By Katherine Flynn of Consequence of Sound.
The Antlers, up until this point, have specialized in music for crisis scenarios. Vehicular accidents, dying pets, terminal cancer, and the ghost of Sylvia Plath were the specters that haunted 2009’s Hospice and its follow-up, 2011’s Burst Apart, and it was sometimes hard to understand why anyone who wasn’t already carrying a heavy emotional burden would want to take a dive into those sad, murky waters. While Hospice and Burst Apart had some sonic differences, they were both, at their heart, albums about devastating loss. According to singer Peter Silberman, there was no such thing as too much catharsis during this period of the band’s output.
With this summer’s release of Familiars, though, the Antlers have turned a new leaf. It’s not so much that they’ve become less preoccupied with the heavy topics that drove their previous two releases (and 2012’s mini-LP, Undersea); rather, they’ve resolved to excavate those themes in a much gentler, more optimistic way. The album sounds like nothing else released this year – it is jazzy and slow, expansive and intimate. The tracks seamlessly slide into one another, creating an enveloping dream world that’s hard to escape from. I find that notes from the mournful horn solos or snippets of Silberman’s vocals have crept into my consciousness, popping up at unexpected moments throughout the day and demanding repeat listens. And while Familiars is still no walk in the park, it’s perhaps an album that the less emotionally traumatized among us can appreciate, too, if only for the stunning musicianship and Silberman’s soothing croon.
The Antlers are currently on the tail end of a national tour in support of Familiars. I spoke with Silberman in Auburn, Alabama (home of multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci’s parents) right before they hit the road for a gig at Atlanta’s Masquerade. He recommends bringing Kleenex and a friend to the band’s live show. “It’s a big night of intense feelings,” he says. I tell him that I plan on bringing both to the band’s 9:30 Club show on Friday, and confess that my friend and I might be the drunk ones in the back that everyone else is telling to shut up.
“Well,” Silberman responds. “It wouldn’t be a show without that.”
The first thing that I really noticed about Familiars is that your voice sounds very different. What changed?
Early on in the process of working on this record, I just decided that I wanted to get to know my real voice for the first time. I had spent years trying to mask it or trying to sing in ways that don’t naturally sound like me. Singing in a lot of falsetto is kind of an example of that. This time around, I was much more interested in just exploring what my – I don’t know, I guess the range of where I speak. I wanted to explore what that range is like if I sing it. I started practicing that a lot – just kinda singing for fun, more than I ever had before. The way that I used to write vocal parts is that I would kind of wait until the last minute to track everything, or even to try things out. With Hospice I recorded all of those vocal parts in two or three days at the very end, and Burst Apart was kind of the same thing. This time I tried to work on the vocals from the very beginning, and get really comfortable with them throughout the process. It just made everything sound a bit different vocally. I remember once I started tracking demo versions of my vocals that I noticed that my voice sounded different, and I was kind of surprised to hear the way that it sounded. It was definitely even a bit shocking to me.
I was reading an interview where you mentioned that the second-to-last song on an album is usually your favorite. On this album, that’s “Surrender.” What was it about that song that you liked so much?
That song just encapsulates what I think the record’s about – what the point of it is in a lot of ways. It’s kind of happening on a few levels, but you start with the first refrain: “We have to make our history less demanding.” If you can wrap your head around that line, it really makes the rest of the record make sense. It’s really what everything else is pointing towards – it’s about our relationship to the past. In my head, while I was working on the lyrics to that song, I was thinking of it being sung by this spirit; not necessarily being sung by me, but being sung by this spirit figure that’s kind of an amorphous, otherworldly character – this kind of wisdom from above.
But in a weird way, I feel like that song brings everything down to earth. It’s very much about relationships. It’s about friendships. An idea that I’ve been trying to explore with this record has been trying to understand for myself how to forgive people and how to make peace with them. And it can be really difficult if you have a complicated past with somebody, and I think probably all of us have a messy past with somebody in our lives – someone we either had held a long grudge against, or just had issues with. Ultimately, that has something to do with your present relationship being ruined by what happened in the past. I came to this realization that in that position, the only choice you really have is to do kind of what I’m saying, which is to make your history less demanding – to sort of drop that story that’s been following you around. That’s the only hope you have of reconciliation.
At the same time, I realized that it was sort of this advice I was giving myself, but it was also an observation about what we tend to naturally do as people, in not such a good way all the time. It’s a natural human tendency to rewrite our history and our past to make them more palatable for ourselves, because we can’t really deal with the truth a lot of the time. Our brains need to create something more pleasant to live with. It’s kind of political in that way too, in that a lot of countries with really bloody, ugly histories kind of gloss over them in order to carry on. It’s a weird thing that we do.
You’ve talked about the idea of the “familiar” as being two sides of the same person – so, looking at your own life and your own past from that perspective, did you learn anything new about yourself or your relationship to the past while recording this album?
Yeah, absolutely. I think I learned a lot about the way that I characterize periods of time in my life. It’s especially easy to do this when you write a record about a period of time in your life; it sort of solidifies your perspective on things. I found my feelings about that changing. I think through the process of making this record, I got a bit of a clearer picture on these memories that I sort of categorized, or that I sort of made judgments about a period of time that I maybe didn’t have a clear perspective on until I was a few years out.
But I think the record was definitely helpful in me understanding myself a bit better, and also detecting places in my memory where I’m holding onto these idealized, perfect times that were by no means perfect. I’m not really trying to scour my memory and say, like, “Oh, what can I be sad about? What can I be down about in the past?” I’m trying to get a more accurate picture of what things were like.
Our memories are rarely accurate. They’re this constant reconstruction based on collective instances that we carry with us. I feel like you have a sort of inaccurate idea of who you are and what your life has been like and how to feel about things and people. I wanted to undo that story for myself, if only to kind of double-check it. And say, “OK, is that really what happened?”
That’s really challenging, and I think it’s something that a lot of people don’t make the effort to do.
Sure. It’s not really something that just happens. It’s an active choice to say, “I’m going to re-approach my life and see if I really have a clear understanding of how things have gone so far.” I think it’s really helpful – especially if you’re ever feeling kind of stuck in your life, and you’re in this holding pattern – to go back and kind of tease apart these assumptions you have about the way things are. It’s liberating.
You guys have talked about how after Hospice came out, so many people wanted to share their own personal stories about cancer with you. Did you have any kind of audience in mind when you were writing Familiars?
I thought about it. I tried to be very real with myself and not ignore the fact that people would be hearing this record and that we would be going out and delivering performances, so I had that in mind. I had this idea of direct connection to people that I would be staring at every night. But at the same time, I would veer from that, because when you start thinking about talking to a crowd it feels – it can feel very, I don’t think “propaganda” is the right word, but it can feel like you’re giving a speech or something, and that’s not really my thing. I don’t really like the idea of getting in front of a crowd and stating a position. So, I would kind of back away from that and try to think about a direct connection to another single person. Usually that’s just friends – like a very close friend or someone I’ve fallen out of touch with, trying to make it a very conversational record where I’m trying to just give to one person some of these ideas that I think have become important.
Have any of your ideas about the album changed or solidified since you finished recording it, or have you made any new discoveries about what you think you’re trying to say?
In some ways, I feel like I understand it less than I did when we were making it. It was a very obsessive work for us and we were very much inside it while we were making it, and I think having a little bit of space from it has changed the way that I think about it. I’m seeing it less as a narrative now, and I’m trying to just understand the ideas behind it and the sort of philosophy behind it.
Is there anything you love about being on the road?
There’s lots of things I love. I like the adventure aspect of it. I like the exploration. When I was a kid, I dreamed of getting to drive across the country. I thought that I would maybe get to do that once in my life, and I’ve done it, like, 7 or 8 or 9 times now. There’s something pretty amazing about driving straight across America. It’s a pretty massive country, and parts of it are really beautiful. I really like that.
It’s cool meeting lots of people I don’t know at these shows and getting to put a face on these people that are actually listening to the music. When we’re recording or just being at home, there’s kind of a disconnect in that way. It feels sort of like creating in a vacuum, and when you go out to some city in the middle of the country and there’s a bunch of kids who have this intense connection to this thing that we’ve made, it’s really grounding, and it’s encouraging, too. I also really love getting to see friends that are scattered throughout the country – I guess kind of scattered throughout the world at this point. It’s nice to get to see all of them while we’re passing through, even if it’s just for a little bit.
Is there anything that you absolutely hate about it?
I think food can be difficult. The way that our schedule works a lot of the time is that we have very long drives, and there’s just not really time to make a real meal. So, we’ll go an entire day without really eating – and it just kind of fucks up your whole system. But, you know, we’ve gotten better at figuring out how to make it work.
I think probably the worst part about it is the way it just kind of zaps your energy – by the end of the tour, I’m usually pretty drained. It takes me a few days to recover from it. So, that kind of stuff – I don’t know that I absolutely hate it, but I think it is just a challenge.