The Avalanches: Sampling Success in Australia

The Avalanches

The Avalanches

It’s easy to fault Melbourne’s The Avalanches for being overly ambitious. After all, who in their right mind would set out to create a dance-influenced (but not dance, per se) pop masterpiece out of nothing but samples?

Who would use hundreds and hundreds of samples – nicked primarily from Australian thrift shop records and cobbled together over the course of two years – then release the record with the knowledge that the majority of the profits would be siphoned away by copyright lawyers?

Head Avalanches Darren Seltmann (drummer/singer) and Robbie Chater (studio guru/DAT manipulator) seem to be the least likely deejay saviors since Josh Davis blew up headz four years ago, but don’t let that stand in the way of listening to SINCE I LEFT YOU, the most positively breezy nonstop record of the year and the reason why Seltmann, Chater, and their mates are likely to become international superstars in a realm where groups are passe and it’s more about just spinning other people’s records than creating something original with them.

SINCE I LEFT YOU is dense in the lightest sense of the word. There’s a lot going on and it takes about a dozen listens just to get used to the myriad of propulsive sounds found within: slinky disco basslines, every sort of exotic percussive idea available, sweeping strings, cartoon reveries, sparkling pianos, and lots of horse noises. And that’s just in the first ten minutes. There are oodles of hilarious vocal bits hemmed together from God knows where, and when the bassline from Madonna’s "Holiday" pops up, it sounds so fresh and new, you wonder why nobody’s thought of using it as a sample before.

Then you remember: it’s MADONNA.

But hey, The Avalanches got it cleared, and we’re all the better for it. Creative reinterpolation is also applied to bits by Donny Osmond, Kid Creole & The Coconuts, Paperclip People, Debbie Reynolds, and Boney M. Fairly harmless stuff, right? Somehow, these guys manage to make it all sound off-the cuff, but it took them a long time to bring it all together, and to make it a seamless hour of discofunksoulelectrocomedyhousehippop is nothing short of remarkable.

SINCE I LEFT YOU is also already a year old, having been submitted to their label bosses last fall, then it was held up for months pending sample clearance. However, to the few members of the press and the tastemaking communities in Australia and Europe who scored advance copies, it was nothing short of a revelation.

The hype started almost immediately and it’s not hard to see why. Blending the offbeat affinity for the old-school of The Beastie Boys’ PAUL’S BOUTIQUE (produced by The Dust Brothers) with the nouveau disco house grooves of Daft Punk and the soulful vibe of Motown in its heyday, SINCE I LEFT YOU feels good (the overall vibe is sheer joy) without feeling cheesy. It was officially released in early summer in England to great acclaim and now it is finally available on American soil.

Songs like the title track, "Electricity," and "Flight Tonight" are prime dancefloor material, where "Etoh" and "Extra Kings" are more chillout friendly, and "Frontier Psychiatrist" is just plain addictively weird. But to think of this record in terms of songs is kind of pointless – there are no breaks and there are recurring themes, which makes it more akin to WHAT’S GOING ON than the latest offering from Ibiza. Whatever – it’s goofy fun on the surface yet it can be appreciated on so many more levels, which is not quite beside the point, but as long as you hear it The Avalanches will be thrilled.

Chater and Seltmann are not the only Avalanches in the fold. While they were the primary forces behind assembling the final recorded product, they need some help to pull off SINCE I LEFT YOU live. Enter four-time Australian DMC (Disco Mixing Champs – a deejay competition) champion Dexter Fabay, a whiz with the turntables, plus keyboardist Tony Diblasi, drummer Gordon McQuiltern, and dancer James De La Cruz, all fellow Aussies.

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Although they’ve only played a handful of shows outside their home country, they have a growing reputation as a chaotic live party act, replete with exposed genitalia and abused gear. Chater and Fabay are planning a late fall deejay tour of the U.S. to demonstrate the soulful grooves inherent in their records. 9x talks with producer and man with dusty fingers Robbie Chater about pop music and horse noise interventions.

GH: There are six members of the band, right?
Robbie Chater: It changes, really. I guess there’s Darren and I who are in the studio all the time. And there’s just this big group of people. When we do shows, there’s six, but sometimes there’s as many as ten. On our last tour of England, we did some shows with just five, which for us is bare bones. It sort of changes.

GH: Ten? You guys are like the Wu-Tang Clan.
RC: Not really, no. They’re more like jazz musicians in their sixties, but they have a very scary stage presence.

GH: So how long did it take to make this record?
RC: About two years. It was like a year and a half hardcore studio time, then about six months just editing all the shit we had left after the year and a half. That last six months was taking stuff away, trying to get it down to an hour of music.

GH: I am going to assume you are the Viking Bobby C listed as the co-producer of the record. How did you and Darren, the other co-producer, hook up?
RC: I was living in a house in Melbourne eight years ago with my best friend from high school. She and Darren met and fell in love and then he was living in the house as well. We started writing songs together; we had a little four-track and little foldout organs and then the record….

GH: What kind of songs did you start writing originally?
RC: Sort of warped, lo-fi pop songs. We always used lots of orchestral samples to get a bigger sound than we should’ve been able to get with crappy equipment. We always loved the idea of pseudo-orchestrated sound.

GH: Has anything you had done before been released prior to this record?
RC: We had a thirty-song demo we did over the first couple of years. Over the past four or five years various songs from that have come out as twelve inches in England on a little label called Rex Records. We made a seven-inch here with some other friends and did an EP as well, but it’s been lots of bits and pieces. Some of it more cohesive than others. Some of it was pretty messy.

GH: So what made you guys sit down and finally decide to put together this super incredibly dense party record?
RC: I don’t know. We’d been doing shows for a few years in Australia, and we had a reputation as part of this retarded party sort of people. I guess we settled upon getting our shit together and make the record we always knew we could make and we took a lot of time and care with it really.

GH: How exactly does an Avalanches show work? Do you have actual musicians there?
RC: We’re sort of like a garage rock band doing a cover version of our own album live. We have a drum kit, bass guitar, lots of old analog synths and stuff, and usually we have two pairs of decks on stage. We press up a lot of the samples on the album on specially made vinyl. And we’ve sort of written new songs to play live based on the record. We have all our samplers and stuff up there as well, but it’s really quite different from the record. We look at them as two different projects-the studio stuff and the live stuff. It would be sort of boring if we had just a couple of Apple Macs up there and replayed the album note for note. It’s more like a party. The underlying sort of feel is the same, and it’s the same band.

GH: Do you do any deejaying outside of The Avalanches?
RC: Dexter does a lot. He’s got his DMC thing going as well. James has a regular night in Melbourne that he does. Dexter and I are about to go on a three-week trip through Europe, America, and Japan, just playing records under the band name, but it’s a different sort of vibe.

GH: Does anybody in the band ski or has anyone been in an avalanche?
RC: No.

GH: When you were putting this record together – there’s so much stuff on it, something like 600 different records and over 900 samples…
RC: We really don’t know where that figure came from. It got written once and everybody sort of … but there’s like thousands of bits of sounds, but we don’t really know anymore. That’s counting every little bit of percussion.

GH: What’s the process of elimination on deciding what gets to stay?
RC: It comes back to how the song began, because we talk a lot about them before we begin recording and try to have a strong sense of where they’re going before they start. That can easily get lost along the way and the beginning of the final editing process is to try to make sure that original idea is still clear and taking away a lot of the horse noises and stuff like that.

GH: You mean there were more horse noises on the album?
RC: Yeah, I have a big problem with horse noises actually. The band had to sit me down at one point and they said, "they’re kind of cool but there’s way too many and we’ve got to take them off."

GH: An intervention of sorts?
RC: Yeah, an intervention.

GH: I’ll tell you what, that song "Frontier Psychiatrist" rips. The main point of the question was to actually ask you about the song "Slow Walking," which is a b-side from "Frontier Psychiatrist." It’s probably my favorite song of yours that I’ve heard and I’m wondering how that one didn’t make it on the record.
RC: That was about three or four years earlier, that was a track from the original thirty-song demo that Darren and I did, and whenever we needed a new b-side or early on when we were releasing seven inches, we would go back to that and grab a couple of songs.

GH: I love that track. It puts a big smile on my face.
RC: It really was the first day of spring when we did that too. I was thinking Darren sounds like Kermit the Frog on that, a "Rainbow Connection" kind of vibe.

GH: Doing this record, do you have your own studio or did you have to rent one and how technical was this as far as the amount of equipment involved?
RC: It was pretty basic. We have two main studios, one at my place and one at Darren’s and they’re only a few blocks apart. The basic gear was a Mac and a sampler to do a lot of the arranging and initial work. Towards the end we’d go into a bigger studio with lots of outboard gear to do the final mix and that took five weeks I guess. Our studios at home are getting bigger and bigger all the time, so I think the next record will be done completely at home.

GH: So do you use a lot of ProTools?
RC: ProTools we use as a multitrack just for jamming, we’ll just do hours and hours of experiments with the samplers and turntables and then we’ll go back through with ProTools and edit out bits and pieces and they’ll be the beginnings of songs. But we don’t use it for sequencing, we use Studio Vision.

GH: Do you mind if I ask how old you and the rest of the bandmembers are? I’m trying to figure out what you’ve grown up on.
RC: I’m 26. Dexter and James are 24. Darren’s 28.

GH: Who did you guys look to as your influences for putting this together? There are a few people I came up with. DJ Shadow for example, who came up with what I believe is the first entirely sample-based record.
RC: There’s this weird split. In terms of technique there’s Shadow and Coldcut and of course the Dust Brothers, and Mario and Prince Paul. In terms of technique and overall vibe at different points, those are our influences. Musically, it was older stuff, Motown stuff, Marvin Gaye, Jackson Five, and the Beach Boys, who had this slightly melancholic edge to even their happy songs. So in terms of the whole album flowing together and being a continuous piece of work, it wasn’t meant to come across as a deejay show, we were trying to do a proper old-fashioned record like WHAT’S GOING ON or something like that, where things recur and every song was important.

GH: It might be a little early to start thinking about the next record, but do you think you’ll approach it in the same fashion?
RC: We’re thinking about the new record every day, but you’ve just got to find time to start it. I think there will be a lot of samples, but there will be much smaller pieces, and we’re just looking for great chords at the moment, and it will be a lot more fractured sonically. We want to take the last record a step further, where the aim was to write great pop songs using samples, and not just moody sample-based soundscapes; we’ve never had proper pop songs that mutate and chord changes and all that stuff. I think that at certain points on SINCE I LEFT YOU, we’ve succeeded in that, and with the next record, we want to take that a step further, and use thousands of fragments of sounds to write new songs.

GH: How on earth did you get Madonna to clear a sample for you? (The bass line from her "Holiday" appears at the beginning of "Stay Another Season" on SINCE I LEFT YOU, one of the few known legitimate Madonna samples out there.) Did you drop the bassline in there and then say you’ll take it out if she says no?
RC: Yeah, we totally made the record the wrong way around. It was finished and then we started clearing samples, so when stuff was denied it was a bit of a nightmare. Late one night, you drop the bassline from "Holiday" in there, and it works and everyone thinks it’s pretty funny and "Oh, we’ll take it off in a couple of days." And then you get used to it and you leave it on there, and you leave it on there, and then eventually the label had heard it, and nobody could imagine the song without it, so fuck, we’ll try to clear it

GH: Are there any notable samples that you couldn’t get through?
RC: There’s a Rodgers & Hammerstein one that opened the whole record. It was to be the first piece of music you hear, and it was the first sample we tried to clear and it was denied and we thought the whole record was doomed. It was one of only a few that we couldn’t use.

GH: Roughly how many did you try to clear in total?
RC: I don’t know… stacks. We’re not getting rich off this record, put it that way. Songs like "Since I Left You," one hundred percent of the royalties are going to other people.

GH: Who is that on the vocal?
RC: It’s a group called The Main Attraction, from like 1963. They’re like a white soul group.

GH: What would you consider to be your favorite era or time or particular scene, or a centralized point for music?
RC: At the moment, I’m listening to loads of girl groups, The Shirelles, The Crystals, and the Poppies and all that kind of stuff. That’s what I put on in the morning. I can’t get enough of that stuff. It changes every couple of months. Also, a lot of calypso, we’ve been buying on our trips to London, you can get heaps of that stuff there. There’s been all this great rocksteady stuff we’ve been finding that’s sort of old soul vocals over these lo-fi soft rocksteady grooves, really beautiful stuff.

GH: Do you listen to a lot of hip-hop?
RC: Different periods. Dexter’s got just about everything.

GH: What do you think about hip-hop in the last ten years, do you think it’s gotten better or worse?
RC: It’s hard to say. It’s easy to look back at the golden period and get nostalgic about it, but there’s been a lot of good records since then. It’s probably an equal blend of good and bad records.

GH: One more question and then we’ll be done. Does it bother you that people sometimes get paid $20,000 to play other people’s records?
RC: Not really. It’s really up to the deejay. I think I know what it’s like. You can do as much or as little preparation or work as you want and still probably get paid the same amount so I guess it’s up to the deejay’s integrity and what they want to give to people.


This article originally appeared in 9x.