutes, you’ll find something that will connect to something else that you’ve already got in a song.
Is that where you found Blondin? [A song from Liddiard’s 2010 solo album Strange Tourist was called ‘Blondin Makes An Omelette’. It’s about a 19th century French tightrope walker and acrobat, Charles Blondin.]
I don’t think so. I can’t remember where I found that, but it wasn’t in there.
What did you think of The World According To Gaz?
I haven’t read it. [laughs] I dunno. I wouldn’t want to read it. It’s too weird. I occasionally read a review, or an interview, but... yeah, I haven’t done that one. It’s a bit much, really. Nothing against Andy; nothing against the Rama-dama-dage. He’s a lovely chap.
He’s written the band bio this time around, so you must be on speaking terms, at least.
Oh, yeah [laughs]. I’ve heard from people that it’s cool. But I dunno. It’s not somewhere I’d want to go, really.
There was a band promo photo a few years ago where you’re shirtless - what happened there?
I dunno. It was just something I hadn’t explored in a promo pic before [laughs]. All those pictures were taken by Karl Scullin, who plays in Bushwalking, Kes Band; he’s a weird guy, and he pushes you in a weird way. So I thought I’d give the band a big, nude hug. Which was... cool.
Yeah, by 25% of the band [laughs].
Tell me about ATP. What are your hopes and expectations for next weekend?
I just hope people enjoy it, really. The main thing, and I think one of the things that people aren’t quite cottoning onto, is that it’s not about anybody putting on a band that’s popular. It’s not a Big Day Out thing, where they’ll put the Red Hot Chili Peppers on and therefore bring people who’ve heard the Red Hot Chili Peppers a million times, to see them. It’s about... I mean, if you haven’t heard of [German industrial band, Einstürzende] Neubauten, for instance, that’s the reason you should go. It’s not the other way around, you know what I mean?
The reason there’s a curator is because... I don’t want to say expert, but... if you were gonna curate an art gallery, then you’d want someone like an artist, or someone involved heavily in the visual arts [to curate]. If it’s a music festival, you’d get someone heavily involved [with music] because they probably know stuff you don’t, basically. That’s what ATP is. If Steve Albini is [curating], and you don’t know any of the bands he’s put on, you should still go because he knows they’re good, and he wants to open you up to new stuff. So I hope people get that. I think that’s a new thing.
It’s having trust in the curator, essentially.
Yeah, and going to see something you don’t know, rather than going to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers again. I think that’s a new idea in Australia, although it’s ten years old everywhere else.
How invested are you in the outcome? If it all falls in a heap, is Barry [Hogan, ATP founder] gonna yell at you?
No. I mean, we just choose the bands, and that’s it. We don’t do anything else. They’ve had huge successes, and huge failures, and I don’t think Barry’s gonna act differently either way.
When I last interviewed you for TheVine, in April 2010, I asked about the possibility of The Drones curating ATP. At the time you were dubious as to whether they’d do another one here. I take it you’re pleased that it’s going ahead?
Yeah, I am. It’s a shame that it’s not on Mount Buller, but this Altona thing... don’t judge a book by its cover. It’s like this fuckin’ massive wedding reception-slash-sports centre, but if you were kidnapped, blindfolded, brought there, then un-blindfolded, you wouldn’t know that what it was. We’re gonna make it pretty weird. [laughs]
Give us your recommendations for the weekend. Who are your personal must-see acts?
It’ll be good to see Crime & The City Solution, because they haven’t played for a long, long time, and they’re one of the great Australian bands. For some weird reason, no-one’s ever heard of them. They had everything going for them, and then somehow, luck didn’t come to the party. I’m looking forward to seeing them.
And then Neubauten, really, for me. We’ve played with them before, but they’re just... it’s hard to explain. They’re so good it’s not funny. I think they’d make an impression on anybody, whether you’re into My Bloody Valentine, or into Neubauten. They’re fuckin’ insane.
Einstürzende Neubauten have obviously been a huge influence on you. I wondered - were you wearing a long-sleeve shirt when you first met them, so you didn’t come across as just another fanboy? [Gareth has a tattoo of the Neubauten band logo on his inner left wrist.]
I don’t know. I can’t remember [laughs]. It was in England, so I was probably wearing something like that. I’m sure they know, “that’s that idiot with the fuckin’ tattoo,” but I’m not alone in being that idiot. They’d be used to it by now.
What’s your favourite Neubauten album?
Well, I started on their early stuff, because that’s what was around when I was getting into them. They’ve evolved more than most bands. Their original stuff is really hostile, really strange. Now, it’s less hostile; they’re not pretending to be in their 20s, or whatever, and on crystal meth. They’ve grown up. They’re in their 50s. They’re like Leonard Cohen, or something. Somehow they’ve turned this incredible, strange mountain, a tsunami of fuckin’ whatever it is, into this thing that works: four guys that are that age. It’s quite moving. I mean, any music of theirs is incredible.
What else has been occupying you lately? Have you been recording anyone?
No, we’ve just been finishing the album. That’s been pretty much full-time. I haven’t had time to do anything else.
Andrew McMillen (@NiteShok)
I'LL BE YOUR MIRROR MELBOURNE curated by ATP & The Drones http://www.atpfestival.com/events/australia2013.php
February 16th & 17th 2013 from Midday
Westgate Entertainment Centre and Grand Star Reception, Altona, Melbourne, Victoria
Weekend passes sold out – only Sunday passes still available.
I See Seaweed by The Drones is released 1 March 2013 via MGM Distribution. http://thedrones.com.au/