Celebrating 20 years of Since I Left You with The Avalanches
As they celebrate 20 years of their infamous debut album with rarities and remixes, we dissect the history of one of Australia’s greatest albums with the band who made it.
Golden light at dusk. The crowd titters, the evening quieter than most.
A little down the way, waves lap against the sand, reaching a little further up the shore with each soft swell. That’s when you hear it: a harp trills; strings burst forth, backed by a wordless chorus; they build to some great crescendo, only to pull back for a friendly aside – “get a drink, have a good time now – welcome to paradise!”
The Avalanches’ Since I Left You is a secluded spot out of time and space, a moment made in the unlikely intersections of culture and craft. An experience greater than the sum of its part, though that sum is formidable all the same: ‘50s novelty records abut ‘60s sunshine pop, slices of ‘70s soul, samba and string-section disco fused seamlessly with ‘80s soundbites and ‘90s trip-hop.
Everything old is new again, and all that’s new sinks into the haze, rendered ageless by smart segues and stark juxtapositions. A jetsetting tour through time and space, Since I Left You certainly doesn’t sound 20 years old, but as The Avalanches celebrate that hallowed era, they’re older, wiser, and fewer – but no less passionate.
“I'd just moved to the country and was pretty fresh there,” recalls Avalanches member Tony DiBlasi of his mid-’90s move to Maryborough. It was through a combined 11/12 Studio Arts class that Tony came to know Robbie Chater, and the pair became fast friends, drawn together by a mutual passion. “I remember I went out to Robbie's place because we were both into music,” regales Tony, “and he played me... it was You Made Me Realise by My Bloody Valentine, and I'd never heard anything like that before.”
Country Victoria mightn’t be the place you’d expect to find musical Anglophilia, and Robbie’s love for shoegaze, electronica and trip-hop set him apart. “He was just into all this English stuff, and was buying NME every week… I was blown away, and automatically thought ‘Oh my God, this guy. He's cool. He knows good music’.”
“Then he probably watched me pull a whole cone in one go, and that was the thing that impressed him.” Robbie laughs in agreement. “That's right – I was like, this guy can handle his pot!” The chance union of Tony, Robbie and classmate Darren Seltmann kickstarted what would one day become the Avalanches. That was a way off, and when devotion first turned to inspiration, the trio adopted a more traditional musical mission: noise rock.
That first band, Alarm 115 – “two guitars and a bass,” as Tony puts it – was as much rowdy teenage rebellion as it was “nervous bravado.” Sound as scrappy as their second-hand guitars, the trio rocked out with a reckless and sometimes violent abandon. “It was just noise,” says Robbie with a laugh, “but I don't feel like it was one thing and then another. It just was like a progression, because they were junk store guitars, and then we were finding junk store records, and then a year or two later it's junk store organs.” “We were all on the dole,” adds Tony with a laugh. “I think Darren had a job,” quips Robbie. “He was the only kind of… functioning adult.
That op shop approach was more necessity than aesthetic, but odd finds soon became a cornerstone of The Avalanches’ musical mission. “We were just broke, and we were determined to do this,” continues Robbie, “and if you fast forward 18 months from Alarm 115 or something. It's probably a busted keyboard from an op shop.” That’s an obsession that pushed to the fore on The Pan-Amateurs, a demo cut by Robbie and Darren. “I was doing a film course, and there was an old sampler in the sound studio there,” says Robbie, recalling his growing trove of second-hand records and neglected vinyl
The Pan-Amateurs was fueled by an op-shop find and emblazoned with a gaudy ‘70s keyboard. “That was off a record that we found in a junk store called Yamaha Superstar,” he explains. “It was a demonstration record and was by this Japanese dude, Koichi Oki. I've still got it. It had a real crazy, funky version of Light My Fire.” A far cry from the keyless rancour of Alarm 115, Robbie found beauty in the strange and esoteric – and in that beauty, flips and phrases. “It's like our minds just started to open,” muses Robbie, “it was all just the one period of finding our way.”
Those explorations, voracious and ever-expanding, saw the group courting hip-hop beats and genuine emceeing. The El Producto EP put that punky energy to Beastie-inspired bars, mirroring the evolution of their idols. “We did sing on it and had stupid little melodies and rapping, and that was cool and everything, but I think we just thought, ‘we can do better than this,’” says Tony, that belief setting the stage for their formative Pan-Amateurs demo, Thank You Caroline. “It was just showing a little bit of a softer side,” he explains. “We were bratty and everything, but we weren't overly extroverted, so it was almost like we were putting on personas.” Robbie remembers the early effort as “when we first started to realize what we had,” something more than just unchained noise. “We were listening to Beach Boys and stuff like that… because we were bratty kids, it was a process to find this other side of ourselves. I guess that culminated in Since I Left You.”
It’s a blend of culmination and cultivation that threads throughout the 20th anniversary edition of Since I Left You, issued with a collection of demos, remixes and turn-of-the-century loosies. That Thank You Caroline demo – a quietly watershed moment for The Avalanches – falls alongside early versions of Electricity, largely familiar, and Pablo’s Cruise, an ever-so-eerier vision of that interstitial moment. These fleeting glimpses into that meticulous process are few, with much of the expanded edition a trove of imaginative remixes that put Since I Left You in the hands of idols, peers and longtime friends.
None are more anticipated than the MF DOOM remix of the spacious and calming Tonight May Have To Last Me All My Life. It’s less villainous than one might expect, with DOOM feting a love interest with lighthearted toasts and silver-tongued asides. Fans of the metal-faced menace will no doubt clamour for more, but taken atop an arrangement like Tonight May Have To Last Me All My Life, DOOM finds his playful pocket. “I've got no idea if he knew of us before Wildflower,” says Robbie. “Unfortunately we didn't meet him,” adds Tony a moment later.
That carefully cultivated mystery even carried through their 2016 collaboration, the Danny Brown and DOOM-featuring Frankie Sinatra. “It was a long process, that Wildflower process, and we just thought it would never happen for years and years… and then eventually, it did,” says Robbie, still nursing a little disbelief. “When the song came out he got in touch, which is really unlike him, and said ‘That sounds great, I'm so happy with how it turned out, and if you ever want to do anything else, just let me know.’ We said, ‘Well actually, we've got this!’”
“I think it was planned to be the 15th anniversary reissue at that time,” says Robbie wryly. “It was going to be the 10th, initially,” says Tony, wryer still.
If anything, wrangling new remixes was the easy part. “Some were historical ones that were out on vinyl in the US,” explains Robbie, “and we had to actually track down the vinyl and record it to be able to release it digitally again.”
That curiously reflexive process – insular crate-digging, if you will – brought forth some of the brightest moments on the reissue, such as a strummy three-part Since I Left You from Stereolab, a slick take on A Different Feeling from Ernest St. Laurent, a crackling reimagining of Electricity from Matthew Herbert and Dr. Rockit, and a Frontier Psychiatrist remix from legendary plunderphonics pioneer Mario Caldato. “Pav, who founded Modular, unbeknownst to us, was sending our early demos to Mario saying ‘I've found this band, it's kind of weird, I think I kind of like it, what do you think?’,” recalls Robbie. “Mario was like ‘I love this shit. It's a little crazy, but these guys know what they're doing.’”
The engineer of Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, an uncommonly rich tapestry of sampled sounds, Mario’s cosign weighed a tonne. “We got to know Mario and he helped us out with some early gear to buy and stuff like that. Eventually, when I went to LA I would stay with him, and he would show me his insane Brazilian record collection.” There seems nobody better equipped to take on the madcap eccentricity of Frontier Psychiatrist, but Mario still has his doubts about the remix. “He hated that remix at the time, and I think the label were very pushy to get it done,” explains Robbie, “and he was only 85% happy with it or something.”
The most interesting inclusions, however, are the turn-of-the-century remixes from Robbie and Darren. Strewn amongst reference tracks and reimaginings are revamped visions of singles from Belle & Sebastian, Badly Drawn Boy, Manic Street Preachers and Franz Ferdinand. “It feels like it was all part of that same kind of era,” explains Tony. “It felt very similar, and it felt like it was from a lot of that same energy.”
It’s an energy reflected in their process, outlined by Darren in a 2005 Wired article. “I made a CD of about 15 tracks ranging from early T. Rex to Paul Simon's Graceland to African high-life, and put the Belle song in the middle of it,” he said of their lease on Belle & Sebastian’s I’m a Cuckoo. Visions and revisions saw guitar, drums and bass disappear entirely, the African-infusion making it a little “too much like Graceland,” and after a month of finessing, the remix proves a rich new arrangement about the original vocal.
“Robbie was responsible for most of those, and I feel like there's just still a very rich vein,” continues Tony, “the same vein of inspiration from Since I Left You. Those remixes came from that as well.” They’re certainly more radical than most, breaking tracks to first principles and reconstructing them with eclectic glee. “I think if we'd made another record straight away, that's kind of what it would have sounded like,” adds Robbie, taking a moment to think. “If only – it would've been a good record!”
Tempting though it is to imagine such a record, this anniversary isn’t as much about paths untravelled as it is the Avalanches’ uncommon journey. “It's been such a wonderful learning about our own creativity and how creativity works, going through that process and then reflecting on it,” muses Robbie on the trip through time. “It's not cool, it wasn't ironic or trying to be tough… it was like, ‘here I am’."
As we talk, melodies give way to memories, the music pulling the pair into fond recollections. Their songs are conduits like the samples they treat with such reverence, dedicated to their stories just as much as the sounds they provide. One such tale jumps from the inset of their Electricity 12-inch, which mentions “their octagon waterbed/studio control pad.”
“Darren had a crazy octagon waterbed in his house, and that's where he had a little desk and studio setup,” says Tony with a laugh. “He loved that shit,” remembers Robbie. “There was enough room for one piece of gear on every face of the octagon, and the idea was we'd all sit on the waterbed.” That’s the sort of setup that makes an impression. “We had Antoinette Halloran, who was a really professional opera singer,” says Tony of Electricity, which featured her operatic vocals. “That was her recording studio for the day, the octagon bed… I can imagine what she thought,” he says with a laugh. “‘I can’t wait for this to be over,’” guesses Robbie; “‘I thought these guys were cool,’” quips Tony.
Robbie and Tony’s tales toe the line between tech geekery and dancefloor royalty, but few things shifted that balance like international attention. “I grew up loving British music and The Face magazine, and it was like, ‘They're going to fly to Australia to interview us?’” Robbie still seems surprised, such excursions largely a relic of the pre-internet music press. “We were having that launch party, I guess it was the label's idea, and we were all going to DJ on that boat,” Robbie explains of the famed Since I Left You river cruise. “My memories are pretty hazy after that.”
Tony’s memories, though hazy, plug some gaps. “Darren had an old car and we were like ‘Okay, we're going to smash it up on the docks’,” he explains as Robbie casts his mind back. “We ended up just smashing this car, and they were filming that. Then the boat docked, but it had a different party, and they all thought we were just messing around with the car, because they were trying to fight us, throwing bottles at us!” “That's right,” says Robbie excitedly, “the drunk dudes on that boat started throwing shit at us!”
That’s as if being an Avalanche wasn’t enough of a health hazard – though their music admits evening light and pastel shades, their early live performances channeled that same Alarm 115 energy. “Loved to drink, loved to party,” says Tony. summing it up. “On the dole, brats… and loved loud noise,” adds Robbie, putting those wild live shows down to a simple, youthful philosophy: “let's just play records, smash records! We just loved the idea of chaos.”
That reckless approach and punk rock attitude confused more than a few crowds, with the sensitive Avalanches kickstarting concerts with a few early noise rock records. “I don't know if it was a cover for nerves,” poses Tony. “‘We can't just go out and play Since I Left You, it would've exposed us too much,’ or something like that.” By all accounts, the six-strong Avalanches – Robbie, Tony, Darren, Gordon McQuilten, Dexter Fabray and James Dela Cruz – would take to a cramped stage and put their bodies on the line.
“We got a kick out of turning up to Melbourne or Aussie rock venues with all these old samplers, having people just staring, and giving them something they'd never encountered before,” admits Robbie, “[but] that's the only way we knew how to play live… by the time Since I Left You came out, I think it was really incongruent. It was three different things. We started to feel uncomfortable.” That discomfort was especially true for Darren, who managed multiple broken legs by the time the tour wrapped up. “I did the first,” admits Tony, their on-stage collision in Brisbane the first of many injuries. “I softened it up.”
“I remember in London when he broke his leg, it was the second or third time,” begins Robbie, memory jogged. “It was our debut London show. Our management had been working for months to put it together, and they were so proud, so they all dropped ecstasy on the night to celebrate. It's like, ‘Our work setting up the show is done, we're going to party,’ and then they just had the worst night ever sitting in this London emergency room.” The pair laugh together, minds reeling. “I'm pretty sure we had fun though,” says Tony. “If one goes down,” waxes Robbie, “the rest have to kind of have fun for them.
It’s a lease that brings us to the now, when The Avalanches – now a duo – continue to push each other forward. Change is inevitable, but as Robbie sees it, the same forward-thinking ethos still drives all they do. “I can just hear a young love of music and discovery, and the joy to be alive,” muses Robbie, “and I think that's what's really infectious… that's how Since I Left You got made, because that was our mindset. We'd done El Producto and then we were like, ‘Well, we're going to keep going further and further.’”
“It’s always just exciting for us to be thinking of new ideas and trying to surprise people, not just like ‘Ah, here's another Avalanches song’,” says Tony, eager for whatever comes next. “All those times, and everyone who's involved in the band, I just look back on it and we're all best friends and we're doing something we really loved together,” he reminisces. “It was wonderful, it really was. I look back and I think there's no animosity with anyone or anything.
“I just feel so grateful for our journey,” says Robbie with sharp assuredness. “There was just something that drove us even though it appeared shambolic, we worked really hard.” Even as he hails that effort, Robbie paints a picture of a culture that drove itself – a mutual passion that kept members coming back to their sharehouse kitchen rehearsals week in, week out. “There was this weird, unspoken thing. It was a mess, but there was something going on that we knew was good, and we would hop in the Tarago, drive ourselves to Sydney to play some little show. It was this huge, chaotic drive, all of this broken down gear in the back, over and over and over and over again.” He takes pause, thinking it over once more. “I know there was something beautiful driving us, and they were just amazing experiences.”
All things must pass, and for Robbie and Tony, the creative hunger has never died… even as the hijinks have somewhat dulled. “To be honest, now it's just Robbie and I and we're very chilled... I would have to quit if we had that shambolic thing going on,” says Tony. “Where we are in our lives now, the quiet is good.”
That’s just as well. No amount of contrived chaos could replicate Since I Left You, a magical record of youthful yearning inspired by local op shops and second-hand samplers and sharehouse kitchens and cramped car rides. “It was more pure spirit instead of the mind trying to will it,” says Tony of that elusive energy. “I still don't really understand how we know it's an Avalanches thing,” says Robbie of their process, “but we just know. I don't know what that is... it's a mysterious thing.”
Since I Left You is one mystery that isn’t meant to be solved: it’s a mystery that’s meant to be felt. As one of Australia’s most revered acts moves into another of their own, it’s well worth revisiting that mysterious tapestry of op shop offcuts and life-affirming energy. You might just find something within – memories neglected, faces forgotten, sounds vaguely familiar – or you could discover that Since I Left You is exactly the kind of exotic vacation we’ve all been pining for.
So grab a drink, have a good time now, and welcome back to paradise – come on, after twenty years, what’s one more season?