Throughout the two decades he’s fronted alternative rock icons The Drones, Gareth Liddiard – the band’s sole constant – has written dozens of tracks that coalesce the confrontational with the deeply relatable.
On ‘Taman Shud’ from the band’s most recent album, 2016’s Feelin Kinda Free, Liddiard snarled with contempt for the superficial icons of Australia’s current zeitgeist, from Anzackery and MasterChef to mining booms and the Murdoch press. “I don’t give a fuck about no Andrew Bolt,” spat Liddiard, encapsulating in one sentence a collective generation’s exasperation at the increasingly prominent pedestal afforded to right-wing mouthpieces. And it’s that kind of frank, full-throated lyricism that has resonated with fans over the course of The Drones’ seven full-length albums.
Liddiard’s latest project Tropical Fuck Storm released their first single back in August, and the band has already proved similarly confrontational. The new group pairs a volatile art-punk aesthetic with acerbic reflections on the current cultural and political landscape, and sees Liddiard collaborating with fellow Drone Fiona Kitschin on bass and drummer Lauren Hammel of hardcore punks High Tension, as well as Erica Dunn, who has worked with outfits such as Harmony and Palm Springs.
“We met Erica yonks again through her playing in Harmony, and then she wound up singing at a few Drones gigs with the Harmony girls,” says Liddiard. “Lauren, we didn’t know. I just saw a High Tension gig, it was her first, and I was amazed. When it ended up that we needed a drummer she was our first choice, so we just rang her out of the blue and it went well.”
When asked about the intentions behind forming the band, who’ll play their debut headline shows in Sydney and Melbourne at the end of the month, Liddiard laughs. “I just got bored of doing the Drones for 17 years and needed to do something different.”
Certainly it’s interesting the way that the psyched-out punk of Tropical Fuck Storm’s first two singles, ‘Chameleon Paint’ and ‘Soft Power’, while distinct, are vaguely reminiscent of cuts on newer Drones material – particularly the unsettling sense of paranoia that permeated much of Feelin Kinda Free. Liddiard’s trademark Western Australian howl feels right at home amongst the off-kilter guitar melodies and Kitschin’s swaggering rhythms.
“I guess the difference would be that TFS doesn’t come with a bunch of patterns that need breaking,” says Liddiard when asked whether TFS allowed him to explore musical ideas he felt reluctant to bring into the fold with the Drones. “If we wanted to do a two and a half minute pop song, it would be easy with a new band because there’s no baggage. But ultimately, any band I’m in is going to sound a little like the Drones – we’ve had a million lineups, you know?”
We want to feature really good songs that no one’s heard of.
Apart from the upcoming headline shows, the immediate plan for TFS is to release four 7 inch singles eight weeks apart – ‘Chameleon Paint’ and ‘Soft Power’ being the first two. Each single also comes with a cover of a song the band “love and wish they had written”: so far they have dropped a snarling cover of The Nation Blue’s excellent ‘Mansion Family’, and a distinctly unique take on Lost Animals’ ‘Lose The Baby’.
“We want to feature really good songs that no one’s heard of,” says Liddiard of the concept behind the covers. “With something like the Lost Animals song ‘Lose The Baby’, unless you’re real deep in the scene you just haven’t heard that song. Anyone who hears it is like, ‘Holy shit, how did I miss that?’ That’s the perfect example of what we’re trying to do with that.”
Of course, the steady stream of singles TFS will drop over the next few months also helps keep them tight. They are new kids on this particular block, and they want to take on as many opportunities to hone their sound as they possibly can. “Doing the 4x 7” is cool because it gets us working, and doing the covers means we can play a song and arrange it without having to make it up. It’s good training for the band, because you’ve got to play together heaps before you get tight. We were lucky to do the four 7” and also have the big American tour. We sort of started out pretty uncoordinated and by the end of it we were really good”.
Indeed, that recent stateside jaunt across the US, one that saw the band opening for Band of Horses and King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, was a kind of trial by fire; an opportunity to dive right into the pressures and stresses of life on the road. And for his part, Liddiard feels spoilt to have been able to tour the States right off the bat, explaining that playing the Fillmore in San Fransisco – only the group’s ninth show ever – was a particular highlight.
“We had a great time. In the south with Band of Horses, it was amazing, it was like playing headline shows here. We were treated really well and people were showing up for us – we were playing first, you know? It was cool.”
You go somewhere like San Fransisco and there’s people shooting up in the street.
Of course, there was always the possibility that American audiences might not exactly respond well to Liddiard’s caustic, political songwriting, and I ask Liddiard what it’s like to be an Australian playing charged songs like ‘Soft Power’ to a San Franciscan audience. After all, that song features the opening line, “Hold your fire man, don’t shoot / here comes the umpa lumpa with the nukes.”
“It’s hard to gauge if people are paying attention to the lyrics, and if they are, what they’re getting out of it. Sometimes I’d go, ‘Fuck, you could say anything and no one would notice’ and after a gig people would come up and say, ‘That was a really interesting line’. It’s really subjective. There’s a lot of political stuff in there, but I don’t know whether people are picking up on it.”
From his time overseas, Liddiard reckons the sheen of stability and success that the United States have projected for decades is finally starting to corrupt; there are very visible chips in the paint. “The whole situation over there is so outrageous.
“Everyone’s take on it is wildly different. The whole fucking place is coming apart at the seams. The veneer is coming off, that whole ‘greatest country in the world’ thing, it’s just bullshit. You go somewhere like San Fransisco and there’s people shooting up in the street. That’s third-world shit, man: that’s not the greatest country on earth. I think people were happy to be deluded in the 20th century, but now it’s harder to maintain that delusion. If you introduce a political song into that mix, sometimes I wonder if anyone even notices, because the universe there is already so politicized at the moment.”
While ‘Soft Power’ sets Trump and his denizens in its sights, first single ‘Chameleon Paint’ has a different target entirely. The screeching, danceable track is a frank reflection on the modern insta-outrage machine, where cycles of online shaming and mob mentality – facilitated by an unfettered access to technology – dehumanize relationships and reduce the capacity for empathy.
And although it might seem like that’s just the way the world is now – that grumbling is the new norm – Liddiard thinks there’s going to eventually be a kickback against the holier-than-thou proselytizing. “Outrage is kind of fun. It’s fun to get on there and go, ‘fuck you’ – it’s fun for people to get out of the office for a minute. But I think the pile-on, mob-rule thing; it’s just unsavoury. It’s a good thing and a bad thing simultaneously though: it’s been a boon for say, the queer community. I think that mostly I just don’t like when it becomes self-righteousness. I think that’s a bit weird.”
I suggest that we have a tendency towards misdirecting our rage at abstract, detached targets rather than looking in our own backyards or what our governments are doing. “If you’re an activist online, you’ll be getting death threats and copping heaps of shit, but I doubt Peter Dutton is really copping that in the same way,” Liddiard says. “If people were really aiming venom at the government, maybe the refugee situation would be a little better.”
Our collective refusal to aim criticism where it is deserved may also be reflected in Australian culture’s distaste for artists who make politics a part of their methodology, instead preferring our musicians to serve as politically-mute jukeboxes. Just look at last year’s Feelin Kinda Free, which received flak from a host of commentators for its confrontational subject matter: the aforementioned Bolt, in response to his inclusion in ‘Taman Shud’, penned a self-congratulatory blog post aimed at the “foul-mouthed Drones, stamping on the ashes of the West’s musical traditions”.
Similarly, a comment left on the Youtube video for ‘Chameleon Paint’ reads: “this could have been great if it didn’t bring their obvious political opinion into it”, which is kind of a laugh, given that anyone familiar with Liddiard’s work over the past 20 years would be well aware that it’s a common thread in his practice. “Yeah, it’s a minstrel kind of thing; like I’m just there for your entertainment,” says Liddiard when I ask about the expectation for artists to shut up and sing.
“Especially with that song, if you removed the political shit, what would be left? What would that person enjoy that’s depoliticized? It’d just be a bassline. Then you get people like [Midnight Oil drummer Rob Hirst] saying, ‘No one writes political songs anymore’ and it’s like, for fuck’s sake, what do I have to do? Do I have to kill myself onstage? Or, take someone like Dan Kelly for instance: every song he writes is political and he’s been doing that for 15 years. You just can’t win either way.”
It can a bit boring, really; the ‘political punk rock’ thing.
Of course, it is possible that Liddiard’s work doesn’t immediately get recognised as political because the missives that serve as the backbone of his lyrics are typically idiosyncratic. His songs are first and foremost concerned with the human rather than the abstract, and his work extends beyond the range of most simplistic and reactionary reflections.
“Yeah, that ‘smash the state’ political thing doesn’t have any empathy; doesn’t have any heart or anything,” says Liddiard, when I ask what it’s like mashing up the human with the political. “It can a bit boring, really; the ‘political punk rock’ thing. When I’m reading the paper or listening to the radio, it gives it so much more soul when something has that kind of empathy.
“From the perspective of the person who has to sing that shit every night as well, it makes it a lot easier to sing. There’s just a lot more in it. The thing is, nobody’s perfect and no one has a monopoly on morality. That is what I find frustrating about that online morality shit – you’re not perfect. It’s that throwing stones in glass houses thing. You should see the human in anyone, even people you’re criticising. Otherwise you’re just a fucking lynch mob, and you’re no better.”
He pauses for a moment. “If you think you’ve got moral superiority on someone and you treat them like an evil one-dimensional object, you’re a hypocrite. There’s no such thing as evil. There’s dickheads who’ve gone down the wrong road, and we’re all a product of our environment and all that. People forget that: we become really one-dimensional and cruel.”
Looking ahead, Liddiard is keen to start recording the debut TFS album in December, working with Aaron Cupples who recorded parts of the last Drones album. “We’ll put it out in May – that’s the plan – and tour. There’s maybe been kind of an idea in the press that it’s a side project, but it’s not a side project. It’s a front and centre project. We’re a band, and we’re going to do what bands do.”
Tropical Fuck Storm play the Lansdowne on Saturday November 25 and Sunday November 26.