The Antlers: Touring is “a lot like speed dating”

Posted December 5

Welcome to another edition of the O Music Blog’s Music Meter Monday, a column where we highlight a band who is tearing up the MTV Music Meter. This week, guest writer Douglas Riggs caught up with The Antlers to talk touring, Best of 2011 lists and, naturally, dolls.

It’s easy to empathize with the Brooklyn band The Antlers. They’ve spent the last few years constructing a sound that explores how intense experiences take up residence inside us, only to expand and beat upon the walls, looking for a way out. Of course this kind of scrutiny and self-reflection can get a little heavy. Aware of all this, the band has forged ahead with its sound. It’s safe to say there’s light pouring in once-shuttered windows and complex electronic synths have swept away some of that insular distortion.

In 2011 The Antlers released their sophomore full-length record Burst Apart, a follow up EP (together) and committed themselves to an extensive tour that found the band crossing the Atlantic several times over the past few months. Prior to their show in Hamburg, Germany, the O Music Blog got a chance to speak with multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci about touring, the groundswell of critical acclaim, and what’s in store for the band in 2012.

So you’re winding down the latest European leg of a tour begun in mid-August. How does it feel to be performing in a different country every other day? Did any venue or cities give you guys a particularly lively welcome?

I think it’s a lot like speed dating. I’ve never been speed dating or anything, but I imagine it’s very intense, and you probably learn to pick up on subtleties about people very quickly. You won’t remember anyone’s name, but there will be qualities about everyone that you’ll instantly be attracted to. You’ll remember the little things, but the whole experience will be a blur. At the moment I’m looking out the window at German windmills with cool red stripes on the propellers. I hope I remember them. The thing about tour, though, is you’ll probably be back to these same cities again, but you’ll never have enough time for a second date.

Did The Antlers do anything special to celebrate Thanksgiving ‘on the road’? I imagine things like cranberry sauce might be difficult to come by.

We were in Amsterdam the day before, and we smoked a lot, had steaks, mashed potatoes and gravy, and space cakes. Thanksgiving day we were in Berlin. I came down with some sort of food poisoning or virus or something, so my Thanksgiving dinner was crackers and juice. I tried to imagine the crackers tasting like turkey, but it didn’t work very well. They just tasted like crackers.

The gathering tide of year’s end ‘Best of’ lists will likely meet you on your return. I’ve already seen a few and Burst Apart is popping up all over. The recognition must feel rewarding, no?

Definitely rewarding. Absolutely. Although I’ve come to immunize myself against the press over the last couple years. When we made Burst Apart, I was intensely focused on what I wanted to hear, and tried to make the record I wanted to play at my house and love intensely. It’s what I imagine having a child would be like. You love them and are proud of them no matter how bad their grades are or what trouble they get into. I always want that relationship with my records, and I won’t ever turn my back on them.

The thing about the press, I think, is that if you derive too much happiness and fulfillment from positive reviews, then the negative reviews have a direct path into your heart and mind. I want to keep them both at a distance, because I don’t want negative reviews to affect my creativity or ever influence me, however subtlety, to ever second-guess myself.

Looking back a little bit, the 2009 LP Hospice had a lot of small rooms, beds and troubled sleep. Burst Apart imagines windows, open doors and wings (however broken or otherwise impaired they might be). Can you elaborate on this thematic shift?

During Hospice, we all felt quite stuck in one place. Stuck at a job, stuck in a small apartment, no opportunities, no optimism. Since then we’ve gotten out of the house a bit more. Nowadays pretty much to the extreme. Feeling trapped or confined can be traumatic. But lacking any sense of grounding or consistency or familiarity can be equally unsettling. And equally lonely. If you don’t believe me, spend every night in a different hotel room for two years, and see how you change.

You guys self-produced and engineered Burst Apart over a period of 5 months last fall. Can talk about how the three of you record together? Maybe the story behind a particular song’s evolution or one that failed to make the album?

There weren’t any songs that didn’t make the album, we just kept recording until we made the record we wanted. It certainly didn’t start with ‘songs’ like traditional recording processes. Vocals were pretty much the last thing to be written. We basically just get to the studio in the morning and start recording whatever we feel like, until there’s some sense of unified chords, or sections at least, sections that sound like choruses and verses, and then we start piecing together sounds until a song structure starts taking form.

We record digitally, so we can move whole sections around and everything to force the song into a particular shape. There’s no rehearsing or practicing or anything. It’s just record, record, record and then listening back for things that sound cool or happy accidents or anything surprising. It’s not really songwriting. It’s recording.

Burst Apart was followed up by the recently released EP (together). After such a relatively self-contained Antlers-centric recording process what was it like making the transition to the remix mentality? Was it invigorating to work with other bands and artists? Did you get to see your work in a new light?

Absolutely. I love working with new people, especially people that I’m friends with or have toured with in the past. I feel like I know what they’re like musically, and it’s amazing to get to bring it all together and see what happens. Although the only remix on the record is from PVT. They did that on their own and just sent it over when it was done. The three collaborations were all done in one day at our studio, with basically zero rehearsal.

The rest are things we’d had sitting around that we didn’t think we’d ever have a good time to release. ‘Tongue Tied’ is a song I wrote for my side project, that we ended up recording and submitting for the third Twilight movie. It was rejected obviously, so it just sat around while I was working on a different version of it.

This blog covers digital music, technology and social media. Have you found yourself using anything in particular to stay in touch with friends while on tour? Or do you utilize some web service or gadgetry to give yourself a creative outlet?

Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, iPhones, pretty much the same way I keep in touch when I’m home. As far as creatively, Ableton is such an amazing tool to make music when you’re on the road. Even though we tour with tons of instruments and microphones and things, when you actually have any free time (if ever), you pretty much only have your laptop with you. Ableton is pretty self-sufficient if you want to experiment or sample or program music.

You’re active on Twitter under the handle of your side project @minusgreen. Apologies if it is kind of an obvious question, but what’s with all the doll photos?

Hmm, I think the only ‘obvious’ answer would be that I’m actually some kind of serial killer or pedophile or something. Which I’m not! Dolls are everywhere is you start to look for them. Many sit in dusty boxes in forgotten shelves of some truck stop or toy store. To adults they can be terrifying, morose or creepy in some way. But to children, they are imaginary friends, with thoughts, feelings and personality. I think it’s all about how innocence, once comforting to us, has become frightening.

Could you speak a little bit about how Minus Green builds off of or departs from your work with The Antlers?

Well Minus Green is two things: First, it was the name of a record I made a few years ago back when The Antlers was just starting out. I might rework some of those songs, but I’d rather forge ahead. Second, it’s what I’ve named my new side project that you’ll hear very soon. It’s completely separate and different from The Antlers. I have an EP that will be done most likely by January.

I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies as research, and have spent a lot of time trying to imagine what it would be like to be a serial killer. In a good way. The EP uses a lot of machine-like synth textures to make organic washes of sound. I really like the idea of giving personality to inanimate objects — you know, giving real emotions to machines and appliances and things. I think there’s something really fascinating about something (or someone) soulless, who’s viewed by others to be human.

Thanks for taking to time to chat, Darby. A few closing questions. Are there any records you are particularly looking forward to listening to or artists heading out on tour you’d love to see next year? Can we expect to hear anything else from The Antlers in 2012?

We’re going to start recording again when we get home, so, yes definitely. We won’t have time to finish a full-length, but I don’t think any of us want to. It’s such a big process releasing a full-length and doing all the promotions and touring behind it, so we’d like to do something quick and simple. But definitely all new material. As far as new records and tours, I honestly don’t know who’s scheduling releases early next year! Sharon Van Etten’s record comes out soon though, and I know for a fact it will be phenomenal.

By Douglas Riggs