From sticking his phone out the window to record the ringing of Northcote church bells to sampling music created by musicians who’ve passed, Robbie Chater summoned spirits to create The Avalanches’ latest intergalactic masterpiece We Will Always Love You.
Although sampling remains at the core of We Will Always Love You, Robbie Chater has said of The Avalanches’ third record, “It’s more writing chords around samples.” But found sound is also a defining element of the outfit’s trademark lush, multidimensional sonic universe. “Even if we’re working with other musicians – like, we’ve worked with a close friend of ours, Andrew [Szekeres], and he played a lot of keys and stuff on the album – I always go back to [found sound],” Chater explains. “I’m always just layering snippets of found sound, and that could be stuff I record on my phone. Like, at the start of Reflecting Light [feat. Vashti Bunyan & Sananda Maitreya], there’s the church bells from across the road from my house in Northcote. They used to ring every Sunday morning at 9am, and I stuck my phone out of the window and recorded them. I’m always doing that kind of thing and I’m really glad I did actually, because the bells stopped ringing when lockdown began and they’ve never come back since then. So it’s nice to have things like that documented in the music and I’ll always remember that now, whenever I hear that [track].”
When asked whether he religiously catalogues his field recordings, Chater reflects, “I used to be so good at it and we had the most extensive libraries, and especially during the 16 years of making [second album] Wildflower – the catalogues were huge! Huge digital catalogues of sounds in different categories. And I ended up realising I was spending most of my time doing that, and it became counterproductive. So I’ve let it all go, and now I’m just in the moment: if I record a sound, I’ll make a song with it that day. And I just try to be much more in the flow of the creative process, you know. I’m just much more spontaneous now and I think that’s what helped us make a record quicker, as well.”
On their two previous albums – 2000’s Since I Left You and 2016’s Wildflower – The Avalanches employed the services of LA-based sample clearance expert Pat Shanahan. Was her assistance also required for album number three? “We began clearing this record with Pat,” Robbie Chater tells. “Sadly, she passed maybe six weeks ago, and we got a lovely message from her husband. It’s very, very sad, ‘cause she’s such a part of music history and she was such an incredibly knowledgeable lady – she had the most wonderful stories from all the big record labels in the ‘60s and ‘70s – and she just was a character. We got a beautiful letter from her husband telling us that she’d passed and that she always spoke so fondly about us. So she was involved in the beginning of clearing this record and then the record label [EMI] were involved as well.”
Given the contacts and knowledge that Shanahan would’ve accrued over the years, we can’t imagine that there would be anyone else on the planet more suited to the job of clearing The Avalanches’ countless samples (Since I Left You contains over 3,500 vinyl samples!). “No,” Chater concurs. “[She was] unbelievable and knew every record label and every executive and was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll just call Jimmy Iovine (or whoever) and we’ll sort that out.’ She just knew everyone… And it’s such an interesting line of work. I mean, she would often be finding people who had inherited the rights to an estate, but they weren’t even aware, and she would be telling them, ‘Look, there’s this catalogue of music from years ago and it was your great-grandfather’s and I think you’re now the rights holder and we want to speak to you about licensing a track,’ and that kind of thing. You know, sometimes people aren’t even aware of the catalogues they own.”
So are there any unfinished songs from the WWALY sessions that might see the light of day down the track? “Yeah, I mean, there’s a wonderful song with Alexis [Taylor] from Hot Chip that we just couldn’t get finished in time. So we’re figuring out what to do with that; maybe he will release that, I’m not sure. There’s a few like that. There’s a bunch of Tricky songs that didn’t make it. We did a song with Allday as well that’s really cool.” Perhaps The Avalanches could release standalone singles, like Gorillaz did this year with their Song Machine project that then morphed into an album release – Song Machine Season One: Strange Timez – once they had drip-fed us enough tracks to compile into a collection. “Yeah, that’s what we’re chatting about now,” Chater reveals, “and whether we just do some standalone singles next year or – I mean, we’re doing a Since I Left You 20th Anniversary reissue next year as well, so we’re just sort of figuring out what next year will hold now. But, you know, knowing us, we’ll probably just want to make new stuff, I think.”
We absolutely adore one of Chater’s quotes from the album’s media presser: “When we sample the music of musicians who’ve passed it’s like summoning spirits.” Throughout We Will Always Love You, The Avalanches immortalise David Berman – the American musician, singer, poet and cartoonist best known for founding/fronting Silver Jews and Purple Mountains – via some wistful lyrical phrases: “The light of my life is going out tonight/ Without a flicker of regret.”
Of their special tributes to Berman, Chater enlightens: “David had contributed to the Wildflower album – he and I had worked together on the track Saturday Night Inside Out, at the end of the Wildflower record – and we just corresponded over years, actually, working on those lyrics. I’ve been through a period of a tough time with addiction,and other things in my life, and he’d been absolutely wonderful with me and an incredible support, and just incredibly sensitive, genuine – a beautiful soul. And, of course, his work – you know, separate to him as a person – it just touches so many people. And his way with words, his way of looking at life is – the way he can come up with the magic and the beauty in the everyday is really, really special. And we were still chatting and we were beginning this album, and he sent me some early lyrics from the Purple Mountains album that he was working on, and some of those lyrics fitted in this record, and he was fine with us incorporating a couple of lines. And then, you know, sadly, he passed… before the album had come out. It’s very sad.
“Hopefully his work lives on,” Chater continues. “He’s got a beautiful book of his writing called Actual Air that I’ve had for years, and that I always return to. I feel like when people discover David it’s like they’re gone, you know? They’re hooked for life.”
The legendary Mick Jones features on WWALY track We Go On, and Chater credits another of The Clash lead guitarist’s projects, Big Audio Dynamite, with opening his ears to sampling back in the ’80s, when a couple of their hit singles were thrashed on Australian radio. “My ears pricked up and I was like, ‘This isn’t a traditional record,'” Chater recalls. “I’d grown up with my dad’s record collection and he would listen to The Band and Bob Dylan and Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and stuff, and so that’s the music I knew when I was a little kid. And [hearing Big Audio Dynamite] was like, ‘What is this? It sounds like someone tuning a radio in to different stations.’ And, I guess you can follow that thought all the way through to our first record, Since I Left You; a lot of people say that’s what that sounds like, in a way. So I was really curious, and I think that’s what inspired me to go down that path and learn about sampling. The Globe and Rush were the two singles that were quite big out here, I think. I’ve still got them on vinyl!”
On whether he’s managed to drop Big Audio Dynamite into any of his DJ sets over the years, Chater says: “I’m always trying to fit them in, strangely. The last year or so I’ve become obsessed with trying to play The Globe when I’m DJing, but I can never seem to fit it in,” he laughs. So did Chater get to collaborate with Jones IRL on this one? “No,” he laments, “but I can still remember very clearly – we were in Sydney doing a show, and the vocals from Mick arrived overnight and they were pretty incredible! I just listened to them over and over again.”
Although lockdown made in-person collaborations impossible, Chater feels lucky The Avalanches were able to build some of these new album tracks in the presence of their chosen featured artists before COVID-19 gatecrashed the party. “We’ve got those wonderful memories now, of times I’ve spent in the studio with say, Leon Bridges – or Cornelius, who is a hero of mine – and just walking in there in the morning with no idea of what you’ll have, and walking out two days later and a beautiful piece of music’s been born; that was a brand new experience for me and it was really wonderful.
“And especially for guys like Tony [DiBlasi] and I who, you know, our previous two albums – they’re made entirely from samples, and it’s quite a solitary process, very time intensive and a lot of time [is spent] in the studio. So we just wanted to do something different – even for ourselves – and to experience a new [way] of making a record.”
While they were in the studio, Chater told Bridges the story of Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan – and “how her love-struck brain waves were sent out into space on the Voyager’s Golden Record” – which immediately inspired the singer (who was on Chater’s “all-time wishlist”) to create Interstellar Love. The creation of this song sounds spontaneous and effortless. “We caught up for a coffee the day before and just spoke about the song,” Chater recounts. “He had an early version of the music that I’d sent to him and then we were in the studio for one long, whole day. That morning we began with nothing, and by the end of the evening we had the song!”
With Druyan and Sagan’s “cosmic love story” inspiring this entire body of work, it’s fitting that a picture of Druyan graces WWALY‘s album cover. The photo was taken from a static-y TV before this was processed through a spectrograph – turning Druyan into sound then back again – to create the cover image. Does your brain hurt thinking about that? Ours, too! So what does a photo sound like? “The sound is kinda like [makes a noise that sounds like a ghost in the machine]. It just sounds like a dishwasher emptying or, like, you know when your modem’s playing up, or something like that? It’s crazy.” Seems a bit like that old-school, dial-up internet sound to us! “Exactly. Exactly. That’s the one,” Chater laughs. “Sometimes I feel like, ‘God, it’s just so much fun what we do from day to day!’ Like, even that process was hilarious… It’s been lovely collaborating with Jonathan Zawada on that, and all the artwork, and he’s just a wonderful person. So that whole side of the process has been a joy as well.”
We Will Always Love You explores “everlasting love as an undying vibration,” but this recurring theme never feels forced. “The concept was there pretty much from the start,” Chater offers, “and you’re right, it doesn’t feel forced, because it came from our own life experience and our own lived experience. And it’s a funny thing: when you tap into something personal, and if you’re sincere in that expression, you often find out later it’s incredibly universal as well. And I think that’s what we tried to mirror with the album, like a personal inner exploration of, say, our own mortality, and how our lost loved ones are all still with us. And then, in parallel to that journey, is the huge cosmic expanse of the universe.”
When asked whether he’s always been fascinated by all things intergalactic planetary, Chater admits, “Yeah, when I was a kid I was. Definitely. I was the biggest nerd and I had a space-shuttle doona cover,” he admits with a laugh. Did he also have a glow-in-the-dark galaxy on his bedroom ceiling? “Yes, I did!” he guffaws. “And it was hilarious, actually. When we were chatting to the label about promo ideas for this album – and things that could come with the album – all those sort of ideas came up. So it was fun to sort of reminisce about that.”
We Will Always Love You by The Avalanches is out December 11 via EMI.Buy now at JB Hi-Fi
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