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Interview: Charming Liars talk darker new album, respecting the craft and Sir Elton John

Sunday in Phoenix was night of rock and roll and really great hair. Los Angeles trio Charming Liars took the stage at Crescent Ballroom for their opening slot on tour with Dorothy and promptly blew us all away. Singer Kiliyan Maguire’s soaring vocals, backed by guitarist Karnig Manoukian and bassist Mike Kruger, made Charming Liars a perfect addition to the lineup. Atlas sat down with Maguire and Kruger before their set to talk new music (soon!), respecting the craft and Sir Elton John.


Atlas Artist Group: What was the creation process like for this record?

Kiliyan Maguire: This record was very similar to the last one. Everything’s done in-house. Karnig, our guitar player also produces all of our music. There was definitely a lot of darker vibes on this record that heavily influenced the lyrics. Also, then the lyrics started influencing the music and they just started complementing each other.

Mike Kruger: The thing is, we took a break from playing shows for about six months with the intention of just writing, with no real plan like we’re going to write 12 songs and that’s the new record. We had a bunch of ideas and put them all together [and] we recorded about 20 songs. Then we kind of sat down at Christmas and had a full record that we liked. Then we finished the record and went back and added some more songs. It’s just how it is. As soon as you get towards the end, you’re like ‘oh fuck, how are we gonna fit this in?’ But it’s a good problem to have.

AAG: So we read that you got a ringing endorsement from Sir Elton John.

MK: That’s gonna go on my gravestone. As far as endorsements go, it really doesn’t get much more important, especially being British. We all grew up around Elton John’s music and in England he’s basically royalty, so to be at a point where he knows our name to begin with was like ‘that’s enough for me.’ And the fact that he actually liked the music, and from then on it’s just been weird.

KM: He’s such an incredible artist. He’s so involved in a lot of up and coming bands and he really champions them. He’s not afraid to speak his mind about artists that he enjoys and you don’t really see that as often with artists his size, especially on his radio show.

MK: He’s earned the right to have an opinion. We would love to be able to say some things about music, but we just won’t because we’re still young and working. He can say and do anything he wants and luckily we’re on his good list.

AAG: Did you get to meet him?

MK: We did, we did, a couple of times. He’s so nice to us, that’s what’s so shocking about it. He invited us to Vegas and we sat backstage with him for a bit.

KM: We befriended some of his band.

Both: It was a night that could only happen in Vegas!

AAG: How has his endorsement affected your career?

MK: Well a lot of people are asking us about it!

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AAG: What would be a dream collaboration for you, whether in the studio or on tour?

KM: That’s a tough one. There’s so many bands where we love their music and there’s always that interest to see what would happen if we both threw something at the wall and see what it would make.

MK: We kind of did it with Elton John. We covered an Elton John song and that was as close as we got to kind of collaborating with him. That was pretty exciting.

KM: That’s a long distance collaboration.

MK: We’re still hoping, fingers crossed, that one day we’ll be able to perform it with him. So that would be a collaboration we’d like to do.

AAG: Where do you guys draw your inspiration from when you’re making music?

KM: I’ll just speak for myself when it comes to songwriting, it really is kind of a time capsule of where you are in your life. When we look at the 12:31 EP, we were in a completely different spot musically, yes, but [also] personally. It’s very difficult to separate those worlds as a songwriter, as an artist. You can’t really keep your personal life and your problems at the door, they kind of come in with you. The music and the lyrics definitely got a little deeper. I always like to say we got comfortable being uncomfortable in the studio. I think daily I felt very cringed and uncomfortable at times because we were trying things and I didn’t know if they were gonna work. It’s when you kind of take a backseat and let the music create itself, you kind of realize ‘okay, we’re just making music here’ and it shouldn’t be so scary.     

MK: As corny as it sounds, I think as far as inspiration goes, it came from each other. Because we’re such a small unit, there’s only three of us in the room when we’re writing and recording, there’s no outside influences. Kiliyan will come in regularly with a new lyric to an established song. We start off with lyrics, kind of temporary but some of them stick and then Kiliyan will come in with a new lyric that will take it in a different direction with the story and we’ll try to reflect that in the music or vice versa.


AAG: Do either of you have any guilty pleasure music or artists you listen to?

MK: I have no guilt. I think that’s what being a band has taught you, that music is music and you’ve got to respect what people do.

KM: We listen to everything. We see all the work that goes into it so to feel guilty about liking something that’s been constructed out of nothing is kinda crazy.

MK: You gotta respect the craft. The guilt comes from the artists who don’t have the craft. There are few of them, luckily. Even if I don’t specifically like the genre, I can appreciate the talent it takes– in fact I appreciate it more, genres I don’t know how to play.

KM: It’s just like, how do they do that?

AAG: Your video for “Like a Drug” is still garnering attention for its graphic and dark nature. Were you hoping for a specific reaction when you were creating the visuals for these new songs?

MK: As hard to believe as it sounds, we weren’t actually thinking about other people’s reactions at all. It was a very selfish project that we were making. We were very involved in the video-making process because I think that’s as important as the album and the music is now. We wanted to make it slightly uncomfortable. We didn’t want to make a video that ticks the boxes to get you on MTV.

It’s hard when you’re dealing with subjects like sex and drugs and violence because we’re kind of accustomed to it as consumers. You don’t want to glamorize it. We wanted to make it quite serious because it’s a very serious subject and people are going to be suffering from the issues we’re talking about. We don’t want to belittle them by making it something that we’re using for our own personal gain. It wasn’t for us, it was to tell a story that I think is important to be told. We wanted to be one of those bands that kind of took it more seriously and let people know that we’re aware and we’re not just living in our own little bubble in California.       

KM: We really just thought of it as an artistic piece more than a vehicle to drive the song.

MK: We sat down and decided this was an idea we wanted to pursue that doesn’t tick any of the boxes. It’s not gonna get played, it’s not gonna get the kind of exposure that some people in the industry would like a video to get but that’s not the purpose anymore. I think it’s a much of a statement as the music is and you’ve got to put as much emphasis and importance on your visuals as your music. You can’t just phone it in because it’s obvious now. We’re all so savvy as consumers that you know when something’s not legit. We were aware of that and we just kind of wanted to make something that we really appreciated.  


AAG: What are your hopeful plans for next year? 

MK: We are very, very eager to be working. As much as we enjoy the whole studio process, that’s kind of come to an end for this cycle and now it’s letting people hear the music and I think live is a good opportunity to show our best selves. We’re really f*cking excited to get out there and do as much as possible.

KM: Any opportunity to play is a good enough opportunity.

MK: The hope is that all the tens of thousands of hours we’ve put in will get us to the point where we’re happy but also the fun thing about music is that you’re never at the top. You can’t get to like the CEO of music. You can have a number one record for a week, but then you’ve gotta release another record. You’ve still gotta put the work in and write the good songs so our work is never done. That’s what keeps it exciting but also what keeps us up at night.       


Story and Photos by Olivia Khiel