The Avalanches’ debut album Since I Left You took the art of sampling to new heights — but it has taken them 16 years to finish the follow-up!
Not many bands wait 16 years to follow up their critically acclaimed and highly successful debut album. But in the case of Melbourne’s sample-collage outfit the Avalanches, various circumstances led to a gap of more than a decade and a half between 2000’s Since I Left You and this year’s Wildflower — circumstances which included the three-year-long auto-immune illness of core member Robbie Chater, along with cabin fever-inducing studio perfectionism and virtually endless sample clearance. But even if the formerly six-piece band are now a duo comprising Chater and Tony Di Blasi, their kaleidoscopic sound is now even more fully realised and impressive. Wildflower takes inspiration from the pioneering approaches of ‘60s producers such as Phil Spector and Brian Wilson and applies modern, dance-style cut-up techniques to them.
Still, Chater acknowledges that creating music from intricate patchworks of thousands of samples is a slightly insane pursuit. “It is,” he laughs. “It’s quite insane. It definitely drove us mad at times. But I’ve always been interested in manipulating sound since I first started recording with four-track tape recorders when I was a teenager. It was a way to marry my love of strange pop music like weird Beach Boys with hip-hop production techniques. When you’re a young, broke musician it’s a great way to get grand sort of orchestral sounds off other people’s records, when you can’t afford an actual orchestra. Also, it’s just loving music and the history of music. When you’re manipulating samples, it plays with time, and the history of the recording you’re using comes into play. All those things are really attractive.”
Since I Left You was painstakingly stitched together from more than 3500 samples, and Wildflower actually features even more, to the point where Chater lost count somewhere down the line and now can’t properly estimate how many were involved. “I’ve got no idea,” he admits. “There’s so many fragments and individual sounds, and it was made over such a long period of time.”
A seamless, hour-long journey through sound which melds soul, hip-hop and psychedelia, and features guest singers including Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue, Jennifer Herrema (formerly of Royal Trux), Father John Misty and rappers including Danny Brown and MF Doom, Wildflower is a dazzling sonic achievement. At certain points during its long gestation, however, the Avalanches themselves were unsure if it would ever be finished. “There were lots of hurdles along the way and things going on in our personal lives,” Chater says. “But also it was just the scale of the project. It was like making a movie.”
If there’s a loose cinematic theme to Wildflower in the heads of its creators, it’s one of a road trip, where the listener begins in an urban environment before setting off on a psychedelically hued journey to, as the duo put it, “the sea or desert or countryside”. The ingenious use of filtered and pitched samples floating in and out of the mix — from such diverse sources as ‘40s calypso singer Wilmoth Houdini, pre-teen post-punk New York artist Chandra, Paul McCartney, Bobby Goldsboro and comedian Jerry Lewis — often sound like broken transmissions from competing radio stations.
Initially, though, when they began working on it back in 2003, Chater and Di Blasi decided to try to incorporate more of their own playing into their second album. “I think that was just our natural curiosity,” says Chater. “It didn’t last for that long. We were inevitably drawn back to sampling. There’s just something about it that we’re always drawn back to.”
In 2006, the Avalanches announced the imminent release of the follow-up to Since I Left You. “There were a number of times where we thought we were nearly finished but we weren’t,” Chater laughs. “I dunno if it’s perfectionism, but other people call it that. To me it’s just wanting to get to that place where we hit on something where the feeling’s right. So I guess it’s kind of perfectionism in a way when you’re searching for that thing that’s just beyond your grasp. But you know it when you find it.
“But also I think what took so long was pulling the album together from so much music. It was hard to make it feel like an album. We weren’t very career-minded. We just kept doing what we’d always done, which was exploring different directions. Then after a number of years, we realised, ‘Oh, this isn’t sounding like a cohesive record. It’s just all over the shop.’ That’s when we started to get a bit more focused.”
Then, five years ago, Robbie Chater contacted Tony Espie of Tufftones Music (www.tufftonesmusic.com), who mixed Since I Left You, to let him hear over two hours of raw material that had been compiled for the Avalanches’ second album. “I spent some time with all that,” says Espie, “and made a few notes and just generally got it all into my head. It was still pretty kind of rough. The songs were overstuffed with sounds and ideas. So it was at that point Robbie decided that the mixing process had to start, just to get through the editing and sifting through it all and coming up with definitive versions.”
Having previously worked with the Avalanches, Espie knew that a very different approach from typical band-based mixing was required. “It wasn’t really like any sort of traditional approach that you’d normally use when you’re making a record with normal instruments and tones and things. We didn’t have the usual situation of a finite number of ways that a certain number of sounds can exist in a normal song. There was a wildly infinite number of ways these sounds could exist together.”
Typically, the starting point for an Avalanches track will involve matching together three or four samples captured from vinyl. “It’s about when samples meet,” Chater explains, “that all together are starting to create a feeling. Either as A and B sections of the song, or on top of each other simultaneously. That’s kind of how the songs are born. It’s normally quite a quick burst of inspiration when the initial ideas come into life. Over the journey we’ve had hundreds and hundreds of moments like that, that maybe happen daily. You just get up and you do a sketch. And then over time the really, really great moments stand out and then we just go further into fine-tuning.”
The fine-tuning part of the process is where, as Chater admits, most of the time gets sucked up, when he’s trying to find additional samples to complement the basic songs. “The bulk of my record collection is just stuff that I go to for finishing songs — drums and strings and vocals — and only I know where things are. It’s much more laborious because you’re sort of orchestrating it, really.”
Within the Avalanches, Chater and Di Blasi’s respective roles break down in basic terms to sampling and playing. “He’s very melodically gifted,” Chater says of Di Blasi, “so he will work a lot more with melody and playing instruments. I’m more into the sampler and working on grooves and production. We both sample and we both do everything. But if I had to choose, those would be our strengths.”
In terms of actual playing, sometimes Di Blasi manipulated samples in a more musicianly way, “making sounds that are almost like a sort of Mellotron,” says Chater, “which happens when you spread a single sustaining flute or string sample note out over a MIDI keyboard and play it.” Plenty of ‘real’ instruments were also used, ranging from the duo’s collection of junkshop organs to Fender Rhodes, Hammond organ, Minimoog and Roland SH101. For the listener, though, these performed parts are blended together with the samples in such a way as to be completely indistinguishable.
A similar approach was used with the guest singers who appear on Wildflower, most of whose contributions were recorded remotely by them and then sent to Melbourne. Even still, it often took some direction from Chater, and numerous re-recordings, before the contributors fully understood what the Avalanches were after — namely, for their vocal contributions to be part of the overall sonic melange.
“It was just sort of trying to get the collaborators into the same head space and the same world we were in,” says Chater. “Once we’d hit on something, it would go back and forward and we would often say, ‘Y’know, sort of dreamier...’ We would encourage them to do multiple takes and we’d say, ‘Just send us everything you did that day. Don’t just send the finished vocal that you think is the best.’ Because, for us there’s value in going through those other takes and maybe chopping up some of that stuff as well.”
“The boys were adamant that they didn’t want the lead guest vocals to sound like they were plonked on top at an obvious modern pop vocal level,” says Espie. “So for each song we filtered, compressed or distorted each sound until it fitted. With Jonathan Donahue on ‘Colours’ and ‘Kaleidoscopic Lovers’, he sort of mimicked the samples, so it was fantastic. It was really, really close to the sound of the song already, in the performance, and I think the engineer who tracked the vocal had EQ’ed it a little bit to fit in with the track.”
Sometimes, the vocal track that the team received was completely different to what they were expecting. For ‘Saturday Night Inside Out’, the oldest surviving backing track on Wildflower, Father John Misty — renowned for his clever and twisty lyrics — sent over wordless banks of harmonies. “We kind of thought we were gonna get a lead vocal from him or something,” says Chater, “and all we got was these harmonies. But they were so beautiful. I mean he’s got an incredibly rich voice. But actually that mix of the musical bed on that track is actually ripped off a CD-R that I burnt for the guys back in 2001 or ‘02. We were trying to mix the track in the studio and we could never get that same feel of the way that everything had locked together from being recorded through really dodgy RCA leads onto a CD-R. So we just kept that mix.”
When it came to the contributions of the rappers, there was less back and forth interaction with the Avalanches, although the duo would sometimes explain the concept of the album to them, as they did with Danny Brown for his unhinged rhymes on ‘Frankie Sinatra’. “We were talking to Danny about the fact that there was supposed to be a kind of fucked-up, crazy side to this album,” Chater says, “with people sort of getting high and living outside the normal structures of society. That really suited him and he took that and ran with it. In ‘The Noisy Eater’ [featuring Biz Markie], it was thematically pretty specific, and we already had the Jerry Lewis sample in there. We were just amazed actually at how open-minded people were and how willing they were to get with our crazy ideas.”
At Sing Sing Studios in Melbourne, Tony Espie and the Avalanches began to get to grips with the initial mixes of the tracks. Further processing of the sounds was done using Neve 3315 EQs and a Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor, and Espie employed an Empirical Labs Fatso EL7x tape simulator and Roland Dimension D chorus to add different characters and dimensions to the samples. “I had them on stereo sends on the SSL so I could choose how much I wanted to send to them. The EL Fatso really helped create a lot of the warmth in the tracks. The Dimension D is incredible, I love its tone. When you sent it some of the more beautiful, sparkly, melodic samples, it just gave it this kind of glistening wideness that doesn’t sound fake. It just gives it this glimmer.
“Then on just about everything we had the Avalon [VT-747SP EQ/compressor] strapped across the bus, which was used pretty subtly. But what it did was it allowed us to shape the overall sonics of each song to be closer to the other ones. It was one unit that everything went through in the end, and I like it because it’s very clean and transparent. It’s got a nice sort of warmth and clear depth and a very broad EQ shape as well. There’s also a beautiful tube signal path function on it, which just helps everything sort of sizzle.”
Elsewhere, Espie and the Avalanches experimented with saturating Sing Sing’s SSL console, with its G and G+ channels, to help sonically blend the samples together. “This record really relied on that a lot,” says Espie. “A large part of the sound of the whole record is the way that the samplers processed it. Because the record is composed from 90 percent samples that have been taken mainly from vinyl, it meant that these sounds had already been recorded, mixed, mastered and pressed. So they were already processed quite heavily, and then there’s another layer of processing added through going in and out of the samplers.
“The task really was to re-process all the sound as a whole mix. Because at that point most of the sounds had also had individual processing, either in the samplers or in sort of rudimentary Pro Tools mixes where there’d been a lot of filtering and shelving and general EQ and compression. So then it became obvious that the real key was to blend everything and hear it as though they all came from a similar place, even though they were coming from all sorts of different places. We really experimented with driving the console and using the output of Pro Tools to find the sort of sweet spot of the saturation. And each song of course had its own area that it wanted to live in. There were many variations of pushing the output of Tools into the console between like a quarter of a dB and 4dB.”
Once these preliminary mixes were done, they were printed as stems for Robbie Chater to take home and further refine on his laptop Pro Tools setup. “Robbie spent a lot of time doing subtle automation and editing,” says Espie, “sifting through the tracks and taking stuff out to get them closer to a clearer listen. But still using the same tonal sound we’d created.”
“The stems had been through the SSL, so we had the sound right,” says Chater. “But I could still balance the dreamlike quality and the flow of the mixes, which often I needed to tinker on for a long time. I could keep refining the balance of the instruments, because there’s just so many sounds and layers that it’s impossible to nail it all in one mixing session.”
Sometimes, as on ‘If I Was A Folkstar’ (featuring the voice of Toro Y Moi’s Chazwick Bundick), the bass end of the original samples was kept purposely light. “For a start it’s mainly not even there in the samples because they’ve already been shaved off,” says Espie. “When you try and introduce bottom end to bottom end that’s not that heavy in the first place, it just sounds woofy and fake. Most of the kind of juicy stuff is in the mid-range really, with the samples and the melodies. There’s only three or four songs that really go lower and almost hit that modern sort of club sound.”
Both Espie and Chater say that there was a definite sonic aesthetic they were trying to achieve on Wildflower, which is at odds with heavily compressed contemporary pop music. “We decided we wanted it to sound classic and timeless, but with a sort of contemporary slant to it,” says Espie. “When you put it on, it would take you into a different time, but it would be competitive in the modern world. That was probably the hardest thing: making it sound like it was a nice comfortable listen and it wasn’t too slammed and too hot, yet it would still exist on the radio next to other stuff without it sounding too dull or too quiet.”
Linking many of the tracks on Wildflower are collages of sound effects and street noise that the Avalanches carefully pieced together. “It’s all from movies and from records,” says Chater. “The footsteps would be from one place, the old guy coughing would be from another record, some kid screaming from another. And the actual street atmosphere would be the background onto which we’d lay all the sounds — the dog barking or someone kicking a tin can. It was time intensive but it was really fun.”
Less fun was the mixing of the first single from Wildflower, ‘Frankie Sinatra’, which was done and redone more than 100 times over the space of two and a half years. “I think it was just the particular combination of sounds on that song,” says Espie. “It’s got these tubas that create that main ‘oompah oompah’ riff, and the samples were kind of smudgy in that low-end area. It just took a lot of subtle changes in the mix for everything to suddenly come into focus and have clarity and bounce. I think that one did Robbie’s head in for a long time. He just needed to go down every rabbit hole and explore every sonic possibility. With the Danny Brown vocal, it was really hard to get it so that it was engaging and it shook you up a bit, but it wasn’t annoying.”
“It’s an annoying vocal sample [of Wilmoth Houdini],” Chater laughs. “Hearing that all day can drive you mad. And then once Danny’s voice was on the track, it was at a certain register as well. So it was like these two dudes yelling at you all day in these kind of high-pitched voices. The tubas are quite heavy and it’s the way they phase — they sort of suck and bounce. It needed to sound kind of stupid and fun, and it was sounding too serious at some points.”
Even at the end of a decade-and-a-half-long production period, Robbie Chater still found himself tinkering with the final mixes of the two closing tracks, ‘Stepkids’ and ‘Saturday Night Inside Out’, at 6.30 in the morning, an hour before he was due to fly to New York to master Wildflower at Sterling Sound with Joe LaPorta. “We were balancing the vocals and mixing them right through the night,” Chater says, “and then I just went and got on the plane. It’s so funny when you have so much time to make a record, but that still happens at the end. It was kind of hilarious.”
With an hour’s worth of material left over from the making of Wildflower — some of it featuring guest vocalists including Luke Steele (of the Sleepy Jackson and Empire Of The Sun), Connan Mockasin, Jens Lekman and August Darnell (of Kid Creole & the Coconuts) — there’s something of a debate currently going on within the Avalanches camp as to how and when this might be released. “There’s two or three tracks that didn’t make it that are better than some of the stuff that’s on there,” reckons Espie. “But the process of trying to make a 60-minute blend just meant that some things wouldn’t fit with others.”
“It wasn’t because it wasn’t good that it didn’t make the record,” Chater stresses. “I’d like to get it out there and just have a clean slate to make new music going forward. But we had a meeting with our management in Sydney the other day, and they were saying, ‘There’s lots of great tracks here and it may be your third album. And then it won’t have to take as long...’”
But as for a timetable for the third Avalanches album, Robbie Chater isn’t making any promises. “I would be really, really stupid to give you an ETA,” he laughs. “It would come back to haunt me, I’m sure.”
One of the challenges that faced mix engineer Tony Espie was the fact that Robbie Chater had created many of the initial Wildflower tracks using a late ‘90s-styled programming setup involving an old Power Macintosh G3 running Opcode’s Studio Vision — the first MIDI + Audio sequencing program, and one which has been defunct since 1998. As a result, when the sessions began in earnest at Melbourne’s Sing Sing Studios, the delicate old computer and its mammoth monitor had to be carried to the control room in protective blankets. “We got into Sing Sing, we dumped it all into Pro Tools and we went from there,” says Chater. “Tony [Di Blasi] was so happy. He fucking hated that computer and the huge monitor that came with it. So yeah that was a good day. We were like, ‘We’re making progress!’”
Chater’s decision to stick with his outmoded computer and digital audio software was simply down to ease of use. “It was just incredibly simple and intuitive, and I knew it inside out,” he says. “I love it when you get to the stage with your process where you’re not actually wasting too much thought and brain power on the technology. It almost becomes invisible when you know something that well. There’s nothing in between your ideas and realising them through the speakers. You’re in a completely creative space.”
Similarly, the workhorse when it came to sampling was the now rarely used Akai S5000. “Most of this record was done on that,” says Chater. “That and the Studio Vision or Tony’s Pro Tools setup. But we both have an S5000. It’s just really great for us when we’re initially starting the building blocks of a song, being able to pitch samples and manipulate samples really quickly.”
Like the creation of Wildflower itself, the sample clearance process was enormously challenging, so the Avalanches employed Pat Shannahan of My Forte (who in the past has cleared copyrights for Beck and the Beastie Boys) to get to work on the legalities. One sample from ‘Euphoria’, a 1973 song by Michael Jackson, proved too expensive to clear and so the Avalanches track featuring it had to be taken off the album.
Others were similarly problematic, not least ‘The Noisy Eater’: the band’s use of a recording of Melbourne’s Kew High School choir singing the Beatles’ ‘Come Together’ was at first vetoed by the song’s publishers before Chater and Di Blasi wrote letters to Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono explaining the Avalanches’ ethos.
“We just sort of hit a brick wall with their people,” Chater says. “Everything was declined. And then our management said, ‘We think we know some people that might be able to get a letter to each of them personally.’
So we wrote to them and explained that it wasn’t a gratuitous use of the song and it isn’t a massive money-making exercise. It’s just our art and this is what we do. And in the end, they both said yes. We couldn’t believe it. I mean you could never in your wildest dreams think that something like that would happen.”