In 2019, Scottish musician Billy Liar released Some Legacy on Red Scare Industries. While the new label brought his music to a wider audience, Liar has been playing the circuit for years. Armed with a guitar and microphone, his songs balance the personal and political in a way that’s both anthemic and introspective. While billed as a solo project, Billy Liar sometimes plays with a full band, often with a drummer, and sometimes alone and centerstage.
SPB caught up with Liar over email, just after he cancelled his scheduled North American spring tour. We chatted about the last minute tour cancellation, how he approaches songwriting, and what he’s doing during his unplanned time at home.
Oh, and we’re sharing new behind-the-scenes footage too, an extra-meta making-of video to “The View From Here”. Enjoy!
Scene Point Blank: You were supposed to be touring the USA this spring, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Did you find out before the tour started? Where were you? When did you realize the tour would have to be rescheduled?
Billy Liar: That's right. I was supposed to be out with The Bombpops and Tightwire up and down the East Coast and into Canada. Then I was due to come back to the UK and then head back to Canada for another week of shows -- but that wasn't going to be announced until after the first run. It was obviously frustrating but I'm well aware that some people are in much more difficult situations. I was in the backstage of the Barrowlands, a legendary and beautiful venue in Glasgow, Scotland, with my friends Frank Turner and his wife Jess Guise, and my pals Micah Schnabel and Vanessa Jean Speckman who were opening the tour. It was a bizarre situation as they were midway through a UK run of big shows and unfortunately on the night we joined them, things were starting to crumble due to the virus situation. We were drinking tequila and laughing through the anxiety of it backstage when I got the email that my tours were cancelled. I announced it to the room and we all groaned and poured another drink.
Scene Point Blank: That before you came overseas? Does it mess with visas or legalities in any way?
Billy Liar: It was about six days before I flew, so I have been in more stressful situations in a lifetime on the road to be honest. It wasn't too bad, although I'm still chasing flight companies to find out if I can get any money back for those, and all the merch I got printed and records shipped are now sitting at various friend's houses across America. But I'll make it back over as soon as I can.
Scene Point Blank: You How does that work (with the merch)? You send the merch to different locations and restock as you travel?
Billy Liar: Ordinarily, I get merch printed in the country I'm travelling to, sell it on the road and restock as I go. However, I have just set up my first U.S. webstore with the fine folks at Stupid Rad Merch so you can now buy sick shit all the year round from them. Hooray! They're a fucking great company and are keen to do fun short runs and all sorts of exclusive fun stuff and they're already home to a bunch of my pals so they were a perfect fit.
"I'd be lying if I said that the current events won't spill into my writing, but I am actively aiming to not write an entire record about being stuck inside due to the virus."
Scene Point Blank: Hopefully this isn't dated by the time we publish this, but what are you doing now to keep yourself entertained and productive during the COVID-19 "social distancing," as we're calling it in the USA?
Billy Liar: I'm writing a record, a follow-up to last year's Some Legacy. I'm reading (currently a book of Murukami short stories). I'm listening to a lot of records, watching a lot of films and walking the dog.
Scene Point Blank: So far, is it a productive environment with all of this anxiety in the air? Do you try to distance yourself from current events when writing, or write however the inspiration strikes?
Billy Liar: I write all the time, sometimes a song appears all at once in a dream or in the shower or something. But most of the time, I'm scribbling in notebooks on the road, so now I'm just scribbling in notebooks at home. I'd be lying if I said that the current events won't spill into my writing, but I am actively aiming to not write an entire record about being stuck inside due to the virus. I feel that would not be an entertaining listen.
Scene Point Blank: Moving beyond current events, you're primarily a solo artist but you often perform with a full band. Do you write songs alone or with other musicians? How do you expand what might have been a solo, acoustic idea to flesh it out with a full electric band?
Billy Liar: I've always written alone so far, but I love the creative process so I'd definitely be into trying more collaborative styles of writing in the future. That being said, the studio is always a push and pull of different ideas and so it's always important to work with people you trust in that space. I recorded my album with my friend Tim Van Doorn at Big Dog Recordings in Belgium, and it was produced by my dear friend Joe McMahon (Smoke Or Fire) with Robin Guy on drums. I've been playing and recording with Robin for over ten years now, so it's really easy to come to him with an idea for a song, and he'll be able to get what's in my head out of it pretty quickly and into drum sections. And Joe had been hearing my songs on tour for years by the time we recorded the album, so he knew what I was going for. But the basis of that album is the electric guitar and drum parts, so we recorded a guide track of electric and vocals along with the drums, which means both Robin and I could be in the same room together, playing the songs with the energy I imagined them. My favourite albums still have that energy and excitement to them -- like things could go off the rails at any minute...
Scene Point Blank: Between performing as a solo artist and also providing regular, personal updates on your website, you seem to be an outgoing, upfront type of person who is comfortable talking about yourself and your art. Would you say that's accurate? Have you always been comfortable "center stage"? Many people in the punk scene prefer the anonymity of a shared spotlight.
Billy Liar: I've grown used to it. I never intended to be a solo act, and I first started out with a band but it's been that way for a long time now.
Scene Point Blank: Do you have any tips or advice for others who might not be comfortable putting themselves out there like that?
Billy Liar: The best advice I can give is to grab as many opportunities for performing as possible. Open mic nights, sessions in folk pubs, joining bands, poetry slams, theatre projects... the list is pretty endless. If you want it, there's a world of opportunity out there. I would say that the touring life is tough and you've got to have a hunger for that. But if you feel it inside you, get out there and do it, and don't let anyone tell you that you can't.
Scene Point Blank: You've been performing as Billy Liar for a while now. What cities or countries are your biggest draw?
Billy Liar: Touring the States is great. Australia and New Zealand are very kind, although I haven't been over there for a while now -- I'd love to go back. And Germany is always amazing. But I love everywhere I've toured and I also love new places. If I haven't played your country or haven't been near you for a while and you'd like me to, hit me up.
Scene Point Blank: One of the first interviews I did for this site was with Tim Barry when he was getting started on the solo route. He talked a lot about how much easier touring is with one person, as compared to a band. You can take a car instead of a van. You can do your own thing, basically. When you're touring with bands -- like the cancelled Bombpops+Tightwire tour, is it a little bit of both worlds?
Billy Liar: Soundchecks are generally a lot faster, that's for sure! If I'm touring completely alone or with another solo act, load-ins and load-outs are also pretty fast.
When I'm touring with bands, it's more like I'm in the band a lot of the time. It's all hands on deck, you know? I'll be selling merch, helping load in and out, tour managing, whatever is needed. There's no space for slackers. Probably my favourite thing about touring solo is you generally have a lot more chance to meet and hang out with people at the show, whether it's the promoters, other acts on the bill, or members of the audience.
"I almost did a spit take of lukewarm truckstop coffee in the backseat. I explained we weren't really used to firearms in Scotland, and he asked if I wanted to hold his gun."
Scene Point Blank: What were you looking for when you started the project? Do you think you've achieved that, or how have your artistic goals shifted?
Billy Liar: I know most musicians say this in interviews but I honestly didn't have any expectations when I started out. I just wanted to play the songs I wrote to people. And that's still what I'm doing. Later, I wanted to write an album that summed up my songs written up until that point, and I did that. And then I wanted to release it on a label that I love, and I was lucky enough to do that last year. Now I should be on the road playing the record to people every night, but everything's on pause now. I really hope I get back out there soon.
Scene Point Blank: How many times have you toured the USA?
Billy Liar: I've toured the U.S. six or seven times now. First time was 2013 and I did half of it with a friend in a rental car, and the other half I was on Greyhounds, Megabuses, and more often than not, in strangers’ cars. I was asking people on stage every night if they could take me to the next show, usually around 4 hours away but a few times much further. I was broke but I had just enough money from the show the night before to get me to the next town. Some nights I'd have no sleep and find myself in some strange town, alone and with my guitar and a giant bag full of merch to drag around. I made a lot of new friends on that tour, and I wouldn't change it for the world.
Scene Point Blank: I'm sure you could share a lot of stories from that tour. Does any one example stand out as some kind of epiphany or validation?
Billy Liar: For sure. Every night is a story. One time I played somewhere in South Carolina and was picked up in the morning and driven to the next show by the guy who was putting it on and his buddy. They sat in the front of the car, I was in the back, and as we drove to their town, they told me that there had been a show at the same squat the night before and some guy had pulled out a knife and started waving it around. I asked how the situation had been defused and my new friend who was driving said he had taken his gun out and that had wrapped up the conversation. I almost did a spit take of lukewarm truckstop coffee in the backseat. I explained we weren't really used to firearms in Scotland, and he asked if I wanted to hold his gun. Without waiting for an answer, taking his eye off the road or his right hand from the wheel, he reached into his pocket and handed me the gun. I was holding it for a minute, curiously, and then he said, “Oh you should make sure the safety is on.”
Ha! For the record, the safety was on, and we had a great fun time that night at the punk squat show. There was a keg of beer in the corner of the room with a broken valve so booze was constantly pissing out all over the floor while I played, and the cops kept coming and banging on the door. Whenever they did, someone put the lights out and the whole audience and I ran upstairs to another apartment and hid. I made some really good friends that night. I'm not sure that's any sort of epiphany -- that's just one night out of a month-long tour of nights like that. I'll tell you another next time!
Scene Point Blank: Has your experience in the USA changed with the Red Scare connection?
Billy Liar: Because of the current situation, I have only been over once since the record came out (for a month around Fest last year) but it definitely made a difference. I love being a part of the Red Scare family, and love all the bands on the label. I was friends with a lot of them already but now we're blood and there's definitely a lot of fans of the label who have started coming out to my shows, and I fucking love that, considering I'm a fan of the label too. Toby is also so fucking great to work with so that makes it real easy.
Scene Point Blank: You were just announced as one of 300+ at Fest 19. What excites you about returning in 2020?
Billy Liar: Oh man, Fest is the party of the year. Every time I've toured the States, I've played there. I played last year with a full band at High Dive at what was pretty much a Red Scare day, and it was the best. I can't wait to play there full band and solo again this year. I can't wait to see all my friends.