“I think we were almost a bit afraid to take it too seriously…”
Ahead of The Avalanches’ live set at Brisbane’s inaugural Sweet Relief! festival, we check in with Robbie Chater – one half of the legendary plunderphonics duo – to discuss sliding into Tricky’s DMs, sampling frogs, mid-set marriage proposals and their upcoming fourth album (which may or may not feature Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor).
During a previous interview with this scribe, Robbie Chater mentioned “a wonderful song” The Avalanches had been working on with Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, which they didn't finish in time to include on their previous album, We Will Always Love You (2020). As a mad fan of both The Avalanches and Hot Chip, we’re super-keen for an update. “Well, funnily enough, last summer in England we went [into the studio with Alexis] with the intention of trying to finish that one and we actually made another one with him that we like even more!” Chater teases, laughing. “So now we've got two unfinished ones that we're not sure what to do with. But I was speaking to [Alexis] the other day and I think we're gonna try to finish this new one quite soon. I think we're just gonna finish them and then figure out what to do with them – if they’ll just go on our record or if he wants to release them – yeah, I'm not sure.”
So The Avalanches are currently working away on a new album, then? “Yeah, we’re just finishing off a bunch of our own stuff for our next record and still sorta writing some more stuff as well. So we don't really have a deadline, but we're just enjoying the process and chipping away at it… We probably need a deadline soon, actually.”
When asked whether their musical approach has changed at all, going into album number four, Chater offers, “It's still pretty much the same. I mean, it's still working with samples and just trying to find this beautiful moment in a sample to kick off an idea. It's a lot more flexible, though: I can work in the park or at a café or go around to a friend's place with my laptop and, you know, I'm probably sampling a bit less vinyl now [FYI: their debut album Since I Left You (2000) contains over 3,500 vinyl samples!] just because I like to be freer and move around, and I don't wanna always be tied down to the record collection or record player, you know? But essentially it's the same.”
Field recordings are also a defining element of The Avalanches’ trademark lush, multidimensional sonic universe. So what would some of the strangest found sounds they've incorporated into tracks be? “I dunno, there's lots and lots of strange sounds,” Chater chuckles. “And some of the things on this new record that we're doing at the moment – I mean, there's some frogs and lots of insects, and bird sounds...”
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The other day, Warm Ride by Graham Bonnet smart-shuffled its way in amongst one of my playlists, which inspired a thrilling aha moment of recognition (‘cause it’s sampled on the soaring, euphoric Subways by The Avalanches). When asked why identifying samples is so much fun, Chater excitedly admits, “I don't know! I was actually speaking to Tony [Di Blasi, fellow Avalanche] about this the other day. Because on our previous record – I mean, there were still lots of samples, but we were working with some guest vocalists. But we were speaking about it, because we've got quite a few tracks on this new record that are just made from samples – a bit more like our first album – and we were just sort of discussing that and going, ‘What is the magic in combining sounds from different eras and the feeling it gives you?’ And we were saying the same thing: that we just never get sick of it. It's kind of addictive.”
Of how The Avalanches typically make contact with artists they wish to collaborate with, Chater shares, “It just depends, really, case by case. Sometimes we’ll go direct [to the source], if we know someone – if it's a friend or if they’re a friend of a friend of ours.” So have they ever slid into an artist’s DMs? “We did that with Tricky,” he reveals. “That was really great. And it's often just a timing thing. When we were speaking to him, he was in Berlin. I think he was working on his own record, but was a little bit stuck. But he still had the studio time and so we were literally sending tracks, like, within an hour and he was sending vocals back. And we did about four or five songs, I think, and then our manager got an email from his manager who said, ‘I hear that the guys are all working together and I don't want Tricky to get too distracted, he needs to get back to his record,’ or whatever [laughs]. But that's the best, when it's just artist to artist, you know? You get stuff done and it can be really immediate.”
When reaching out to dream collaborators, Chater humbly admits, “We never expect anyone to really have heard of us or to know what we're doing.” So they’re often pleasantly surprised when the answer is yes? ‘Yeah, yeah that’s happened a lot. I mean, that happened with Sananda [Maitreya, FKA Terence Trent D'Arby] and that's the experience on most occasions, actually.”
We had always wondered what became of Terence Trent D'Arby until Maitreya appeared within We Will Always Love You’s tracklisting. So how did The Avalanches manage to track him down? “I can't remember how we found him, actually,” Chater ponders. “I think it was just asking around and maybe someone at the record label had a connection to his management. But then we ended up dealing with him directly and it became such a beautiful experience of just emailing back and forth. And I’d be chatting away to him, or his wife would email sometimes, and we felt like we really got to know the rhythm of their life and their family, and what time they’d be up in the morning and what time he’d be working on music. And he'd send lyrics back or we’d do an edit of his voice and send it back and forth – it was just so low-key and relaxed and fun, you know? It was an unbelievable experience. And just to hear that voice – it’s a voice that doesn't come around very often: to receive an email and press play and it's, like, this incredible voice coming out of the speakers was quite an experience.”
When asked whether he’s saved – and treasures – correspondence from some of his dream collaborators to date, Chater replies, “Absolutely. I've still got all the emails from Sananda, that was just an incredible time with correspondence. And also from when we worked with David Berman [the late American musician, singer, poet and cartoonist best known for founding/fronting Silver Jews and Purple Mountains], I really treasure that friendship and all that correspondence. I recently got some beautiful photos from Karen O with the books she was reading while she was writing lyrics for our stuff. Stuff like that is really special.”
Prior to releasing their game-changing debut, The Avalanches experimented with many different band names. “I think we were almost a bit afraid to take it too seriously,” Chater reflects, “so we were always having these stupid names that we’d borrow from op shop records. I'm trying to remember what we were called – oh, we were called Alarm 115 for a while when we were playing guitars very early on. And then we thought we'd change it every show until we eventually got a record deal, and then we’d keep whatever one we had. And that was The Avalanches. It was from a surf-rock band called The Avalanches.”
Since I Left You’s title track is ‘our song’ to so many people all over the globe. Did Chater feel like The Avalanches were onto something while creating their signature song? “Yeah, I remember this strange feeling of all the pieces falling into place and not even kind of knowing what it was, which I think in retrospect is a really positive thing. I was like, ‘I don't even know what this is, but I know I like it.’ But it was so new to me that I didn't sorta know how to process it at first. And then it took me playing it to the other guys, really – and a little bit of time – until I was kinda like, ‘This is really great’. And then I remember – ‘cause I had to burn CDs back then. So you’d finish work at the end of the day and burn a song onto a CD, and go for a walk. And I remember walking around Melbourne listening to it in the summer through the headphones of my CD Walkman thinking, ‘Oh, this is really cool! I think this is great.’
“Someone proposed when we played Since I Left You in London last summer, so that was pretty special. They got in touch in advance and he jumped up on the stage in a gap between songs, and we waited while he proposed and then she said yes and we played Since I Left You. So, yeah! That was pretty amazing.”
Brisbane Festival, Queensland Music Trails and Untitled Group present Sweet Relief! @ Maritime Green, 16 Sep.