I’m recording this interview with Gareth Liddiard into my laptop, which has a bit of tape over the camera aperture. We both acknowledge the flimsiness of this gesture in this age of surveillance.
“If you open Facebook Messenger and [type] ‘Mercedes-Benz’, tomorrow when you’re on YouTube there’ll be adverts for those,” he points out.
“If I could just press a button and go back to 1999, I would. People say, ‘But what about these advantages?’ Well, if everybody has those advantages, they’re not advantages, are they? It’s great having a gun if everyone else has a sword, but if we all upgrade from swords to guns … ”
As the harbinger and heretic of the Drones, Liddiard tackled everything from jihadis in incubation, to the psychological warfare of the Luftwaffe, to “aqua-bogans” on jetskis. But the debut album from his new project Tropical Fuck Storm – titled A Laughing Death in Meatspace – mostly laments technological advancement, albeit with a gallows humour.
To interview Liddiard is to time travel, and to connect the dots of random points in history. In the track The Future of History, he turns the 1996 defeat of the chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov by the supercomputer Deep Blue into an epic battle straight out of Norse mythology: “A 64-bit lightning war … a data-crushing Viking of a Commodore.” He makes the droll observation: “If IBM is here to make your dreams come true / You can probably say the same thing about nightmares too.”
The album title links “meatspace” – Silicon Valley engineers derogatorily refer to the physical realm – with a neurodegenerative disorder called kuru, once found in the Fore people of Papua New Guinea. Men would eat the muscles of the deceased, while women and children ate the brains, thereby inheriting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and pot-holing their own grey matter to such an extent that they lost control of their emotions and laughed themselves to death.
Liddiard digs that kind of grim polarity, and he has found a polarity in his new band, too. Other than himself, it’s populated entirely by women: the Drones bassist Fiona Kitschin, guitarist Erica Dunn (Harmony) and drummer Lauren Hammel (High Tension). The female chorus alternating with his gruff vocals make him sound outnumbered and outgunned.
This album was recorded at Liddiard and Kitschin’s home in Nagambie, Victoria, and, while it’s intense, there’s also a casualness to it, as though it’s the product of jam sessions and overturned ashtrays. “We’ve watched plenty of DVDs in tracksuit pants,” Liddiard confirms.
In the clip for the first single, You Let My Tyres Down, the band are pictured in white robes, regurgitating spag bol in a paddock at dusk before tearing up Lake Nagambie in a speedboat.
If that seems a little feral, well, it’s not a mockery of how the other half live. Liddiard says there’s a lot of his own youth in Perth reflected in this song about ram raids, drug use and kids on remand.
“The older I’ve gotten, I’ve taken stock – and that’s my story, all that sort of stuff,” he says. “I was given drugs by my stepsister at 13, before she went to jail with her husband for a long time. My cousin was nearly stabbed to death; he was a drug dealer. On the flipside my other cousin was nearly killed by fascists because he was a successful lawyer trying to prosecute General Pinochet in Chile.”
With both sides of his family “fucked up”, Liddiard finds himself drawn to people with dysfunctional backgrounds, including bandmates past and present. “There are knock-on effects of trauma getting passed on through generations,” he says. “If we got upset our parents would shut that down really quick, so we’d just bottle it up. Birds of a feather flock together; we all found each other and got wasted and had a fucking great time.”
At school, his best mate – and later a bandmate in the Drones – was Rui Pereira, who had been born during the war of Mozambique, then became a refugee in Rio de Janeiro. “It’s an insanely dangerous place and also where my dad was born and grew up,” Liddiard says. “It left Rui world-class messed up, and we used to laugh and go, ‘Why is this guy so mad?’ Now it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, of course.’”
For years, Liddiard kicked around with Rui and his own girlfriend, the Asian-Australian daughter of a PTSD-suffering Vietnam veteran. She wound up dying of a heroin overdose in Liddiard’s car when he was 21, not long after a mate of his had killed himself.
“Then I met Fiona. She was newly ex-Mormon, so the good times just kept on with all the drugs and booze,” he says dryly.
Liddiard and Kitschin have worked together for 16 years and he credits her with the business acumen. “You don’t get a lot of kudos for that,” he acknowledges. “If she worked with a pop band she’d be a gazillionaire but she’s stuck with us.”
It seems an opportune time to ask if he has ever just written a song about his feelings – if only to discard it. “Your worldview is part and parcel with your interior dialogue,” he deflects. “They all get mixed up together. They’re in there.”
But let’s get back to the internet, which Liddiard is pointing out humanity survived 200,000 years without. While he reckons Twitter has been useful for LBGTQI+ advocacy and for movements including #MeToo, it’s also damaging the brain, laughing-death style.
“There’s all sorts of jargon on the left where people talk in a similar way to AFL footballers, in that they’ve been trained to say this empty bullshit,” he says. “You think in whatever language you speak, and if you can’t understand that language properly, you can’t think properly.”
Liddiard remembers hearing the psychologist Prof Jean Twenge on a Radio National program, The Kids of Today. Around 2012, she said, clinical-level serious depression in US teenagers increased by 50%, and the suicide rate among teen girls doubled. “She was looking for anything that happened that year – was there a recession or some cataclysm?” Liddiard recalls. The only noteworthy change was it was the year that smartphones saturated the market.
Still, he’s hopeful that the next generation might rebel. “When I moved out of home, my mum suggested I get a TV,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Why would I get a TV?’ She was like, ‘Why would you not? How are you going to know anything?’”
In 2018 it seems quaint to worry about TV being the drug of the nation, but as Liddiard notes, “Her generation couldn’t live without it.”
• Tropical Fuck Storm’s debut album A Laughing Death in Meatspace is out on Friday 4 May through TFS Records and Inertia. The band is touring New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia this month