Here’s the thing about The Antlers; when they made their breakthrough with the frankly exquisite Hospice, they also kind of painted themselves into a corner. It was a concept album in the purest sense of the term; a deeply thought-out, impressively complex story bled through every second of the record, from start to finish. In unflinching fashion, it spun the tale of a failed relationship through the cipher of terminal illness; sure, it succeeds in being as affecting a record as I’ve heard in my lifetime, but once you turn something as powerful as that out, where do you go next?
The Brooklynites would go on to deliver a searingly impressive answer to that question in the form of Burst Apart, which quite rightly troubled the right end of more than a few end-of-year rundowns back in 2011. It did away with Hospice’s appetite for pairing benign, even appealing, sonic backdrops with devastating lyricism, instead marrying the latter with so much atmosphere that at times, it felt claustrophobic. From the yearning ‘I Don’t Want Love’ to the desolate ‘Corsicana’, the genius of Burst Apart lay in its ability to set anixety against anguish and still sound beautiful on a superficial level.
With any suggestion that they’d never quite recover from the sheer emotional ferocity of Hospice well and truly dispelled, the only real question related to where The Antlers would go next. They’ve kept us waiting for Familiars; the Undersea EP, apparently intended as a tide-over, offered precious few clues as to a future direction, whilst Darby Cicci’s work as School of Night suggested that the band were in no rush to get back to work.
Now that they actually have, though, they’ve managed to confound expectations once again; Familiars is a work of such gorgeous fragility that we now have little option other than to consider The Antlers amongst the very top tier of indie rock royalty. Frontman Peter Silberman spoke to me from his Brooklyn apartment about the record’s psychology, the band’s direction and his struggle to come to terms with the album having leaked, months ahead of its official release.
DiS: When did you first start work on Familiars? I know you took a little bit of time off, and Darby was doing stuff with School of Night until pretty recently...
PS: We started out on the record probably around January or February of last year, which, the last time I checked, was 2013. I guess that was when we went into the studio and started trying to work out some concrete ideas. I know I'd been thinking about it for a couple of months leading up to that; I don't think any of us came in totally unprepped, but there wasn't any kind of solid work up until we all got back together.
You released an EP, Undersea, in 2012; was that supposed to be an epilogue to Burst Apart, or a prelude to Familiars?
I think it really existed on its own. We were in between tours when we made it; we’d just come home from a long run, and we were about to go out on a bunch of short runs. There was this pretty compressed period of time to make something, and we decided to see what was there, in our heads - just let it out, and see what it sounded like. I guess it was kind of a stream-of-consciousness thing, right across the board. We worked pretty quickly, and we didn’t edit ourselves too extensively, just to try to capture the moment as honestly as possible. In retrospect, I do think it could stand as a bridge between Burst Apart and this one, but at the time, it wasn’t intended for it to be that way.
How much of an impact did the reaction to Burst Apart have on this record? The reviews were pretty much unanimously positive.
If we’re talking about the positive acceptance of that record, I can’t say it wasn’t encouraging; it made us feel as if we’d be starting from a good place when we did get around to making the next one. By the time we actually did, though, the excitement associated with all of that kind of stuff had died down, which was a good thing, really. It’s a lot harder to create something new when you’re still in the midst of something old. Burst Apart really opened a lot of doors for us, and it’s allowed us to be flexible with what we’ve gone on to create, because it was so different from Hospice. We knew, with Familiars, that it would really be up to us what we’d do next, because nobody was really expecting anything specific from us any more. And that was nice - it’s a very open feeling.
Did you make Familiars in Brooklyn?
Yeah, in our studio here. It’s where we recorded Burst Apart and Undersea, also.
I get the feeling that over the past few years, the idea of the Brooklyn band has started to become its own entity, something independent of the more general New York tag. Do you think The Antlers could exist anywhere, or is there something about the band that’s intrinsically tied to Brooklyn at this point?
We could certainly exist anywhere, but there are so many circumstances that all kind of aligned as far as Brooklyn’s concerned; that we all ended up living here, within a five minute walk of each other, was obviously kind of the key to us becoming a band in the first place. These days, I think we’ve just found ourselves in a situation where a lot of our recording is based here, and the regularity of it has kind of necessitated that convenience. That said, I don’t personally feel as attached to Brooklyn as I used to, and I don’t really see it as being the place where I’ll continue to create things indefinitely.
The thing about the new record that we can’t really avoid talking about is the incorporation of horns, and brass instruments; they’re prominent right the way through. Who’s idea was that?
It was actually Darby’s. He was really interested in striking out with something new on this record, just as far as his own contributions were concerned. I think he’s been focusing a lot more on horn playing; he saw that as a way to bring out this new voice in our sound, because they kind of act as a counter-voice to my own. That became a place where he began to see a lot of potential, that he hadn’t necessarily noticed in the past.
Were you aiming for the overall sound of the record to be a little bit more cohesive than your past albums have been? Those horns really are a huge part of this one.
Yeah, definitely more so than previously. I think Burst Apart and Hospice, stylistically, had a lot of shifts throughout them. This record does, too, but there are also certain pieces of it that I wanted to have a consistency to them. I was personally very focused on guitar and vocals; that’s where my head was at. I went into the process wanting to solidify a particular guitar tone that I’d use on pretty much every song; I was aiming for something warm, with a lot of texture to it, but without piling effects on. It had to be relatively clean - something overdriven and kind of classic, that felt really organic, so that it would be its own voice. As soon as you think of each instrument as a voice - and that feels like much more of a natural inclination, once you stop relying on electronics - you start to think of every aspect of the sound as having its own personality. It made sense to me to really delve into that and develop it, instrumentally speaking.
The overall sound of the record is definitely a lot airier than Burst Apart, which I thought was a little bit claustrophobic at times. Was that lightness something that you tried to tie in with your lyrics?
Totally. I think they go hand in hand. I guess my approach was, again, about that consistency. If you’re going to be applying a certain philosophy to your playing, it should really be carrying across all elements of it. Vocally, I was trying not to affect things too much; I really wanted to capture the natural texture of my voice, because I felt like it was changing throughout the process. I was getting to know it better than I ever had, so it didn’t seem necessary to cover anything up - if anything, it seemed sensible to bring that out, for better or worse.
And then, lyrically, there was definitely an emphasis on the natural, and on a natural state of mind, which is a very difficult thing to achieve. Some people think of that as a present state of mind, and in the case of this record, that’s probably a good way to talk about it, because so much of the story is about memory, and how it affects us. So often, how we feel on a day-to-day basis is dictated by that attachment to past events; they really inform the way we think about ourselves, and I wanted to dive into that. I found that, in exploring memories and trying to understand it from a new perspective, I was almost compartmentalising them; it was a strange process, like you’re lining up your past baggage and deciding what you really need to carry with you.
It’s interesting that you talk about the record having a story, because Hospice had such an explicit narrative arc, and everything you’ve done since has been a little bit more abstract in that respect. Are you always thinking about how everything’s going to tie together, thematically, when you sit down to write?
No, not necessarily. I mean, I never expect for it to happen. The lyrics for Familiars started out from a lot of stream-of-consciousness writing that happened about a year and a half ago. It’s always very vague in the beginning, and then, when we decide which songs we’re going to focus on, I start looking at them as a group, and begin to connect the pieces between them; making them interdependent, basically. Once that happens, a story starts to naturally present itself to me. I’ll start to organise, and reorganise, and edit, and rewrite, and the overriding themes just kind of become apparent as we start to think about putting the tracks in some sort of order. I was definitely way more interested in creating a story this time than on Burst Apart or Undersea, but I wanted it to be more complex, too; like a maze, or a labyrinth. On the other hand, though, we didn’t actually solidify the final track listing until close to the very end, so there was always a degree of flexibility. That’s probably, like you say, why it’s not quite as explicit as Hospice was.
What is it that draws you to stream-of-consciousness writing now? Is it a reaction to Hospice, in any way? I get the impression that you might have felt some pressure to move away from only being known for that level of intensity.
That’s actually a naturally occurring thought, but thinking that way has always acted as a kind of writer’s block for me. The truth is, on and off, I’ve pretty much always written that way, and any of our records - whether it’s Hospice or anything else - they’re really just an expression of where i’m at, mentally, at the time that we’re making it. I definitely get neurotic during the whole process of it, but ultimately, I’m just trying to tap into some kind of truth about myself. Whichever form that takes, as far as I’m concerned, is just the form it takes, and I’ve worked pretty hard to make sure that I never force it, or play into somebody else’s idea of what I should be writing about. I know when it sounds forced, and I know when I’m not being true to myself. Stream-of-consciousness helps me to avoid that; if you can get into that zen frame of mind, where you aren’t able to stop yourself before you get an idea out, then you can really get a pretty accurate read of where your head is at.
The song ‘Hotel’ is an interesting one in that respect, because there’s obviously some pretty heavy metaphor in play there. Was any of that born out of having spent so much time in hotels when you’re on the road?
I certainly have spent a ton of time in hotels. I know what it’s like to be living that existence, and to an extent the song is about that, about that kind of impermanence you feel when you’re in a place like that. It’s as if your actions won’t have consequences, because you won’t be around long enough to feel them, to see them unfold. But, honestly, that was more of a starting point for the song; I think it’s really about death, as a lot of mine tend to be. I don’t think it’s necessarily a morose song, even though my delivery of some of the lines might present it as such.
I was looking more at the things that we place importance on in life, that don’t actually have the kind of value and concreteness that we think they do. For lack of a better word, I was thinking a lot about what the soul is, and what the purest essence of being a person and being alive is. In a hotel, it tends to be about those things that we define ourselves by; our names, our pasts, our personalities, and our possessions. If any part of you lives on beyond death, though, those parts probably don’t, and there’s something pretty liberating about that idea.
Do you believe in life after death?
I’m not really sure. I mean, I don’t know, but i am interested in it, and I do think about it a lot. There’s a lot to explore there. If you start thinking about life on those terms, you become less attached to some of those pieces of being alive, and you start thinking, “well, what will survive death? What will I be taking with me?” It can really put things into perspective.
Would I be reading into things too much if I said I could see a connection between ‘Hotel’ and ‘Palace’? That seems like a deliberate contrast to me, the concreteness of the former set against the abstractness of the latter.
There’s definitely something in that. I mean, here’s how I’d make the comparison. ‘Palace’ is about this nebulous idea of happiness, that most of us seek to attain in life, and we don’t really know what it is, or what it feels like. We have moments of feeling content, and feeling satisfied and happy, and there’s this idea in life that we work towards goals over time, and eventually we’ll get to this place where you’re happy and everything is great. Whether or not that place actually exists or not, I don’t know. Not that it isn’t worth fantasising about, but I think inherently there is no perfect state of mind or being. So, ‘Palace’ is about the human desire for a heaven in life, for a paradise, and ‘Hotel’ is an analogy for a another state of mind, one that’s concerned with escaping reality.
Through drinking and drugs?
Exactly. And I should stress that I’m not taking any position on that kind of thing, but in my experience, they can bring you into this consciousness where you find a temporary paradise. You’re creating a hotel of the mind, almost, where you don’t have to feel raw reality. You’re feeling this other version of it. It’s either a way to dull yourself from a haunted past, or anxiety about the future. Drugs can be a very present experience in that respect, because they do lead you to focus on a very direct feeling - even if there are obviously some pretty serious drawbacks to it, and it doesn’t last. I think that’s where the connection is.
Is that somebody else’s voice I can hear on ‘Doppelganger’? It doesn’t sound much like you.
Nope, that’s me. I wanted to try out something almost guttural; I haven’t really explored the lower end of my voice too much.
Does that tie into the idea of having a lot of different voices across the record?
Yeah, especially on this song. The different songs on the record are being sung by different people, even if it’s my voice throughout. Even then, even though ‘Hotel’ and ‘Doppelganger’ are probably the same person, you’re hearing different sides of that person. If you were to go into somebody’s mind, somebody’s psyche, you’d probably see a lot of different versions of them. In the case of ‘Doppelganger’, it’s like the version of yourself that is your worst self, the one that when you come back from that state of mind, you’re surprised at who you were. If you think about the record title, which is Familiars - I often think about that as kind of the made-up opposite word to ‘strangers’. ‘Doppelganger’ is about that stranger within yourself, the version of you that’s drawn to the darker things.
Speaking of which - am I right in saying that the record leaked pretty early on?
I’m afraid so, yeah.
How do you feel about that?
I was angry about it at first; that was just a knee-jerk reaction, I guess. I was definitely disappointed, but that only really lasted a few hours, right after it happened, and I made peace with it a lot quicker than I would have expected to. This record wasn’t supposed to be locked in a cage. I definitely think of it as being a living thing, and the leak, if anything, was us saying “well, we’re going to give you this long rollout, and keep everything secret, and release little pieces at a time to build anticipation,” and then the album saying, “yeah, I’m not really interested in doing that, you know?”
Obviously, it’s a bummer that it happened, because there is a plan for every release and you want things to go according to that plan, but I think I’ve been finding more than ever that the more you try to force things into a certain shape, the more they rebel against it - often in a way that’s going to shock you, and be quite unpleasant. Ultimately, I think this record needs to be heard from start to finish anyway, so if a bunch of people found it and are listening to it and getting to know it earlier than expected, I don’t really have a problem with that. I get the sense that maybe release dates and album lead-up cycles are starting to become irrelevant anyway.
Yeah. I find it frustrating that you can always stream records in advance through Pitchfork or whatever these days; it takes a bit of the edge off of that excitement, building up to something you’ve been looking forward to.
Right, yeah. Plus, I can’t imagine many bands are making records that are supposed to have their first exposure to the listener be through laptop speakers, anyway. I guess that as soon as you start passing something around on the internet, whether it’s going to press or manufacturing or whatever, it doesn’t really matter who you’re sending it to. The point is, it’s out there, so perhaps you can’t be too surprised when something like this happens. And then, another part of it is this sense of ownership that we have over music. It’s important for the sake of legal protection, obviously, but fundamentally, it’s kind of absurd. I tend to feel ownership of what I’m making while I’m working on it, but once I’m done with it, once I’ve let it go and said goodbye to it, I start to realise that not only does it not belong to me, but in a sense, it never belonged to me. It’s just something that was created, and taken out out of the atmosphere and shaped into something, and then put out there. Once it exists within some kind of public consciousness, to try to impose really strict rules upon it kind of goes against the nature of music and creativity, for me. It was kind of a relief to have the whole Fort Knox thing be over with, just so that it’s one less distraction now that we have to rehearse and tour.
Have you been thinking about how you’re going to present Familiars on stage? In the past, you’ve often reworked your songs pretty extensively.
Yeah, well, there were a couple of reasons for that. We started doing that right when the band first came together, and I’d been making records by myself, just with a ton of overdubs. There was no easy way to recreate them live, so we’d break them down to their most obvious parts and just rebuild them; you know, “OK, so the instrumentation on this song is like this, but these are the chords, this is the tempo and this is the general feel of it.” The song can still exist without all the specifics of the recorded version.
We carried that through to Hospice and Burst Apart, both of which would have required way more people than we had to present them precisely as they were in the studio. We’re still kind of in the midst of figuring out what we’re going to do; I’ve been recovering from a really fucked-up hearing injury for the past month or so, and we’ve had to postpone rehearsals for a while.
Will the lineup be the same?
It’s going to be a little bit different, actually; I don’t know if you ever saw us with Tim Mislock playing guitar, but he won’t be with us; he’s actually performing on Broadway now, in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which is amazing.
We’ll have to get somebody else in to cover a few different things, but honestly, I went into writing the record wanting for it to be streamlined enough that we could replicate it as directly as possible. I didn’t want to do what I’ve always done, which is write a ton of guitar parts and then have to deep six half of them, because I only have so many hands. That’s how I feel about it right now, but how it’ll end up, I have no idea; I guess I’ve learned not to take anything for granted with this band.
Familars is out this week on Transgressive.
The Antlers play seven UK shows this winter:
22 - The Old Market, BRIGHTON
23 - The Oobleck, BIRMINGHAM
24 - Hackney Empire, LONDON
27 - Trinity, BRISTOL
31 - The Ritz, MANCHESTER
1 - Oran Mor, GLASGOW
2 - Belgrave Music Hall, LEEDS