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Truth Be Told 

The Lies may be San Francisco's most deceptively honest group

Wednesday, Apr 18 2001
"When I was young, I was diagnosed as a compulsive liar," laughs Sadie Shaw, guitarist for the San Francisco post-punk quintet the Lies, as she admits part of the secret impetus for her band's tricky moniker. Still, she insists that the band members chose the name as a loaded term to reflect the nature of deception, rather than as simple self-incrimination.

As Shaw could attest, prevaricators are clever people. Not simply contrary for the sake of controversy, artistic liars acknowledge truth but distort it by using deliberate words and gestures that could be as convincingly real and honest as facts. True to their name, the Lies transform the detached irony and icy compositions of post-punk into anthems imbued with utter honesty and performed with passionate conviction. This method may make the Lies one of the Bay Area's most deceptively honest groups.

Shaw, along with vocalist (and husband) Dale Shaw and keyboardist Tracy Sawyer (drummer Casey Ward and guitarist Sarah Reed were unavailable), recently took a moment of truth to discuss the significance of the Lies. "One of the biggest goals in the Lies is that the music must have soul," Sadie explained. "I don't care if it's slow or fast -- the music has to hit you in the heart." So, if the members of the Lies claim to bare their souls in the group's heart-wrenching songs, should we believe them? Yes. The Lies' urgent melodies and earnest lyrics march to somber tones like those of Joy Division, Magnetic Fields, and My Dad Is Dead. Yet the anthemic song structures and lush instrumentation on their second full-length album, Resigned -- to be released on May 7 by Kill Rock Stars -- tend toward an unguarded optimism that, ahem, belies the requisite gloom of their genre.

Unlike the more straightforward live feel of the Lies' previous effort, Underdogs and Infidels, their new songs were skeletal compositions before the group entered the studio. Thus, in finishing the album, the band had time to experiment with its structures and sounds, employing various strings, antique keyboards, and effect generators along the way. Its members worked with longtime friend and producer Tim Green (guitarist in the S.F. "instru-metal" trio the Fucking Champs) at his own Louder Studios. Though the multi-instrumentalist group -- Ward also contributed cello and keyboards, and Sawyer added drums and guitar -- may not have the resources to re-create its recordings in a live setting, Sawyer is confident that the Lies will find working arrangements for their shows. "There are some songs on Resigned that we can play live," the keyboardist says, "and some things we can revise to perform."

Although Sadie, Reed, and Ward had been writing together for a couple of years in an early, unnamed incarnation of the group, the Lies didn't exist until October 1998, when Dale and Sawyer moved to San Francisco (from Washington, D.C., and Olympia, Wash., respectively). Prior to the formation of the Lies, many of the members had worked together in other bands and in other cities, whether sharing common labels or performing on the same stages. Dale and Sadie played with Reed in the Olympia garage punk group the Bonnot Gang. Keyboardist Sawyer battered the drums in the influential Olympia riot-grrl duo Heavens to Betsy, with future Sleater-Kinney vocalist/guitarist Corin Tucker. Drummer Ward played keyboards in the short-lived but legendary San Francisco black metal band Weakling.

The melodic symmetry of the Lies' songwriting -- wherein multiple instruments play equal parts of the overall melody, without a particular musician dominating the tune -- powerfully accentuates the subtleties within the layers of sound. While a particular song may include a melodic theme -- as in "Accident and Emergency" and "Cosmetic" -- each instrument feeds into the melody as a piece of a whole overture. "Musically, the one thing that makes us significant is that no single person is at the forefront," Sadie explains. "We always try to make everything layered and equal, so that everyone is going off at different points. The vocals work with the music because they're not right at the front; they work with the melodies." Dale chimes in wryly, "It's very socialist."

The nursery-rhyme melody of "Accident and Emergency" opens Resigned with a nod to the plodding strain of Joy Division's "Atmosphere," replete with analog synthesizers shadowing the vocal melody. Dale sings harmoniously between a low-register chant and a yearning wail: "Safety and silence/ I want it all." Likewise, "Sight and Sound" recalls the threadbare delivery of Joy Division's tragic vocalist, Ian Curtis, as Dale sings a slightly revised version of the refrain "They keep calling me" from that band's "Dead Souls." But where Joy Division's songs evoked fatalism in their lyrics and haphazard mix of instruments, the Lies seem almost optimistic beneath suffocating layers of antique synthesizers and strings. While the band's songs are undeniably melancholic, Dale's lyrics never stoop to dour nihilism, nor does the music rely on dirges.

Despite their moody tone, the Lies' tunes are much more romantic and orchestral than the bleak, droning sounds of most goth-laced post-punk groups. "Cosmetic" begins with guitars drenched in a chorus effect and with a heart-wrenching, minor-key piano trill that seems to crawl across a light pulse of floor tom and snare rolls; meanwhile, Dale warns, "That boy is so transparent/ He wants to take you for a ride." Elsewhere, "Certain Sound" starts as a repetitive, eerie, minor-key piano line that slowly builds into a fugue as shimmering organ and a second piano add beautiful textures to the melody. Suddenly, an ominous burst of marching drums and dark-toned guitars heralds Dale's baleful lament: "I see your face in passing/ You seem to be imagined/ I see your temper rising, rising."

Typical post-punk vocalists often try to fill in each open verse or space with chants and absurdist non sequiturs. In an attempt to create lyrical poetry, they forget to tell a story within the melody. In contrast, Dale's vocals present a flowing and intriguing narrative structure. Rather than play the tempestuous, angry singer or the detached observer, Dale buckles down and tells tales with his lyrics. He admits, "I think a lot of musicians have words written out before they write a song, then they do their darndest to make the words fit the music, and that never really works."

Instead, the cherubic singer writes lyrics based on the mood of each song's melody. "For this album, I wrote each song about a specific person. Each song is about a specific girl that I've known -- which [makes it] strange that the record ended up sounding so depressing," he laughs.

Considering the band's lugubriously paced songs and narrative lyrics, its live shows tend to be less than acrobatic. Rather than emphasize showmanship, the Lies prefer audiences to focus on the intensity of the music and the group's emotionally charged aesthetic. "Most of our concentrated effort goes into writing the songs," Sadie explains, "so when we play, we're more focused upon what we're doing. Our music is slow and somber, and that's what I want to be playing."

Sawyer goes on: "We're all socially awkward people anyway, so when we're up onstage, that's accentuated." Self-effacing criticism aside, the Lies admit that the music itself dictates their stoical live shows. "It's hard to dance around [onstage] to the style of music that we play," says Sawyer.

Sadie tries to imagine the ideal presentation of the songs. "I don't know what my dream performer would do to present our music," she wonders. "Certainly not flailing around and smashing a guitar or anything. I definitely don't want to look like I hate being up onstage -- that's not at all what I feel."

The Lies conclude that the band operates on an unspoken agreement centered on its socialist aesthetic and its performers' sense of purpose. As Sawyer suggests, the band's sonic symmetry is "indicative of our personalities and how we all relate to one another. No one likes to overshadow anyone else in the band."

Or, as Dale explains in his characteristically self-deprecating manner, "We all equally don't know what we're doing." As we ought to know by now, that's probably a lie.

About The Author

Dave Clifford


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