The delightfully audacious Tropical Fuck Storm frontman Gareth Liddiard discusses the making of their latest album, living through a pandemic in the post-truth era, the rise of new cults, and how he’s stayed somewhat sane despite it all.
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If there’s a band for the tempestuous times we live in, it’s Tropical Fuck Storm. Since their electrifying 2018 debut A Laughing Death in Meatspace, the ragtag Aussie punks have mirrored the disasters of Western society back at us by becoming one with the chaos, their eclectic and unhinged experimentalism reminding us that we are but at the whim of our animal instincts. They raucously question black, white, and gray areas alike with poignant specificity, but the revelations they encounter still give them pause.
One thing that Tropical Fuck Storm does know is that outrage, division, and disarray are the new normal. Their new record Deep States is a splendid flurry of electronic dissonance, malfunctioning melodies, and delirious hedonism, an acceptance of non-answers and the pursuit of truth as facts of life. Between scathing critiques of left-and-right-wing posturing, interplanetary vignettes of psychedelic proportions, and a ballad for a fallen Capitol insurrectionist, their zany approach to sociopolitical commentary finds multitudes of nuance in our dystopian, almost science-fiction reality. Tethered only to each other, their eclectic sound is high drama that defies genre, a collection of many sounds born out of the world’s contradictions and the ruckuses they make after one too many drinks.
That “tethered only to each other” element is the heart of Deep States—the meat-and-potatoes of it all. As wild of a time as this album is, there is a profound thoughtfulness and love for humanity at the core of all the sardonic one-liners and morbid satire. Tropical Fuck Storm possesses a deep understanding of just how much we need each other, and they’re screaming at us to not lose sight of that. Now more than ever, we need to fight for each other—against the rifts between our ideologies and bank account balances, against misinformation and the efforts of the top-percenters to fragment us even further. If we are not reunited by our collective demise, the chaos that divides us could end up being the saving grace that brings us back to each other. In the meantime, let’s dare to take ourselves a little less seriously.
Listen: ‘Deep States’ – Tropical Fuck Storm
A CONVERSATION WITH TROPICAL FUCK STORM
Atwood Magazine: How have you and the band been over the past year? Where were your heads at with everything?
Gareth Liddiard: Well, [COVID] really sort of fucked everything up. We were touring in 2020, we were meant to, so it’s a real drag, but the upside is it all just got postponed, so it’s all gonna happen eventually. But it’s hard to work when you can’t hang out together ‘cause lockdowns and stuff like that. We’ve been in the same boat as everyone else. It’s a weird sort of depression, but I’m feeling better. I’ve pulled my head out of my ass and I’ve decided to soldier on. We’re just going to make as many albums as we can because there’s nothing else to do.
And then for you guys as Australians, what were your thoughts observing the shitstorm that is the US?
Liddiard: It’s been wild, but it’s not surprising. It’s just weird to see that January 6th insurrection shit, after having sort of seen QAnon from the get-go. It’s so weird. It’s sort of the new Nazi-ism or something. And no logic works.
Deep States, to me, has offered a lot more breadth to this discussion. In what ways do you think it's some of the most humanistic music that TFS has put out?
Liddiard: I mean, it’s always better to empathize. I’ve written songs about terrorists and all sorts of dirtbags, and there’s tons of room for empathy because it’s like, you know, life is strange, and it can fuck you up and you end up fucked-up. There’s a little bit of empathy, but yeah, in general, you can’t be didactic about that sort of shit. It’s lots more complicated than that.
What do you think it is that people turning to extremism are looking for?
Liddiard: Well, they’re looking, sort of counterintuitively, for logic. They’re looking for some sort of structure when there’s chaos, when life gets out of control, they just need an explanation, you know? And I think in the West where we have a more comfortable existence, the threshold is lower for freaking out. I’ve always been fascinated by all the big quasi-religions, pseudo-religions, like in WWII with Nazi-ism and Soviet communism. That shit is like a recycled version of religion, it’s got all the same hallmarks of religion. It’s got inquisitions and heretics and ideology and doctrine. Figureheads. And this is just a new version of that again, it seems like. I don’t know how far it’s gonna go, but I’m fascinated by it because it’s sort of scares me a bit.
There's a lot of truth searching and a lot of claiming truth that, I think, goes into that whole journey, this historical amnesia.
Liddiard: Yeah. That’s true. And the weird thing too, usually something like QAnon is wholly right-wing, you know, but there’s things like the wellness industry, which kind of try and get people to have magical thinking patterns and that whole thing. ‘My truth,’ you know. I mean, I saw a headline for an article the other day on the internet and it was hilarious. It was like something like, ‘Sally was 44 and just married, but was she really living her truest truth?’ I thought, ‘What the fuck is a truest truth?’ Like, what does that even mean? It’s so vague. They base their life on such flabby logic.
Kind of like truth commodified, I guess.
Liddiard: It’s like the same way outrage has become an industry, you know, selling outrage, whether it’s through tabloids, papers, or Twitter or something. The world’s ripe for QAnon and such things.
Especially with all the information overload that we do get. TFS has given us a great look at that, as well. How do you think that that overload has contributed to some of these divides you've noticed?
Liddiard: There’s a huge generational divide. I think old people get hoodwinked by dodgy Facebook posts and dodgy YouTube videos a lot easier than younger people. Their bullshit meter’s not up. They’re not made for the internet. I heard the comedian Ricky Gervais pontificating about that and saying, you know, Boomers grew up with libraries, and in the library, there’s a fiction section and a nonfiction section. And you didn’t question that, it was just ‘That’s fiction, that’s nonfiction.’ And you were just trained to accept that. And they do that now with Facebook–if someone says, ‘This is nonfiction,’ they’ll go ‘Cool.’ You know what I mean? They don’t realize that you should actually think twice. I mean, it’s happened here. Like, our government is just so lame with the vaccine rollouts and stuff. They sort of said, ‘Well, let’s not rush into this, let’s just wait and see what happens with vaccine rollouts across the world.’ But then, while we were just sitting around watching everyone else, misinformation came in and there was more time for people to start believing it, you know? And now that we do have vaccines here, there’s a lot more people who are sort of reticent to take them than would have been if we’d done it quick. So yeah, it’s a wild time. And the internet’s so fuckin’ weird, ‘cause it’s just not even real, and it’s affecting everyone so much, innit? It’s like road rage, the way people deal with each other on the internet. Like, no one would do road rage if they didn’t have a car around them. It’s like when you put up a fence in front of a dog, they start barking at everything. You remove the fence, they start wagging their tail. The internet’s that fence, isn’t it.
Listen: “Bumma Sanger” -Tropical Fuck Storm
Speaking of all this chaos and everything that is going on in the world, what do you think (in terms of current events) influenced the sound of, and the sounds on, Deep States?
Liddiard: We’ve actually been recording a lot, so when you record, you don’t actually listen to much music because you get sick of it. But I’ve been getting into Tirzah. She’s a singer and her wingman, so to speak is, Mica Levi, who did the soundtrack to that Scarlet Johansson movie Under the Skin. They make music together and it’s amazing. I think we’re more influenced by all the crap we have laying around up at the studio in the country. We’ve accumulated so much silly equipment that we sort of just sit around and drink beer and pick things up, go ‘Boop boop boop BOOP boop!’ and record it. It’s hard to say. We just like fooling around. We use telephones as well, there’s drum machines on phones. It’s hilarious. That song “G.A.F.F.,” the drums in that, that’s Lauren just using her telephone.
I really love how this album fuses reality with mythology, and with religion as mythology, through a sci-fi lens. What does sci-fi allow you to explore more effectively than other genres?
Liddiard: I really like sci-fi. It can be cheap and nasty, or it can be like Kurt Vonnegut, really deep. I guess it’s influenced by more modern sounds, and the way we do it, you know? If we pick up a drum machine, it gives you some sort of space age sound, but then we’re kind of…we’re bad at it. So whenever we pick up a drum machine, we always end up making it sound broken, or we’re only ever happy with the result if it sounds like it’s fucked. (Laughs) The initial sound lends itself to some sort of dystopian future. And it’s fun, ‘cause you can try and predict the future when you’re writing sci-fi lyrics. And plus, it’s the future already, there’s the internet everywhere. You know, there’s the whole Jeff Bezos, Virgin Galactic fuckin’ space race for wankers going on at the moment. I was disappointed that Jeff Bezos didn’t get blown up. (Laughs) I mean, Richard Bronson, you know, you went to space or whatever. Jeff Bezos, and his big penis rocket…it just looked like a dick. I understand the rockets should be aerodynamic like that, but it’s like, he went out of his way to make it big. The guy is a fuckin’ asshole.
The jokes write themselves. Sci-fi has also been such a solid social commentary tool, too.
Liddiard: Whether it’s Isaac Asimov or fuckin’ HG Wells or whatever, it was always second-tier to like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. It was always considered kind of low-brow, so that’s attractive. I don’t like super posh, high-end, just because it’s harder to access than just trash. I like Hollywood trash, if it’s the right kind, or if it’s such shit like John Waters, and with sci-fi, you can really trash it up. It can be camp. It can be silly and ironic and yeah, it’s fun. It’s more fun to make videos for. I mean, basically TFS, everything we do–and it’s not good for our health–is basically done in a party atmosphere. We always end up getting really wasted and making an album and then getting wasted and making videos. We’re terrible. We’re bad for each other’s health.
It seems like you guys keep each other alive, too. What is it that keeps you going? What gives you hope amidst all the turmoil?
Liddiard: I’m a congenital musician. It’s kind of just there all the time, and I can’t think about much else most of the time, which is really good and kind of protects me from any serious loss of faith or depression. So as bad as things can get, as long as I’ve got some musical instruments, I can make up some silly music about it and it floats my boat. And usually, we’re touring as well, which is what keeps us all going because it’s just this ridiculous adventure we’re always on. Kind of us against the world. I’ve missed it. And touring with TFS is hilarious, because they’re real funny people, they’re very silly.
That's a good thing to have in a band.
Liddiard: I mean, all the heaviest bands, like all the weirdest, most fucked-up sounding bands, are the funny fuckers. We’ve met people from Black Flag, Jesus Lizard, Suicide. The most weird, horrible-sounding bands are just a bunch of clowns who are really good to hang out with, just heaps of fun. And then more normal-sounding bands are generally quite dour and a bit dull as a company.
As you've mentioned in past interviews, you make pop music. What possibilities does that label carry for you as a creative?
Liddiard: When I’m using that term, I’m using it like where we’re trying to be easy to digest, even though it’s kind of like eating glass, sometimes, when you’re listening to us. (Laugh)
Like fake glass, though. Like the sugar glass that they use in movies.
Liddiard: Yeah. That’s a good way to describe us: eating glass, but it’s Hollywood glass.
Something else that appears a lot on Deep States is collectivism, for better or worse. How important do you think that collectivism is in changing things, whether in a good way or a not-so-great way?
Liddiard: I do kind of miss a common-core kind of truth or something—‘truest truth.’ I’m 40…I don’t know, maybe I’m 45.
Listen: “New Romeo Agent” -Tropical Fuck Storm
The internet says you are.
Liddiard: Cool. It’s always right. ‘Cause I was young in the 90s, in my teens and 20s, and I remember a time when, you know, two and two equaled four and everybody agreed. That’s gone, and I find that a bit disturbing and it makes me anxious. So that’s the sort of collectivism I’m into, but the other one, where everyone’s just believing their own bullshit and not realizing there’s anything outside of their bubble, I find that alarming. And that happens on the left as well as the right. I think everyone’s fucked up. (Laughs) Do unto others as you have them do unto you. I mean, that seems to make sense. I think it would be a good thing if everyone stuck with that.
It's the golden rule.
Liddiard: Yeah, the golden rule. But whether it’s QAnon, Nazi-ism, you name it, they are actually trying to do the right thing. That’s what’s weird. They had the best intentions, you know what I’m saying? It’s just that what they thought was the right thing, was wrong. People are weird, man. They’re just primates. They shouldn’t take themselves so seriously, you know what I mean? But then the upside of humans being stupid is you can write songs about it. No matter how much or how misanthropic you can get, you’ve got to remember that it’s your species, you know? And if you are getting kind of misanthropic, you have a sort of interspecies love. So even the worst of humanity, you can’t help it. You’re hardwired to do it. TFS, it’s coming from a place of love. I think we’re genuine when we’re hatin’ on people. It’s because we love ‘em. That sounded terribly pretentious when I said it. (Laughs)
Do you think that your worldview, your existential or life philosophies have changed at all since you started TFS?
Liddiard: I mean, chickens and eggs. With [The Drones], even though it was heaps of fun, it was excoriatingly heavy, and to drag it around the world and get up every night and just go absolutely berserk, it could be tiring. So this is comes from a similar place, but it’s more fun. Which is good, because I’ve always liked bands that were ridiculously fucked-up but funny, like Pere Ubu or The Birthday Party. There’s always been that thread, sort of Dadaist, completely ridiculous, completely depressing and hopeless, but yet, in a party vibe. Saturday night party vibe. It’s easier to travel around and have a tantrum at an audience every night without killing ourselves.
Thank you for such a great conversation. I’m going to let you go, but first, what do you have planned today?
Liddiard: I’ve got to get to work. We’ve got to make a video. It’s going to be fun to do, but knowing the band…they’re gonna get me drunk. It’s like having three sisters and they, before videos, they go to some stupid costume shop, and they bring all their fucking makeup and stuff. And then they feed me booze, and then they put lipstick on me and dress me up in a ridiculous outfit. Then the next day I wake up and go, ‘Fuck! They got that on film…’ I grew up with my grandma, mum, and my sister, so I’m kind of susceptible to being manipulated by women who want to humiliate me. (Laughs) It’ll be fun, but I’m sure the video will be some sort of…you’ll see what they do. I’m trying to be a serious artist, though. I’m trying to be like Dostoyevsky. I dunno.
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📸 © Jessica Chappe