The Antlers: Interview
“It’s a little bit of a mid-life crisis, or something.”
The past year-and-a-half has been something of a whirlwind for Brooklyn-based trio The Antlers. Hospice (TMT Review), their sixth release, was two years in the making and originally met the world, early in 2009, in the dead of winter without a label to promote it. But mountains of favorable press and a steady word-of-mouth buzz eventually snowballed into a reissue on Frenchkiss, a slot on virtually every year-end list on the planet, and a tour with The National.
Singer and principle songwriter Peter Silberman spoke to Tiny Mix Tapes in the press tent during Chicago’s Lollapalooza festival (yes, way back then), where we discussed how the band was coping with its growing stature, its plans for the next album, and the record that started it all.
I saw you guys last year when you played Pitchfork, and it’s almost a year later. Completely different show. All the songs have been reworked. It was super-cool. Has it been kind of a gradual evolution with things?
Well, I think the thing is, we haven’t stopped touring since then, really. If anything, we’ve started touring much, much, much more. And that was a little over a year ago, so I think being constantly on the road and thinking about live shows, and the shows getting progressively bigger and bigger over the year to an extent we never imagined possible, like something like this festival or… Like, we played Radio City Music Hall, and it’s just so mind-blowing to me that that happened. I think thinking about that all the time is what’s changed us as a band, because we started thinking about being a live band, and not about being a band interpreting a record. Because it’s like, now we know these songs live way better than we do the recorded version. It’s like they sound totally different to us, I think. I think that’s what’s kind of steered us in a few different directions at this point.
I know that you’ve stated in several interviews that you’re very fond of Boxer and The National. What’s it like touring with them?
It’s really strange. It’s been some of the best experiences of my life, actually. But it’s so strange to watch them every night, to see this band that I thought was just amazing for a really long time, and these records I’ve really bonded with pretty strongly, and records I would listen to every day for, like, a year some of them. To see them play every night and kind of get a little below the surface and see kind of what makes it move, whether it be as a logistical machine — like how tours work — or as a live band, because they’re so good and they’re so precise in what they do, but it never sounds too precise. And it just — it’s like, it’s really inspiring to see a band that’s just so strongly crafted what their sound is, and they’re so good at it. And just songs that I know really well, also. I think it’s encouraged us to try and be a better band, and really give more thought into everything that we’re doing. So it’s been really good. It’s been really good.
“But to me, a good album, in its own way has its own narrative arc, even if the lyrics aren’t narrative. I think novels and films work in the same way as good albums do.”
Excellent. You were talking a little earlier about how rapid your break-out was. What was your initial reaction to all this? Did it take a while to wrap your head around?
Yeah definitely. I mean, I’m still trying to wrap my head around it every day, like to the point where sometimes I can’t understand at all how it happened. But it’s very weird because I… I don’t know, this record is based on something that happened to me…I don’t even know how many years ago. Maybe 5? Or three? Between 5 and 3 years ago. And I made the record right following that. The record was finished two summers ago, like, not last summer, but the summer before that. So I spent every day working on it… just never stopping. And then we went on tour with it for even longer than that, and people are still just discovering the record, and I’m still doing interviews about this record. It’s still about this record. People are definitely like… I think they’re curious about what the follow-up is going to be, but it’s still very much about Hospice.
Yeah, I actually have a list of questions here about Hospice.
No, and I totally, like… I feel like it changes over time, too. But it’s just very weird, because the events that occurred in it feel… Like, it’s not that I don’t feel connected to them, because I still care about them, but it was like a record written by a younger me. And it’s been like…I was 19 when the things that happened on Hospice happened. Like, between 19 and 21, and now I’m 24. It’s a little bit of a mid-life crisis, or something. It’s like suddenly realizing, I guess, that the thing that it’s all about, the thing that started all of it is, like, a fraction of time in regard to the whole of everything that surrounded it. Touring is… I’ve been touring for a year-and-a-half, probably. Actually, about 2 years now. The record took a year to make. That’s a lot longer than the events that unfolded within the record, so it certainly makes the results seem much more important than what caused it.
It’s just bizarre. Sorry, I just start thinking about it and I get very off on a tangent sometimes.
No, it’s alright. I admire your openness. Your ability to kind of talk around all of these subjects. I was going to ask, did we hear some new stuff today, or were those cuts from the old records?
I heard two songs. Very nice.
Thanks, man. It’s great playing new stuff. I think every band feels that way when they’ve been touring on one record for so long. It’s not like… I think you go in and out of phases with how you feel about a song. Sometimes you totally hate it, and sometimes you… actually you really like it and you really appreciate the thing that you’re playing. It ebbs and flows. But when a new song comes in, it’s really… For bands, it’s really fun to do that. It’s like a second wedding, or something. You know?
What kind of direction is the new album taking, so far?
Well, it’s hard to say. We did a little bit of recording a few months ago. Actually, like, a while ago, now, like, January. Then we just went on tour forever, and we had already been on tour for a really long time. I had about a month to work on some stuff, and then we let it sit for a really long time. It wasn’t even really songs, necessarily. It was just sort of… Like we would start…
Kind of what we were doing was, Michael would play drums for, like, 5 minutes, and we would capture maybe, like, two seconds of it and loop that, and it would be a very quick, weird drum loop. Very disjointed. It sounds like a loop… [it sounds like] it’s a drum machine. Then just effect the shit out of it and start building things on top of that these songs that start going and turning into songs, and they’d sort of just trail off because we haven’t finished them. They’re half-done somewhere, with not that many tracks on them.
But now we’re about to… We’re going home tomorrow, and we’re actually going to be home for the rest of the year pretty much, so we’re going to really make this record, and take some of those ideas and turn them into songs. Some of them we’re going to throw out. And we’ve been writing songs while we’re… like in our little bits of time between tours, and those are things that have made it into live shows.
Is this next one going to be based around a story also, or are you doing something looser?
It’s going to be looser, I think. I mean, I think it’s… It might try to tell a story in a different way, ‘cause it’s definitely going to have fewer lyrics. By far. It will probably be cut in a fourth in the amount of words, ‘cause Hospice was just so, so many words. Instead of that, it’s kind of going for a little more of, like, trying to put more attention into each line of the lyrics.
It felt like you put a lot of attention into the lines that were in Hospice.
I did, but the thing is, I don’t feel like I, at this point, want to do that much, like as far as the amount of output. Which actually sounds horrible, because I’m making it sound like I want to just do less…
[From the main stage, Silberman heard one of the concert promoters announcing Cypress Hill]
Cypress Hill’s playing?
Oh, my God. Cypress Hill plays at Lollapalooza on The Simpsons, but it… well, Hullabalooza.
Along with The Smashing Pumpkins.
The Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth and… I got sidetracked. I could talk about that episode of The Simpsons for, like, the rest of this interview, and I’d be totally happy… But… I totally lost my train of thought.
In terms of the lyrics…
Oh, yeah. I think just, like, trying to really focus very hard on fewer lyrics and then concentrate on the melody more, on the ability — I don’t know. I’m curious about repetition. I listen in music for that. The point at which something becomes repetitive. Because there’s a lot of music that is repeating over and over again, but not considered repetitive. And I think electronic music is really conscious of that, especially, like, IDM stuff. Something will repeat, and sometimes… It feels like everything’s intentional with it. Something will repeat for a really long time, but it’s intentional because it’s supposed to be uncomfortable, and then it will break into something else. But I feel like there’s a lot of music that’s just repetitive, and nothing’s actually changing while it’s repeating, which is, I think, everything. And it’s basically just like a motor running, and you have something running through it and transforming. So I think that’s part of writing fewer lyrics. I want to focus on single lines more than I did in Hospice. I didn’t really do that very much. It repeats themes throughout the record, and parts of songs, but lyrics don’t really repeat that much at all.
On the subject of electronic music, you do some remixing yourself. Like, I’ve seen you did a song for The Thrushes, I believe.
Oh, yeah! That was a long time ago. Wow.
Actually, one of your remixes was just on a Tiny Mix Tapes mix, I think
I think so.
Darby does some, too. I only did one for a band called Choir of Young Believers, and I’ve got a couple more that I’m kind of slowly working on. But Darby remixed Freelance Whales and Neon Indian. I was listening to the Neon Indian one… Actually, I don’t know if that came out yet. That’s really strange. But it’s cool. It’s cool if you like weird, kind of glitchy, like creepy electronic stuff. It’s…it’s not like that. It’s a little like an “evil circus” kind of thing. It’s good.
So, if I could bring the conversation back to Hospice for a while, I’ve listened to a lot of albums arranged around a theme, or so-called “concept albums.” This one has a very clear narrative arc, whereas not many albums that I’ve listened to do. How did you achieve that in music? Because I felt like you’d have to diagram the plot out, or something.
“I think you go in and out of phases with how you feel about a song.”
You know, I feel like…There was something that I noticed that I can’t say for… I’m not going to say whether or not Hospice achieves it, because I can’t know that from my end of it; I could only know it if I was a listener. But to me, a good album, in its own way has its own narrative arc, even if the lyrics aren’t narrative. I think novels and films work in the same way as good albums do. And the sound of it varies in a way, and the energy of it varies in a way so that you’re kind of brought along on this plot.
It’s always if you can look at endings that you can see it, more than beginnings. Endings… you think about how some movies end, where sometimes they just punch you in the stomach, it’s so sad and so, just, like, depressing. Sometimes, it’s really triumphant. Sometimes, there’s a lot of things falling apart in a big climactic way, and then the end of it is like the denouement and it’s just winding down. It’s sort of a picture of life after the big climax of the film. Books are the same way, that they can either end that way, or be like the afterward. And music, I think the energy changes in such a way, that it sort of… that the last three quarters of a record are sort of like page 200 of a book, where you’re sort of, like, “It’d better start getting really good here because otherwise, I’m not going to like the book.” With an album, it’s where you start to drop because it’s like you’ve been listening to it for a while and sort of trying to decide if I want to keep listening to it and, like, hear it out and just see what it has to say, or to just go change to something else. So I think, in whatever way you write songs, or in whatever way I write songs, also…just trying to be aware of that. Trying to be aware of the way stories rise and fall.
Sylvia Plath was kind of a touch-point for the album. What attracted you to her for this?
She just always struck me as a strange anti-hero for young women. Especially a lot of young women I’ve known in my life. And specifically [she] just tied in that way with things going on in my life that inspired the record. Just kind of like a good touchstone, not for her literature, but more like, kind of, the life that people know about her outside of her books, about how she killed herself and her relationship with Ted Hughes. Things like that, that just made her a good point.
The melody for Bear gets repeated in the epilogue, and it’s also part of the New York Hospitals EP. What kept drawing you back to that melody for this song cycle?
For a while, it was the only melody I could write for songs.
It was really weird, yeah. Like, every time I was writing lyrics, it was always those chords and that melody, and I have so, so many lyrics to that melody that just didn’t get used, and parts of songs with that melody that I never used. And I thought I was going to use them at some point, but then I decided to close the book, a little bit, you know?