Painting by Jason Benjamin
As yet another humbly quiet, earnestly gentle pop singing man delivers an album for people who can’t understand why everyone else has to be so, well, angry about everything all the time when they could write lovely love songs, it’s worth returning to someone who would never, ever fit that bill.
Whether it’s in The Drones, solo, or in his anything-but-soft current project, Tropical Fuck Storm (get that title on a George Ezra album, mate, go on), Gareth Liddiard is not here to be nice. Or, even worse, “sound wanky”.
As this story from 2010 shows, he’s got other things to think about.
Gareth Liddiard walks towards me in Surry Hills looking like your quintessential inner Melbourne artist. His small, skinny frame is dressed, naturally, in shades of black and gradings of lived in and a pair of darkly focused eyes is framed by thick, tousled hair and an even thicker beard.
Occasionally a playful smile twitches at the edges of his mouth but as with his stage presence with his regular band The Drones, there’s a palpable air of intensity around him, of coiled energy and potential for hard burning.
Already this year, having released his first solo album with its lyric-driven richness, he’s been invited up for one of the out-of-season Sydney Writers’ Festival events and you suspect there’s more to come for man who’s already won an Australian Music Prize and is likely to figure heavily in betting for the next. So does he think of himself as a writer?
"Oh no, not like that, no,” he says, clearly horrified at the thought as if someone’s just suggested he might wear a chambray shirt and chinos. “A songwriter, words and music, but no, not a prose writer."
But his lyrics, particularly on his album, Strange Tourist, are closer to prose, to detailed and yet sparse short stories, than conventional lyrics. Full of fleshed out characters and complex imagery and having little connection to verse/chorus/verse songwriting, they don’t work like regular songs.
And they definitely don’t sound like regular songs as, in his nasal, insinuating voice over acoustic guitar, he sings of a flat above an old fish shop where they served up slop and “I spent a year there with B/After I quite the Mitsubishi/Dragged my mattress up some stairs by the sea/Then watched the old van rust in the gusts of the coast/Endings its knightly expeditions for beer”.
The man can write and, without “the ruckus of the band” as he puts it, there’s almost nothing but words to dive into on Strange Tourist.
"It’s in the limits of verse," he begins, before a little embarrassed laugh. "That sounds wanky. I don't know what I'd do if I went to write prose or anything like that. I'm not sure that it would be any good. It's the limits that I work well inside and the more I do it the better I get. I'm not interested in doing anything else because I'd have to learn that. It's taken this long to get reasonably good and I can't be fucked starting anything new.”
What he does well, probably better than anyone outside the literary circles he eschews, is explore the characters and the environment of the fringe dwellers, ordinary people living in the hinterland suburbs and towns, those unspectacular areas and otherwise insignificant people not normally favoured by songwriters.
Why there? "Because the alternative is a bit bland really”. And why is it so visceral, practically oozing blood and spit and anger and frustration?
“If you going to do something you may as well fuck with it, make it interesting, experiment. I'm the sort of musician who started because I wanted to hear that, who wanted to know what if you crossed [hyper-intense American punk band] Black Flag with Bob Dylan. No one would do that for me so I gave it a razz myself,” says Liddiard.
"It’s like the Bukowski thing where he just went, you are really good writer, give me some fucking action. Put something in it, smash some shit up. That's why Hemingway was such a good writer: people blowing up bridges, men throwing women on to the bed, drinking and fighting and fucking, so it was action packed. That's all I'm trying to do."
Apart from blowing up bridges [for which you could substitute a Strange Tourist song about a white jihadi bent on destruction], he's just mentioned most of the key Liddiard elements.
Like his musical and literary heroes, Liddiard is not afraid to be brutal, emotionally and physically, to and with his characters.
"Hmm, why not? I don't chase it, I just allow everything and that sort of stuff happens. You don't write a song where it's you chiselling away at something, you let it happen, you follow it,” he says. “Every song is a team effort between me and the song, it's not just me. So I'm not necessarily thinking I'll put some brutality in here, I just don't have any limits. And the older I get the less I'm interested in any of that shit."