In the spring of 2012, my life very much in transition, I found myself eagerly anticipating the debut release of Water Liars, a band I knew very little about. I knew of drummer Andrew Bryant—that’s probably what made me take notice. I’d met him briefly at Damien Jurado and Magnolia Electric Co. shows in Memphis, and I’d seen him open for David Bazan at Proud Larry’s in Oxford. A friend of mine had been Andrew’s freshman comp teacher at Ole Miss, where I was also an instructor, and another friend, the poet Gary Short, had been his creative writing professor—Gary had told me a story about Andrew reading Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, a book I love and struggle with, in one sitting.
From what little of I’d seen of them on YouTube, I knew that Justin (Pete) Kinkel-Schuster played guitar and wrote and sang the songs, while Bryant played drums and sang harmony (he also produced and played other instruments on the record). In the earliest videos I tracked down, Kinkel-Schuster was alone, going under the name Phantom Limb, playing by railroad tracks under a bridge somewhere in St. Louis.
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I was at The End of All Music, Oxford’s record store, to pick up the duo’s first album, Phantom Limb, the day it was released (well, actually about a week after it was released because the first batch that got shipped to the store was damaged in transit). The name Water Liars, of course, is the title of a Barry Hannah story and there was a quote from poet Frank Stanford on the back of the LP sleeve: “Look in my face my name is might have been; / I am also called no more too late farewell.” Their label was Misra, who’d put out early records by bands I loved: Centro-Matic, Destroyer, The Mendoza Line, Shearwater. It kept getting better. Nothing, save for a sticker on the cellophane, said Water Liars—the band seemed to have been renamed after the record was already pressed (a wise choice). At twenty-nine minutes, Phantom Limb should’ve seemed more like an EP, but instead it felt like a punk-swift burst of tightness and economy. Like Hannah’s Ray, it was a slim work where nothing felt rushed or out of place.
My first times listening to the record I was struck by how full the sound was and how seamlessly they could move between loud and quiet, fast and slow. Opener “$100” starts with a sludgy kick of guitar and drums, then settles into the kind of melody that seems to be galloping at you across a great distance.
I’ve seen them play this song live at least seven or eight times in the last year and it never fails to drag tears out of me.
* * * *
Only a few people had gathered to see Water Liars play an in-store show at The End of All Music a few weeks after the release of Phantom Limb, and it felt good, as it usually does, to be there at the beginning of something. I flipped through records as Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant finished cigarettes outside.
On a Saturday night in early August 2012, I saw them again at the Blind Pig, a basement bar on the Square in Oxford, with my friend Jimmy Cajoleas. Jimmy introduced me to Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant, who were out front smoking when we got there, and we stood around talking about Barry Hannah and Frank Stanford. When we went in, the bar was dark—“extra divey,” Jimmy recalls—and Kinkel-Schuster gave us High Lifes from their cooler. Jimmy and I sat at a table close to the stage, away from the five or six guys at the bar watching baseball. About ten other people were scattered around. The show hadn’t been publicized and Oxford was summer quiet. Strands of soft red Christmas lights hung on the wall behind the stage; Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant seemed to glow hot in the darkness. They were loud. Kinkel-Schuster’s voice blew through the room like a tree-wrecking storm. Bryant pounded the drums. When they slowed down and played “It Is Well with My Soul,” an old man at the bar took off his hat and bowed his head.
After another show at Proud Larry’s at the end of that summer, we talked about Willy Vlautin. Jimmy had just read Vlautin’s The Motel Life and Northline, and he was buzzing from it. When we found out Kinkel-Schuster was a big Vlautin fan, we stood out on the patio and rattled off everything we loved about Vlautin, from his novels to his albums with Richmond Fontaine. Kinkel-Schuster told us about opening for Richmond Fontaine back when he was starting out, about Vlautin coming up to him after a show and complimenting him on one of his songs, saying he wished he’d written it. Kinkel-Schuster said, “That’s been enough to keep me going the last ten years.” We talked about The Fitzgerald and Post to Wire being reissued on vinyl and about how we were in love with Allison Johnson from Northline. I was drunk, but this wasn’t the kind of talk that came with getting loose. It was the kind of talk I live for, connecting over books and music.
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Occasionally I listen to an album for the first time and I think: this matters to me; this changes things. It happened in 1998 with Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It happened in 1999 with Tom Waits’s Mule Variations and Dirty Three’s Whatever You Love You Are. It happened in 2001 with Bonnie Prince Billy’s Ease Down the Road. It happened in 2003 with Song’s Ohia’s Magnolia Electric Co. It happened in 2009 with Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone and David Bazan’s Curse Your Branches. And it happened this year with Wyoming. I felt like I knew the songs before I heard them. I listened to it on long walks around Oxford. I listened at dinner, while I washed dishes, while I ran, while I read, while I tossed back beers in the yard. I knew instantly it was one of those albums that I’d never be able to separate memories from. I’d always remember my son jumping on the couch while “Backbone” played. I’d always remember kissing my wife in our dark little kitchen while “How Will I Call You” rattled the speakers on my suitcase record player. I’d always remember putting “Linens” on a mix I made her.
“I thank you for taking all you ever could from me,” Kinkel-Schuster sings on “Wyoming.” “Because you showed me the world is just the things you keep to lose.” His songs are mainly concerned with characters—like the Flannigan Brothers in The Motel Life—who’ve got bad luck strapped to their feet like concrete. He’s also preoccupied with dreams and distance. The narrator of album closer “Fire” recounts a series of dreams. He says: “I had a dream that we were in love / and in your hair you wore one sweet magnolia / but I could not kiss you long enough / and I did not kiss you long enough.” In the end, what feels like a song solely about longing winds up being a meditation on the awfulness of freedom: “The other night the moon was low / and it seemed to tell me which way to go / but I could not follow the way it led / I had to go my own instead.” “Linens” treads similar ground: “Then I woke up on the road / my head was killing / remembering some shit I read in Milton / how the mind is a place unto itself / and then it makes a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven.” Kinkel-Schuster’s characters, it seems, are always servants to their fears.
* * * *
I noticed a stack of Magnolia Electric Co. records propped up next to the nearby turntable. Jason Molina had died two days before. He’d struggled with booze for years, had been in and out of rehab since disappearing from the music scene in 2009, and his liver had finally quit on him. He died alone in Indianapolis with just a cell phone in his pocket—the only number in the phone belonged to his grandmother. I was hit hard by it. Molina had meant more to me than any other artist over the past decade. His songs were in my blood. His voice filled my head even when I went months without listening to him. Wyoming rescued me. It pulled me out of grieving into the now.
Kinkel-Schuster snapped open a can of Coke. “The thing to me about his writing and about those records,” he said, “is that he always cares so much about building. He’s building all of these songs and he cares about building them and building them right. That’s all I’m trying to do. I’m trying to build shit right. And that song, ‘Just Be Simple,’ those are words to try to live by and to try to make music by. Just try to always remember to build shit right. Do it as simply and as well as you can.”
The dog jumped up on my lap and then skittered around under the table after Bryant shooed him away. “I named my dog Moon,” Bryant said. “Molina says ‘moon’ probably about two hundred times in his songs. [. . .] He’s obsessed with the moon. It’s such a beautiful word.” He also talked about his plans to get William Schaff’s iconic cover art from the Magnolia Electric Co. LP—a cloud throwing lightning, a crying owl with human hands, and a magnolia—tattooed on his chest.
I brought up Vlautin, who features Wyoming prominently in his work. Vlautin’s characters always seem to be heading there. I also brought up Sidney Lumet’s great film Dog Day Afternoon, in which Al Pacino’s Sonny asks John Cazale’s Sal—in the midst of a bank robbery—what country he wants to escape to and Sal says, “Wyoming.” In Barry Gifford’s great novel-in-dialogue Wyoming, there’s not a scene set in Wyoming—it’s just a mother and son talking as they drive around the South and the Midwest. The son talks about wanting to move to Wyoming (a big open somewhere, as he sees it) and have a dog and his mother says, “Everybody needs Wyoming.” Even in Terry McDonell’s poems, it’s more about the promise of Wyoming. I felt like there was mythological Wyoming out there that Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant had keyed into for the record, that it wasn’t just a place name to them. After all, in the title track, Kinkel-Schuster’s narrator isn’t in Wyoming either. It’s a brutal song, one where the narrator concludes that: “I will die in Wyoming / in a drugstore parking lot / so high, I’ll believe that I am parked outside your house two thousand miles away.”
“It’s another one of those beautiful words, too,” Bryant added.
“And it is a beautiful word,” Kinkel-Schuster said. “If I ever have a child, I’ll name her Wyoming.”
Bryant sat up. “Wyoming Moon. That’s a good combination of words.”
Thinking of Jason Molina’s place/moon songs (“Nashville Moon,” “Memphis Moon,” “Blue Chicago Moon”), I said: “Molina should’ve gotten around to writing that one.”
“I’ll do it for him,” Kinkel-Schuster said.
After shutting off the recorder, we listened to Magnolia Electric Co.’s Josephine, just three fans in mourning. Then we drank ice-flecked PBRs from the freezer and talked about Southern pine bark beetles and trees—Bryant works for his father’s small sawmill operation when’s he not touring and recording. But our conversation kept steering back to Molina. We didn’t know how else to wrap our heads around the loss. It meant that maybe nothing would work out, maybe nothing ever worked out.
* * * *
Place and placelessness inform Kinkel-Schuster’s work. On Wyoming‘s “Fire,” he sings: “Gone is where I’ll be / in the place that is in-between.” He’s torn between the real world and the mythical world. Places hold promise. Places promise defeat. There’s wisdom to his perception that you can escape a place but can never escape yourself. “I hope that Wyoming gets at some other space, some sort of ultimate or final place,” Kinkel-Schuster said. That seems to be where his head is at now: he’s less concerned with the local and more concerned with the universal (even in its localness).
“On the Day,” Phantom Limb‘s closer, shows up as a thirty second sketch on Blood Signs, the final effort from Kinkel-Schuster’s previous band, Theodore, and you can feel him leaning towards the gritty swirl that would soon envelop him. “On the day that I die / I will see everything coming on slow / and the lies that I’ve told will come creeping in,” Kinkel-Schuster sings on the short version. The Phantom Limb version is three minutes of deathbed gospel followed by three minutes of noise, which sounds like the wind being taken out of the world. “I’ll have no more excuses for the way that I’ve treated you,” the narrator says. “On the day that I die / I will sing every song that I know / with the words all the same / but the melodies changed somehow.” “On the Day” is the bridge between Theodore and Water Liars. Kinkel-Schuster’s narrator looks into the future and sees only one truth: We’ll all be filled with regret when we die. And that’s one of the main concerns that possesses him as a songwriter.
* * * *
Bryant grew up working. The main industry in Calhoun County is timber. There have been sawmills operating there since the towns began in the late 1800s. “When I was a kid, my father worked for the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company in Bruce, doing maintenance,” Bryant said.
His first time performing music was at church. “We had a full band and I played drums for years, three times a week,” Bryant said. “We practiced before every service, too. I had to be there an hour before for that and my parents drove me every time.” The congregation would start dancing and calling out to the Holy Ghost when he played. In 2012, Bryant told No Depression: “[Even] though my mother would weep if she heard me say this, I fell in love with the power I had to make people feel something playing music. [. . .] People would start repenting on the spot and lay face down. All the old ladies told me I had the Holy Ghost and wanted me to come by and pet their dogs and eat their chicken. But I knew it wasn’t nothing supernatural about what I was doing. I had them all fooled. And I still do. Because it’s the music that is holy. Nothing else.”
* * * *
It was a blistering set. They played all of Wyoming and much of Phantom Limb and did a knockout cover of Chris Bell’s “Better Save Yourself.” Kinkel-Schuster’s lonesome wail morphed into a guttural rasp whenever he needed it to. My friend Gary Sheppard leaned over to me at some point and said, “I love not knowing if I’m at a metal show or a country show.” In the corner, I noticed the sound guy was deep into it.
After the show, I bought a T-shirt from Bryant’s wife, Natalie, at a table in the back—a wolf howling at the moon over the band’s name, white print on black cotton. It reminded me of one of only two other band shirts I own: a simple white-on-black Magnolia Electric Co. shirt that I bought at a show in Philadelphia almost ten years ago, with the band’s name underlined in lightning. T-shirt in hand, I ran into a student from my creative writing class, who had blown off a meeting with me earlier in the day. She was sitting hunched over by the fire. She apologized for skipping the meeting. I said, “What’s important is that you’re here.” I’m pretty sure she thought I was being a dick, but I was dead serious.
* * * *
Today, Water Liars are making new songs. I’ve never been in a studio—I’d imagined something like the batshit crazy scenes in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story—but here at Dial Back Sound it is quiet; no one’s demanding an army of didgeridoos. Bryant, jar of Jim Beam in hand, is sitting on the couch next to GR Robinson, who has been playing bass with the band for the last few months. Kinkel-Schuster paces around, slugging from a can of Coke. Tew and Watson are working on the soundboard, adjusting levels, playing back snippets of the track they’re working on.
The track they’re finishing up is called “War Paint.” Kinkel-Schuster sings back from the speakers: “Take my hand / make a fist / knuckles white but the blood drips / because I want to see just how it is / when you play the red but the black wins.” A blast of Wurlitzer, played by Bryant, follows. Kinkel-Schuster used one of White’s guitars on the track, Robinson tells me. The last line of “War Paint”—“While the knives, they will sing / and cut the dead heart out of me”—nods to Frank Stanford’s “The Singing Knives.” It’s a muscular and visceral song. By the end I’m seeing a chest opened up, blood on someone’s hands.
“Sing it until we all cry,” Tew says.
Kinkel-Schuster goes back into the booth and starts singing.
Two minutes in, Bryant aims a finger at me. “Listen to this,” he says.
Kinkel-Schuster sings: “I looked death in the face / It was only my father / If I’d known all along / I wouldn’t have bothered / with being afraid, with being a coward.”
Bryant shakes his head. “Goddamn. Where does he come up with this shit?”
“I think he’s one of the two or three best songwriters out there,” Watson says. “People will be listening to this after we’re dead.”
“This is Kristofferson,” Bryant says. “Except better.”
Kinkel-Schuster comes back out. He’s beaten his earlier take. He stands back in the corner, swigging Coke, ready for a cigarette.
“This song doesn’t need much,” Watson says. “It’s so personal.”
“Cool,” Kinkel-Schuster says.
“We don’t want it to sound shiny,” Tew says.
They agree that piano might be nice. They do a little more work on levels and then Bryant goes in and puts down a sweet trickle of piano. Watson tosses around the idea of bringing someone in to play strings, but they decide against it. Too grandiose.
In the end, I hear mixes of three new songs: “Cannibal,” “War Paint,” and “Swannanoa.” The next day they’re working on their cover of Songs: Ohia’s “Just Be Simple” for a Jason Molina tribute, and I’m sorry I have to miss it. It’s a perfect song for them, and their cover is better than any of the other versions I’ve heard since Molina’s death. I drive back to Oxford from Water Valley after midnight and listen to what I’ve picked up of “Swannanoa” on my digital recorder. I go to sleep with the song in my head.
* * * *
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant chose Water Liars as the name of their band only because it sounds nice. Instead, wonder what the story can tell us about them. Here are two young performers who are crucified by the truth. On the Water Liars’ Facebook page, in the “About” section, there’s a quote from Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You: “All of this is magic against death.” This is as good a definition of the band’s mission as any. Watch them weave a protection spell against the strongest darkness. Watch them gather rivers and knives and fires to fight with them. Watch them build a wall against the world at the edge of the world. Watch them.