JULIAN GROSS ON RECORDING WIXIW
Story by Adam Steel
One of the most polarizing forces in modern music—Spin derides a previous work, labeling it as “unlistenable;” Pitchfork calls the very same record “laudable, deserving of respect”—Brooklyn’s Liars return with another album on the docket, one that is creating buzz for all the right reasons.
Since 2010’s Sisterhood, the trio have returned to the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles for record number six, submerged in what can best be described as unchartered waters. Thanks in part to the production skills of synthesizer pioneer and label boss Daniel Miller, WIXIW (‘Wish You’) ventures sure-footedly into the arena of experimental rock, replete with eerie, electronic overtones. The result is an impressive collection of disparate sounds and wistful lyrics—one that is sure to alienate die-hard followers, and win them many more.
Plaid’s music writer Adam Steel speaks with Julian Gross, on the road in Minneapolis, about the band’s approach to recording and how their unique relationship with L.A. may soon be a thing of the past.
You’ve been with Mute Records for years now. Did their extensive roster of electronic artists (Goldfrapp, Erasure, Yazoo,) influence your decision to exercise this new sound?
Not really. That was something that just came to us—I mean, it’s definitely a new area, one that we’ve never really experimented with ourselves. It’s always kind of weird how our newest record comes about. They all fall into the same general idea of what we are hoping for. This time around I think we all just wanted to try to make a real song, you know? We were all like, ‘I want to make a song like Nirvana makes a song.’ We sort of went, ‘let’s get away from rock for a bit and try to get back to sound.’ It was new and scary, but we like to throw ourselves into the grinder.
Was the idea to work with [Mute founder, The Normal] Daniel Miller a long-established plan, or more spur of the moment?
We always work close with Daniel. On every record. And this was really no different, you know? We keep all of our demos and initial recordings pretty tight-lipped. Girlfriends don’t even hear the demos, you know, it’s really just us. The person that always hears it first is Daniel. This time, it was the same but he had a lot more input, because we had a lot more questions to ask of him. We had him guide us through programs. When we were mixing, we would ask ‘are we allowed to use this snare sound or is this the signature Daft Punk snare that I don’t know about?’ (laughs). He helped us with all of our silly questions, in addition to his help shaping the sounds.
Is it a sound that you guys see yourselves returning to?
Now that we’ve learned all of these tools and programs and keyboards, I don’t think they’ll ever go away. With [Sisterworld], even when we were still doing rock, we still manipulated the sounds in ways that we had used before. I imagine that we will keep using these tools, you know. The next record could be all banjo, but we may throw in some electronic kick drums. (Laughs).
Who came up with the album name [Wish You] and why the unpronounceable format?
It’s kind of funny. There are two funny—well, one is more funny than the other. It was originally a working title that Aaron [Hemphill] came up with for a song—the song “WIXIW.” When you make a session, anything that you record you’ve got to save and name it. You’re naming your song before you even have a song. Sometimes it’s the date. Sometimes it’s the instrument that you first started it with. He named it, for some reason, “Wish You” spelled “WIXIW.” It was more about the visual language of it, how it looked visually. Eventually it came full-circle. When it came time to title the whole record, we were kind of making fun of electronic record titles that create some word that’s not real, but sound spiritual (laughs). Electronic singers love to make up words for their album songs and titles, and we were determined not to do that. It’s funny how it all came around. We passed around tons of different words and sentences and ‘WIXIW’ was one of them. It’s hard to deny the power of how that word looks. It looks awesome. It’s a palindrome. We were all drawn to it.
Speaking of visuals, the video for “Number One Against the Rush” has a very grim, menacing overtone. What was the impetus for choosing such dark subject matter?
We are always hands-on with the imagery and artwork for our records. With videos, we’ve been taking a bit of a step back ever since ‘Plaster Cast’ [“Plaster Casts of Everything”, d. Patrick Daughters]. We find directors whose works we like and then ask them to write a treatment for the song. Once that happens, we kind of stay out of their way, let them hear it and pull out the story that they see. That’s what we did with “Number One Against the Rush.” Todd Cole is a great director, and we liked his interpretation. So we let him do his thing. It turned out pretty good.
You’ve gone on record saying that Los Angeles is a ‘confusing’ place—a ‘scary’ place. What is it about the city and the atmosphere that keeps you guys there?
Aaron and I grew up in Los Angeles, so all of our families are there. That’s a big one. The first record was more about Los Angeles and telling Los Angeles stories, where this one didn’t—Los Angeles didn’t play too much into the record, you know? I love L.A. for so many reasons. The beach, the mountains. I like the way people work there, too—that might sound weird, but people work really hard there. I like that.
I don’t know that the next one will be there. It seems that our pattern is to write a record twice in a location. We did the first Liars record in New York, the second was just a stone’s throw away in New Jersey, the third and fourth we did in Berlin. And now the last two were done in Los Angeles. I have a feeling that the next one is probably going to be somewhere else. It all sticks to some kind of random plan that we don’t really control but stays consistent nonetheless.
WIXIW is out now on Mute Records.