Gareth Liddiard used to rely on an old book to write new songs. The favourite son of songwriters Australia-wide keeps a tattered copy of Brewer’s Dictionary Of Phrase And Fable – a reference work explaining famous phrases, allusions, and figures – to make connections to what he sees in the modern world; think the Minotaur of Greek myth and the videogame Halo 2. But since forming Tropical Fuck Storm in 2017, he’s barely consulted it.
“The internet is like Brewer’s these days,” Liddiard tells NME in his ocker lilt, garbled by the phone line. “It has so many strange theories of everything.”
The band’s third album ‘Deep States’, out today, is a latticework of these theories of everything. It’s as info-dense as a newsfeed and sounds like delta blues on ecstasy, and does away altogether with the Australian rock tradition that guided Liddiard in The Drones for almost 20 years.
Tropical Fuck Storm is tradition pulled apart by horses. Lead guitar lines squall over melted hard rock percussion from Lauren Hammel (High Tension); the dual vocal of bassist (and Liddiard’s domestic partner) Fiona Kitschin and guitarist Erica Dunn (MOD CON) pierce like deadly sirens who’ve cornered a sailor on the rocks. Liddiard says he draws on the “harmonic rulebook” of 20th century classical music like Béla Bartók and Giacinto Scelsi to create melodies that steer clear of tropes and convention.
“Misanthropy comes from a love of your species, and being let down by them. I expect a bit more”
But even Liddiard, a man that comes out with phrase and tone like it’s spit, isn’t immune to writer’s block. When he and Kitschin seconded to their property in the regional Victorian town of Nagambie last year, they were isolated from their Melburnian bandmates – and from inspiration.
“We need to be in the same room really, to have the zing that makes you wanna sing,” Liddiard says. “There was no motivation to [write]… we just had to go into postponement mode, which was all this bullshit officework that no one was getting paid for.”
The Drones went on indefinite hiatus in 2016, and TFS was a reaction to that band’s laboured process – the ad hoc assembly of the new outfit saw them release their debut album ‘Laughing Death In Meatspace’ less than eight months after their first-ever show.
“At points, [The Drones] were a bit long-winded,” Liddiard says. “I did want to try the four-minute song rather than the seven-and-a-half minute song. A little bit of economy, you know?”
There was no epiphanic creative moment that marked the completion of ‘Deep States’ – the band finished the album through sheer adaptability. Liddiard slogged through the longest creative block he’s ever had, finding some reprieve in writing about the malaise itself on single ‘Bummer Sanger’: “This was supposed to be a summer banger/ Now it’s just a bummer sanger”. TFS engaged in a newfound collaborative approach, with Kitschin and Dunn jumping in to write and sing full songs. The latter’s ‘New Romeo Agent’ is a bonafide romantic pop song, albeit set against a sci-fi cold war and ending in death.
“Everyone in the band has got verbal diarrhoea,” Liddiard says. “There’s always some really great lines coming out in conversation, which I just write down and use.”
Band shooting the shit aside, the nightmarish last 12 months was easy grist for Liddiard’s literary mill. He gives foggy answers to specific musical questions (“We’ll record a ton of shit, and then it’ll sit on the computer”), but prompt him on the internet (“It’s a tool for tracking herd mentality, stupidity and misinformation”) or the JFK assassination (“I could have taken that shot”) and he will readily approach the bully pulpit. Interviews, Liddiard did once say, are a weird form of therapy. The cynicism that has become the status quo in our pandemic era has been omnipresent in his writing for decades.
The pandemic, Liddard quips, has “certainly changed and expanded our audience. We’re like Halliburton or one of those companies that profits off disaster.” He laughs. “The anxiety we were exuding for so many years caught up with the rest of the world.”
Liddiard remains a self-professed misanthrope – but wants to redefine the term. “Misanthropy comes from a love of your species, and being let down by them. I expect a bit more,” he says.
Even though he once wrote the line “People are a waste of food…They’re only ever happy when they’re burying their friends”?
“Yeah, well. It’s true!”
The laundry list of conspiracy theories that makes Liddiard believe people are a waste of food on ‘Deep States’ is disturbingly well-researched. It begins with an older kind of “conspiracy” – ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ opens with a sample from an obscure 1970s Mormon telemovie (“The good news is, your captivity is over”), sourced by Kitschin, who was raised in the Christian sect.
‘Blue Beam Baby’, paying morbid tribute to Ashli Babbitt, the woman shot dead in the January 6 Capitol insurrection, references a New World Order theory that a joint project of NASA and the United Nations is using the most powerful technologies to spread a new religion on Earth. ‘Suburbiopia’ considers whether “all those nutty cults with their fucked up suicide escape plans weren’t wrong and everybody else accusing them of being insane was wrong”.
But ultimately, Liddiard’s conclusion about the people behind these hypotheses is that they mirror the folly of history.
“I was always really interested in 20th century history… all that sort of stuff which really changed how people live and think. There was the rise of the quasi-religions: worker’s religions, like communism, and asshole religions, like Nazism – but they were basically the same frameworks, because they had their dogmas, ideology, blasphemers, and their heretics, and they burnt people at the stake, figuratively speaking.
“I just think we are seeing something similar with the rise of the far right, or left. Anti-rationality kind of stuff, and faith-based. You’ll just believe something, even though the evidence tells you it’s bullshit.”
“I should have been a fuckin’ sociologist.”
Older fans who might yearn for the more parabolic songwriting heard on his 2010 solo album ‘Strange Tourist’ (Liddiard says there is unlikely to be a sequel) or mid-period Drones will still be satiated by ‘Deep States’. ‘Legal Ghost’, the last song with lyrics on ‘Deep States’, was first recorded as a spectral drum loop with Liddiard’s pre-Drones project Bong Odyssey in 1998. He told NME earlier this year that it was about how “some people are just marked for death. They’re not going to get far.”
He now explains it references a former girlfriend who took her own life in his car when he was 22. It’s at least the third time he’s sung about the incident – The Drones’ ‘Locust’ in 2005, and TFS’ ‘Aspirin’ in 2019 – and its poignance hasn’t dulled.
“Her dad was in the Vietnam War, and he was all fucked up and it fucked her up, and basically it had a domino effect on her life,” Liddiard says. “It doesn’t really go away because… you know, say just a simple thing. She was into Iggy Pop and all the things I’m into. So now, if Iggy Pop sings our songs on BBC Radio or I meet Neil Young… it’s a shame. I just wish she lived to see that.”
The new rendition is the simplest arrangement Tropical Fuck Storm have ever recorded, trimming back the fuzz to an atmospheric thrum. Liddiard’s voice trembles in pitch, as he intones: “It doesn’t really matter who you sleep with now/You’ll always sleep alone”.
It’s a little-known skill of Liddiard’s, snatching tenderness from the jaws of despair. But its impact is polished over by instrumental closer ‘The Confinement of The Quarks’ – “a Metallica theme for The Terminator… the music is corny, cheap and nasty,” Liddiard says. Though he is often juiced by a righteous fury, ‘Deep States’ is almost resigned to the cheap and nasty fate of humanity. “Don’t wanna die a martyr / I’m just lookin’ for a latte and a fuckin’ phone charger,” Liddiard growls on ‘Give A Fuck Fatigue’. The songwriter puts it down to a changing of the baton.
“Everyone’s fucking on their high horse moralising at each other now,” Liddiard says, tongue half in cheek. “Once upon a time that was my job. I’ve been superseded. I’ve been made redundant by fucking idiots on Twitter.”
Nevertheless, after the death of times long past, it’s comforting to know Liddiard will still be here to sift through the wreckage.
Tropical Fuck Storm’s ‘Deep States’ is out now via Virgin Music Australia/Joyful Noise Recordings. The band tour Australia behind the album in September and October