“Not a lot changes.” Gareth Liddiard revisits solo record Strange Tourist ahead of national reissue tour

Thirteen years after the release of his first, and only, solo record Strange Tourist, Gareth Liddiard is returning to the stage to revisit the album and celebrate its re-release with a national tour, hitting The Rechabite this Thursday, November 9. Frontman of critically acclaimed bands The Drones and Tropical Fuck Storm, the rock guitarist and radically poetic lyricist is known for his outspoken, unabashed self-expression through music, and has developed a cult following within the Australian and international music scene. BEC WELDON sat down with Gareth Liddiard to reflect on the highly political album and its continuing relevance in the modern world, and to talk about what fans can expect from the upcoming tour. 

You released your album Strange Tourist 13 years ago. What’s changed in the world of Gareth Liddiard since then?

Oh God, I don’t know. I mean, the 13 years just sort of ran away. I’ve just done so much stuff.

I was planning on doing a second solo album, you know, like two or three years after the first, but I’ve just done so much stuff in between. I’ve been touring, did a lot of Drones stuff, stuff with Spencer Jones and James Baker and then the TFS stuff, and Springtime and, God, I just haven’t had time to sit down.

Anything that’s particularly changed quite dramatically for you since the album’s release?

Well, yeah, tonnes of stuff, because we’ve just been everywhere, and toured, and so things have changed as far as all that.

We do well now, overseas. We always did okay, but now we do quite well, so that’s a good feeling. You always feel sort of insecure when you start a tour, you don’t know if anyone’s going to show up, really. So, that sort of insecurity’s gone away a bit (laughing). I feel a bit more confident.

It’s just, it’s a strange, really weird business. It’s not great for a sense of security, but I feel a little bit more secure these days than I did years ago. Because then I was just winging it. And I think that solo album was the first time I’d done that, so I was kind of making it up as I went along. I didn’t know if it was going to be any good or if anyone was going to like it. So I feel a bit more at ease in myself.

That’s so interesting. Looking back at working on Strange Tourist, your first, and only solo album, how did it originally come about?

Well, we’d just been touring a lot with The Drones and, you know, The Drones are a really full-on, loud, live thing and I kind of needed a rest from that and I bought a guitar. I never really had a good acoustic guitar, always just used crappy share house guitars to write songs. But we were in America, we were actually in Silicone Valley and I went to a guitar shop there. Silicone Valley is just full of hyper rich people, so all the guitars in the shop, it was all just acoustic guitars, they’re all like 30 grand, 60 grand, which is just ridiculous, and one there was like two and a half grand. And it was fucking great, you know, but it was like the piece of shit in the shop. I said, I’ll have that one, please, and so I took it home and it was beautiful, and it was hilarious because over there it was just the worst thing.

So, you know, I had that. And then after all The Drones tours, I was really exhausted by the really loud, earsplitting music and I thought, I’ve got this proper acoustic guitar now, for once, so maybe I’ll just do something by myself. That was really the crux of it.

Thinking about some of the themes in the album, you respond quite passionately to the neoliberal, neo-colonial political landscape of the time. Obviously having been over a decade now, how do you feel about that original commentary? Do you think that that’s still sort of starkly relevant today in a lot of the stuff that you were trying to say?

Yeah, I mean, not a lot changes. Obviously with the referendum and all that, but I mean, that was a fucking sad day. So yeah, I do think a lot of it still stands.

When you write the song, obviously the sensible way to do it is to be kind of specific, but then also things happen because of human behaviour like, say, racism or you know, bad things like that or good things. But I mean human behaviour doesn’t really change. We’re the same species. It takes millions of years to evolve and while the material circumstances have changed, our behaviour hasn’t. So I try to say something specific, but then, you know, keep an eye on the fact that it is human behaviour and that keeps things relevant as time goes on, you know what I mean?

I try to be like David Attenborough. I know it sounds stupid, (laughing) but, you know, I stand back, I look at, the whole Western, Australian experience. Like from my perspective, the whole relationship between the black community and the white community was always really fraught. And I mean, I could kind of pick up a guitar and do a Billy Bragg kind of thing, you know, browbeat people, or I could sort of stand back like David Attenborough does, you know what I mean?

You’re saying the same thing, but you’re not being pedantic and kind of browbeating about it and it means the song will survive a bit longer and it’ll survive the test of time and still do the work you intended it to do.

That makes a lot of sense, and feels relevant to the political landscape at the moment, with a lot of newer political crises emerging. Obviously the Ukrainian conflict has been going for two years and the referendum as you mentioned happened just this year. What do you think is the place for those really politically conscious albums like Strange Tourist?

I think they should exist. I mean, that’s why I make them, but I’m such a fringe player in the whole music world. It’s weird, it’s almost like we’re in the sixties again in the sense that there’s all the activism, with people talking past each other and shaking their fists at each other and, you know, people have the best intentions but then there’s a lot of information, misinformation. But there’s a lot of parallels between now and the late sixties, except that in the late sixties, the charts were just full up with political songs, whereas, nowadays, there’s nothing like that.

It’s so strange, like why is everyone hitting the streets and saying what they think politically, but not saying it through music? Why doesn’t it have a place? I find that really odd. I wish there was more political music because you know, music is great for stuff like that.

Do you have a thought as to why that might be?

I honestly don’t know. I just don’t know. I mean, everyone’s so comfortable publicly stating their position. So, it’s not like people are trying to hide what they think, but why doesn’t it reflect in music?

You know, it used to. I mean, hip hop used to be quite political in its crazy way, it was political as. But then, now, anything in the charts or even just anything you hear on triple j, there’s just no mention of anything. I mean, you could say, well, people are afraid of alienating their audience with a view that a chunk of their audience doesn’t agree with, yet if you look at their social media, they’ll be saying things. But why isn’t that in the music? I really don’t understand it.

There’s an interesting, almost generational division in that…

It is, yeah, like if you think something it kind of ends up in your music. If you feel brokenhearted at a breakup, that ends up in a song because that’s what you think. If you think something politically, why don’t you put that in a song?

Well, that sort of segues into another question I had. Thirteen years has brought a whole new generation of music fans to the scene. Is there anything that you hope the re-released album will mean or represent to this new kind of generation of fans?

It’s kind of, it’s the album. It made a splash when it came out, but nothing huge, but it certainly didn’t sink, it swam. It was reissued once prior, so it’s had three releases and I just sort of see it as, it’s saying afloat and that’s all I can hope for.

And I think this time, more people have gotten into it. I know, people are, and I probably do the same thing, people don’t seem to jump on brand new stuff, like they do with the older stuff that’s stood the test of time a way, they are happier to back something that’s tried and true. So, it seems like young people are getting into it, obviously they see it as an album that happened in the olden days (laughing) so it’s cool.

I did that when I was growing up. You know, like in 1990, I was listening to Joy Division, which was ten years prior, thinking it was ancient history and this incredible relic. So now people are doing that and I’m happy to do that. I’m happy to be a relic if people just listen to what I’ve done.

And obviously a lot of people will get a chance to listen to it live with your upcoming tours! What can a lot of long-term fans expect from the live shows this year?

I’m going to attempt to do a bunch of stuff off the album that I wouldn’t usually do.

Like, I sort of naturally gravitate towards a certain chunk of songs from that record that, in all honesty, are just easier to play (laughing) because it’s embarrassing, you know, screwing up when you’re by yourself. You can’t blame your drummer or anything. So I’ll try a few more difficult numbers.

And you know, I’ve written a lot of cool stuff since then as far as Drones and TFS, so I’m going to play a few of them because most of my songs, you know, 90% of them are doable on an acoustic guitar. They might sound weird and wacky, but it is still pretty classical songwriting in the old school sense. So, I’ll do a few things like that as well.

I guess another exciting part about the re-releases is the artwork refresh too. What motivated the new cover? What kind of involvement did you have in that design?

Yeah, our American label put it out and they wanted to do something a little bit different to make the reprint stand out. You know, once upon a time that wasn’t necessarily what happened, but these days, you know, I mean vinyl is cool, it’s like toys for adults. Whenever it gets reprinted, a record label likes doing something different.

So that photo I think is funny. The one on the cover is me. It’s from a Drones show. We did a bunch of tours with Dinosaur Jr. in the 2000s, and we did a big Australian tour with them and a big European tour and sometimes I would use J Mascis’ amps and they are so fucking loud it’s horrendous, and the look on my face is just me. I must have hit a chord early in the gig and I’m just wincing in agony at the volume. So, I thought I’d put that because the original cover is kind of an earnest singer-songwriter vibe, so I just wanted to do something different. I thought that there was an element of humour, in me looking like I’m from the Addams family or some sort of horror movie.

It’s definitely a striking cover!

It’s cool though because my brother-in-law took that and he took all the other pictures from Strange Tourist as well because he came up while we recorded, and hung out. So, I didn’t have to change the photo credits, which was easy (laughing).

So what’s next after the tours?

Well, we’re going to get straight into a TFS record. We started to about six weeks ago and then Lauren, our drummer, she builds houses when she’s not playing drums and somehow, she broke her finger in three places. So, we were all set to go, and then it was a really bad break, and she can’t play drums for eight weeks after an accident like that. So yeah, we had to put it on the back burner, but now we’re going to get back into that. So that’s going to be heaps of fun. That’ll be really cool.

And then slowly get back into touring next year, we’re starting to book stuff!