View exclusive photos in Shannon Cottrell's "Beyond the Stage: Inside Liars' Sisterworld" slideshow.
For six months, Angus Andrew, front man for noise-rock group Liars, wrote and recorded music in a studio on top of a medical-marijuana dispensary on La Brea Avenue. It was the kind of apartment that had been a victim of shoddy renovations, where drywall covered what was once a window, a place so small that there was little distinction between the kitchen and the bathroom. Down the hallway was a space that doubled as home for a strange "porn sci-fi" after-hours club.
"People would rent it from craigslist," explains Andrew's bandmate, drummer Julian Gross, "and it would be a weird, goth alien party where a dude is getting a blow job in the middle of the club." Once in a while, Andrew might spy on the party, but most times, he locked himself away in the room, which became an escape from the bizarre, and sometimes dangerous, city that surrounded him.
Sisterworld, Liars' latest album, is based on this idea of escape. "It's sort of better off left strictly undefined, but I think that people are familiar with what the idea is no matter what we call it. It's the idea of escape from your everyday life to a position where you can regroup or reestablish yourself."
For some, like Gross, the so-called Sisterworld can be a garden, a retreat from the hustle of the city. It can be digital, Andrew notes, something like Second Life or other semi-anonymous Internet communities. It's the world you create to stave off feelings of isolation and desperation.
"These are things that we've worked on in albums before, dislocation and alienation, but when you come to L.A. it's really in your face," Andrew says.
Liars has its roots in Los Angeles, where Gross and guitarist Aaron Hemphill were raised, and where Andrew relocated from Australia to study photography at California Institute of the Arts. But their route to critical acclaim took them elsewhere, namely New York City and Berlin, before they returned home. Though the musicians began their migration back to the town of Liars' birth several years ago, Sisterworld is the band's first L.A. album, on both literal and thematic levels.
Andrew had just moved back here from Berlin, when they began working on the album. He chose the place on La Brea because it was a midpoint between Gross, who was living in Highland Park, and Hemphill, who was stationed in Venice. There were enough amenities nearby where Andrew could get through day-to-day life without a car and get a "ground-level" perspective of the city. But there were problems. The bar across the street had a reputation for bringing in a rough crowd, and the weed dispensary below him was a frequent target for robbers. Once, in the middle of the day, an attempted robbery ended in gunfire and the death of a security guard. All the while, though, Andrew had his tiny studio, his place of retreat. Then, the problems of the street invaded his Sisterworld.
"There was this one night where I was working in the studio in my boxers in the middle of the night, and out of the blue through the wall came this sledgehammer and these two guys trying to break in," he recalls. "I think the idea was that they were trying to break into the weed store down below, but seeing me there — I was basically naked and was, like, 'What?!' — they were freaked out as much as I was, and they ran off."
Andrew called Gross and immediately moved elsewhere.
"It's one of those things where you have to realize where your limit is," he says. "I didn't think I had a limit until the guys came through the wall."
In some ways, the process of making Sisterworld pushed the limits of all the band members. The album came together in roughly 10 locations across Los Angeles, from a spacious Miracle Mile–adjacent home with skulls sculpted into its exterior wall to a former Curves gym that had been converted into a recording studio, to a practice space across the street from the Midnight Mission.
"Aaron got stopped by a police officer who thought that he was a crazy homeless guy on drugs," Gross says. "Aaron decided that he wasn't actually going to speak to the officer, so he would do 'yes' and 'no' nods." The officer then tried to direct him to a shelter, where he could "get some food and some better clothes."
The experience of working in the heart of Skid Row made a deep impression on the band members. Gross recalls a moment when he had been swept up into a crowd somewhere in the vicinity of San Julian and 7th streets. He could hear a man behind him repeatedly saying, "How wonderful it must be to be white and rich and be able to just leave this place."
"He kept on saying how nice it must be," Gross says. "I hated it. I felt bad."
"You didn't want to practice there anymore," Andrew interjects.
"The fact that this guy was so bummed and depressed and I could only imagine what his stories are, that makes me kind of sad," Gross continues. "I hate that helpless feeling."
The band saw another world inside homeless communities.
"I think a huge part of the idea of it comes from witnessing the homeless people and how they have to rebuild their worlds in the cracks of the built-up structure," explains Andrew. "That, for me, was the most immediate idea of creating a Sisterworld."
It's the darkest parts of Los Angeles that come to life on the new album. Andrew's vocals echo like an unfamiliar voice in the night. The band's penchant for noise plays like dreams lost amid unsettling city sounds. Any bits of romanticism or nostalgia that native Angelenos Gross and Hemphill feel toward the city are buried under layers of alienation and fear.
"Living in a place particularly like Los Angeles, where it's sort of difficult to hold on to an identity, being in this kind of place makes you realize that you need these Sisterworlds," Andrew says.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"L.A. also has that weird part where there are so many people and it's so gigantic, yet you can be completely alone and have zero communication with anyone else, even going through your day, doing your daily chores, your errands," adds Gross.
But, through it all, there's a frantic sort of adrenaline rush that drives the album, an energy that comes from slinking through an alley while looking over your shoulder in a paranoid fashion, hoping that no one emerges from around a corner.
"We've lived in a lot of places, and a lot of places that I thought were pretty hard-core, but living in L.A. recently has opened my eyes as to how violent it can be and how disturbing it can be," Andrew says. "It makes New York look like a manicured playground. L.A. is one of the scariest places I've ever lived, which is exciting."
LIARS Sisterworld (Mute)