20 June 2012
Articles | Interviews

10 Commandments: Liars

To celebrate the release of their sixth album, WIXIW, we asked frontman Angus to lay down the band’s most sacred creative principles

Words Angus Andrew (interviewed by Cian Traynor)
Photography Jenna Foxton

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1. Thou Shalt Collaborate

It feels easier when you’re allowed the time and privacy to bring an idea to fruition, but there’s a bit of ego in developing something alone because you become steadfast about it. If it’s collaborative, you just have this seed of an idea — a sound or a beat that’s undeveloped, which is harder to be as confident about. It’s a little scarier, bringing it to each other. I think that’s what stopped us before. We used to come up with an idea for a record but go our separate ways and write songs to completion, then bring them to the band.

This time Aaron [Hemphill, multi-instrumentalist] and I moved to a cabin in the woods, living together in the initial stages of the writing so we were forced to get in each other’s work early on. In the past, Aaron had a real problem with immediately throwing stuff away. I had to be emphatic with him about that. Even the single on this record, ‘No. 1 Against The Rush’, was something Aaron began and could have easily thrown away unless I was there to make sure it wasn’t. It’s harder but in the end you feel better about it because you know that each of you has invested in everything, right down to a hi-hat sound. Nothing’s left uncertain. You just have to set out with the mindset of being open to other opinions. In a group dynamic, that’s the only way to deal with it.

2. Thou Shalt Experiment

Getting out of the comfort zone is pretty natural for us. When I think back to when we made our first record and moved on to the second, the thing that would have been expected of us would have been to recreate and refine what we established on that first album. Not doing that was the best move we ever made. It set a precedent for us in that we said to each other, ‘Let’s sink the ship and find something else to make music with.’ We try to challenge ourselves by jumping into something fresh and new but with the past couple of records, it’s been more experimenting with melody or strong structure. I used to feel like I was trying to refine this idea of being a songwriter, like, ‘You’re in a band so maybe you should figure out how to write a really good song.’ At some point I realised that a normal or traditional ‘song’ is not what interests me about music. What gets me is sounds, so this time we opened up our world to computers and analogue synths, stepping into a much larger sonic palette.

3. Thou shalt choose the hard road with an equal mix of hubris and regret

It seems like there are a lot of easier ways that we could function. We could stick to a formula or, like I said, refine what we’ve done on past records. In a lot of ways we admire and respect people who do that, people who say, ‘I’m a guitarist and I’m going to become a great guitarist by making guitar records every time.’ That’s commendable but for us it’s never really been an option in terms of staying excited about what we’re doing. It seems like with each record we find the hardest way to do things and just deal with it. The hubris is the confidence to take on any new challenge and the regret comes with the position you put yourself in and how difficult it can become. For example, trying to learn computer programmes was a nightmare. You’re all excited to make a song and you find yourself reading manuals for two days. It’s not only frustrating but frightening in that we’re well aware there are a million great artists out there who know how to use this stuff better than we do. You start doubting yourself. ‘Are we doing the right thing? Is this obvious to a lot of people and new to us?’ At first it seemed instinctive and easy just to make a lot of dance-orientated music until we realised we needed to go a bit further, try a different tact and challenge ourselves more by injecting our own personality into it

4. Thou shalt avoid studios and record it thine self

Typically you write songs as demos, then find an engineer and go into a studio only to have to remake the song. It’s like a translation, almost. In a studio, there’s this gap between the microphone and the speaker. I just wanted to get rid of that gap and try to avoid microphones altogether, make it more immediate. That’s what led us into using computers. In the past, you could look back at demos and think, ‘Aw, that was really cool. We weren’t able to recreate that.’ With this one, it’s all there. There’s no, ‘We should have done this.’ What we wrote is exactly what you hear.

5. Thou shalt disregard health

When you’re writing a record, everything becomes secondary. If I need to, I’ll stay up three nights in a row, do x amount of stimulants — anything to help make it happen. Your body pays the toll for it but that has to take a backseat through the creative process. It’s a complete focus on the work as opposed to saying, ‘Well, I should eat healthier.’ No, let’s grab a bloody burger and get back into the work. It’s abandoning everything else and putting yourself in a position where epiphanies can happen. For me, staying up several nights in a row helps me develop a new kind of intensity. I see things differently. Maybe there’s less of a censor on my brain somehow. But you go all in and it feels like everything else is not important, which is detrimental in a lot of ways. Health, social life, relationships — all that goes out the window.

6. Thou shalt embrace doubt and fear

When you’ve finished a record, people expect you to be sitting around popping a bottle of champagne and feeling great. To be honest, it’s never felt like that. You’re not thinking, ‘Oh wow, we just made the best thing in the world!’ The things I felt confident about in the past were more traditional, less ambitious ideas of how a song functions. The stuff you worry about is actually the stuff that’s interesting. This record was about using that as a subject matter. Previously, we’d come up with a concept or an idea that we’d relate lyrics and music to, whether it’s Los Angeles or witches, and project our feelings onto it. This time we let fear and doubt come out from our interior selves — our personal landscapes — which is new for us. We did flaunt our insecurities and in a way it’s embarrassing.

7. Thou shalt avoid unwanted influence

In today’s world, it feels like you’re constantly bombarded with stuff, whether it’s music or information. It takes a massive effort to get away from it. Even when Aaron and I were out in this cabin in the woods, it was still hard to block it all out. I like to watch basketball, for example, and in the background there’ll be a Nicki Minaj or a bloody Maroon 5 song constantly playing. I really don’t want that stuck in my head. It’s a big deal for me. When I first moved back to LA from Berlin, I was really open to that stuff, turning on KROQ to listen to a bunch of crappy music like non-stop Foo Fighters or something. Indirectly or not, there’s some sort of influence there. I’m not looking for any kind of inspiration. When I set out to write music, I just try to get what’s going on inside me. Early on in making this record, I allowed myself to listen to some Queen and it just got me so down. I didn’t think I could ever make a song as good as those, which puts me in a corner. It might be great music but it’s a real negative influence if it’s not inspiring in the right way. Avoiding the whole lot of it is the best thing. Don’t take any informing from anywhere else.

8. Thou shalt ‘move after two’

We’ve fallen into this formula where the most records we’ve made in one place is two. As soon as we’ve spent that amount of time somewhere, we’re fed up and ready to leave. We were in New York, then Berlin, now we’ve done two in LA and it feels like time to move on. It’s not something we were really aware of, but it’s a realisation that just happened naturally: after a certain period, we get interested in finding somewhere new. Mostly it’s pragmatic. For example, we wanted to tour Eastern Europe more so we moved to Berlin because it was cheap and pretty close to there. Then we came to LA, where Aaron and Julian [Gross, drummer] are both from, mainly because they hadn’t been with their families in a long while. It can be pretty mundane and straightforward things that inspire the move but it helps keep things fresh.

9. Thou shalt listen to Daniel

Putting faith in someone else’s opinion is not something we’ve really done before. We don’t involve ourselves with playing stuff to friends and seeing what they say. If you show something to someone early on and they’re like, ‘Uh, I don’t know,’ suddenly your doubt becomes much worse. This time, we spoke with Daniel [Miller, Mute label founder] and asked if we could rely on him for his opinion and tried to get him more involved — not necessarily as a producer but as an advisor. He was an electronic pioneer, so it seemed obvious that we should take advantage of his experience and know-how if we wanted to step into this electronic realm. One of the biggest things was that I’d spend time putting together a certain drumbeat I’d really like but, as someone not well-versed in this electronic language, I’d be thinking, ‘What if this is the Chemical Brothers’ signature fuckin’ snare sound?’ So it was important that we could play things like that to him and be told, ‘Eh, you don’t wanna use that.’ We’ve been with Mute our whole career and it’s really because of Daniel. I can’t speak for him but it seems like he feels pretty strongly about what we do. Mute, in a way, is an electronic label and it seemed weird that we never made anything that would relate to him in that sense, until now.

10. Thou shalt not rock

This is our least aggressive record. I think it’s the first one with no shouting, which is actually a pretty massive step. Maybe it was the first time we felt comfortable not trying to ram something down people’s throats. Thinking in those terms is what’s kept us a band, I think. If we had stuck to the idea of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, I don’t know if we’d still be together. What’s the right motivation to make music? All I know is it gives me pure joy and happiness. There’s not a lot of other things in my life that can achieve that for me. Whether it’s making a song, a video or a photograph, there’s something about the creative process, this tremendous feeling you can’t find anywhere else.

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