By Roger Barrett
Water Liars is Andrew Bryant (drums, vocals), Justin “Pete” Kinkel-Schuster (guitar, vocals), and GR Robinson (bass). The Oxford, Miss.,-based band is part Southern rock, part Garage fuzz, and part literary-Americana. Water Liars are kindred spirits of Magnolia Electric Co./Songs: Ohia, Richmond Fontaine, and A.A. Bondy. The band takes its name from a story by Barry Hannah, often quotes the poetry of Frank Stanford, and are distinctively gifted storytellers.
The band’s last record Wyoming (released on Fat Possum Records) is a treasure trove of stark lyrics, dynamic music and relatable songs. Songs that run the gamut of emotional complexity. Songs that range from power pop to gloomy balladry. Songs that are impossible not to hum along with, and songs that you instantly connect with and want to share.
The group’s constant touring makes their live shows energetic, and effortless. Water Liars is definitely a band you need to see live, where their songs benefit from the dual vocals of Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant, becoming beastlier versions of themselves to truly come alive.
I talked to singer/guitarist Justin “Pete” Kinkel-Schuster on a short break between tours and here it goes:
Q. You grew up in Arkansas. Where did you live and how has it (or the memories of it) inspired you as a writer, musician, and person?
A. I grew up in Greenwood. It’s a beautiful area of Arkansas, which is saying something because Arkansas is a beautiful state. I remember the place itself and many of the people I knew affectionately, though I’ve only been back a couple of times since leaving after high school. I think my memories of the years I spent there are colored by all of the things that happened to people growing up and so are a sometimes difficult but essential well to draw from. I’m grateful for my time there, though, as I’m grateful for all the places and people that’ve shaped me.
Q. How did music enter your life? When did you realize that you could write songs and what prompted you to want to share them?
A. My mom was always into music, and I remember her playing records and tapes all the time when I was little. I also have a strong memory of her singing — you are my sunshine when I was very little (and I think this is probably one of my first conscious memories) and you believe it or not, but I remember even as a young boy, being sung that song, feeling that THING, that sad song THING, and now that I think about it I suppose I’ve been chasing that ever since.
I think I fell in love with songs early on, and as soon as I was able to get my hands on a guitar I started writing. I taught myself to play, incorrectly, and growing up in Greenwood, which was essentially a popular culture vacuum, I was able to make these horrible things with no idea that what I was writing and playing was bad or technically wrong, just feeling good about being able to try. To answer your question, writing and sharing songs was never something I thought about, it was just once I had a guitar it seemed the obvious thing to do was write a song with it, and the obvious thing to do with a song is to share it with people.
Q. I’ve read that Water Liars started by accident — How did it happen?
A. Water Liars was an accident in that Andrew and I were not trying to start a band when we recorded “Phantom Limb.” We weren’t even trying to record an album. The idea at the time was just to hang out and record some demos of a group of songs I had put together. As soon as we started working, though, it was silently, blatantly obvious to us both that the two of us working together was a special thing and by the end of a three-day weekend we felt pretty sure that we had just made a record, and that was pretty much how we got started.
Q. Your first record Phantom Limb contains a quote from Frank Stanford — When did you discover Stanford’s poetry? Is it possible to explain his influence on your writing?
A. Andrew introduced me to Stanford in 2009, and it was like an electric shock. I cannot overstate the importance of his life and work to me as a writer. He is a constant comfort, reminder and challenge to me.
Q. A friend described your songs from Wyoming as “a collection of songs that you feel like you already know the first time you hear them.” To me, those songs evoke images of sparse landscapes and thoughts you are forced to confront on long drives. Can you describe how that record came about?
A. Wyoming came about mostly in the spring and summer of 2012. I had just ended a relationship, begun this project with Andrew, and decided to quit everything and have no place of my own to do Water Liars, come what may. I had the strange feeling that what I was doing was at once completely foolish and the only thing that I could do and not kill myself. It was a completely unreasonable confidence that to this day I have no evidence to support. The songs on Wyoming deal largely with trying to make sense out of bad decisions and bad circumstances and still retain some dignity and humanity. Everyone has bad times and that record was about trying to make it through.
Q. Water Liars has finished a new record — What can you tell us about it? Do you feel like it’s a progression?
A. To me, our new record is a continuation and further unpacking of what we’re always trying to do, which is simply to write songs as best we can and get them down in the way that they need to be gotten down. We experimented a bit more in terms of the recording and arranging and in the amount of time we were able to put in the studio and I think that’s absolutely reflected in the resulting record.
Q. What’s up for Water Liars in 2014?
A. Our plan for 2014 is to work hard playing shows and hope that people respond to the new record, which should be out late January/early February. Our resolve is the same as it’s always been.