Jewcy Interviews: The Antlers
We talk with Peter Silberman of The Antlers about the band’s new album, “Burst Apart,” and the chance of the band getting an on-stage dancer. Read More
[Note: This interview was done in conjunction with the Noise Pop Podcast. The audio from this interview can be found here.]
Peter Silberman has a nice Jewish boy’s face but with two strikingly blue and unintentionally sad eyes that have seemingly underwritten the discussion of his band, The Antlers, since the 2009 release of their emotionally wrought breakthrough, Hospice. That album tells the story of the relationship between a terminally ill patient and her hospice nurse as a metaphor for an abusive relationship. The affecting narrative performed by Silberman’s haunting vocals and a crescendo-laden instrumentation struck a chord with many listeners. As the band grew more popular, the story and its partially autobiographical nature started to get away from them, morphing into one of indie rock’s great mythologies.
As it grew increasingly hard to separate the story from the band members, The Antlers started working on a new album. “It began to feel like we were being pigeonholed as a ‘sad band,’” Silberman says, “but we’re not particularly sad people. We have a lot of different feelings about things. There’s a whole spectrum of emotion to explore and I think that’s what we were trying to do on this record.” That album, Burst Apart, is not exactly bubblegum but it’s definitely an easier and more varied listen. Still beautifully composed, it is a display of how much the band has grown and what could be expected from them going forward.
I recently talked to Peter about the new album, the evolution of their sound, and a possible back-up dancer for their live shows.
Jesse: This record was made in a much different environment than Hospice. It was done in a traditional studio, in less time, with a label, with more expectations. How do you think this environment might have shaped its sound?
Peter: Yeah, I think the place that we recorded the album definitely had a lot to do with it. Hospice was done in my bedroom basically, with one microphone. This wasn’t exactly a traditional studio, we moved into a studio share and recorded it ourselves, but it definitely had a very comfortable aspect to it. A lot of the time when you go into a studio there are a lot of studio staff there; the engineer, maybe the second engineer, the producer, the mixing people. It was very much the three of us and we made it ourselves. It has this homemade quality to it but with better equipment at our disposal.
You’ve mentioned a desire not to make another Hospice. Were there certain facets of Hospice sonically that you explicitly said, “We are not going to do this again?”
No, I don’t think there was anything we wanted to turn our backs on musically from Hospice. That album sounded a certain way, washier and it was more about crescendos and epic moments. We wanted to make a record that sounded different. Not because we didn’t like anything on Hospice but more to try something new.
How did moving a way from a narrative open you guys up as songwriters both lyrically and sonically?
I didn’t want to do another story for a record because part of me felt like if I did that again, I would have to on all The Antlers’ records from here on out. Also, the way I wanted to write songs was not as narratives anymore.
The record does feel like a story to some degree. It has a beginning, middle, and end but it’s less overt in that way. I wanted to make a record with some balance. I felt like singing in a way that was working with the music, not like the music was working with the singing. Nothing was trying to overpower anything else. It was supposed to be music and vocals in harmony with one another.
It reminded me of Matt Berniger of The National’s lyrics in this way. You opened for them last year. Did you guys get a chance to talk about writing lyrics?
No, most of the time when bands go on tour together they rarely talk about actually making music. It seems kind of weird. My experience has been that most of the time bands on tour are thinking less about music and more about staying sane on the road – every day things.
I was watching them every night that we played. I already knew their music really well but to see them like that, to really see their whole set, which was close to two hours, I’m sure we all picked up things. If nothing else, it was something to aspire to as far as being a band that really delivers every night. They sounded amazing with everybody locked in. But it sounded natural and it sounded human. That was a quality that we wanted to bring to this record that it sounded like a band, like people playing music. There are different ways you can go when making a record, it can sound more computerized or pieced together, we wanted to make something that sounded like people.
Did you write the songs with the consideration that you would be touring on this record?
Yeah, it was made with the knowledge that we were going to be playing these songs a million times. It was about making music that we wanted to play, meaning songs that we could get into, stretch out and change over time. This was a big part with touring on Hospice that we changed the songs over time. We decided that some things worked better than others. Sometimes, the songs would change drastically from the way they were recorded. We wanted the freedom to do that with this too.
Vocally, for me, it became less about memorizing lyrics, which is something I’m pretty bad at. Hospice had a lot of lyrics. I wanted to focus on singing and as far lyrics, writing them more concisely as opposed to needing that many to get a point across.
Your voice has always been such a big part of The Antlers sounds and it seems like on this record you intentionally gave a bit more room. It’s like another instrument in the trio. Do you feel you’ve grown as a singer since the Antlers project started?
Yeah. I had no idea what I was doing when The Antlers started. I was de facto singer basically. I wanted to record and write songs, I didn’t really have any interest in singing. I didn’t want to make instrumental music so I was like I’ll sing. As the band came together, I was suddenly a front man. Touring on it so long made my voice change a lot, it became stronger. I also had to learn how to take care of it better. By the time we came in to record Burst Apart, I felt like I was a totally different singer than I was when we recorded Hospice.
Can we talk briefly about “Putting The Dog to Sleep” It immediately blew me away. It has this morose title and then you listen to it and it is this touching and sad basically soul song. Can you tell me about the process behind it?
That song came about on one of our first tours on Hospice. The time was about two years ago and we were on tour with Au Revoir Simone. We were traveling across the country and we had a rental van that had a Sirius radio in it. We were listening to the Soultown station the whole tour and were like, “every song on here is great.” We had it on that whole time. That song started getting written around that time, when we were really into all these old soul songs.
It was a slow to be written song because it took us a long time to actually get in and start recording a record. We didn’t do that for another year and change later. Musically that’s where that song came from, that period of time. Now, we still listen to that kind of music and we still hold it very close to our hearts.
Lyrically, I have come to think of the phrase “putting the dog to sleep” not as literally putting a dog to sleep, which is an extremely depressing thing, but as putting a matter to rest, closing the book on something. I think to some degree that’s what Burst Apart is about, moving on from something.
In addition to “Putting the Dog to Sleep’s” soul influence, there are a few examples on the album of genre songs: “French Exit” has a large dance music undercurrent and “Every night my teeth are falling out” has this really cool bossa nova feel. Was this intentional on your part or was it just something that came out of playing with the songs while recording?
I find myself really influenced by the music that I’m listening to. I’m pretty much constantly listening to music. Especially, when I’m home and not on tour, there’s always music playing that seeps into the way I end up writing songs. So I was listening to a lot of soul music, electronic music, and George Harrison playing guitar on late Beatles stuff. Those were all working their way into the record and ended up as these kind of genre songs or at least an emulsion of that.
You spoke about how the band bonded over electronic music and you spoke about how you wanted this album to feel more like a cohesive band. Can you talk about the push and pull between the prerecorded nature of electronic music and instantaneousness of making it feel like a live band?
To some degree I think of this record as an electronic record. But, a lot of electronic records are very sterile, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just a quality the music has, as it’s not supposed to feel human all the time. We wanted to make something that sounded like a human electronic record. The way that ended up happening was letting these almost synth textures work their way into the record like they hadn’t been on Hospice. Even though all the drums were played live, they were molded to have an electronic sound. Part of it was all of us playing these parts; nothing was preprogrammed, which ends up adding to the human quality of it.
It was also about taking how electronic songs have this movement where they are just driving forward. They don’t have a typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure all the time. Sometimes they just go and we wanted to try that as a band of guitar, keyboards, synths and drums. See if we could work that into our sound in a natural way that would sound like people, like musicians playing this stuff opposed to something programmed or pieced together.
As you said, what you listen to ends up getting incorporated into your songwriting. Do you have any influences that are embarrassing or not “cool?” Maybe Mariah Carey or Dave Matthews Band, something your fans would not really expect.
Hahaha. I don’t know, the Grateful Dead? I still think the Grateful Dead are pretty cool but some people really hate them. They would be one.
To some degree, I think old 90’s slow jams. It’s all around right now in a weird way. I don’t know if we are coming full circle but there are a lot of bands doing the slow jams sound. Making songs a little bit slower than you’d expect, to let them breathe a little bit more and have a better flow, is sort of a technique. I guess it worked its way in.
Speaking of genre, the first time I saw you guys live, you played Hospice all the way through in order. I immediately thought, “This could make a really beautiful and unique opera.” Have you ever thought about turning it into a stage show?
We’ve been approached by a couple people wanting to turn it into a production. Somebody wanted to turn it into a stage show and a couple people wanted to turn it into a movie. But I felt weird about it because I’m really sensitive about exploiting Hospice or the story behind it. Promoting it as much as we did, didn’t trivialize it exactly, but it started to feel a bit manipulative to me. Especially, with all the imagery around it and the fact that people were focusing so heavily on a terminally ill person, sometimes I think people are missing the point that the record is metaphor. It was really a record about a relationship not about losing a loved one. At the time, something came up to accentuate death and it made me kind of uncomfortable.
So, I don’t think that that would happen.
Last question. On a lighter note, when preparing for this interview I stumbled upon another Peter Silberman. He is a music theory professor at Ithaca College and French horn player. Do you know this guy?
I don’t. If we ever need a French Horn player he is definitely first on the list now. Just for the sake of confusing people. There is also a character from all the Terminator movies named Dr. Peter Silberman, spelled exactly the same way. I would like to get him involved some how.
Maybe a concept album about a future dystopia?
Yeah. Remember, how the Mighty Mighty Bosstones had that dancing guy?
Well he can be our dancing guy.
It’s perfect. Call him up…
“We have an amazing opportunity for you”
It’s exactly what he’s been waiting for, someone to start an indie rock band with his character’s name.
Yeah, his ship has come in.
(Photo by Shervin Lainez)