Thursday, May 9, 2024

Steve Albini RIP

Shocked and shaken by the way-early death of Steve Albini.  

Saddened too.

People I've met through this music thing are thinning down in number, it feels like. 

I interviewed Steve three times.

The first time was with the rest of Big Black, somewhere in North London, in 1987.

The second time, a photographer friend instigated it. The location was a Lower East Side bar and it was a thorough and very interesting interview. But for some reason I never wrote it up - perhaps there wasn't a hook to hang it on. This would have been 1989, or 1990 - maybe he was between bands? 

(Some while ago I made a list of a lifetime's interviews-never-even-transcribed-let-alone-written-up - and it was larger and more shaming than I'd anticipated). 

The third time was when Big Black's discography was being reissued, or perhaps first-time-issued on compact disc - including all the earliest Albini-alone stuff, plus a live concert of them at their peak. This took place late summer '92, I think. Location was a recording studio in North London (Southern Studios in fact - home of the record label). He was there to remaster the records being reissued, 

Another thing I hazily remember is that Steve was also copying,  for his personal aural delectation, hours and hours of  never-released master tapes of music, or anti-music, made by members of Crass before punk. That's how I remember it. Did he play me any? Was it droning dimly in the background? I have the faintest memory-trace of something in the vicinity of Metal Machine Music or perhaps even Roland Kayn. Abstract, abrasive, atonal - but this aural  after-image may just be a phantom memory. Or even a dream (I can't be the only one who's had dreams about imaginary albums - in my case always by actually-existing artists).  But I distinctly recall him saying that was what he was up to in the studio, while also remastering. I wonder what he could have been talking about? 

At any rate, here is Steve Albini being forthcoming and forthright, drily witty and rigorous in his logic, as he was in the earlier two encounters. I liked him a lot, even though some of his opinions I found fairly incomprehensible. 

Melody Maker, November 21 1992

by Simon Reynolds

Reissue-mania rages unabated. And now it's getting eerie, for they're dis-interring the recent past, stuff I
wrote about at the time. To whit: the entire Big Black catalogue: from the early EP's ("Bulldozer", "Racer X", "Lungs",), right up the band's final out-with-a-bang-not-a-whimper performance at London's Clarendon, captured in the form of the album/video Pigpile.

But what you really need to hear is Big Black's two LP's Atomiser (1986) and Songs About Fucking (1987). Combining catharsis-through concussion noise with a morbid interest in the extremities of human experience, Big Black were an absolute pinnacle of the sickfuck /ear-gouge aesthetic.
"Songs" like "Jordan, Minnesota", "Kerosene", "Bad Penny" still chafe your eardrums and pummel your guts something grievous. And then there's the Big Black legacy, which stretches from Hole (Courtney Love recently put "Kerosene" at top of her Top Ten Records That Changed My Life) to the
English skronk scene (Silverfish etc) to the ghoulish thrash of Therapy?. Ah well... I guess, like most great bands, Big Black's influence has been largely dire and occasionally productive.

Anyways, here's Steve Albini, all set to appraise the "living legacy", his acquaintance with his own oeuvre refreshed after eight hours of remastering at Southern Studios in North London. I've interviewed him a couple of times, but it's easy to forget how likeable he is, easy to assume he's identical with the twisted, obsessed geek that so often inhabits the songs. In reality, he's an appealing fellow. His virtues include admirable rigor and fastidiousness of thought, a dry sense of humour, scrupulous
honesty, and against-the-grain contrariness: he says that far from objecting, he'd rather I smoke, because he prefers the company of smokers - "they tend to be more tolerant and less judgemental than non-smokers".)

Re-listening to his own music, it transpires, was not always a comfortable experience. "I haven't heard those early Big Black records for five years, and it's horribly embarrassing, like if someone uncovered your high school year book pictures and wanted to publish them nationally". The embarrassment abates a bit when Big Black ceased to be the 19 year old Albini "fucking around on my own with a drum
machine", with the arrival in 1982 of guitarist Santiago Durango and, a bit later, bassist Dave Riley. "When it was just me it was far more stylized and affected than when it was performing rock band that wrote songs as a collective."

The way Albini tells it, Big Black's collective identity was based not on convictions about how rock bands should sound but how they should conduct themselves. "We had an ideology about how we dealt with people inside the music scene, the way we'd operate as a team internally. We constructed an archetype of a perfect rock band, which we tried to live up to."

That ideology was basically the punk belief in "complete control". "We were inspired more by what punk rock purported to be, rather than what it actually was. The exemplar of independence and ethical conduct today are Fugazi, where they call their own shots, don't have a manager, don't have a
booking agent. And we did all that stuff ourselves. It's actually quite easy."

It was this ferociously uncompromising idealism that culminated in the decision to end Big Black at the height of its white-hot fervour of creativity, critical esteem and popularity in '87. The pretext was Santiago's long-delayed decision to become fulfil his familial obligation to become a lawyer. But really, Big Black were sick of the problems generated by their burgeoning success. And so they opted for
one of the great feats of bloodymindedness in rock history, a premature auto-destruct rivalled only by Jane's Addiction.

"As we got bigger, people tried to make plays for the band, appeals to our vanity or our ambition, or tried to coerce us into doing things. And it was obvious that the only way to short circuit that was just to break the band up. We were never comfortable with the notion that there were people
in the audience that we didn't know personally. Finally, we'd play a show to several hundred and it'd be a real stretch to find three we'd want to talk to. In the beginning there's a sense of kinship with the audience. As it gets bigger, that community gets diffuse, and you can either accept the fact that you're a star entertainer. Or you can completely sever yourself from the audience, like we did."

Albini is sceptical about the notion of a Big Black legacy. 

"See, what I considered the most important thing about the band was the way we conducted ourselves, not the series of noises that came out of the speakers. To me, the least significant part of any band is the stylistic elements. Any truly great band is going to have consistent stylistic elements. But they're also going to have ideals underneath that are the foundation for the style. Unfortunately with Big Black it's the superficial elements that've been mimicked." 

According to Albini, the list of culpable copyists who grabbed hold of the substance but not the spirit range from Godflesh and their grindcore ilk to "a lot of the disco- industrial stuff" (Wax-Trax etc). Nor can he see many examples of a positive influence. "There are people that think similarly, but I think it'd be awfully presumptuous of me to say they'd been inspired by us. As well as Fugazi, there are many smaller American bands doing things completely indepedent of the music industry/alternative scene."

It's strange to think of Big Black as idealists, when so many of their lyrical obsessions seemed to partake of a brutally nihilistic worldview, a vision of human life as governed by power-relations of domination and submission. 

"When I think of Big Black I think of our motivations and ethics. The lyrics are paid an undue amount of attention, I'm not joking when I say they were largely an afterthought. It was whatever we happened to be interested in at the time. We were disenfranchised middle class Americans, and so we had
the same sort of death and freak obsessions that everyone from that era had. I do think that those themes are universal, to an extent. De Sade explored a lot of the same territory. I don't actually share de Sade's worldview, but I think it's sort of fun to put on that hat and actually think that way. That's where the personalities in the songs came from. I was interested in imagining the motivations for extreme behaviours that appear totally preposterous."

Big Black's anti-Romanticism was signalled very clearly in the sleeve note salutation on Songs About Fucking to "all bands who don't write love songs", which recalled the Futurists' proclamation that the nude in painting was an exhausted idiom, sentimentalized and enfeebled.

"Every so often you'll find someone who has an angle on the love song that isn't completely beaten to death. But it just seems like such a small domain for 90 percent of pop to be centred on. I don't know why there aren't more songs about three-cushion billiard, which I think is the most beautiful, graceful thing a human being can do. I don't understand why there aren't songs about taxidermy or fly fishing. There are so many things that people do for satisfaction, that don't centre on rubbing genitals."

By 1987, the post-hardcore/noise-horror bands' fetishisation of real life at its most graphic and ghastly
seemed to have reached a dead end. There seemed like there was no way to up the shock effects, the torturous noise levels. And so the aesthetic petered out (until it's recent resurrection with the grunge movement). By '87, the obsession with psychopaths and serial killers seemed to be just another kind of conformist cliche, a stock narrative.

"I agree to an extent, although those themes go back a long way, to the blues and Appalachian murder ballads. I don't think we actually did it to an obsessive degree. But the bands that mimicked Big Black and our peers, did develop a "let's write about 'grody' things" aesthetic that very quickly burned itself out."

At times it seemed like hardcore bands identified with serial killers as the ultimate heroic outsiders. Albini denies that BB ever celebrated "lowlife" or psychosis. Nonetheless, the characters in songs like "Kerosene" (a bored man who combines his small town's two sources of release - blowing things up and screwing the local slut - in a single self-immolatory catharsis), or "Power Of Independent
Trucking" (a fuck'em, forget'em redneck nomad) did come across as vaguely impressive figures. Their singlemindedness is almost heroic, because they're decisive, they act. 

"What interested in me in those subjects was examining the scenarios in detail and finding the degree of absurdity or obsession that was expressed. The ultimate interest lay in seeing how close these characters were to you, coming to accept that everyone is capable of extreme, absurd, and preposterous behaviour like that, under certain conditions."

Along with limit-experiences, Big Black struggled to reach the extremities of aural punishment. At the time, Albini declared that even though he was losing his hearing in the right ear, he could never get the band to sound loud enough. He still feels that "when I see a band I like, I want to be overwhelmed, pinned to the wall, induced to vomit."

For many, the bankruptcy of this sado-masochist aesthetic, with its concealed machismo and latent misogyny, was finally revealed in the name of Albini's post-Big Black combo, Rapeman. Albini is still unperturbed by the outcry that surrounded that ill-fated band (whose music, incidentally, he rates higher than Big Black!). He shrugs it off as a very local-to-England knee-jerk response on the part of the tattered remnants of left-wing politics.

"The idea that Rapeman or Big Black were misogynist seemed completely misdirected to me. The songs were all personas. If the persona adopted for a song happened to be a sexist pig, I don't see how that relates to my personal politics. But that's a leap that people make all the time. Accusations of proto-fascist ideology, sexism and machismo were much more appropriate for heavy metal than the scene in
which we operated."

After R***man, Albini's pursued a very successful career as a producer. He grimaces at the idea: ".... It's such a pejorative term, one I associate with a mode of thinking, a way of life, that I shun and abhor." For all his protestations, the list of bands Albini has sprinkled his glitterdust upon is legion: from "big names" like the Wedding Present, Breeders, Pixies to a swarm of minor post-hardcore bands (many done for love rather than money, like Jesus Lizard). Most recently he's scuffed up Silverfish's
latest ball of scree. 

Albini's has long contributed rants and (excellent) fiction to the influential US fanzine Forced Exposure, Most recently he penned a column of "Eyewitness Record Reviews", the idea being that these were the only truly informed reviews ever written because he was involved in making the
albums. Picking only on bands who'd ignored his request NOT to be credited on the sleeve, Albini passed vitriolic verdicts on the platters and the personnel behind them, concluding with the fee he charged.

Albini has similarly trenchant opinions on the state of the rock underground. "Until about six months ago I thought we were in the absolute fucking depths. But very recently, there's been an upswell of unknown bands, and my opinion of the rock community has improved significantly." He cites
eccentric labels like Drag City, and "really independent" bands like Arc Welder, Shorty, The Dijdits, Slint, Jesus Lizard, The Idiot, as the wave of the future.

"Nirvana's success has triggered a buying frenzy on the part of the record industry. On one hand that's bad, 'cos some good bands will be tempted to sign to the majors and will of course be destroyed as all good bands are. But on the other hand, it's good: a whole load of real horseshit bands will be taken out of the picture. Bands that sign to a major have typically eighteen months: a year of being treated
like kings, then the album comes out, it fails to meet the sales expectations, they spend six months in limbo and then the band collapses. But there is a population of bands who recognise the stupidity of signing to major, like Jesus Lizard, who've told them to get fucked. And I think those bands will be the foundation of the next significant phase in American music. We're in the shit now, it's going to be
horrible, a lot of indie labels are going to form unholy alliances with majors and they'll be crushed. But the end result is going to be very positive. It'll destroy the incentive the majors have to eat up indie bands, and wipe out the bands who are weak enough to think they can cash in."

Albini admits, with a twinge of ruefulness, that he's sorely tempted to get back into the fray himself. "Not a day goes by where I don't miss being in a band. Personally it would be hugely satisfying to just do it. But I also think the one thing that's missing in the music scene is restraint; people are constantly releasing things".

Instead, Albini has a new focus for his energies: three cushion billiards, a game which he finds has almost Zen-like properties in terms of the discipline and focus it demands. "It's very humbling, especially if you're used to the instant gratification of playing rock. Executing a particular shot,
you either have the right stuff or you don't. It's completely unforgiving. I'm good enough to make a fair game with someone who's national tournament calibre. But it takes 50 years to be good at this game. I'm 29, and I've only been playing for three years."


In truly eerie timing, Albini and his band Shellac are cover stars of the new issue of The Wire, pegged to their new long-awaited album To All Trains.

Here's a much older Wire piece  - 1994, thirty fucking years ago - with Albini doing Invisible Jukebox and scattering caustic opinions hither and thither.

Unless I'm misremembering, the interviewer Jakubowski is an alias then used by Nick Terry of Lime Lizard / The Lizard / Terrorizer renown.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Ambient Jungle - Nostalgia of the Year (of Every Year)

 [from Faves + Unfaves of 2000 - director's re-cut]

The greatest track of the 1990s? 


Another Pop Mystery I've been contemplating recently relates to the life cycles
of genres, their arc and fall. You can be basking in the blooming fullness of a
genre's annus mirabilus, and somehow it never occurs that this is obviously the
golden age, the peak, the best it's ever gonna get, and that the only way
forward now is downhill. When you're in the thick of it, you think it can just
carry on forever at this perpetual crest.... Records that at the time seem like
portents or glimpses of so-much-more-to-come turn out, years later, to have been
swan-songs, the last of the summer wine. Who'd have thought, for instance, that
Adam F's 'Metropolis' and Nasty Habit's 'Shadowboxing" were destined to be the
historical pinnacle of techstep (and therefore drum'n'bass), that they were
form-defining and form-exhausting ultra-tunes?

These thoughts emerged during a spate of compulsive re-listening to what they
used to call (alright, what I used to call) "ambient jungle", which inspired
musings on the lines of why couldn't this music just stay forever at this
sustained peak of awesomeness? Why do musics have to deteriorate or die? Tracks
like Dillinja's "Deep Love" and "Sovereign Melody," Bukem's "Atlantis", EZ
Roller's 'Believe" and "Rolled Into One" (Moving Shadow's last masterpiece?),
the Steve Gurley's remix (more like re-production) of Princess's Eighties
Britsoul classic of yearning "Say I'm Your Number One," still sound so
fantastic----why couldn't they have carried on like this until the end of time,
or at least lasted out the decade. 

A peculiar twist of hind-hearing is that even tracks I didn't rate that highly at the time sound fabulous now, like PFM's "One and Only"---the way the bass moves and drops, the ripple-trails and
glistening vapors of ambience, the explosive entrance of the diva vocal. Then
there's Peshay, a producer I never particularly rated--his track on the first Logical
Progression, "Vocal", is amazing, and I never even noticed it at the time; that
kind of Speed-oriented mellow jazzual track was the enemy, back then. Now, long
after the battle's subsided, whatever was at stake a faint memory, I can hear it
as a tour de force of exquisitely mashed-up beats and diva deployment, using a
vocal sample (India from the River Ocean track "Love & Happiness") that's got more in common with a beautifully designed commodity, a sports car or leather sofa, than say Aretha Franklin; it's all
burnished technique and poise, not raw soul. After 2step I can appreciate what
is basically a kind of capitalist utopianism behind such fetishising of elegance
and surface slickness. 

Another example: in my disappointment that Omni Trio had
abandoned the euphoria fireworks of the "Renegade Snares" formula, I missed how
good bits of Haunted Science are--"Who Are You?" and especially "The Elemental",
an early neurofunk-style two-stepper beat with keyboard lines as delicate as dew
settling and bass-drops like tender thunder--how cleverly Rob Haigh had
developed a new, calmer but still compelling style of drum'n'bass for the home

The truth is that there always was an integral side to drum'n'bass that wasn't
about rudeness (nasty B-lines, mash-up breakbeats) but about supreme dainty-ness
and neat-freak finesse. It's a different kind of rush--the tingle you can get
from the groomed delicacy of a hi-hat pattern, the nimble, glancing panache of a
synth-chord flourish. Jacob's Optical Stairway, the oft-maligned alter-ego album
by 4 Hero, is some kind of pinnacle in this respect: the detail in the music
induces its own kind of high, the aural equivalent of putting on your first pair
of glasses and suddenly everything's ultra-sharp.

The chill-ness of "ambient jungle" and the jazzy stuff that followed is also
more appealing, partly because of the feeling that I've listened to enough
extreme music for a lifetime so why not go with sheer beauty and pleasantness
for a bit, and partly because there's nothing like parenthood to make you
appreciate the aesthetic of stress-reduction. 

(Actually, a few years ago I had something of an epiphany: a plane trip, creating the typical intense stress situation right up til you go with all the getting work done before departure
and packing in a rush. Coiled as tight as bedsprings, we got in the cab to JFK;
the driver had the radio tuned to one of those lite-jazz stations, the kind that
plays what Jackson Griffiths dubbed "biz jazz", the post-ECM, post-fusion
travesty of jazz favored by many corporate executives (and Yellowjackets fan
Goldie). Any other day my response would have been nausea, but the music hit
like a IV drip pumping liquid valium straight into the spine. Instant
tranquilizing bliss. That day, I could dig it.)

                                         Xanaxophone  -  Smooth FM insta-serenity injected direct to the amygdala. And the cover of                                                 the single  is as ghastly as a 1980s fusion album.  Love this though
                           - actually prefer it to the celebrated Trace remix 

Of course, people still make this kind of drum'n'bass (or carry on doing something pretty similar in spirit e.g. broken beats/West London Sound) and it's not as good as the 94/95 stuff. Tje breaking through of - the breaking through into - "musicality" was more thrilling and suggestive than the arriving there fully.

LTJ Bukem's long-awaited debut album came out this year--encased in a striking
period-looking jazz-fusion style cover, and with a montage of snapshots of his
jazzbo heroes on the inside--but it got almost no attention. Bit sad, for a guy
who once commanded dance magazine cover stories.

But going back to the golden period that late 93/94/95 phase when darkside
started to flirt with musicality, blossomed into artcore/ambient-jungle, and
then went too far into the fuzak-zone.... quite a few tracks from that era fit
the syndrome of "lost future" music, or genres-that-never-were (but could/should
have been). Sometimes A-sides, more often B-side tunes or track four on an EP
jobs, these tunes--Blame's "Anthemia", Trace's "Jazz Primitives", Myerson's
"Find Yourself" (with its painted bird of a Flora Purim sample flitting through
a labyrinth of future-jazz foliage), lots more--feel like they could have been
blueprints for entire worlds of sound , but of course they weren't. The DJs
weeded them out; the massive rejected them. Still, I'm fascinated by these
tracks that represent a path not taken.


suggestions welcomed -  entreated, even!



Bachelard-influenced further thoughts on Ambient Jungle:

It's like dancing inside a dream

Like dancing inside a painting

(I was going to say that "One and Only" is the Sistine Chapel of d&B just in terms of the scale and grandeur, but keeping it ambient-aligned, probably should say Monet's Water Lilies or Matisse's "Swimming Pool")

As the titles suggests - usually they reference the aquatic, the cosmic, the aerial, etc - the music invites Bachelard-style reveries of spaces and places.... forms of movement like ascension, floating, cruising, gliding etc etc.

The genius of it is that is contemplative but it's still physical and impactful. Ambient jungle is made to be played on big systems just like any jungle. The bass sounds like thunder.


The original Ambient Jungle piece from The Wire, September 1994

"Prescient, moi?" - interesting to see at the end of this paean that I am already warning of tendencies towards prissy wussy self-conscious musicality.

People seem to have a hard time understanding my dialectical conception of  music - what is the right thing to be doing musically in '93-94, is not necessarily going to be the "right" thing to be doing in '95/'96. In fact, it's highly unlikely to be the right thing to be doing still, by that point. Music moves in a reactive, sharp-swerving sort of way. (Of course, there will be some consummately achieved "stragglers" coming out in the older, obsolete mode - things can be acknowledged as late beauties while still affirming the current state-of-art, the new direction).

It's not even a conception, it's more an ingrained way of feeling music - conflict, backlash, inversion, reversal - these are the energies, the transvaluative surge, that fuels the music's forward movement, and that fuel one's fandom.  Musicians feel these impulses as strongly as any bystander; practitioners and critics are equally invested in the principle of things constantly moving forward. 

Did I not notice at the time that this track is a sort of annotation-cum-tribute to "Atlantis"? 

the ultimate mesh of militant and mellow?


bonus bliss  - real-time review of ambient jungle etc in MM's Stone Free column 94-96

in the hurry of reviewing, missing the form-unravelling genius of "Anthemia" - look, nobody's perfect

Friday, May 3, 2024

The Avalanches


Uncut, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

You should hear the things people say about The Avalanches: "Basement Jaxx meets the Beta Band," "Stardust crossed with Stereolab," sample-based music with the freshness of Foxbase Alpha and the playful wit of 3 Feet High and Rising. With such mouthwatering parallels bandied around, you're almost set up to be underwhelmed by this Australian outfit's debut. Amazingly, Since I Left You lives up to the hype. At the end, you feel dazed and bemused, partly because you're concussed by its tumultuous on-rush of non-stop brilliance, but also because it's hard to put your finger on why the Avalanches are so special, so different.

It's not that there's anything unusual about the group's modus operandi (the album was assembled out of samples from 600 records scavenged during 18 months of field research in second-hand vinyl shops). Wagon Christ's Luke Vibert is no slouch at alchemizing stale cheese into soulful gold and even claims to prefer "shit records" as sample-sources; Bentley Rhythm Ace scour car boot sales for kitschadelic treasure; electronic jesters V/Vm bulk-buy unsellable CD singles and hilariously deface the oeuvres of Shakin' Stevens and Russ Abbott. Nor is it the case that Avalanches do anything especially complicated or technically advanced with their raw material: they loop the samples, layer the loops, drop them in and out of the mix, twist them into strange little riffs. So why is Since I Left You such a relentless loop-da-loop rollercoaster of thrills? Could it be because the group's delight at the sonic jetsam they've salvaged is palpable in every bar of the record? (You can just imagine the exultant whoops when they unearthed the soundbites about a chap called Dexter--same name as the Avalanches singer--who's "criminally insane" and "needs therapy"). Or is it just the sheer un-restraint and gratuitous generosity with which they pile it all on thick?.

Composed out of approximately one thousand "good bits" from other records, Since I Left You rarely feels bitty. The Avalanches's forte isn't technical so much as the art of listening and spotting compatibilities between disparate sounds. For it's one thing to take three or four sampled elements and make them work together, and quite another to take twenty or fifty (which is what many songs here sound like) and making them mesh them together as a plausible, integrated composition (while still retaining that uncanny sampladelic see-the-joins quality). Drawing on exotica, surf music, animal noises, film scores, Francoise Hardy-style Gallic girl-pop, and chartpop from the last five decades, Since hits hardest in the tingly treble zone: your ears are dazzled by acoustic guitars, Radio 2 strings, flute-twirls, harp-ripples, piano trills, dulcet snippets of la-la-la-ing female vocal, tinkling vibes, twinkling electric piano, bursts of heavenly choir. Into this wafts explosions of merriment, dinner table hubbub, football terrace fervor, foghorn blasts, and glorious non-sequiturs like "he also made false teeth." Gorgeously goofy hookphrases like "I got the bubbly/bubbling through me" pop to the surface, momentarily crystallising the music's effervescence. "Tonight", one of the few downtempo lulls, sounds like a Shirley Bassey ballad played on badly warped vinyl. And if tunes like "Frontier Psychiatry" (the one with the Dexter-is-a-loony samples) and "Flight Tonight" verge on Big Beat wackiness, others, like "Etoh" and "Summer Crane," evoke near-mystical feelings of tenderness and rejoicing, sensations of existensial buoyancy and the dizzy bliss that ensues when you lose count of your blessings.

Since I Left You is experienced as one long flow. Structurally (its onion-skin layers of crescendo, the absence of gaps between tracks) and emotionally (an almost painfully plangent euphoria) the record it reminds me most of is Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. But really The Avalanches are the southern hemisphere's Daft Punk. Since I Left You makes a superb companion to the latter's own kitschadelic masterpiece Discovery. If the French house maestros have a slight edge it's only because their own particular brand of cheese---the Seventies shlock-rock of ELO, Frampton, 10 CC, Buggles--is slightly more unusual and piquant than Avalanches's EZ-listening and novelty pop. But unless we're very lucky and other contenders miraculously enter the fray, it'll be these two jostling for Best Dance Album 2001 at year's end.

Spin, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

When it comes to music, misery has a monopoly on credibility (just ask Thom and Trent), and a furrowed brow and tormented soul are essential if you aspire to "deep". "Happy" is a tough act to pull off without seemingly smugly serene (post-Astral Weeks Van Morrison, say), irritatingly jaunty, or simply simpleminded. There are exceptions, of course--Al Green, Brian Wilson, most Krautrock. Now Australian dance six-piece The Avalanches join this illustrious company. Just as the Eskimos have 30 words for different kinds of snow, The Avalanches revel in a thousand subtle shades of joy.

Dance music's own version of "deep" is the way connoisseurs use "dark" as a term of approval. "Dark" typically refers to genres where bass frequencies dominate and treble's been purged (along with melody, the human voice, and general pleasantness). On Since, by contrast, you barely notice the basslines (except when the groove from Madonna's "Holiday" frolics into the fray), while the pounding house beat is more rudimentary than even Daft Punk's. Instead, the Avalanches sound is all about the high end: swirling strings, spangly harps, billowing flutes, twinkly trickles of electric piano, dulcet feminine harmonies, plus the occasional male vocal pitched up to sound angelic. This densely layered cornucopia of radiance and rhapsody (a 1000 samples from around 600 records) is the result of a year spent combing Sydney's thrift-stores for used vinyl. On tracks like ""Two Hearts In 3/4 Time" and "A Different Feeling", the Avalanches tweeter assault resembles Stereolab's Francophile EZ listening crossed with Stardust's French filter disco. Treble not only evokes light, it creates lightheadedness. Since makes you feel dizzy, fizzy inside---a champagne-for-blood sensation captured on "Diners Only" with its catchy whispered chant "got the bubbly/bubbling through me/sparkling sparkling".

With no gaps between its eighteen tracks, just a non-stop groove, Since I Left You is so madly glad, it's demented. But it's not all relentless rejoicing. There are exquisite bittersweet tints to tracks like "Etoh", a sense of heartbursting euphoria shadowed by the intimation that all things must pass. And the downtempo "Tonight" is almost blue. But glumness is instantly banished by the following "Frontier Psychiatry", a Big Beaty jape dotted with wacky soundbites like "that boy needs therapy" and "he also made false teeth." "Summer Crane" ripples religiously like Steve Reich on X. As its title hints, the album's underlying concept is about unburdening yourself--shedding the dead weight of personal history, cutting loose the ties that hold you back, floating off to some exotic elsewhere, or into the ecstatic ether. ("You can book a flight tonight" goes one sample, which could refer to taking a vacation, or a drug). Gravity, in every sense, is abolished. The Avalanches ethos is a sort of positive irresponsibility, dereliction as a duty you owe yourself.

Since I Left You 
liner notes for reissue

Although Since I Left You first came out in the winter of 2000, I think of it as in many ways the last great album of the Nineties: the grand finale and climactic triumph of the Sampladelic Decade.

True, the first samplers went on the market at the end of the Seventies, and music in the Eighties was steadily more altered by the technique.  But the Nineties were when sampling truly blossomed as an art form.  The decade launched itself with records by Daisy Age rappers like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and The Jungle Brothers, along with the hip-house positivity of  Deee-Lite – the group who coined the buzzword “sampladelic” – and their world-wide smash “Groove Is In the Heart.” As the decade unfurled,  a series of  landmark albums – Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, Tricky’s Maxinquaye, DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, Portishead’s Dummy, Wagon Christ’s Throbbing Pouch,  Chemical Brothers’  Dig Your Own Hole,  Beck’s Odelay, and more – showed the art of making new music out of old recordings reaching peak upon higher peak of technical complexity and emotional richness.  There were also entire genres of definitively Nineties dance action - jungle, trip hop, big beat – that largely depended on the reworking of sampled material: breakbeats, diva vocals, movie soundbites and orchestrations, etc. 

Big beat and jungle were essentially different versions of the same impulse:  the merger of house’s loved-up propulsion with hip hop’s collage aesthetic.   On Since I Left You, The Avalanches came up with  yet another take - idiosyncratic and unique - on that hybrid approach. Starting work in the last year of the Nineties, the group took the idea of the sample-tapestry further than anyone had thought possible, meshing approximately 3500 samples into a perfectly synchronized and emotionally consonant work. As if stringing pearls on a necklace, they sequenced eighteen distinct and wondrous songs into a seamless suite somewhere between a symphony and the ultimate deejay set.

The first phase of activity – the prequel – was foraging for raw ingredients for the feast.  Combing through Melbourne’s charity shops - or “op-shops”, short for opportunity shops, as they call them down under – the Avalanches scavenged thousands of orphaned platters from the $2 bargain bins and bulk-buy basements of their hometown.  Like other magpie mosaic-makers of that time, such as Wagon Christ’s Luke Vibert - who talked of deliberately only sampling “shit records” - the Avalanches took special delight in the alchemical transformation of dross. “The more rejected and unwanted the record that a sample comes from, the more appealing it is,” said Darren Seltmann, who - with Robbie Chater - formed the production core of The Avalanches, a partnership that went by the alias Bobbydazzler.  Actually, while perennially tempting to use, the alchemy analogy is misplaced: it’s more a case that the sampling wizard has an uncanny knack for spotting barely perceptible slivers of gold secreted within the crud, can perceive the latent ecstatic potential trapped inside an outwardly unpromising MOR release. Prospecting for precious musical matter, the sample-seeker finds a redemptive purpose for the unloved and unsuccessful detritus left behind by an industry predicated on overproduction and market saturation.  

Finding the raw materials was only the first step of the challenge (one might even say “ordeal,” albeit a self-inflicted one). Formidable cognitive and organizational powers were needed to catalogue all the potentially useable samples. Then came the true magic: spotting affinities between the profusion of unconnected fragments – swatches of textures, particles of rhythm, scraps of orchestration, little flurries of notes – and painstakingly patchworking them together to form a tapestry-in-motion.    

In a way, the creative process that leads to sampladelic masterpieces like Since I Left You is counter-intuitive, almost to the point of seeming anti-musical. The drawn-out procedures of “dissecting every sparse chord on a record” – i.e. a usable fragment that isn’t embedded in a thicket of instrumentation, which can be isolated – is akin to vivisecting a living creature. Then the sampling sorcerer, a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein, takes these dismembered portions and stitches them together to form a new musical organism. The goal is reanimation: creating the illusion that these sounds always belonged together and were played as a single flow of musical time.   Records speak to other records; players who never met, far-flung in space and time, make sweet music together.

This is the miracle of sampling – but it’s one that had started to become mundane through over-use and unimaginative practice. Since I Left You restored that sensation of miraculous-ness by taking sampling further than anyone had before.  The greater part of the album’s sonic bulk consists not of recognizable fragments (recognizable as opposed to identifiable, which is a vanishingly rare occurrence on Since I Left You for all but the serious beat-headz and crate-diggers) but rather of “micro-samples”: single notes or chords that were concatenated or looped, processed in various ways, and then painstakingly harmonized. Despite the labor-intensive nature of this assembly process – surgically intricate computer operations that tax eye, brain and ligaments alike; insane numbers of man-hours dedicated to the project – Since I Left You never seems labored. It feels like a breeze.

Breeziness - a sensation of airy ascension and spring-heeled buoyancy – is the defining and pervasive atmosphere of this album. Practically the first thing that a listener registers about Since I Left You is the high-end sparkle of the sound spectrum. Treble frequencies dominate: swelling strings, harp ripples, fluttery flutes, harmonies that coo and bill like a choir of doves, tinkles of triangle, rattles of tambourine, twinkly wafts of orchestration that suggest The Detroit Spinners or the John Barry Orchestra, trilling ultra-feminine vocals (sometimes French!), along with sound effects that range from the susurration of surf to the squawk of seabirds. Not forgetting that parrot (although is it in fact scratching? Or even a record of bird-sounds being scratched?). 

Cutting-edge electronic dance and hip hop in the second half of the Nineties tended to concentrate on beat-science and bass-warpage: the baroquely edited breakbeats and contorted low-end ooze of jungle,  the bashy clatter of big beat. On Since I Left You, the drums are creative (swinging and clattery, brisk and frisky) and the B-lines are beautifully textured and always musical apt. But generally beats-and-bass play a supportive role and for the most part they’re eclipsed by the high-end shimmer and spangle of the sound. (Bobbydazzler, the production pseudonym used by Chater and Seltmann, is particularly well-chosen in this regard). 

In dance music, the low-end frequencies tend to be associated with darkness and deepness. Think again of jungle (or its ancestor, dub reggae: polar opposite of the poppy and toppy-sounding  lover’s rock style favored by young women). Or think, later in the 2000s, of dubstep, with its fetish for bass weight and pressure sounds, its increasingly macho shtick of urban tension and apocalyptic dread.   Since I Left You’s slant towards sonic sheen and the feminine-coded, disco-redolent higher frequencies means that the record creates sensations of brightness and lightness, high spirits and halcyon serenity.  Children’s hearing is attuned towards treble, which is why we instinctively speak in squeaky high-pitch voices when addressing babies and toddlers, and it’s perhaps also  - via lullabies and the soothing maternal voice - why we associate high-end sounds with ideas of heaven, the angelic, ethereality and the celestial beyond.  But  high sounds also suit more adult, chemically-adulterated states of profane euphoria: the effervescence of intoxication, as with the deliciously dissolute, champagne-in-the-membrane sample on “Diner’s Only”, the one that goes “got the bubbly coming through me/sparkling sparkling sparkling”.

Looking-for-treble led the Avalanches to the Sixties as an inspirational model and sample-source.  All the bass-too-dark, block-rocking-beats oriented dance energy in the late Nineties felt like a contest in which they could neither compete nor really cared to participate in.  Instead the group harked back to the spirit of sunshine pop and French yé-yé. “A light, AM-pop record” vibe, said Chater. “More 60s influence, with less bass, inspired by Phil Spector and the Beach Boys, but using dance music techniques.”  The Sixties was an era when the drums were mixed much lower on recordings than is the norm today; the bass-playing, likewise, tended not to thud or boom but to move around nimbly as a mid-range presence in the sound.

On one level, Since I Left You is an instant party of the “just add people” kind – except you don’t  even need to add any people, as the record opens with the hubbub of revelers and a voice that amiably instructs the listener to “get a drink, have a good time now, welcome to paradise.” On another level, the album takes you on the proverbial (often promised, rarely delivered) emotional journey, guiding the listener through subtle shades and plangent mixtures of feeling of the kind not offered by the more straightforwardly party-hard music of that era, as fun-packed as it was: Fatboy Slim, filter disco, fluffy trance, all of which dealt in primary colours of emotion and crude whooshes of exhilaration.

Going on a journey is an explicit, if impressionistically rendered theme of Since I Left You, as the title makes clear. Originally, there was going to be a much more of a storyline and over-arching concept: the working title, at the outset, was Pablo’s Cruise, and concerned “an international search for love from country to country... A guy following a girl around the world and always being one port behind.” That, wisely, was abandoned for a more diffuse set of emotional atmospheres related to ideas of departure, cutting loose, and motion as a sublime state of being, regardless of destination or purpose. The music’s own motion has an organic, fluid feel: rather than bang-bang-bang-banging along on a gridded track, like so much house, techno and trance in the Nineties, the grooves lope, sashay, and sway as often as they surge or sprint. And although the mood mainly sticks with elation, there are bittersweet lulls, like the languid near-ballad “Tonight”, with its smoky piano, and the sunblind idyll of “Summer Crane”, whose warp-and-weft of warbling bird-song and sighing-and-soaring choral voices forms a shimmering skyscape. 

Sustaining an almost uninterrupted onrush of happiness so intense you feel like bursting, Since I Left You is exactly the sort of record a group named the Avalanches ought to make:  delicate and snowflake-intricate in its myriad miniscule components but overwhelming in its combined might and majesty.  Since I Left You’s achievement was to break the easy but facile equation of depth with darkness, intensity with misery: on this record, it is happiness that is the complicated and mysterious state.

As much a technical triumph as an emotional tour de force, Since I Left You was simultaneously the pinnacle of the sampladelic era and, arguably, its swan-song.  While The Avalanches themselves embarked on a long struggle to top their own achievement (ultimately resulting in 2016’s wonderful Wildflower), what followed in the immediate wake of Since I Left You was people shrinking from the challenge rather than rising to it. Paradoxically, there was a reversion to a much more simple-minded use of samples: the mash-up craze of the early 2000s, and then, a little later, the rise of DJ-producers like Girl Talk. Here the emphasis was on using well-known, instantly-identifiable songs, in very large chunks rather than embroidered skeins of micro-samples. Mash-ups and Girl Talk-style deejaying worked the punter’s pleasure-centers with the crass effectiveness of a one-liner crossed with an energy drink: a dopamine blast for the cheaply amused and easily amazed. 

More creative usages of sampling slunk off to the margins: the connoisseurs-only backpacker zone of hip hop (Dilla, Madlib), the memory-vistas of the UK hauntologists (Ghost Box, Moon Wiring Club, et al), and more recently the experimental fringe of “conceptronica”. Sampladelic work todays tend to be forbiddingly dense and abstract, with a disintegrated quality that makes the end product seem more monstrous than miraculous. Typically these records come laden with textual rationales better suited to an art exhibition.  It’s not music that can speak for itself, in other words.  Since I Left You is fun to think about, for sure, but its effect on the listener bypasses the faculty of reasoned analysis and goes straight for your feelings and your feet.  It’s a work of heart.

The Avalanches, We Will Always You


Taking its title from a sampled slice of ethereal harmony vocal by singing sisters The Roches, We Will Always Love You doubles as “an exploration of the human voice” and a spiritual reckoning with “who are we really? What happens when we die?’”. So says Robbie Chater, who alongside bandmates Tony DiBlasi and Andy Szerkis, has moved beyond the party-up exuberance of the Avalanches’s youthful music to a tender, reflective sound infused with hard-earned life wisdom.  Sparkling with the treble frequencies that made Since I Left You such a dizzy thrill, We Will Always Love You is dedicated to probing “the vibrational relationship between light, sound and spirit.”  But the goal now is elevation rather than intoxication.

Sampling remains at the core of The Avalanches sound. A single note played by Nina Simone, layered and modulated in myriad ways, serves as the source of most the piano on the album; what may or may not be the spectral voice of Karen Carpenter, captured by spiritualists using home-made contraptions, is transformed into the drum sound on “Reflecting Light”.   But alongside all the sample ghosts, We Will Always Love You features an array of living guests who contribute vocals and lyrics: MGMT, Rivers Cuomo, Denzel Curry,  Neneh Cherry, Perry Farrell, Karen O , Mick Jones, Sampa the Great, Tricky, Kurt Vile, Blood Orange, and more. The Avalanches’s music has always dripped with melody, but because of this expanded role for guest singers and writers, We Will Always Love You is their most song-oriented album yet.

Probably the most striking thing about the new album is that it features a lot of slower songs -  ballads and midtempo grooves.  “It’s less buzzed and manic,” says Chater. “For us, to make the same record again, no matter how well executed, wouldn’t have been satisfying. We were looking to do something that would open up possibilities for the future. Take a bit of a left turn that frees us up to do whatever we want to next.”



The Nineties were the golden age for sampling as an art form. As each year of the decade unfolded, a new masterwork arrived that took the state of that art one step further:  De La Soul’s De La Soul Is Dead, Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, Tricky’s Maxinquaye, Goldie’s Timeless, DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, Chemical Brothers’  Dig Your Own Hole, Daft Punk’s Homework…    

Shaped by the sampladelic Nineties but making their own album debut in the first year of the new millennium, The Avalanches took the magic craft of building records out of earlier recordings and making songs speak to other songs to a new peak of dazzling density. Based in Melbourne, the core of the group was sampling wizards Robbie Chater and Darren Seltmann, who worked together as the production partnership Bobbydazzler. Starting work in 1999, the pair combed through the city’s “op shops” (short for opportunity shops, the Australian term for thrift store or charity shop) foraging for second-hand vinyl. After 18 months of trawling the bargain bins, they then began the real work: listening to the 600-plus albums and cataloguing every potentially useable sample; identifying affinities that criss-crossed the mass of raw material; working out which scraps of orchestration, curls of melody, tics of rhythm and swatches of sound-texture combined in emotionally evocative patterns.

Although there were recognizable moments on Since I Left You – a snatch of Madonna’s “Holiday,” a sliver of Kid Creole’s “Stool Pigeon” -  the vast bulk of the raw ingredients were “micro-samples” – nobody knows how many exactly, but it’s estimated to be over 3000. These single-notes or isolated chords were then looped, processed, painstakingly harmonized, and stitched together into a tapestry-in-motion. The sample-dense sound was filled out further, to the brink of bursting, with contributions from keyboardist Tony Di Blasi, turntablists James Dela Cruz and Dexter Fabay, and piano / percussion man Gordon McQuilten.  But despite all the brain-breaking work that went into assembling the samplescapes and balancing all the input in the mix, Since I Left You never sounded labored or overworked. It sounded effortless, as carefree and refreshed as an ocean breeze.  

Originally titled Pablo’s Cruise, the album was initially conceived around the idea of “an international search for love from country to country” but soon became a more loosely themed evocation of travel, movement and spiritual renewal.  There was also an overall sonic concept in place too: an orientation towards the treble frequencies, breaking with the Nineties dance culture fetish for block-rockin’ beats and boombastic bass. According to Robbie Chater, the vibe they were aiming for was “light, AM-pop record…  more 60s influence, with less bass, inspired by Phil Spector and the Beach Boys, but using dance music techniques.”  Drawing on exotica, film scores, surf music, and ultra-feminine French pop in the Francoise Hardy style,  the album shimmered and tingled with high-end sounds: swelling strings, rippling harps, flutters of flute,  dulcet dove-like harmonies, tinkling triangles, piano trills.

Like pearls strung on a necklace, there were no gaps between the eighteen songs that made up Since I Left You. The entire album was like a single super-song  celebrating music’s power to uplift the soul, move the feet, massage the heart, clarify the mind and cleanse the spirit.

Released in Australia at very end of 2000, and in the rest of the world in 2001, Since I Left You met with worldwide  critical acclaim. The album made the Top Ten in the UK and seeded two Top 20 hits as well with the title track and “Frontier Psychiatrist”. In Australia, Since I Left You was a platinum smash.

But the group’s new fanbase and its critical champions would have a long wait for the follow-up.  Almost 16 years. The causes were multiple: personal life turbulence in one case (more on this further down), the departure of founder member Seltmann, and an inability to settle on a thematic and sonic concept for the new project (at one point it was trailed as an exploration of “ambient world music”, at another point described as “so fuckin' party you will die” ). There were also interruptions in the form of a film score for King Kong and another for an animated film that was never completed.

Just as everyone had given up hope of ever hearing another squeak from the Avalanches, Wildflower arrived in July 2016 and garnered a reception almost as warm as its predecessor.  Loosely themed around the idea of a “road trip on LSD”, Wildflower built on the dizzy density of their sampledelic approach and continued the love affair with AM radio style Sixties sunshine sounds (sources included Harper’s Bizarre, The Association, Tommy James and the Shondells, Bobby Goldsboro). But the mood shifted from party-hard to a dreamier vibe infused with the group’s love of psychedelia. Wildflower also drew on a profusion of guest vocalists, including Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donohue, Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Bundick, alternative rappers Camp Lo and Danny Brown,  indie-rock icons David Berman and Jennifer Herrema. Instrumental contributions came from musicians like Warren Ellis and Tame Impala and as with Since I Left You, there were plenty of found voices: snippets of dialogue from documentaries and movies like the 1969 satire Putney Swope, children’s voices ranging from the 12-year old postpunk artist Chandra to a Melbourne high school choir singing “Come Together” by the Beatles.

Like Since I Left You, Wildflower’s emotional palette revolved around the sunnier sides of human life:  "new love, childhood playfulness… happy feelings of connection,” as Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson enumerated them,  to which list you could add travel, vacations, summertime, and natural beauty. Both albums broke with the facile adolescent / alternative-rock tendency to equate depth with darkness. For The Avalanches, joy has just as many subtle shades and complexities as misery.

Ironically, the backdrop to Wildflower – or at least a primary reason for its agonizing slow birth -  – was an abyss of misery that swallowed up the life of Robbie Chater. These five lost years weren’t even the first episode in a long-running saga of addiction dating back to adolescence. Although the dark days have long been banished, that personal odyssey of recovery, self-discovery, and spiritual rebirth very much informs  the Avalanches’s latest project,  We Will Always Love You.  Rewind then, back to the late Eighties…

“I started drinking very young,” says Chater. “I grew up in the western suburbs of Melbourne, but when I was 13 we moved to the country and that’s where it began. Middle of nowhere, surrounded by this drinking culture.  From the age of fourteen I drank a lot and after high school, when there no longer any structure to life, it got out of hand. From eighteen to 21, I was just very unwell – physically dependent. I wanted to stop, but when I tried, I had a withdrawal seizure and ended up in intensive care.  Woke up after being in there for a month, then went into the psych ward. Gradually my brain cleared and I was able to really start on what I’d always wanted to do – the music.”

After “nearly drinking myself to death” before he’d turned 22, a newly sober Chater was vitalized and spiritualized. “Since I Left You came pouring out very quickly. I was so happy to be alive.  All that positivity flowed into the music.  Feeling free of this nightmare that for years I just couldn’t break out of…  That’s what I hear now in Since I Left You - the joyousness.”

But during the fitful phase of false starts on a second album, Chater - after a dozen years of  sobriety – relapsed. “It was my wife’s birthday, I had a glass of wine… and within a week I was back to drinking how I had been. During those twelve years of being drink and drug free, I’d built a life, a home – and I lost it all.  During my 30s, I was constantly hospitalized and detoxing. Sleeping wherever. My family and everyone around me had accepted that I wouldn’t come through. Nobody knew what to do anymore.”

Then came rescue and redirection in the form of a counsellor, who would become a close friend: a recovered heroin addict who “was just able to get through to me, I guess. Through him I was able to open up to a spiritual path.”  Along with forms of therapy and meditation that instill “a present-moment mindfulness,”  the breakthrough for Chater was realizing how much of what he had believed about himself was really “a construct.  I’d lived in my head, a whole world of thought and stories about my past, an inner dialogue that was really unhelpful. But now I was waking up, realizing that all of that is just mental noise. I have a persona, a construct to do with my job and  my family history, but beyond all that, I’ve come to realise that each of us is much more vast.   I am not what I do, or even this body. There is so much more….  all this space. We really are children of the universe.”

 Thematically and sonically, We Will Always Love You is an exploration of “the vibrational relationship between light, sound and spirit”. Those high frequencies that the Avalanches are drawn to so obsessively – the treble zones of sparkle and glow – are part of this vibrational relationship. Higher tones evoke sunshine, starlight, the heavens above; they elevate the spirit.  “That’s also where vinyl crackle lives, in those frequencies. And when enough layering occurs, there’s this beautiful fuzziness between the vinyl crackle and the sounds of bells and strings – it becomes a shimmering.”

On We Will Always Love You, abiding touchstone figures such as Phil Spector and Brian Wilson are joined by subliminal influence from the neo-psychedelic sounds of My Bloody Valentine and Mercury Rev that Chater loved as a youth and that fed into the pre-Avalanches outfit Alarm 115 he formed with Seltmann and DiBlasi. You could almost use the word “shoegaze” to describe We Will Always Love You, except that instead of tremolo and open-tuned guitars, the Avalanches are reaching that shimmer sound through “vocal sustain samples – just layering and layering until it became fuzzy.” Gospel and soul harmony singing are another subliminal influence on the project. “We started out sampling loads of gospel, although most of it didn’t end up on the record.” But gospel and hot-buttered soul in the 70s style has lent a kind of after-flavour of religious uplift, like when a soup has been strained to leave just a clear but tangy broth. “There’s a similarity between shoegaze and that massed voices effect that you get in choral music,” notes Robbie.

As the project developed, it became “an exploration of the human voice,” Chater says, and specifically “forever voices”, his term for the sound of long-dead singers whose presence can be reanimated when the stylus enters the groove. “When we sample the music of musicians who’ve passed, it’s like summoning spirits.” This eerie way of thinking about records led Chater to contemplate the possibility that radio transmissions of terrestrial performers are radiating into the far depths of outer space. “John Lennon, Elvis, Tammy Wynette, whoever – every voice ever played on the radio over the last 100 years…  they are floating around out there in space, endlessly travelling. Like spirits, ghosts... and they will be there long after this planet is no more. That is such a beautiful thought to me. And then I wonder, what is the difference between these floating voice broadcasts and other energy and vibrations that make up the cosmos?  I'm also imagining if somewhere out there in the cosmos, someone is listening…”

If there’s a single spark for We Will Always Love You it’s the story of the love affair between Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan:  “science communicators” whose writings and TV programs brought the ever-deepening mysteries of astronomy and astrophysics to the mass audience. Chater was profoundly moved by the fact that the couple’s romance was captured and carried into space, thanks to the Voyager Interstellar Message Project.  Druyan served as Creative Director in charge of curating the Golden Record: earthling music and assorted terrestrial sounds gathered for the contemplation of any alien civilizations that might be out there and be advanced enough to construct a playback system.  An hour’s worth of Druyan’s brainwaves were recorded only a few days after Sagan proposed marriage to her, conceivably preserving her head-over-heels mind-state. These lovesick frequencies were then propelled into interstellar space alongside the sounds of Chuck Berry, Beethoven, humpback whale-song, etc. Originally, Druyan was set to be a presence on We Will Always Love You: a studio was booked to record her telling her own story. That never transpired, but Druyan “gave us permission to use her photo on the album cover,” says Chater. “We photographed it off a static-y television set and ran it through a spectogram to make the cover image. So that was a beautiful way that Ann could still be part of the record.”

Another pivotal moment came when a friend played Chater a song by the kooky female harmony group The Roches. “It was one of those lightbulb moments”.  The lyric fragment “we will always love you” from the singing sisters’s “Hammond Song” was sampled and became first the title of the song, and then the title of the entire album, crystalizing the theme of everlasting love as an undying vibration.

Also central to the project is a single note of piano playing by Nina Simone. “It’s a note she played at the start of a concert – it rung out in the hall for ages.” Although Los Angeles based keyboard player John Carroll Kirby also contributes to the record,“ pretty much anytime you hear a piano, that’s Nina. Most of the writing of the songs started with her piano sound – she was the backbone for the whole thing.”

One of the things that attracted Chater to the Simone sample was its “badly recorded quality”, in which he heard a peculiar beauty. The fading of analogue media forms like vinyl and tape, and the wear-and-tear of life upon sonic artifacts like records and cassettes is something that fascinates him. “When I find a second-hand record and start looking for samples on it, everyone who ever played it has contributed to the crackles. It’s  been played by different owners who dropped it or spilled wine on it – and that’s all embedded in the disc. Then there’s all the emotion of the people who made the music, what they were going through when they were recording. And when we make a song, all of that passes through us and out onto the radio and into the world – into the lives of other people. And so it continues.

“And what part do I really play in the process?,” muses Chater. “I’m just another part of the cycle, in the same way that my energy and cells will break down and flow back out there….fertilize a tree or something. Energy just moves around.”

The Avalanches’s interest in the spectral quality of voices captured for all time on recordings,  in the hiss and crackle of well-played vinyl, puts The Avalanches in alignment both with chillwave musicians like Ariel “Worn Copy” Pink and hauntology artists like The Caretaker, Burial, and the Ghost Box label.  Talking of ghosts, one recurrent presence on the album, concealed deep in the mix, is Demi Moore in her role as Molly in Ghost, calling out to Patrick Swayze’s phantom boyfriend Sam.

But as much as it’s about communing with the spectral voices of singers long passed,  We Will Always Love You is also direct collaboration with new musical friends who are very much alive. Most of these collaborations were done remotely, but some involved face-to-face encounters in Melbourne or in Los Angeles, where Chater spent an extended period of studio work and hanging out.

The Avalanches’s albums have always teemed with melody and harmony, but the expanded  role for guest vocalists has made We Will Always Love You their most songful record so far. “It’s more  writing chords around samples, rather than matching two or three samples like we’ve done previously. But sampling remains at the core: I think every track began with a sample, and with the Nina Simone piano, and then it would  became a song, which we’d use bits of other songs to complete.”

Two other characteristics of We Will Always Love You mark it out from their previous albums. There’s the use of interstitials – brief swatches of eerie texture, sometimes with a found fragment of speech added – to weave together the whole album into a story. “The ghostliness was important, to help set the mood for the songs – little transmission bursts,  messages broadcast from somewhere.” The other striking thing about this new album is that it features a lot of slow and midtempo songs. Indeed it takes until the fifteenth track, “Music Makes Me High”, before we hear anything that really resembles the archetypal Avalanches party-up mode.

“Early on, we realized this was how the record was going - and it was liberating to let the album be what it wanted to be. When we were sequencing, the record company were like, ‘you should put some of the faster songs up the front,’ but ultimately the feeling was – it is what it is.”  Rather than a wild party, We Will Always Love You feels more like a reunion of old friends, mellow, warm, all hugs and nostalgic stories pulled out of the alcoves of mutual memory for another shared airing.

Unlike its precursor Wildflower, We Will Always Love You came together “like a single thought, that was followed through in one process, quite quickly,” says Robbie.  “It took only a couple of years from start to finish.

“The conceptual side of things is really important to me,’ he continues. “I can’t just be blindly creative, I need to find a feeling or a place that gives me the energy to start making a record.  Wildflower changed so much over fifteen years, whereas with this album, we knew what it was about right at the beginning, and then we did it, and it’s done.”




1/ Ghost Story (feat. Orono)

The album starts with an interstitial: wavering vocal tones and a trembly-voiced phone message about the difficulties of staying connected over long distances, contributed by Orono Noghuchi of Superorganism, a British-Australian-American group who themselves came together through online forums. “Orono sent us an amazing phone recording from when she was about 14 – a really embarrassing message she left on her boyfriend’s answering machine asking him not to break up with her – and said we could use it if we wanted. It didn’t really fit but that gave us the idea of doing a similar kind of recording. I love the idea of calling someone who’s passed but there’s still a message left on the answer machine before they left this world.”


2/ Song for Barbara Payton

Hovering somewhere between song and interstitial, this short piece is woven out of gospel  vocals and tingling electronics. The title pays tribute to the American actress, whose promising film career was brought down by her turbulent life and struggles with alcohol. “Her story really resonated with me – it’s heartbreaking really. The lyrics in the sample we found seemed to sum up her life. I’d been  looking at images of Payton for a possible album cover, but when we didn’t go down that path, it just seemed like a nice way to acknowledge her.”


3/ We Will Always Love You (feat. Blood Orange)

The title track, pivoting around the wonderfully ethereal harmony vocals of singing sisters The Roches (from “Hammond Song” on their 1979 self-titled debut album).  Featured artist is Dev Hynes, a/k/a Blood Orange, the British rapper-singer who sings in the chorus and raps lines like “draped in monotony/ what’s my life gotten me?” in a low-key, daydreamy style redolent of  Massive Attack’s 1991 foundational trip hop masterpiece Blue Lines.  “We did something with Tricky for this album and it sounded similar – I really love that British style.”


4/ The Divine Chords (feat. MGMT and Johnny Marr)

Marr brings the kind of glistening guitar chimes first heard on early Smiths songs like “Suffer Little Children” and “Well I Wonder”. MGMT, are “just beautiful songwriters.  I was lucky enough to hang out in Los Angeles, where Andrew VanWyngarden is, for quite a while over the last couple of years and do some recording. I think he was going through a heartbreak so that sense of loss, it’s captured in the song.”


5/ Solitary Ceremonies

After-images of VanWyngarden’s vocal waver through this interstitial, alongside the well-spoken tones of Rosemary Brown, a spiritualist who became famous in 1960s Britain when she claimed that the ghosts of classical composers like Liszt and Beethoven were contacting her to be the medium for their unfinished works. “Brown made an album and that’s where we got her voice from. There’s also TV footage of her, where they have these British musicologists analysing what’s she’s playing on the piano – an instrument she claimed she could never play until the ghost composers got in touch.”


6/ Interstellar Love (feat. Leon Bridges)

“Leon is an incredible soul singer, with just the most beautiful voice. He’s from Texas but we both happened to be in LA at the same time, which was lucky as he was on my wish list. When we were in the studio, I told him the story about Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan and how her love-struck brain waves were sent out into space on the Voyager’s Golden Record. And this song came out of that.”


7/ Ghost Story Pt 2 (feat. Leon Bridges and Orono)

Another interstitial: a patchwork of crinkly tones and blissed vocal ooze, with fragments of Leon and Orono woven in. “I liked the idea of a left-over bit of a phone call.”


8/ Reflecting Light (feat. Sananda Maitreya and Vashti Bunyman)

Eighties pop star reincarnated as a cult-figure enigma with a Sanskrit name, Sananda Maitreya here shares insights like “life itself is habit forming” on a dreamy glide of psychedelic soul.  “We have had a beautiful two-year friendship, he still writes to me nearly every day – the most wonderful long rambling emails about life and the  music industry.  I sense he is still very angry about everything that happened.” Although credited as a “feature”, Brit-folk free-spirit Vashti Bunyan appears as a sample from the song “Glow Worms” off her 1970 cult classic Just Another Diamond Day. “We had the sample first and then worked with Sananda writing around it. But we gave the appearance credit because we wanted to acknowledge Vashti’s role more.” Another intriguing element in this track are the drum sounds, which were derived from YouTube recordings of mediums summoning Karen Carpenter’s voice using home-made devices. “You hear these static-y sounds that are like haunted screams, which they claim are Karen Carpenter – or other dead stars - responding to their questions. We used these muffled blasts to make up the drums on ‘Reflecting Light’”.


9/ Carrier Waves

Another glinting interlude of spacy electronics and wordless vocal.


10/ Oh The Sunn! (feat. Perry Farrell)

Starring the former Jane’s Addiction singer, a kindred spirit who similarly graduated from chemical elevation to spiritual modes of transcendence, and who sings here in praise of the “divine designer”.  “Perry’s full of positivity and light. That was another wonderful LA experience - recording at his home, where he lives with his wife and kids and all their dogs. We sat around watching YouTube videos. That’s where we found the sample” -  a live recording of the gospel choir / R&B group Ernest Fowler and the Voices of Conquest – “so we started writing around that.” Although still a gentle glide of a groove, this is the first really danceable tune on the album, finding that zone where The Avalanches  and Daft Punk have much in common. “Oh yes, we listened to Homework a lot while we were making Since I Left You. And then then their very sample heavy album Discovery came out the same year as Since.”


11/ We Go On (feat. Cola Boyy and Mick Jones)

Cola Boyy, a/k/a Matthew Urango, is a nu-disco artist from Oxnard, California. “He’s very passionate about his local community, an activist, outspoken and political – so I loved having him on the same record as Mick Jones.” But the latter is here not so much for his Clash rebel rocker history as Big Audio Dynamite, the first time that the young Chater encountered sampling. “One or two of their songs were big pop records on Australian radio – and it was that feeling, as a kid, of ‘how did they do that?  What is that?’”


12/ Star Song

10-second miniature bleepscape redolent of early Sixties electronic pioneers Kid Baltan and BBC Radiophonic Workshop.


13/ Until Daylight Comes (feat. Tricky)

Starting as a dub-flavored skank, this slips into a languid disco-boogie  groove and features the inimitable croaky mumble of Bristol trip hop legend Tricky. Who here sounds unusually mushmouthed: is that “I want your brain”  or “I want to pray”? “We worked on about six or seven songs together, corresponding on Instagram at first, and then started recording. Tricky would just ask for more and more music. It was a runaway couple of weeks in which we did about six songs and then I got an email from my manager saying ‘are you working with Tricky? I’ve got a very concerned email from his manager saying you guys have recorded half the album already!’. Nobody knew anything about it. These particular vocals of Tricky’s were recorded for a different song, but then I brought them into this other context.”


14/ Wherever You Go (feat. Jamie xx, Neneh Cherry and CLYPSO)

Sonic mainstay of The xx and solo producer Jamie xx did a lot of the beat-work on this plaintive tune, which goes through several rhythmic phases, including a tech-house stretch with a pinging, tight-rubber-band bassline and a Latin groove with a galloping, giddy-up feel based around a Brazilian sample. “Jamie pushed it to that higher tempo in the second half. I was sending Jamie lots of music but for some reason he just loved that song and felt it needed to go faster at the end. It almost felt like a remix and that it shouldn’t be on the album. But then I reworked his reworking and it fit fine.” Vocal features include a “too much war” lament from Neneh Cherry, fellow traveler with the same Bristol scene that produced Tricky, and a sing-song chorus from CLYPSO, a Sydney-based producer-vocalist.

15/ Music Makes Me High

The first truly uptempo number, this disco-funk tune has a golden glow that simultaneously casts back to tunes like The Whispers’s “And The Beat Goes On” and to the filter-house echoes of that era such as Stardust “Music Feels Better With You” and Gusto’s “Disco’s Revenge”. “There’s a gospel choir on there, but very softly in the mix, singing over the ‘music makes me high’ sample.”


16/ Pink Champagne

A very brief interstitial, in which a husky male voice informs us that “the sky was pink champagne”  as thunder crackles distantly on the horizon.


17/ Take Care In Your Dreaming (feat. Denzel Curry, Tricky, and Sampa the Great)

Alt-rapper Denzel Curry “happened to be in Sydney and things lined up perfectly. It all happened in a single day. We had that sample ‘take care in your dreaming and love when you can’ already and we spoke with Denzel about unrealized dreams and journeys through life. So that’s what he wrote about. It’s been quite harrowing for him at times, I understand. The song is a ‘careful what you wish for’ kind of thing.” Also featured: Tricky, again, still mumbling (what sounds like “love can’t breathe” at one point); Sampa the Great, the Zambian rapper-singer now based in Melbourne; and dramatic piano from LA-based keyboardist  John Carroll Kirby, who has played on Solange’s records, but here is layered over the Nina Simone ghost-piano.


18/ Overcome

Another brisk tune, with a house feel,  draped with hot-buttered-soul vibes. Look out for the  sample - “this is for the champagne crew - we do not need anybody, we are independent” – taken from the artist Mark Leckey’s acclaimed video piece Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore. A video version of sampledelia, Fiorucci is woven out of found footage from British dance subcultures like Northern Soul and rave. It transmits a potently poignant hauntological charge, evoking the ephemeral excess of youth escaping their problems through drugs and music. “I guess it’s those parallel lines – rave music and gospel music are both a collective reaching for something higher, an attempt to transcend. It’s not there musically, on We Will Always Love You, but there was a fair bit of listening to early rave and watching things like that Mark Leckey piece.”


19/ Gold Sky (feat. Kurt Vile)

The alternative rock guitarist, songwriter, and producer contributes a spoken-not-sung lyric about feeling both “shattered by life” and “reborn” – states of heart that clearly resonate with Chater’s own experiences. “We spoke a bit and then he just came up with the overall concept. That’s why I’m so grateful for the whole experience of making this record - people were so open to talking about where we were headed and diving in in such an open-hearted way.”


20/ Always Black (feat. Pink Siifu)

Los Angeles-based Pink Siifu appears elsewhere on the record in fragmentary form, says Chater, but on this main feature provides an ethereal yet intimate rap in similar vein to his “lysergic, daydreamy, otherworldly hip hop records.” The skittering drums are among the most inventive beat-work on the album. “It was that thing where it’s a sketch beat – we were like, ‘we’ll write this properly later’ – but it ends up staying.” 


21/ Dial D For Devotion (feat. Karen O)

A brief, bittersweet interstitial featuring the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’s singer intoning lyric shards from the late David Berman of Silver Jews: “The light of my life is going out tonight / without a flicker of regret.”


22/ Running Red Lights (feat. Rivers Cuomo and Pink Siifu)

The album’s catchiest tune combines a bouncy beat, a gently yearning melody, and emotionally raw lyrics about “crying in the car” and feeling like “a thunderbolt” about to explode.  “Rivers gets to that Brian Wilson sweet spot between happy and sad.”  Describing their collaborative process, Chater adds, “Rivers is so funny -  he heard the music, he has a spreadsheet of all his best phrases that he’s kicking around at that moment, so his assistant sent it to us and said ‘you can choose one’. We thought we’d get greedy and chose three – and he said ‘okay,’ and  sent us the lyrics back.” Pink Siifu pops up repeating the same David Berman lyric intoned by Karen O on the previous track.


 23/ Born to Lose

Riding a fluid, jazzy bassline sampled from Leon Bridges, this gorgeous golden groove is a bit like the ‘mature’ version of the classic Avalanches style circa Since I Left You. Jodie Foster makes an uncredited cameo, in the form of dialogue from Foxes, the cult movie about teenage tearaways running wild in late ’70s LA: “actually he died of a broken heart”, “fucking assholes!”.


24/ Music Is The Light (feat. Cornelius and Kelly Moran

Probably the biggest departure from previous Avalanches music, the detuned drones, gaseous textures, and intricate clicky drum patterns wander near the more melodic and blissful edge of Nineties genres like IDM and post-rock, artists like Mouse on Mars and Seefeel.  “He’s one of those Nineties sample geniuses,” Chater says of guest contributor Keigo Oyamada, better known as Cornelius, and his celebrated 1997 debut album Fantasma. In the studio, Cornelius layered guitar stuff, which the Avalanches then sent to New York avant-garde piano player Kelly Moran, who sent back a lot of material. But the spark for the whole piece came from the vocal sample “music is the light and I have what it is to shine”, which Tony DiBlasi  found, slowed down, and pitched up again, resulting in its spooky glowing timbre. “We wanted to start the record with that sentiment, ‘music is the light’, but then it got to be too many slow songs at the front of the album, so it got shuffled to near the end.”


25/ Weightless

Somewhere between Morse Code and the bleeps of an EKG monitor strapped to a patient with a highly irregular heart rhythm, this agitated electronic pitter-patter might make you think of signals received from an alien civilization. Actually, that’s exactly what it is – except in the case, it’s us humans who are the alien race beaming the message out into the cosmos.  Broadcast in 1974 from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, and aimed at the star cluster M13, the  message was written by the astronomer Frank Drake with assistance from Carl Sagan among others. It includes encoded information about human DNA, graphic representations of the human form and the solar system, and other clues indicating that intelligent life was responsible and whereabouts they might be found.

“Frank Drake is famous for the Drake Equation, which calculated the number of possible habitable planets in galaxies that we know about and from that estimates the likelihood of there being intelligent civilizations. We did a performance with the International Space Orchestra, which is a bunch of a scientists from NASA and the SETI Institute who are amateur musicians. They put us in touch with Frank, who’s 90 now, and he sent us the original file for the Arecibo Message.  We got that converted into MIDI notes, keeping the same rate of broadcast but deciding what the notes actually were and the sound in which they were played.  And that’s what you hear on ‘Weightless’ - that original actual message to the aliens that  might be out there, converted into sound for the first time.”