Folk-rock outfit Water Liars plays York’s Sign of the Wagon on Sunday.
I don’t remember what it was that initially prompted me to purchase Water Liars‘ sophomore album, Wyoming, a couple years ago. Maybe I stumbled upon the band on Daytrotter. Or was it a friend’s recommendation? Who knows.
What I do know, however, is that I’ve been quite satisfied with allowing the ends to justify the means here. Hailing from Arkansas and Mississippi, Water Liars’ Justin Kinkel-Schuster and Andrew Bryant package themes like the at-times-barren landscape of the South, day-to-day struggles and life’s simple joys – subject matter not typically approached by mainstream songwriters – into intricately crafted songs that could, on paper, read as mini featurettes. The writing shines as it assesses what living actually is – the ups and the downs, the victories and the defeats – with subtle details like the sound of bacon sizzling on the stove and a condom in a trashcan authenticating the writer as an active participant. What results is a raw, Americana-grunge-folk-rock amalgamation that is as much inspired by life on the road as it is representative of it.
Earlier this year, Water Liars dropped its third full-length, an eponymous record that’s equal parts charged and melancholy. It’s a statement of where the band has been up until now – which is pretty much everywhere, given Water Liars’ relentless touring schedule. On “I Want Blood,” Kinkel-Schuster delivers : “I traveled over deserts / I was lying over rivers / The highway was just something I left behind.” But it’s also a declaration of where they are headed. While there is certainly a level of energy that’s weaved into the band’s previous releases Wyoming and Phantom Limb, Water Liars sees it completely uncaged.
Water Liars is as hard-working as they come. But whereas the road has devoured many bands over time, these guys have mastered the art of what-doesn’t-kill-you and grow stronger with each release. And though “I Want Blood” claims that they’ve left the highway behind them, consider me skeptical.
I spoke with Kinkel-Schuster late last month as the band – recently rounded out as a trio with the addition of bassist GR Robinson – trekked to Athens, GA, picking his brain on his songwriting process, about how life on the road has influenced the evolution of Water Liars and about what’s next.
Fly Magazine: An earlier bio for the band stated that “Water Liars is on tour forever.” What’s it like spending so much time on the road?
Justin Kinkel-Schuster: Well, I mean, it’s work. It’s what we do for a living. In some ways it’s like any other job. Some days it’s extremely boring. But it’s also a job that we love. So just as often as you do the same thing every day, it’s exciting, too. We get to play songs every night and that’s what we love. It’s a lot of things all at once.
FM: How much do your road experiences play into your songwriting?
JKS: I’m always writing, and we’re always thinking about it. So a lot of the songs end up – whether it’s conscious or not – they end up getting honed and polished and tumbled around in our heads while we’re out.
FM: There are a lot of geographic references in your songs. How much of that is you going through a town and the syllables of the town’s name fit well with a beat in your head, or are those actual circumstances that have happened and you’re dealing with? Where do you draw the line between fact and fiction?
JKS: It’s a blurry line. To me, the best writing blurs and straddles the line between fact and fiction, so that’s what I aim for. It almost doesn’t, or shouldn’t, matter what exactly, you know? Like I wouldn’t want to go through every song and tell you what thing is real and what thing is a piece of writing. The best way to put it is that, ideally, it’s both.
FM: Listening to Wyoming, there’s a – I don’t want to call it darkness – but a sorrowful tone. Where does that come from?
JKS: I think it’s just a product of my life experiences; they’ve led me to believe that the world is not a great place. The best you can do is do your best and hope for some good. And deal with the bad. It’s really just a product of my fucked up perspective on things, I guess [laughs]. Which, you know, we’re always fighting with. We’re always fighting for a balance between the dark and the light.
FM: Do you find moments on the road that sway you in either direction? A ray of sunshine?
JKS: Those are the things we look for. Those are the things we wait for.
FM: Geographically speaking, is there any place in the country that you find that positivity more often?
JKS: Driving on back roads in the South – it’s just the sight and the sound and the smell all together – for us, that’s what we know and what we feel. That’s in us. It triggers a thing in you that you’re like, no matter what fucked up shit happens there, it’s this quiet place where it smells this way and the light looks like this.
FM: As someone that’s not only from the South, but also that traverses it regularly, do you notice a difference between being in Athens tonight versus being home in Arkansas versus being in Mississippi?
JKS: Absolutely. But, the flip side to that is, once you travel as much as we do, you start to realize that as much as different places are just that – different and beautiful and interesting and cool in different ways – every place also starts to sort of have a similarity. It seems paradoxical.
FM: Not to keep harping on the sad side of things – I promise things will get happier – but on the new album, I noticed that “Tolling Bells” previously had the title “For Molina.” That’s Jason Molina?
JKS: Yes, it is.
FM: My coworker recently interviewed Timothy Showalter from Strand of Oaks, and he’s got an awesome tune on there in homage to Jason as well. Was Jason a friend of yours?
JKS: I was never actually lucky enough to even meet him. But as long as I’ve been an adult caring about music and trying to write my own, he’s been, like, my north star – the pinnacle of writing. And not only of writing songs, but of the philosophy of working at it. That’s really where we picked it up and sort of learned about working at songs and at rock and roll is from Jason Molina. That’s why he’s so absolutely essential to us as an inspiration.
FM: Who else would you say, in terms of contemporary artists, that’s doing it right these days?
JKS: We really, really love Angel Olsen and Sharon Van Etten. We really love this T. Hardy Morris record that came out last year. We love the most recent Damien Jurado record. Sturgill Simpson and Doug Paisley.
FM: Sounds like a lot of songwriters.
JKS: That’s really all we care about. No matter what kind of music it is, if someone is writing good songs, then that’s going to connect. Whatever we’re listening to, the only thing we care about is is this a good song? If it is, we’re in.
FM: The other half of the song is the actual instrumentation. Water Liars started out as a duo, but you’ve grown.
JKS: We’re just able to cover a little more ground and make a little more noise. We’re still doing what we’ve always done, which is keep things simple and lean, and make the absolute most of what we have at our disposal.
FM: You added GR Robinson on bass. How’d you meet him?
JKS: He was playing in a different band that we met on the road. We knew that he was a really good bass player and a super chill dude. And that’s really what’s important out on the road – to have someone you can get along with. And it’s really worked out well with us.
FM: I appreciated the honest, not-overly-produced sound on the early records. How important is production to you guys?
JKS: Extremely important. On this most recent record, and going forward, I think the records are going to reflect more of what we want to achieve in the studio. The live show will be us adapting what we can do on stage. There are just things and ideas that we have and want to explore on record that probably won’t ever work out in our live show.
FM: Like what?
JKS: Well as far as arrangements go. Like, getting into more thicker, more lush stuff like strings and keys that we just can’t bring with us out on the road. I think the live show is always going to be just about what it is. We like keeping things simple for the live show.
FM: I’m always intrigued when a band releases a self-titled album when they’re two or three albums into their career. Is that a declaration that you guys are in a happy spot in your sound?
JKS: I think at this point, we had felt, with the first two records and this record, we had achieved a blending of dynamic sounds, and this was us feeling like we had gotten it as right as we could. As far as what we were trying to do with that sound, and we’ve been aiming for, we wanted to sort of put a stamp on it. And the next thing is going to be different.
FM: Is it hard deciding what songs will make it to a record?
JKS: No. I generally have a really good idea if something is going to be worth a goddamn or not.
FM: Wyoming has some pretty heavy lyrical content – Milton, for example. How does that make its way into your writing?
JKS: I guess it goes back to my world view. I’ve always been a reader, and I’ve always been interested in those kinds of questions. I think for me, if you’re an educated person, the things that are authentic to you will always find their way into what you’re doing somehow, some way. For me that’s just how the things that I find have affected me over my lifetime, that’s where they come in.
FM: I really enjoyed the casualness of the delivery: “Remembering some shit I read in Milton.”
JKS: I guess it’s my way of saying these things are important, but also never feeling like you have all the answers. Never putting these people or names on pedestals, but rather just looking at it as we’re all just figuring it out, you know? I think people have this image or idea of Milton or poetry being things not everyone has access to, or things that are somehow high-brow. I’m interested in bringing everything that’s up high, down, and everything that’s down low, up. And finding everything meeting in the middle.
FM: Sounds pretty deep.
JKS: [laughs] It’s nice of you to say so.