Tropical Fuck Storm emerged out of the remnants of the furiously articulate, punk rock outfit, Drones. If anything, an even more unhinged vehicle for the scathing rants of frontman Gareth Liddiard, Tropical Fuck Storm has grown, over three albums, into a messy, hyperverbal, supremely danceable monolith.
Up until COVID, the band had been on a nearly non-stop global tour, bringing their volatile energies to packed-in audiences in Europe, the Americas and their native Australia. But the pandemic and lockdown snapped shut on the band’s members like a Venus flytrap in 2020, and they’ve been holed up in Melbourne (and just outside it) ever since. Yet even rattling around a converted farmhouse in the bush during a muddy Australian winter, Liddiard and his mates have a finger on the pulse of our manic, increasingly insane culture. With a pawn shop’s worth of vintage keyboards, synths, drum machines and other instruments, they set the crazy, unsatirizable pandemic months to music. The result is an antic, overstuffed set of tunes called Deep States, out last month, with songs about Jesus, Jeffrey Epstein, opioid addicts and the staged outrage of the always online.
We talked to Liddiard one evening (it was morning in Australia) about the frustrations of isolation, the unlikely persistence of creativity during lockdown, why conflict and contradiction make for the best songs, and what the band hopes for in the future. “I miss the States. I miss Europe. I don’t miss the long flights. But one day, we’ll be back,” he says. | j kelly
Aquarium Drunkard: All of the Tropical Fuckstorm albums have had this maniacal, end-of-the-world carnival vibe to them, and I was wondering if you had to step it up for this one, given all that’s happening in the world?
Gareth Liddiard: I don’t know. I mean, the material was there. You don’t have to mine for it any harder than we usually do. We’re just writing about what’s around because we have to make a record about something. But yeah, it’s a crazy time. No shortage of topics.
AD: It’s been a really awful couple of years in Australia with the wildfires and then the COVID. How have you been doing?
Gareth Liddiard: It’s feeling kind of flat, you know what I mean? It’s that weird COVID kind of slump. It’s not depression, but it’s this weird climate. It’s all been a bit pointless. We’ve just spent so much time planning gigs and cancelling stuff and rebooking things. And all for nothing because you don’t get paid until you play a gig. So yeah, it’s been a tough track. We had five or six tours for 2020. We had to cancel all that. It’s just been relentless.
AD: And you can’t even play in Australia now?
Gareth Liddiard: No. Nowhere really. We’re just stuck. But me and Fiona, we live in the bush. We’re just about an hour and a half north of Melbourne, so it’s okay up here. You know, it beats being in the city.
AD: What is it like there?
Gareth Liddiard: It’s really nice. Tomorrow’s the first day of spring, so that’s nice. We live with a friend, and we’ve got three buildings in an old farm and telegraph building. It’s weird. And we’ve put some old school rooms on here as well. That’s where we record. There’s a big river going past the property. It’s nice. We can swim and all that.
AD: I’ve found being able to go outside, even if it’s just the porch, really helps in the lockdown.
Gareth Liddiard: Yeah, right. We’ve had winter, and where we are, it gets really cold and really muddy. It’s just been the most depressing winter. And usually we’re touring, you know? We’ll be in the Northern Hemisphere during Australian winter. So, we haven’t really had a winter for five years or so. It’s a drag.
AD: I talk to a lot of artists who say it’s really hard to write anything during the lockdown, because all the input you get from talking to other people and going places and doing things isn’t there anymore. Do you find that?
Gareth Liddiard: Yeah, I’ll go into a writing mode and just keep my ears pricked up for anybody saying anything. Without socializing much, you get less of that. But when we do get a window to record, when there are no lockdowns, everybody comes up to the house and we spend time up here. We sit around and drink beer and talk crap and eventually someone will say something weird and funny, and then I’ll write it down. There’s still a bit of it. But usually, I’ll be out and about, all over the joint, and I write everything down in my iPhone if somebody says something crazy.
AD: There’s some great lines, as always in this. “My doctor told me not to go outside/he told me I could get sick and die/perhaps…/my lungs would collapse,” from “Bummer Sanger,” is so offhand and perfect. How do you make it funny, with what’s going on in the world now?
Gareth Liddiard: Remember stuff like Dadaism and Surrealism, that all came after World War I and II, because the world was getting so ridiculous. You can’t lampoon it. You can’t satirize it because it is living satire. Trump is a perfect example of that. We’re making a weird kind of poetry out of it, as kind of a survival mechanism.
AD: I really like “G.A.F.F.” (short for “Give a Fuck Fatigue”) which is so sharp and scathing about all the things that are wrong with the world. Where did that come from?
Gareth Liddiard: It sort of just comes from the idea that everybody is an expert on everything these days, or they think they are. Things like Twitter have created a culture where you need to have an opinion on everything. It’s almost mandatory to have an opinion on stuff you know absolutely nothing about. You’ll hear people on the right talking about climate change like they’re climatologists and on the left, they’ll be talking about vaccines like they’re doctors. The whole spectrum is just full of, basically, morons, who think they know everything. And then there’s like, the Capitol riots, January 6, just all these absolute morons, thinking that they know better than everybody else and demanding that people do what they think should be done. You’re obliged to be involved in all these upheavals and have an opinion and somehow be involved in fixing them, or appear to be fixing them, just by commenting on fucking Twitter. Just getting tired of that, really. When you say, oh the war in Syria is crazy, but what the fuck am I going to do about it? Seriously. If I get on Twitter, it’s not going to change anything. You feel bad saying that in public. You’ll get shouted down. But everybody has that feeling now and again. I thought, that’s universal, so chuck it in a song.
AD: It’s funny you mentioned twitter because I feel like your songs are sort of like scrolling through Twitter. There’s just so much information that comes through, and there are so many words. Even if you pay attention, you don’t quite get it all. I was wondering if you ever think, no, that’s too many words. Or is that kind of excess something that you enjoy?
Gareth Liddiard: Well, every song is like a little solar system. It starts with particles of information flying everywhere, and as you work on it, they coalesce into rocks and then planets and then eventually, you’ll have a little world that is that song. The whole process, it is the process of elimination, and I do delete heaps of crap or just put it in the spare parts department. But I’ve always been a fan of Bob Dylan, and some of his songs, “Idiot Wind” for instance, is just eight minutes of word salad. So, I’m up for the challenge.
AD: I think my favorite on the current album is “Reporting of a Failed Campaign” which brings in all this stuff, like Fox News and Rupert Murdoch and Jeffrey Epstein. It ends with this incredible line, it’s my favorite lyric on the whole thing, the guy ends up “in an undisclosed location wearing slippers and a bullet proof vest.” It’s like a little novel, that song.
Gareth Liddiard: Yeah that was, weirdly, not inspired, but I got the idea from a Traveling Wilburies song, “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” it’s a Bob Dylan song. The way he kind of has a bunch of characters and they’re all tied together and in the end all their worlds collide and it’s a disaster. I like that sort of stuff. Even if you watch “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the TV show? He does that in almost every episode in the most awesome way.
AD: It’s really impressive. There’s so much stuff going on.
Gareth Liddiard: Well, again, the world is just ripe for songwriting.
AD: Yeah. And then you’ve got “Legal Ghost,” which is a little bit different for you. It’s almost a love song.
Gareth Liddiard: That’s actually a song I wrote in about 1998. And then, it came out on this weird little compilation a few years ago of stuff me and my old friend did after high school. Where we would just sort twiddle away on our equipment. We were massive music nerds. And that was a song that we made up back then and then it just sort of sat there until I went back to it and said, wow, this would really work with the band now.
A legal ghost is someone who is not long for the world, someone you know is going to die young, and then after they’re dead, you get like fucking parking tickets for them in the mail, stuff like that. And when we were young, we had a lot of friends like that, when you’re young and crazy. It just seems to fit with the new band pretty well.
AD: I know this band came out of Drones, which was a noisy punk rock garage band, but it sounds like there’s something tropical in this one. Were you trying for a different sound?
Gareth Liddiard: Yeah, we were. We started the Drones in Perth in Western Australia and we had a lot of stuff, a lot of crazy equipment, the sort of stuff that is quite valuable now, old drum machines and synthesizers. Back then it was all cheap. No one liked it.It wasn’t hunted down by collectors back then. But we had to move to Melbourne in the 1980s, and we just basically sold all of that stuff except our guitars.
When we moved to Melbourne, we became a guitar band, mostly for economic reasons, practical reasons. Like when you tour, it’s easier with one guitar and a box of pedals than to tour with a Hammond organ and a bunch of drum machines. So, it was a guitar band, and then eventually it occurred to me after years and years of doing that, I was like fucking hell, I’m sick of being in a guitar band. And then, we thought, let’s delve back into drum machines and synths and all sorts of crazy things. And those instruments, you tweak them, and you tell them what to do and they spit stuff out, and you come up with Afro-beat sort of stuff, and hip hop stuff and R&B, and you just sort of go with the flow. If you pick up a guitar and you hit a chord, you’ve got that sort of AC/DC vibe, but if you turn a drum machine on, and it’s a Brazilian drum machine, then suddenly you’ve got some sort of tropical vibes. That’s how it happens. It’s pretty straightforward.
AD: What is your live show like? Is it pretty theatrical?
Gareth Liddiard: Yeah, it is. We sort of go pretty berserk. We were always into stuff like Fugazi and Jesus Lizard and Bikini Kill. Yeah, just crazy punk rock, Bad Brains, Jimi Hendrix. We like to go bananas. And it’s kind of just what we do. We just get overexcited around amps and go berserk.
AD: Do you have any favorite bits on this record?
Gareth Liddiard: I really like the last song, the little instrumental. It was sort of sitting there in the spare parts department for a while, and then while we were sifting through stuff to see if there was anything we could use, that came up, in its raw form. It kind of just reminded everybody of those big budget sci-fi movies like Terminator. Even though they are big budget, the music is kind of cheap and nasty and stupid. It reminded us of that. Heroically stupid. So, we said, well, that’s cool. This would go really well either at the beginning or the end, so we put it at the end as the credits roll. We put everything together like a film in a way. We put together a couple of hours of crap on the hard drive and then sift through it, and it’s almost like editing a movie together.
AD: Really, that’s interesting. So, you make the songs out of pieces that you’ve made at different times?
Gareth Liddiard: Yeah. It could be…one week we’ll be trying a song and we’ll be going for a certain thing, and then we’ll record it. Then we’ll leave it for a few weeks and come back, and then we’ll hear something we didn’t notice the first time around because we were too busy trying to do a certain thing. We didn’t notice we’d actually fucked up and done something else. So, we’ll use all the happy accidents. We generally mostly like the accidents and stitch them together and learn how to play them.It’s a weird process. It’s not your usual band in a room, one, two, three, four, off we go. Although we are in a room. It’s a convoluted way.
AD: Is there a running narrative through this album? Is it one story or a bunch of different stories?
Gareth Liddiard: It’s just a story of that time. We recorded it in that time, and generally if you do everything without four months or so, without even having to try, if you’re talking about what’s going on…
AD: It will have a theme.
Gareth Liddiard: It takes care of itself. It just sort of emerges.
AD: What are you going to do next?
Gareth Liddiard: We’re trying to figure out how to get some money because we’re broke. There’s no work. We have way more stuff in the spare parts department, so we’re going to start working on another record once we can get together.
AD: Do you all live near each other?
Gareth Liddiard: Relatively. We’re in the same state, but when there’s a lockdown, it can be a drag. You can’t go in or out of Melbourne. We can’t all get together. It can be a pain in the ass, seriously. But I think we’re going to do a streaming thing. We weren’t keen on that in the beginning when everybody was doing, but we might have a crack at that, because we haven’t played for ages and it doesn’t look like we’re going to play for a while.
AD: Is there anything people don’t get about Tropical Fuck Storm or that they always get wrong? Any misperceptions?
Gareth Liddiard: (laughs)Yeah, I mean people either get it or they have an allergic reaction and they think it’s the shittest stuff they’ve ever heard.S o, it’s funny to read reviews, every now and again. It’s usually the bad ones that are the best to read. It’s like they’re offended.
AD: What’s the worst thing anybody ever said about you?
Gareth Liddiard: Oh, I don’t know. We have trolls and all that stuff. We get death threats, oh my god. Some people are just so offended by our music. Just turn it off.Y ou just have to push stop. Jesus Christ, it’s not like we’re forcing it on you.
AD: Are you listening to anything good now?
Gareth Liddiard: Not a huge amount. Have you ever heard of Tirzah? She’s a woman from the U.K. She makes music with Mica Levi, and Mica Levi did soundtracks for Scarlett Johansson’s Under the Sky on the JFK movie, Jackie. Yeah, she’s amazing. She makes the music and then Tirzah sings.That stuff’s amazing. It’s really simple and beautiful.
AD: What do you think makes a great song a great song?
Gareth Liddiard: Oh my god, well, if I knew…I don’t know. You could have something really simple, and that can be part of what makes it great. Or you could have something super convoluted. I don’t know. I guess it needs like an engine or a tension between the elements that make it up. It can be sad and funny and that tension is what gives it life. It gives it spark. It’s like life beginning on earth. You just need a few ingredients in a rock pool and just the right amount of each, and then suddenly life happens.It’s like that with a song. The best ones need tension. Like an angry love song because there’s love and hate mixed up together. The contradictions.
AD: You can ask almost any musician that question, and the answer will always be different and it almost always says something interesting about what they’re trying to do in their own music.
Gareth Liddiard: 100 percent. Like if you read in a review that somebody says you sound like the Red Hot Chili Peppers…
AD: That’s the worst thing that anyone ever said about you! Anything else you want to talk about?
Gareth Liddiard: I don’t know. Hopefully, we can come to the states again someday. We used to go there so often that we just took it for granted. But now I just miss it. I miss the states. I miss Europe. I don’t miss the long flights. But one day, we’ll be back.