Pro Audio

Indulging style over substance: a frank chat with Gareth Liddiard

Few Australian bands in the last decade have arrived with the fervour and fury of Tropical Fuck Storm. And you wouldn’t expect anything less from the new project spearheaded by Gareth Liddiard, frontman, guitarist, songwriter and sole original member of legendary psych-punk act The Drones.

Collaborating with fellow Drones alumni Fiona Kitschin on bass, High Tension’s Lauren Hammel on drums, and Erica Dunn of Harmony / Palm Springs on guitar, keys and other gadgets (with all sharing vocal duties), Liddiard is on a different plane with Tropical Fuck Storm. It’s fresh, raw and completely fucking wild – a brawl of manic guitars, grinding electronics and sardonic humour.

We caught up with Liddiard to talk about how the cyclonic sound of Tropical Fuck Storm came together, his DIY approach, and why indulging style over substance is what is keeping art alive.

Photo by Jamie Wdziekonski

Gareth Liddiard on the cyclonic sound of Tropical Fuck Storm, his DIY approach, and why indulging style over substance is keeping art alive.

ENMORE AUDIO: Hey Gareth, how’s it going? Massive fan of A Laughing Death in Meatspace – what a great record. How are you feeling about it now that you’ve had some time to reflect on it?

GARETH: Yeah pretty good. It’s our first record and it was made while we were learning to be a band together. So it’s not perfect or fully formed or anything but it’s cool. The next one will be better. But the cover is one of the greatest record covers in human history. I stand by that and if you disagree it’s only because you haven’t seen the cover.

ENMORE AUDIO: Where did you record the album? Was it a DIY thing? If so, tell us about your studio?

GARETH: At our studio at home. Everything we do is DIY. That’s kinda coz it’s cheaper to be DIY, but mainly because it’s hard to find good help in the studio. If you don’t die young in this bizz you inevitably wind up more qualified than everyone else coz it’s a young person’s game. So if we got a producer or went to a studio we’d be telling them what to do in most cases. And if that’s not the case it’s coz we’re paying the big bux which we just don’t have.

That will annoy any studio types who read that but the thing is we’re not some cookie cutter stock standard bunch of green musicians. We’re deep into our own trip in our own universe and it’s a lot harder to relay coordinates to whoever’s at the helm than it is to just grab the wheel ourselves.

Anyway, the studio is a couple of really big 1960’s demountable schoolrooms banged up against each other in the countryside. I’ve accumulated about 24 channels of nice outboard gear and lotsa mics and it’s all just a big mess. Lotsa drum stuff, drum machines, weird effects and gadgets…. it’s like a lab.

ENMORE AUDIO: Rad. You already have such an incredible reputation as a guitarist from your time in the Drones. How did starting Tropical Fuck Storm affect how you saw yourself as a guitarist or your approach to playing?

GARETH: It didn’t really. I’m always chopping and changing gear and techniques. I just get sick of stuff so I do other stuff. I like technology. I try to keep up coz its fun. I’m not into retro stuff and retro gear really, though if its good it’s good and I’m fine with it.

All you have to do is your own thing but you have to work on that thing really hard. Otherwise you’re like one of those deluded idiots who audition on those The Voice or Idol shows. They think they’re worth listening to but in reality they’re just clinging to the wind their stupid mothers blew up their arses to protect them from the insignificance that eventually plagues us all.

ENMORE AUDIO: Were there any records/eras/gear that really influenced the development of the TFS sound?

GARETH: Oh man. Well, there’s the 2018 era. All sorts of modern electronic type shit like Rhianna or obscure stuff like Blevin Blectum. Fela Kuti for the whole rhythm scaffold and general fuck-youness. Having two female singers rather than just Fi by herself has made a big difference and will continue to do so.

ENMORE AUDIO: Yeah, I really like the electronic elements that crept their way onto the record, it adds this harsh new dimension to the record that I feel wouldn’t have been possible only using guitars. Was there any gear you were using that inspired you to bring this element in or that really made a big impact on the sound of the record?

GARETH: Yeah, Teenage Engineering OP-1 keys and drum machines. Anything made by Eventide. Granular Effects stompboxes. Lots of weird obscure iPhone drum machine apps. Contact mics. Tea towels gaffed onto all the drums. Magic mushrooms.

ENMORE AUDIO: There are so many moments on the record that use fuzz in a really interesting way – The Future of History and Antimatter Animals really blew me away. How do you approach creating and recording distortion in the studio?

GARETH: I try to mix into the box as much as possible…. compress, eq, effects and dirt etc. I like to print it all coz otherwise you never make any hard decisions and shit gets bogged down and you end up using lots of plugins and your CPU shits itself and you become saddened by the whole process. Digital is crystal clear and clean so it’s actually kinda hard to dirty everything up.

I have a bunch of old Quad Eight and Electrodyne and API and JLM stuff and I just crank the gain and try to knock the peaks of on the line amps. Then I hardly compress anything after that. It seems like everything that anyone likes about any kind of recording (except modern classical recordings) is distortion, whether it’s chronic or mild. They call it “tape” or “tubes” or “warmth” or “saturation” but it’s all just distortion in the end and sounds better than perfect sound capture.

ENMORE AUDIO: There’s this wonderful kind of discordance in your playing and chord progressions that kind of reminds me of Kevin Shields’ sound. Where does this come from? Tunings, odd progressions, distortion?

GARETH: Just style. I think I inadvertently developed my own while I was trying to avoid a bunch of tropes I never liked. There’s that disparaging saying “style over substance” which is silly. Anything in the art world worth its salt is actually style over substance. All homo-sapiens that aren’t idiots essentially think the same shit so style is the only thing that differentiates them from one another in the end.

ENMORE AUDIO: Are you still using the some Jag you used in the Drones? What is it you love about that guitar? Tell us a bit about it – obviously you’ve changed the pickups?

GARETH: Yeah. it was my first “real” guitar. I got it in 1997 for $1100. It has a skinnier neck than a Strat or a Tele. Shorter too so the strings are looser and go BOING when you whack them. It’s not vintage so you can drop it and not feel bad and it’s not a Gibson so you can drop it without the headstock snapping off at the join. Though I’ve snapped the head of my Jag twice over the years. It has a Seymour Duncan single-coil size humbucker in the neck and a Seymour Duncan Les Paul type PAF in the bridge. It’s basically an SG or Les Paul that looks like a Jag.

ENMORE AUDIO: Tell us about your pedal rig – it looks like you’re using some kind of big multi-effect – am I right?

GARETH: Yeah, a POD hd500x. It’s got lots of goodies in it. Sounds good. I’ve got a lot of the real pedals that it’s emulating and I’ve A-B’d them and I can’t tell the difference. Like the Big Muff is exactly the same as the real thing except it has better eq in the POD. But I use it mainly for routing and its ease of use when it comes to switching while you’re singing and can’t look down at pedals. My real pedals are a JHS modded Rat, a Count To Five sampler thing which is cool, a Red Panda delay and Mr Ugly, the 4ms distortion oscillator synth monstrosity.

ENMORE AUDIO: And what do you favour amp wise?

Live, anything Fender usually does it as long as it’s loud enough for whatever venue we’re in. In the studio, I use Goldentones or just DI it.

ENMORE AUDIO: What was it like bringing Tropical Fuck Storm from the studio to the stage? Did it take quite a bit of preparation, or did the songs feel like they fit a live setting comfortably?

Well, we made the album and started playing live together at the same time so it wasn’t too much of a drama. We treat those two things are separate entities anyway so whatever works, works. We’re not trying to make them sound the same.

ENMORE AUDIO: What’s next for TFS? Are you already working on a new record?

Yep, another record.

Listen to Tropical Fuck Storm’s new record A Laughing Death In Meatspace here. You can also catch them playing Yours and Owls Sept 29 – 30, 2018.