Features

The Avalanches Are Operating From The Heart, Not The Head

The Avalanches – today the mythic Melbourne duo of Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi – have returned with one of the year’s best albums in We Will Always Love You (WWALY). The set captures the zeitgeist with its macro themes of love, life, the universe, and lost and found.

Then a collective with another key player in Darren Seltmann, The Avalanches furthered the plunderphonics aesthetic, straddling hip-hop and dance music from the late ’90s. In 2000 they presented their cult debut, Since I Left You. The Avalanches emerged as Australia’s most critically-acclaimed act globally – opening the door for their Modular labelmates Tame Impala. The group subsequently all but vanished, members like Seltmann drifting away as Robbie and Tony succumbed to stasis amid impossible expectations. Following “a quasi-magical quest,” The Avalanches mounted a triumphant comeback with 2016’s sunny, carefree and nostalgically maximalist Wildflower – this time joined by a Gorillaz-scale cast of vocalists, among them the late Silver Jews frontman David Berman. The DJ/producer/musos toured solidly with a live band, rocking Coachella.

Arriving two decades after Since I Left You, WWALY is The Avalanches’ boldest work yet – traversing gospel, champagne soul, neo-psychedelia, space disco, dream-pop, trip-hop and modish hauntology. WWALY has the epochal ambition of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But The Avalanches’ childlike eccentricity now co-exists with worldly contemplation. The pair were inspired by the story behind NASA’s Voyager Golden Record, a depository of human civilisation including music selections (cue: Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B Goode’) attached to twin Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977. The American astrophysicist Carl Sagan, the project’s supervisor, simultaneously fell in love with the creative director, Ann Druyan, who recorded her brainwaves for the disc.

WWALY challenges the notion that popular culture is ephemeral, The Avalanches enthralled by how music outlives its creators – or “the vibrational relationship between light, sound and spirit.” However, the album is also about personal journeys, Chater recently revealing a history of alcohol use disorder that started in his teens. Somehow, The Avalanches have manifested an album with a metaphysical dimension that feels communal, optimistic and euphoric in its melancholy, contrasting the solitary and often nihilistic tone of contemporary trap, avant-soul and electro-pop. Even The Avalanches’ ghostly disco is liberating and transcendent.

The Avalanches liaised closely with Andrew Szekeres from the Midnight Juggernauts – the Melbourne cosmic disco goth band ostensibly on hiatus. The intergenerational (and integrated) curation of WWALY, too, is symbolic, with names such as MGMT, The Clash’s Mick Jones, Sananda Maitreya (formerly Terence Trent D’Arby), Tricky, Denzel Curry, Sampa The Great, Karen O, and Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo. Crucially, The Avalanches were guided by instinct and mutual connection, rather than clout. The crate-diggers are still using samples (‘Interstellar Love’, with Texan soulster Leon Bridges, re-contextualises The Alan Parsons Project’s prog classic ‘Eye In The Sky’). But WWALY has supplementary instrumental input from The Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr, Warp Records’ Kelly Moran, and John Carroll Kirby (like Szekeres, the Los Angeles jazz musician an associate of Solange’s), plus a Melbourne children’s choir. Jamie xx assisted on the anthemic ‘Wherever You Go’, with Neneh Cherry, Sydney tropical popster CLYPSO, and sampled greetings to extraterrestrials off The Voyager Golden Record.

The roll-out for The Avalanches’ third outing commenced in February with the transmission of the title-track – featuring Blood Orange (aka Dev Hynes) and prompted by a line from The Roches’ ’70s folk-rock ‘Hammond Song’.

We spoke to a cheerful Robbie and Tony on release day – The Avalanches joking about dealing with scam phone calls as well as interviews. Coincidentally, Taylor Swift has just surprise dropped evermore and, in fact, The Avalanches are fans of her indie-folk era. (If offered a remix, the two chime that they’d both be “up for it,” Robbie adding, “it’d be fun.”)

Already WWALY has received strong reviews from the likes of Pitchfork (and props from The Chemical Brothers’ Ed Simons). This Saturday, The Avalanches will DJ a unique livestream launch party in conjunction with a screening of Jonathan Zawada’s companion film Carrier Waves.

Music Feeds: I keep thinking about how it’s 20 years since your debut, Since I Left You, but now you’ve delivered your definitive work so far in We Will Always Love You. You must feel good about the vibe. Are you getting a good response?

Robbie: Yeah, it’s been really, really lovely, actually… When you make music based on feeling, you’re just never sure if people will be in the right mood on that particular day to connect with it or whatever, but it seems like people are. So we’re really grateful.

MF: The story behind the record really intrigued me. I found myself going down endless Wiki links and reading about The Voyager Golden Record and Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan. How did you actually latch onto this and develop that into your own interstellar concept?

Robbie: It began with [us] being a little older and reflecting personally on mortality and who we are as people, and also on our own history as sample-based artists and thinking about sampling; how we sample often records from the ’30s or the ’40s and we’ll be using a performance or a voice of a musician who’s long since passed…

Tony and I, I guess we’ve both been on a wild journey through life. We’ve grown a lot as people and also grown together. Tone’s been with me through thick and thin. We’ve both just changed and grown. Consider we were kids when Since I Left You came out. So [WWALY] began this personal reflection and introspection. But, then, that very personal internal journey often makes you also think about the grander scale of things and the cosmos and our own place in it and concepts of like, “Well, what are we made of, really? – and all these atoms and energy that we’re made of, and what’s our place in the grand scheme of energy in the universe?”

So we were thinking about all that kind of stuff. Then, as we delved deeper into the album, we came across the beautiful story of Ann and Carl and how they met while they were compiling The Voyager Golden Record for NASA – I mean, I’m a hopeless romantic, anyway. [But] when we heard that story, I was just like, “That is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.” It became something to solidify the themes that we were exploring. It’s just they all fell into place around Ann’s beautiful story and how she fell in love with Carl while they were compiling that Golden disc.

MF: I know that you approached Ann to possibly do some spoken recordings for this album, interviewing her. She pulled out at the last minute, but allowed you to use the image of her on the cover. Do you have any idea why she did that? She is quite an enigmatic figure.

Robbie: I don’t know!

Tony: I have a feeling that she Googled us and saw our 1998 Recovery performance and that freaked her out!

Robbie: Yeah, look, we never found out why. The studio was actually booked. She was in LA and I was up in the middle of the night, ready to do the session remotely. But I kind of assumed – well, perhaps it’s just too personal. I mean, it’s her husband and he’s passed away… I just felt it wasn’t my place to even ask why. We just felt so grateful that her story even existed and that it had inspired us in such a way… It didn’t really matter to me why. And, then, by the end of the process, our art director Jonathan Zawada had the idea of using her image for the front cover. She was kind enough to give us permission to do that. So it felt like things came full circle by the time we got to the end of the album. It all worked out beautifully in the end.

MF: Have you sent her a copy?

Robbie: Not yet, no. We haven’t sent anyone copies. The copies are just arriving, as we speak. There was a mad scramble here to get the vinyl pressed up in Czechoslovakia, of all places, because all the vinyl pressing plants had closed down due to the pandemic and everything.

MF: The Voyager Golden Record is intriguing in itself. What song of yours would you put on there if they did another? If they said, “Hey, you guys are perfect for this extraterrestrial time capsule.”

Robbie: It would have to be ‘Since I Left You I Found The World So New’, wouldn’t it?

Tony: Yeah, that’s not a bad song, but I’d probably put ‘Reflecting Light’ [with Sananda Maitreya and a sampled Vashti Bunyan] on there.

Robbie: Ah, yeah!

MF: Wildflower now seems like a transitional album; WWALY is you creating a new space. It still sounds like The Avalanches. The samples are there, but they’re more textural and less part of the actual composition. But it also feels like a body of work. And it doesn’t sound in any way like it had that long gestation period. What did you learn from Wildflower that you applied to this – just the experience of getting that out there after so many years?

Tony: Well, I think we’d both come through some quite dark times during the making of Wildflower. It was only by unburdening ourselves of a lot of pressure, expectation, but also just a lot of baggage in our own minds, that we were able to even release Wildflower. We started the journey of this record at that level. So, creatively, we did feel a lot freer. And, just in the making of Wildflower, there’s three or four songs that were from a demo CD Robbie made in 2000 – so it still was quite old in that fashion.

I remember hearing ‘Frankie Sinatra’ on Apple Music and just thinking, “God, it sounds so soft and muddy compared to everything else!” So there was definitely a conscious decision to make this new record fit more in line with the new world in how everything sounds. Obviously, we worked with our friend Andrew Szekeres, who’s an amazing songwriter and musician, to help us compose – and getting in all these amazing collaborators helped us to not get caught up in our own little world and get it all done a bit quicker. A lot quicker!

Robbie: We learnt so much – both about ourselves as people and about ourselves as musicians. Our friendship really grew and deepened over that 16 years – and that’s almost like a story, really, for me. You know, when you go through an experience like that with someone, there’s no words to describe the bond it forms. It was very significant in that way.

I think, as a musician, I learnt so much about myself – especially because Since I Left You just came out in a pure flow of energy and joy to be alive. I remember being surprised at how successful it was and then thinking to myself – and I was very naive – “Well, I didn’t even really try when we were making that! That was kinda easy. So, if I really, really try, it’ll be a lot better!” (Tony laughs).

And then I learnt the fucking hard way some big lessons about my own creativity, and the flow of creative energy, and that it’s got nothing to do with intellect or effort. It’s the place it comes from that matters. The journey of Wildflower was almost about a journey to return to that place of just operating from the heart and not the head. Our intellect as humans is useful for doing the shopping or fucking driving a car or fixing a car, but it’s useless for me in terms of making art – like I need to turn off my thinking brain and just work from a place of intuition and flow. So that was the journey of Wildflower.

Once we’d completed that record – and it obviously was another very, very dense, sample-heavy record like Since I Left You – I think we just felt, “We’ve done that twice” and we felt very, very free to go anywhere we wanted. So this record flowed extremely quickly. Working with Andy was a beautiful burst of fresh energy as well.

We just said to each other, “Look, what if we did make another purely sample record like the first two? Even if it’s amazing, people will start to be like, ‘I know what I’m going to get from those guys.'” Our favourite artists like [David] Bowie or whoever, you never knew what his next record was gonna sound like. He went to Berlin and made big left turns – and I really admired that.

Tony: That’s such an important thing for us. I think we’d rather just give up than keep going through the motions of doing the same thing over and over again. It doesn’t feel interesting. I hate the idea of people feeling like they know what they’re gonna get out of you. I feel like so many bands just hit on a sound and get successful with that – and that’s all they’ll do. Even if it’s great record after great record, at some point it loses its excitement. We’re all about just trying to give people those “wow” moments that we love when we hear music that’s fresh or something like that and it excites us. We’re trying to create that for other people as well.

MF: Another thing that intrigued me about WWALY was the curation – the vocalists, the songwriters, you worked with. You have three Black auteurs who are slept-on in terms of their influence: Sananda Maitreya, Tricky and Neneh Cherry. So this record is an intergenerational reintroduction to audiences. But how did you go about finding the right artists for the songs? Because, knowing you guys, it was organic and not calculated like the ‘feature’ mindset. What was that process?

Robbie: Tony was almost like the gatekeeper, in a way… I would throw ideas at [him], but… Maybe you should answer this question, Tone?

Tony: You’re completely right that it wasn’t just a feature list that we had and then would try and send a song to the artist… Each artist was thought about after – so you’d have the sketch of the song, we’d sit there and listen to it and then we would think, “Whose voice would be really cool for this? Whose voice would suit? What tone would suit?” We’d sample a Tricky track and put that over the initial sketch of our song and see if the tone and everything would suit. So we did it that way. Yeah, it wasn’t just like, “Let’s see who’s the biggest artist we can get” or whoever we want. It was very much on a song-by-song basis.

MF: Sananda has the most beautiful voice. Were you actually old fans of his? Because when his Neither Fish Nor Flesh record came out, there was so much antagonism. But now when I listen to it, he invented that progressive R&B that Frank Ocean has maybe done. It’s really ahead of its time. I wondered generally if you were fans of these artists or if they were people who just came to mind – “That’s the voice we want?”

Robbie: Of course, everybody knows Sananda’s earlier work in his previous iteration – his previous career or life or whatever you want to call it. In the case of Tricky, we did have a listen to his debut album [Maxinquaye], and the sampling on that, and that was incredibly inspiring to us. So these people are part of our history as well – on an energetic level, they’re meaningful to us as artists and they’ve contributed to who we are today; before we even reached out to them. In a similar way, Mick Jones and his work with Big Audio Dynamite – there’s some of the coolest earliest sample music we ever heard, and that was inspiring to us. To us, he’s not Mick Jones from The Clash, he’s Mick Jones from Big Audio Dynamite.

MF: You also have a couple of local talents on this record. CLYPSO has an early Avalanches feel – her music is very fresh, disruptive and post-genre. And Sampa The Great and Denzel Curry have a link, so I’m not sure if that was critical. But what was their participation in this project?

Tony: Yeah, we’d had a little bit of contact with CLYPSO. We got back just some rough demo-ey ideas from her. Then I think she was gonna be down in Melbourne for a show, so we ended up going into a studio with her. She’s just the sweetest, absolutely most lovely kid, [we] really love her – such a great fresh, young energy, and that’s always so good to be around for us. So we ended up just spending the day with her and recording – and [‘Wherever You Go’ is] what came out of that.

And, with Sampa, we’d been spending a little bit of time with Sensible J – who produces a lot of her stuff and REMI. He’d been playing her to us. We actually performed with her at the Vivid [LIVE] shows we did in 2017. She was someone who we loved her voice and just her content. She’s just an amazing rapper – she really is completely world-class. So she was someone we really wanted to get on a track.

MF: Just going back a bit – you mentioned Andrew being one of the people you worked with. I’ve been wondering what Midnight Juggernauts have been up to; they’ve become the new Avalanches, “Where are they, what are they doing?” I know Andy did the Sanctuary Lakes project with one of Cut Copy. What was his role in the record? Did you know each other from around the scene?

Tony: Yeah, we’ve known Andy for years. When The Juggernauts were touring, I’m sure we might have DJed at things that they played at. We’re friends with a lot of the guys from Cut Copy. There’s a group of us in Melbourne where we’re all quite good friends. So we’ve known him for years. And he just helped so much; he’s such an amazing songwriter. It was like a big burst of fresh energy coming into the band. I mean, it’d been Robbie and I for so long – it was so good to just work with someone else. I feel like we bonded really well musically. It’s good to meet someone who was kind of like just one of us, as far as musically.

MF: It’s such a difficult time to release music at the moment, with the impact of COVID-19. Given that you are rolling out WWALY in this period, what are your tour plans for next year? You could probably get back to the Australian circuit now?

Robbie: Yeah, it’s what we live for and what we love, so it’s obviously at the forefront of our minds. We’re just working through it at the moment: how can we play, where can we play, is it possible from a public health perspective – and say you can only half fill a venue, can you break even? I mean, it’s so complicated. Or say we wanted to announce a tour now for March or April and the venues were socially-distanced, but then we get there and there’s a vaccine and you can fill the venue – how do you deal with the tickets you’ve already sold at a certain price, thinking it was going to be half full? It’s so complicated. I really feel for every musician in the industry worldwide, because it’s how we pay the rent. It’s just really tough. [Live music] will probably be one of the last things to fully return. So all musicians are kinda doing what we’re doing, I think, and just trying to work through it as best they can.

MF: You’ve had interesting projects along the way – even the infamous King Kong musical, which I hope leaks one day. This year you remixed DMA’s’ ‘Criminals‘. Are there any little things that you might be working on that you can hint at?

Robbie: There’s always stuff bubbling around but, really, this year’s just been about getting this record done and getting it out. It’s so difficult to get a record out at the moment – so that’s taken all our time. And then doing the NASA collaboration and a few things like that with the International Space Orchestra [the Zoom performance of ‘Wherever You Go’] – that’s sort of been the year for us. So I’m now trying to take a breath and just think about what’s next. We’d love to do some film soundtrack stuff.

MF: You’ve got a livestreamed DJ set coming up on Saturday…

Tony: Yeah, so it’s going to be a live stream of us on the Cookie [Melbourne’s Curtin House] rooftop. It was meant to be at sunset but, unfortunately due to Melbourne’s unpredictable weather, that got rained out, so it ended up being a sunrise event. It’s shot amazingly and with drone footage and it’s going to look incredible. It’s also gonna have bits of the Jonathan Zawada-made film [Carrier Waves] kind of inter-layered in the performance as well. So it’s just a big celebration of the record and the songs we love and that inspired us to make this record.

Today, The Avalanches announced a live show at Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl for April 2021. Tickets are available in groups of 2, 4 and 6. Then, there’s three categories for the show: private decks, stall tables, and balcony seats. Tickets will go on sale Monday, 21st December at 12pm AEDT from here.

‘We Will Always Love You’ is out now. 

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