April 2016

Arts & Letters

Australian ugliness

By Anwen Crawford
Gareth Liddiard on The Drones’ ‘Feelin Kinda Free’

Early on 1 December 1948, a man was found dead at Adelaide’s Somerton Beach. His pockets contained cigarettes, matches and chewing gum, but he had no wallet, and his clothing tags had been removed. The man has never been identified, and, though a 1949 coroner’s inquest entertained the possibility that he may have been poisoned, the cause of his death has never been determined. The unsolved death is known as the Taman (or Tamam) Shud Case, named for a fragment of text found inside the man’s trouser fob pocket; investigators eventually discovered that it had been torn from a rare edition of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. In Persian, the words “tamam shud” mean something like “it is ended”.

‘Taman Shud’ is the lead single from Feelin Kinda Free, the seventh studio album by Victorian-based band The Drones. “Late 1948 / is sending a transmission but it’s inchoate,” sings Gareth Liddiard, The Drones’ main vocalist and songwriter. He is also one of the band’s two guitarists – alongside Dan Luscombe – and in this song the guitars rat-a-tat, like a telegraphic signal. The cover of Feelin Kinda Free reproduces a photograph from the police file on the Taman Shud Case: a handwritten string of letters, a possible code that has never been decrypted. One’s mind turns to Edward Snowden and the NSA scandal, to WikiLeaks, to the algorithm-based killing enabled by drones. (And surely, when they formed in Perth during the late 1990s, The Drones could not have predicted just how apt their chosen band name would become.) The Somerton man may have been a spy, even a communist – the West’s great political nightmare, until recently. “Fuck Western supremacy,” spits Liddiard. Keyboards, played by Steve Hesketh, squeal like fighter jets at speed. The Drones’ rhythm section – Fiona Kitschin on bass and Christian Strybosch on drums – create a tricky syncopated pattern.

It is characteristic of The Drones to make distant or overlooked history – particularly Australian history – resonant and vivid. They have a rare urgency, best felt at their live shows (and they have toured the world tirelessly, for months at a stretch), where they play like an inferno is burning at their heels. They join the rude volume of garage and punk rock to an experimental impulse that sees their live songs reach minutes-long stretches of scorching noise. And their urgency is moral, too; Liddiard’s screeds are dark reveries in which visions of contemporary and historical violence flash past. “The best songs are like bad dreams,” he sings on ‘Private Execution’, opening Feelin Kinda Free with a statement of purpose. The Drones sound ugly because the world is ugly. Goya would have understood them.

In person, Liddiard is as amiable as his songs are tormented. At 40 years old he is boyish and skinny; he laughs easily and swears frequently. Though he holds forth on the importance of Australian artists singing in their own accents – Liddiard has never cared to soften his twanging vowels by the smallest amount – he is full of self-deprecation, a national trait. “It’s just me, a dopey knob with a guitar and big amp, playing with my girlfriend and a bunch of drinking buddies,” he says of The Drones.

But your average “dopey knob” from the Perth suburbs does not, as Liddiard does, write lengthy songs about global conflict or converse knowledgeably on music ranging from Shostakovich to Missy Elliott (“She’s a fucking genius”). In the suburbs – or, it must be said, within the masculine milieu of Australian rock, which is largely a product of those suburbs – such behaviour might be regarded as pretentious. I suspect that Liddiard, consciously or not, is guarding against this danger.

“I hate having to write words, it’s the hardest thing,” he says, modestly, though he enjoys the poetic licence of songwriting, which allows him to piece together loosely associative ideas into a potent collage of imagery. (“If I was a journalist, I would have lost my job.”) The subjects on Feelin Kinda Free range from Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran (‘Private Execution’), to the refugee crisis in Europe (‘Then They Came For Me’), to a laundry list of national shibboleths that includes “Anzacery” and “BHP” (‘Taman Shud’), to humanity’s search for extraterrestrial intelligence (‘Shut Down SETI’). “You’re thinking like they’re coming to us to learn?” wonders Liddiard, on the latter track. “You think maybe they haven’t heard?” Though The Drones are deeply moral they are not righteous; their songs suggest that we are all equally vain and deluded.

“It’s a cop-out to say, ‘I’m different, I’m doing the right thing, you’re not,’” says Liddiard. “Fuck off. People who say, ‘The Middle East has nothing to do with me’ – well, it’s kind of where you get your oil from.”

So if we’re all part of the problem, is there any solution? Are things hopeless?

“I don’t think so,” he replies. “I’m not a nihilist.”

But many Drones songs veer close to nihilism, or at least give voice to markedly nihilistic characters. They have told tales of despairing alcoholics (‘Locust’, from 2005’s Wait Long by the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By, the breakthrough album that won them the inaugural Australian Music Prize), cannibal convicts (‘Words from the Executioner to Alexander Pearce’, from Gala Mill, released in 2006), and cruelly abandoned space dogs (‘Laika’, from 2013’s I See Seaweed). On Feelin Kinda Free ‘Boredom’ is partly told from the viewpoint of Jake Bilardi, the Melbourne teenager turned suicide bomber. “I’m saying farewell to the welfare state,” sings Liddiard. “The only comfort is a caliphate.”

The song, like ‘Taman Shud’, is distinguished by percussive, high-pitched guitar noises. This is the first album on which The Drones have moved any real distance from their garage-punk origins. It was a conscious decision, says Liddiard. “I said [to the band] ‘No blues guitar, don’t do it.’” The result is their most spacious album since Gala Mill (which leavened their racket with some acoustic songs, albeit bleak ones), and their most unusual album, musically speaking. Kitschin’s bass is prominent, as are Hesketh’s keyboards. The mood is sullen and the pace sometimes laggard – ‘Tailwind’, on the album’s second half, wanders away into nothing. And where, in the past, Liddiard’s tumult of words has often pulled the songs out of shape, here the words fit inside the music. There is breathing room.

‘To Think That I Once Loved You’, which bisects the record, is a highlight, marrying a slow beat to an impassioned lead vocal by Liddiard, with spectral backing vocals by singer-songwriter Laura Jean and a trio from Melbourne band Harmony. The song also stands out for seeming entirely heartfelt, where others on the record feel cynical.

“That’d be the right word,” says Liddiard. “‘Shut Down SETI’ is insincere. I don’t really care, it’s just a funny thing to write about.”

What makes it fun?

“To go play at the Tote, on a Saturday night, to play the most horrible, excoriating, depressing shit, it’s really fun,” he says. “To watch people stand there and …” He mimics a bout of mindless applause.

Would he prefer no audience?

“No,” he laughs. “I like an audience.” The band’s desolate songs, he adds, don’t come “from a completely dishonest place, but there’s also the AC/DC side, which is just a wall of amps, power for power’s sake”.

Granted, Liddiard sounds more like Bon Scott than any other contemporary Australian singer does, but, in intent, The Drones are rather far from AC/DC’s ludicrous machismo. And though there is pleasure to be had in ear-bleeding guitar noise, The Drones’ harsh sound allows them access to a fury that bypasses all notions of listener comfort or reassurance.

For a sense of it, look up their 2008 version of Kev Carmody’s song ‘River of Tears’, performed during an all-star Sydney Festival tribute night to the great indigenous songwriter. (It’s available on YouTube.) Where other bands might have trod carefully, timid and reverential, The Drones kick the door down. It’s a hair-raising rendition that embodies the brutality that the song narrates: the fatal shooting of a young Aboriginal man, David Gundy, during an unlawful police raid on his Marrickville home in 1989. The song remains an occasional feature of The Drones’ live sets (they have also toured with Carmody), and it has the power to reduce an audience to tears, confronted, as non-indigenous Australians rarely are, by the ugliness of colonial power.

Weeks after our conversation, still mulling it over, I send a follow-up question to Liddiard by email. The Drones are both musically and thematically violent, I suggest, so what does violence articulate?

Liddiard’s reply is thoughtful and discursive – a philosophy of rock music, if you will. He harks back to the classic punk split between the constructive anger of The Clash and the gleeful despair of the Sex Pistols; the latter mindset, he writes, “riles against rock and roll itself because it’s failed to deliver on its promises of freedom, imagination, social revolution”. From Hendrix and The Stooges to the Sex Pistols, Joy Division, Black Flag, The Birthday Party, Nirvana – this side of the schism, he writes, is the “fun” side (that word again). It’s the side that can, simultaneously, demand both more and less from rock, holding the form accountable for its failings while also revelling in sarcasm and destruction. Contemporary rock, writes Liddiard, resembles a “taxidermist’s workshop”, which means that there is more for him “to rile against than ever”.

The Drones, like the Sex Pistols before them, are a curious mixture of misanthropy and concern: it seems they care deeply but are stung by the fact that they care at all. Liddiard is no dope, and The Drones are, in many ways, a savage parody of guitar rock: a highly intelligent band who pretend, when the mood takes them, to be a stupid one.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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