“Take him out! TAKE HIM OUT!” two men shout on a serene street in Northcote. Mafia bosses? Footy fans excited about AFL trade week? Gamers?
No. It’s The Avalanches, re-enacting the ‘guerrilla tactics’ they employed to complete their third album while separated from each other during Melbourne’s punishing but necessary lockdown.
And they’re getting a little carried away.
“Boy, it was hard,” begins snowy-haired Robbie Chater. “We couldn’t even see each other and we’re trying to finish our record and– ” His bandmate Tony Di Blasi swoops in: “I’d come down to get a coffee and go, ‘WHOA! Fancy bumpin’ into you here!?’”
The duo would then take a little walk around the block, Di Blasi says, surreptitiously updating each other on their progress.
“I’d say” – Di Blasi brings his hand to his mouth, his voice dropping to a whisper – “‘Okay, this track is finally done’. It was like an old-school mafia meeting,” he says, a nice nod to his mother country. “We couldn’t speak indoors – you have to walk around so the FBI can’t hear you. ‘These BVs need to go, TAKE HIM OUT!’” he mutters, full Tony Soprano style, then leans into NME’s recorder and apologises to the Victorian Premier: “Sorry, Dan.”
Sounds like a big vibe? It is. The Avalanches’ third album ‘We Will Always Love You’ has been completed in record time and we have 90 minutes to talk about it.
Sparrows dart overhead, trams ding, music wafts out of café speakers, trucks snort up High St, the sun flirts through the trees and a waitress brings coffee, extravagant egg brunches and Prosecco.
The atmosphere is the metaphysical embodiment of an Avalanches album: a utopian realm tinged with sadness. Victorians have all been legally required to stay in their houses for months, the hell away from each other, as COVID-19 worked its wicked way around the state.
It’s warm but a sprinkle of rain means we must move from the courtyard to the street. “I’m ordering umbrellas as we speak,” quips the café owner who only had six months to prepare for such a moment.
“Have a drink, have a good time, welcome to paradise.”
“It was our first time out yesterday,” beams Chater, one of the two original members remaining in the band that started as Quentin’s Brittle Bones in 1997. Di Blasi is the other boxer still in the ring. “Last night I was in bed thinking, ‘I can’t wait to wake up and go to the café again!’” he says, balling his fist up with glee.
There’s an air of victory about them. As well they should – The Avalanches are just about to release ‘We Will Always Love You’, roping in a stunning list of collaborators to tell the story of the Golden Voyager Record and the romance of Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan.
“‘Wildflower’ was its own record, at the end we felt cleansed. We were able to let go of things” – Tony Di Blasi
“We were gonna call the album ‘Pink Champagne’. The cover was gonna be a pink exploding galaxy, that famous photo of a nebula,” Chater reveals. “But it sounds like Drake. We’re probably not cool enough to get away with that title. In the end we chose the love theme. This record is personal and extremely universal at the same time.”
“It’s about life on a vibrational level,” he continues, then adds a disclaimer, “without sounding too trippy, too ‘namaste’.” Chater has been doing his best to keep zen during a pandemic.
“This year has been a mixture of feeling great because we got a record down and we put out lots of music… and other times you feel yuck, everything’s a nightmare –” Chater says, Di Blasi crossfading in, “– often on the same day! I’m not the most social person in the world and I was like, ‘I’m gonna smash this lockdown!’ And then within three weeks I just missed doing this,’” he says, pointing to the meek brown table between us.
Both members have been receiving the JobKeeper supplement after their 2020 earnings took a hit compared to 2019. “We are really lucky,” Di Blasi says, then lightens the mood. “I’m gonna get another flat white and be insane for about 20 minutes.”
When The Avalanches released their debut album ‘Since I Left You’ 20 years ago this week, they built themselves a vertiginous masterpiece that for a decade and a half appeared insurmountable.
“‘Since I Left You’’s shadow got bigger and bigger every year,” Di Blasi says, concerned eyes like dinner plates.
“I still remember four years [after it was released] my girlfriend at the time said, ‘You know people say it’s a really classic record?’” Chater recalls. “I’d never heard anybody say that. I just heard all the shit I should’ve done better.”
“Now it’s 20, the little kid’s all grown up!” Di Blasi exclaims through a mouth full of bacon and avocado.
“I have a great relationship with the album now,” Chater says. “It sounds like a very young me made it. It’s naïve, heart-on-sleeve, it was never cool or ironic. It was passionate, of the moment, full of joy.”
“Very pure!” chirps Di Blasi.
“It’ll get the birthday it deserves in April next year when we reissue it in the UK,” Chater says.
“We were gonna call the album ‘Pink Champagne’ – but it sounds like Drake” – Robbie Chater
The Avalanches came back 16 years later with ‘Wildflower’. “We went through seven layers of shit,” says Chater.
“Only seven?” counters Di Blasi, then adds, “‘Wildflower’ was its own record, at the end we felt cleansed. We were able to let go of things.”
Somehow, they stuck the landing. ‘Wildflower’ was another sample-based record but with features from luminaries such as Danny Brown, Father John Misty, Toro y Moi, MF Doom and more. It produced ‘Subways’, ‘Because I’m Me’ and the polarising electro-swing of ‘Frankie Sinatra’. The album earned an 83 on Metacritic to ‘Since I Left You’’s 89.
After they nailed the touring cycle for ‘Wildflower’ and paid off some debts, the two quickly got to work making more music.
“We had a discussion at the start of the third album,” Chater says. “If we make another record like the first two, even if it’s amazing, it’s still the same as the first two. People know what they’re gonna get.”
It was decreed they’d rely less on ‘plunderphonics’, the vinyl sample collage genre they refined along with DJ Shadow and The Beastie Boys.
They came, they plundered, they evolved.
“I don’t want to be on my own for six, eight years. [With sample-based music] it’s [an] extraordinarily time-consuming [process]. I want to live an awesome life,” Chater pleads. ‘Since I Left You’ contained approximately 900 samples. ‘We Will Always Love You’ “still contains hundreds and hundreds samples,” Chater emails later, “fragmented across the record.”
“I know there’s hardcore fans who say, ‘I love it when you just work with samples’,” Di Blasi elaborates. His response? “I remember being a kid when ‘Achtung Baby’ came out and that left-turn gave U2 another 20 years of their career.”
“With this album we got to have this experience with these amazing people – heroes of ours like Cornelius – days of laughing and making music. It doesn’t matter what happens with this record once it’s released because we had a great FUCKING time making it,” Chater whisper-shouts the expletive.
The Avalanches have a rule regarding collaborators: they only work with artists ready to make a bittersweet symphony. That’s life. Prior to any recording agreement, Chater gives potential suitors notes about his own journey: specifically his battle with alcoholism as a teen, the auto-immune disease issues in his 20s, and being part of a wildly successful band that splintered off from six members down to two and for a long time became known as one-album wonders.
When The Avalanches make an album, they don’t want it to be “a hodge podge”, Di Blasi says. “We don’t want it to be like a David Guetta album where it’s just a song featuring a guest vocalist. Robbie’s notes were so important to get everyone on the vibe. And if they weren’t on the vibe, then we wouldn’t make the track, no hard feelings.”
“I have a great relationship with ‘Since I Left You’ now… It’s naïve, heart-on-sleeve, it was never cool or ironic” – Robbie Chater
But ‘We Will Always Love You’ doesn’t merely have guests; each artist embosses themselves into the art – they become Avalanches. Guests are billed on specific songs, but you’ll still hear a wisp of their voices elsewhere on the record’s 25 (!) tracks: a snatch of Leon Bridges, a dash of Sampa The Great, a light dusting of Pink Siifu.
“Rivers is so funny. He has a spreadsheet of his best phrases he’s kicking around. His assistant sent it to us and said, ‘You can choose one’. We thought we’d get greedy. He can only say no!?” says Di Blasi.
“We chose three and he said ‘Okay’. It was the first vocal we got back for the album – that guy can write a hit. We heard ‘Running running red lights’ and automatically the hook was there,” Chater says. “I can tell he loves Brian Wilson as much as we do. We both love that melancholy. People miss that about Rivers.”
Cuomo isn’t the only megastar on the record who brings their A-game: Sananda Maitreya appears on ‘Reflecting Light’ with Vashti Bunyan.
Sorry, who? Maitreya is the artist formerly known as Terence Trent D’arby, a man who sold a million albums in three days in the UK in 1986 – then never matched that initial burst. Collaborating with a reincarnated ’80s pop star dovetails with The Avalanches’ melancholic through-line.
‘Reflecting Light’ has a sturdy, economical drop. Less is more. “Tony was big on insisting that when you have that voice you don’t need all these distractions, the usual layers of Avalanches shit,” Chater chuckles. “That’s one of the best voices in the world. It is incredible.”
Chater has the guilts, though. “Sananda emails me nearly every day. I’ve got five from him I haven’t replied to. I feel like a bad friend. His emails are these really long works of art, like Hunter S. Thompson with Shakespeare.” Tricky sent shorter missives as they worked on six tracks, two of which made the record. “He’s the opposite of Sananda. Tricky sends: ‘Dude, fire. What else you got?’”
“there’s hardcore fans who love it when we just work with samples. But the left-turn of ‘Achtung Baby’ gave U2 another 20 years of their career” – Tony Di Blasi
An even more low-key Englishman guided the high-impact moment on the album: ‘Wherever You Go’, a hot potato based around a Latin groove and fruity Brazilian sample, featuring Neneh Cherry, CLYPSO and Jamie xx. “Jamie is just a fucking sweetheart,” Di Blasi says.
Chater speaks in a reverent tone: “Jamie called that song the banger. He’d say, ‘Just send me the banger’. The whole song was slow, he sped it up. He was like ‘Damn this BPM, man! It’s not gonna stand’.”
We can rejoice that the shy giant put his foot down to give an unsure world the most ankle-breaking, dancefloor-galvanising jam of 2020. Neneh Cherry sounds 20 again, and CLYPSO’s breakout moment must be noted, too. “CLYPSO is from Sydney – what a bubbly, kind, energetic, fucking beautiful person. We made a new friend,” Chater says, beaming again.
The album art of ‘We Will Always Love You’ lifts the whole thing, too, tying in with another Robbie rabbit hole: The Golden Record, a gold-plated record that was aboard The Voyager spacecraft that blasted off into the cosmos in 1977. Designed to last a billion years, the record contains hundreds of images and sounds – including the heartbeat of American writer Ann Druyan.
“She was compiling the Golden Record and had planned to record her heartbeat and put it on there in case aliens ever found it one day,” Chater says, a tram double dinging in the background like a meticulously placed sample.
The day before Druyan was to record her heartbeat, American astronomer Carl Sagan proposed. “And so it’s the sound of her heart in love and it will be out there forever now,” Chater says, swooning. “When we found out we were all melting. God, that is fucking beautiful.”
“That’s when it became truly cosmic,” he says as they both motion their arms above their shoulders towards the heavens like al fresco hype-men. They reached out to Druyan and asked if they could interview her about Sagan (who passed away in 1996) and the Golden Record.
The Avalanches have good form in this area. On ‘Since I Left You’ they asked Madonna’s people if they could use a brief snippet of ‘Holiday’ in ‘Little Journey’. Madge said yes.
On ‘Wildflower’, they wanted to use a recording of Kew High School Choir singing The Beatles’ ‘Come Together’ on ‘The Noisy Eater’ and were initially refused. Di Blasi went through “friends of friends” to get a letter to Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono explaining their process, and in return were granted approval.
Likewise, Druyan gave the green light. She was all set to appear on the album, studio time was booked and then… nothing.
“We were like, ‘Oh man, she’s been the linchpin of this album. Did we do something wrong? Did she go on Spotify and listen to the music and hate it?’ Literally, like the night the day before the interview she cancelled,” says Di Blasi.
“Then I think Robbie found the image of her that ended up being the cover art and I was like, ‘Man, there’s no way she’s gonna let us use it’. We asked anyway and the next day we got approval to use the picture!”
Four arms go up again. “It was just amazing we got her presence on the cover.”
The sun rises higher and is properly courting us now. Chater becomes reflective.
“We were thinking about vibrations and voices of people we’ve sampled from the last 70 years. It’s someone’s voice that’s past but their soul is coming back.”
“I read a beautiful book I found in a junk store called The Recording Angel. This guy [author Evan Eisenberg] talks about the very personal experience of playing a record and it’s almost like a séance; you’re summoning ghosts from the past. I just love that idea because I feel that’s what we’ve always done with sampling. I was reading that every radio broadcast ever is still floating out there in the cosmos: John Lennon’s voice, Elvis’s voice, Beyoncé’s voice, they’re all still out in space.”
Sagan and Druyan, Lennon and McCartney, Chater and Di Blasi.
“Now we’re just a regular band instead of the band who made an amazing debut everyone’s talking about,” Chater says. “I remember Tony said, ‘I just wanna be a normal band and put out records every three years!’”
Chater laughs as Di Blasi crossfades in for a final thought, a wild grin reaching each ear: “From seven shades of shit to the seven shades of light.”
The Avalanches’ ‘We Will Always Love You’ is out December 11