In the latest of our Under the Covers series looking at records and their design, we spoke to some of the designers behind the more recent releases from the legend that is Sun Ra. Here, we celebrate the weird, wild world of Liars’ designs.
Liars have always been concerned with the complete aesthetic. Each of their ten albums has been a multimedia event, often recorded in a different location depending on where the trio set up camp: New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, London, and now the Australian Outback, where the last remaining member, Angus Andrew, has returned. The experimental art punks have continued to push boundaries, always ensuring fans have something tangible and unique to hold, especially in a digital age where the physical becomes less of a priority.
In the early days, Andrew, Aaron Hemphill and Julian Gross would “sit around and spitball”, according to the singer—throwing up Dadaist ideas and possibilities, often so impractical that they’d present the band and their label with a new series of hoops to jump through. A case in point is the artwork for 2005’s It Fit When I Was a Kid, which caused something of a scandal on its release, though the controversial artwork was actually submitted at the last minute in an act of petulance after the frustration of having the original concept mothballed.
“at the last minute, the label told us they couldn’t be sure that people wouldn’t die if they ate the packaging.”
Andrew admits to finding the artwork “a bit embarrassing now” some 15 years on, a pornographic collage which “turned into a massive drama with lawyers”. The picture had to be censored, and Andrew received an upbraiding on the phone from his mum in Australia: “The label [Mute] had asked us to do something special for a single, so we got super excited about that opportunity, knowing we’re visual people. We’d decided we wanted to make edible artwork. The packaging looked like a big cookie, and it was exciting, because we were doing something new. And then at the last minute, the label told us they couldn’t be sure that people wouldn’t die if they ate the packaging.”
For the latest album, The Apple Drop, Andrew has widened the net creatively, collaborating on lyrics with his poet wife Mary, and recording with musicians Cameron Deyell and Laurence Pike. Liars and the solo project of Aaron Hemphill both featured in our Mute: Music Label Focus special in 2018, but now seems like a good time to visit some of Liars’ other striking visual ideas as the band celebrates 20 years of recorded activity.
The Apple Drop (2021)
The latest album is more of an internalised trip than other Liars records, inspired by Angus Andrew microdosing to come off prescription medication. The sleek, backlit still for the front cover was shot in St Michael’s Cave near Andrew’s home, as was the sci-fi, spelunking-inspired video for Sekwar. The inner sleeve, meanwhile, cleverly imbues a sense of Andrew’s third eye when the record is in its sleeve, and can provide a “sleeveface” opportunity when the disc is on the turntable.
Angus Andrew: “Clemens Habicht [the art director for The Apple Drop] and I started to imagine this journey as a space exploration, blasting off into the unknown, and it soon became apparent how well that kind of imagery and the ideas lent themselves to what I had originally been writing about. I didn’t set out to write a space epic at all, it was really more to understand the real subject matter in a way that’s more visually compelling than just ‘this is the inside of my mind.’
“We took many trips down to the cave to scout it out. The cave is near where we live and was under our noses the whole time. It takes a while to get there across a rocky shoreline, and in those first few visits we shot some stills, including the cover, and then we went back properly to shoot the video [for Sekwar]. Since then I’ve been back there 3D mapping it. It started to take on its own meaning within the project, as great things do when you’re creating, and I became really attached to it.”
So Mess – 12” (2014)
Strands of colored wool were utilised throughout the Mess on a Mission campaign, with the abstract model on the album cover resembling both a head of hair and a mass of futuristic robot circuitry. The idea was extended to the So Mess 12” which featured wool impregnated vinyl, vacuum-sealed in transparent polyethylene liner.
Angus Andrew: “We were looking to make something unique and interesting as a limited edition. We were playing around with all sorts of ideas, and we landed on this one of vacuum sealing; we’d used these coloured pieces of string throughout the campaign, and they ended up on the album cover itself. It became a really elaborate and involved process. We had to get so many of these vacuum-sealing machines that we ended up calling up this weird, outdoorsy meat company in America, and these machines kept breaking down as we were trying to make all of these vacuum-sealed packages.
“I’d definitely be interested in what happened to them. I think you had to break the seal to get to the record, so I’m not sure how many remain intact. You had to have the right sized piece of cardboard or square inside the plastic to hold the shape, distorting as you sucked all of the air out. And of course there were all sorts of times where we heard the seal had broken in transit or whatever, and that was always super annoying to hear.”
A simple configuration of palindromic letters, white on black, with the overall effect reminiscent of an equation on a blackboard. WIXIW (pronounced “wish-you”) is probably Liars’ starkest album both physically and visually. The band involved themselves in a special edition of the album, where they dipped the product in hot wax and manually stamped each one.
Angus Andrew: “The design was done by John Wiese in his studio in downtown LA, where we made the record. It was a big enough space that we were also using it as our studio, and one of the walls we designated specifically to album artwork ideas, which was chock full of color and chaos. It was literally a situation where we were arguing with each other so much that we needed someone else to step in and create the cover. So it was this very oblique result that seemed to articulate the coldness of what that record was about, where we’d just stepped into this world of software and technology to produce this album within the computer.
“Julian [Gross], the drummer, is a very tactile visual artist and very good with all sorts of materials. It was his idea to set up this process in an art studio where we had hot wax on a stove top constantly bubbling, trying to get the right thickness so that the wax would harden and stay on the package without crumbling in the post. We bought a whole bunch of record sleeves and literally dipped the cardboard into the wax. Then you would whip it out and stamp ‘WIXIW’ on it before it dried. I would be really interested to know how some of those fared! [laughs]”
The cold, ornate casing of Sisterworld hints at religious iconography, and is actually a reproduction of the designer’s peephole on the door of his house in LA. The CD casing pulls out like a lantern or concertina.
Angus Andrew: “The cover and the package was designed by Brian Roettinger who is a really old friend of ours. He used to have the record label called Hand Held Heart before he went on to become a really prolific designer. That image is of his door in Los Angeles, a keyhole door within a door, where you can look out and see who’s knocking. The record was about finding spaces within spaces in Los Angeles.
“Brian also came up with that very ornate 3D concertina idea for the CD packaging: again, we were looking to emulate this idea within the artwork of finding a space within a space. When the project is working, there’s a never ending supply of ideas within it—it’s self generating, and that project really felt like that, it felt limitless…”
There’s Always Room On The Broom (CD single, 2004)
Cognitive dissonance is the order of the day with There’s Always Room On the Broom, which incorporates the famous talisman from German art rock legends Einsturzende Neubauten. Permission from Neubauten leader Blixa Bargeld was sought, though the origin of their copyrighted glyph may date back as far as Stonehenge, and bears a striking resemblance to one drawn by famous Elizabethan magician and occultist John Dee.
Angus Andrew: “This was our first record for Mute and we were working with a great artist called Beate Schlingelhoff who did the artwork for They Were Wrong So We Drowned and Drums Not Dead. Her initial idea was to repurpose the logos of all the record companies. The concept didn’t exactly work for that album—obviously we were on a different trip with that concept—but I remember when we got the opportunity to do a single we thought, ‘We’re on Mute and Neubauten have always been regarded as this super important but super serious art band, so wouldn’t it be funny and great to co-opt their artwork?’
“It really required us cold calling Blixa and saying, ‘Is this alright?’ He was totally into it [laughs]. It’s funny, because the fans of Neubauten took that artwork very seriously and were super confused by it. I guess the assumption was that musically Neubauten was involved or whatever, so they were horribly disappointed.”