Interview: Water Liars Reveal Their "Phantom Limb"

Water Liars are St. Louis, MO songwriter, vocalist, guitarist Justin Kinkel-Schuster and Oxford, MS drummer, producer, multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bryant. The two first met in St. Louis back in the mid-2000's while sharing a stage and kept in touch, hoping to make music together sometime. Well, the time finally came, and the result of this meeting of the minds is the duo's excellent debut album, Phantom Limb, which is available via Misra Records (a fantastic artist-centric label distributed by the mighty Bloodshot Records, which offers some fine recordings by Southeast Engine, Phosphorescent, The Black Swans, Destroyer, Will Johnson, Mendoza Line, Shearwater, Centro-Matic, and more).

Having really enjoyed Phantom Limb, I decided it was time to meet Andrew and Justin and talk with them about their musical histories, their experiences making music together, and how the new record all came together.

Before we get to how you guys got together as Water Liars, can you each discuss your musical experiences before getting together for this project?

Andrew: Music, for me, became important at a young age. I grew up in Mississippi, so my family was very religious. And church was the first place I was introduced to music. My mother played piano at church and sang. And those songs we sang there at the beginning of every week have always made me feel something. And I've always wanted to create that feeling for other people. So I had my mother teach me piano when I was about 12 or 13, and that's when it all started for me. I remember sitting at the piano one day and thinking, 'I've got it.' I knew all the notes and chords and keys, and it really did all come to me all of the sudden.

Then I picked up a drum set at about 15 (by lying to a preacher about my abilities) and I started playing them at church. And the people, when I would play the drums, they would start dancing and calling out to the Holy Ghost (this was a Pentecostal style church). I'll tell you, even though my mother would weep if she heard me say this, I fell in love with the power I had to make people feel something playing music. Having people feel something so deep and profound when I played, and that their only reaction was to dance and whale was really powerful. People would start repenting on the spot and lay face down. All the old lady's told me I had the Holy Ghost and wanted me to come by and pet their dogs and eat their chicken. But I knew it wasn't nothing supernatural about what I was doing. I had them all fooled, you see. And I still do. Because it's the music that is Holy. Nothing else.

Then, as I got older, in my teens and early twenties, I began to submerge myself in rock, soul and country music, and I began to feel the power those songs had, and so I began performing in bands with my friends--playing in bars and art houses and pool halls. Cause that's where I felt I belonged, with the sinners. And I'm still there to this day. I haven't played or sang in a church in over 10 years. And it's much more meaningful in the bars now.

Politics have really taken over the churches and the people there are numb to the bone now. I don't they can even feel anything anymore. But in the bars, people come to feel something. They come to have a drink and hear the music. I know it's one of the only things that makes me feel alright most of the time.

Justin: I remember my mom singing "Please Don't Take My Sunshine Away" when I was very young, probably 5 or so, and that has always stuck with me as an example of how songs and music connect and move people in ways that nothing else can. There was always music around when I was growing up, and when I was about 14, I got my first guitar for Christmas. I started the usual punk bands with my friends, and have kept on ever since, for better and worse.

Justin, can you talk about your transition from your previous band, Theodore, to Water Liars?

Justin: Theodore was a good band. We banged our heads against the wall for a long time trying to make things work, and I think you can only do that for so long before you reach a point where no one sees anything the same way anymore and things aren't the same as they used to be. I think when you get to the point that you're dreading rehearsal or shows, it's time to call it quits. And I think that's just kind of the way things go, it happens to all bands, or at least most bands.

When and how did you guys meet? What connected you and mutually inspired you to begin working together?

Andrew: I started putting out my own records in 2004 and I began touring the country as much as possible. I guess it was about 2005, I was playing some shitty arts place in St. Louis, and Justin's previous band (Theodore) was opening up. I remember Justin sat down in a chair and started singing "It seems like we haven't been talking/ As much as I thought we would/ And it seems like we haven't been fucking/ As much as I hoped we would." And it was the way he sang those lines, he had me captured. I knew right then we were brothers in song and we've been friends since.

Justin: We hit it off and stayed in touch after that St. Louis show. I was immediately attracted to and impressed by Andrew's songs and his voice, both of which have always struck me as having the ideal qualities of being at once familiar and singular, tough and sweet. And he's always recorded his own records at his house, and I've always loved the way his records sounded, which was another reason I asked him if he'd record the songs that became Phantom Limb. But anyhow, we stayed in touch, played shows together when we could, and gradually became better and better friends over the years.

Did you have a set plan or any preconceived ideas for working together?

Justin: I was really just looking to get out of town and spend some time with my friend. We were planning on recording over the weekend, but we really had no plans for what, if anything would happen. I'd sent Andrew a few rough demos, so he knew what some of the songs were like, but really we didn't know what we were going to do to them until I got to his house and we started working on them.

Andrew and I had talked a little bit about how he normally works on his own recordings, and I had told him that I'd just work however suited him. Really, we just have talked about music and records, and the way we like things to sound so much over the years that we were able to just rely on our guts as far as what to do or not do with any given song.

Andrew: We basically had no plans other than to just make music together. Justin had some songs and he'd sent me a couple demos to listen to. But other than that, my first time really hearing the songs were after we'd tracked them.

Please take us through your writing and recording process for Phantom Limb.

Andrew: Well, Justin wrote all the songs, and I recorded them all. I have a really simple set up: a condenser mic, computer with Protools, etc. I like to keep things simple, and I guess as soon as we started laying things down I knew it was going to be simple all the way. And I think deep down, we both wanted and needed that.

Justin: Oh boy. About half the record is songs that I had just finished up right before Andrew and I talked about me coming down, and the rest were songs that I had had written that just kept hanging around with me for one reason or another that hadn't fit into previous recordings but that I thought were worth giving a shot at recording.

The writing process for me generally consists of waiting around until that "thing" hits me, then trying to follow it where it seems to want to go. A word, a phrase, a line, a chord change, a melody, any of that stuff can trigger it, but for me it is really just a matter of trusting that it'll come and I'll have the sense to recognize it and not screw it up too badly. I've never come up with anything I've given a damn about by sitting down and telling myself that I'm gonna write a song. It just doesn't work for me.

The recording process was all Andrew. I just showed up and let him do his thing. He is a genius with his space and the tools that he has, and all I really had to do was let him do his thing, and I've never ever had a more purely exciting time recording songs.  Andrew is just the type of person who knows what to do as well as how to do it, and it's just my good fortune to have access to his talent.

What would you say came together most intuitively for you through this process?

Andrew: This whole record is intuition. Pure and simple.

Justin: I would say the album itself. When I was getting ready to go I just had a group of songs, and by the time I left after the weekend, the record had essentially presented itself, sequence and all; I'm fairly certain that when I left Andrew's house with the first CD-R of mixes that he'd made, we already had it lined up.

What was most surprising, challenging, and / or unexpected?

Andrew: Most surprising I think is a lot of the noise parts on "Fresh Hell/ It Is Well". I mean, at one point, I was on my knees in front of this hot microphone we were using, bowing my violin (which I can't play for shit), just trying to make something come out of it. And I swear it sounds beautiful somehow. There are voices in there. Me and Justin were both surprised by that. It was one of those moments when you start wondering about ghost and possession because you don't know how to explain things like that. But we knew better. We were just lucky. The gods were with us if there are any.

Justin: The biggest surprise for me once we got started was the fact that it had taken us so long to start making music together. It was immediately clear that we just have the same brain as far as music goes. Another surprise, though, was that there weren't really any challenges, at least not for me. Every time I've ever made a record before this, it's always involved a certain amount of compromise and disappointment, but this time was just solid gold easy.

When I first played Phantom Limb, I was surprised to hear such a tune like "$100" open the record. Can you talk a little about "$100"? (It's an intriguing way to open the record that follows).

Andrew: Man, I'll tell you, Justin had this song, "$100", and like I said before, I'd never heard it before we started working it out. And he was finger picking it at first. And then he said, "What if I strummed it to open it up?" And then one of us said, "What if you strum it and step on that Big Muff pedal. And that's how it started. And it's heavy as fuck, and we love it.

Justin: Andrew and I are both all over the place as far as what we like to listen to and what kind of sounds we like, including real heavy stuff. With this band and these songs I really want to exploit dynamics and opposing sounds and ideas as much as possible while keeping them in a relatively cohesive and familiar framework, and I think Andrew is the same way. I just love the idea of crushing volume and violent chords juxtaposed with the quietest song on the record. I knew I wanted to have something on the record that was extremely heavy and that was where it seemed to fit best.

Along these same lines, can you talk a little bit about your sources of inspiration and influences that you feel steered your sensibilities while writing and recording the record?

Andrew: Lately, my biggest influences have been writers. We all love music of all kinds. That's should go without saying. But I've been really into stories and poetry lately. My favorite writer at the moment is a Mississippi writer named Barry Hannah. He wrote this book called Airships and it really shook me. He did his own thing, and he did from his gut. I'd never read anything like it. So I guess I've been wanting do that with my music. Just go with my gut and stop doing things the way they "ought" to be done.

Justin: Andrew and I both are all over the map as far as what we like to listen to. We're as much into old soul and country as A$AP Rocky or Big Star or god knows what all else.  Having said that, I am a big fan of A.A. Bondy, and I know Andrew is too, and when I was talking to Andrew about sort of a ballpark for what I wanted to aim at, I told him I wanted to make a record that would kind of sound like Bondy's When the Devil's Loose. That's one of my favorite records of all time and that was sort of my baseline for what I wanted to make.

Who were some of the artists and what albums were you listening to during this time?

Andrew: If I remember right, I think I was pretty much only listening to a lot of Hasil Adkins and this other album Justin had given me a while back by some old Sawmill singer from Kentucky or Alabama or somewhere. Both are really raw and gritty and real and that's usually all I need.

Was there a tune that steered the direction/ set the course of the record?

Andrew: Definitely "$100". It was all downhill from there on out.

Justin: I didn't have a sense that any one song was driving things, although the opening of the record with "$100" and "Dog Eaten" sounded cool to me from the beginning. I just remember it seeming always that everything fell into its right place before I even knew what the right place was.

Can you discuss the instrumentation on the record, and what your collaborative approach was to writing and arranging the tunes?

Andrew: Basically, since Justin already had the songs written, he plugged in his electric and I sat behind the drums and we worked out the beats and timing for the song for a few minutes, and he'd lay down and acoustic scratch track for us to work off of and then we'd start tracking, one instrument at a time. And if one of us had an idea for another instrument, we'd lay it down. Then we culled out the bad and kept the good and that's it. Really, it was like two guys knocking apples off a tree because they wanted apple pie. We just had to shake out the parts and make a pie out of it.

Justin: I wanted to make the record very simply, by trying to keep it just guitars, drums, bass, some keys and vocals, much like that A.A. Bondy record I mentioned. One of the most important things that we're trying to do with Water Liars is just be simple, as often as possible, with moments of other things going on. That's sort of what we were going for with the "Fresh Hell/It Is Well" sort of mashup when all the noise and such comes in, I feel like its more effective when its next the rest of the record, which is generally pretty sparsely arranged.

Also, we had agreed beforehand that Andrew was going to play all the drums and I'd try to handle everything else since he was already recording and engineering everything, but he just has such a knack for what songs "need" that pretty soon it just became a free-for-all where we would just have an idea and run with it, where again I'm thinking of "Fresh Hell/It Is Well". But as far as the majority of the record, we were just trying to play simply and let the songs stand or fall on their own merit or deficiency.

How much did "the recording process" affect the writing and development of the tunes?

Justin: The songs were all already written, but Andrew and I definitely changed up some things from how I'd been thinking about them once I got down there and played through them all for him. I think initially "Short Hair" was kind of a minor key number that we decided to just turn into a sort of raw garage-y kind of thing, and "Fresh Hell/ It Is Well" definitely took on a life of its own with all the stuff that goes on in there. In fact, I believe both the Aleister Crowley recital and the decision to do "It Is Well" were things we decided to add over the weekend we were recording. I think also I had wanted to do some more with Dog Eaten but Andrew insisted that it needed to just be guitar and voice, which he was right.

With the record now being finished, and now out on Misra, what would you say stands out most for you from the making of the record?

Andrew: I'm just glad to hear people say they like it. Because we really like it. It makes a man feel less alone in this world.

Justin: The entire existence of this band and record and our relationship with Misra has all been nothing but one piece of good luck and fortune after another. I really can only say that I suppose sometimes things happen for a reason when they are supposed to, and all you have to do is stand in the right place at the right time. I feel like that's basically what's happened, we've been lucky enough to have these opportunities and make the most of them that we can.

How do you think Phantom Limb has prepared you for the next recording?

Andrew: I think just getting the record out there and playing the songs live has set us up pretty good to make the next record something special. It's hard to believe recording another a record could be easier than making Phantom Limb, but I really think it will be.

Justin: This record and this band has restored my love of playing music and making records. I had been really down about the prospects of keeping on with music as a thing that my life centered around, and hooking up with Andrew has made me joyful to play and to make a new record with Andrew. We definitely want to do a few things differently this time around, but it's just really nice to feel good and hopeful about making music again.

What have you been listening to lately?

Andrew: NPR and Ole Miss Baseball Games.

Justin: I've been listening to A$AP Rocky, Cities Aviv, Danny Brown, Mickey Newbury, Magnolia Electric Co., Wendy Rene, A.A. Bondy, Widowspeak, Neil Hamburger, and a bunch of other stuff.

What non-musical art forms, experiences, etc influence your musical writing, recording, playing, etc?

Andrew: Writers influence me. But also, my day job influences me a lot. I work construction back home, doing hard labor (I have a love/hate relationship with it). But it's mindless work and I think about music all day. When I was unemployed about a year back, all I did was sleep late and sit around and watch TV. I accomplished absolutely nothing. That's when I figured out I need my body to suffer to be creative. I need my body to be stretched to the limit to make the music come out.

Justin: Everything that you've ever done or seen or cared about or loved or hated makes its way into whatever kind of creative or artistic project that you may be working on. So, everything. We just might hear it differently.

What is next for you in 2012?

Andrew: We're touring as much as possible. We've got a show opening for the Mountain Goats in St Louis on April 21, which I'm excited about. And then a Festival (called Secret Stages) in Birmingham in May. Lambchop is playing that one, which excites me in so many ways. Then I think we're doing the East Coast in June and more dates in the Fall for sure. We've kicked around the idea of a recording a couple songs for a 7" sometime this year, but that's about as far as we've gotten with that.

Justin: Yes. We're planning on hitting the road pretty hard for the rest of the year, and getting into a new record as well.

This post originally appeared in Chris Mateer's Uprooted Music Revue.

Chris Mateer is a freelance music writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He is the founder and writer of the Uprooted Music Revue, and has been contributing regularly to No Depression. In addition to music writing, Chris teaches woodworking and plays the mandolin, banjo, and drums.

You can follow his posts here on No Depression, on his own blog: the Uprooted Music Revue at http://www.uprootedmusicrevue.com/, and on UMR's Facebook page and twitter feed.

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Tags: Andrew, Bloodshot, Bryant, Justin, Kinkel-Schuster, Liars, Limb, Misra, Phantom, Records, More…Theodore, Water

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.