By Jeremy Essig
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BFFs Scot Freeman and Luke Roulston hit a rough patch last year. Mired in typical twentysomething malaise, they found themselves working too hard, drinking too much and continually complaining about their lack of a creative outlet. Both were seasoned musicians who admired each other's skills and former bands (Freeman's Chiaroscuro and Roulston's Poe's Music for Weirdos), and so as an extension of their bromance, these multi-instrumentalists decided to quit their bitching and put together a new band.
There was just one problem: They only wanted to play with each other.
Freeman and Roulston began trying to find a way to multiply their sound without adding any extra people. They jokingly wished they could form a band with clones of themselves to fill out the empty instrument positions. As the story goes, one day Roulston said, "What if we just did that?" And so after considerable preparation and months of trial and error, they managed to invent something brand new: a four-person rock band with just two band members.
This is accomplished by both Livers playing guitar in front of a prerecorded video of themselves as the rhythm section (with Roulston on bass and Freeman on drums). But the virtual band members don't just play, they also have names (Karl and Merl), distinctive personalities and sassy attitudes. Through the magic of painstaking video editing and green-screen wizardry, all four band members have the ability to interact with each other. (In fact, the video Livers frequently talk back to the live Livers.)
This elaborate presentation is helped along by Zak Thenhaus, the unofficial third (fifth?) Liver. Similar to the Wizard of Oz, Thenhaus fills the role of the unseen magical man behind the curtain (or video screen) who assists the real-life Livers in their video interactions, largely by handing them props. Between songs every last Liver gets to catch a break as hilarious commercial-like clips — such as a Laverne & Shirley spoof, or one for Evan Williams brand whiskey — appear on the video screen. (These riotous, between-song bits are also known as the "interstitiary videos" in Freeman's professional-speak.)
The result is both spectacularly effective and logistically bewildering. Roulston dryly explains, "Yeah, it's kind of our motto: 'To do everything the hardest way possible.'"
Entering the Livers' headquarters — a.k.a. Roulston's spacious Benton Park bedroom — one immediately begins to get an idea of just how detailed the band's production process must be to pull off this kind of act. The vast space is part living area and part artist workshop, with enough cameras, lights and cables to outfit a television studio. In addition to the clothes, electronics, books and numerous art pieces strewn around, tiny strips of green tape on the wood floors mark frequently used instrument and filming positions. It is here that all of the "rhythm section" and comedic segments are taped.
Though these ingenious videos and fun live additions make the band instantly unique, without competent songwriting and playing prowess, the Livers would be little more than an interesting live art project. But the band's tunes stand alone and can be enjoyed, even separate from its shtick.
The admitted "control freaks" extended their hands-on attitude to their debut album, Vino in Uriam Mutando, which they self-mixed. Recorded locally at Firebrand Recording studios, Vino sounds strikingly professional (with solid lyrics, wicked riffs and intimidatingly heavy drum hits) and contains recordings of a few songs that are quickly becoming audience favorites. Freeman's "Autistic Girlfriend" was written as a "rock juggernaut" about a cold lady with insincere feelings and "a hole where her heart should go." In contrast, Roulston's "She-Wolf" is a wistful, gently sung pop-punk musing on missed opportunities and misdirected emotions. Other standout tracks include the sweetly seductive "Humble Plight" (a salute to the pleasures of love and makin' love) and "2 Legs to Dance," a jolting bass-and-beat-filled swoop into the world of dance rock that implores listeners to get up, get drunk and start dancing.
Between the Livers' unprecedented musical presentation and strong tunes, it's rumored that the young band has already been fielding label and distribution interest. When questioned on this development, both guys just smile and coyly decline to discuss this topic on the record, claiming superstition. It wouldn't be surprising; the band contains the kind of natural charisma and overflowing raw talent that label scouts are always looking to unearth. Plus, Freeman and Roulston seem to have a very brotherly relationship — where both compliments and playful ribbing are common — and both are good-natured, smart and funny as hell.
On meshing their musical styles:
Scot Freeman: Luke's music is really complicated and the time signatures are all weird and stuff and I can only play, like, uh...
Luke Roulston: 3/4 and 4/4 or a combination thereof. [Laughs]
Freeman: Yeah! Really, just like, Top 40. I just wanna play riffs and sing soaring choruses and that kind of stuff. So when I write a song it's usually really simple but his stuff is all over the place and I'm like, "I'm gonna go ahead and dumb this shit down."
Roulston: Well, that's called "rocking it up."
On their perfectionism in the videos:
Freeman: I think I've worked harder on this than on anything I've worked on, ever. There have been times that my actual job has bummed me out, but there have been times with this shit where I wanna cry.
Roulston: It's toil.
Freeman: There's been times when we worked on this 50 or 60 hours a week, while still working our regular jobs 40 hours a week. I mean, [we were] working to the point where it's almost ruined friendships and relationships.
Roulston: But the best thing about it is, the other members of the band? They don't seem to argue! [Laughs]
Freeman: On the videos, I'm of the opinion that Luke could pretty much fake it, that he could hit some wrong notes. But he refuses. He refuses to hit one wrong note, even though it wouldn't matter.
Roulston: If there was a bass player [in the audience] that actually had perfect pitch and knew his shit, he would know.
Freeman: And that's why he obsesses. We'll get done taping and he's like "I missed a note," and I'm like "I played it fucking perfectly! I'm bleeding!" and he's like "Let's do it again." And I'm like "Fuck!" and I fucking duct-tape my hand back together, [and] do it again.
On the band's sound and influences:
Roulston: Thus far, we've been compared to '90s music. But I love '90s music. Our big influences are the Jesus Lizard and the Pixies and Nirvana and the Foo Fighters and, you know, just hard-hitting drums. And he [Freeman] plays better than most drummers I've ever seen.
Freeman: Yeah, all my favorite bands are fucking gone. Jesus Lizard and fuckin' Seaweed, Failure, whatever. Bands that nobody remembers.
Roulston: At least the Pixies came back, I guess. You know what I liked? When Frank Black came to the Duck Room. That was a really fucking awesome show. I have nothing but respect for him. Actually, I have nothing but respect for anybody in the Pixies. They're just... God! What a great fucking band! I would say, like, that's the band that I would aspire to lick their...