Tropical Fuck Storm’s messages are often as direct and unvarnished as their name, and the second single of the Aussie art-punks’ latest album, Deep States is no exception: G.A.F.F. (Give A Fuck Fatigue) is a neat summing up of the ennui of the modern age, especially after the last two years. Thankfully, while the world may be tired, Tropical Fuck Storm’s two-headed guitar engine – Gareth Liddiard and Erica Dunn – show no signs that their unconventional approach to music is getting stale.
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Liddiard and Dunn are cut from the same cloth when it comes to their formative fabric of influences, but neither have ever sought to emulate the greats nor follow the rules in making music and a career in rock, “lifers” as they put it. Whether it’s using heavily modified, customised guitars, blasting through amps with intentionally tinny speakers, or building sounds around cheap discount-store pedals, the pair are talented enough to make the wild experiments work, because it’s not about the tools in their own right, but the sound.
This is evident on Deep States the band’s third album – every choice of equipment and how it’s used has been made in service to their all-immersive, cosmic, grimy, fuzzy atmospheric sonic journey that unites listeners who are struggling through their new realities.
“One of art’s true values is to keep the pressure up.” Dunn says. “Keep voices and ideas mulled over, communicated and expressed to find answers, to help each other grieve and celebrate. More than ever, it’s so important. Art is more vital than ever.
When it came to writing their third long-player the band – Liddiard and Dunn plus Fiona Kitschin (bass/vocals), and Lauren Hammel (drums) – bunkered down together at Liddiard and Kitschin’s home in the small town of Nagambie, an hour or so north into the bush from Melbourne. They spent their days slinging sausages onto the barbeque, swimming and spending time outdoors, then coming together to jam together for hours, seeing what came of it.
Given that TFS have had years of being on the road together to get on each other’s nerves, living in such close quarters in relative isolation might have broken many bands, but the foursome were solid friends long before they became a band in 2017, even if the scary goings on in the outside world were never far from their minds, as songs like G.A.F.F., The Confinement Of The Quarks and Reporting Of A Failed Campagin evidence.
It also helps that the band are veterans at all this. Dunn could previously be heard in MOD CON and Harmony, Hammell in extreme metallers High Tension, while Liddiard founded hugely influential rockers The Drones in 1997, while Kitschin joined him in 2002.
To many young Aussie bands, The Drones were a massively important band, with Liddiard’s guitar playing setting him apart as a hero for the players who came after him. Being in a band with someone who has had such an impact on the scene might intimidate some, but for Dunn, it’s not an issue.
“Sometimes people go on about how Gareth Liddiard is the best guitar player in the country, and he’s got mad skills, but I just don’t think about it,” she admits. “It’s exciting to play alongside someone who cares this much. Sometimes we get into chats about specifics and he can have a certain vision about something, and we disagree, but it’s always exciting.”
It helps that the pair have such complimentary approaches to the instrument, as borne out by their respective side projects – Liddiard’s 2010 solo album, Strange Tourist, is lovely, unadorned and poetic, devoid of the intoxicating feedback and noise his rockbands are known for, while Dunn’s Palm Springs project enables her to also indulge the simplicity of fingerpicking an acoustic.
Both guitarists were also channelled towards other instruments by well-meaning parents, before finding their weapon of choice. In Liddiard case, his career in music began learning saxophone while dreaming of all together more.
“On saxophone you’d have to learn scales, and you don’t have to remember them all, you just have to know they exist,” he recalls. “You know about notes, it’s just music. At the same time, I had this crappy old wooden tennis racket when I was 12 or 13 and I’d listen to Led Zep, Hendrix, poncing about with my guitar-tennis-racket but I learnt how to have a guitar on me and not be awkward with it. That’s a huge, underrated thing. Some people find it unwieldly, and it’s like if you’re a good dancer, or drummer, or sax player, you rarely see one looking like a fish out of water. They all look really natural.”
During her own primary school years, Dunn suffered through piano lessons with the local neighbourhood teacher, but quickly realised that the strict formality of the lessons wasn’t for her.
“My older brother was given a K-Mart Strat for Christmas one year, and he learnt the first two chords of Nirvana’s Come As You Are, then chucked it in the corner of his room to make him look cool,” recalls Dunn. “I think he once used it as a pretend weapon, which was pretty cool. I weaselled around the back and squirreled it away for myself, noodling away. That was my first experience, then at 12 or 13, there were a lot of icons in the mainstream like Dolores O’Riordan from Cranberries, that gave me the idea that ‘You do what you see’. Then my parents gave me an electric guitar, and I spent a couple of years being a really earnest busker. The guitar was an extension of who I was.”
Later, in her 20s, Steve Miller of Australian post-punk band The Moodists mentored her informally via taking her on extensive tours.
“He taught me when to lift off in songs, when to take up space or to hold back, certain ways of building tension,” she explains. “He has this sensibility that came from years and years of touring and playing… Because we were playing every week, I built up my confidence and listening skills, [and I experienced] the way that you’re able to put nerves aside, be in the moment with the other people you’re playing with, listening to what they’re doing and responding to it. That experience with Steve is where I got my proper chops.”
When you talk guitar with TFS’s guitar pair, their inspirations and icons on the instrument are peppered liberally, though always with a sense that Dunn and Liddiard are speaking out of appreciation rather than reverence.
“Jimi Hendrix was a full-on icon,” says Dunn. “His technical skill, obviously, but also his ability to pull these sounds out of one wah pedal, it’s still mind-melting. It was trailblazing, that would have literally make people’s ears bleed… I’m still going back and finding bootlegs, reissues and golden gems to this day. Over the years I’ve listened to Mississippi John Hurt or Townes Van Zandt. Sometimes you can listen to a record and be mesmerised by the sound, like Nina Simone records that I loved and knew by heart, but then going back to ask who played guitar.
“That’s how I discovered Tom Smith. He’s got incredible timing and tone. He was amazing in being able to support what Nina was doing. He’s not your hair metal dude doing a fucking solo or whatever, but he’s one of those great players. There’s another part of me always endeavouring to make sounds like a Karen Dalton record. Obviously she’s a banjo player, but that songwriting prowess…and, like Elizabeth Cotten, she made her own fingerpicking style.”
Both refer to ex-The Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S Howard as formative. “He’s hard to avoid when you’re Australian,” says Liddiard. “Blixa Bargeld [Einstürzende Neubauten, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds] who was great in the 80s and 90s, had this uncanny ability to do stuff that was fucked but at just the right times. He didn’t play all the time, he knew when to drop in and work with the song story.”
Working with the song story is imperative to both Liddiard and Dunn, in terms of trusting each other to experiment wildly but always in the service of articulating the song.
“We’ve got heaps of weird effect pedals,” says Liddiard. “Sometimes I buy some idiot’s idea of a fuzz pedal on Etsy, anything that’s not store-bought. All the recording is Transformer-based, so we tend to drive the microphones pretty hard. I like the old Muscle Shoals sounds like Booker T, and they’re recording in quite hot and if the singer is loud, it distorts. I find that more lively than a well-rendered record.”
“Gaz has cultivated his sound for a long time and knows his shit,” says Dunn. “He’s got a really amazing, refreshing take on things. In a band like Tropical Fuck Storm, we are bouncing off each other all the time. Most of the songs are concepts and we try to follow the song concept. That’s what we’re serving, we’re fleshing out an idea. Gaz has said it a lot but TFS is a lot more collaborative than anything he’s ever done.
“For this record, because of 2020 being what it was, most of the beds for the tracks were Gaz trawling through recordings that we’d done and fucked up, things in the hard drive. He was really researching to find cool stuff that we’d done, or that he’d put down and stored away. So he came up with the rhythm sequence, or synths as the start for the tracks but from there, anything goes.”
Sometimes what sounds terrible in the recording space is surprisingly good when played back, so Liddiard keeps everything on hard drives to go over and pick fragments from. The eccentric, unexpected weirdness on Deep States was achieved through both traipsing through recordings, hours of jamming and experimenting with guitars and synths, and a hotch-potch collection of equipment.
“Both Gareth and I played through Golden Tones amp,” Dunn recalls. “This beautiful old tube amp, then put it through these cooked little speaker units. I used a Jon Shub [DC-01] guitar through a pretty basic setup. It was made in 2015 and he had a series of this kind of shape, it originally had P-90 pickups, these big soap-bar pickups, but I got him to put some humbuckers in to create less of a buzz. It’s really heavy, solid and good, with a good, thick neck. I also carried a Fender Mustang around for TFS, which I could just chuck around, and it was a sound that’s really different to Gaz’s.
“I used a couple of distortions, a TC Electronic Shaker, the ‘seasick pedal’ that makes notes pitch shift, a cheaper version of a slow hand pedal, a great reverb pedal which was made for us by Veternik, a Dutch small pedal company that found us in Amsterdam. For me, the Electro-Harmonix Soul Food pulls a lot of feedback without going into fuzzy territory, it carries a sound across. I used the MXR Blue Box – which is really connected with the Rowland S. Howard sound – for some mega-divebomb, feedback stuff. It’s a mad pedal, pulling it in the right area you can get some sick tones and some great fuzz. There’s a pedal that sounds like a dying lamb – Recovery Effects Cutting Room Floor. On TFS, there’s a maximalist aesthetic where we put layers over layers.”
Liddiard used his Fender Jaguars, sometimes run through the Golden Amps and sometimes not amped. “They’re Gibson SGs on the inside,” he admits of the beloved two guitars he’s had to rebuild post-tours. “I like that Jimmy Page, AC/DC thing using Gibson humbuckers, then if you need extra drive you could stick it through a RAT pedal with a hint of drive.”
When it came to the actual recording, Liddiard has relied on his home studio set-up for decades, and saw no reason to change now.
“We started going to recording studios in 2001 but stopped in 2002, then I just learned because it’s easier,” he says. “I don’t wanna be a backseat driver, because I can’t be bothered relaying coordinates to people and you can do it in your own time.”
Doing it their own way in their own time has resulted in an album that rides the zeitgeist of our times. The forecast is further deep states and ongoing trouble from Tropical Fuck Storm.
Deep States is out now on Tropical Fuck Storm Records/Joyful Noise.