Talking to LiarsOur extended conversation with Aaron Hemphill

LA based Art-Rockers Liars are constantly reinventing themselves. Their sixth studio album WIXIW is a paradigm for how to deal with electronica and samples these days.
We talked to Aaron Hemphill about places to live, clothes to wear, and what it's like to work with Beck and Depeche Mode and still be sort of underground.

If you would have to categorize the sound of the Liars, let's say to your Dad, or someone...
It seems like a failure for us to explain what we sound like; if we didn’t communicate that through the record then it’s our fault.
‘Art rock’ – I think that’s fine; people need these terms to communicate things.
If it's the first step for people, to understand what we do, or trying to communicate to someone else what we do, I think that’s enough to be happy.
BTW, I think my Dad just cares that I’m eating – he doesn’t want to dissect it too much.

Being considered an 'underground' band - you gained notoriety around 2003 when the New York/dance-punk/art-rock scene was sort of fashionable. Are you more comfortable existing 'under the radar' ?
We have always made the records exactly how we wanted to. With what we feel is important, remaining ‘underground’ or becoming ‘mainstream’ is not detrimental. ‘Underground’ or ‘experimental’ are often misused. It often puts a prestige to things that don’t really earn it.
We’ve never tried to throw people off, I understand that we challenge listeners – we do try to do that – but not to the point where we’re trying to retain this ‘underground’ credibility. I just don’t think we acknowledge that in our music.

Obviously you are being really respected in the music industry: The entire Sisterhood album was remixed by people like Thom Yorke, the Melvins etc. Are you planning to do the same thing with WIXIW?
The first single “No. 1 Against the Rush” has been remixed by Depeche Mode’s Vince Clarke and Matmos - two very different artists. I think they made exactly what we were hoping for – one, being quite a traditional remix, and the other being Matmos! It’s an unspoken policy of ours when we do a project like that – whether it’s a music video or a remix – that we give the artist we’re approaching full control over that. Our control is in the selection of who we want to work with.

What about artistic collaborations. Do you have a creative network consisting of friends etc.?
Not really; we take it upon ourselves – we all do visual work for the band.
I think that was one of the reasons we were so drawn to being in a band, because you’re allowed to do any medium, it’s endless.
Here the necessity breeds creativity.
Some of it is because we just have to do it, and that’s enough to get inspired and fulfilled.

Speaking of collaborating with respected musicians, how did Liars get involved with Beck's Record Club?
Beck is exactly how you’d imagine him to be – he is truthfully that person. He’s very excited about music. I got a call on my cellphone and it was him, just like no big deal, do you want to do this…
He suggested 20 albums and it’s not like he wanted to wait to make it more exciting. He just had a hard time deciding between all these records.
We’re not really musicians, we make songs but we’re not designated to one instrument, so for better or worse we speak a different language than studied musicians. What Beck wanted was a spontaneous thing where we chose the record in the studio that day and made it, which is just terrifying for us. Especially given the musicians we were working with were all extremely skilled. Had we known it was Kick we could have rehearsed and known the keys and the changes.
In the end it was fun and extremely challenging, but I think ultimately what I got from it was that it’s exciting that someone like Beck still spends his time doing something where the only benefit is having fun with music. There’s an element of change that you have to factor in when you’re that successful. Beck is just into music – “Hey, I like this record, I want to play with this band”

You’ve lived and worked in New York, Berlin, and now LA. How much does a particular city’s scene influence, or challenge Liars writing and recording process?
It depends on what we’re trying to do with the specific record. With our latest record, we were completely shut off, and that was intentional. The first record that we made in Berlin, we were open to incorporating what it felt like to be in a different city. I feel with certain bands the effect is more direct, but with us we can pick and choose.
We’ve made two records in each city that we’ve lived in by coincidence, and I feel that the two records we’ve made in each city are in opposition to each other, for somewhat conceptual reasons. Sisterworld was very much about Los Angeles and the people who live in it, and we projected our ideas outside the subject matter. But WIXIW – we could have made it in Brazil as well.

WIXIW is pronounced “Wish you”. As part of your work, you invented a kind of new language. On your homepage one can see a video of people pronouncing it. Who made the video?
We had a friend do that particular one but we made all the other videos on our website ourselves. When it’s time to make a video we get an idea of who’s out there and who we like. Then we try to work with your ‘wish list’.
Todd Cole for example directed our last video “No 1. against the Rush”
We always give them full creative control about the story. The only thing, that we’re picky on is the focal point of the cinematography. Such as, it’s shot on water, or it’s shot at night, then great.

The video to an older song, “Scissor”, directed by Andy Bruntel, speaks about themes like isolation and loneliness in a sort of violent way. Are you trying to establish a contrast between the imagery and your sound?
It’s always an interpretation – like the photography, we don’t edit the visual idea. We have noticed that when we give our music to people to make videos or do a photoshoot they tend to come out with violent endings, and we don’t necessarily realize why – that’s not our interpretation of those songs!
I think in that regard, similar to criticism, you realize what it is you’re communicating versus what you thought you were communicating and what effect you thought you could have on people.

That video has recieved comments on vimeo like: “Well done, but I don't like this heavy metal music”. Does criticism affect what you do?
Not really, it doesn’t affect what we do. We don’t really have time to listen to criticism, that’s not to say it isn’t important – if certain things that we do are miscommunicated, and that seems to be a general consensus, then we might pay attention to it, but not change. Some people aren’t going to get it, but you try harder to communicate what you’re saying.

In your artwork and videos you are sometimes playing with role models, creating sort of a gender confusion. Are the Liars feminists?
I feel like it’s a step back, claiming to be a feminist. I would rather be at a point where that’s gone. I don’t see why men don’t wear dresses or marry men freely, no matter if it’s legal or not. If everyone already put themselves past needing to be a feminist in order to elevate this injustice then we’re already just living as if it were gone. There’s possible violent effects that can be inflicted on these people. But if we say that we’re feminists, it puts us in an old place where we feel that someone’s not capable of doing something.
The rules are as strong as you allow them to be in your head. If we claim to be feminists, we feel that the powers oppressing women are very strong. That’s not to say it’s not difficult to overcome those challenges for people, but I think it’s more powerful to do it and be in that space.

Let's talk about fashion!
Oh yeah. I'd love that. My first retail job was working for Fred Segal in LA. Then I worked at YSL for Hedi Slimane when I first moved to New York. It was purely by accident.

How did that come about?
When I moved to New York, I had all these horrible, terribly paid jobs like sculptor’s assistant and so. All these people just working in shops were warm and they looked great, and I thought maybe I’ll lie a little bit and say I have all this experience.
After having applied,YSL contacted me, and it was this long process – I had to take a Polaroid, have three interviews, Paris had to agree. At that time I really didn’t know too much about fashion but it was winter and I had a lot of downtime so I was able to study and learn about fashion and all the design groups. Hedi Slimane cared so much about how the store looked, and how we represented what he made. I respected that so much, so I studied what he did and learnt about his ideas.
When he left for Dior, the structure changed immediately. It was bought by Gucci and was no longer a French but an American company. It became a bit like working in a store, whereas before it seemed very special. So I left, too.

For your videos you are working with wardrobe designers – how strongly do you influence the wardrobe choices, or do you renege control?
In that sense we would give it away completely. Telling a story is not about who I am but about the character - so to object to a piece of clothing because it’s not “me” is totally irrational, I think!
On stage it's different: Even though it’s been so long, we still get very nervous and need to wear something that makes us feel comfortable enough to perform.
So if you dress silly or formal or however casual, it’s that simple objective. What people do with fashion in everyday life, it’s to get you through these occasions with some degree of assistance. If you dress up for some big presentation, it’s like you have something assisting you through that.

Your drummer was wearing a pink hooded raincoat at your last Kreuzberg gig. Tough concept regarding the sweaty job he does.
Again, I think that’s an example of adding some humor into things. It would be easy for us to take ourselves too seriously – we definitely take what we do seriously but not ourselves, all the time.

Generally: Are fashion and punk opposed?
To me, punk is about being resourceful and fashion is what you make of it – you can take very creative elements out of it or you can focus on the economics of it. To me, the more a poor person can rip off the look, it equalizes any potential economic divide. You can rip off Louis Vuitton or Comme des Garçons easily and cheaply and creatively and there’s nothing bad about that, and it inspires both worlds, and pushes both worlds.
There are a lot of issues – maybe there are lazy designers who rip off street culture, that’s always been there. And maybe they prosper off poor people. If you just focused on that in any medium, you’d be resigned to quit; it happens in music all the time. I personally think the more squatter punks rip off rich people’s style the more confusing it would be to the rich people, and it would equalize the uniform. I feel like it would confuse things and agitate things more.

Download “No 1. against the Rush” at until July 25!
Or check out the fantastic video here:

Interview by Megan Gannon & Sharon Welzel

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Summer Issues 2012



FIN – Fashion Week Closing Party

Saturday. 7.7.2012, 23:00 – open end
PICKNICK, Dorotheenstr. 90, Berlin–Mitte


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