One of Australia’s most critically revered bands, The Drones released Freelin Kinda Free, their highly acclaimed seventh studio album earlier this year. Their first output in two years was as aggressive, beautiful and unexpected as ever, featuring some new electronic elements amongst powerfully astute political statements. Having already toured extesively for most of the year in support of the record, The Drones will headline Deadlam festival in Brisbane this weekend amongst a string of Australian festival shows before the year is out. Prolific songwriter and The Drones frontman Gareth Liddiard took some time out to chat through a crackling phoneline from his home in Nagambie ahead of their Deadlam headline show.
After so long together as a band, what’s the relationship like between you guys and the way your music comes together?
It changes. When you’re younger, you’re more fiery. You find it more difficult to take criticism whether it’s constructive or completely below the belt. It’s nice now when we’re recording because no one gives a fuck really. Say, Dan’s playing guitar or keyboard or something and we’re sitting in the control room and he’s trying to figure out a part, he’ll go, “How’s that?” and we’ll go, “Ah, kinda shit.” He’ll just say, “Yeah, OK’ and try something different. Whereas, ten years ago, he would have gotten really upset and I would have been upset if someone said that to me. But it’s not personal, no one gives a fuck. I thought I had this mad riff going on at one point when we were recording and I said to Dan, “What about this, man, this is pretty fucking sick” and he was like, “Nah, it sounds like fucking ‘Layla'” (that Eric Clapton song), and I was like, “Oh yeah, it does, it’s awful”. I would have had a tantrum ten years ago.
You guys have moved around quite a bit over the years, from Perth to Melbourne, and now Nagambie. Do you feel like these places have had much of an effect on the way you write?
They certainly do, but for me they’ve had the opposite effect to what you would expect. If I’m in the city, I write about the country and if I’m in the country, I write about the city. I always write about something out of memory, not something that happened to me today or yesterday. I like things to get filtered through my brain for a year or two. Once we moved out to the country, I started writing more about city stuff. It was just lodged somewhere in my brain like a dream or something. It definitely changes things, environment is a huge thing.
That reminds me of the opening lyric on Feelin Kinda Free – “The best songs are like bad dreams”- have you ever fallen into any kind of pattern in the way that you write music over the years? Is it a process that you’re aware of?
Everything’s sort of subconscious. Music itself is just a really weird subconscious thing. If you take instrumental music that moves you, think about why it does that and you just come up blank. It’s so strange, so mysterious. It’s just an essence of the human subconscious or something. When I write lyrics, or any kind of music, it all just comes from subconscious, Freudian sources. Some deep animal, primal thing. That’s a common thing in all of my output, I guess. I don’t write about boy/girl kind of stuff, that’s too everyday. Everything I write comes from some other part of the subconscious. As far as things go that you always do, it’s a pretty good one because you can never explain it anyway so it’s not like I ever get sick of it.
Feelin Kinda Free was a more experimental album with some sounds we haven’t heard from you guys before – how have you found the process of translating it into a live setting with these new gadgets?
Yeah it took a bit longer than usual but we got there in the end. We had to get some more modern gear but it’s doable. You can do anything, I reckon, it’s just a matter of doing the hard yards.
With tracks like ‘Taman Shud’ and ‘Boredom’ you’ve got these powerful statements packaged in really, danceable, basically electronic songs – was it your intention to have that kind of contradiction going on?
Yeah, it’s always good to have contrast. Things that bounce off eachother. To have electronic music, that you don’t just press play on a drum machine. It’s probably the first loose electronic album ever. There’s already a dichotomy going on there – ‘loose electronic music’. It’s punk rock with an edge. Those kinds of things just keep stuff interesting.
Throughout the album and in particular, on ‘Taman Shud’, you talk about rejecting aspects of Australian culture that are forced on us and supposed to be intrinsic to our national identity. The Taman Shud case is something that a lot of Australians have no idea about it – is that what interested you about the case initially? That it’s this remarkably mysterious thing that happened here that no one really knows about?
Yeah, it’s one of those classic things, we’re all born in the age of America. People always say things like, “It seems like there’s interest here in Australian music at the moment.” No there’s not, there’s only ever interest in American stuff, pop culture wise. The Taman Shud case is a great example of that. Websites in the US and the UK list Taman Shud as one of the top ten all time unsolved crime mysteries, yet no one in Australia has even heard of it. That’s classic Australia. People don’t know their own history. Surry Hills was bombed in World War II, Darwin has been a site of nuclear testing… Everyone looks elsewhere but a lot of shit happens here.
You have a unique style of storytelling, I’m interested in what kind of stuff you listened to growing up? What stood out to you?
The stuff I paid attention to was stuff like Peter and the Wolf – a Russian composer’s stab at the kiddie market. I used to listen to New Order, Pink Floyd – this is all really early on. I didn’t have metres and metres of clear vinyl or anything, it was just what was on the radio and what made me pay attention. I’ve always been drawn to the weirder side of music though, I don’t know where my interests stemmed from. I always thought everyone was really into music too but I’ve learned over the years that most people aren’t as interested as I am. There’s that saying, “If you’re more interested in what you’re talking about than the person you’re saying it to, then you are a bore.” So I think many times I’ve bored the shit out of people. I just assumed everyone was as into that shit as much as I was.
Have you found anything lately you’ve really liked?
Yeah, I’m forever finding new stuff. A friend of mine got me into a guy called Sarban and he’s kind of Elvis from Afghanistan, or he was at the end of the last century. It’s just really weird music. He’s singing in front of the craziest music that no one in the west really gets to hear. I’m forever finding weird and wonderful stuff. There’s this band I saw the other day called Trampoline who are amazing. A girl’s jumping on a trampoline that triggers this noise machine that this guy’s playing. It’s very odd but it was very good. I just like weird shit, I like stuff with concepts and strange ideas.
You guys are playing a show in Freemantle the night before Deadlam, have you spent much time there since you moved away?
Not really, a little bit. Whenever we go there, we’ll spend an extra few days. We always like to stay down in Freemantle because once we got out of high school, me and my sister and my friends basically just moved away from the northern suburbs into Freemantle because it was more fun. I love it down there. I used to have a chip on my shoulder about Perth and Freo and all of that but I just don’t care anymore.
Has it changed much?
Yeah the internet’s definitely changed that part of the world a lot just because it’s given Perth, Freemantle, WA access to the rest of the world. When we were living there, there was no internet and we were thirsty for new ideas, whether it was art or music, and it was always quite difficult to find. You had to wait for the magazine to come out or you had to get it by word of mouth. So it was very cut off so if you wanted to hear something, you basically had to make it up. That’s what we’ve always done, because of that. It’s like, “Well, here’s some crazy fucking music.”
This string of shows until the end of the year are your last for a little while – what does next year have in store?
We’ve been jamming with some other friends so we’re probably going to spend the next year or so seeing how that goes. We slowed down touring a few years ago but we sort of slowed things down to a normal level, whereas before, we used to just do it all the time. You can’t do it forever, it’s just too full on. I’ll probably try and write new songs with some mates. We’ve done The Drones for fifteen years, and it’s all good, it’s still great to do. But it kind of occurred to me lately, I haven’t done anything different forever, where everyone else in the band has done other things. It’s kind of all consuming for me, so I thought, “You know what? I wanna play with a bunch of people I’ve never played with.” Fiona’s always there, but The Drones are quite male dominated. I wanna play with some fucking girls. I never get the chance because I’m alway stuck recording and touring with the one band, so I’m really excited to try something different.
Are you pretty settled where you are now in Nagambie?
Yeah, we’ve got a beautiful place and we live with a couple of really great friends and our landlord is just one of our best mates. It’s just really nice so I think so. We always like to travel, we’re going to South America in January just for a holiday. The wanderlust never really leaves you, you always want to see something you haven’t seen.
Upcoming The Drones dates below.
The Drones Tour dates
Nov 3 Fremantle Town Hall
Nov 4 Brisbane Deadlam Fest
Nov 5 Gareth Liddard at St Johns Fremantle
Nov 13 Melbourne Town Hall
Nov 18, 19 Gareth Liddard at Mullumbimby Fest
Dec 2 Berry Fairgrounds Fest