When he formed Tropical Fuck Storm in 2017, Gareth (‘Gaz’) Liddiard was already established as a well-known and significant figure in Australian alt.rock after his two decades in the Drones as singer, guitar-player and songwriter.
Tropical Fuck Storm (let’s call ‘em TFS, so Google don’t block us completely) have been on the path suggested by the Drones’ final and most oddball LP Feelin Kinda Free, getting weirder and weirder as they go, pushing at the limits of coherence and genre.
Although they might flirt with chaos, Tropical Fuck Storm are in fact a controlled high-wire act performed by a crack squad of musical lifers.
“If you’ve only got four ingredients,” he says, “You need to make the flavours strong in the stir-fry.” To whit: Liddiard, guitarist and lead singer; Lauren Hammel [aka ‘Hammer’, ‘Hammy’ or ‘Ham’] the drummer; Erica Dunn [‘Rico’] who sings and plays keyboard as well as guitar; and Fiona Kitschin [‘Fi’], also from the Drones, who sings and plays bass.
Although it might not be immediately apparent from their records, TFS are most definitely a rock band live: twin guitar attack, bass and drums – very dynamic, with bucket-loads of distortion and raw power, but also spacey and discordant and very melodic.
Seeing them live in concert, it was both pleasurable and bewildering trying to locate them within my frame of reference: Sonic Youth; Weld-era Neil Young; Gang of Four; ABBA; Birthday Party; Television; Stooges; Hendrix. Liddiard would add John Coltrane, Einstürzende Neubauten, Sun Ra and Rihanna.
In this wide-ranging interview from the house in rural Victoria he shares with Kitschin, Liddiard discusses his band-mates, influences, TFS’s collaborations with King Gizzard and the Wizard Lizard and Amy Taylor from Amyl and the Sniffers, Covid, gastro-enteritis, the Wild West of Australia and “fucking fanging it.”
Louder: Tropical Fuck Storm’s most recent record is Satanic Slumber Party, a collaboration with King Gizzard and the Wizard Lizard. How was that made? Beer and hats were involved, I believe.
Gareth Liddiard: They came up to our joint up in central Victoria – we live in the bush – and spent three or four days doing their Fishing With Fishies record. At the end, we just pulled all the gear into one room. We were all drunk and on mushies … It’s a really great summer house, lots of friends come out and every bastard leaves their hat here when they go, so we’ve got like four hundred hats. So we all put a hat on and did this thing – three sections of music, which we jammed on. TFS ended up chopping up those bits and singing over them.
The highlight of those three songs is ‘Midnight in Sodom’, a psych rock wall of sound but also very catchy with a stomping Krautrock motorik beat …
… and the lyrics are hilarious. Too funny to have been written during the miseries of lockdown, but they were.
It’s meant to be silly. I like having humour. I’ve never liked full-blown earnestness. You’ve still got to have some deviant thing going on. If you listen to the Birthday Party or Pink Floyd, the best stuff is twisted: that sense there’s some evil shit going on but it’s a bunch of people having a funny time doing that.
When the pandemic hit, the wheels fell off. Musicians, especially in Australia, we couldn’t go anywhere. I’ll speak for all Australian musicians when I say, everybody for about six months sat around drinking booze and watching Netflix – until they got sick of it. And then like everybody else we slowly crawled back into a work mode and started putting together the Hat Jam thing, which became Satanic Slumber Party.
That record, I can’t be objective but for me it’s all of us – friends - who toured together and put up with so much fucking shit being musicians and survived it somehow. It’s a good love-in - like the B-52’s!
You still played some shows during Covid though.
We managed to do a bunch of gigs in the middle of last year in between the lockdowns. In Victoria, they were fucking full-on. We lucked out and did well and had a few times where we had a few gigs. It wasn’t much; usually we do 100-150 gigs a year all around the world, but it stopped us dying of starvation. Last year we played at this great old insane asylum with King Gizz.
One of the most recent TFS shows was in April this year in Perth at the Charles Hotel. In photos, it looks like the kind of place with tables neatly laid out where you might have a wedding reception or go to play bingo.
No way would you have a wedding reception there! Moments before that photo was taken those tables would have been squirming with strippers. It’s very much the Wild West. In Western Australia they have what they call ‘titty bars’ where the barmaids will walk around with no clothes on and there’ll be strippers. There’s a huge bikie contingent in Western Australia … They won’t kill you but you can buy all your crystal meth and heroin off them, if you are so inclined.
Tell me more about your place in the bush where you live and record.
We pay very minimal rent. Our landlord is one of our best friends and he’s older than us; he’s into Bob Dylan and he used to see the Birthday Party and the Saints – he’s old enough to have seen that shit. He let us put two massive 1960s demountable old school classrooms on the land. We renovated them. You can look out the windows while you’re jamming and there’ll be kangaroos.
I read that because of the risk of being trapped by bush fires you have a kind of escape pod.
It’s not an escape pod. It’s a car. It’s a thing of beauty. It’s a 1994 Toyota LandCruiser Troop Carrier. The Red Cross said to Toyota, “We’d like a car that doesn’t break down. Can you do that?” And that’s my car: Red Cross spec, military spec. As an obedient capitalist, I appreciate quality. It’s exactly like if you see ISIS or the Taliban when they strap a heavy machine gun on the back. It’s like having a pet rhino, a non-sentient pet rhino.
Before Satanic Slumber Party, the last TFS record was a live album of Goody Goody Gumdrops, the film that streamed last November. The oddball, comedy improv isn’t on the record …
No, no, we’re not the fucking Goon Show.
… but the camp-fire acoustic numbers are. And a live performance in a shed to an audience that consisted only of the tiny film crew and some dogs.
We hadn’t played for ages at that point and we’re all fat and overweight. Only one of the camp-fire songs is on the Goody Goody Gumdrops record though. We’re putting a new LP out in about January (2023) and that will have the other camp-fire song on it. It would have come out sooner but the vinyl processing plants because of Covid and your countryman – what’s-her-name? Adele – fucked everybody up. She pressed like 170 billion albums and all the other musicians have to wait in line. Who listens to Adele on vinyl?!
Our new LP is kind of a party record but it goes out there. It’s more of a guitar record, in a sense, but when you say ‘guitar record’ there are all sorts of connotations that I don’t think apply to us.
I think our American record company might get a bit cross, if I spill the beans too much. It’s really good! I’m not always as pleased about things as I am about that. You’ll dig it. It’s got a few surprises. We took on more than we could chew but we chewed really well.
So the new one was made during Covid restrictions record. TFS beginners shouldn’t start with Deep States, your earlier Covid record. That’s a tough listen: harsh, dense, claustrophobic.
Yeah. The recording of that was a horrible schmozzle drama with all the lockdowns and in the end it all broke down and we just gave the record company what we had at the time. It’s kind of fucked up. I might remix it.
And yet it ends with the lightest - musically - TFS have ever been. Erica singing ‘New Romeo Agent’, you singing ‘Legal Ghost’. It’s a weird, disjointed record.
Usually we choose between a wealth of material but with this we had nothing (extra). We had to fight to come up with it all because we weren’t allowed to be together legally. It was a real head-fuck.
Deep States is still very, very funny at times, no matter who wrote the lyrics. ‘Suburbiopia’ is a case in point, which is Fiona and Erica.
Generally, whoever sings is mainly responsible. In the Drones in a male band, we’d be in the studio, I’d walk in and they’d walk in and everyone had their shit sorted and we’d bash it out. But the classic female scenario is we all sit around over a pasta or something and we’ll talk it out. The girls are so fucking hilarious, so they’re always coming up with funny observations.
The best gateway drugs to TFS are the first and second albums. Braindrops (2019) is full of space and groove and A Laughing Death in Meat Space (2018) has the most tunes and the most guitars.
Start with ‘You Let My Tyres Down’, definitely. I really like ‘Antimatter Animals’ because of the mix of guitars. ‘Maria 63’ – that’s really good. And ‘Braindrops’ the song and ‘Rubber Bullies’ ...
That’s your most Gang of Four one. Lyrically too.
Yeah. Almost like Peter Hook, where the bass leads. At first Gang of Four passed me by. Joy Division: they did not pass me by, nor the more fucked-up stuff like Psychic TV but for some reason, Gang of Four did. That annoyed me: “I would have loved this when I was 19!” Like Magazine and the Pop Group, they would never play a note without thinking it through, a lot of the avoidance of tropes: fucking awesome. Andy Gill: one of the few original guitar players. Like Joy Division, Gang of Four were conceptual but very moving.
There’s also a trio of really good B-side cover versions of Australian bands: ‘Stayin’ Alive’ by the Bee Gees; ‘Lose The Baby’ by Lost Animal and the ‘Back To The Wall’ by the Divinyls …
We think of the Bee Gees as being Australian, like we think of AC/DC as being Australian. AC/DC: very Australian macho. The Bee Gees disco period: very Australian homoerotic. If you went to Sydney to the Gay Mardi Gras – totally the Bee Gees.
Did you cover AC/DC and I missed that?
We were thinking about it. You want to do it better than the original and that’s a hard one. It’s compulsory in Australia, if you are over the age of about 32, that you adore AC/DC. And with good reason.
The guitar sound of the two brothers – my God!
It’s excoriatingly raw. And Bon Scott didn’t take himself too seriously. (Liddiard sings lyrics from ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Singer’, ending with the immortal “Yes, I are.”) The thing I admire about them is the same thing I admire about NWA or Guns N’ Roses. They wanted to be huge, yet their music is so horribly obnoxious and offensive.
We did the Saints as well, with Amy from Amyl and the Sniffers: ‘This Perfect Day. We’re all friends with that crew. They’re really young tackers, really funny. Amy is like [in strong nasal northern Queensland accent]: “How old are you? How are you not dead?” I feel like I’m going to die in the next few years on tour. Fuck! I like being famous but I don’t like touring.
North Queensland is one of scariest places I’ve ever been. In 1990 I ended up north of Cairns…
Oooh, yeah! Those places either side, east coast and west coast heading up to the top, if you want to get your head punched in: great.
Exactly! Cairns is the closest I’ve ever come to being beaten to death.
I grew up in Western Australia. I’m not a fighty guy, but I’m not a girl’s blouse, as they would say over there, either, but I’ve been smashed so many times. For nothing. I can’t open my jaw properly. It’s really macho there. And then I hear people talking about toxic masculinity in Hollywood. I’m like: “Mate, come to WA.”
TFS are often described as “art punks’. You didn’t go to art school like Gang of Four or Roxy Music and become schooled in artistic practice.
Not at all. After school, straight away I fell into being a roadie. Just luck. My only ever job interview was with this guy I met on the street in his little roadie van: “Alright? Do you like the Stooges?” “Yeah!” “Cool, you got the job.” He would become my boss for eight years.
I have had two or three other jobs and then became a musician. I’ve never wanted to do the grind. With my upbringing, I’ve got a rocket up my arse the size of a Saturn V. I don’t want to go back to people dying of heroin everywhere and punching each other out everywhere. Total South African shit how they treat the Aboriginals – you’d be astonished. It’s meant to be a First World country, but it’s not. I got out of there.
You played the Primavera festival in Barcelona on the same bill as Einstürzende Neubauten.
I got a Neubauten tattoo when I was 16 or 17. We’ve played with them a million times over the last 20 years. Strange how it’s worked out.
Thank God your heroes didn’t turn out to be arseholes.
Frank Sinatra aside, they are the most graceful agers in music. They’re beautiful.
You’re touring in September and October through US and EU. Have you got that balance between discipline and decadence sorted?
I mean, we cane it. We party too much. That’s a problem with girls. They love to party and get on the wines. We always end up with a headache in the morning.
Do you stay locked inside the tour bubble or allow the real world in as much as possible?
If we’re in Madrid, we’ll go to the Prado. And we’ve got friends everywhere now. Me and Fiona have toured so long, there’s always someone to catch up with. And then sometimes, sleep is the thing you need.
The risk of cancelling gigs because of Covid: is that priced in?
We’ll just deal with it. The show must go on. In our band, the general rule is: a show only gets cancelled when someone goes to the hospital. But obviously you can’t do that with Covid.
When I saw the band in Bilbao in 2019, this was just before you were hospitalised with gastro-enteritis and the tour cancelled.
Bilbao: absolutely fine. Madrid: I was feeling a bit shit, so laid off the booze and played a ripper gig and the next day it happened: off to Madrid Central Hospital. I got a text from the girls, when they’d got back from shopping or somewhere: ‘Hey, where are you?’ ‘An ambulance took me to hospital.’ And they were like: ‘Cool we get three days off!’
My mum died when I was young, so when I go to hospital it’s nice, it’s almost like you have several mums. I actually enjoy going to hospital. I know that sounds terrible.
My Achilles’ heel is my stomach. Our sound engineer? His Achilles heel literally is his Achilles’ heel. Sometimes he can’t work because that tendon down there fucks up and he can’t walk.
In Bilbao, it took me a while to get a grip on what I was listening to, to establish a frame of reference.
We’ve always been into key shit like Stooges, Suicide, Neubauten – just shit which is insane. But at the same time we love melodic stuff; we like Neil Young, Beach Boys, Beyonce and Rihanna. We mix the two.
Would you be offended to be called a rock band? You once called a certain kind of rock music ‘taxidermy’ ie. doing a stuffed version of long dead band.
Depends how you do it. You can do that throwback shit, that retro stuff and it will be boring, or you can refresh it. That would apply to any other genre or any other art. The reason we are together in the band is because everybody likes lots of things: the fucking Bangles and the Stooges and we like Sun Ra, Shostakovich and we like noise music, fucking Stockhausen and these great Hungarian women’s choirs – whatever, if it’s good. Everyone’s really up on their cool nerdiness, so even if we’re rock ’n’ rollers we add all this other shit in. Whereas the bands that bore me, you can tell they only listen to guitar-based Western rock ’n’ roll.
Melody and harmony are really important to the group, especially when Erica and Fiona sing. Was I nuts to think TFS have an ABBA influence in there somewhere?
Definitely ABBA. I still get goose-bumps in ‘Dancing Queen’.
TFS are a proper four-piece band. Not ‘The Gaz Liddiard Band’ or “Live Guitarist of the Year 2016” – an Australian award you actually have – and his backing band.
It’s like those old jazz three-piece or four-piece bands, it’s economical. You can’t take a big band out on the road.
Erica has this outrageous, kooky, fucked-up weird style, like an idiot savant. She sounds like Robbie Krieger or the Television guy or Marc Ribot or someone like that. But fucked up.
She’s Richard Lloyd to your Tom Verlaine – both lead guitarists?
We’re just fanging around on our guitars. If she’s fanging around, she’s like, “Stay out of my way!” And if I’m fanging away, then “Will you stay out of my way!”
To get a car – a Ford Falcon like Mad Max’s, and then on a suburban street, just put your fucking foot down – and you fucking fang it.
Therefore, Fiona has a sort of Kim Gordon role: to be the anchor and not get buried under all the weird stuff. TFS are a band where the bass player is especially important.
In Australia we have Tracey Pew from the Birthday Party, Boris (Sujdovic) from the Scientists, Brian Hooper who played a lot with Kim Salmon; and Roland S. Howard. They were all very into Kraftwerk and Suicide and they just learned that you’ve got to go: “dung-der-dung-der-dung’. And you don’t need to do a whole lot more, but you do it with the biggest amp in the world, maxed out, so it has this God-like power. Fi does that: this repetitive, monolithic, tidal swells of nuclear power.
Lauren’s background is in metal. In TFS, she’s brutal but also a subtle player.
Yeah, Death Metal kind of stuff. She’s hugely aggressive but then she likes the Shangri-Las, Randy Newman and Bob Dylan. She’s widely knowledgeable. It means, if I say, “Play it like Elvin Jones from John Coltrane’s band,” she knows who he is and what he sounds like. If she can’t do it, she can try to do it. But if you don’t know, you can never fucking figure it out.
In TFS, is all the chaos controlled, or has the band become genuinely unmoored at times?
In Australia we mainly get to see Australian bands, so there’s always been this thing with the best Australian bands where there’s been some structure and then moments of madness. That could be bands like the Laughing Clowns, Ed Kuepper’s band or the Dirty Three – seeing them live is just one of the greatest things ever. So structure and then a section when you just go fucking berserk; every night is a different moment. Ornette Coleman does that. Sun Ra does that. Thelonius Monk does that. And we can do it.
Your first instrument was saxophone. And you played jazz on it.
We lived in Perth city and there was nothing to do but there was a great library you borrow cassette tapes from. Whoever had set up the cassette library just filled it full of Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins and Thelonius Monk and Albert Ayler, all these out there, kooky jazz people. As I’ve gotten older, I meet more jazz musicians and they go, “Yeah, I know who you are”, which is weird to me to be on their level.
When I’m not singing, the guitar I’m playing is saxophone. It does the exact same thing.
Hence, your whammy bar obsession?
Yeah, you can bend the note with the reed in the saxophone, push it up or you can embouchure, open your mouth, and bend it down. I can’t live without a whammy bar.
Can you think of guitarist who uses it much as you?
Only Neil Young. We toured with him and I got to play his guitars. Although another one would be Roland S. Howard. After the Birthday Party, he had a lot of drug problems and shit, but he put out incredible fucking records, like Teenage Snuff Film. And he was lovely – like 7 ½ feet tall and funny as fuck.
Was Neil Young the curmudgeonly old bastard of legend?
He was really nice to us. I played his Old Black and the one that did the high harmonics on (Liddiard sings the chorus of ‘For What It’s Worth’) but the main thing I played was his acoustic, which is a Martin Dreadnought that was Hank Williams’ guitar.
In 2018, Tropical Fuck Storm rescored No Country For Old Men and played it live.
There was fuck all on the soundtrack anyway! We set up a big screen in our studio and again, admittedly, there’s a big mushroom patch near us down by the river, so we took heaps of mushrooms and then watched the film with our instruments, which sounds juvenile but was a really sensible thing to do. So you watch the film and you feel it when you’re off your tits. And if Hammer goes ‘tish’ on a cymbal, you go, “Cool, that’s all that bit needed.” And sometimes everyone wanted to play all the fucking time.
So we had twelve shows doing it in Melbourne. The only problem was needing to take a piss at some point. So we had our game plan all written out, including piss breaks for each individual member.
Which actual film scores do you like?
Apocalypse Now. The more recent standard would be Mica Levi doing Under The Skin. I think that changed the game.
What’s your Five-Year Plan to take you into your 50s.
Me, personally? Probably time to get off the booze. Musically, just keep listening to new stuff and try to discern which is the stuff from the heart and from the soul, the animal soul, rather than some kind of pose. And I will, like a magpie, pick from that, like I’ve always done. So if you are listening to us doing any weird and wonderful stuff, you’re getting a lot of heart and soul.
Not sell more records, play bigger gigs, make more money.
I would love to do that, but I don’t know how to do it, so I’m just sticking with what I know.