Robbie Chater, The Avalanches
It’s wonderful how there’s always something incredible to discover that you had no idea existed ...
If you’ve been in the vicinity of a radio in the past two decades, odds are you would have heard of The Avalanches. Bursting onto the scene with debut album Since I Left You back in 2000, the sample-heavy electro-wizards became a household name due to a string of certified bangers such as ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ and the title track of the release. The hype was real and well deserved, with the album receiving both critical and commercial success and still being regarded as one of the greatest Australian releases of all time. With all that pressure, it kind of makes sense that we had to wait 16 years for a sophomore record. Founding members Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi released Wildflower in 2016 and the people were not disappointed – The Avalanches were once again ruling the airwaves like it was the millennium all over again. We caught up with Robbie ahead of The Avalanches’ Sydney City Limits sideshow at The Tivoli next year to talk about million dollar samples, falling down rabbit holes and going back to basics.
It was a long time between drinks in regards to the gap between Since I Left You and Wildflower – how did you feel ahead of putting the second album out into the universe?
I guess we didn’t know what to expect. It’s been so long in between and things in the music industry change so quickly that we knew there would be no guarantee that anyone would even remember it, or that people would still be feeling the music like they felt the first album. We were really satisfied that we’d finished because there were a few times when we thought we might not even get it done. We just did not know how people were going to receive it, and it was so lovely the way that people seemed to really enjoy the second record.
So as you were saying, things have changed so much from a global perspective in the time between the two albums. Were there any particular events that influenced the content and composition of Wildflower?
It’s an interesting question – I mean for me, I don’t know if it’s just the age I was but just after September 11. Things just became more interesting in regards to people being more politically aware. I’ve noticed in the past couple of years that it’s no longer uncool for musicians to be politically outspoken but I can remember that ten years ago it was. Things were quite corporate and people wouldn’t really speak out about things – there’s been a big change.
In terms of the production between the two albums, sampling is a huge part of what you do. Wildflower was different because you guys used live vocals recorded specifically for the album – how did you decide who to work with?
We approached everyone – when we started the record we weren’t really thinking of getting live singers but sometimes it’s just a coincidence. Like the vocal sample for ‘Since I Left You’ – it was just a coincidence that the sample came along and happened to fit. I think we had some beautiful instrumental pieces of music and no vocals were happening so we started to think, “What about working with some singers?” because vocal samples for some things after a number of years just didn’t turn up and we wanted to get this record done. We wanted to do it in a way where the singers fit and that we would be able to choose people who really got where we were coming from – we didn’t want it to sound like The Avalanches with some big guest vocal. We wanted to do it in a way where sometimes you weren’t even sure if it was a sample or not.
How did you make contact with the artists you wanted to use?
We would just email them with what we were after. We would send them a track and chat a bit online, they’d try out a few ideas and we workshopped with people basically. It happened mostly over email.
So they would be in one place and you would be in another and all the magic happened online?
Sometimes! Danny Brown came out to our studio for one song and sometimes we would catch up with people but most of it was done online. This definitely wouldn’t have been possible when we were making Since I Left You – I don’t think I had email when I was making that record!
In regards to the thousands of samples that you used between the two records, do you have a favourite sample that you’ve ever used?
One of my favourites is a sample that Tony found by Tommy James and the Shondells that we used in ‘The Wozard of Iz’ on Wildflower. That’s a really cool one with this bizarre high-pitched ringing and I knew I would have been really disappointed if we weren’t able to clear that one. There’s also Chandra Oppenheim’s vocal on ‘Subways’ and things like that where the record just wouldn’t have been the same if permission to use them had been denied. Sometimes you really have your fingers crossed.
There are songs like ‘Subways’ where it’s such a big hook and an important part of the song where if you build a song around that and then you can’t have it, it would be devastating.
It is, and it was also like the third song into the record and keeping the momentum going so it would have affected the whole album – just one sample.
In that same vein, was there a concept laid down from the start or did you have to chop and change to make things fit?
I feel like the record found itself while we were making it. One of the problems with Wildflower was that we had too many songs that were started and none were finished – hundreds of little ideas and samples. So it found itself as we were putting it together to become this sort of journey – it was a journey to listen to from beginning to end and a journey for us to put it together.
Has there ever been a sample that you’ve desperately wanted and not been able to clear?
There was a Michael Jackson sample from one of his albums he did when he was a kid that was really cool called ‘Euphoria’. We could clear it but it was just going to be about a million dollars or something.
How do you go about sourcing all of the samples that you use?
That’s what’s so fun – I get to spend months going down rabbit holes of certain genres of music and following it to an artist or related artist or record labels … I discover whole new worlds and then burn out on them to move on to something else. It’s endless. It’s funny because we’ve just started making a new record now and I’m always surprised by the amazing records that I’ve never heard of. It’s just never going to end. But it’s wonderful how there’s always something incredible that you had no idea existed.
With the new material that you’re working on, was it a planned thing or more of a natural progression?
I think it’s just happened naturally because with Wildflower for so long we were just finishing it. We didn’t get that fun spark of writing new stuff for the last few years. Some of the songs have been around for so long that it feels like the end of an era – both Since I Left You and Wildflower feel like they’ve come from the same sort of record collection. I’ve sold my record collection and I’ve got no records now, so I can buy a handful of new records and experience that joy of discovery and new ideas. It’s about getting back to basics and having fun.
You guys are coming up here for the first time in a long time for the Sydney City Limits sideshows. For anyone who hasn’t seen it before, what can we expect from The Avalanches’ live show?
We’re really excited because the live show is really rocking now after being on the road overseas a lot this year. I feel like it’s been way too long since we played Brisbane. We love the energy of live instruments – Paris Jeffree, our live drummer is just a powerhouse and recreates all those samples from the albums. Standing in front of her while she goes crazy is unbelievable. It’s like a big party!