There was a fascinating disconnect that happened when The Drones released their last album, 2013’s I See Seaweed. On one hand, it received some of the most glowing critical acclaim of their career, earning love from everyone from Rolling Stone to The Needle Drop‘s Anthony Fantano. When featured as the album of the week on Triple J, however, listeners were not as universally-welcoming. “What a terrible, awful album,” one irate consumer, Bernard, wrote in on the station’s website.
“It sounds like a bunch of guys with no musical talent what so ever [sic] picked up some instruments and a mic at a rubbish tip.” Another, Chris, echoed this sentiment, adding: “How this could even be classed as music is beyond me.”
Years before, Drones guitarist Dan Luscombe made a satirical video (sadly now forever lost to the ether of the internet) in which he recalls a verbatim interaction he had with someone at a festival that mistook him for The Living End’s Chris Cheney. “The songs are quite long,” explains Luscombe when describing the band to this hapless punter, “and they’re often very dark and about really depressing things.” “That sounds awful,” the punter replies. “Why don’t you make music like The Living End?”
What did we learn from these exchanges? Simple: The Drones are not a user-friendly band. They’re never going to get in the Hottest 100. They’re never going to win an ARIA. They’re not a red-carpet band. Their albums are not a Mother’s Day gift. They’re an ugly band that are going to continue making ugly music for those outside of the inner circle.
They exist on the fringe, and there they shall endlessly remain. This isn’t detrimental, however, as those that love this band are wholly-committed to them. So much so, that when they put out something as envelope-tearing and rulebook-throwing as their latest LP, March’s Feelin Kinda Free, it’s met with rejoicing and adulation from those that have seen them through every last Bernard and Chris.
When Music Feeds speaks with Gareth Liddiard, he is speaking from the home in regional Victoria that he shares with his wife, Drones bassist Fiona Kitschin. “There’s two fucken sparrows that have decided to move in,” he drawls in his unmistakably-ochre manner. “One of ’em keeps flyin’ out the door, but the other one’s too thick to realise he’s gotta go, too. They’re sending my dogs bloody crazy.”
For someone who spends the majority of his night screaming and snarling into the faces of anyone who dares step near him and his bandmates, his is a somewhat calm and collected vibe as he candidly details the finer points of Feelin Kinda Free.
Watch: The Drones – To Think That I Once Loved You
Music Feeds: The Drones, as a band, has been around for nearly 20 years now. Everything around the band, however, has been in a near-constant state of transition. The band started in Perth with a completely different line-up to the one it has now, and each of the last four Drones records have marked some sort of change: Gala Mill was Rui’s last album, Havliah was Dan’s first album, I See Seaweed was Mike’s last and Steve’s first – and now, Feelin Kinda Free is the first album with Christian back on drums.
The sole constant of The Drones is you. Do you perceive yourself as such – or do you think that is part of the appeal of The Drones; the fact that there is no sole constant?
Gareth Liddiard: I dunno… it’s a name, really. It’s stuck. In ’97, we just started labelling our four-track cassettes as The Drones. We just did it to differentiate it from the other random weird little jams and projects we had going on at the time. We moved to Melbourne, and that’s when things got a bit serious, and that was about 1999. That’s what I consider the beginnings – and Fi joined a couple of years later. She’s been a sole constant, too, since then – she plays on every album – so I think there’s at least a degree of consistency.
I’ve had people ask if I’m gonna make another solo record [Liddiard recorded and released ‘Strange Tourist’ under his own name in 2010.] To me, Drones records are like solo records. When I did make that album just as myself, it was just that. I wanted that arrangement. Even that was a collaboration – that was me with Fi and with Burke [Reid].
The Drones is a collaboration. It’s a band and it’s a solo thing. It’s the same with anybody – I mean, when Cher went solo, it wasn’t all just her, was it? She had all these people around her, helping her. Plus, The Drones just sounds cool. Gareth Liddiard is not a very rock & roll name, y’know? It’s not Iggy Pop.
MF: Let’s not forget Iggy Pop changed his name from Jim Osterberg…
GL: That’s true, actually! I’ve left it too bloody late to change me name now, though. [laughs] I’m a bit slow off the mark!
MF: You mentioned the Strange Tourist record. This might be going out on a limb, but listening to Feelin Kinda Free is somewhat indicative of the kind of music you’re interested in making now – ie. Something quite far removed from that of solo, acoustic music. Is that fair to say; or do you still get something out of performing as Gareth Liddiard?
GL: I mean, the gigs are cool. I do enjoy that. I like that you can just grab a guitar and just bang out a song. As far as doing another acoustic record, though… I don’t think I’d ever do it again. I’ve been there and done that, y’know? Everyone has been there and done that. I was there to pervert the form. I took it further than someone like Ryan Adams, who would just copy every other cunt that did it before him. It’s not relevant anymore. We don’t need to invent any more of those kind of albums.
I think it was [Bob] Dylan who said that we’ve got enough songs – we don’t need to keep on writin’ ’em. [laughs] With this new record, I wanted to use what technologies were available. I wanted to do something for now, which is not all that dissimilar to what Joy Division and Jimi Hendrix were doing at the time. They were doing the most current, the most up-to-date thing that they could possibly do.
Someone like Kanye West is exactly like Jimi Hendrix in a lot of ways. A) He was the biggest thing in America; and B) He was the most modern, contemporary musician alive at that time. We wanna do that. We wanna be new.
Watch: The Drones – Taman Shud
MF: That Dylan quote is really interesting when juxtaposed with the opening line from Private Execution, the first song on Feelin Kinda Free: “The best songs are like bad dreams.” One could easily argue that this, into and of itself, is a reflection on The Drones – pretty much any song considered a favourite by Drones fans is at least slightly terrifying in a certain way.
If it’s not immediately imposing from a stylistic standpoint, then certainly the lyrics will make short work of the matter. Is it an exciting prospect, holding that kind of edge over listeners and creating something that is inherently imposing and intimidating to the untrained ear?
GL: I mean, I’m happy we can do that, but there seems to be a bottomless well of inspiration in a state of nature. A line like “The best songs are like bad dreams…” [pauses] Right, so there’s a ‘you’ during the day, yeah; and there’s a ‘you’ at night. I would argue that the ‘you’ at night is more ‘you.’ The dreaming ‘you’ is more ‘you’ than the civilised, waking ‘you.’
All of your desires, all of your impulses, are completely free when you’re dreaming. That’s the real ‘you.’ Everything else, you have to withdraw those needs just to get along with everybody else. Leonard Cohen would agree… even though he’s a lot more subdued than our music, but he would come from the same place. It’s the state of nature.
I’m fascinated by the primitive, animal nature of humans. I’m fascinated by World War II, for that same reason. Half of the planet, for five years, got to be what they were. You were allowed to do whatever you wanted. It was awful, but that’s what happens when everyone gets free range. When it comes to inspiration for songs, there is a never-ending supply of ideas.
MF: There is a lot of interesting imagery and thematic structures used within the songwriting of Feelin Kinda Free. On the title track of Strange Tourist, you alluded to Aokigahara, the “suicide forest” in Tokyo. On this album, it’s more focused on South East Asia: “Get me the fuck out of the PNG,” “the Kuala Lumpur sunway.” Where did that imagery stem from?
GL: They’re our neighbours. The state of nature thing comes back into it, as well – it’s like Australia is like this waking, repressed being; and places like PNG and Indonesia are a lot more real. They’re a lot closer to a state of nature than we are. We’re just a middle-class, uptight society. Rules, rules, rules. You can’t even jump into a fucking river in this country without a politician saying it’s fucking dangerous.
It’s almost like a Joseph Conrad thing, the way I think about our northern neighbours. There’s a heart of darkness, in a way. Private Execution is a reference to the execution of Andrew Chan. “Got me the fuck out of the PNG” is a reference to Manus Island, where we put all of our refugees. Australia is awake, and Asia is the sleeping, real version of us.
Listen: The Drones – Private Execution
MF: It was clear from the outset that Feelin Kinda Free was going to be a very confrontational record when Taman Shud was released as the lead single. Can one safely assume that it was very premeditated and calculated in terms of its targets, and the responses elicited from them?
GL: Yeah, but I almost feel like it kinda backfired on us. Andrew Bolt took the bait, and we saved a lot of money on promo through that exchange. I kinda feel like we were suckered in as well, though, as it gave him publicity, too. Someone like him needs enemies, y’know? It felt like a stalemate at the end of it all.
At the end of the day, though, it’s just a punk rock song. [pauses] …well, maybe. Maybe it’s easier to call it a protest song. There’s always all these editorials and the usual wank over where all the protest songs are and where all the protest singers have gone. They’ve been saying that the whole fucking time The Drones have been around.
We’re here, you fucking pussies. Most of you are too busy listening to fucking Taylor Swift to figure it out. She’s not gonna do that shit. It’s so weird that everybody forgot that there was a place and space for bands like Fugazi or Bikini Kill. The internet drew everyone’s attention away from that into Kanye West’s world and suddenly the collective conscience forgets that those kind of bands exist. With that in mind, I think Taman Shud was the bluntest object that we could possibly swing to draw attention.
MF: You discussed making The Drones sound new again. Steve Hesketh has been playing with the band for about three years now as a full-time member. Before that, he was doing a lot of session and touring stuff playing B3 Hammond-type organ for bands like Jet and You Am I. That was his bread and butter for years.
On this album, however, there is a lot of synthesizer and really distorted keyboards being used; and Dan has also started playing keys, as well. How did that side of things come about in terms of shifting the sound of the band?
GL: We rented out this studio with a couple of mates. One of those mates, Phil, had stopped being interesting in buying vintage rock & roll equipment. He moved over to buying hip-hop equipment – vintage stuff that acts like Public Enemy or Kool Keith would use. We had all that shit laying around for the first time in our life – synthesizers, samplers, sequencers, stuff like that. He had an OP1, a very modern synth, and I became fascinated with that to the point where I bought my own.
A lot of it’s me, noodling away on the record, and Dan and Steve each played as well. It was just something different. When you’ve been playing guitar for 20 years, it starts to get tiresome. It just sounds so… guitar-y. [laughs] Before we moved to Melbourne back in the 90s, we were a very weird sounding band. It was Melbourne that turned us more into a rock band, which kind of helped us to get gigs. This is a return to the way we were before in a way – getting drunk, getting stoned, noodling on anything you can find and making weird little songs.
Watch: The Drones – I See Seaweed
MF: The subversions of what is seen as a “typical” Drones record continue from there – there’s a song where Fi sings lead vocals for the first time in 10 years. There’s a song where she doesn’t play bass. There are songs where Dan doesn’t play guitar. There are songs with no acoustic drums. Did you feel a lot more liberated in terms of the songwriting to do whatever it is you wanted to do?
GL: Yeah, definitely. Just because time passed, somehow the band became regimented. You do this, I do that, blah blah blah. I didn’t like that. Mike [Noga] left, and then Chris came in. He’s the most eager guy, he doesn’t give a fuck. Second rehearsal back, he tells us about this electronic drum kit he’s just bought. “Why don’t we use that?” he says. I was like, “Fuck, I was actually thinking about doing something like that.”
With all the hip-hop gear at the studio, he hooked right into that. He’s incorporated some of it into his acoustic drum-kit. That was something that Mike was never interested in. That’s all good, but I reckon there’s more to life than acoustic drums. If you can get beyond that, then everything else – guitar, bass, keys – can all go further.
If Joy Division was just acoustic drums, it wouldn’t have been Joy Division. If Jimi Hendrix’s drummer [Mitch Mitchell] wasn’t jazzy, the music wouldn’t have been nearly as good. If the drummer can get weird, the rest of the band can get weird, too.
MF: How is the live show developing in accordance with all of these changes? It’s not too far-fetched to believe that some of these songs may be somewhat difficult to execute entirely live, given their extensively-layered nature.
GL: The main one that was tough was Taman Shud. It’s got a rock-steady dancehall beat, where the snare falls on the two in the verses and on the four in the chorus. Then, Dan put the guitar riff anywhere there was no drums, and I learned it so I could play it with Dan. We’d never done a song that way before.
I was playing something I would never naturally play, and I had to sing too. It was nearly impossible. I was like, “Fuck, I don’t think I’ll be able to do it.” We rehearsed the shit out of it, and played it like four thousand times. We finally got it. From there, everything else was super easy. These songs have come a long way.
The Drones head out on a national tour at the end of April, see the dates and deets below!
Gallery: The Drones @ Sydney Opera House, 24.05.15 / Photos: Prudence Upton
The Drones ‘Feelin Kinda Free’ National Album Tour 2016
Tickets on sale now
Friday, 29th April 2016
The Gov, Adelaide
Saturday, 30th April 2016
Rosemount Hotel, Perth
Friday, 6th May 2016
The Triffid, Brisbane
Saturday, 7th May 2016
The Northern, Byron Bay
Thursday, 12th May 2016
Wollongong Uni Bar, Wollongong
Friday, 13th May 2016
The Cambridge, Newcastle
Saturday, 14th May 2016
The Metro, Sydney
Friday, 20th May 2016
170 Russell, Melbourne
Tickets: 170 Russell
Saturday, 21st May 2016
Brisbane Hotel, Hobart
Friday, 27th May 2016 – NEW SHOW
The Tote, Melbourne
Saturday, 28th May 2016
The Tote, Melbourne (Afternoon show: Ages 12-25)
Saturday, 28th May 2016 – SOLD OUT
The Tote, Melbourne (18+ Show)
Sunday, 29th May 2016 – NEW SHOW
The Tote, Melbourne