Australia's outsider rock band The Drones – essentially a vehicle for singer-songwriter Gareth Liddiard aka Gaza – have survived against the odds. They've been through changes of physical location (founded in Perth, ended up in Melbourne), litigation which saw their album Wait Long By The River And The Bodies Of Your Enemies Will Float By in 2010 held up for a year, a relentless touring schedule in Australia and internationally, and a number of line-up changes.
Along the way however they have picked up massive critical acclaim at home and abroad: Wait Long by the River picked up the inaugural Australia Music Prize (and a useful A$30,000) and they have also won Arias. And a couple of years ago a portrait of Liddiard (above) by Jason Benjamin was a finalist in Australia's famous Archibald Prize.
When they opened for Neil Young on his tour earlier this year the New Zealand Herald critic Russell Baillie said of them, they “proved the best Oz import plonked upon us as opening act in a very long while. Their Aussie gothic noise blues attack and yarn-spinning has undoubtedly won them plenty of Birthday Party/Nick Cave comparisons in their first decade of existence. But by crikey they were good”.
And they are . . . although aside from that support slot they haven't played in New Zealand. That will rectified soon with a short tour (dates below) so Liddiard took time to speak with Elsewhere.
Things didn't start well though. At the appointed time I rang his home in Melbourne and got the answer-phone message: “Yeaaah, um untha phooo-own” said a drawling voice which sounded like it was coming down after two days.
I got it again when I called 10 minutes later, then again 10 minutes after that.
But so intriguing was that slurry message – not to mention the Drones new album I See Seaweed – that I persisted and on the fourth shot got Liddiard who was rather more chipper an alert than his phone message suggested.
So it's, “Hello, is that Gareth . . . or it is Gazza?”
(laughs) Gazza or Gareth is fine.
I know you come from Perth and when the band moved you initially went to Sydney but then settled on Melbourne. It's a cliché for New Zealanders that so many of them move to Melbourne. I'm curious as to what drew you there, what is it about the place?
When we moved in January 2000 it was pretty much pre-internet – or at least it was for me – and we'd always heard word-of-mouth about the eastern states, they were kind of mythical. We heard Melbourne was the place to be for music.
I don't know if you've ever been to Perth . . .
Well, when I was there it made Wellington look like Sydney. It really was butt-fuck nowhere so anywhere would be an improvement.
My former partner came from Perth and used to say darkly, “It's closer to South Africa in more ways than one”.
Oh yeah. I know what she's talking about. That was one of the reason we had to leave. It does your head in and Melbourne is the complete opposite.
As much as anything else a supportive musical community?
Yeah, and it's got two public radio stations, three now actually, which is amazing. Every other city in Australia just has one. You can burn a CD of stuff you've recorded and send it to a DJ in Melbourne and they play it. Whereas in Perth you needed to be on a major label to get any response.
I know you opened for Neil Young recently, do you have to sit down and think of a different set list because you are in front a a specific audience, as opposed to playing to your own, or on festival bills?
We only half an hour so we went for the high impact, some light and shade but not too much shade because we'd just lose everybody. It's a matter of getting a bit of everything in there except the quietest stuff we do. Half an hour means you can go berserk and wear yourself out.
You got very reviews and opening acts don't often even get a mention in some media reports but you did in the New Zealand Herald. So high impact worked.
I know with Neil in Australia there was mixed reviews for him. A lotta people rocked up thinking he was going to play all his acoustic folkie stuff.
Didn't they understand the words “Crazy Horse”?
(laughs) I know, it was so funny because it was extreme. We've seen him play a lot before, and seen Crazy Horse but then he was doing that Greendale thing. So we'd never really seen the full three hour onslaught which was like Sonic Youth or something. Noise about half of it.
I want to talk about I See Sewaweed in a minute but if I could just go back into something. It seems the Drones have a lot of line-up change, legal problems, constant touring . . . not the easiest of career choices?
(laughs) Not really, but what is? Having a regular job is worse . . . but at least with a regular job it doesn't rest on your hopes and dreams. You might want to start a plant nursery if that's an interest of yours, but it's not like plants would be your fuckin' passion like music is. Rocking and rolling is a good occupation but when you get kicked in the guts it's fuckin' horrible.
What would have been the lowest point? When you had legal problems and couldn't release Wait Long?
Yeah, we were still pretty naïve back then. It was pretty awful to learn that legally we couldn't play very much. That's a strange relationship switcheroo with my guitar. I look at my guitar and have nice happy thoughts when I see it, and then all of a sudden I'm not allowed to go near the fuckin' thing. That was weird. But we got through that.
We went to Tasmania to record down there in a mid east-coast place called Swansea. We did that that because there was noting else to do and no one could hear us doing it, so they couldn't shut us down.
I'm interested too in that you have won awards and I wonder if that puts pressure on as much as vindication for what you are doing, a self-imposed pressure perhaps?
Not really. The Australian Music Prize was good because they give you money, but the Arias and shit like that . . . I've never been to one. Dan went to one and got some award and gave it to some homeless dude on the way out because it's just so dodgy and stupid.
If we were getting good press that would put more pressure on.
You've had very good critical comment, but public acclaim doesn't necessarily follow. Are you seeing that more people are getting what you do in recent years.
Yeah, kind of. We just knew out of the 10 percent of people who listen to music about 10 percent of them listen to our kind of music and of them about one percent get us. It's a slow thing so we figure if we just keep the quality up someone going to find it.
When I listen to what you do, I'm mindful that Australia has a very different and strong songwriting tradition which, for want of a better word, I might call literary. I'm thinking of people like David McComb of the Triffids, Don Walker in Cold Chisel, Nick Cave . . . and yourself in this regard. In New Zealand we have considerably less of that. Are you aware of that long tradition of literary stuff coming through?
Um. Yeah, but I really wasn't into Dave McComb or the Go-Betweens thing. That didn't get me. I'm not a huge fan. It's fine but I was more into things like the Scientists [from Perth] and crazy music. If anything . It wasn't maybe literary but just had strange words, people like the Birthday Party. The Dirty Three was what got me into lyrics because they don't have any.
Are you a great reader?
Yeah but not massive. I don't sit around with works of literature. I read anything really, physics . . Sometimes I read poetry, especially when I'm writing because that gets me in the zone. I read anything, I don't care. Information is what you put into these things.
I read an Australian reviewer who said “The Drones deal with existential horror”. I liked that. Is it fair? Do you see that?
(laughs) It does sound good, a bit Edgar Allen Poe and a bit Gothic. But were not Bauhaus or something like that. In our music the fear of death is acknowledged because that's a universal thing, but I think it's a lot more . . . boring, the everyday fear of death rather than existential horror. I suppose that's two ways to say the same thing, although we lean towards the bland side.
What I like about what you do – and I'll just refer to I See Seaweed – is that for all there are the bigger issues you focus on some fine hard-edged images like “your bald-tyre friends”. We know exactly what that means.
Yeah, it puts an image in your head and that's the best thing, and the in-between is left up to whoever is listening to it. They can join the dots. It's good to throw images out there. It's a weird trade.
I also like the phrase, “I like things elliptical” in the quasi-autobiographical Nine Eyes. Is that a fair personal assessment on how you see the world?
It has a dual meaning, elliptical as in shape or whatever and elliptical technique in writing which is just saying as little as possible. Like, “The shade was cool and hard” which is a Hemingway thing talking about those white villages on a Greek island. He just totally put a picture in your head. So it's both and . . . I just stuck that in there (laughs) Truly, it just resonated with me and that's all I need.
The song Why Write a Letter That You'll Never Post is an interesting one because you say you will read verbatim, but it's clearly not a letter you received at all. Is it based on any actual letter?
That “verbatim” things is just kind of funny because it's the nihilist in me. You're not allowed to be a nihilist and if I did write it from my point of view, first person, it would be kind of corny. So you've got to pretend it's someone else.
It's an interesting technique because by taking it outside of yourself it makes it more universal.
Yeah it does. It calls bullshit on a bunch of things ,it see the elephant in the room and you don't have to be a nihilist to do that. But sometimes you're not allowed to say the Holocaust shit on TV is entertaining now. It's been changed into entertainment on the History Channel. You watch in horror as the train carriages roll into Auschwitz . . . because it is entertaining at some level. But you can't say that personally because people who might have been involved in it get upset and say, “We are trying to remind you what happened”. But it is entertainment for people. But you can't say that.
I wonder how much you feel an outsider. I read somewhere you said you didn't feel like you fitted in at school and then of course coming from Perth to Sydney then Melbourne. I interviewed David McComb in Melbourne many years ago and he said as someone coming from Western Australia he felt outside of things in the eastern states. He quite liked the discomfort though.
I guess I'm in but more now, but I have specific interests that not many people in my immediate vicinity have as well. The WA thing certainly. If you want to feel an outsider there just hold liberal views then get a house in the suburbs in Perth. You'll feel like a black sheep because everyone there hates aboriginals, just hate everything, and the best thing of all is mining. Mine this and mine that, mining's great. It's just retarded.
In my social group though we share common interests and I don't feel so weird as I did, but once I did feel positively outside in a big way.
I know the Drones are essentially your vehicle but you did solo work with the album Strange Tourists. Did you learn something about your songwriting by doing the solo thing.
They were all Drones songs really, that's the thing. They could have been I guess and the Drones can play anything. But the thing they can't do is generate the sound of a singer with an acoustic guitar. So I wanted to do something super-bleak and super-sparse. It didn't mean they shouldn't be there, but then if I'd have called it the Drones it would have pissed everybody off, and the band alike!
Do you expect to do more along those lines?
Nah, I've done it. That's all I need to do. I'v done the dark thing.
There was a funny review in Adelaide when [drummer] Mike did his solo thing at the same time, but Mike has a full band playing on his album.
But this reviewer in Adelaide thought I was like a singer who couldn't play anything and I was non-musician who couldn't generate any kind of music and thought I was going for something along the lines of what Mike was going for . . . but that every time I tried to put drums in or a guitar, without having the help of the Drones, I had failed. So that's why it was just me and an acoustic guitar (laughs)
He thought I was such a retard I couldn't get it together.
I remember when Springsteen did all those demos for what became Nebraska he thought, “Why would I give this to a band when it sounds exactly like I want it to be already?”
Yeah, it's a sound. It's not reinventing the wheel having an acoustic guitar. It's as much as sound as having a violin quartet or a brass section. If you need that sound you just do what it takes to get it.
Shouldn't hold you up any longer, but can I say how much I'm looking forward to seeing you in these small venues you are playing. I think that will be pretty intense.
Yeah, we are really looking forward to it too. Cheers.
THE DRONES' AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND TOUR DATES
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 13TH 2013 THE HI FI, MELBOURNE, VIC
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 14TH 2013 THE HI FI, MELBOURNE, VIC
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 20TH 2013 FOWLERS LIVE, ADELAIDE, SA
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 21ST 2013 THE BAKERY, PERTH, WA
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 26TH 2013 ZIERHOLZ @ UC, CANBERRA, ACT
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 27TH 2013 THE HI FI, BRISBANE, QLD
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 28TH 2013 THE METRO, SYDNEY, NSW
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 4TH 2013 KINGS ARMS, AUCKLAND, NZ
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 5TH 2013 BODEGA, WELLINGTON, NZ
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 10TH 2013 HARVEST FESTIVAL, MELBOURNE, VIC
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 16TH 2013 HARVEST FESTIVAL, SYDNEY, NSW
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 17TH 2013 HARVEST FESTIVAL, BRISBANE, QLD
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 22ND 2013 CAMBRIDGE HOTEL, NEWCASTLE, NSW