Interview By Derek Nielsen | Photo by Kevin Thomson
Appropriately named after a 1960s British movie featuring a young man eager to escape the banality of proper suburban life, Billy Liar is a classic punk outfit from Edinburgh, Scotland, helmed by a fiery singer-songwriter of the same name. His new album, Some Legacy, dropped in late June via Red Scare Industries and carries the torch lit by Billy Bragg and The Clash back in the ’70s: catchy but urgent punk songs stitched together with themes of political discontent and the anxieties of young romance.
For his debut LP, Liar brought out the big guns. The album was produced by Smoke Or Fire frontman Joe McMahon along with Tim Van Doorn, who also played bass, at Big Dog Recordings in Belgium, and legendary drummer Robin Guy guested along with Stina Tweeddale from Honeyblood.
Being able to flex as both a full band and solo artist means the Scottish troubadour built his following in the most DIY way possible: touring tirelessly with a worn-down acoustic guitar strapped to his back, singing the most honest songs he could possibly pen. It’s almost quaint in the age of holographic Tupacs, but hey, the world is fucked up and someone’s gotta sing the protest songs.
Now that Some Legacy is out, how do you feel about it?
It’s the thing I’m most proud of that I’ve done in my life so far. It’s a collection of songs that I have been writing throughout my entire life, leading right up to the present day. The oldest song on the record, I wrote the first version of it when I was 11 years old.
I’m so glad I worked with the team that I pulled together for it and proud that I got to work with them. Joe McMahon from Smoke Or Fire produced the record with Tim Van Doorn, who also played bass, at Big Dog Recordings in Belgium, [and] drumming legend Robin Guy appears, along with Stina Tweeddale from Honeyblood. The only complaint I’ve heard from anyone about it so far is that it’s maybe too short, but that was the idea—leave you greedy fuckers wanting more [laughs]. Can’t wait to record the next one!
What do you hope people who listen to it take away from it?
I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as we did recording it! Some of my favorite moments in the studio were when Robin recorded his drums and I recorded guide guitar and vocals along with him. It was just the two of us in a room smashing our instruments to bits, and it reminded me of being back in punk bands, rehearsing in someone’s parents’ garage at high school, except this time, I was recording with one of the best drummers in the world! We pushed each other a lot, as we always do, and those performances really set the tone for the rest of the record. At the end of one of the songs, you can hear Robin fall backwards off his drum stool, hurling his sticks, and then the crack of them hitting the floor.
Other favorite moments were listening to Joe and Tim record their parts and hearing their performances as they happened. I just absolutely love the buzz of being in the studio—and when Tim was mixing early one day, and I had a spare 10 minutes, and I sat down at a piano and wrote “Less Vegas,” which became the last song on the record.
What is something you hope people will take away from your live shows?
A lot of people have been reaching out in emails or telling me at shows that the record means a lot to them because they can relate to the lyrics, and that is something I’ll never take lightly. Other people’s lyrics mean everything to me; it means everything to know that someone else understands how you feel, and so, if other people can relate to something I have written, then that means a lot to me. One person reached out online and told me that hearing the record stopped them [from] killing themself, and that meant a hell of a lot to me, having struggled with mental health and depression myself and having so many friends and people around me who have taken their own lives.
You’ve toured extensively and said that “great things come to those that get out on the road and make a hell of a lot of their own mistakes.” What have you learned from being out on the road?
Live shows can be cathartic, and I think, as musicians, that’s what we’re always aiming toward. It’s like a big meeting of energy between the performers and the audience, and it’s so fucking exciting. I have been lucky to experience some incredible live performances over the years, and so, if anyone feels even a touch of the magic I have at one of my shows, then I’d be happy.
Do you like playing solo or with the full band more?
I’ve been playing music for my entire life and touring for the last 13 years, so I’ve learned pretty much everything on the road. Of course, most relevant to music, being out there has taught me how to book my own tours, release my own records, and ultimately, made me a better songwriter through gaining life experience.
For a lot of tours, I’ve traveled alone, and that really teaches you who you are and what you’re capable of. Being in foreign countries, sometimes with no or very little money, no working phone or SIM card, and a language barrier means you learn pretty fast how to get smart.
On my first tour in the U.S., back in 2013, my friend Jason hired a car and drove us from New York down to Gainesville, [Florida], for FEST, playing two weeks of shows on the way down. After FEST, I had two more weeks of shows booked, but he unexpectedly had to go back to work in NYC. He drove the hired car straight from Gainesville to New York on the Sunday of FEST, and I naïvely figured I could bus and train between the final two weeks of shows. So, it was a bit of a surprise when I looked up my options and realized how hard it can be to get between states without a car. So, for the next two weeks, I got onstage every night, played three quarters of my set, and then asked the audience if anyone at the show had a day off the following day and fancied a road trip in exchange for gas money and beers at the next punk show.
There were a few close calls where I woke up on strange kitchen floors with no idea how I was gonna make the eight-hour drive to the next show, but the U.S. punk scene pulled together and had my back. I made some friends for life on that tour, who I hang out with every time I’m over. I wouldn’t change it for the world, but those were some stressful situations!
I could tell you a hundred tour stories like that one, though! So many close calls. Ah, the open road.
What aspects of each, [playing solo or with a full band], do you enjoy?
I love doing both for different reasons. I’m really enjoying doing full-band shows at the minute, since the record is so loud and fast and it’s just fun to play with my friends. We did a full-band record release show in London at the New Cross Inn, and that was a blast. Joe flew over from Germany to play bass, my friend Kev [Jones of Empty Lungs] came over from Ireland to play guitar, Robin played drums—he lives in London—and Stina came from Scotland to sing too. I love playing the songs the way they’ve always sounded in my head, and it means I can jump around more without being tied to the mic!
But there’s also dynamic possibilities with playing solo that you can never get with the band, and so, I usually play a few solo songs at the band shows too. It’s really nice to be able to bring the songs down and hear the audience sing along if they want to. Also, I love the fact you can tell stories and derail your own set if you so desire when you’re acoustic. If you do that with a band, they’ll be tapping their feet and looking at their watches!