The Drones’ Gareth Liddiard: “It’s fun to fuck with people”

ROB INGLIS spoke to The Drones’ firebrand leader Gareth Liddiard about the mysterious death of the Somerton man, the joys of playing depressing songs, the sad state of Australian culture, and the influence of Wu-Tang on the band’s new album Feelin Kinda Free.

Entering their nineteenth year as a band, The Drones remain a formidable presence on the national stage. Indeed, their reinstatement of former drummer Christian Strybosch – or Chrisso – has reenergised the group. Feelin Kinda Free, The Drones’ seventh studio album, is full of vitriol and acerbic wit, probing the darkness inherent in Australia’s national character.

‘Taman Shud,’ the lead single from the new record, is, in a sense, a call-to-arms. It refers to an infamous episode in the modern history of Australia, an unsolved crime that – despite having all the requisite hallmarks of a classic whodunit – hasn’t made much of an impression on the public consciousness.

In 1948, a man’s corpse was discovered on Somerton Beach in Adelaide, propped up against a seawall as though admiring the view. Believed to have been poisoned, no identification was found on his person, only the sort of ordinary bric-a-brac that accumulates over the course of a working week: chewing gum, transit tickets, cigarettes, etc. The aspect of the story that’s afforded it a kind of folkloric status, though, is the scrap of paper that was recovered from the Somerton man’s coat-pocket. Torn from a very rare book of twelfth-century Persian poetry The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the bit of parchment said only two words: ‘taman shud,’ or ‘finished’ in Persian. The copy of the Rubaiyat was soon uncovered. On the last page, a cryptic assortment of capital letters was scribbled.

To this day, no one can be sure who the Somerton man was. Thus, it’s tough to discern a motive for his murder. “Why don’t anybody feel like crying/For the Somerton somebody with the hazel eyes?” the Drones’ frontman Gareth Liddiard sings on ‘Taman Shud.’ The song ultimately implores listeners to pay attention to their own history, to take an active interest in the nation’s grim legacy of disenfranchisement.

Firstly, I want to ask you how the return of Chrisso to the band affected the recording of Feelin Kinda Free? It must have been a while between drinks.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, it was. Ten years.

Did it affect the dynamic considerably?

Yeah, totally. Fuck yeah. I mean, for one, he was super keen, because he’d not played drums for ten years. It’s weird, ‘cause just coincidentally a friend had sold his electronic drum kit that you play at home with headphones. So, he was having a bash on that for a few months before we rang him and asked him back. But then, y’know, he’d never played an electronic drum kit, and inside the electronic drum kit it’s got hundreds of sounds. You can just dial up all these weird sounds. I wanted to get away from the acoustic kit, just because it’s not the fucking 1970s anymore. I sort of figured we should mix it up with the drums a bit.

And so when he came back in the band, I was like: “Let’s do some sort of electronic drums.” Like electronic drums but with a human being playing them. He was really keen. It was good. So any kind of weird and wacky ideas we had, he jumped on them. We’d been around the world fifty times, played everything fifty-million times. He came in with way more enthusiasm than we did.

Since those very first Drones records with Chrisso on the drums, I’ve always thought of the Australia depicted in your music as a kind of barren hellscape, like the American frontier via Dante’s Inferno. I wonder whether this is a conscious thing, because, to me, it seems like an effort to debunk that old myth of the “lucky country”.

It’s weird. I mean, it’s something that’s in me and something that appeals to me as well. A lot of me is in the music, so it’s not an act. But at the same time, to make something like a hellscape or a really depressing song, it comes from a genuine place, but then to do that and then release it, promote it, and then play it to a room full of people on a Saturday night, that’s like a form of mischief.

“We go out there and just deafen a bunch of people and ruin their night, and we’ll go backstage and laugh”

It’s such a fucking downer. To inflict that on people is actually just funny. Like sometimes we go out there and just deafen a bunch of people and ruin their night, and we’ll go backstage and laugh. Bands like the Dirty Three would do the same thing. You think it’s all an earnest kind of thing. And in one sense it is, but there’s a playful side to it too. You know, if someone’s watching the Dirty Three and they’re crying, those guys probably wouldn’t have as earnest a reaction to that as you’d think. They’ll probably go backstage and laugh. It’s actually fun to fuck with people. Yeah, I’m trying to debunk the “lucky country”. Sure. But at the same time, I’m trying to just fucking, y’know … a reign of terror for a laugh.

So much of this record is concerned with ideas of immigration – more specifically with the humanitarian crisis facing Australia right now in regard to refugees. Images of boats and beaches pepper the album, complementing the overarching theme of the Somerton man. Could you elaborate on some of the ways that these motifs converge on each other? Was that a deliberate thing or is that something that I’m reading into?

No, no, no, I think you’re seeing what’s there. For one, there’s like this sort of new diaspora where the Jews are leaving Europe. It’s not likely reported on because of the whole Syria thing. But at the bottom of it all there’s an anti-Semitism. Just ‘cause when things go south politically, it always happens, whether we’re hating Muslims or we’re hating this or that, we’re going to hate the Jews as well. It seems to come hand in hand.

And then there’s all sorts of stuff about people moving everywhere trying to get away from a mess that we made, that no one will admit. No Westerner would like to admit publicly that we sent Lawrence of Arabia and Gertrude Bell – or our forebears did, the English did – to set that part of the world up to serve us, to basically give up oil and shit like that, and we reaped the benefits of that. On my solo album, there’s a line: “You’re driving a new Jeep Cherokee/You’ve burnt Arabs for fuel.” Like, that’s what it is. What you’re seeing in Syria, that’s what you get when you put fuel in your car, that’s exactly the end result of a very long and complex kind of situation.

You said to the Guardian last year “[t]he reason people don’t like to look back in Australian history is sooner or later you get back to the bit with the Aboriginal people.” I know you guys have been concerned with indigenous issues for a long time. During live performances, you often cover Kev Carmody’s ‘River of Tears’ [a song about the police killing of the indigenous Australian David Gundy]. I want to know how you feel about the parallels between the history of oppression in this country and the stuff we’re seeing play out in the news nowadays, with people arriving here on boats.

“I think you need to go hyper-multicultural to chill things out a bit”

Well, it’s kind of hypocritical, really [laughs]. But it’s hard to get that into somebody’s head: a white guy, an English descendent. They don’t get it. We’ve been taught to believe that the Aboriginals were just here, waiting for us to get here. Basically, they were kind of just looking after the joint before we arrived, and that it was inevitable ‘cause we had technological superiority and therefore moral superiority. I dunno, they’re just mowing the lawn ‘til we get here. That’s the way people see it, which is utter bullshit.

In a hundred years, the white guy like me is not going to be the majority in Australia anymore, and I think that’s really good. The minute we arrived it became a multicultural society, but it wasn’t very multicultural, and had its pretty obvious problems. I think you need to go hyper-multicultural to chill things out a bit. And we’re heading there. I think it’ll be alright.


The cover art for Feelin Kinda Free is a facsimile of the cipher found in one of the Somerton man’s pockets. Given that we still have no inkling of what the note actually means, could you explain what you see between those lines of script?

It’s a mystery. The Somerton man is so frustrating, so tantalising but so frustrating. That’s the fascination with things like that or the origins of the universe, like you’re never going to know. It drives you insane but it’s so … it’s cool [laughs]. It’s such a tease, it’s such a massive tease.

And something that not many Australians are really familiar with either.

That’s why it’s in that song. If it had happened in America, you’d know about it. But because it happened here, you don’t. That’s interesting isn’t it? [laughs]. It’s the whole cultural cringe thing.

It goes back to what you said about Australians not wanting to look too far back into the past.

Yeah, so they don’t even know themselves. They don’t know anything about themselves. They don’t know about Dame Nellie Melba or someone, even, like a cultural figure like that. I’m pretty sure that she released the first record. She’s an Australian and she puts out the first fucking record. Like a 7” or a 45, or whatever it was back then. So in the record stores back then, if you went into a record store there would be one record and it was hers. And she’s from Melbourne. She was born in Richmond. But no one in Australia knows that, even people listening to fucking Triple R and PBS. If it was an American thing, they’d be like: “Yes! We invented fucking records!” Nah, not here. [laughs]

Were there any particular records you were listening to during the making of the album?

We were listening to Wu-Tang. Too much Wu-Tang Clan. ‘Cause the gear that we had is the gear that they had, that RZA used. One of the guys in the studio that we share had gone and bought all that old sampling gear: MPCs, drum machines, and stuff that was used on the first two or three Wu-Tang affiliated albums. We were just trying to figure out what the fuck all this shit did. Our friend Phil, he got sick of buying guitars and stuff like that, so he just moved to hip-hop gear, classic hip-hop gear. It’s really cool.

Did you see Wu-Tang play recently when they were in Melbourne?

“I don’t like to see hip-hop without a drum kit”

No. We were in Barcelona playing at Primavera Festival, and they played there and I missed it. But the other guys saw it and they thought it was a bit shit. People like Public Enemy or Death Grips or Kate Tempest, there’s lots of hip-hop now that’s finally – well, not finally, because Public Enemy were doing it, like, fifteen years ago – cottoned on that they should get a real fucking drum kit, because a drum machine sort of doesn’t cut it. And you can actually just get a guy, a human being, to do all that stuff for you. The sound becomes incredible, like mind-blowingly good. Wu-Tang, I don’t think they’ve ever really got that. We saw Snoop Dogg recently. He had a drum kit and it was really good. I don’t like to see hip-hop without a drum kit.

From late-April onwards, you guys are playing a bunch of national dates in support of Feelin Kinda Free, including an all-ages gig at the Tote and a few shows in some oft-neglected places on the map – places a lot of bands wouldn’t even bother with, like Hobart, Wollongong, and Byron Bay. Is that something that’s important to you, delivering your music not only to young Australians, but also to those who wouldn’t expect the opportunity to see renowned bands perform at their local?

Yeah, it’s good. We do OK in those places, so we try to go there. Sometimes you can do something like that and it’s a downer. But worst-case scenario, you get to play, you get a bit of practice. At one point we were playing eighty or a hundred shows a year, ‘cause we’d go to Europe all the time. And you get really good, that’s the upside of that. You become a machine. But then your liver kind of gets beaten up a little bit too much. So, we’ve backed out on that a bit. But in Australia there’s only fucking six cities. It’s a drag. So, we try and play as many regionals as possible these days.

Have you got any plans to make another solo album, just you and a guitar again?

Not really. I kind of got that out of my system. Plus, as much as I like doing that stuff, and doing the shows, sitting there on a stool with an acoustic guitar, I like playing music that is sort of modern and uses its available equipment. Same as, like, Jimi Hendrix did, or Lou Reed. I don’t like to do that thing like, “I like Jimi Hendrix, therefore I need to use a bunch of forty-year-old equipment and recording technologies.” What he was doing was using what’s available. So, I want to do that. I want to use samplers, I want to use Ableton software, and blah blah blah.

Before you go: any theories about who killed the Somerton man?

I have no idea. I’m not a conspiracy guy. You know, Lee Harvey Oswald, all that shit, I’m just like: “A guy with a gun shot another guy, that’s what happened.” You know what I mean? And with 9/11, a bunch of fucking dickheads flew a fucking couple of 747s into a bunch of buildings. But with the Somerton guy, yeah, I dunno. ‘Cause it could be like a guy, a cargo, like a supercargo, who had some weird love triangle thing that went sour, and he got killed by a nurse or something. Or it could be he was a spy for the Eastern Bloc because there was nuclear testing. I’m fifty-fifty. It’s crazy isn’t it?

It is. Admittedly, I didn’t know about it until I heard your song. I ended up reading into it online for over an hour because it’s so perplexing.

You pull your hair out. And it keeps coming. Every ten years something else pops up, so it’s like, “Arghhh, what the fuck happened!” And now there’s that guy who’s been investigating it, and he’s married what possibly could be the granddaughter of the Somerton man. He’s been investigating the whole thing for twenty years. He wants to get the body dug up and DNA-tested, and he wanted to DNA-test his now-wife. It’s just nuts.

It’s amazing that more people aren’t familiar with the story. I was shocked that something like this happened in Australia and I didn’t know about it.

I was talking to someone in Adelaide, doing an interview the other day and they didn’t know about it. The guy was like “It happened near my house.” It’s like, wow, you didn’t even know.

Feelin Kinda Free will be released on Friday, March 18 independently through Tropical F*&k Storm Records and MGM Distribution.

The Drones tour dates

Friday, April 29 – The Gov, Adelaide
Saturday, April 30 – Rosemount Hotel, Perth
Friday, May 6 – The Triffid, Brisbane
Saturday, May 7 – The Northern, Byron
Thursday, May 12 -Wollongong Uni Bar, Wollongong
Friday, May 13 – The Cambridge, Newcastle
Saturday, May 14 -The Metro, Sydney
Friday, May 20 -170 Russell, Melbourne
Saturday, May 21 – Brisbane Hotel, Hobart
Friday, May 27 – The Tote, Melbourne
Saturday, May 28 – The Tote, Melbourne – afternoon show (ages 12 – 25)
Saturday, May 28 – The Tote, Melbourne (Over 18)
Sunday, May 29 – The Tote, Melbourne