About halfway through Water Liars' debut, Phantom Limb, an eerie voice breaks through the drone and dirge of the duo's dark indie country, testifying about terrestrial birth and man as lord of the earth and the sea. "Arise, O Man, in thy strength!" the speaker exalts, as if emanating through an old Victrola. "The kingdom is thine to inherit." This is not the voice of singer-guitarist Justin Kinkel-Schuster or that of drummer Andrew Bryant. It's actually an archival recording of renowned occultist and Thelemite leader Aleister Crowley, whose sampled presence only makes the song that much spookier.
Immediately following Crowley's short sermon, Water Liars veer abruptly into a lonely, low-key rendition of "It Is Well with My Soul," the 1871 hymn written by Horatio Spafford following the tragic deaths of his four daughters. It's a jarring juxtaposition, and it might seem like a cheap stunt if the rest of Phantom Limb didn't play out these spiritual extremes so thoroughly. This is an album about deep, almost existential uncertainty, evoked not only in gothic acoustic dirges but in eerie ambient samples of machinery, wildlife, traffic, and unidentifiable dins that might as well represent the soul in torment.
The Crowley speech was a last-minute addition to Phantom Limb. Kinkel-Schuster had downloaded an archival recording and played it for Bryant while they were recording the album.
"I'm not a disciple or anything," Kinkel-Schuster explains, "but like a lot of people, I find the world of the occult to be really interesting. I thought it worked well on that song and creates a nice tension — between occult and faith, good and evil."
The duo recorded Phantom Limb in Pittsboro, Mississippi, a small town about half an hour south of Oxford. Bryant was born and raised there and continues to live there. "It's a small sawmill town," says the drummer. "I grew up in a sawmill family. That's what my dad does. That's what my granddad did." Bryant himself works at the sawmill when he's not touring with Water Liars.
Kinkel-Schuster hails from farther north — St. Louis, in fact, where he had been a rising star in the city's indie-rock scene as the frontman for the band Theodore. When that band died, he ventured south to visit his friend, and the two ended up recording a set of rickety tunes on a rainy weekend. "It was about him getting out of the city," Bryant says of his Missouri bandmate. "He really wanted to get into a small-town type of environment, where he could just hang out and play music."
They set up a makeshift studio in Bryant's house and crafted nine lo-fi tracks that skirt the edges of dread-motivated country and mid-century field recordings. The sessions were quick and intense: "The way to keep things spontaneous," Bryant says, "is to do it as fast as possible. Don't overthink it." That process prizes intuition over deliberation and results in moments like the Crowley-Spafford juxtaposition on "It Is Well with My Soul" or the heavy electric chords that ring in the skeletal acoustic opener, "$100."
Perhaps more than any musical influence, the small-town setting defines the album, not only its clenched sense of isolation and remoteness but also its reliance on ambient noises to sustain that mood. "I work doing manufacturing with my uncle and at the sawmill with my dad, so I was listening to a lot of those noises — trains and machinery and stuff," Bryant says. "When I listen to records, even some of those old Alan Lomax tapes, I always like the sounds that you heard that weren't part of the song."
"For me," Kinkel-Schuster says, "when I think of any record that I love, or any movie or book or whatever, you want it to be a world that you can go to, a world that contains itself." On Phantom Limb, that world may literally be Pittsboro, but it evokes a larger one, a gothic South of legend and literature.
Water Liars are already working on their next album, trying to preserve that sense of creative serendipity even though they know they can't reproduce the same circumstances that produced Phantom Limb. When they recorded their debut, they weren't even sure they were a real band; now, as with any band preparing its sophomore album, there are expectations attached to whatever they do. "We know what we're going to do with the new songs, but we try not to play them too much," Bryant says. "When we do start recording, I like to just let it be what it's going to be. We have a plan, but we're going to mess with it as much as possible."
It's unlikely Crowley will show up again as a third member of Water Liars. His speech was particular to a time and place, and who knows what old recording the band will fixate on during their next sessions? "Making a record is making a document of a period of time," Kinkel-Schuster says. "That's how I think about any record. To me, it's in the word itself. A record is a document of the period, the time that you spend working on it."
Sunday, October 7th