"We didn't scream on this record," says Liars frontman Angus Andrew. "That's kind of weird." Once admired for their wily aggression, the art-punkers have cut the quietest album of their decade-plus career in WIXIW (pronounced "wish you"), released this week. Fraught in tone, and seething with dark electronic tones and unexpected textures, the group's sixth LP reflects the anxieties of its creators. "It's the most frightening thing we've ever undertaken," Andrew tells Rolling Stone.
Along with fellow Liars members Aaron Hemphill and Julian Gross, Andrew sits in the band's cigarette-scented studio in East Hollywood, where the palm trees are ragged and the 101 freeway cuts close enough to inhale the exhaust. They're here to rehearse tunes from WIXIW for an upcoming European tour. The Liars have been based in Los Angeles, where Gross and Hemphill were raised, for the last few years, after a stint in Berlin and the requisite salad years in New York. On their 2010 album Sisterworld, they used L.A. as an inspiration point, but for WIXIW they wanted to escape the city.
Describing WIXIW as the band's most personal record, Andrew says that in the past, he and the Liars' other primary songwriter, Hemphill, would write separately and come together with their efforts. This time, Hemphill and Andrew holed up together for a month in a cabin a couple of hours north of L.A. With no stores near them, the guys would cook a stew and eat it for days ("sometimes it'd go slightly off," Andrew says) while collaborating on lyrics and experimenting with various sounds.
"It was our common obsession for the lyrics," Andrew says. "Doubt, fear and anxiety." Part of those fears came from their personal lives: Andrew was just getting into a romantic relationship and Hemphill was just getting out of one. "We'd talk about the thoughts you have in those situations," Andrew says. "'Am I up to this? Can I really make this work?'"
Those same doubts were echoed in the process of making WIXIW. In addition to shaking up their songwriting routine, the Liars self-produced the record and shifted their palette to something more akin to Aphex Twin than their guitar-rooted excursions of the past. The song "Octagon," for example, revolves around a jittery percussive line and synths that sound like vibrations from hitting giant sheets of metal. Working primarily with computer programs instead of analog instruments, the band suddenly found itself drowning in options. "I'd be searching for a certain drum sound," Gross says, "and I'd have more than 10,000 possibilities. Suddenly four hours would be gone, just from listening to a quarter of the choices."
With some help from Mute label head Daniel Miller and mixing from Tom Biller (Silversun Pickups, Sea Wolf), the band narrowed in on a sound that doesn't rely on electronic music's familiar trappings. There are similarities to Kid A by Radiohead, who the Liars toured with in 2008, but it's a more off-kilter and less meticulous sound than that of their English brethren.
It should be noted, though, that the Liars like being in charge. "We have a problem with relinquishing control," Gross says with an exasperated sigh. "For our press photos, we created 12 looks in one day!" They also took the photos themselves.
But in the end, control is only so rewarding. Even better might be the rush of ripping out the old trusted systems. "We were really interested in testing ourselves," Hemphill says. "But we didn't just want to turn out a dance record. Instead, we wanted a natural reaction to our moods. We made something that means a lot to us."