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In conversation with Gareth Liddiard

The Tropical Fuck Storm member talks politics, conspiracy theories and the release of their latest single

Tropical Fuck Storm (TFS) have been busy. They’ve released three songs since May, including a cover of an Australian punk-rock classic with Amy Taylor of Amyl and the Sniffers. We had a chat with band member Gareth Liddiard after the release of their latest single, Legal Ghost. 

Madeline Ward: You’ve likened Tropical Fuck Storm to your pre-Drones project, Bong Odyssey, in terms of how out there they both are or were. Would you say that TFS has allowed you to get in touch with a more unhinged side of your creativity that you had reined in after the Bong Odyssey days?

Gareth Liddiard: Sure, I mean, with the Bong Odyssey stuff, we moved from Perth to Melbourne, and we had to sell all of our mad gear, ‘cause we had all sorts of wacky synths and drum machines and stuff. The sort of stuff that costs a lot of money now; it’s all vintage now so it costs heaps, but back then it was all seen as crap so we could buy it at Cash Converters for $50. But then we had to ditch all that stuff, and when we got to Melbourne, we only had guitars, and the only pub that would have us was the Tote, so we kind of became a ‘guitar band’ by default, but we were never really that. I mean, we could do it, but we were kind of always weirder. It was like fucking 15 years of being a sort of… what I kind of think of as a normal ‘guitar band’, so the TFS thing has been great, ‘cause we can just do whatever we want. We just go silly.

MW: TFS has been quite prolific with its output thus far. Have the lockdowns afforded you extra time to spend writing or recording, or was this pace and length of this process pretty standard for you guys?

GL: Not really, ‘cause the whole Victorian thing, we’ve gone to Stage 4, so it’s been a drag. Me and Fiona live in central Victoria, and Erica lives in Melbourne, and [Laura] lives in Castlemaine with her girlfriend, so it’s hard to get everyone in the same place legally. It’s actually been a real pain in the arse.

MW: That’s really incredible that you’ve managed to put out so much stuff despite fighting against those lockdowns and those restrictions.

GL: Yeah, whenever there’s a window, we’ll do it. Basically, what we do is we just end up getting hammered; getting really drunk and wasted, because we’re all sort of party animals. And then somehow we manage to record shit while we do that. 

MW: You’ve covered the Saint’s song This Perfect Day with Amy Taylor — I can’t help but feel there’s a parallel between the music of the Saints, recorded under the Bjelke Peterson regime in the 70’s in Queensland, and punk under our current political climate, with the introduction of anti-protest laws and the heightening of police powers country wide. Is this something you were considering when you decided to cover this track?

GL: It would be both. It still sounds really fresh – their first two albums were just so energised, and it’s freaky that they were doing that in isolation in England and New York. It was definitely the ‘Bjelke’ thing that put a rock up their arse. But it’s great, people like Amy and her band. She’s like 22, I’m fuckin 44, but she’s the first Australian that has been good for fuckin 20 years, you know what I mean? Like, she’s fuckin amazing, she just goes berserk. We’re all a bit older, but she’s definitely… well she’s just freaked out about it all. Like, shit, I mean all the Black Lives Matter stuff, and the cops, and the madness that’s ensuing. So it made sense, ‘cause she just came up to hang while we were recording and it kind of made sense just to throw her the mic and get her out for that, ‘cause she’s totally energised.

MW: I think she’s pretty incredible just in terms of bringing Australian punk back up into the mainstream. Like, she’s done campaigns for Gucci and shit, which is pretty fucking huge. 

GL: Yeah, worldwide.

MW: Yeah, it’s massive.

GL: But she’s really smart. She’s not stupid, and she is what she seems like she is, which is hilarious. She’s kind of ‘Mullumbimby bogan’, you know what I mean? She’s not pretending. But then, she’s super sharp when it comes to the ‘biz’ side of stuff. She’s awesome.

MW: I found it super interesting because I really admire what Amyl and the Sniffers do based on – I hate to revert to identity politics in this way – having a female-fronted punk band. On its own, it’s really fucking cool. But then beyond that fact, she’s so unafraid to just get on stage and howl and scream and growl. 

GL: That’s what I think too. She’s not self-conscious, and she’s really talented, but at the same time she’s been lucky enough to be born at a time when she can do that without giving much of a fuck, you know? Doing that 20 years ago would have been hard, and doing that 40 years ago would have been twice as hard. She’s just born for this time; she was made for this time. She’s just this weird punk rock Dolly Parton machine. 

MW: That’s a great way to describe her: “punk rock Dolly Parton machine.” That’s fantastic.

GL: From Mullumbimby.

MW: From Mullumbimby, of all places. So, In an interview with NME you said the the concept behind Suburbophobia – questioning whether these suicide cults where onto something was “timely not ’cause of the cult thing but because it’s probably a good time to leave the planet.” I was wondering if this is in some sense in dialogue with King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s eco-thrash Mars for the Rich? “Mars for the Privileged, Earth for the Poor”

GL: It’s like a zeitgeist thing, I guess. Which is cool, ‘cause zeitgeists only come around every 20 or 30 years. So they’re on the same wavelength. Their “Mars for the Rich” thing is about dudes like Elon Musk, that sort of privilege. What we’re doing is more, you know, QAnon and all that weird online cult conspiracy stuff. Everybody just believes shit that is not founded in reality at all, and everyone’s just ready to hoover up bullshit, carte blanche. So rather than getting up there with a song and say “that’s bad’, it gives us a laugh to go “Well, why don’t we say it’s good?” They’re dead and gone, they’re probably wrong, but maybe they were right. The Jonestown suicides: maybe they all did go and land on the beautiful planet out there in the universe, and live happily ever after. Who knows? It’s highly unlikely, but I don’t know, it just seemed like a more subversive way to write about what’s going on than just condemning it. 

MW: I think there’s a lot of public discourse where a lot of Australian influencers and celebrities are starting to jump aboard this conspiracy theory trend. You have Pete Evans coming out about like every conspiracy theory under the sun, because he’s a fruit loop. But then you’ve also got people like Ziggy Alberts, who was, until recently, quite an acclaimed musician, releasing anti-vax beliefs — my original question was: “is this a theme that the band will continue to pursue?” But I think you’ve answered that, it sounds like you’re going to. 

GL: Yeah, it’s just around. All that shit’s around. I tend to just write about what’s out there, and so does Fi, and so does Erica. This shit is just everywhere. You can’t get away from it. You can’t pick up your phone without [seeing] more weird QAnon shit; more Trump stuff. We actually played at the venue – the one where Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Oprah were meant to have a paedophile ring at, that pizza joint. It’s called ‘Comet Ping Pong’. 

MW: Do they lean into their conspiracy theory? 

GL: No, they hate it, ‘cause the guy came in with a semi-automatic one day and shot the place up – but he was such an idiot he didn’t hit anyone, luckily – and demanded to see the basement. This “torture basement”, where they did all this paedophile stuff. They’re just like, “Dude, we don’t have a fuckin basement”. But he said that classic conspiracy thing where he sort of said, “Well, prove you don’t.” “Youse had to prove you did something, now you have to prove you haven’t done it.” Which is impossible.

MW: Is that why you guys entertain these kinds of ideas in a lyrical sense? Because they’re so ridiculous that it’s almost as though they don’t really need to be debunked, it’s more fun to just make fun of them in that way?

GL: Yeah, it’s like old-school stuff like Dead Kennedys, where they would just mock, rather than being serious. If you were railing against everything in a really earnest, serious way all the time, you’d end up shooting yourself, you’d be so depressed. So laughing at it, while kicking it away, is probably the survivable way of railing against it. 

MW: Legal Ghost and its B-Side, Heaven, are both songs [that are] quite concerned with mortality –you wrote Legal Ghost in the 90’s, and Heaven is a Talking Heads song from ’79. Do you feel that re-recording both of these songs in a time where we are constantly confronted with death and dying, both due to coronavirus and the American imperial war machine – that Talking Heads song was released in a time of pretty huge political upheaval, and now we’re experiencing that again – do you feel like that maybe changed their meaning in a way? 

GL: It certainly did with the Talking Heads one, because that’s like: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” 

MW: It’s a pretty fucking depressing song.

GL: It really is, but before all this COVID stuff; before the whole world ground to a halt… [David Byrne] was, the way I see it, kind of saying: “If you want a utopia or a heaven, it’s just gonna be dull.” Heaven is a place where nothing happens, so it’s better to be dissatisfied than bored out of your mind. But then, with the COVID thing, suddenly nothing’s happened – or something is actually happening, there’s an unprecedented worldwide crisis, and now I sort of wish nothing was happening, that we’d just go back to boring old normal, because that would be better. It’s almost like the meaning of the song reversed itself completely, 180 degrees. Legal Ghost, as well – that’s written about a couple of people I knew who we lived with who died. They were never gonna get far, they were just drug addicts, and even before they were dead you could tell. No matter how much you try, there was nothing anyone could do. It’s a song about ‘the walking dead’, or something like that. For some reason, I just thought… playing with the girls, with their great singing and shit like that, I just thought, “fuck, these guys could kill this if I let them have a go at it.” 

MW: Not that I don’t love your vocals also, but it is really nice to hear their voices come through, particularly with Suburbiopia. 

GL: We’ll do way more too. It’s kind of been a process of me going “come on, just go. If you guys wanna sing stuff, just sing it.” ‘Cause they do anyway if they’re not playing with me. So I think they’re getting more easy with it, ‘cause I’m fuckin 20 years-deep into a music career and I’m sick to fuckin death of my voice. You know what I mean? [In a comically throaty singing voice] “La la la la la.”

MW: With The Drones being such a huge band, and with your voice being so distinctive and your singing style being so distinctive, do you find, sometimes, it’s really hard to escape those Drones comparisons? Which I have obviously done in this interview. 

GL: That’s fair enough. Yeah, I do. I’m not a good singer, but I’m good at dramatics. I wish I had a superb 6-octave range, or something like that. But I don’t, so I have to deal with it. I feel like I’m a guitar player, mainly, who twiddles with other equipment as well, and experiments. But then I have to sing, ‘cause no one else will. So now, with Erica and with Fi, I’m just like, “Cool! Alright, you fuckin sing this.” Yeah, it’s really nice.

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