Few records are as resolutely heartbreaking as The Antlers’ 2009 breakthrough, ‘Hospice’. A concept record about an unnamed abusive relationship, itself framed around the narrative of a terminally ill patient and her loving, doting carer, the combination of those two fragile narratives made The Antlers’ second record an essential, if utterly devastating listen. More than a decade on, the record remains as potent as ever.
Now, with a tenth anniversary ticked off, the band have revisited the album for a special, celebratory re-release. Coming a full five years after ‘Familiars’, their most recent LP, it’s a celebration of a band who transcended bedroom production and introverted sentiment, to find a huge cult following of like-minded, emotionally available individuals.
The shows surrounding the release are set to up the fragility of the record several notches, with The Antlers stripping back the record and performing it in a reimagined, predominantly acoustic style as part of a brief world tour. We caught up with Antlers head honcho Peter Silberman to talk revisiting ‘Hospice’, the emotional impact of that album’s breakthrough, and a new, incoming Antlers record.
NME: When did the idea to revisit ‘Hospice’ first come around?
Peter Silberman: “The idea was first proposed to me about a year-and-a-half ago. The label here that had originally released it [Frenchkiss Records] had begun thinking about re-issuing the record because 10 years was coming up. I was kinda resistant to the idea, just because I was expecting that it would mean fully throwing myself back into that world and doing tonnes and tonnes of shows.”
“It started to feel like it could be a vehicle for just getting friends back together and playing these songs we know really well – an excuse to regroup and check back in with performing under The Antlers name again.”
Was that when you came around to the idea of these shows, then, if you were a bit resistant to that at first?
“Part of my resistance, initially, was that I’d been having vocal problems at the end of the touring for my solo record [2017’s ‘Impermanence’]. I took some time off from playing shows, and discovered that I had a vascular lesion on one of my vocal cords. I had to go through a procedure to have that removed, and do a lot of vocal therapy and voice rehabilitation, to basically re-train my voice to sing. So, I was reluctant to go back into a full-on touring cycle, because I just wasn’t sure how much my voice could handle at the time.
But part of the advice from my vocal therapist was to retrain my voice on songs that I’m very familiar with, to develop a better, different technique for taking care of my voice. I’ve sung these songs so many times – there’s probably no songs that I’m more familiar with than these – so it just started to feel like everything was coming together in a pretty logical way.”
How did it all start to develop from there?
“I spent the last year playing through these songs and playing mostly on an acoustic guitar, feeling like, ‘Yeah, this is attainable. This is doable’. I didn’t want to try and go out there and do a big, bombastic type of show, but something more subdued, or akin to when we’ve done radio sessions… We’d always rearrange the songs, and do acoustic versions or low-key versions of them, but we never did proper shows like that. It seemed like this would be a good way to see how that felt, and for me to have a target to work my voice towards.”
What do you remember of the original writing and recording of ‘Hospice’?
“My memories of it are that I had just moved into this apartment in Brooklyn, after moving out of a place in Manhattan. I was living with some people that I was friendly with, but didn’t know super-well – I came to know them over the course of living with them, but we were ships in the night; they did their thing and I did mine. I had a really small recording set-up in my bedroom, and in there I would just chip away at recordings. I would usually work on things usually late at night. My roommates were DJs, so they would leave the house late at night and come back at about 5AM. So, during that time, I had the place to myself and it was quiet. In that period of time, I was really into the witching hours, and that was a really creative time for me. It isn’t so much anymore, but back then it was really how I worked.”
“I was trying to process some kinda heavy stuff, and I was freshly out of the things that I was trying to write about”
– Peter Silberman
What about outside of the recording itself?
“I was in university at the time. I was really just trying to get through that, but meanwhile I was working on this thing in my head. That was my main focus. I was trying to get a band together, around what was pretty much just a solo recording project. But I didn’t really know a lot of people at the time, so it was easy to devote a lot of time to this.
“I was trying to process some kinda heavy stuff, and I was freshly out of the things that I was trying to write about. It was kind of a weird time. I don’t remember it particularly fondly, but I think my state of mind being what it was at the time, ad not feeling particularly grounded or sure of where things were headed, probably helped the process.
“There wasn’t really an audience at the time – it was kinda like screaming into a black hole, and I think that helped me make something a bit more vulnerable.”
There’s a certain irony in something so personal to you going on to become such a defining, breakthrough record for you. Was that odd?
“It was not expected. It was not really what I anticipated, and I think even in my wildest dreams of the record finding an audience, I didn’t expect it to be to the extent that it ended up happening.
“I remember feeling, while I was working on this thing, that if this didn’t resonate with somebody, then I wasn’t really sure what would. So it sort of felt like this… not ‘now or never’, exactly, but that I was going to throw everything I had into this. And if it didn’t do it? I’ve gotta rethink.”
That must be quite an isolating feeling?
“I think it wasn’t so much that people would hear it and shrug it off or be indifferent towards it, I think it was that we couldn’t break through enough for anyone to hear it. It was less about, ‘Is someone gonna like this?’ and more like, ‘Is someone gonna hear this?’ It was perplexing, at the time, how to get somebody to sit with something that you’d spent time on, and to hear it in the first place. Again, it felt like just throwing it into the void.
“The feeling I had while I was working on it was, ‘If the right person heard this – somebody who the story and feelings of the record resonated with – then I think it will speak to them. But I don’t know how they will ever hear it.’ The challenge, at that stage of my career, was how to not be invisible.”
‘Hospice’ is a record that’s resonated with a lot of people in a lot of very profound ways. How have you found that – something so personal being taken on by so many people over the years.
“When it first happened, it was very validating. But it also, when it got beyond a handful of people and started to balloon, it started feeling kind of surreal to me. It felt quite dreamlike – it was hard for me to wrap my head around. It’s like when someone tells you the number of stars in the universe. I’ve never seen that number of things! I was a bit in disbelief that that many people would be affected by it. It’s all relative, too – by some other standards, it’s not that many people, but for me, it was far, far more than I ever expected.”
It’s a very emotional, heartbreaking record too – how did it feel to have so many people relating to something that was so very sad? Is that slightly bittersweet?
“I think, though the record is certainly sad, I think what’s valuable about it is that there’s something cathartic and redemptive about it. The protagonist comes out the other side having realised something important about how to be in the world. How to regard yourself, and regard other people. How to keep from losing oneself – for me, that was the most important message to get across: to find strength in bottoming out.
“I think that keeps it from being too bleak of a record – the fact that there is some kind of hope in there. But it’s one that requires effort, after the realisation, to hold onto it.
‘The fact that it resonated with so many people speaks to the universality of suffering. I think everybody suffers in their own way. Being a Buddhist-leaning person myself, I do think that everybody is suffering in their own way, and that’s a fundamental part of being alive – it’s one of the few things that everyone has in common.”
How does it feel to revisit the headspace you were in back then?
“Yeah, but when I’m revisiting it now it’s from a pretty removed perspective. It’s been ten years since we put it out, it’s been 12 since I wrote it. I can look back on it now, and when I hear the record or play the songs, I’m not really reliving it, as much as I’m getting a glimpse into what my state of mind was at the time, and how I was interpreting my world and handling my life; how I understood it. And recognising that I’m not there now, and I’m very far from that state of mind. It makes me grateful that I went through that process back then, and I grew from it, and took some important lessons from that time. I consider myself in a much better place. It’s good to check in with who you were every so often.”
Have you thought much further ahead?
“I’m definitely taking most days day-by-day. That’s become my way of living – to try and have good days, and shape my way of living in a way that would be healthy and creative and fulfilling, to the best of my ability. But before we’d been gearing up for these shows, Michael and I had been in the midst of working on a new record – a new Antlers record – and I put it on the backburner for a minute while we get ready to go on tour. We’re gonna be wrapping up these shows in the spring, and then get back to the record.
“It’s been really nice to be working with him again, and just be thinking about what an Antlers record means in 2019, 2020, 2021. It was one thing, and it becomes another – the more we imagine how it changes, while holding onto its identity at the same time, the more room there is for growth.”
The Antlers’ re-issued ‘Hospice’ LP is out now via Transgressive/Frenchkiss. They play the following dates this year in support of the re-release:
17 – Seattle, WA, Fremont Abbey Arts Center
20 – Portland, OR, The Old Church
22 – San Francisco, CA, Great American Music Hall
23 – Los Angeles, CA, Masonic Lodge
26 – Boston, MA, The Sinclair
27 – Philadelphia, PA, World Cafe Live
28 – Washington, DC, Miracle Theatre
30 – Brooklyn, NY, First Unitarian Congregational Society
31 – Brooklyn, NY, First Unitarian Congregational Society
19 – Leeds, Belgrave Hall
20 – Manchester, Dancehouse Theatre
21 – Glasgow, St. Lukes
23 – London, Union Chapel
25 – Leuven, Hot Depot
26 – Amsterdam, Vondelkerk
28 – Copenhagen, Hotel Cecil
30 – Dublin, Sugar Club