“The older you get, the more you’re just left with your neuroses,” Gareth Liddiard says. He’s sitting out the back of a café in Darlington, batting his second coffee of the day between his hands. It’s a weekday, earlyish, and the place is almost deserted; the autumn sun is unseasonably warm, streaming through some natty netting hung up over the patio. “It hasn’t got worse or better. Everything else falls away. Your looks. All that stuff. And then you’re just this shell, with all these mental problems.”
His assessment might be grim, but Liddiard is smiling. And this is how it goes for much of the rest of the interview: the lead singer of Tropical Fuck Storm might be well aware that the world is falling apart, but he seems to have made some kind of peace with all that decay, moral and otherwise. He laughs; considers the appeal of fucking off the modern world and just becoming a sociopath; refers to life as a “weird avalanche, going down to the grave”; and generally appears to be having as good a time as you can when it’s a scorching mid-April day, climate change has permanently cancelled Autumn, and an “Oompa Loompa with the nukes” is threatening global security.
The debut Tropical Fuck Storm record, A Laughing Death In Meatspace, takes much the same tact. It’s a vicious thing, packed like soap into a sock, but it’s not some weighty exercise in existential drama. Rather, it’s full, counterintuitively, of life; a crackling, bleakly comic, beaming album about the end of the fucking world. “Now there’s hardly anybody left,” Liddiard’s voice winks on the title track, like he’s peeling off the punchline to a dirty joke. “Now there’s hardly anybody left.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The BRAG: Has the way you create changed over the years?
Gareth Liddiard: Kinda. I think so. Change is an interesting thing. Behaviourally, you’re shaped in the first three to five years of your life. You have these genetic character traits, and then those nurtured character traits you’ll never shake. But as you get older – every decade you’re a different person. There’s really nothing in common with you and the person who used to be you except for those dyed-in-the-wool traits. Certain things are sorta fixed, and other things are fluid.
I heard this physicist say if you imagine a wave at a beach, or a ripple on a pond moving through the water – the water atoms aren’t moving, they’re just going [he makes a movement with his arm] as energy comes through. And if the water is time, and you are matter, that’s … an illustration of you moving through time, picking up atoms and discarding them as you go. So it’s not you. There’s just those traits that form early; that’s what’s left.
It’s weird. It’s this weird avalanche, going down to the grave.
It’s scary how much you owe to that younger version of yourself that you don’t know and don’t remember.
Yeah, you don’t get to choose how you turn out. It’s that weird misguided question of whether it’s biological or psychological political, having the perfect [upbringing.] But you can’t have the [perfect upbringing]. Because everything before you led up to your situation. Ancient Rome led up to our political situation now – but they weren’t planning to do it for us.
There’s genetic programming and then there’s societal programming – societal norms.
They weren’t going, ‘Well, did you know in 2018, it’s going to be like this, so we should plan ahead.’ They were just fixing the problems they were having because people fucked up before them. It’s an ongoing mess. It’s damage control. It’s terrible. [Laughs.] Then you die, and you’re not around to remember any of this happening, so therefore none of it ever fucking happened.
It’s like, have you ever been so drunk, you wake up the next day and you can’t remember a big chunk of the night? That’s what your life is when you die. So there’s no point.
I think that makes it kinda freeing though, right? If there’s no point, you can make your own point.
Yeah, but to what extent? There’s genetic programming and then there’s societal programming – societal norms. And they are norms that are fixed to an epoch, but they’re norms none the less. I mean really, if you were sensible, you would go out and do the most heinous, self-centred shit. And then if the cops come and shoot you, then it doesn’t matter, because you won’t remember – it basically never happened. But you don’t do that. You’re programmed. Evolution got to you before that and went, ‘Nup, you’re gonna behave a certain way.’
Protect the herd.
Yeah, protect the herd; behave a certain way. It’s a shame. Unless you’re a psychopath. That’d be good.
Does that mean making art to be remembered forever is bullshit, do you reckon?
Yeah, totally. I mean, people do it to be remembered. And they have kids for the same reason. Or politicians have stupid statues built of them for that reason. But the odds of it happening are so low. Someone like Bob Dylan, he’d be a candidate – but even for him it’s not going to happen. [He’ll be remembered for] 50, maybe a hundred years tops. But in 200 years, no-one’s gonna know.
And the main thing, I think, is if you’re gonna be immortal, you need to be impressive without any context. People need to find what you’ve done and not know the context. I mean, Stravinsky, he was immensely talented. But it really helps to know about his times and that type of music. You need to be up on that shit. Otherwise most of it will go over your head. Whereas someone like Erik Satie, it’s classical music, but it’s really simple. Everybody likes it. If you told someone, ‘This is Erik Satie, he’s from the 1990’s’, they’d be like, ‘Oh okay.’ But it’s not. It’s Erik Satie from the 1910’s. It’s hard to pick. He’s like a virus, he floats free in the air without any context and can latch himself onto any living thing.
But that’s fucking hard to do. I’ve given up on that.
Did you ever try?
I think it’s crossed my mind. There have been moments of egomania. But I usually stifle them. My parents brought me up with really low self-esteem, which was good actually. [Laughs.] It’s kept me grounded. Neurotic but grounded. There’s no free lunches. If you’re gonna be interested, or interesting, you’ve gotta be a little mad.
Think of great writers – the ones that don’t need context. Like, George Orwell; he’s really fixed in that time, early 20th century. That political left, Spanish civil war shit. You need to know about all that. But then you know [Jorge Luis] Borges, the Argentinian guy, he didn’t write about anything that was going on around him, and people used to trash him for it. There was all that fucking fascism in Argentina, and he never mentions it in his writing. People were going, ‘You’re such a selfish cunt.’ But he’s complete unmoored from time and place. And it doesn’t make him any less valuable. It certainly makes him a candidate for something approaching mortality.
But, it’s easier to say in retrospect. How do you plan that move? You can’t. It’s fucked.
That’s the thing with Bob Dylan. He’s great, and he’s useful, but he’s useful to the second half of the twentieth century. He was born in a sweet spot. Post-war, when capitalism and everything was balanced and was ticking over well – or as well as these things go.
So you ignore all that context stuff?
Yeah, you have to. You’ve just gotta go fuck that. You’re going, ‘All I’m trying to do is write a stupid song so the band have something to play on the weekend.’ That’s all I’m thinking about.
And it gets that personal? It’s for you, and the people around you?
Pretty much. You’ve gotta throw something [contextual] in there; something interesting from the outside world creeps in. You don’t even have to try. Some kind of artistic impression always ensues. But honestly, I’ll be thinking about the girls in the band – I’ll go, ‘They’re going to scorn me on the weekend if they come up to the house and I haven’t got anything for us to practice.’ And that has been that way my entire career.
And I think someone like Bob Dylan, if he told you something different, he’d be lying. If he said, ‘No, I’m doing it for the betterment of mankind’, you’d go, ‘No you don’t, you’ve got a gig on the weekend and you don’t wanna look like a fucking idiot standing up there and going, ‘Sorry, I’ve got no more songs.’ It’s self-preservation, and vanity; all these ulterior motives.
I guess those motives do have the side benefit of making sure you’re not too precious about the music.
Yeah. And music should be playful. What we have always done is kinda heavy. And certain moments of it are earnestly heavy. But a lot of it is negative in a disaster movie way. There’s a sense of play there. If you’re gonna write a song – who reads good news? You’ve gotta make it bad news, so you’ve gotta make it like a disaster movie. I love disaster movies. Disaster songs. They’re cool.
Homer’s Odyssey, that would have all been oral. So people would have gathered on the beach and listened to an old guy sitting and telling a story around the fire. And it is all bad news. It’s the same thing. When it’s all good news, it’s called a religious cult.
It’s funny. It’s a confirmation of, and a playing with, that instinct that it’s better to believe there’s a tiger behind the bush then to believe there’s not a tiger behind the bush. Because even though you live in fear, eventually there will be a tiger behind the bush, and you’ll be ready for it. Whereas the other way around… So things like horror movies, disaster movies; it’s indulging that thing in a nice way.
What about morality? Can art teach us morality in that way?
People don’t understand any sort of relativity. In a flash, morals can change. We’re all good in here right now. You can believe, ‘You shouldn’t kill anyone; violence is morally bad.’ But if a dangerous person came in and killed someone, you have a moral invective to inflict harm on that person. Suddenly your morals have been flipped on their head, just because of a simple environmental change. It’s not like suddenly the world became Ancient Rome. There’s not a giant tectonic shift; a day and night shift. It’s just a little shift.
So when people get moral on each other, it’s like, ‘You don’t even understand where the other person is coming from.’
It’s terrifying to think how little it takes to change your entire worldview like that.
Yeah. It’s like, when you’ve got a cold, you’ll tend to vote more conservatively. So don’t vote when you have a cold. [Laughs.] And there’s an argument for things like an app on the phone that, when I go to the polls, I go ‘Who should I vote for?’ and it’ll go, ’99 per cent of the time, you are this politically’. Because politics fluctuates, depending on what mood you’re in; how much sleep you’ve had.
Do you think art can cross the divide sometimes? Like, break the political bubble?
There’s a way to disseminate a philosophical climate. And by ‘philosophical’, I don’t mean merely political. The world is deeper than politics. [Art] disseminates the slowest-moving part of a society, which is its story. America has a story that it tells itself; it has a future it has planned for itself; it has values, and characters in this story. Every continent has a story. And I think art disseminates that.
Tropical Fuck Storm play the Oxford Art Factory on Saturday May 5 – buy tickets here. The debut Tropical Fuck Storm record A Laughing Death In Meatspace comes out Friday May 4, and you can pre-order it here.