The Antlers frontman Peter Silberman and I are the same age, which I realize now may have indirectly inspired my fondness for their third, career-launching album Hospice (2009). Broadly, it’s a record about the sudden unrest that comes with caring for another person in a serious way, the kind of adult relationship most people first experience in their early twenties.
While the album inspired a unique cult following, The Antlers followed it, smartly, with the more uplifting, less conceptual Burst Apart (2011). Keeping their breakout’s signature, cerebral indie rock sound while dropping its narrative edge was a gamble, but the songs were strong enough to earn the band even more critical acclaim.
Earlier this year, The Antlers released Undersea, an EP that could hint at a new direction for their next album, or remain a more atmospheric anomaly in their catalogue. Before a recent concert in Toronto I spoke with Silberman about making Undersea, getting older and responding to the fallout of his career-defining work.
You recently got back from an All Tomorrow’s Parties festival appearance. Was that a curated event?
Yeah, curated by [Afghan Whigs frontman] Greg Dulli. But we got the invitation through our management, which is usually how these things happen.
Does an indie band in your position have a lot of say over when and where you play shows?
We get a proposed route of where it makes sense to go on a tour. We almost always just say “Yes,” because you never know where you’ll have a good show. I’ve played plenty of awesome shows that I didn’t expect would be great before I got there.
Can you explain what makes a great show?
It’s an intangible thing. We all feel it when it’s there, and feel its absence when it’s not. It’s about connectedness, the feeling that the audience is with us. We’ve played shows, rarely — at a festival, a weird opening slot — where we can get combative. “Alright, you look bored. We’ll play really loud and you’ll hate it.”
Like a lot of great music, yours requires but rewards attention. I’d imagine if the audience is into it they’d be really into it, almost like a soft level of hypnosis.
It’s not easy to tell — different crowds have different reactions. We’ve had some particularly great shows in Dublin, because the audience is just really loud and crazy. But in, say, Belgium, a great show could have a crowd that is more quiet and attentive. Though, if people look like they’re in a trance it’s a good sign.
Have you been working on new material since Undersea?
I’ve tried to write as much as I can. Not even music — just ideas. We usually write songs when we’re at home in Brooklyn. A more relaxed environment. We’re in the exploratory phase right now.
Undersea felt pretty exploratory in general. There’s more emphasis on atmosphere than melody, at least considering your previous work.
Yeah, it was more about exploration. Cerebral exploration — your brain having a lot of different thoughts at once.
It also felt like a cohesive, independent piece — I never assumed it was material left over from Burst Apart. Was there ever enough to make a full album, even a short one?
Not a ton of [leftover material]. One [potentially] finished song that we cut from the EP. We didn’t have time to give it enough attention and wanted to maintain quality over quantity.
What’s been on your mind, lyrically speaking?
After Hospice there was a lot of lyrical confusion — on that record I really knew what I was talking about. Now, I’m writing very “presently,” not about something that happened to me in the past. I’ve been thinking a lot about aging. Not old age but the kind that happens in your twenties.
I’m 26 ...
... and recently I’ve concluded that I’ll be pretty much the same person, mentally and physically, for at least the next 15 years or so.
Yeah. And in your mid-twenties, whether or not you feel like an adult, you start getting treated like one. Not the kind of adultness that comes in your early twenties, like drinking in bars for the first time — the kind where in someone else’s eyes people 10, 20 years older than you are in the same world. And I’ve stopped thinking of life in a moment-by-moment sense. I’ve thought more about my life as a cumulative thing, about building a strong life for myself.
And, I’d guess, building a strong body of work.
I’m glad I started my career as a touring musician when I was about 23. I just thought “Fuck it, let’s go.” If I was going to jump into that now I’d think about it more. It hasn’t been very long but it feels like [a lot] has happened since then.
When I interviewed you after Hospice got a lot of hype in 2009, you seemed reluctant to discuss the underlying narrative of the album in great detail, though the appearance of that, I think, drew a lot of listeners to it. Do you still feel that way?
The thing is, Hospice was rooted in a lot of real things that happened to me when I was younger, but I was choosing to share those things in a particular way. I didn’t want to, essentially, read my diary out loud. I wanted to provide an interpretation of what happened, whereas I could have written something saying “Here’s the real story behind the album, here’s the relationship that inspired it.” And I didn’t want it to be all about me. I wasn’t trying to exploit my own life. To do that I kept as much privacy as I could. There were intentional ambiguities in the lyrics. I hoped that, while the story was unique to me, other people could find their own way to relate to it.
And I didn’t necessarily expect anybody to really hear it. When a lot of people did I just went with it, did my best. I thought either no one would hear it, or a ton of people would — either / or. I had no idea.
Burst Apart wasn’t completely different from Hospice in sound but it did feel more optimistic and uplifting. Has it been challenging to return to that darker material in concert?
It can be. The things that inspired Hospice happened a long time ago. They’re not as fresh as they were when we first started touring it. The shows at the time were exhausting, and there was a time when I felt those songs didn’t gel with the new material. We’ve let them rest and come back to them now.
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