Interview: Talking Weird and Whacky with The Drones’ Gareth Liddiard

The Drones are hands down one of Australia’s best bands, and they have been for well over a decade. Their weird and wonderful music mixes jarring, wild instrumental layers and rhythms with political statements, poetic Australiana and beyond, culminating in brilliant, engaging and wholly unparalled releases and live performances.

Formed in 1997, the band has become a monolithic presence in the Australian music scene, and have acquired a cult following throughout their home country and beyond. Those who have been to their gigs know of the strange blend of casual, hilarious audience banter and ferocious, unpredictable live performance. It’s nigh-on impossible to walk out of a Drones gig without a hard-earned layer of sweat covering your body and a massive smile covering your face.

At the forefront of the band is lead singer and writer Gareth Liddiard, one of the original founding members. His uniquely Australian voice is a driving force behind the band’s music, both relaxed and passionate at the same time. Liddiard has also released a solo album, Strange Tourist, back in 2010, and still frequently plays solo shows around the country.

Ahead of The Drones’ headline set at Brisbane’s Deadlam Festival (tickets here), we were lucky enough to chat with Liddiard himself to discuss the weird and whacky: from politics to music.

I’d like to start off talking about Feeling Kind Of Free. It was such a great record, with an amazing sound, which was a little different from a lot of your previous stuff. Was that shift inspired or prompted by anything specific?

We just got sick of doing the, well, it wasn’t always the same old thing, but something similar. And then with Chrisso [Christian Strybosch], the drummer coming back into the band, he was fresh and keen. He likes all sorts of weird and whacky music and he was keen to use samplers and shit like that. So that was a good thing, ’cause he was like “why don’t we try this” and I was like “yeah that’s what I was gonna suggest.” So that was cool.

A lot of your music – both as a solo artist and with The Drones – is really political. You’ve always been great at making a statement – do you have a specific aim there? Do you believe musicians have a responsibility to make socio-political commentary, or to just take in the world around them?

It’s a personal preference. I do wonder why more people don’t do it, if this personal preference thing is true, but I don’t think it’s a responsibility. I don’t think you can change that much by preaching to a choir, but if people are already leaning a certain way you can maybe help them lean a bit further.

For me, I don’t really separate the political thing from anything, really. When I write songs I don’t necessarily block a whole bunch of shit out and concentrate solely on certain subject matters, I just put it all in there.

Taman Shud was a great standout from FKOF, and it seems super relevant now. You talked about “preaching to the choir,” and the whole echo chamber that is dominating our world at the moment. Do you think people have a responsibility to get out and actually take action instead of sitting around doing fuck all?

Again I don’t think there’s a responsibility as such. But if things go to shit, don’t complain if you didn’t do anything about it. It’s like the Brexit thing. We know people who live in England who were against Britain leaving the EU, but they didn’t bother to vote. And that’s a left-wing, that. Left-wingers are more likely to say “it’ll be okay,” or sit around and smoke a bong. Right-wingers are more uptight, so they’re the ones who get out and vote, because they’ve got a rod up their ass.

As opposed to the whole “Red-Wine Activist” type thing.

Well lefties are more laid back, so when the voting day comes they just can’t be fucked! (Laughs) And that’s bad! It’s like everyone else is doing their patriotic duty; all the right-wingers are getting out there. That’s probably why people like Republicans don’t want the compulsory vote, you know?

And you touch on that in your live shows too. I saw you down in Hobart back in May, which was actually my first gig over 18. The FKOF shows were a lot different than previous tours, with the heavier use of electronics. How do you feel The Drones have evolved as a live band, and have there been any challenges or problems you’ve had to work out?

We’ve had to change up the equipment a bit. We don’t actually loop anything, but we thought it’d be kinda funny to be more electronic leaning, but loose. Because electronic kinda means tight, which is just going to be robotic. But we’ve always been a really loose band and there’s never really been much – if any – loose electronic drum beat type music. Our whole thing – or my whole thing – is just to get crazier as you get older. I don’t get more conservative; I just want to explore more strange options. And it’s always been like that for me.

I think it makes sense to just get way more out there. A guy like Schomburg, he did that, or Tom Waits does that – just gets weirder. Like Scott Walker.  I just think “why not?”

Just on the Hobart show: It was so great you came to Tassie! I also saw a solo show you played last year down here for Dark MOFO. I wrote a piece a few weeks ago about how Hobart barely sees any big name bands, so I just wanted to get your thoughts on why you think Tassie is largely ignored when it comes to tours, and what keeps bringing you back?

I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. It’s not as if it’s that far away. If you’re in Sydney, you’re usually going to have to fly to Melbourne. So what’s the difference if you fly to Hobart? There’s not as many people in Hobart, and yeah we played some bigger shows on the mainland but we love Hobart. It’s a lot looser and a lot less informal down there, so that’s cool. That suits us, because we’re a pretty whacked out sounding band. And we’re pretty whacked out people, too. It’s not like we’re normal, dinner party types.

Yeah, I saw you guys at the bar before the show, just chatting to people. It’s not something you see that often.

Totally, and The Brisbane and The Tote are my two favourite venues in Australia. We got a lot of friends who think the same thing, guys like The Nation Blue. The Brisbane fuckin’ rules, it’s just a madhouse. And that’s what pubs used to be like in the 90’s when I was growing up. It was just literally “Eff rules!” and you could get really really loose and no one would stop you until the cops finally came *laughs*

Yeah it was a pretty fucking great way to propel myself into adulthood!

*Laughs* Yeah that’s cool man! That’s really great!

I saw you solo last year, and you’ve been playing a couple of solo shows around the country recently. What do you get out of a solo record or show that’s different from a Drones record/show?

I can just do it by myself, so it’s kind of low maintenance. I don’t need much gear – I just plug in an acoustic guitar and play it. And I can do it on all my own time. I can talk too long in between songs without the drummer getting impatient or anything like that *laughs* and I don’t really feel a responsibility to the band so I don’t have to care that much. It’s really nice, and just completely different.

After playing with the band forever and ever, it’s just kinda nice to get away and be open.

Well Strange Tourist came out in 2010, right? That’s a while ago. Any chance for some new solo Gareth Liddiard in the near future?

I mean the solo thing, completely alone, was more me trying to get a certain arrangement. Like sometimes you want a horn section, sometimes you want an orchestra and sometimes you want samplers or some shit. But sometimes you just want the sound of an acoustic guitar and a voice, and that’s why it was just me by myself, rather than something else. I could have done a solo thing with a bunch of musicians and called it “Gareth Liddiard,” but that’s what I do anyway – I write songs and take them to a bunch of musicians and we figure out how we’re going to play them.

But as far as something different goes? Next year we’re probably going to try just me, Fiona and a friend – who’s actually a frequent Brisbane Hotel visitor, a Hobartian – and try to get together some really fucked up weird band and release a bunch of whacked out shit. We only just started the other day. So that would be kind of solo, but again kind of… not? *laughs*

One final question for you: What’s your favourite album of the year so far?

Oh god, I don’t know. Classic question where you can’t think! I don’t know, I can’t think at all! *laughs* There’s been lots of weird and whacky shit I’ve been listening to, but then some stuff that’s new to me might be 50 years old. There’s been lots of cool bands, but I’ve just gone completely blank!

There was this really cool record – might have been last year – by All The Weathers from Hobart, a record called Tactile Textures. That’s pretty whacked out and cool. I’ve just gone blank, you’ll have to ask me again later! I’ll text you the answer! *laughs*

Yeah cheers! It’s been awesome speaking to you! Thanks so much for your time!

No worries man, my pleasure!

Image: Music Farmers