Andrew asks Billy Questions:
Andrew: What’s life like right now? What’s a day in the life of Billy Liar in October 2020? How has the pandemic changed things for you?
Billy: Writing every day, taking the dog for walks, shipping out merch and making plans for 2021. On top of that, I drink a lot of coffee (shout out to my friends at Catfight Coffee), watch a lot of films, listen to a lot of records, read a lot of books. Currently almost at the end of Peter Hook’s book about New Order which is an extensive, hilarious read if you get a chance, and mostly watching spooky films. Obviously.
Andrew: You’ve toured all over the place with your acoustic guitar and recorded singles/EPs as a solo artist, but your debut album ‚Some Legacy‘ (Red Scare Industries) that came out last year is a full-band affair. What was the writing/recording process like for this record?
Billy: I’ve done full band touring too – on the East Coast around Fest and UK/Europe. I’ll be doing a lot more of that in 2021.
For the writing/recording, the songs were all written before I hit the studio apart from the final track, ‚Less Vegas‘, which I wrote on the studio piano and was one of those magic songs that I wrote so quickly, it felt like it fell out of me.
My brother Joe McMahon from the band Smoke Or Fire produced the record. Joe and I spent years on tour together so we discussed the way I wanted the record to be in a million backstages, bars and buses. Joe is one of the greatest songwriters and performers in the world as far as I’m concerned and when Joe let me hear the rough mixes of his solo record, ‚Another Life‘, while we were on the road, it blew my mind. So, Joe suggested we record at the same studio, Big Dog Recordings with Tim Van Doorn who runs it. Tim also played bass on my record and is such a talent and a blast to work with. For drums, I brought in the best drummer I’ve ever met, who also happens to be one of my best friends; Robin Guy. Robin and I have played together a lot over the years, starting out when we recorded together in 2008, on my ‚It Starts Here‘ EP with Acey Slade on production duties.
Robin & I took the Eurostar to Belgium and met Tim and Joe there. Robin smashed out all the drum parts in one day (including two songs that didn’t make the cut), barring one song which he did on the Sunday morning before he headed back to the UK. He’s an absolute machine and an incredible force and we had so much fun recording the drums and guide vocals/guitar that I feel like you can really hear that in the performances. Then Joe, Tim and I stayed in the studio for another five days and then it was over. I headed back from the studio on a long day of travel, with various buses, taxis, planes and trains before I got back to Scotland so that I could get up and see two of my best friends get married the next day but that’s another story….
Andrew: Stepping back to the origin story, how’d you get started with playing music? What was your first guitar? Where did it end up?
Billy: There are a hundred ways I could answer that question but I’ll keep it simple. I always loved music. When I listen to it, it has the ability to block out everything else and take me places that nothing else in my life could. And when I found punk music, there was no-one else at my school into it, so it was my retreat and I somehow knew I’d found my tribe, if you know what I mean. I read every liner note, every interview, every word that my favourite bands wrote or said and I checked out every single one of their influences, and went back and back and back. So I built up this pretty eclectic taste in music really young. And I started playing in bands when I was 12. By 16, I’d left school and hit the road and I’ve never looked back.
To answer your other question, my first guitar was a red Squier Strat. I loved it to death. I think an old friend of mine I used to play in a band with when we were 15 still has it at his parents‘ house. I’m pretty sure he took it to bits.
Andrew: What’s something you didn’t bring on your first tour but always make sure to pack now and why?
Billy: Oh man. You learn the hard way, right? Spare spare socks? Batteries for sure. Sharpies. Tape.
Andrew: Speaking of, it looks like you were over here on tour in March? Right when the pandemic started to really take off? Did that happen or was that cancelled? What was that experience like?
Billy: Yeah, starting in March, I was due to be touring with The Bombpops and Tightwire through the East Coast and Canada but that run was cancelled right before it started. I would have been over in the States and Canada a bunch this year but it all got pulled. A week before it started, I was with Frank Turner and friends at their show in Glasgow. We were in the backstage wondering what the fuck was gonna happen with their tour they were in the midst of. At one point, my phone pinged and my tour was cancelled. We all groaned and Frank poured more shots. Their run was pulled a few days later. Rough stuff.
Andrew: What’s next? What are you looking forward to in 2021?
Billy: I’ve been writing a lot so very much looking forward to recording again, and can’t wait to hit the road. I miss Chicago. Believe it or not, I’m a fan of Malort. Fuck the haters. Hope to see you over there next year.
Billy asks Andrew questions:
Billy: Hey Andrew, weird times huh? How have you been holding up?
Andrew: Hey Billy — weird times indeed. I’m holding up well, all things considered. I’ve been keeping busy and trying to make the most of what’s becoming a year at home. There were some disappointments earlier in the year — I had to cancel tours in both March and August, for instance — but it’s small stuff when compared to the ways this pandemic has impacted others. I’ve mostly been taking the time to write new stuff, work on and in my studio, catch up on my reading list, and experiment with different projects, like some of the videos I’ve released recently.
Billy: You released your new record ‚Scattered Light‘ a few weeks ago. Can you tell us a bit about the writing and recording of that record?
Andrew: Making “Scattered Light” was a 3+ year process. I started work on demos for the album way back at the end of 2016, right around when my last album came out, and I continued writing throughout tours during 2017 and 2018. I guess I really started to record some of what’s actually on the record in the Fall of 2017, and then finished the last song that made it on back in the first month of quarantine at the beginning of this year.
I recorded almost the whole album myself in my own studio — it was a lot more ambitious than anything I’d done before, so there were plenty of failed experiments and discarded songs along the way. Early on, I decided to let myself wander a bit and chase ideas as I came across them, rather than just try to bang out the first batch of songs, and that ended up being a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it was fun to try stuff out, but on the other, it was easy to get lost down rabbit holes and pop back up with nothing — and also to go way past deadlines. As I went, I leaned on Kay Petersen who mixed the songs and Jurik Maretzki who mastered them as sounding boards too — they worked alongside me as I finished small batches of songs, and that back and forth kept the process on the rails.
Billy: I’m always interested in people’s creative paths. Are there any particular books, films or records that led into the inspiration behind the record?
Andrew: Overall, it’s heavily influenced by the era in which it was written — from the 2016 election in the US to the start of the pandemic earlier this year — so by the nature of the writing process, it’s a series of snapshots across a lot of social, political and global turbulence, and there’s a lot of me staying up late trying to make sense of the state of things.
On more personal fronts, it was also a mixed up time. Over those few years, I lost childhood friends in various ways related to drugs, was in a process of recovery after an accident (caused by a distracted driver who went through a stop sign and rammed into me while biking), and — on the flipside — also managed to tour a bunch of countries around the world with a bunch of old and new friends, from Japan to Russia to various spots in Europe. Somewhere in there, I quit my job and started a PhD researching artificial intelligence and exploring human-machine collaboration around information and generative art.
So yeah, it’s been a wild few years, and parts of all of that show up in one way or another on the record.
Also, I should probably mention that the album name is a nod to a book I happened upon at a used bookstore a few years back: “Darkness and Scattered Light” by William Irwin Thompson.
Billy: I also saw that your band The Static Age are releasing a new split on Halloween with Love Equals Death (via SBAM & Say-10). Can you tell us about that? You cover The Chameleons ‚The Fan And The Bellows‘ on it, what made you choose that song in particular?
Andrew: Though we never got to play shows together, we ran in some of the same circles as Love Equals Death back in the latter aughts, including each of us touring with both AFI and Tiger Army at various points. We had been working on a few new songs after a bit of a hiatus, and they were coming off of a hiatus with some new songs too. Somehow we got in touch — I’m not sure of the exact order of steps — and SBAM and Say-10 were up to release a split, and it kinda all just fell into place. We’re really happy with how it came out — and hopefully we finally get to play a few shows together in 2021 or beyond.
As for the cover, I’ve been a huge fan of The Chameleons since I came across “Strange Times” years ago, and they’ve certainly been an influence on what The Static Age has done and probably on some of my solo stuff as well. I think we started playing that song live on a tour in Europe back in 2016, and we’d thrown around the idea of recording it at some point. This split seemed like the right time to do so.
Billy: Was the Static Age your very first band? If not, can you tell us about your first ever music incarnation? What genre/style, any memorable early performances?
Andrew: The Static Age came out of some high school punk and hardcore bands we had been in together. I actually went on my first tour ever playing guitar in my friends’ grindcore band when I was 15. Somehow I convinced my mom that my slightly-older (like 17-19) friends would watch out for me on our tour from Vermont down the east coast. I was straight edge at the time and had been going to shows since 12 or 13 with people slightly older than me, so I imagine that helped her feel alright about it. I had to call regularly and I came back in one piece a couple of weeks later, so I guess my friends did their jobs. I also played guitar around then in a hardcore band called In Reach that evolved into a thrashy punk band called The Hemlock Verdict for a year and then became The Static Age. I’ve done short stints in other bands, but The Static Age has been the main thing since it started, besides the solo stuff.
Billy: Potentially a tricky question but what have you got planned tour/release wise for 2021?
Andrew: Well, like everyone else, my future plans are pretty TBD at the moment. In the near term, we’re working on a vinyl edition of “Scattered Light” — we’d originally been planning to do a special run of vinyl around a tour (whenever that could happen), but we got enough questions about it that we’re moving it up. Beyond that, I’ve been recording more and have some new songs already ready to go, so some of that will see the light of day sooner than later too. Otherwise, I would love to get out on tour in both the US and Europe to make up for everything I missed this year, but we’ll have to see if that’s a 2022 plan or if it can happen earlier. On other fronts, The Static Age has more songs we’re working on, and my friend Ross (who goes by StayLoose) and I are kicking ideas back and forth again too (we’d released a song together called “Let Go” a couple of years ago). So yeah, I’ll keep busy one way or another, but we’ll see in exactly what ways.
Thanks for the questions, Billy — hope to see you somewhere between here and over there in 2021! In the meantime, hope you and everyone else stays safe and sane through everything this era is throwing at us.