Not awake yet
Nov 19, 2012
In 2011 The Antlers' Burst Apart was one of the indie records to name drop. It was an outpouring of emotion so expressive and gut-wrenchingly gorgeous that it exposed the sensitive underbelly of a thousand hipsters' collective psyche as well as resonating with the 21st century's spiritual beatniks. On both sides of the Atlantic there was effusive praise across the world of music press.
Chronological and spiritual follow-up EP Undersea has continued the band's near-perfect record for universal acclaim. Singer/guitarist Peter Silberman spoke to Under the Radar about the EP, the band's career trajectory, ambition, acclaim, and why he still doesn't think they're cool.
Dan Lucas (Under the Radar): It feels to me as though Hospice and Burst Apart took us on a real emotional journey, from the specific chaos on the former to a more universal melancholy on the latter, and now you've described Undersea as the feeling of "treading water, backstroking into the future": would you say that I'm right in feeling that with this feeling of drifting out to sea it closes the journey?
Peter Silberman: I don't know, I think my intent behind it was to write about something completely different than I had done before. Hospice and Burst Apart were definitely connected in a lot of ways, and they're definitely two records that are related to each other. Hospice is, y'know, what Hospice is, it destroys you. Then Burst Apart is about the emotional fallout from that, the person you can become from experiencing those things and becoming sceptical of other people's motives, expecting people, I don't know, in future relationships to be like those characters described in Hospice.... For me, Burst Apart felt like a record about mistrust. Undersea, though, I feel is like starting something new. The intent was to write something a bit outside of myself. I felt like the last two records were really inward looking whereas Undersea is a different kind of personal.
The feeling I got from Undersea was that it was a kind of "coming down to earth" thing, starting again. There's the water imagery in the title and the classical links between water and birth in literature, almost as if this was a rebirth record?
Yeah I think it kinda is, certainly. It's funny, because my idea of what everything we work on means changes as time goes on and we get further away from the creative part of it. We made this record back in January, February and since then I think I've changed my mind about what it's about a bunch of times. You don't always know while you're making something, because you're just trying to be very expressive and be honest with the way you feel and you sometimes don't have time to reflect on it. I think it isn't always as premeditated as someone might think, and I find with time I get a little more perspective on it.
For me Undersea takes this idea of a flood, it begins with that, and to some extent it washes the past away. In my head it was washing away Hospice and Burst Apart, imagining "what could happen to make those things unimportant?" I don't want to dismiss them at all, because they're records I deeply care about, but at some point you need to be honest with yourself and ask, "How long am I going to stay stuck in the past with these things that were difficult?" At the time [of recording Undersea] I just wanted some distance from it, I felt way too close to that whole thing and wondered what it would be like if I wrote about something completely different. It was very freeing.
You've said that you feel in a good place right now and ready to record the next album. Is the fact that you've chosen to put Undersea out as an EP therefore indicative that it's something that will be completely different from the new record either thematically or aesthetically? Or do you just not want to tell me and keep it spoiler-free?!
[Laughs] Unfortunately I wouldn't really know what to tell you at this point! We haven't started on our new record, we're gonna start probably in about a month but in the meantime I've been home just writing music, writing lyrics, writing as much stuff as I can so that I have a lot to work with. When we made Undersea I expected the next thing that we did to be directly related to it, maybe even a continuation of it; that could still be the case with whatever we do next, but sometimes the more you premeditate this stuff the more forced it sounds, so I'm leaving this totally open, I don't know what it's gonna be.
Your vocals are noticeably less prominent on the EP than on previous records (except perhaps for on "Crest"). When you were recording it was this a conscious decision to give greater prominence to the rest of the band and really showcase what I feel is one of your greatest strengths, which is the interplay between all of the band members that creates all these amazing soundscapes, or was that something that just kind of happened?
I think both, in a way. On the one hand... you know there's a lot of experimentation to what we do. And that's a loaded word, because I think "experiment" implies that there's a failure involved or something. But in order to have it a little less about me I wanted to do something a little bit different that involved different placement and positioning of all the elements. I think we were all most interested in the sonic element of it this time around, and it's not necessarily a direction for the future, but I think we needed to try that and see what happened when we made something completely balanced. A lot of the time the way that the brain works is that you hear vocals and they distract you and draw your attention away from the music and a lot of really cool shit gets missed.
I think though that there can be this misconception that if the vocals are less prominent and the lyrics less understandable then there's less importance placed on them. For me it's more enjoyable and more of a challenge to write lyrics in a way that's not going to be intrusive and to leave space for the music. So I think that with lyrics or poetry or any work of writing you have to do it differently each time based on what you're writing about. You don't want to write the same way every time; if you look at progressive writers and poets everything they make, everything they create has a different style to it. It might have the same voice, but there are different ways of telling different stories. [Undersea] in particular I don't think needed as many words, or needed them to be out in front; I think they needed to be expressive and visual but at the same time feel they were at one with the instruments.
I feel like the lyrics on Undersea are much more direct than previously. For example on Burst Apart you sing about having your dog put to sleep as (presumably) a metaphor for a relationship and being consumed by fire on "Corsicana," whereas here the lyrics seem more literal—the perfection of the moment between sleep and waking up, asking someone to wait for you, and the title "Endless Ladder" seems to describe the song's aesthetic perfectly. Can you tell me a little bit about this?
Between Burst Apart and Undersea I had very different goals with the lyrics. On Burst Apart I was trying to do this thing—which is a really dangerous thing to do I think—where I was taking my personal life and turning it into these analogies. "Putting the Dog to Sleep" is a pretty good example of that, because there's a similarity between the feeling of literally putting a dog to sleep and the feeling of getting over a bad break up—those feelings of getting to trust somebody or of loneliness. On Undersea I was trying to describe something a little less tangible, and so to me it felt a little like describing a dream or a series of dreams and to describe a kind of state of existence where you're in between reality and dreams.
Yeah that was something I thought definitely came across on "Zelda" especially.
It's always been a big influence to me and something I've tried to write about. I think dreams can be—not so much in the realm of psychoanalysis interesting, because I get tired of that I guess—but I find them interesting if you stop thinking of them as these imaginary stories and start thinking of them more as almost this other life, this other world you're tapping into. For me it might always have been this way, but I felt like there was an amount of control you have in dreams.
You get people who show up in these dreams and sometimes it's continuous. It's the kind of thing that leads me to believe "well, I don't really know anything." I mean, really nobody knows anything, and we don't know that when we go to sleep we're definitely not communicating with some other kind of plane of existence; it's out-there, hippy-dippy stuff but it's not absurd either, because what the hell do we know?
I just always found it really interesting, and I think that Undersea is about exploring that idea. It's saying "well what about writing about that idea? What about writing about being unsure what life is, what awareness and consciousness and this right now is?" It's the kind of thing you don't really think about, because otherwise it really interferes with a day! You have a normal day and do whatever, but you don't think "is this real?" I think about that stuff because I spend a lot of time travelling and not really being in one place for very long, so when I do come home it's very disorienting, it's like waking up. That's what spurred it on, spending a year travelling and touring and being so far away, and then coming home and having a life. It was still here when I wasn't here, and now I'm here and it's just a constant thing, and what is that? Undersea is an attempt to explore that.
Especially since the success of DFA records and LCD Soundsystem, the Brooklyn music scene has been accused by some people of being a succession of artists attempting to become more hip and painfully self-aware than the last. Antlers on the other hand seem to stand apart from that, more interested in gorgeous soundscapes than anything else. Is this a conscious decision?
Since I moved to Brooklyn I guess I've always been aware of the hip factor, I mean I live in Williamsburg and it's everywhere. I guess trendy music happens all the time. But then a lot of that, like a lot of DFA stuff is very much the sound of a time in Brooklyn, like the early-to-mid 2000s. But then sometimes a group will come out of that like LCD Soundsystem who are just an awesome band who make really good songs and really good records and it stops being an of-the-moment thing and it becomes innovative, which is really cool I think.
But then there's a lot of music that exists here that I think is unlikely to have a long lifespan because it's really of its moment. It doesn't age gracefully, and I think I've always tried to be aware of what that is and when it's happening, and not necessarily ignore it, but not succumb to it. There is something productive about it, because when those bands come through they're always the coolest bands, but then I guess I never really cared about being the coolest band, I wanted us to be the best band. It's never really been hip to be an honest, emotional band in New York; it's never really been a signature of the area but it's the way we think as a band. I think New York music has a bit of a guard up, and I think it's in the interest of "coolness" a lot of the time but it's not cool to bare your soul.
You've always attracted an amount of critical acclaim and a strong online following, but Burst Apart seems to have helped you reach greater international recognition—Drowned in Sound's critics voted it the best album of 2011 for example—is this something that you've been especially aware of? And has it altered your experience of being part of the indie music scene?
We've definitely been aware of it, although it's really surprising and unexpected. I mean, I'm really happy about it, and when we made Burst Apart we were really happy about it but we also recognised that we had no idea how people were going to react to it. It's really hard to follow up a kind of career-making record; a very specific kind of record, there isn't really any clear way to do that.
I think it's the kind of record a lot of bands would make and then that would be the end of their band after that. That was never really an option for us, it was like we were always going to keep making music and keep making records as long as we're honest that [we're doing] the best we can do and don't phone it in and do watered-down versions of the things that got us to where we are. As long as we keep trying new things—in good taste—then we'll be happy.
That said I don't think we'll ever be totally happy, because you always have to feel like and indicate that you can improve on what you're doing. It was like, "well this is OK, but next time it's gonna be much better!" It's a bit of a motivating factor. I kind of felt that with Burst Apart, that we'd lived with it for so long it was taking over everything.
To me you've always been a band that's looked to experiment and be hugely ambitious with your sound; have you considered doing something outside of the traditional record record/release record/tour record model for the future? Such as doing a kind of interactive thing for the audience à la David Byrne or Dan Deacon, or moving into film soundtracks? I could easily picture Sofia Coppola doing a movie scored by The Antlers.
We've been talking about a lot of other stuff and making plans and starting certain projects that are not really far along enough for us to talk about [in this conversation]. We're definitely stretching out into that world of wanting to make it a less traditional band, because I think we've got a lot of creative energy behind us that isn't always musical. Darby [Cicci, the band's multi-instrumentalist] has taken a real interest in the visual side of what we're doing and has become almost the art director of the band. He really guided the aesthetic of Undersea and made it happen, made it into its own world. When I think of that record I think of a color scheme, and it's been good for us to reclaim that element of the creative process. I think the next step from that is for us to incorporate some sort of interactive, surreal, non-traditional performance. I'm feeling really ambitious today, so you know, anything is possible!