The Drones: ‘We Could Do Funk If We Wanted’
On the eve of the release of a live DVD and national tour, Drones frontman Gareth Liddiard takes some time out from building a pizza oven to chat with MATT SHEA about getting the band back together, developing new sounds and not listening to rock music anymore.
It was starting to get a little lonely without The Drones. September just gone marked three years since the release of Havilah, and while that record’s endless momentum and a couple of solo releases (Gareth Liddiard’s Strange Tourist and Mike Noga’s The Balladeer Hunter) have maintained a keen interest in their work, it’s now Spring 2011 and you get the feeling The Drones are well and truly due.
This month, the group are finally set to return, but not with a new album. Instead, The Drones are releasing a three-disc DVD set titled A Thousand Mistakes. Early last year the band gathered in the same disused Fairfield warehouse Noga used to record The Balladeer Hunter and laid down a live session of rarely played cuts from the past 13 years. Recorded by Melbourne filmmaker Natalie van den Dungen, that session comprises the first of the discs, while a performance at The East Brunswick Club features and a collection of rare live footage from 2005 through to 2010 makes up the second and third, respectively.
When M+N got on the phone to Liddiard, he wasn’t taking a break from songwriting or interrupting a rehearsal for the band’s forthcoming “A Thousand Mistakes” tour. Rather, he was building a pizza oven: such is life when you’ve made your home in a cottage in central Victoria. It’s not the kind of thing you typically associate with a rock musician, but then as everybody knows by now, Liddiard and his bandmates aren’t your typical kind of rock musicians.
Where are you, Gareth?
I’m in Central Victoria.
What are you up to there?
I’m actually building an oven. I don’t often build ovens, but we’re living in a cottage in Central Victoria and the oven’s about 4000 years old, so I’ve got to build a new one.
Inside or outside?
Outside. It’s too big to have inside. And that means you can do bread and roasts and shit in it.
It’s a pizza oven, then.
Yeah. There’s no good pizza in Central Victoria. [Laughs]
You were obviously spoilt when you were living in the northeast, with all that Italian blood up there.
They’re a lot more civilised up there, I’ve gotta say.
I guess as far as hiatuses go, it hasn’t been so long for you guys, but has it been strange being away from The Drones?
Not really. It was just a necessary rest. We did it to death so we had to stop for a little while.
You guys were living in each other’s pockets for five years. How has it felt coming back together? Has it felt natural?
It’s been fine. The thing is, me and Fi [Fiona Kitschin, The Drones’ bass player] live out in the sticks and the guys [Noga and Dan Luscombe] live in town, but if we go to town they’re the first people we call and go and hang out with. We just haven’t played together; we’ve done tons of hanging out. On a social level, it’s great, because we get each others’ jokes.
I guess that makes it a lot easier when it comes time to pick up the instruments again as well.
Yeah, it really does. We don’t have to think about it, you know.
Why return with a DVD? What was the genesis of the idea?
I’ve got a box I’ve had forever that I’ve kept masters in, and wherever we go or whatever we do, if it gets recorded in any form I’ll hide it away in my little box. Most of it is audio stuff – live gigs from all over – but then occasionally someone will film us and occasionally someone even smarter will film us and record us properly. Whenever that happens, it’s great. It’s fucken expensive, so if they do it for free it’s awesome! So I’d accumulated all this shit and thought, “This’ll be good.” Because if I’m watching or listening to music I like live stuff from a live dude; I love sitting down to watch live Zeppelin DVDs or Old Grey Whistle Test or that sort of thing.
And then we needed an excuse to do that … and we thought that there’s a certain bunch of live songs that have never seen the light of day because they’re too weird to fit into a live set, and too hard to play well because you can’t just do everything with two guitars. Some of these songs are hard to get right, because Qantas will rape your wallet if you’re trying to take certain stuff on the aeroplane. So we just got together and used as much weird gear as we could, and rearranged a bunch of songs. Because Wait Long By The River… doesn’t have Dan and Mike, and Gala Mill doesn’t have Dan, so they got to do songs that they’ve never done. We called Steve Hesketh, who played keyboards on Wait Long By The River and [live album] The Miller’s Daughter and he joined us, so he’s on the DVD and will be on the tour. It’s just something a little more expansive, because two guitars and bass all the time gets a bit old and is a bit limiting.
You’ve had this in the can since early 2010. Was it always going to take this long to be released?
No, not at all. It’s just that DVD land is a bit more weird. We’ve never done filmed stuff – don’t like it, don’t like doing videos. It’s just fucking hard. When it comes to making an album, I know who to call, I know where to go, I know where to get this or that or that, and we get the job done: bang, bang, bang, see ya later. But this is a different kettle of fish; it was a fucken nightmare. Fi and I have been trying to finish it up for fucking months, and we only just sent it in for manufacturing the other day. There have been a few breaks, because I did the solo thing and a few tours and stuff, but generally that’s how long it’s taken to do the DVD.
You say you don’t like doing videos – did that make the warehouse session hard for you?
No, no. I like doing live stuff. If someone wants to film us live, that’s great.
Just the music videos?
Yeah, the video clips. They’re just shit. And maybe The Drones aren’t cool enough, but no one ever offers to do videos for us. I don’t know what that is. So we can never get any good help, etc, etc.
Did you have any doubts about whether it was a good idea to return with a DVD? Did you guys question the decision at times?
No. It was an excuse to do something different, because we’re going to base our live set on that warehouse set. It was better to do that, rather than your regular Drones thing. The thing is, we could do anything – we could do funk if we wanted to – and this is going to help show that we’re not just a brutal punk band.
Is that going to set you up to do something different when you next head into the recording studio?
Yeah, but then we always try to do something a bit different. I get bored really easy, so I hate to do things the same. And if you try to do something twice you can never top it again. I’m always conscious that we don’t have drums, we have Mike; and the guitar is Dan, and if we had someone else it would be different; and the bass is Fi, rather than someone else. That’s just the way it is, and as Mike grows up and gets older he’s going to mature as a guy and as a drummer too. It’s the same with the rest of us, so you’ve always got to leave room for that. The Drones in 20 years are not going to sound like we did when we were 22. And we’re not going to pretend we are: it’s like Bad Brains got together and it was woeful, because you can’t be 55 and play that same stuff. You’ve got to roll with it, and sometimes it gets weirder too. I mean, Tom Waits is great – he got weirder as he got older. That’s the future.
Natalie van den Dungen – how do you guys know her originally?
We were doing the Tote doco [Persecution Blues: The Battle For The Tote] and met her through that. So we’d known her for about seven years. It was a social thing, because she’d always roll into The Tote with a camera. Initially we were going to get a different dude – Justin Kurzel from Snowtown. Initially Nat was busy with the Tote thing, so we asked Justin to do it, and then the Snowtown thing popped up and he couldn’t do it. Then Nat got freed up so we went back to her.
Besides Justin, she was always the right person for the job?
Yeah, she was. On an aesthetic level, she’s not trying to hard with the material; she’s just filming a live band. There’s not much to it, you know. She does that and it’s harder said than done, because people have this tendency to try and put their mark on things. She’d done it all a million times and just knew our world.
The East Brunswick show from February last year – was that always going to be the show to record?
Yeah, definitely. The three shows there is what funded the DVD. We recorded two nights: the first one was a fucking wreck. I blew an amp, which just never happens. Amps are powerful things – especially Fender ones – and this one blew. I was like, “Oh my God!”
Did you think, “We’re recording this. It could have only happened now?”
I could have fucken cried. When you hear someone’s blown an amp it’s usually a Marshall or something like that, not a Fender Twin. So I nearly wept. Then, the second night the pressure was on. But the gig turned out pretty well.
What was the process like, compiling the live performances for the bonus disc? Was there a lot of horse-trading on what to include and what to leave out?
No. I was the one who’d been collecting it. I just picked the best bits and everyone had a look and agreed with the stuff that I’d chosen. And what you see is what you get, pretty much. If we had more we would have added an extra disc and fit more in. Because this is the only time we’re going to put out a live DVD, so everything there is all that was worthwhile.
You’ve got a pretty straightforward tour, with a set of dates about the mainland. So your focus is to bring those warehouse sessions out onstage?
Yeah. It won’t be facsimile of that but it will certainly be based on it, yeah.
And it will be the four of you plus Steve Hesketh?
Yeah, the five of us. Stevie’s going to play keyboards with us. We haven’t played with him live since Wait Long By The River came out, so it’s going to be heaps of fun.
Are you looking forward to getting back out on the road in Drones mode?
Oh yeah. Like I said, we see each other all the time anyway. And touring Australia is just weekending – it’s not touring as such. The Drones can’t go to country areas. We’d just get raped and murdered. We can’t do that thing of 20 shows in a row in Australia like Grinspoon or someone good, you know.
You talk about hanging out with the guys a lot. Has there been a positive tension growing between you in terms of needing to get back out on the road? Do you get that hankering to get onstage and start playing again?
It’s a little weirder than that. We spend so much time with each other that in the end we just shit each other to death. But then, at the end of a tour or something, we’ll be out and about somewhere hanging out with a big bunch of friends with the four of us mixed into it, but the minute we sit down at a table in a restaurant or something, there’ll be the four of us at one end and we’ll become insulated again. It’s a real sibling thing going on.
And you’re taking Adalita with you. You’re pretty close with her, right?
Yeah, it’ll be good. She’s a good mate. She comes up to visit and we hang out a lot.
Any further plans on getting back in the studio to record a new album?
Yeah. I was going to start writing earlier but this DVD thing just got out of hand. After the tour, I’ll just start writing over the summer, when I finally come up with the goods. The last couple of times I’ve had six to eight weeks in which to get everything written. It’s full-on but you get a head of steam up and start pumping out good songs. I don’t want to do that anymore, but the occupational hazard with taking it easy is that I will never get a head of steam up, so I’ve just got to find the balance and I’ll do that over summer. And we’re in the country so we’ve got to put a building on this block of land and then basically I can use it as a studio, you know. I’ve got to make the fucken thing first, so yeah: there’s always something in the fucken way. Songwriting is my bread and butter but it just gets relegated to the back of my life. It seems like such a juvenile pursuit in the eyes of your peers and your friends, but if you’ve got to build a fucken pizza oven, that takes precedence.
I think part of that is that you know your inspiration for building a pizza oven is only fleeting, so you need to get it out of the way, whereas your passion for songwriting will always be there so you can put it on the backburner.
Yeah, that’s true, and everyone around me expects that. But the pizza oven will help – pizza and beer are friends of the songwriting process.
It’s a long time now between drinks for the band – three years this month, I think – you and Mike have been busy this year with your solo releases, but do you feel overdue?
No, not really. With Mike’s thing: he’s really doing a solo thing in a sense, whereas with my solo it’s the dictionary definition, as if you want to hear something with an acoustic guitar and a voice. All I’ve been doing is playing my own songs forever, so it’s just like adding in extra stuff again. It’s just like putting some pepper in the sauce, getting The Drones back together. Outwards it probably seems a lot different, but for me I’ve just been playing music the whole time.
“If I hear another white middleclass western fucken band – apart from me – I’ll fucken vomit.”
Being older, has The Drones become a little more abstract for you guys? Can you put it down and come back to it a little more easily?
Yeah, as far as we’ve played a billion gigs together – you can’t forget that. And giving it a rest only freshens it up. Like I said, we’re all grown up. I don’t listen to rock‘n’roll anymore, I really don’t. But then that’s the great thing: you can just listen to everything and then squeeze it out into rock‘n’roll.
What are you listening to instead?
Well, I listen to fucken everything. I listen to Stravinsky or Charlie Parker or The Mighty Sparrow or god knows. Canterbury [scene] rock‘n’roll, or Brian Eno – that’s rock‘n’roll, I suppose. I dunno. Shit from Africa – not Peter Gabriel and a bunch of black dudes playing white music, but proper psychos in the Sahara playing music with a radio they found. That shit. There’s so much good music from around the world. The whole thing’s been ruled by this fascination between two English-speaking powerhouses – England and the US – who have this mutual fascination with one another. All this 20th-century shit is superpower music. It’s not like great music wasn’t being made anywhere else, it’s just that no one gave a fuck; no one was seduced by Ghana because Ghana is not a superpower. That’s all it is. I’m sick of that. If I hear another white middleclass western fucken band – apart from me – I’ll fucken vomit. [Laughs]
There’s been more and more talk in those years about the lessening importance of the album – do you guys feel that as a band? That it’s not so imperative to put out those LPs?
I don’t know. It’s a shame that the album’s dying, if it is at all – it might just become a niche market. That’s all The Drones have ever been – a niche market. You have to be aware that this is a cottage industry but it’s kind of recession proof, you know what I mean? We earn fuck all money, but we earn enough to survive. Now all this bullshit’s going on with the GFC or whatever – it’s not touching us. If Australia goes into depression it would be better for us. People will like The Drones more. They’ll get it. So bring it on – I hope everyone suffers. [Laughs]
Other than the tour and sitting down to write and record over the summer, what are the plans looking ahead?
We’ll do that tour and then I’ve just got to write. Once I get my groove on it will begin. But we’re just going to take it slow this time around.
Doing it over the summer should lend itself to such an approach.
Yeah. If I get this building up we’ve got one good place to do it.
‘A Thousand Mistakes’ is out tomorrow (October 7) via Shock
‘A THOUSAND MISTAKES’ TOUR:
Fri, October 7 – ANU Bar, Canberra, ACT
Sat, October 8 – Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle, NSW
Wed, October 12 – Corner Hotel, Melbourne, VIC
Thurs, October 13 – Corner Hotel, Melbourne, VIC
Fri, October 14 – Corner Hotel, Melbourne, VIC
Thurs, October 20 – Mojos Bar, Fremantle, WA (new show)
Fri, October 21 – The Bakery, Perth, WA
Sat, October 22 – Governor Hindmarsh, Adelaide, SA
Fri, October 28 – The Hi Fi, Brisbane, QLD
Sat, October 29 – The Metro, Sydney, NSW