At the Core: An Interview with The Antlers
The Antlers' multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci and singer/lyricist Peter Silberman speak with us about the process of creation, keeping your emotions genuine, and why their music is good for cooking to.
When I got word that I would be receiving an advance of the Antlers' third full-band album, Familiars, I got so excited that I was incapable of running the circulation desk at my library day job for at least two and a half minutes.
Considering the trio -- Peter Silberman, Darby Cicci, and Michael Lerner -- specialize in deliberately paced tones and have been pigeonholed as purveyors of music that's tinted the deepest shades of blue, my reaction may seem a little contradictory. However, for those who have fully allowed themselves to get inside The Antlers' albums, whether it be tragic breakthrough Hospice or the majestic Burst Apart -- or even the almost ambiently serene Undersea EP -- will understand the trio is working with emotions far more complex -- and sometimes unnameable -- than the ones suggested through a cursory listen.
As multi-instrumentalist Cicci says, "I think there's so much music that can be slow and joyous. Or slow and exciting, and visceral. I don't think it's limited to a single emotion just because." This is especially obvious on Familiars, which doesn't exactly abandon sadness so much as allow it to add more realistic dimensions to feelings, such as joy and hopefulness, that often risk being cheapened at the hands of pop music. Likewise, its themes of evaluating one's past and coming to terms with the many building blocks that make us who we are offers a more practical, although no less profound, conclusion.
The Antlers began in 2006 as a solo project, with singer and lyricist Silberman releasing two home-recorded releases, Uprooted and In the Attic of the Universe. Since the release of Hospice in 2009, Cicci has taken on engineering and designing the artwork for the band's subsequent output. I interviewed both he and Silberman separately, over the phone, using two sets of questions that would address their respective aptitudes. Whether your poison be creating from a musical perspective or a lyrical one, all the answers to a solid piece of work lie within ...
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All the full band albums thus far -- and even the Undersea EP-- have a unifying concept or theme. Is this always the intent?
Silberman: No, it's usually something that happens towards the end of the process. I think while we're working on these records I'm always looking for patterns, and I'm always looking for things that can tie it all together. If there is one unifying idea or a lot of unifying ideas, they kind of just reveal themselves over time.
Familiars has been referred to as being more "organic" sounding. Was that the intent as soon as a fourth album was conceived? Did you feel you had exhausted the electronic frontier explored in Burst Apart?
Cicci: There's no such thing as exhausting any "electronic frontier." I still play the synthesizer on pretty much every song on this album. It's more of an instrument choice because I play most of the instruments here. It's more just a product of me playing a lot more trumpet and more upright bass. It's the first record I feel I've really been able to explore that side of things. Overall, I think it sounds more organic, I think there's more soul, blues, and jazz influence. But I'm still desperately in love with synthesizers. Actually, the track "Intruders" is the first time I've ever recorded a purely programmed, purely digital synth for my background part. So, none of that's going away for me!
Will you be playing trumpet on tour as well as keys, synths, and everything else that you play?
Cicci: I'm going to play, but only on two or three songs, probably. We have a new fourth touring member. His name's Kelly Pratt, an absolutely brilliant horn player. Beyond brilliant. He was in Beirut, he's toured with Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, and all these incredible bands. But I'm going to be playing mostly keys and synth, and all the bass stuff.
Did Familiars' process of creation differ at all from the other albums? How did the songs take shape?
Cicci: Yeah, it was absolutely, completely different. We made the record Hospice in 2008. And we just recorded that at Peter's house with a couple microphones. But Burst Apart, Undersea, and this one have all been my production and engineering in our studio we moved into right before we started working on Burst Apart. So, we have a more conventional studio setting with proper equipment and everything. It immediately changed us as a band.
Peter, your lyrics have a lot more substance than those of most current artists. How long do you spend time on them? Do they exist before the songs themselves?
Silberman: They usually don't exist until the songs have taken shape, but they take a long time to get to the form they arrive at by the end. I tend to extensively edit what I'm writing, so they're sort of changing throughout the whole process. At least this time, by the end of it, I had re-written a lot of these songs so many times that they didn't necessarily resemble what they started out as. It's a pretty long, painstaking process.
Do you write at a specific time or just when you're driven to do it?
Silberman: I kind of write all the time. I used to try to discipline myself to sit down and write and be like, "OK, for the next three hours I'm going to write and I'm not gonna get up until I've gotten something." I realized that wasn't really working for me. It was kind of putting too much pressure on, I dunno, my creative process, which didn't really want to be as regimented as that. And I would find that I would carve out this time to do it and sit down to write and just not be in the right frame of mind to do it. This time I was experimenting with a more constant writing process, so it was really a matter of writing whenever I had an idea, and making it super easy for myself to take notes and write little bits of things on the go. Not be so, like, tied to a desk or a notebook or anything like that. To be able to write a little bit at all times, and have a good way to compile all that stuff I was working on. Then I would sit down for periods of time and try to organize and shape it and edit it, and all of that.
I read that the Tibetan Book of the Dead was influential on this album's theme. Is there any other art -- books, films, otherwise -- that was equally as influential on Familiars?
Silberman: If anything, the other stuff I was reading was probably more influential to the record than The Tibetan Book of the Dead. There's a book called Island by Aldous Huxley that kind of got me on a lot of tracks of stuff I was writing about. I guess because a lot of it was about the transformation of the character. I don't know if the main character is obsessed with his past so much as his past directed so much of his behavior. It gave him a lot of shortcuts of how to act. And he kind of felt this idea about himself based on who he had been in the past. I found that idea really interesting, that who you are is not necessarily who you've been. I just wanted to get inside that process a bit more and try to understand it, and also try to break that habit myself, and try to understand what it would be like to be a person who didn't rely on my past to define themselves.
Your singing has a somewhat androgynous quality I've always admired, especially on Familiars, where you guys are citing Nina Simone -- whose vocals could also be fairly androgynous -- as an influence. I am wondering how conscious of an effort it was and how closely the vocal performances relate to the album's theme of different facets of one's self?
Silberman: I think the androgynous quality is unintentional. I don't know if my self differentiates between male and female vocals most of the time. I don't think of them in terms of that. I guess I just try to find the vocal range that feels right to me. I guess I don't worry about sounding too feminine, and I think that leads a lot of the songs to have an ambiguous gender sound to them. And I think it also does speak to the record, because it is about these different dimensions of personalities, these different dimensions of a person. A lot of people argue that everybody has some degree of masculinity and femininity and everything in between, within themselves. So I guess to accurately represent that, it makes sense to not think of them in such polar extremes, more sort of different points on a spectrum.
Darby, I was wondering if you could talk about the album art and Familiars' lavender color scheme. How important is it for listeners to have visuals accompanying their experience of the album?
Cicci: Well, I think it's as important as you wanna make it as a listener. You don't need to sit and stare at artwork when you're listening to a record but from my personal experience I respond really intensely to things like color and color schemes especially, so before I do any of the design work, the first thing I decide on when it comes to artwork is what the color scheme is going to be. You know, Hospice was red and white, a very sort of Red Cross-esque theme. Burst Apart was sort of the idea of coming out of the darkness, so yellow and black was perfect for that. And Undersea -- all aquatic all the time. And now (for Familiars), this feeling of warmth that got stuck in my head pretty early on: a shade of lavender and light purple and black and a sort of cream-based light yellow.
What is the sculpture depicted on the album cover?
Cicci: It's actually a monument in a cemetery, Pere Lachaise, in Paris. It's a gravestone, and it's basically a man and a woman, comforting each other. If you look at the actual sculpture itself, it's a woman and what appears to be an older, dying man. But the gender isn't really as important as the embrace. The figures reminded me almost of a Gustav Klimt painting, the way they were hunched over.
John Lydon once said that he liked disco/dance music because it was "functional." Would you say The Antlers music is functional? If so, what would its function be?
Cicci: Um, well it's certainly not disco. I mean, all music is functional. It's sort of your personal inclination of what that means, you know? I'm not really a big dancer, so when I listen to disco music, maybe it's not as functional as it is for a lot of people. But I think, as someone who likes cooking, it's cooking music. Functional in a way, right? [laughs]
A lot of people think our music is very sad, and I kind of don't really see that very much. It's sort of cutting yourself off to a lot of other emotions.
That leads to a question about your music being pigeonholed as sad a lot. Obviously, something like Undersea was more about warmer feelings, as is Familiars. Do you have advice for bands on avoiding being pigeonholed in that way?
Cicci: Well, it's not really a band's responsibility of how they're necessarily pigeonholed. That's sort of a journalist's game. From a music perspective, I would say follow any emotion you feel like expressing. If it is sadness, then do it. Go for it. But I think the word "sadness" or "sad music" is just a really vague term by people who don't really understand its complexity. Anything that's slow [is sad]. Soft qualities don't mean soft feelings necessarily. A lot of feelings that you might confuse with sadness -- feelings of nostalgia, feelings of reflection, feelings of self-examination -- are way more complex than that.
I was reading a review of a Future Islands gig, where the critic discussed his concerns over their sincerity becoming schtick due to growing popularity and endlessly performing. Is it ever difficult to reawaken a song's emotions in a live setting? How do you handle it?
Silberman: It's a challenge, for sure. And I think that, with music that's very emotionally open, it can be hard to deliver that in a genuine way every night. A lot of the time, these songs, even though they are super verbose and are making specific points, a lot of times those words that are assigned to these vocal melodies are an attempt to describe something that doesn't necessarily need to be described. I think it kinda starts with the melody and the passion behind it. In some senses, if you're able to tap into that, it doesn't matter what you're saying. I personally try to align the two, so that the intensity of my voice will change and go in accord with what it is that I'm saying. For me, it becomes less about on a nightly basis, trying to connect specifically to what I'm saying, and more just a kind of core, indefinable feeling behind it. I think for the person doing it, for the performer, it's a way more visceral, physical thing. It's sort of tapping into a raw emotion, and the words are just a vehicle for that emotion. It's a challenge, but if you can go into it feeling centered then the sincerity will be there.
It's becoming harder and harder to become a "career band", but you guys are certainly on your way to becoming one if you aren't already. Do you have any tips or advice on how to stand out when there is such a wealth of unsigned artists out there?
Cicci: I think it's becoming a more and more futile effort every single day. I think as an artist you should stand out because you make excellent work and you do it 'cos you're committed to doing it, because it's your life. To do it consistently and not get caught up in the Internet age of attention-grabbing. I went into doing it whether or not I have a career. Fortunately I do. You have to ask yourself why you're doing it in the first place. If it's to get Twitter followers and attention, you have some sort of childish dream of being rich and famous, then you're losing out yourself and you're chasing something you may have never, ever attained.
David Lynch talks about ideas in art possessing different octaves or layers of resonance. In other words, the meaning you find in a work can be entirely the product of your perspective at a given time, and this can hold true even for the creator of the work. Has your work ever revealed something to you after-the-fact, and has Familiars even done that already?
Silberman: Yeah, I think with the passage of time, I start to see things that I'm working on differently. I look at Burst Apart from a totally different perspective than I did when I was writing it. When I was writing it, it was a product of the time that I was writing it in, and after the fact I could feel what I was really thinking about but wasn't quite aware of at the time. I think the same probably will go for Familiars, though I still feel inside of it right now.
But I think that just happens with time and age, that you get a bit of a clearer perspective on yourself. You start to see things that you can't see at the time 'cos you're still processing them. That's been an interesting part of this whole Antlers thing, that years pass after making these records and I find myself changing how I feel about them or how I feel about what I'm saying on the records. The way that it evolves has been educational on my own growth, my own understanding.
Where would you guess the current trajectory might lead, in terms of future output? Since a lot of things are cyclical in nature and you guys certainly seem to be a force of nature, might you ever arrive back at where you started as a group? Will we ever see a return to a previous form?
Silberman: I don't think the Antlers would return to being a solo project and I don't think we would return to being the kind of band we were when we first formed, basically the band on Hospice. I think too much has changed, and we've all changed as musicians a lot, as people. But I do think things tend to be cyclical in nature and I think with progress and change there is also a reevaluation of the past and a reinterpretation of the past that's bound to happen and I think it happens to some extent on Familiars.
But I think we're all looking toward the future and are always trying to find ways to challenge ourselves. Sometimes the way to challenge ourselves or just the way to do something new is to review something old. Sometimes I think the most effective way to change is to become more yourself. To not look towards other maps as guidebooks to help change, and get to know what's at the core of you.