A conversation with Julian Gross
Interview by Adam McKibbin
Photograph by Steve Gullick
Drum’s Not Dead has the feel of an event album, even if it won’t register as much of an event on radios and televisions. For their third full-length, Liars cast off expectations (again) and go off to alternately tribal, forbidding, funny, confounding, and—most bizarrely of all—pretty places. To these ears, it’s the most exciting thing to happen musically so far in 2006.
Once the listener has explored the nooks and crannies of the audio, there is a DVD waiting with three video interpretations of the album—one each by band members Julian Gross and Angus Andrew, and another by filmmaker Markus Wambsganss.
In an engaging conversation with The Red Alert, Gross discussed the processes (both musical and visual) behind Drum’s Not Dead, the evolution of the Liars live show, the band’s prolific songwriting habits, and lots more - including his thoughts on a series of incendiary, largely unseen documentaries.
How much of an impact did geography and surroundings have on Drum’s Not Dead? Did relocating to Berlin have an impact, or is the music kind of divorced from the environment?
It’s fairly divorced from the environment. It wasn’t an inspiration of Berlin that created the music behind the record. It was more that Berlin enabled us to spend more time on it; we were able to go and record in a really nice studio, and to live here for really cheap. It helped us more with living, with being comfortable with doing things kind of slow.
That’s a contrast to New York, for sure.
(laughs) Yes, exactly. This would have been crazy to do there – the price difference would be a couple zeroes. It’s easy to live here in Berlin.
Most bands will claim that they pay no attention to the press or to the fans—or at least that their music isn’t affected by them. But I know Angus has said in the past that the band’s sound actually has been shaped by reacting against some of the pigeonholing that people were doing. Is that true? Did that hold true for this record?
It’s never been a reaction too much against somebody, like we’re going to consciously make a record that doesn’t have a house beat or something like that. But you pay attention to the press and their critiques, because it’s always interesting to see how people perceive it. But it’s never been a middle finger to anybody, we’ve never tried to alienate anybody or piss anybody off.
Several years ago, there was certainly some talk that placed you guys at the front of a movement—a New York City post-punk movement, with all these magically like-minded bands! How much backlash did you get when you skipped out on that parade?
Well, it’s interesting. To us, it brings up this idea of change and how people interpret that. Sometimes the backlash is more because people think we’re trying to be assholes, like “Fuck you and your basslines!” (laughs) But it’s never like that at all. The pigeonholing is interesting because it’s never the bands that do that, who group together and create a scene. It’s press and media and other people wanting to put things into categories and put ‘em on a shelf so there’s a name for it. It’s not a bad thing, but that’s what happens, and it happens outside of the bands.
Is it right that this album began in visual form?
Yeah. We came up with this idea right after we finished the Drowned record. We were like, “We have all these leftover songs that we’re not going to use. Why don’t we compile those, put some stuff on it, and make a video of it to release as a DVD?” It sounded great, and then it kept changing. Let’s put this song on it! It kept getting bigger. Then it was going to be about the new EU opening up, Estonia and all these places, and we were going to tour through there, document everything, and that would be the visuals for the record. But the record still wasn’t good enough, and arguments came in like “Is this your third record or is this a DVD?” So we just kept on making new songs.
Ideally, should a listener dig into the music first? Are the videos supplemental or are they closer to an equal partner?
The music is first. I would say that it’s definitely about the music first. The DVD is just another way of offering more—to make more stuff. The video is 5.1—that’s kind of cool.
For sure. Well, a lot of times those companion DVDs are pretty throwaway—either just a straight live show or, worse, just hacked-together, hastily-assembled crap.
Yeah, with like a weird Quicktime video, totally. You can do so much more. We hate the idea of being lazy about something. We asked Mute, “Hey, we want to do a DVD with this. Can we do a DVD with it?” “Yeah, sure.” “Whoa, alright! Let’s all try to start making videos.” We never made videos before; this was our first crack at doing it. It was fun to try a whole new medium and have it be released. Things are changing in the music industry, you know, and this CD with a little piece of paper isn’t going to hold up anymore. I don’t want that—I’ll download it. If you’re going to buy it and spend the fifteen, twenty bucks or whatever, it’s nice to have a whole, new piece—and to have the band members have their hands in it, to see what Angus made, to see what I made, to see what a friend of ours made.
It’s really like a present you can unwrap four times.
(laughs) That’s nice.
In your videos, there are a couple of songs, “Be Quiet Mt. Heart Attack” and “It Fit When I Was A Kid,” that are given kind of direct narratives. Does that link to the songs—are those the most linear songs, storywise?
Yeah, the two animated ones, I never thought about that. You’re right, with the Monty Python-ish one, I guess I did try—the words are more narrative.
Are the songs still being written on four-track like they have been in the past?
Yeah, actually, some of them are. Aaron did some of them by himself on four-track. Some of the sounds on “Hold You Drum” are done by Aaron on the four-track, or some of them are Angus at home—but now it’s ProTools. Angus will be at home and he’ll compile full songs—Aaron, too. Those will come in and it’s like “Alright, that’s done.” There’s no reason to recreate it. We don’t have specific roles to play; just because I play the drums doesn’t mean that I have to play the drums on a part where Aaron already did it.
You talked about how the leftover material from the last album kicked the new album into motion. How much material do you have written and unused? If you broke up tomorrow, would we get the four-CD box set of unreleased stuff?
There’s definitely a record’s worth of stuff out there. There are always these weird in-between periods that produce a lot of stuff. Before Drowned, there’s a whole record’s worth of weird stuff. Angus alone has probably made around 300 songs in the last month. He’s a song-producing machine. Aaron goes a little bit slower, but Aaron’s are always kind of complete.
We write a lot of stuff for the live shows. We come up with all these new songs to play, since we’ve been playing all the old ones.
So you do cover those earlier albums?
Yeah, we play stuff off of Drowned, but not off Trench.
Liars have that reputation for reinventing themselves on eachrecord—is that a tendency that carries over to the live show as well? Is the live show of today much different from the one a few years ago?
Sort of. We try to do a live show now more like the record, where it’s more of a continual stream. That’s been really fun, because it creates a lot of moments of having—not to sound too hippie or something—improv. Aaron has so many gadgets this time, he’s beefed up his section. He’s got four-tracks and contact microphones on drums and this whole crazy setup, so there’s all this in-between time where he’s setting stuff up and plugging stuff in and testing stuff. Sometimes it works and sometimes… failure is a part of everything.
You guys have been all around on tour. Are there any cities that have been traditionally tough crowds to crack?
Tough crowds? Germany is actually kind of tough. They are. They’re kind of harsh to you. (with an accent) “Yes, I did not like the show.”
Aside from bands who may have influenced Liars, have you specifically been influenced by individual drummers?
I was trying to think about that the other day. I don’t know. (laughs) There are a few people who I remember… but I’m also a fake drummer. I just fake it the whole time. The people I remember from a young age are Dale Crover from The Melvins—I loved him and how he played and how simple and easy it sounded, but the moment you tried to play along and mimic it, it was “What the hell is he doing?” When the whole math-rock movement started, I was pretty much into watching all of them playing. The drummer from Slint was an inspirational drummer for me.
On Drowned, there were the Salem witch trials as a loose backdrop, and here we have the two characters that are introduced. How heavily do those themes actually impact the songwriting, and how much are they just pulled out from the music later on?
With Drowned, there was that specific theme. The music was already kind of there, so it was more about creating the lyrics based upon these ideas and this folklore and these parts of history. Everything was specific to the witches and the persecution. With the new one, the only thing that really ties it into the theme of Mt. Heart Attack and Drum are the titles. The whole record was finished and we were just trying to think of the titles, and one day Aaron was like, “I’ve got the title for everything. I’ll e-mail ‘em to you.” And it was really nice. The titles really tie everything together as a whole.
Okay, it’s time for my closing curveball.
Do you have a pet cause that you wish people would pay more attention to?
(pause) There’s the obvious political ones, the Bush stuff. But I guess everyone knows that.
Well… I don’t know about that.
America is kind of scary.
Yeah, try living here.
(laughter) Yeah, I’ve been out of it for a year and a half. I hadn’t even been back for a year, and I just came back to Los Angeles, where I’m from. I was there for two months, and I did love it. I love the Mexican food. I actually liked having a car again. But I was kind of appalled at the ribbon bumper stickers on everything—Support Your Troops ribbons? I had never seen those before and I was surprised at how many of them there were. I was confused about what it meant—was that supporting the war? Of course you want to support the people…I don’t want them to die! I didn’t expect that in Los Angeles.
L.A. is where I am, too, and I swear there’s an increasing number of Bush-Cheney stickers on cars, too. Maybe I’m just feeling guilty about finally peeling off the Kerry sticker that I masochistically left on until recently—but I swear some people have brought those Bush ones out of hiding.
What is happening? Do people not see it? Looking at the news, it seemed like people were more anti-Bush, but coming back, there seems like there’s so much support for him.
I’m pretty sure some people rally around him because they feel like he’s under attack, like the liberal media has made his poll numbers sink, so his true believers are gonna stick with it and stay the course.
There is one thing, I guess, to bring attention to. Have you seen the documentaries Loose Change or 911 in Plane Site? They’re documentaries about the Twin Towers crash. You can download Loose Change on newsgroup servers. It’s all about 9/11 and it’s the scariest thing ever. To boil it up, it was done by our government. (laughs) I’m not trying to be a conspiracy theorist, but if you watch it, you’ll see. Even my parents, who are far away from even wanting to think or believe in anything like that, kind of went “Wow.”
The Pentagon is the main one for me that did it. There’s no wing mark that hit anywhere on the Pentagon. There’s no shrapnel from the airplane anywhere. All there is is one big huge circular hole that’s like twelve-by-twelve feet or sixteen-by-sixteen feet. One jet turbine is that big. But there’s only one hole, and the ground isn’t even that messed up, and it went through twelve layers of wall. It was a cruise missile that hit the Pentagon. They have footage across the street by a gas station that would have shown the whole thing happening, and they only released six frames from it that just show an explosion. It goes into a lot of other stuff, too. That BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares is scary, too. That’s more about neoconservatives and Islamic fundamentalists and the idea that you have to have a global threat in order to bring America together. That’s how the Cold War happened with that Communist fear; they created that to make everybody scared, to believe in America, to come out of the Sixties. In some ways, it doesn’t seem like the 9/11 thing is too far from that. It definitely pulled together America and made us want to go in there and fucking kick some ass.
It’s almost impossible to initiate any serious debate in those areas because it’s so easy for the other side to just say, “Bah, conspiracy theories!” We also see that with the election fraud in Ohio, where a lot people on the left are afraid to talk about it because they don’t want to be called names like “crybabies” and lose whatever marginal voice they have.
There’s no press about any of this stuff. At least question the government, question these things that happened. These documentaries are crazy! How come nobody else is investigating this, why hasn’t one news channel done it? What about the black boxes in the airplanes—out of eight black boxes, seven of them were destroyed beyond repair? They tell you what these things can survive. And they do find the passport of the guy flying the plane. So out of this burning inferno that was supposedly melting irons and collapsing buildings and exploding planes, the black boxes get destroyed, but the passport falls down to the ground.
We got ‘im, boys!
Yeah, here’s the passport to prove it!
There’s another documentary, too, by Alex Jones, I think, a little one about the other tower that fell and why it fell. It’s pretty intense.
A little more intense than Michael Moore, eh? I mean, yeah, Bush is a liar and his family has long been in bed with Saudi oilmen, that’s all good for people to know—but there was kind of a shortage of smoking guns in his last one, unless you really went into it not knowing much about what was out there.
In some way, it’s worse. I remember walking out of Fahrenheit 9/11 and I almost felt like I did something. “Yeah, I’m totally against it and I’m anti-Bush and I’m doing something to correct it!” But really I just watched a movie. I went back home and got stoned. It gives you this false idea that you’re doing something.
Totally. I had the same experience with a punk rock show during the last election—I came home feeling like I’d been out knocking down doors and campaigning, but really I’d gone to a concert and had a burger on the way home, end of story.
Yeah. That was the whole drug thing with Viet Nam – “Fuck that, let’s take acid!” What are you going to do on acid, try to stop a war?