Sept. 2 2014 05:23 PM

Ever-evolving art-rockers headline San Diego Music Thing

Angus Andrew (left) and Aaron Hemphill of Liars have been consistently reshaping their sound for 15 years.
Photo by Simon Witter

There's nothing easy or orderly about the music that Liars make. Since forming in 2000 in Brooklyn, the band has been consistently on the move—both figuratively and literally. In the past 14 years, they've relocated from New York to Berlin and eventually Los Angeles, where members Angus Andrew and Julian Gross met in the 1990s.

Even more interesting is the musical journey the band's taken since releasing their 2001 debut, They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument On Top. That version of Liars was a quintet that played a danceable yet abrasive form of post-punk akin to groups like The Rapture and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But Liars didn't stay that way. Every album since has essentially found the band hitting the reset button hard, taking radical steps to avoid repeating anything they've done before.

To wit: Liars' latest, Mess—released in March via Mute Records. It's a heavy and chaotic album, built largely around synthesizers. It still feels very much like a Liars album, but mostly through its intense atmosphere and harrowing mood rather than any particular musical technique. Compared with its predecessor, 2012's more ethereal and brooding WIXIW (pronounced "wish you"), Mess is aggressive and immediate—the product of making a complete 180-degree turn from the strategy they used on their previous album.

"We decided early on that we wouldn't allow our decision making to get too cerebral," frontman Andrew says in an email, sent while en route to China. "Everything we made was immediate and visceral, without any concern or doubt about the outcome. It was an exhilarating and exciting process.

"I'd describe [the process of making] WIXIW as laborious and frightening, but in a good way, if that makes sense," he continues. "We took an incredibly long time to make that record, mostly because we were such novices with software and technology. Having learnt so much in that department, I wanted Mess to be made in the opposite way—fast and from the gut."

Liars play Sept. 12 at North Park Theatre

Fast and from the gut—that's exactly the kind of adrenaline-rushing, beat-heavy vibe that Liars create on Mess. Andrew, Aaron Hemphill and Gross—who's taking a break from touring with the band because of a back injury—build up a nightmarish, yet curiously hedonistic, underworld on their seventh album, recalling the sounds of classic late-'80s industrial records by the likes of Ministry and Nitzer Ebb.

"Pro Anti Anti," the newest single to be released from the album, combines a simple Hammond organ hook with a buzz-saw synth bass line and disco stomp that could've been plucked from an early Nine Inch Nails track. Meanwhile, "Mess on a Mission" feels like a game of demonic table tennis, its bouncy melody repelling off bizarre echo effects and layers of disorienting vocal treatments. It's a noisy record, but one that doesn't require guitars to arrive there. It's a significant shift away from the distorted art-rock of 2010's Sisterworld or the visceral punk of their self-titled 2007 album. But Andrew says the band hasn't completely turned its back on making guitar-based rock.

"It's the idea of moving on from something we spent a good chunk of time working with, and asking ourselves what else is possible," he says. "It certainly doesn't mean we've banned the manipulation of rock tropes. That genre of music is still exciting to me, and so I could definitely see us returning to that way of working at some point in the future."

There are, however, some common threads that run through each of the band's albums, no matter how disparate the sound: anxiety, terror, menace and danger, just to name a few of Liars' more reliable themes. And that's been a constant since day one. 

"I can see a strong connection between Mess and our very first album," Andrew says, highlighting the elements that form the connective tissue in their catalog. 

"Mask Maker," the first track on Mess, is a prime example of how uncomfortable a realm Liars inhabit. Over a jarring EBM backing, a distorted voice reads off a series of increasingly troubling commands: "Eat my face off / Take my face / Give me your face / Give me your face!" This is far from the first time the band has used troubling imagery to shock the listener out of a state of passivity. Take 2010's "Scarecrows on a Killer Slant," for instance, on which Andrew chants, "Why'd you kill the man with a gun?" before punctuating it with the punch line "'Cause he bothered you." 

This tendency toward the eerie or ominous is an essential part of the band's identity and, as Andrew suggests, unlikely to change anytime soon.

The dark themes "must be attributed to our integral character traits and, similarly, the state of our surroundings and the world at large," he says. "I know that if we tried to make a happy, celebratory record or song, it would fail from being completely disingenuous." 

Just as unsettling conceptual threads are an essential part of Liars' music, so is the need for change, and to begin each new phase of their creative path with a blank slate. They're based in Los Angeles now, but they could just as easily pull up stakes next month and start fresh somewhere new. And as much material as they're currently able to produce with only synthesizers, there's no guarantee that they'll create something with similar methods the next time they enter the studio. 

And that's exactly how Andrew likes it.

"I prefer to live in a state of impermanence," he says. "It keeps things interesting by not allowing for mundane notions of familiarity and ease."  

Familiarity and ease? For Liars, don't count on it.

Email or follow him at @1000TimesJeff