Quick: where is the band Liars from?
Bet you said Brooklyn.
Or Hell’s Art School.
All of those answers are wrong. They are actually from Los Angeles, aka the druggy, sunshiny antidote to the bankrupt realities of the rest of California, aka the hippest musical city in the country right now, and also the inspiration behind Sisterworld, the band’s fifth album.
To outsiders looking in, a lot seems to have changed there. Los Angeles has long been known as a vapid cultural wasteland. Despite (or maybe because of) its status as the capital of the film and television industries, it’s not supposed to be the kind of place that has a constantly expanding set of indie music niches, or a hopping electro scene.
The band doesn’t see much change, though. “When Angus [lead singer Angus Andrew] and I started playing music together in 1999, I went to the Smell, there were amazing bands,” says Aaron Hemphill, the band’s lead guitarist, referring to the suddenly-hip shithole that incubated bands like No Age and HEALTH. “I don’t really think there are new waves of music. It’s more like new waves of journalism.”
“These scene things go in cycles,” Julian Gross, the band’s drummer, elaborates. “Everybody wanted to hate L.A. back then!” By “back then,” Gross means the late ’90s, when he, Andrew and guitarist Aaron Hemphill first started playing music together. Casual fans of the band are probably nodding tentatively, knowing that Andrew and Hemphill met while Andrew was studying photography at Cal Arts. But fewer people know that Gross and Hemphill, who went to the same high school as Dean Spunt from No Age, are native Angelenos.
Because they grew up there, the L.A. Liars know is worlds removed from the L.A. most music fans dream of today. It also explains why Sisterworld sounds like the outsized, seedy monstrosity that haunted people like Raymond Chandler and David Lynch.
There is a deeply felt sense of place on this album that is unique in the band’s discography, though that place isn’t one you’d want to visit; it is ugly, violent and disturbing. People get shot in the street (“Scarecrows on a Killer Slant”), men strangle women who have just tried to kill themselves (“Scissor”), everybody is under constant surveillance (“Goodnight Everything”), and a toxic, malevolent energy hangs over everything like smog.
Andrew, for example, the last member of the band to return to the city from Berlin (where the band made their last two records), knew he wanted to throw himself back into Los Angeles full tilt when he returned. So he went looking for a spot that embodied “the parts of L.A. people don’t see, they just drive by,” and he found it quickly: above a medical marijuana dispensary, next door to porn producers. For natives like Liars, these things are not particularly new or exotic. “It’s down on La Brea,” Hemphill says, shrugging at my arched eyebrows.
But even if L.A. looks the same to Liars, they acknowledge they’re looking at it with older eyes. These days, they are less interested in the drugs and the craziness that come with living in places like what Gross fondly calls “the lockdown room.” (“I lived a very different lifestyle back then, let’s just say,” Hemphill says.) Instead, they’re more interested in communicating effectively with their art. Being home helps.
“Living in the same town, we can get into the little gray areas of songs more,” explains Hemphill.
In other words, Sisterworld’s rage, force, and grandeur aren’t some fevered dream. They’re part of the landscape.
Fri., April 16, 8pm. $12. With Fol Chen. First Unitarian Church, 2125 Chestnut St. r5productions.com.
PW's Music Issue 2014