In the intense 40 degree heat at the Big Day Out in Melbourne last week, drunk twenty-somethings followed the bassy drum and bass lines being blasted by nearly every stage. While they poured sweat watching Ninja of Die Antwoord rap into the end of a dildo, there was a large crowd gathering outside a smaller stage. The speakers here were projecting a set by Gareth Liddiard, front man of The Drones. The people here sat peacefully on the asphalt and laughed and cheered heartily as Gareth, sitting alone on stage with an acoustic guitar, referred to the “South African cunts,” in the adjacent tent. His show here is one of the first of his upcoming national tour, in promotion of his recent solo album, Strange Tourist.
The album is essentially a stripped down version of any other Drones album, but somehow Liddiard’s writing distances itself from his work with the band. The trace elements of traditional bush ballads and poems overshadowed by the full band, have been fleshed out and explored. The tracks on Strange Tourist are, in majority, great slabs of prose; simultaneously melancholy and self-conscious. Commenting on the inspiration behind the lyricism, Liddiard said, “Just not being dead, but being alive. I’m not really an inspiration type. I just think that being alive is a strange thing, and good and bad. All at the same time. It’s a very odd experience”. Liddiard’s a grounded character, un-phased by his immense effect on Australian music, he’s remained the down-to-earth guy one imagines he always was. He adds, “I don’t limit myself to singing about freight trains or girls, I’ll try and sing about anything. I’d sing about taking a shit if it sold records. I try and throw everything into a song”.
The writing of the album was crammed into the space of a few weeks, Liddiard says. “I basically wrote the whole thing in 8 weeks. I was writing an album and it was sort of a bit more amorphous. To separate Blondin Makes An Omelette to The Radicalisation Of D, doesn’t make sense in my mind. In the process, it was the same thing. It was sort of like a different page in the same book. They evolved at the same time. It wasn’t like I finished one and went onto the next”.
In the right circles, Liddiard is somewhat a visionary and is often placed next to Australian music royalty like Nick Cave. It’s the uniquely Australian sound that is praised by his fellow musicians, but his early musical influences would make you think he’d be fronting a post-punk band, “I listened to The Stooges, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, all of that pot smoking, high school stuff. But then again I was also into jazz. I actually played saxophone before I played guitar or anything like that. So I was always into Charlie Parker and all of that sort of stuff. I’ve always listened to everything, really”.
However, in the current Australian music climate, notoriety alone doesn’t earn. The Drones have been together since 1998, yet Liddiard makes little more than welfare, “I’m making about as much as someone with a part-time job makes. Everyone thinks we’re rich and shit, but yeah. It’s fucking irritating”. And it’s not just The Drones, it happens with a majority of Australian artists. “Not many of them [make a living]. If people think we’re rich, then they think the ones who aren’t rich are still paying their rent, but they’re not. All my musician friends have jobs. Not the ones who are older and more famous, but in the rest of the scene, everyone works. People think there’s a lot of money in rock and roll, it’s just not the case”.
Liddiard’s post-tour plans consist of a new Drones DVD, compiled of “a bunch of live shows filmed in this weird warehouse,” as Gareth puts it. It will mostly be tracks that don’t usually lend themselves to the Drones minimal live sound, with the additions of pianos and keyboards. The band are currently in the process of editing their raw footage.