Death and All His Friends: An Interview with the Antlers’ Peter Silberman

The Antlers
French Kiss

Painfully personal songs assembled by Peter Silberman in seclusion are resonating well beyond the Brooklyn apartment that served as his writing bunker. Since his band the Antlers released Hospice last spring, his song cycle of a loved one’s terminal illness has slowly seared its way into the hearts of more and more listeners, beginning with the insular indie-rock ghetto and growing into an almost mainstream sensation, thanks in part to supporting tours with bands like Editors. Up next is a summer tour of larger rooms, including Radio City Music Hall, opening for the National.

For Silberman, releasing the songs was just as important as writing them, allowing him to communicate some very singular but ultimately universal emotions. He has not revealed the exact truth behind the Hospice story, choosing instead to allow listeners to find their own interpretation for an album that he feels is “spelled-out” quite clearly anyway. The band has its roots in Silberman’s solo work, which yielded a few albums and EPs; the current lineup of Silberman, drummer Michael Lerner and multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci coalesced during the recording of Hospice.

During a month-long break from the road — a break he knew would not be reprised anytime soon — Silberman spoke with PopMatters about the fast growth of the Antlers, overdosing on indie rock and how it feels to have such personal art fuse connections to strangers.

Hospice is obviously a deeply personal album with some strong emotions tied to it for you. What was your initial feeling about releasing these songs and sharing them with strangers?

The only thing I was really worried about was the record falling on deaf ears. It took a little bit of time while making the record to even decide to finish. The way in which the record was helpful for me was feeling like other people were connecting to it. I think it could have done well without people feeling strongly about it and relating to it in some way, but I think people finding some sort of connection to it was the way I moved on from this record. It doesn’t just feel like my thing anymore.

Have listeners told you that they directly relate to the story of Hospice?

That has happened a lot, and it’s really flattering. It’s a very weird feeling to feel like you’re connecting with people you don’t know. And at the same time, you know these strangers a little bit better because they get it. I feel like it’s pretty spelled out, but that’s because it came from my head. Realistically, I think the record is pretty open to interpretation.

As a listener, are there any albums you’ve had that type of connection with?

Yeah, I think there’s plenty of them. Elliott Smith records, for sure, knowing I’d never be inside his head but feeling that that was okay and feeling that I got to know him through his music. And I think it’s important to realize that people that make music, that’s not the entirety of who they are — it’s one part of them — and I realized that about Elliott Smith. And getting to know him would dispel some of those things you thought you knew about him.

You sort of put people on a different level. But in reality, everybody’s just people, even the people that are creating things that really speak to you. I think it’s important to keep the lines between the two things, and it’s very easy, I’m sure, to cross them. I’ve met people that made something I was crazy about, and maybe became friends with. They say you should never meet your heroes… that’s been a learning experience for me as we’ve been touring a lot and things have been moving so quickly.

Stereogum did a “Quit Your Day Job” feature on The Antlers, focusing in part on your job as a graphic designer for New York City venue Le Poisson Rouge. Since then, and since the album and the tours have taken off, do you still have day jobs?

This is it now. It’s funny, I actually ended up having to quit my job right after I did that interview, and it ran right after I quit my job. I had a job I enjoyed. We weren’t even touring that much, three weeks out, two weeks on. But I kept leaving, and the time just wasn’t there. Now it would be absolutely impossible to have a day job because we’re gone for like six weeks and home for two. Now this has been my job, and it’s the best job I have ever had.

How do you feel about the upcoming shows in larger venues than you’ve been playing thus far?

These are pretty big rooms. I think this year is shaping up to be a year of continuing to conquer our fears. We’re playing Terminal 5 here in New York, and I went there the first time the other night, and I was like, “Fuck, this place is big.”

How are the Hospice songs translating live?

The album itself was recorded a while ago, so we really had the past year and a half to work on how the live show was going to sound because we weren’t writing at that time. Our creative energy was going into transforming those songs.

Our thoughts go into what makes a good show: dynamics. We don’t play songs the exact same way every night. We also try and focus on how we’re going to be engaged every night and not phone it in. It would be easy to phone it in. You need to make it entertaining for yourself, and if you can do that, it translates into something that works for the audience.

How are you presenting the Hospice songs? Are you performing them in order and trying to keep the storyline intact?

Usually it’s not related to the storyline, because I think people that know the music recognize the song, but I think in a live show the lyrics get lost, and we’ve embraced that and just go with how the sound goes. Sometimes that ends up being a similar flow to the record. It also depends on the tour that we’re on. When we were in support of Minus the Bear — a more mellow, ambient group — it’s about knowing the crowd that you’re going to be playing for. You just don’t want to do the songs because you’re stubborn and this is what we sound like. So it’s like, what do Antlers sound like to Minus the Bear fans? Our songs are so changeable.

Are you finding that more people in the audiences know the songs?

Yeah, that happened especially recently. The record’s been out for a while, but it just took time for people to rally behind it. Our last show, our home show at the Bowery (Ballroom), Darby at one point, he said, “I heard you singing, and it sounded really off-key,” and he realized it was people singing [along].

Besides touring, what other plans do you have for 2010?

We’ve only got so many days off, but we have our own studio, so it’s total freedom. We just work on everything. Luckily we can bring all of that stuff on the road.

Do you have a timetable for your next release?

Not yet. We’re not rushing to get our next album out yet.

What’s the feeling like within the band now?

It’s actually better than it’s ever been. It really is a band now. It started off as my thing, and I can’t deny that, but it’s not that at all now, especially with the way we’re writing when we go into the studio, and all three of us will have ideas with no focus on who will be commanding the song. This is exactly what I’ve been going for.

How would you describe the new material you’re working on?

It’s hard to say. I think in a way it’s darker without being as clear-cut, as I think Hospice was a pretty spelled-out album, and this is less so. And I think it’s more influenced by what we’ve been listening to a lot in the last year and half — a lot of electronica stuff. We overdosed on indie rock at some point and needed a new world of music, and that was it.