In 2009, the Antlers released their devastatingly beautiful album "Hospice." It was frontman Peter Silberman's third album, but the first recorded with Michael Lerner and Darby Cici. It was also the first of their records to garner both attention and critical acclaim.
"Hospice," the musical embodiment of grief and loss, introduced listeners to Silberman's falsetto voice, haunting arrangements and brutally honest lyrics.
"Hospice" also, somewhat unjustly, branded the band with the term "sad." Not to say that the Antlers haven't spent several albums -- "Hospice," "Burst Apart" and "Undersea" -- exploring loss, love, grief and fear. However, it is sloppy to assign them this "catch-all" description. The Antlers are not some early 2000s "emo" band.
Actually, their sound springs from a variety of musical influences. Salon spoke to Silberman about their latest album, "Familiars," the record's relationship to the past, and what critics misunderstand about "Hospice."
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. "Familiars" is out June 17, and several songs can be heard here.
What was the inspiration behind the latest album?
I don’t know if there’s one single inspiration for this record. I think that from a lyrical standpoint a lot of it was – I was trying to capture a period of time that was happening. And trying to kind of describe a, sort of, change in my own way of thinking about things: thinking about life and reevaluating memories. Kind of getting to know myself a lot better, which I think is just a natural part of growing up, is that you have these periods of time where you have to kind of do things with a lot of self-reflection and trying to figure some things out. A lot of the inspiration behind the record for me was asking those questions of myself, and trying to understand the answers. And musically it was about checking in with where we were at as a band, because we’ve been touring for years now and through the process of touring our sound has changed a lot –
Yeah, I noticed ...
When we started out on “Hospice” we hadn’t been a band for very long and I think it gave it – so much of the sound of that record that once we got to a live setting and everybody was kind of manning their stations that there was an openness too. I guess that record was the first time we really made music together or performed music together that we also left open to interpretation and transformation, so there was basically an understanding within the band that these were the songs we were going to go out and play. [They] didn’t need to be re-created exactly as they were on the record. And I think we just didn’t even really have any interest in that; I think that the fun of it for us was working at the kind of basic structures of these songs and saying, “OK, how can we play these in a way where we can feel like we’re putting out our own creativity into them?” and I think that got us on track.
That became a very important thing to us at the time, and as we would record a song and then translate them into a live setting we always needed to feel like they could change and feel like we could turn them into something else on a whim. And I think a lot of that has to do with the way that we record. We will record a song and then wait a little bit and release it, and by the time we have to go out and play shows on it, we just have the stylistic inclinations of where the ideas that we were trying out on a record end up not being the ones we want to use in a live setting.
And I think that maybe leaving it open to change means that we changed as a band, as we were recording the record. We would kind of like hone it down over long periods of time. It’s kind of a long-winded way of saying that by the time we got to making this record, people took – we started to take stock of who we were as a band at this point, what we sound like now after all of this change and reinterpretation, and the way we kind of discovered our individual eclectic styles. I think the goal was to capture some of that – pushing ourselves to the next step.
The Antlers started with you – two albums that you just wrote and recorded by yourself – and then "Hospice" was the first time all of you guys collaborated. What’s the songwriting process? Who comes up with what? Are the lyrics mostly you? How does that process work?
The lyrics are me, and the guitar is me. Everyone’s responsible for their contributions so you can just look at the album credits for anything in the album, and you look at which instruments are credited to each one of us, and you’ll get a sense of how the process works a bit or get a sense of who’s writing what. So for this record, like I said, I was writing vocals and guitar. Michael was writing drums and percussion and Darby was writing horn, keyboard, bass and a couple other things. And the thing is, though, we don’t have one order of operation. But I think typically we usually start with a chord progression or with a riff. And we will come up with those ideas basically from long periods of improvising and recording everything that we improvise and pulling ideas out of that.
And once we’ve got a handful of ideas we’ll start developing them into songs. Usually they start as one idea repeated over and over again that acts like a template for us to try out ideas on top of. So that’s part of the reason a lot of our songs are kind of centered around one musical motif and then there’s a lot of change happening on top of that. Not necessarily all the time, like a verse-chorus kind of structure. And the lyrics are something I’m working throughout the entire process. Sort of my own writing process on the side that I work on incorporating into the music that we’re making.
"Hospice" tackles some deep questions about the human experience, and there's a kind of mythology around it in the media: I’ve read some places that “it’s a metaphor for this,” and others say “no, it’s actually from a cancer ward.” I wanted to know what it’s like to take something so emotional, and then give it up for the audience for interpretation.
It’s pretty weird. It’s not weird on a level of meaning, you know? I think it’s great when someone can apply it to some situation that they are struggling with and it helps them come out or make them feel some kind of camaraderie. That, to me, doesn’t really matter what they think it’s actually about. It’s not really important -- whatever it’s about to them is for them. That is true. That becomes true.
I think the weird part will come from when, you know, let’s say something gets published about the record or the band: “This was inspired by the death of Peter’s friend, and he’s reflecting on it.” And I’ll read that and go, “That’s just not true.” So it can create an awkward situation, I guess. Not like this record isn’t a reflection and not that it’s not about death, but the attempt to pinpoint really specific autobiographical details on it usually result in incorrect information and I think that’s the thing that – I don’t want to say I struggle with, but it’s the unfortunate byproduct of the experience.
But I think that’s also to be expected. People kind of piece together what they want to and you can’t go around correcting people all the time, doesn’t really do a lot of good. But I think that on a fundamental, emotional level, I think it’s been a really positive experience to be able to share that kind of stuff. People are into heavy subject matter.
You know, I think a lot of people are afraid of heavy subject matter and they don’t look to music to kind of confront really dark shit. But there are a lot of people who do use music for that. They need music to speak to the things that they are afraid of or are too overwhelmed to know how to process. I enjoy writing that stuff. It has been a good mental exercise for me, helps me figure out a lot of stuff in my life and it’s definitely put me in a vulnerable position but it’s also an exciting one. Especially when you find that people really relate to that sort of stuff, and it ends up having a kind of reciprocal effect: Where we might make some music and someone might feel at ease by the fact that someone else is experiencing something as difficult as they are. And on the flip side I feel comforted by the fact that someone out there that I don’t even know relates to this weird thing that I’m thinking about. So I don’t know, that’s been the most rewarding part of the whole experience.
It’s very powerful music. You kind of covered this, but when you were talking, my first inclination was to ask: “Isn’t that scary, putting all of that out there?” Is there any part of the process that’s scary – maybe the singing or the performing or maybe just the first time that you let others hear something that’s just so emotional or powerful?
Yeah, it’s weird; it’s definitely weird. (Laughter) But it’s all stuff I’ve gotten used to, I guess. It’s become a part of my reality, definitely not normal but it’s become my version of normal where on a fairly regular basis, I kind of dive deep into whatever the hell is going on in my mind and transform it into music and then share it with total strangers, and get asked a lot of questions about it. And I’ve got to get used to that somehow.
But it’s scary. I think usually the fear that I have is that what I’m saying is not going to make sense. Because I think that’s always the risk you take in putting yourself out there. You know, it’s the equivalent of saying something very revealing in a group of people you don’t know very well, the room kind of falling to a deafening silence. It’s like, “OK, I just weirded everybody out; I I have to go over here now.” So there’s always a worry about that. I’ve come to realize that no matter what kind of experience you’re having, someone else can probably relate to it out there.
And then the new album kind of washes over you and makes you think really deeply. It feels almost like moving through your emotional process.
I think the record has an eventful process, which probably makes the experience of listening to it pretty strange. The thing about this record is that I can only listen to it as myself. I will never, ever be able to hear what it’s like to be someone else listening to this. But what I was trying to get across is the process of, I guess, coming to realize that you’re fixated on the past and what to do about that. How to process that sort of thing, how to free yourself from that. It’s a pretty difficult process.
You come to define yourself by your past, and then you realize that that might actually be responsible for a lot of things that make you unhappy. It’s a way to make yourself unstuck and free yourself from that kind of circular way of thinking. The thing is, I think when you do that, when you stop identifying yourself with your past, it becomes very unclear how to define yourself.
I think that can be a scary place for a lot of people, and at times it’s definitely very scary for me too. But I think it’s also a really good place to start. And part of the takeaway from this record is you can kind of rid yourself of your past and you can actually begin to redefine yourself, or, at least, start form a place where you don’t have this super-established identity or really fixated notion of who you are. Then you can be freer, more liberated, and your expectations of yourself change. You realize that self-imposed limitations, they don’t necessarily have to be there.
It’s kind of about rebirth, in a way, where you kind of say, “OK, the past doesn’t have to define me. The way that I am and the way that I act is a choice that I make, I can start from zero.” It takes some work, it takes forgiving yourself. But I think that process does leave you feeling different on the other side, it makes you feel like you’re waking up or something and that you’ve been in a kind of cycle of history repeating itself. I don’t know, there’s just a looseness that comes into your life once you break your own habit of thinking in a circular way. I would hope that if you’re someone listening to this record you might experience that for yourself or at least the possibility of calling into question things that you know to be true about yourself.
I feel like we’ve been talking a lot about emotions so I’ll ask you something slightly less emotional. Were there any particular musical influences that have driven the Antlers as a band?
We kind of move in phases. I think electronic music definitely was pretty important for making “Burst Apart” and "Undersea." For this record it was a lot of jazz, a lot of soul music, a lot of world music. I think all of that definitely made its way into the sound of this record. A lot of Memphis soul, some Motown, to some extent. I found myself gravitating to older music rather than newer music. As far as new music, I was listening to a lot ambient music while we were working on this and that was probably as far as it went -- mostly with ambient stuff. And then, other than that, I think a lot of Otis Redding, a lot of Al Green, Garnet Mimms. And then on the jazz side, John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane, Miles Davis.
There’s also a lot of late '60s/early '70s folk stuff like Van Morrison, George Harrison, Simon and Garfunkel. And then on the world side: Orchestra Baobab, a lot of Hawaiian music. A lot of Afro-Cuban stuff, a lot a lot of old Southern reggae. It’s just a big melting pot, I guess. A lot of really warm, organic-sounding music, where you can hear the soul in it and feel the soul in it when you’re listening to it. Maybe it's just the age of the tape that it was recorded in compared to this point. The way that that music feels like. It sounds like it couldn’t be made now. That started to feel like a challenge. Not just to re-create old recordings but to try and channel what it’s like to be alive in a time I was never alive during, piece it together from my parents' generation.
Is there anything you’re reading or listening to now in preparation for tour, or just for fun?
Yeah, I’m trying to think of what I’ve been listening to. I was listening to a lot of soul music, getting very into Philadelphia soul right now, Chi-Lites and the Delfonics. Maybe the Chi-Lites are from Chicago. A lot of soul and jazz. Things from that realm. And I’ve been reading a few books, I’ve mostly been reading a lot of Alan Watts, who I would highly recommend to anybody right now. He was writing mostly during the '50s and '60s but I think it’s pretty relevant to what’s happening in the world right now. I think that people, the Internet, and distraction and all of that feels very applicable.
Any specific titles?
I have a collection of his essays called "This Is It." I think that’s a good place to start. He also makes an appearance in that movie "Her." He helps the voice that is Scarlett Johansson’s character. He is uploaded into the main consciousness and helps elevate to higher level towards the end, which I was very excited about at the time because I happened to be reading him.