You can learn a lot from a Tropical Fuck Storm song. The title of the band’s first record, 2018’s A Laughing Death in Meatspace, combined an allusion to kuru, the incurable neurodegenerative disease once found in the Fore people of Papua New Guinea, with the dismissive name Silicon Valley engineers reserve for the physical realm (i.e. meatspace).
Within, lead vocalist Gareth Liddiard provided details of historical events, like chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov’s ill-fated contest with IBM supercomputer Deep Blue, and included frightening references to the “oompa loompa with the nukes.”
The band’s second LP, Braindrops, is another exercise in textual density. The title track includes the line, “You ain’t dreaming, that means what’s not you is beyond you / You’ll see only what it represents,” before proceeding to survey a dire reality.
In the record’s first single, ‘The Planet of Straw Men’, Liddiard lambastes the extreme – and extremely pointless – hostility that predominates in the comments section of just about any website. “Their only purpose is to disagree,” he sings, “and do it publicly, amen.”
But Tropical Fuck Storm aren’t in the business of offering didactic solutions. Liddiard and his band mates Fiona Kitschin (bass/vocals), Erica Dunn (guitar/keys/vocals) and Lauren Hammel (drums) make chaotic music for chaotic times. And audiences are responding – the band’s biggest Australian tour to date will follow the release of Braindrops, while TFS’s European following continues to blossom.
Music Feeds spoke to Liddiard about his approach to songwriting, why the world is finally catching up to his way of thinking and how he feels about the band’s growing popularity.
Music Feeds: Two albums in two years isn’t a bad effort. How good are you at putting yourself to work?
Gareth Liddiard: You’ve just got to find the time and then it’s a weird thing to do because it’s like, all right, get to work, and that work might literally mean just doing the dishes and thinking or just having a shower and thinking or reading a book and just waiting for some line to pop out.
It’s like being a fireman. You just sit around the fire station and you’re on duty and you’re getting paid, but you’re going, “man, I’m sitting on my arse.” And then all of a sudden you get the call, there’s a fire downtown and then you’re off and racing and the real work begins.
MF: It must be hard to keep the faith that ideas will come and not be stricken by guilt that you’re just lazing about and failing to prove your worth.
GL: These days that guilt gets magnified by fuckin’ the internet and that constant pressure. Emails are coming in and you’ve got to answer everything quickly. You can never clock off, so that doesn’t help. It’s not like pre-internet times when everything was a bit quieter in general. It does your fucking head in.
MF: Your lyrics have introduced me to several concepts or events I was unfamiliar with and phrases and words I hadn’t previously comprehended. Are your decisions as a lyricist ever influenced by the expected reading level of the audience?
GL: You shouldn’t expect people coming to your show to have some fuckin’ PhD in literature or fine arts. These days I try to keep it on the low down. And you can totally fit hifalutin weird fucking concepts into something that is street talk, because that’s where people talk about that stuff, on the street.
Some songs are kind of opaque. Sometimes they have to be. It’s like the Dada artists back in the day between the World Wars. They stopped acting like a canary in a coal mine and they stopped talking directly about political shit and they just started doing ridiculous stuff. Because the world itself has gotten so ridiculous, you can’t satirise it or you can’t criticise it without joining it. So you’ve got to do what they did and you just go crazy, which is kind of what we’re doing – it’s more of a Dada thing than a political thing.
MF: ‘The Planet of Straw Men’ is one song on the new album that directly references contemporary culture. The line I find most depressing is “All paths lead to nowhere and it all adds up to nothing.” So much energy goes into this nastiness online, and for what?
GL: I’m a big fan of counterintuitive stuff. Especially when you try and create something, it’s often the counterintuitive techniques that get results. But in a socio-political way, you might think organised religion is counterproductive and a bit fucked, but then you look at something like the civil rights movement compared to the social justice movement today, and the civil rights thing was really religious.
I think the religion gave them a framework to hang shit off and it gave them a road map to being decent. So as they were criticising people for being a bunch of racists, they were also being decent in doing. They weren’t self-righteous and their moralising wasn’t completely over the top and rabid like it is today.
That’s a counterintuitive thing where you would think the atheist version of civil rights would be better, but it turns out it’s not, and it’s not getting us anywhere because it’s alienating. All those people vote Trump because of the little lefty on Twitter who was such a horrible fucking snob. Just because you grew up in a middle class family that paid for you to go to university doesn’t mean you’re smarter than anyone else.
MF: It’s counterproductive, but still so tempting to want to criticise and expose people who uphold, in your view, horrible principles and values.
GL: It’s so myopic. People who think that think they’re smart. It’s like, well no you’re stupid because if you actually for five minutes think about it, you would realise throughout history there has been a million different ways of seeing things, a million different ways of living, a million different perspectives, necessities and they create a million different moral ecosystems.
You can’t just throw your morality on everything everywhere. It’s like when people try to retrofit 2019 morality onto 1979. It doesn’t work like that. They don’t have a fucking crystal ball in 1979 and you don’t have a time machine right now. Morality is something that comes out of the environment and it’s a shifting changing thing all the time.
MF: Do you think about how the zeitgeist and changing morality influences your decisions as a songwriter?
GL: Ultimately at the core of it is my personality and that doesn’t really shift because that’s fixed. You know, by about the age of three or four you’re pretty much set, you’re ready to go. You hone things, but my outlook is never going to change. It will mellow and it will find depth and it’ll be more reasonable and it’ll be less judgemental as time goes on, but ultimately it’ll be the same sort of thing.
People are getting more into TFS – this is the most successful shit I’ve ever been involved with – but I’m not saying anything different to anything I’ve ever said. I just think the world’s caught up to my particular world view. Everyone’s a bit cynical, a bit pessimistic, there’s a bit more black humour around. I’ve not moved, everything else has.
MF: Have tastes evolved? Or do you think what you were doing with The Drones was too much to handle for a wider section of the population?
GL: I think they were in a comfort zone that they’re not in anymore. Everything’s changed. There’s a tension in the air, but that tension was always in me. There has always been the ring of distress in anything I do and that’s not going to work in a world that’s not distressed. It’s not going to fly. But now the world is distressed and they’re more open to what I’m saying. It’s crazy times; I’m not exactly thrilled that I’m getting more popular in that sense.
‘Braindrops’ is out now. Tropical Fu*k Storm’s national tour kicks off next month. Head here for dates and details.