The Disaster Artists

GARETH Liddiard walks into a Melbourne roasting warehouse that doubles as a hip cafe in a side street. He’s instantly recognised by the Fitzroyalty latte drinkers.

The inner-city suburb – which started out as a working-class area full of artists and musicians – has been tainted by gentrification. It’s now the place where the counterculture struggles to find a corner to preach on.

While Gareth himself doesn’t consider himself royalty of any kind – not even the rock’n’roll variety – he takes the crown for commitment to the cause. His band, The Drones, spent their formative years skirting the suburb and surrounds, making ends meet while riffing on the walls of share house rentals in inner-city townhouses.

But gone are those days living in the grid. Now the 40-something musician who spent his 20s and 30s here, was forced to leave to make ends meet.

“Melbourne’s a fucking rip off,” says Liddiard wearing a worn-out leather jacket that’s Bob Dylan meets Jack Kerouac in retro style. It looks like he’s smoked a thousand cigarettes in it, which he probably has, but he quit smoking a long time ago.

“It’s like the whole housing bubble of not being able to live where you work. It’s the same old story for musicians, artists and anyone who is creative. I guess we manage by doing most things on our laptop. As long as there’s internet we can do anything.

“When Fi and I moved to the country” – he’s talking about his partner and Drones bassist Fiona Kitschin – “we did it because we couldn’t afford to stay in the city. But it’s worked out well for us because we’ve been able to record there and have people come over and jam. There’s no noise complaints,” he says.

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AS frontman of The Drones – Perth transplants who landed in Melbourne at the turn of the century – Gareth whet his appetite on bluesy punk riffs and pegged his storytelling on the great Aussie landscape and its characters.

Described as a modern-day bush balladeer, he put poetry on the rock stage and wrote lyrics about paranoia, provocation and despair. Now, 17 years on, Gareth is back with a new musical project Tropical Fuck Storm.

Together with Fiona, Gareth embraces a new mood with TFS, welcoming guitarist Erica Dunn (Harmony) and drummer Lauren Hammel (High Tension) into the fold. They got a taste for international touring in the US last year with Band of Horses and plan to return there later this year.

Recorded at their home in Nagambie – about 90 minutes from Melbourne in regional Victoria – TFS’ debut A Laughing Death In Meatspace is a mix of raging guitars, off-kilter riffs and loose melodies that pretty much tell us the future is fucked.

“I didn’t plan on anything career wise. I blocked it all out. I also avoided thinking about being a musician full time. It was like vertigo to me. But once I moved to Melbourne I said, 'Fuck it, let’s make a living out of this.'"

You can thank Melbourne musician Dan Kelly for coming up with the name – it harks back to the time The Drones rented a studio in Fitzroy from the owners of Bakehouse and decided to name it Tropical Fuck Storm.

With the Drones on an indefinite hiatus, the timing was right for Gareth and Fiona to plug their energies into something new.

“I guess anything I do will always have a Drones influence,” he says of the band’s obvious similarities. “To do anything with that band takes a lot more organising now than it ever did.

“As The Drones got bigger it got hard to make shit happen, which should be the opposite when you’re in a band. But we all grew up, some had kids and adult shit happened. It wasn’t as easy to get us all together.

“At the same time, it would feel weird to make music without Chris [drummer Christian Strybosch] and Dan Luscombe [lead guitar]. It wouldn’t be The Drones without them. We’re all buddies and we hang out, and it’s less pressure when we do,” he says.

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IT’S been 11 years since Liddiard swapped inner-city Melbourne for country life.

For seven years he and Fiona rented a property in Havilah, Victoria. They made 2008’s Havilah album there and had an old ’70s portable school classroom transported to the farm to make music in. Now they have been in central Victoria for five years and it suits them just fine.

But it’s exactly the advancement in technology that’s got Gareth in a tense standoff on A Laughing Death In Meatspace. There’s conspiracy theories, fake news propaganda and the trappings that come with giving over your information online.

“I have problems with the Internet,” he says. “The Internet has fed so much negativity into the minds of people that we’re all responding like everything is going to shit,” says Gareth. “People have forgotten what real doom and gloom is – just read about the 1940s.”

A Laughing Death In Meatspace is inspired by the weirdness of social media, political campaigns, deceit by Facebook, Brexit, Aussie politics and yes, Trump.

“When we write songs, they’re like mini-disaster movies,” roll calls Liddiard.

“There’s a tongue-in-cheek element, a who-gives-a-fuck element. There’s songs about robots taking over and I’m just waiting for a generation of kids to come along and say, ‘Fuck this.’”

When TFS formed in 2017, Gareth didn’t see it as a supergroup, but more a new outlet to express himself. He had known Erica Dunn – also of Palm Springs and Mod Con – for years and she’d be coming to the house because her best friend lived with them. She had also done some touring with The Drones.

“Erica is an old mate so that was a no brainer to get her,” he says. “Fi was like it would be good to get another girl in the band. Erica was a natural fit.”

When Gareth saw Lauren ‘Hamma’ Hammel play drums with metal group High Tension, he knew she was the woman fit for the kit. “If you don’t have a good drummer you don’t have a good band,” he says. “We didn’t know her at all, so we had to get to know her and then we got her.”

Erica says she remembers the initial phone call from Gareth and Fiona. “It was all pretty haphazard,” she explains.

“They rang me and said they’re cooking up something new and if I wanted to come along. I had just quit my day job and was in a good place in my life. I was free and easy and looking for something new to sink my teeth into so I said yes, sure.”

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BORN in WA, Gareth moved to London with his family as a toddler and returned to do his schooling in Perth.

It was while in high school that he met Rui Pereira and formed The Drones in 1997. Last year, the duo released Bong Odyssey – songs they recorded in the ’90s before their Drones adventure. (Rui was replaced by Dan Luscombe in 2007.)

“Rui works at Bakehouse Studio now and we used to live together in the ’90s,” recalls Gareth. “He was born in the war of Mozambique to Portuguese parents and ended up as a refugee in Rio de Janeiro and later Perth. It [Rio] is where my dad is from as well.

“Rui and Dad could speak Portuguese together. Our friendship started in high school and we explored all sorts of music together. We just got into weird shit from classical to avant garde, noise and everything in between,” he says.

Gareth’s first gig was at the age of 13 with his dad to see Bob Dylan, but he grew up like most teenagers – traversing the sounds of Guns N’ Roses, Ice-T, Run DMC, then jazz, and free jazz.

It was an autistic kid called Benny at his high school that introduced him to Leonard Cohen, Jane’s Addiction, The Stooges, and Suicide. “Benny was obsessive compulsive so we’d listen to stuff over and over,” he recalls.

Gareth can’t quite pinpoint where his musical genes come from, but assures there’s a maternal grandfather he is often compared to.

“Apparently I act and look a lot like my Welsh grandfather who would listen to Beethoven full ball in his bedroom. Now that’s what I do to people, I tell them to sit down and listen to this awesome shit,” he laughs.

By 17, Liddiard and Perera weren’t feeling the love for Perth and took up an offer to be roadies for the Beasts of Bourbon and Kim Salmon and The Surrealists. They remained friends with both bands, particularly Beasts/Surrealists bassist Brian Hooper, over the decades.

In fact, at Brian’s cancer benefit gig at the Prince Bandroom in Melbourne earlier this year, Gareth recalls a very moving evening for the musician who lost his battle with cancer in April.

“I’ve known Brian Hooper since I was 17. Rui and I would lug their gear and The Surrealists gear in and out of shows, drive them to and from hotel to venues. They needed a driver cause they would always get pissed and crash their Tarago.

“We were so young and they were about 32. We thought they were old men who liked to stay up all night and party. That’s how we got to know them really well,” he recalls.

“The benefit gig for Brian was beautiful but really sad, too. Seeing him play with [former Beasts Of Bourbon member] Spencer P Jones, who has terminal cancer, was intense – if merely for the fact they played like they knew it was the last time they would together,” he says.

“It was heavy but that’s rock’n’roll and those dudes went hard. American bands don’t go hard like the Aussies, but the Beasts of Bourbon in particular were a crazy bunch of men.”

The Drones have released seven albums in their career, won the inaugural Australian Music Prize in 2005, curated All Tomorrow’s Parties in 2013, and toured with Neil Young. For a band that is held together by long term partners, love actually does rule on and off the stage for the combo.

“Fiona and I never take our position in the music business for granted,” offers Liddiard. “Funnily enough both of our guitars simultaneously fucked up recently and I had to take them in for repair. I had a moment where I thought to myself, ‘Fuck this is how we make a living.’ It feels surreal. It still feels weird,” he says.

“If I could go back to high school and tell my younger self how things would have turned out I wouldn’t have believed it. I was a bit of day dreamer back then.

“I didn’t plan on anything career wise,” he continues. “I blocked it all out. I also avoided thinking about being a musician full time. It was like vertigo to me. But once I moved to Melbourne I said, ‘Fuck it let’s make a living out of this.’ A dumb, but fucking fun idea.”

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