The Avalanches on Carl Sagan’s influence and their retro modern sampling approach
After a 16-year hiatus between their seminal debut and its vibrant follow-up, the pair have returned with the final piece of the triptych. We speak to them about their evolution, and how they crafted We Will Always Love You in a quarter of the time its predecessor took.
After grabbing global attention with their captivating debut Since I Left You in 2000, The Avalanches’ star could have easily waned, especially given the time it took the Australian duo to resurface again with another full-length. Still, in 2016 came Wildflower – and with it, the zeitgeist was captured once more.
The imagination showcased in their sophomore album’s standout singles Subways and Frankie Sinatra ensured that these delicately constructed tracks were irrepressible earworms, and cemented Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi’s tally of two-for-two classic albums.
Hailing from the town of Maryborough, close to Melbourne, the duo formed their partnership as part of youthful noise-punk outfit Alarm 115 in 1994. It wasn’t long before film student Chater began to experiment with more interesting concoctions of sampled sounds alongside original member Darren Seltmann. The three formed The Avalanches in 1997 and their patchwork approach to song-building soon began to bear fruit. It would lead them on a journey whose endpoint was that classic, distinctive debut.
Building songs from an eclectic assortment of samples, Robbie and Tony have been inaccurately defined as sampling traditionalists in the years since. “I just love the idea of using the least amount of stuff,” says Chater. “I want to let the music be the guide. In general, there needs to be less shit between you and your imagination.”
With their third LP We Will Always Love You finished in a comparatively brisk four years, what do the pair put this accelerated productivity down to?
“Making Wildflower over 16 years was a journey of discovery and finding out what that record was about,” says Chater. “With this record, the concept and destination were clear from the off, so maybe that’s why it took a shorter length of time. Even in terms of collecting sounds and building a palette, if you know what you want thematically, you can narrow down the types of samples you need far more easily.”
The new album’s guiding concept emerged after Chater and Di Blasi read the story of astronomer Carl Sagan’s romance with NASA creative director Ann Druyan. Back in 1977, the two worked together to assemble the golden records meant to represent human civilization, which were placed in the Voyager space probes and now live among the stars. Among the recordings jettisoned into space was a sample of Druyan’s brainwaves, captured during the days that followed Sagan’s marriage proposal to her – a genuine snapshot of pure chemical love.
“We originally wanted to have a conversation with Ann Druyan about her love story with Carl and the Voyager record, and how the sound of her emotions was captured and sent into the cosmos,” says Chater. “We wanted to record that interview and then take snippets of the dialogue and use it to form the basis of the short interstitial tracks on the album. It was going to be her voice telling her story. The studio was booked and we were meant to go in but it was cancelled on the day. We were never sure why. Perhaps it was too personal for her. But we were so grateful to even know that story and for the inspiration it gave us. It really provided the spirit of this album”
“We had so many samples that could be used in infinite ways. Where do you start?”
With the concept for album three established, how did the songwriting process begin for the pair, who still craft their tracks as a woven tapestry of disparate samples?
“Samples are the lynchpin,” says Di Blasi. “Everything is built around that initial sample. Finding that first sample and using it as a reference to build the song around is key. The sound of that first sample can influence the feel of the whole final track. They are all so different – I guess that’s why our music can be so different.”
“This record was great,” says Chater, “because we wrote with our close friend Andy Szekeres. We’d be texting between the three of us all day, sending samples around. Andy’s a great keyboard player, so he might try a melody and share that. I would use my phone to film what’s coming from my speakers in Pro Tools and share it with the guys to see if it triggers any ideas. There was a million ideas being born every day – and the good ones kind of jump out.”
The trio were working so quickly, it turns out, that they barely made time to bounce MP3s. “We literally just recorded what we were doing then and there and sent it over,” adds Chater. “Press play on the space bar, hit record on your phone and there you go. Make it sound good on an iPhone speaker and you know it’s going to sound good on record!”
Though the pair were still beholden to their classic Akai S2000s and S5000s throughout the production of Wildflower, we’re curious as to whether that initial sample-curation process changed during this record. As it happens, a transition had gradually been taking place over the intervening years.
“The making of Wildflower encapsulated a revolution between our use of traditional hardware and digital equipment,” says Chater. “We’d be slowly transferring individual samples from old hardware into Pro Tools and mixing them from there. Whereas this record began in Pro Tools, so we had a head start.”
“Throughout Wildflower, Robbie was still using Opcode Systems’ Studio Vision, which became obsolete sometime around 2007,” says Di Blasi. “And Robbie still had that up until about 2015. Transferring all those sounds and stems over to Pro Tools took a while. Which contributed to the time it took to make that last record.”
At Chater’s home studio, where he does most of the initial assembly, his hardware keys and samplers have all been shelved. “I work completely in-the-box now,” he says. “I’ve still got the Akai samplers that we made the previous two records with – they’re locked away in a cupboard – but for now I’m working in software. The sampling process is much quicker.”
A soft-sampler audition process yielded no clear frontrunner for Chater, so he decided to record into Pro Tools directly. “I’m just inputting the turntable into the input of my interface and recording samples into the DAW,” he says. “I treat it like an old-school hardware sampler in many respects. I can chop the audio, edit each sample, pitch them, slow them down and tune them very quickly.”
“When we started back on Akai S900s, we had about an 11-second limit on the disc and that was it,” says Di Blasi. “Now that’s unlimited.”
Back in those days, Chater was using one sequencer, a single sampler and a turntable in his bedroom, sampling with nothing but some $2 records and his imagination. “I enjoy that process,” he says. “I love that feeling of a non-cluttered approach – just some records and what you can dream of.”
From the making of 2000’s Since I Left You onwards, Chater and Di Blasi have amassed an unrivalled library of samples, some earmarked for use on future releases and others just interesting curios that were never likely to find a home on Avalanches songs proper.
Have a good time now
In the same spirit as their previous records, The Avalanches’ We Will Always Love You is not just packed with sensational samples but also features an A-list cast of musical guests from across the genre spectrum. The blissful title track boasts a low-key rap courtesy of Blood Orange and there’s sublime guitar from Johnny Marr on the lush The Divine Chord, plus you’ll hear beats from Jamie xx on Wherever You Go and detached punk vocals from Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo on the single Running Red Lights. It’s clear, then, that this
record’s guest list solidifies its inclusive appeal.
“We definitely start with someone in mind for the track,” says Di Blasi. “We have the track there and then we think of the artist and reach out to them. I guess that’s why the range of vocalists is so eclectic, because every song is different. We’re looking at different artists for the different songs.”
“When we envisioned the Perry Farrell vocal on the track Oh The Sunn!, we just couldn’t imagine anyone else on it,” says Chater. “So we’re not sending a bunch of stuff out
at random. We always think carefully about our guest appearances before we reach out.”
Having such a wealth of potential launchpads to draw from may seem like a massive boon. But it became something of a curse. “We had a shitload,” says Chater. “Some were on hard drives and others were on CDs. I gave Tony a pile of CDs and some old drives a few years ago and he went through them all and catalogued them. It was a real trip down memory lane. There were loads of Wildflower samples and even stuff going back to tracks we worked on in 2000 and on through to 2010. Back in those days, we’d get together and play each other actual samples and earmark our favourites.”
Despite the nostalgia, Chater and Di Blasi agreed that it was time they started afresh. “It was almost to our detriment that we had all these huge drives with thousands of folders full of samples,” says Di Blasi. “It was just too much and too daunting. It was better to start totally fresh. This is a new era. It became a kind of choice paralysis – we had so many samples that could be used in infinite ways. Where do you start? [The new album] is almost that classic approach, like how we used to buy five records and make a song out of them. Even when we made Since I Left You, we were limited. We had only what we could afford and those limits help us.”
“It ties in with the whole less-is-more approach,” adds Chater. “After Wildflower, I got rid of my whole record collection and kept a couple of hundred that I liked. It allowed me room to find new records but it’s a funny thing – we had these huge catalogues of samples but we weren’t making music any quicker or any better. Now we’re back to that central idea of grabbing one record, going through it to figure out what can be used, and making a song in one day from that one record, not dissecting or cataloguing it and putting it on the shelf. It just feels fresher and more alive doing it this way. It’s magic. Tomorrow, we’ll start a new track.”
Two hearts in ¾ time
After years of painstaking collaboration, Chater and Di Blasi’s respective visions are clearly in sync. They know instinctively when things aren’t working. “We can communicate in terms of feeling,” says Chater. “Tony and I know when something’s right and when it’s not. We can both be really honest about what’s working and never take it personally. It’s all one role now. Sometimes it’s so obvious to us when something just isn’t an Avalanches song. It’s almost impossible to put it into words but, despite how eclectic our music can be, there’s definitely a core feel that Tony and myself are in tune with. It feels in harmony with the body almost.”
Di Blasi agrees, adding that the pair’s perspectives align even on the minutiae of their music. “We just work so well together,” he says. “Robbie [Chater] is definitely the creative force of the band and I’m very much facilitating Robbie’s vision, which works really well. We’re so close and have formed a solid unit that is The Avalanches. We take care of every aspect of what we need to do. We’ll listen back to the whole record and make notes on what’s wrong and right. Usually, we’re both pretty aligned on those elements. Even the little, tiny things, not just the obvious things. ‘That sound went on for 0.5 seconds too long,’ for example. I guess we’ve been working together for so long, we just fit each other’s rhythms.”
“Tony is extremely patient,” says Chater. “I can get lost in the conceptual side of things, which is very important – I can’t make music without that. But Tony brings me back to the reality of what we’re doing.”
With an equally unfathomable number of samples on We Will Always Love You as on their debut, which famously boasted 3,500, how long did the sample-clearance process take? And have things become any easier on the legal front over the years?
“It can be a headache,” says Chater. “But most people are more open to it now. You still get people who say no straight away but most folks understand sampling a lot more now, and that understanding has grown in the years we’ve been working. People regard it as a revenue stream. Artists are generally cool about it but it still seems to create a problem
for labels. Our team at EMI has been phenomenal. There’s a lot of admin!”
“There’s a constant back-and-forth with different artists’ legal departments,” says Di Blasi, “so it needs a lot of work.”
“For each sample, you have to credit the original track, which might have six or seven writers,” adds Chater. “Then if we change one little thing, the knock-on effect means that all the paperwork to be done again – and we do like to change little things here and there!”
Running red lights
Unlike Wildflower, which was mixed at Melbourne’s Sing Sing studios, The Avalanches’ new album was largely finalised at Sunset Sound in LA. But because Chater and Di Blasi fine-tuned their tracks in Pro Tools as they went, the process was a little different to that of a conventional mix session.
“This one was much more about pushing our sounds further,” says Chater. “The bulk of the songs were almost finished and we were happy with them but the harmonics and the glue was missing. So we did three simple tests: we zeroed the desks on an SSL G/G+ console at Sing Sing and pumped the songs through it, then we went to Sunset in LA and did the same on the vintage AMS Neve 8088 console there, and then on their API/DeMedio desk. We compared the three and, in the end, settled on the API. It had a nice midpoint between the warmth of the Neve and the clarity of the SSL, which suited this record.”
“It got rid of that digital quality that you naturally end up with when you do everything in-the-box and rely on digital delays and reverbs,” adds Di Blasi. “The desk kind of warms everything up and removes that harshness that we’re a bit averse to. It rounds it out nicely and really helps to build a better bottom end. It’s really important to the sound.”
“But we weren’t really using the EQs on the desk,” says Chater. “We were just using the channels. They’d light everything up at zero and we’d spit out 24 stereo tracks. We’d pump the mix through and just do three versions with the desk running a bit hotter each time. The more we pushed it, the more the top end would kind of close down, and then we’d try to find that sweet spot and remove the digital harshness Tony mentioned. We don’t have an infinite budget, so this was a nice way to mix in-the-box but get the best of both worlds.”
Though they crib fragments of sound from artists past, The Avalanches’ music is wholly original. Their ingenuity is exemplified by some the new album’s standout tracks. There’s the mournful guitar swell of The Divine Chord, the psychedelic allure of Reflecting Light, the high-octane disco-funk of Music Makes Me High and the instant impact of Running Red Lights, which features lead vocals from Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo. All of these songs sound miraculously diverse and yet part of a coherent vision.
Are there any other acts operating in a similar space right now? “We have a lot of love for those artists who have their own little universes,” says Chater. “I remember way before we even started working on Since I Left You, that’s what we wanted to do: to find our own little corner of the musical universe so that we weren’t competing with anyone, and so that it didn’t matter how ‘well’ we did because nobody else was there and we could develop our own approach at our own speed.
“When we first started, we tried to make the drums sound huge like a Chemical Brothers record or something, and sometimes you just can’t achieve that sound,” adds Chater. “The more you learn, the more you realise what an art form it is, and that you’d have to dedicate the rest of your life to getting your drums to sound as good as Tom and Ed’s. That’s their thing. We wanted to find our own place, where the rhythms didn’t have to obey the rules and could be perhaps a little more 1960s-sounding. That’s flowing through us today. Animal Collective have done that too, and Four Tet is doing his own thing and the world has come to him.”
“Making good records is fucking hard. I think it costs a bit of your soul”
“You get a lot of genre-hopping bands, who are conscious of trends,” says Di Blasi. “But it’s good to be in your own universe. You need to know what’s going on and it’s good to draw influences from everything but you just take bits here and there. We listen to so much different music, from rock to dance.”
So given the record-setting pace at which Chater and Di Blasi finished their third record, can we expect a fourth right around the corner? Chater laughs and admits that he’s still exhausted from finishing this one. “Making good records is fucking hard,” he says.
“I think it costs a tiny bit of your soul.”
Di Blasi agrees. “You put so much heart and feeling and soul into the making of every album,” he says. “We’re not the kind of people to move straight onto the next record. We need to live with this journey for a while. There’s a tiredness that comes with that. It’s very draining.”
Despite their creative exhaustion, The Avalanches are very much itching to return to live performance. Unfortunately, the many restrictions of 2020 have put pay to their album-touring plans. But they have high hopes for 2021. “We can’t say too much because the future is so uncertain,” says Chater. “We were scheduled to play a lot of festivals and shows this year but that was all put on hold. As soon as we can leave this place, we’ll be doing it.”
“Playing live such a beautiful aspect of what we do,” adds Di Blasi. “We’ll hopefully do our own tour when smaller venues open up next year. Fingers are very much crossed that we’ll be able to perform his record live.”
We Will Always Love You is out December 11. For more information, visit theavalanches.com.
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