Gareth Liddiard meets me on a chilly Saturday night under the skeletal silhouette of Melbourne’s Luna Park. The gates of the amusement park are shut. The usually kaleidoscopic array of manufactured joy is darkened, now nothing but a display of dead rollercoasters. I first met Gareth in 2010 outside the Thornbury Theatre. He asked me for a cigarette to settle his nerves before performing his first solo album, Strange Tourist. It was his first time fronting a major project that wasn’t his main band, The Drones; 8 years later, he’s about to do it all again with Tropical Fuck Storm, a new chapter in his career. The band is still a collaboration with his Drones bandmate Fiona Kitschin, but TFS are a different breed entirely.
Liddiard and I, still friends a few years on from that first cigarette, are on our way back to Thornbury to see Don Walker, keys player in the iconic pub-rock outfit Cold Chisel. Richard Clapton described Don as “the most Australian writer of all time.” Liddiard could give him a run for his money. He describes his outlook in Tropical Fuck Storm to me as that of “a flawed narrator thinking about a bunch of flawed things,” but you could say that’s been his outlook his whole career. His songwriting for The Drones was like an archaeological record of colonial culture: from the beginning, their no-bullshit attitude confronted Australia’s problematic past through lyrical excavation of convict spirit. “They made the blacks live outside of town,” he sang on a song from Wait Long By the River…, the band’s landmark sophomore album, “The weekend come they’d tear the whole place down.” On songs like these, The Drones hammered their way into the forehead of Australian rock with grazed knuckles.
Tropical Fuck Storm’s debut album A Laughing Death in Meatspace, which we’re premiering in full below, highlights the carnival nature of the world we live in without alluding to the past, as The Drones were so fond of. The album feels intuitive, self-reflective and toe-to-toe with contemporary politics. Songs like “Soft Power” rattle with an urgency that’s more destructive than the slow burning Drones material. You’d expect no less from an album that was put together so quickly; the band played their first shows in September 2017. Less than eight months later, A Laughing Death in Meatspace was completed and ready to go. “We had to keep churning out material,” says Liddiard, “So whatever we were thinking about seeped into the music.”
The anarchic energy on the new record is a result of Liddiard and Kitschin’s ploy to re-invigorate their band by hiring two of Melbourne’s most powerful performers: Erica Dunn and Lauren Hammel. Erica’s vocals disrupt Liddiard’s gruff presence while holding the rhythm together with the aching riffs she’s become infamous for through her work in Harmony, MOD CON and Palm Springs. Drummer Hammel, who also plays with Melbourne punks High Tension, pounds out brutal, turbulent rhythms. The four, together, are perfectly in tune with each other.
The next night, I meet Erica and Gareth at Thy Thy, a neglected Vietnamese restaurant in the strung-out side of North Richmond. The walls are a tattered pastel pink and the owner seems more interested in streaming karaoke videos than taking our order. Over steaming bowls of pho, Dunn and Liddiard tell me about the beginnings of Tropical Fuck Storm, their recent US tour, and how they approached the creation of A Laughing Death In Meatspace. Listen to the album and read our interview with Dunn and Liddiard here.
Noisey: How did you guys get together?
Erica Dunn: I just got a call. I turned my phone off. I did something weird like turned my phone off for 24 hours and then when i turned it on I had all these messages, like “ Hey, do you want to meet up for breakfast tomorrow morning?” And I had just completely ignored them. G must’ve thought I was all “Nah, fuck you guys.”
Gareth Liddiard: That's why we hired her.
Erica: Treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen. Nah, they just rang me up. Gareth and Fi were on loudspeaker like excited children. The pitch was “Do you want to play guitar? We’re just going to do some weird shit.” And I was like “Okay, sure.” Then Gareth said “We might go to America in the next month, are you free? And we have to write some songs.” Sure I’ll clear my schedule. Hammer [Lauren Hummel] was a bit different though, because [Gareth] didn't know her and he had to take her to the pub.
Gareth: She was a scary chick to me. You know when you don't know someone, and you've just seen them on stage? I just thought she was going to hate us. She blew my mind when I saw her in High Tension. I thought she was the best drummer in town. You don't have to be a fucking jazz player. You just need to be able to smash the fuck out of it.
So there was no test?
Erica: 85 hours in the van is the test.
In the States?
Gareth: Drinking heaps of piss, having a fuckin great time. Erica got us kicked out of a strip club.
Erica: I was so embarrassed. We were so smashed. We were supposed to go to New Orleans for a night of respite. To get ready for this fucking tour.
Gareth: Wrong place to fucking do it though.
Erica: It was the most psychotic place, everyone was so wasted. We wound up at a strip club because it was the only thing that was open and it was close to our hotel. We rocked up and were acting all judgey. But a few hours later we were those people. And some of the girls liked putting on a show in front of our cameras. So I kept filming. And we were having a great time doing the most stupid shit.
But then there was like a change over and new girls came out and this chick noticed that I was filming and she seriously took me to fucking school. She was in my face, this giant American chick screaming at me, “Woman to woman, you’re a piece of shit!” And I really couldn’t do anything to make it better. I was trying my hardest. And then I thought, maybe I am a piece of shit. Maybe I'm a fucking asshole. I didn't know what to say. She took my phone and deleted all of my videos.
You sound like you don’t know much about strip club etiquette.
Erica: I don't know the etiquette, I'm not there every weekend.
Gareth: The DJ said something about Australians over the mic. And I was looking at him thinking “ Is he talking about us?” And he just turns to me and goes “Yeah, I'm talking about you. Yeah, you! You dumb fucking aussies!” New Orleans is out of control. It’s a disgrace. But so funny. Everyone just gets fucking smashed. Like beyond your wildest ideas of smashed-ness. I gave Erica 20 bucks in singles and she just threw it all in one go.
Erica: I don't know what to do with money like that. We still have a bit of video, there’s videos of Fi [Kitschin] motorboating all these chicks.
Was this before or after you almost got shot by hillbillies?
Gareth: Before. We were playing a gig in Little Rock, Arkansas and it was this disused studio that was set up like an old House of Horrors. It was a big maze of lights and we thought it would be amazing to film the video there. We looked around to get permission but there was no-one around so we just started shooting the video for Soft Power. We put on some costumes and we were dancing around with the music blaring and two scary hillbillies with guns were like, “What the fuck are you doing!?” We were petrified. We started taking off the costumes and backing away, then told them we were in the band that played there, and they turned around and said “Oh, you’re in the band? Use anything you want!”
What were you thinking about while making the record?
Gareth: We were thinking about what we were not going to do.
What were you listening to?
Gareth: The only loose reference was a Fela Kuti type thing where it's more groove based, girl vocals and boy vocals, but instead of having boys back girls or girls back the boys, it’s on a more even keel. It's more rhythmic. It’s different to the way singers are structured, we wanted to offset that. Because with The Drones it was male vocal and energy heavy with big guitars and a gruff voice.
Erica: If we were sending anything around it was more of an ethos thing. I remember sending Gareth [LA New Wave band] Suburban Lawns because it was the most exciting thing we had seen in a while.
Gareth: Yeah, we were trying not to default into our usual habits.
Erica: This was a rare project because it wasn't articulated to begin with. It was wild because it was on the fly. There were some principles, like we didn’t want to do a regular rock and roll rhythm section. There was a bit of choice by avoidance. Gareth had been talking a bit about all the things him and Fi had done.
Gareth: Fi had a lot of say in it. She was sick of screaming guitars. Not because there’s something wrong with it, we've just done it for 15 years, grooving away while guitars go spare everywhere. There was an idea to make it a bit more trashy, a bit more groovy and not as long.
The record sounds quite different lyrically too.
Gareth: I look back on The Drones shit and think “ What a load of fucking wank.” I just wanted to de-wank. I just want to keep it straight talk. Sometimes it gets a bit flowery. Half the time I like it and shoot the target. I want to keep it simple.
You said you don't like writing didactic lyrics anymore.
Gareth: It’s because I don't like listening to it. Every now and again it's alright. There's ways to slip between the cracks, have a song about one thing but then this political stuff will seep into it because it's you and it comes from your subjective experience. I wait for a balance like that to happen. Sometimes if its got a sick riff, that’s important too.
Erica: Music can be the total antidote to being a wanker.
How would you describe the record?
Gareth: A flawed narrator thinking about a bunch of flawed things. Because that’s what everybody is. They’re all struggling and it’s really hard. Some have it harder then others obviously. But it’s like that John Gray quote, “We’re just a bunch of struggling ephemeral animals.” And everyone's dinged up like an old car.
It’s hard to understand. It’s just a bunch of soundwaves going [bululululu]. And yet you can construct them, and this particular animal goes wow! But a fucking lizard doesn't hear the music. It’s weird that primates go, “Oh yeah!”
Erica: Or like the wolfpack thing, like when you get goosebumps, it's our species’ version of the wolf howl. When you hear another animal in pain or in danger, you’re having the chemical reaction to your kin.
Gareth: It eventually occurs to you that lots of people take the time out of their lives to attend your shows. And you have second thoughts about it. I picked up my guitar today from the guitar shop and it’s funny, I paid $200 to have it fixed and I thought “ That’s right, this is my tool.” Other people have spanners or pens or computers. Some boring thing that they hate. But I'm really lucky to have a guitar. This silly thing to make a life out of. It’s weird.
What did you aspire to be when you were young?
Gareth: Nothing. I don't know. I was a daydreamer, seriously. Nothing. I didn’t think about anything.
Erica: We’ve just been looking at Fi’s primary school year book and she was literally like ‘I want to be a pop star and my name is going to be Chloe Lindeman.” She even wrote out her albums, the A-sides and B-side tracks and singles. But I was a music nerd, I used to wag school to play music and busk around Nunawading station.
Gareth: That’s gutsy. You just stand there and everyone ignores you, it would be horrible.
Erica: I loved it. I had a deluded sense of my own ability. Met a cool boyfriend who had a car. We used to play Crowded House and Jewel. I still know the words to “Foolish Games.”
I thought the experimental track on the album, “Shellfish Toxin,” was pretty gutsy.
Gareth: You don’t like the sound of our voice.
Nah, sometimes it’s just nice to shut you off.
Gareth: That’s what I thought. We’ve never done it and I like that kind of music. Cool instrumental shit. Some people need lyrics to keep their attention. These days people are more open to weird shit. It was all editing on the computer.
Erica: With one sock on and one thong on. In a cape.
Gareth: There were lots of spare parts. It was a bit of a Frankenstein project. I wanted it all to slot together. I just sat there chopping it up and kept fucking around with it. A lot of fucking around. I was thinking about surf music, Joe Meek, [The Prodigy’s] “Out of Space” and Olivier Messiaen, because his music sounds like it was composed on venus.
Erica: You said it sounds like the sea, so you called it “Shellfish Toxin.”
Gareth: That was a reference to the CIA thing. You know there’s MK Ultra and there's MK Naomi, which used shellfish poisoning against enemy agents, which wasn’t made to kill them but make them feel dreadful and insane for a while. Maybe while they were on a mission or something.
That’s how I feel all the time.
Erica: The world is off the charts.
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