‘I often feel like I’m treading water’: Gareth Liddiard looks back to move forward

By Barry Divola

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Gareth Liddiard is lying on the floor of his home in Nagambie, a small town on the Goulburn River, a 90-minute drive north of Melbourne. He’s wearing a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt and a trucker cap with the word “REDNECK” emblazoned across the front. And he’s surrounded by guitars, amplifiers, keyboards and electronic equipment.

“This is our recording studio, slash loungeroom, slash kitchen,” he says in the languid Aussie drawl fans of his bands The Drones and Tropical F— Storm know well. “We live here in this demountable classroom and it’s amazingly cheap. It’s like living like a rich person when we’re basically broke. We call the place Dodgy Brothers Studios because everything’s falling to bits all the time.”

Gareth Liddiard: “There are ups and downs.”Credit: Eddie Jim

In fact, lately things are falling to bits in more ways than one. Fiona Kitschin, who is Liddiard’s partner in life and music, was diagnosed with breast cancer late last year. Treatment is taking longer than expected. Liddiard started a GoFundMe in August. In typically blunt style he wrote: “This has completely f—ed us up financially.”

The pair usually plays 100-150 gigs a year to support themselves, but the prospect of touring with Tropical F— Storm is on ice until bass player Kitschin recovers from recent surgery and regular rounds of chemotherapy every three weeks until April next year.

“There are ups and downs,” admits Liddiard. “But the downs are rarer than they were. You just get used to it after a while.”

The GoFundMe raised $130,000, which stunned the couple, but made them feel a strange sense of guilt.

“For over 15 years we’ve worked hard and managed to make a living out of music, but we’ve always been semi-broke because we’re not a huge band. So friends tried to assuage our guilt and explained that it’s nice that people who have followed us all this time wanted to show that they care and they wanted to help.”

As well as taking time out to care for Kitschin, Liddiard thought of a way he could play music in the meantime – undertaking a solo tour behind the recent reissue of his 2010 solo album, Strange Tourist.

Gareth Liddiard performs with The Drones in 2016.Credit: Daniel Pockett

That record surprised a lot of people, as it was simply vocals and acoustic guitar. The Drones, which formed in 1997 and went on hiatus in 2016, were a gnarly beast of an outfit, with Liddiard’s snaggle-toothed howl of a voice backed by an untamed, incendiary band that often seemed on the verge of exploding on stage.

Liddiard himself has described them as “an obnoxious barrage of horrible noise”. That’s a typically self-deprecatory and somewhat harsh assessment.

Their 2005 song Shark Fin Blues, a nine-minute opus that mined Liddiard’s depression following the death of his mother, was voted by a Triple J poll of songwriters as the greatest Australian song of all time.

When Liddiard started work on Strange Tourist, he approached it with the same intensity he approaches everything. For days, he read books and magazine articles and went down internet rabbit holes, mining information.

All of that fed into songs such as The Radicalisation Of D, a 16-minute rumination on David Hicks, who was held in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp for five years after going to Afghanistan to train with Al-Qaeda. The song is full of Australian slang and vernacular – Hills Hoist, white Tip Top, goon, ciggie. Much like Sufjan Stevens on his perceptive take on a serial killer in John Wayne Gacy Jr., Liddiard tried to look beyond the headlines.

There are ups and downs, but the downs are rarer than they were. You just get used to it after a while.

“It seemed to me no one ever bothered to think about why people like David Hicks do these things. I grew up in a rough environment like he did. Where I lived, in Sorrento, which was the northern edge of Perth back then, there were alcoholic parents, and friends’ dads were prison guards and soldiers, and everyone knew the houses where weird things were going on. I could see how he could have got to the point where he felt so disenfranchised and helpless that he thought the only thing to do was go and fight in some war.”

Gareth Liddiard performing at Dark Mofo in 2015.Credit: Christopher Pearce

The title track is by his own estimate 75 per cent autobiographical. It includes references to living out of a Mitsubishi van and the last – and worst – day job he ever held.

“Fi and I had to do work for the dole for this company in Melbourne that owned all the TVs in hospitals and patients had to rent them for seven bucks a day,” he recalls. “I’d go into cancer wards and AIDS wards and ask people to pay up. I once had to get a girl who was in the heart ward to give us over 50 bucks she owed. I found her room and walked in, and I thought she was asleep, but as I looked closer, I realised she was dead.”

Whether he was writing about the public’s adoration of highwire walker Charles Blondin or betrayal and recriminations in wartime France, Liddiard worked hard at building the worlds within each song.

“For me, songwriting is like a train set, with a diorama of a town around it,” he says. “You know you’re going to need a traffic light and a poplar tree and a baby in a pram and a broken window in the house on the edge of town. You have to populate it with all this stuff. A song is a universe you have to fill with everything from the weather to the state of mind of the character singing the song.”

Strange Tourist has garnered many accolades over the years, and not just award nominations and rave reviews – artist Jason Benjamin was so inspired by it that he decided to paint Liddiard for the 2011 Archibald Prize; playwright Mark Rogers used The Radicalisation Of D as inspiration for his play Superheroes; British actor George McKay based his voice in True History of the Kelly Gang on Liddiard’s vocal delivery on the album.

“I just feel fortunate the record is still in print and people seem to be still interested in it,” says Liddiard, shrugging. “I often feel like I’m treading water. I have all the neuroses and anxieties in my head like everyone else, and I do things like meditation to turn that down. But I have the music in there too. It’s always there. And that’s why I do this.”

Gareth Liddiard plays The Factory Theatre on November 17.

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