Lifting the Black Cloud: An Interview with Peter Silberman of the Antlers
Following the release of one of the most acclaimed, emotional albums of 2009, the Antlers return with a sound that's ... "danceable"? Fortunately, Peter Silberman has all the answers ...
When discussing the process of writing the lyrics for the Antlers' latest record, Burst Apart, frontman Peter Silberman says, "I think the idea that you need to 'write what you know' always holds true, and what I knew for the past couple of years were these -- still complicated -- situations, but ones with less fanfare and less dramatics."
Silberman is comparing the verses on Burst Apart to those on his band's breakthrough album, 2009's Hospice; the latter told an overarching, cohesive narrative, which -- as you're sure to read in every review -- contrasts with the new album's more free-flowing, track-by-track musical structure. While his approach to his lyrics may have changed, the quality of his work hasn't. Burst Apart investigates themes similar to those of Hospice -- loss, isolation, a desire for connection -- but does so in a way that focuses on the moment, rather than the entire story. As Silberman puts it, "I wanted to write something a little bit more subtle than Hospice, a little less overt in the storytelling ... I wanted it to be a little more down-to-earth."
Take Burst Apart's closing track, "Putting the Dog to Sleep", for example. There, Silberman sings, "Put your trust in me / I'm not going to die alone." It's a hopeful sentiment, one that hits an almost completely opposing emotional pole than the feelings evoked by Hospice's closer, "Epilogue", which sees its narrator too depressed and defeated to even lift his arms in defense against his lover's attacks. In the case of "Epilogue", we've followed that narrator for a whole album through the highs and (very, very) lows of his relationship, but in "Putting the Dog to Sleep", we're getting a snapshot of a relationship -- just a brief glimpse into the lives of two people. The song still packs a devastating punch, but its emotional textures feel different. These two people share the rabid insecurities of Hospice's characters -- crucially, they also manage to hold onto hope, and onto each other, in a way that the characters in Silberman's previous work could not do.
That shift in emotional weight was, at least to some extent, purposeful. In thinking over the Antlers' next move, Silberman says he and the band didn't want to produce "something very closed and hard to listen to". Instead, the group felt compelled to "celebrate, and feel okay about that, and not feel like we were betraying people by being happy and lifting the black cloud from around us," he says with a laugh. He considers Burst Apart a record that "acknowledges the past" while moving forward from it, addressing Hospice and its themes but also developing them in a different manner. In that sense, he says, "Putting the Dog to Sleep" and its titular phrase drive home the importance of "putting a matter to rest, letting go of something but not forgetting it -- allowing yourself to move on."
Of course, the lyrics aren't the only ingredient in the Antlers' appeal and Burst Apart's success as a follow-up. Silberman and the band also push things into new musical directions. Tracks like "French Exit" and "Parentheses" display the group's burgeoning focus on rhythm. These songs are danceable, a quality one would've been hard-pressed to imagine while immersed in the sprawling, loud-soft soundscapes of Hospice. Silberman credits those developments to the Antlers' solidification as a trio, a band moving from the bedroom to the stage. He explains, "We discovered who we were as a band through touring, not beforehand. So, when we finally had a chance to record a record, it was really us recording our first record, in a weird way."
The group set up in their new studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and felt newly free from constraints. "We could go in every day and just play music, without time constraints and without pressure to sound any certain way, without any weight," he says. "That's what the record was born out of, rediscovering what we loved about playing music. There's a weight to the Hospice songs, and there's some kind of weight to the Burst Apart songs, but they're meant to be a little bit weightless and a little freer, without being a totally different sound."
The band had to figure out how to carry that weight into a live setting, as well. Silberman feels the "post-rock, explosive" sound of Hospice filled large club spaces almost naturally, the songs benefiting from being played at full volume. Once he and the band felt they'd comfortably figured out how to sound as massive as possible, they wanted to change things, to avoid settling on a formula. He says the addition of a touring guitarist will allow them to "do some more intricate things, rather than the wall-of-sound", and the interlocking grooves of Burst Apart's more up-tempo numbers should undoubtedly benefit from that expanded palate.
The Antlers are a tremendous live band, and the Burst Apart material sounds great coming through a powerful PA. But the true success of the group begins with Silberman's attention to craft, both musically and lyrically, his eye for detail and minutiae. He mentions authors as disparate as Raymond Carver and David Foster Wallace as current literary heroes, and it makes sense -- one can see Carver's obsession with the small, revelatory moment in Burst Apart's material, as well as Wallace's insatiable appetite and fearlessness in tackling works of a great scope in Hospice's song cycle. Ironically, Silberman began Wallace's thousand-plus-page Infinite Jest after completing his own most sprawling work, Hospice, but finds the novel an example of a writer's confidence in swinging for the fences. Silberman and The Antlers will assuredly continue to do just that, pushing themselves further and further into new directions, and ingraining themselves and their talents into our own hearts and minds in the process.