“With your songwriting, it’s very much storytelling – do you have your own favourite storytell-“
“Fuck. I just found a bullet.”
I am speaking down the line with Gareth Liddiard, The Drones frontman himself – to some, his band is considered our nation’s most important rock act; in other circles his muddied tales of Australia, with their gothic poetry, are as revered as Paul Kelly’s or Nick Cave’s – and he’s just found a bullet.
“Just sitting in the middle of the bush – cause I get phone reception,” the ocker twang of his songs and his speaking voice one and the same, “and there’s an unused .22 bullet just lying here. Looks real old.”
It’s a surreal yet fitting moment. Who else but Liddiard would be able to spot, let alone identify and carbon-date such a projectile? In the foliage of Western Australia, no less. It’s wholly appropriate for a man whose own work looks past the tourism-friendly image of our country and its picturesque bush to pick out the true, gruesome details that lie beneath.
If the popular instinct is to write snappy, slightly repetitive three-minute pop songs that aim for universal appeal, then Liddiard flees in the opposite direction. Particularly with his solo debut, Strange Tourist, an album of sprawling acoustic numbers with nary a hook nor modicum of compromise in earshot. Though it lacked The Drones’ squalling feedback and noisy blues rock, it lost none of his incendiary core, culminating in the sixteen minute narrative of “Radicalisation of D”.
Loosely inspired by the incarceration of David Hicks, it brims with a life’s worth of character-forming minutiae, winding through oppression, abuse and the socially ostracised, concluding with a damning cultural cadence with Liddiard howling “you are living in a nightmare.”
For a figure who famously repudiates the “nightmare” of modern consumerist living, the sallow idea of promotion doesn’t seem to sit with Gareth, so why do interviews at all? “Well, I don’t really see the point of being a musician if no-one hears it.”
His exasperation reminds you that he doesn’t subscribe to any pretence of being an artist ‘above’ the process. “When people say ‘Oh, I do it for myself – I’d do it if no-one else hears it’ that’s just bullshit. They’re just saying that because no-one comes to their gigs. So yeah, it’s gotta be done otherwise it’s pointless.”
As much as there’s Liddiard: the artist, there’s also Liddiard: the everyman, the fiercely humble demeanour of the latter more often prioritising his worldview. He’s the kind of guy you’d knock a few beers back while you shoot shit, except his fertiliser contains more rare and fascinating insights than most.
For instance, when pushed about the idea of honesty, that stripping back to acoustic and voice for his solo album gets him closer to a mentality of pure truth, his coarse sense of modesty kicks in. “It just is what it is. A spade’s a spade, I’m not scared of spades.”
“I like really raw stuff, any sort of music I do. Speaking of myself – it’s at the savoury end.” This is the other joy of Liddiard’s perspective, why wallow in pretentious rumination when a witty bit of symbolism will do? “If the whole thing’s a fuckin’ MasterChef, then I’m on the savoury end of music.”
Excited by his own metaphor he goes on, “there’s sweet and savoury. You look at the trends, you find adults prefer the savoury over sweet and the kids prefer the sweet over savoury. And I’m savoury.”
It certainly takes a bit of maturity to savour his unique brand of storytelling. Those turned off by his gnarled, accented delivery miss out on the treasures of his lyricism. Characterised by furious emotional outbursts and cleverly veiled political and social polemic, weaved with the artistry of a natural storyteller, albeit a brutally honest one; none of his barbs cushioned, none of his topics sugar-coated.
So who are Liddiard’s favourite storytellers? “Well, the one that blew my mind completely early on was [French writer and physician] Louis-Ferdinand Céline. See now hipsters are down with him – which is weird. He was basically the first one in the twentieth century to do it how he wanted to do it. He didn’t use rules.”
It’s easy to find parallels between Céline’s controversial fiction and Liddiard’s insurgent methods. That and the work-man-like approach to his art, that “it is what it is” and let others figure it out, or as Liddiard puts it “they’re retro-fitted – rules and things like that – to any kind of art. Someone like [Russian composer] Shostakovich will come along and just make shit up on the fly and then critics and scholars will look back in hindsight and see how he constructed these things; but he didn’t mean to construct them like that, he was just using his imagination.”