Getting Reacquainted with The Antlers

Published July 24, 2014

ABOVE: THE ANTLERS. PHOTO COURTESY OF MARC LEMOINE

I met Peter Silberman just five years ago, though looking back, it now seems like an entirely separate lifetime. We connected the way a lot of people did in that era—through a random MySpace message—and found out that we had a lot in common, and not just due to the fact that we both were trying to make sense of a rapidly gentrifying Williamsburg. We were each leading nascent bands through the winding, dark hallways of the New York music world, emailing bookers and peers fervently; we each dove deep into home recording, obsessing over plugins and microphones; and we were both hungry for an audience greater than any we had played for or even imagined.

At the time, The Antlers were an evolving entity, though Silberman’s vision was direct and fully formed, as his breakout album Hospice clearly demonstrated. Intricately arranged songs that married his indelible falsetto with a lyrical depth captured the hearts of many, first here in New York, and slowly across the country. The Antlers are one of the few bands in modern music that are able not only to delicately straddle the divide between beauty and despair, but to make the dichotomy seem perfectly natural.

This range is again captured in Familiars, The Antlers’ new album for ANTI, which eschews drastic dynamic shifts, favoring slowly crescendoing waves of sound. Those who have followed the band’s development over the years won’t be surprised by this shift in energy—both Undersea and the (together) EPs saw tempos slowed and songs stretched past their breaking points—but the nine tracks that make up Familiars exhibit a newfound patience that feels intrinsically tied to a sense of bravery. Silberman and I spoke at length about the process of recording and what it means when you’re five albums into a project that was seemingly started by an unfamiliar past self.

LEO MAYMIND: How did Familiars evolve as the recording process unfolded? You were working on this one for a substantial chunk of time.

PETER SILBERMAN: I think I only came into the studio with a solid idea once or twice in these sessions. Most of these songs evolved out of lots of very long jams. We’d play for a few hours a day and leave a Zoom running in the corner of the room. After each week, Michael or I would scan through the recordings for ideas we wanted to take further. Then the two of us would play those ideas over and over again until they started to become second nature to us. We’d record a scratch version of each idea, and Darby would take them and work out parts on a bunch of different instruments while I took the same batch of ideas and worked on words.

Once we got to this stage, the process kind of plateaued for a while, I think because we were trying to figure out how to develop these ideas into more than they were on the surface. I spent a long time writing and rewriting lyrics, and at some point we moved on from this stage into a couple-month marathon of tracking… this got really intense toward the end, but then one day it was just done.

MAYMIND: So it wasn’t a situation of you bringing in nearly finished songs and the band arranging them in any way. Was this the most collaboration you guys have achieved?

SILBERMAN: For sure. Though in another sense, we each worked in an intensely private way. Once we’d established rough frameworks for these songs, we each went into our own world with developing our individual contributions. Collaboration is a really strange thing, especially as it evolves over time. It’s not so much about doing everything simultaneously as it is learning to respect one anothers’ creative boundaries and finding harmony.

MAYMIND: To me, Familiars definitely sounds to be the most “band-like” album you guys have made. It still makes use of a lot of cosmic textures but it has a much stronger sense of hearing people in a room together, playing music. Would you agree? Do you feel like it better encapsulates what it’s like to be in the room with you guys, surrounded by pedals and synths?

SILBERMAN: Yeah, I’d say so. That was definitely an important quality to get across with this. It’s weird, but once you start to hear the difference between assembling tracks and the sound of an actual band, it’s hard to unhear it. And we’ve been a band for awhile now, and the synchronicity we’ve developed is a big part of who we are, but it’s not always easy to capture that on a record. I was really intent on playing these songs for awhile before recording them, getting comfortable with them and seeing what subtlety came out of that.

MAYMIND: What do you think made you want to try to capture that subtlety and nuance? Obviously you guys have been playing a lot of shows for a while now, but I think many people that are familiar with your music definitely hear a duality between the records and the live show. The records have, at least to me, created their own universes to live in.

SILBERMAN: It was probably a lot of factors that contributed. I agree with you, there definitely has been a duality there, like we were two bands. I think I was wanting that live band to merge with the recorded one, or maybe to live in the world that we were creating. The chemistry of the live band started to make it feel like a living entity to me, so it felt natural to give it a home.

MAYMIND: You mentioned the fact that when the recording started, the three of you were a bit out of sync. I also remember talking to you about the album a while ago and you mentioned the recordings having a strong soul influence. How do you think the record shows that influence, aside from the fact that it is a more live-sounding album?

SILBERMAN: I think we made an effort to make this one feel like a soul record at times. There’s a loose, warm quality to soul music that always feels comforting to me. There’s also this earnestness in really great soul music that feels so genuine that it can be pretty moving. I think old soul bands have become the kind of band that I look to emulate, more than rock bands for sure. As for how the record shows that influence, it’s hard for me to say. I think it’s ingrained in us as musicians from listening to so much of that kind of music.

MAYMIND: So we’ve talked about the album creation a bit, but I wanted to delve into the narrative of this record. Antlers records have always had such a strong emphasis on narrative. The lyrics of “Intruders” tells this really fascinating, self-contained story—a lot of the allusions from this record make me think of some of the identity devices you used in Hospice, like assigning certain characteristics to things or people that weren’t necessarily what they seemed. Was that something you were doing consciously or do you think its just part of your writing process now?

SILBERMAN: It’s probably something ingrained in my process, but I think the difference this time was that almost all the characters in this one are the same person. I think there was generally more of an attempt to understand that person as a whole before dividing him up.

MAYMIND: How well do you think you understood that person by the end? Do you still feel like you are trying to understand him?

SILBERMAN: Yeah, I mean I frequently got caught in the trap of thinking I would fully understand that person by the time we were done with the record, but that’s like saying, “This time next year, I am going to understand myself completely.” It’s impossible. At some point in this whole process, I realized that I’d already come to more of an understanding of myself and would probably continue to little by little, so I tried to have the record imitate that process.

MAYMIND: Interesting. So as the record progresses, you are more willing to accept how much of yourself you understand? You come to peace with that as it progresses?

SILBERMAN: Yeah. Which is simultaneously more and less, you know? Generally speaking, the more answers you find, the more questions you have. Sometimes more insight comes when you stop trying so hard to understand yourself.

MAYMIND: Right. Stepping back from the glass so you can actually see its reflection. One thing that I continually thought of when listening to this record is how brave it is to me. You are now five albums in, in terms of Antlers records—which is a big achievement in its own right—but it must feel like it’s hard to connect to what you were doing that long ago, at least in some way. I think people go through so many changes so quickly these days, especially here in New York, where everything is evolving constantly.

SILBERMAN: I definitely feel a disconnect from the older material, but I think recognizing that disconnect is way healthier for me than to pretend I’m still the same person I was when I was 22 or 24. And New York is definitely a constantly evolving place. It doesn’t really ever settle in.

MAYMIND: That actually brings us to another thing I thought a lot about while listening to this record: this sort of clean break from the past. There are several spots in the lyrics that discuss that feeling, of breaking from a former self and starting anew, which I think is something that everyone can relate to, one way or another. I was walking my dog the other day past this born-again Christian center, and they had a big sign on their awning that said “Come Be Born Again with Us.” At first, I scoffed at how ridiculous that sentiment is to me, but then I sort of reconsidered and thought how comforting that must be to some people.

SILBERMAN: Totally! I’ve had that feeling a lot lately. Where I look at something like that, and will be like, “Oh, I get it. I see why you’d want that. Sure, being reborn would be great.” I think the reality of starting anew in your life is that you probably say it a number of times before it actually happens.

MAYMIND: Right, I doubt its something someone can jump into without hesitation. Part of that must be because they are cutting off their former self, which must be terrifying.

SILBERMAN: I think it helps people to have someone else to grab on to, like a savior-type figure.

MAYMIND: So why do you think these themes were prevalent in your writing this time around? What made you want to expand on that idea?

SILBERMAN: Well, honestly I was having what felt like a really intense spiritual awakening around the time we started the record. I hate to call it a “spiritual awakening,” because that phrase is so loaded. And I don’t really think of it in those terms, but I guess something like that was partly responsible. Maybe a change in consciousness would be a better way for me to put it.

MAYMIND: What brought it about?

SILBERMAN: I don’t know if anything in particular triggered it. I’d started exploring meditation for anxiety purposes, but over time it began to open this other world to me. Meditation and yoga and things of that nature tend to build on themselves, and depending on how you approach it, that kind of mindfulness can sort of infiltrate everything you do and help you see your world differently.

MAYMIND: In what way do you think doing meditation has changed your worldview?

SILBERMAN: In a lot of ways, meditation doesn’t really do anything. It’s sort of an intentional doing-nothing. As you know, New York’s a hard city to do nothing in, and I think we usually equate doing nothing with being lazy, but the two are actually pretty different.

MAYMIND: Yeah, very much. I feel like that’s a very uphill battle in New York.

SILBERMAN: For sure. It’s like the worst place to attempt this, but I’ve found it pretty necessary in order to keep living here. But this doing-nothing is like making the mind still, which is especially useful if you find yourself with thoughts colliding in your head nonstop. So finding that point of stillness for myself was helping for my whole creative flow. A lot of the time, it’s about sitting with yourself instead of trying to escape yourself. At this point, it’s insanely easy to escape ourselves.

MAYMIND: I feel like everything is sort of designed as an escape from yourself these days. You are always sucked into some little screen, so you’re never dealing with your own self and the things that are building up inside of you.

SILBERMAN: It gets even trickier with things like Facebook because that lets you compartmentalize yourself in a really creepy way.

MAYMIND: This record seems to be critical of yourself—or at least, parts of yourself. Maybe its easier to criticize yourself than anything external because you feel ownership of it.

SILBERMAN: Yeah, I find it very easy to criticize myself. But I made a real effort to make the criticism of myself constructive. “Tough love,” as if your good friend is shaking sense into you and telling you, for your own good, that you’re being an idiot.

FAMILIARS IS OUT NOW. THE ANTLERS WILL PLAY WEBSTER HALL THIS SATURDAY, JULY 26. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, PLEASE VISIT ITS WEBSITE.