When you get carried away by the rampant current of popular culture, it’s hard to decipher the meaningful from the trivial.
The Avalanches dropped a pretty hefty shell on the music industry in 2000 with their debut album Since I Left You, but being 23 at the time, the magnitude of what they’d achieved didn’t really register. Skip past the 16 year sabbatical to the now and the sophomore album Wildflower, and the ever-fluid collective of Melbournites are negotiating the hype-beast with a heightened consciousness.
“When you’re 23, it’s a whirlwind,” says founding Avalanches member Robbie Chater. “You’re living day-to-day, and I never really stopped to appreciate the wonderful opportunity that we’d been given to connect with all of these people through music. It’s been really nice this time around to appreciate how lucky we are.”
Robbie’s epiphany, of sorts, as to the significance of The Avalanches’ first album came five years after its release. “In about 2005, my partner at the time said, ‘You do know that Since I left You is still hanging around and that it means a lot to people.’ And that was the first time that I really stopped and thought about it.”
To say that there’s been a bit of a fuss made about The Avalanches return to the spotlight is an understatement, but existing— as we do—in an Oz-centric media, it’s hard to really sense whether the rest of the world is as excited about the return as we are. The Australian musically-minded public are extremely cynical, but fiercely loyal. Once you’re in, you’re in. The Avalanches have long been a national treasure, and the group are passionate about their native fans.
“I think we’ve got so many fond memories from home of playing our first shows that we can’t help but to have a special affection for our Australian fans,” explains Robbie. “When we were coming up we felt so embraced, and that was even before we put a record out. That’s what gave us the momentum to keep going really.”
I ask whether Robbie thinks that the rest of the world knows that The Avalanches are Australian. It seems obvious, but nationality is paramount to the identity of some bands, and yet incidental to others. “I think so,” he replies. “I remember when Since I left You came out that it was a big deal in England that we were from Australia. I think that the music is quite joyous and summery and that people find it really easy to make that connection between what the music sounds like and what they imagine Australia to be like.”
Growing up in the UK, despite being ten at the time, I remember the amount of airplay that Since I Left You got. Traditionally, circulation in the UK or the States was the hallmark of a successful overseas conquest for an Australian band, and signalled a rapturous homecoming. But Since I Left You’s success on British shores was due in part to some fortunate timing. The album was gaining momentum, and it was warm and loose when the fickle English summer hit.
“It was funny, it was about eight months after the record came out here in Australia that the momentum really started building, and it just happened that it hit the UK in the summer. It was one of those things that you couldn’t really plan, and it just ended up taking on a world of its own,” says Robbie. In 2016, Robbie acknowledges that the legitimacy of native Australian artists shouldn’t rely on overseas validation. You release your offering online, and within seconds it’s available to the whole world. “Good records resonate no matter where you’re from,” he says, recognising the huge digital shift in the music biz since their debut.
But what of the hiatus? The Avalanches’ press offerings have been sparse and selective since the release of Wildflower on July 1, and you can’t help but think it’s because they’re preemptively sick of talking about the break; explaining why you’ve missed 5,840 consecutive roll calls is no small feat. However, Robbie couldn’t be more open to talking about their absence, and why Wildflower has taken ten years to kick out of the door. “The first time that we sent the record to the label and our management was in 2011 or 2012,” he explains. “It was kind of a record, but it was a mess. Everyone said that they were pretty sure that there was a record in there somewhere, but they were just worried that we’d lost the plot.”
Talking to Robbie about the process of putting Wildflower together, a number of things become obvious. He’s rapt at the reception of the record, and the prospect of being The Avalanches again, but also that he and Tony were so close to the writing, recording, and production of the record that coming to conclusions was a painful process. Output in any capacity is laborious, and studios designed to harbour creativity can fast become tombs. Robbie speaks with the vitality of a man who’s recently been freed from the shackles of sitting in the dark with his face illuminated by a monitor.
“Along the way we definitely had tough moments when we were like, ‘What are we doing? is this any good?’” he says. “And when it comes to selecting songs and making a cohesive record, you tend to hold onto the music you love for way too long, regardless of whether it’s going to fit on the record. So that took a long time, to get to grips with the music we loved and work out what to let go.”
When you’re not in the habit of writing and recording for a living, the fact that the songs you create have to exist as a single entity doesn’t really come into it. But an album made up of great singles isn’t a great album. And, when you haven’t released a record for 16 years, you’d better believe that your record has to dazzle from start to finish.” The Avalanches reportedly have another album’s worth of songs recorded that didn’t make the cut for Wildflower, and I ask Robbie whether you have to take emotion out of the selection criteria, and resort to a formulaic approach; a sprinkle of melancholy here, a dash of summer anthem here… He chuckles, and explains that this is the antithesis to the way The Avalanches do things.
“There’s just no formula, and that’s why records end up being unique,” he explains. “You need to discover the record’s personality, and once you’ve found it, it becomes easier and easier to work out what’s going to fit on the record. We actually ended up leaving a lot of the up-tempo songs off,” he continues. “We just tried to be confident, especially on the second half of the record, to just let it trip out and be itself, because that’s what we felt like it wanted to do. We just had to let it be.”
The subtlety of the sampling on Wildflower is a triumph. The second half of the record especially, kneads and orally teases with melancholy that you often can’t quite pin down. To the (relatively) uneducated ear, just to sit and listen is to travel to a multitude of places that you’d forgotten that you’d been. As an end result, the record just…works. But, if you’re prone to overthinking, and have a plethora of degrees pinned to your chest, I can see the temptation to dive into the ether of meaning. It’s a music academic’s wet dream.
“The record operates on a number of different levels,” says Robbie, “but for us it’s more about the feeling that the record brings, and how it makes you feel on that day when you’re listening to it. Sometimes it’s a little frustrating because people want to talk about all of the ingredients that go into the record, rather than the end result. But I understand that it’s fascinating,” Robbie sympathises. “I love sample-based music and I’m always super interested to find out what the original source material was and to find out what went into the original sampling.”
The samples that Robbie and Tony have used on Wildflower are vast. Like, Moog Scientist Mort Garson to The Beatles vast. And that’s one of the reasons that we fell in love with The Avalanches in the first place. It’s flowery, deep, melancholic, and it’s wacky as all hell.
“A lot of the crazier old, homemade recordings that we used, a lot of those records hold meaning for me and I do think about what was going on in that person’s life at the time, and why they had to make this crazy record and get it out there,” says Robbie. “Every sample already has its own meaning and its own history, and then it comes into our world and there’s all of these other people involved and then this process of getting it out—I love thinking about that, and really we’re just such a small cog in the musical journey that this piece of music has had, and it’ll float out again on the radio and someone else will hear it, and there’ll be something else happening in their day, and then it enters into their life and continues on. It’s just a flow of energy, without wanting to sound too cosmic,” he laughs.
If you’ve ever tried to get anyone to do anything for you, then you understand how time consuming and frustrating it can be relying on others. Getting MF Doom, Warren Ellis, Father John Misty, Toro Y Moi, Biz Markie, and so many more to collaborate on your record, and negotiating all of the steps that lead up to the first vocal lick being recorded is downright impressive. Visions of Robbie and Tony sitting in the studio going, “You know what? I reckon Warren Ellis would be perfect for this one…you got his number?” “Yeah I’ll hit him a text,” are romantic, but not miles from the truth.
“A lot of it is personal relationships,” says Robbie. “Glen, our A&R guy from Modular days, has been a part of this record since the beginning, and I can’t even describe how amazing he’s been. It’s nothing to do with his job, it’s almost like he’s part of the band. He’d talk to management and then we’d go direct to the artist. And keeping tabs on where we’re at. That’s been one of the big things, it’s been a whirlwind since the album was ‘finished’, just going back and re-contacting someone who might’ve done a vocal four or five years ago and figuring out how to split the publishing and getting it all approved again.”
All of this comes before the clearing of samples, which I got Robbie to break down into layman’s terms in order to wrap my mind around it, and to explain to those of a previous generation who seem to believe that using music that’s come before is somehow ‘cheating’. To clear samples, first off you need to get your hands on the master, which is usually in the hands of the record company with which it was recorded. Then, once you’ve selected the riff, vocal, drum track, etc. that you’d like, you have to go to whoever owns the track and clear (see also: pay) them. That’s why you’ll see Yoko Ono’s name in the Wildflower credits. Robbie jokes that being a household name helped The Avalanches get their hands on the samples that they really wanted to use this time, but that it was a lot cheaper in 1999 when they were an unknown band from Melbourne.
This all brings us to Splendour in the Grass and the home soil live return of The Avalanches. Tony and Robbie played a DJ set at Splendour in 2005, and their existing memory of the festival is a “fantastic day” where they played lots of heavy metal, and a little Bon Jovi. 2016 will see the group perform in a completely different context, with more hype and emphasis put on their performance. You’d think that this would result in pressure, but Robbie just sounds thrilled to be out of the studio and in the open.
“When you’ve been sitting in front of a computer for ten years making a record, it’s super exciting to be in a room full of crazy people playing instruments,” he laughs. “I’ve got to play guitar though, which is a little scary as I’ve barely played in almost 20 years, but we’ve tracked down a lot of the original samples that we used on this record. And there’s keys, live drums, live vocals. The Splendour show’s going to be a blast, we can’t wait.”
One thing’s for sure, if The Avalanches’ flash-rip that’s been engulfing the music industry results in an accordingly special Splendour in the Grass performance, then we’re all in for one hell of a night.
See The Avalanches on the Amphitheatre Stage on Friday night at 9:00pm