Light, Sound and Spirit: The Return of The Avalanches

Light, Sound and Spirit: The Return of The Avalanches

The Avalanches return with We Will Always Love You, a sweeping testament to humanity that folds decades of sound into a cosmic voyage of stunning beauty and life-affirming fun.

Header image and in-article images by Grant Spanier.

The Avalanches didn’t want to do it again.

Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi, the duo behind the Melbourne mantle, managed a small musical miracle with 2016’s Wildflower. A sophomore effort a decade-and-a-half in the making, that kaleidoscopic roadtrip through a Keseyian wonderland defied the nigh-mythical hype and sent the pair on a whirlwind journey across festival stages and headline shows. An unlikely return had proven another crowning moment and, breaking with Australian tradition, they soon decided that one comeback was more than enough. 

“We had a 100% record of taking 16 years to follow up an album,” says Robbie with a laugh, reclining in his Northcote apartment on a November morning Zoom call. “We came up with a master plan,” adds Tony from his living room in Alphington. “It was almost like a board meeting where we went, ‘how do we get a record out quicker? You, tell me your ideas! You, what do you got?’”

Robbie and Tony had a few ideas of their own, and perhaps the most startling one had to do with the nature of their sample-heavy process. “It's quite physically draining: you're alone pretty much, just at home, and it takes a long, long time,” explains Robbie of their favoured plunderphonics approach, lifting phrases and moments from songs and other forms of media already released. “I don't think I was capable, mentally or physically, of like another five to eight years at home making another record like that.”

Since I Left You was very spur of the moment and carefree,” he recalls, “we were living in sharehouses, no money, going to op shops, buying two-dollar records, and just using our imaginations to make something that sounded like it came from another planet.” In an age before true online accessibility, their palette came by way of chance encounters and lucky dips, limited by budget, locale and the community’s musical thrifting. “There weren’t huge record collections of like rare funk and soul… it was just using junk that other people had thrown away and discovering the beauty in it.”

That adoration of bygone sounds and forgotten songs carried onto Wildflower, but as members of the group fell away and their craft deepened, The Avalanches struggled with side projects, personal demons and the newfound formality of their sampling process. “We'd find a great sample and want to make a song out of it,” explains Tony, “and then you cross-reference that or try that with the thousands of other samples you’d stored… I mean, you can imagine just how insane that is.” The advent of YouTube brought forth even more variety, with the algorithmic wormhole of rare records expanding their possibilities and furthering that indecision. “We almost got lost in just the bookkeeping side of it,” adds Robbie, “we had too much choice, too many options.”

So they made a choice: at the close of the Wildflower era, Robbie sold almost all of his record collection, Tony did away with the sample library, and the duo “bought it back to a record, a turntable, and a cup of coffee.” It worked wonders. “With Wildflower, it felt like we didn't really know what it was about until long afterwards,” says Tony. “We did search for that for a long time, and that might have been part of why it took so long.” It was Robbie who landed on a striking contention, his ambitious ideas spurred by his own personal challenges and crystallized alongside a sample of female folk trio The Roches. “I think it was obviously just meant to be,” he muses. “It was the record we needed to make because it was our own personal stories.”

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The Avalanches' new-arriving third record We Will Always Love You is a personal odyssey, though one informed by a deepening knowledge of self. Orbiting about the trio of “light, sound and spirit” and inspired by the journey of the Voyager Golden Records, the record reaches for vast universal truths whilst staying fixed in The Avalanches enduring identity. It feels like a natural extension of Wildflower, folding a mean list of collaborators into the process, but also like a spiritual successor to Since I Left You, channelling that same infatuation with vocal samples and a similar love of ‘90s dancefloor eccentricity. 

If the group have been defined by their painstaking tapestries of sound, the pair dug deeper into their musical mission, conceiving a record that further emphasized their own songwriting sensibilities. “I think the reason it works is that he's very much part of our DNA,” says Robbie of Rivers Cuomo, who appears on single Running Red Lights. “The whole Avalanches sound could almost be traced back to Brian Wilson... we don't sound like that, but it's the feeling; that feeling of halfway between happy and sad that he captures so perfectly.”

Those pieces of sunshine pop burst forth in both features and fragments, with tracks such as The Divine Chord thrusting collaborators – in this case, MGMT and Johnny Marr – into a shimmering melancholy. Overcome, a collage of wordless melodies, spotlights an impassioned lead vocal as it fades in and out of the aqueous mix, while album highlight Always Black fuses Pink Siifu’s spoken presence with John Carroll Kirby’s ebbing piano. “He'll just listen to something for about a minute,” tells Tony, “and then just go in there and play this absolute magic over it… a musical piano genius!” The sample that cuts in the close – there and back, it’s always black... – is as beautiful a moment as The Avalanches have ever arranged; a cross-generational collaboration that hinges on an unshakable humanity.

Even amongst the latent carrier waves and glitchy tech palettes of the cosmic concept, We Will Always Love You hinges on that shared humanity, interpersonal relationships the very heart of the interstellar mission. On Ghost Story, the brief opener, that personal passion takes centre stage: I’m gone, but you know, I’ll still be here,” sobs Superorganism’s Orono over an ethereal choir, I’ll be with you, and I’ll always love you.” “We wanted to parallel our own internal journeys and explorations of our consciousness with the wider universal story,” explains Robbie, “it's almost like the macro and the micro at the same time.”

It’s in this tradition that the duo reach back into Hollywood history on Song for Barbara Payton, memorializing a bygone tragedy with a heart-rending dedication. Barbara’s story is one of hardship, her rising star extinguished by turmoil, hearsay and the alcoholism that would ultimately see her die at 39. It’s a story reminiscent of Chater’s own struggles with alcohol addiction, which date back to his adolescence. While treatment in his early 20s had pulled him from physical dependency, a celebratory glass of wine more than a decade later saw him relapse. “I was constantly hospitalised and detoxing,” he says of his 30s. “My family and everyone around me had accepted that I wouldn’t come through. Nobody knew what to do anymore, they had to let me go.” It was only when Robbie connected with a therapist, himself a recovered heroin addict, that he found his feet. 

“I've struggled with alcohol addiction since I was a young teen, and that was her story, so I could very much relate to the absolutely heartbreaking loneliness of her story, being lost in addiction,” he continues, “and because it was a story that I hadn't heard told before, we just thought it would be really nice to write a song for her. When we came across that sample – there's a rumour going around, someone's trying to put you down – it almost summed up her story of being well known in LA and then the whole town gossiping about her demise and her fall from grace.”

The intersection of these three ideas – Barbara Payton’s life, the sampled voice and Robbie’s own battles – speaks to both the enduring beauty and the unchanging hardships of those since passed, souls of an era that can feel so foreign. “We may sample a record from the 40s, and that person's passed, but their voice lives on in our music,” says Robbie, “it's like summoning spirits.” The sounds tell a story beyond that of the band or the bard, folding decades of musical relationships into the mix. “Someone's owned that record that recording from the ‘40s, and it's sat in someone's house for 30 years, maybe they've played it a million times, or they're going through a breakup and they've added crackles to it and spilled wine on it, and then it's come into my life,” he excitedly explains, tracing imperfections like a kind of cultural lineage. “All those layers of history are collected and we sample it, and that's such a beautiful idea to me.”

Robbie sees the same beauty in the fact that “every radio broadcast in the history of the planet is still like floating out there in space,” the voices of since-passed singers and little known artists carrying on some distant solar wind far beyond our reach. “There's almost like all these spirits and ghosts floating around singing.” In this telling, music isn’t some idle soundtrack, but a living entity in itself, imbued with our distinct energies and embroiled in journeys as far-flung as our own. “Madonna's voice is still floating out there, John Lennon's and Mariah Carey's,” he muses, those garbled sounds and clipped fragments fated to live on beyond their authors. That treatment of sound as a conduit of spirit stoked a consciousness within the duo. “They put their heart and their soul into it, and if you're not executing it right, then you're not honouring the intent that they created that with,” adds Tony, “and I feel like that's a bit disrespectful to them.”

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It’s hardly surprising that artists would develop a greater respect for their signature instrument, but rarely is that instrument as storied as any long-forgotten record. “We just needed to be a little bit older to reflect back on the art form that we've been working with for so long now,” poses Robbie. “It's almost like, in a way, we're fully appreciating the depth of it now.” The reverence for voice pushes into the stacked roster of featured artists, counting influences such as Tricky, Neneh Cherry and Sananda Maitreya, peers like MGMT, Jamie XX and Rivers Cuomo, and fresh faces in Pink Siifu, CLYPSO, Cola Boyy and Sampa The Great. 

“It's just like a normal studio,” says Tony of the legendary Sunset Sound, a longshot that turned into their Los Angeles base. “There's a lot of really new studios now that don't have much vibe, but these still have the vibe... Prince recorded in this room, and you can feel it, you know what I mean?” It helps that the studio’s been hardly updated, leaving the studio where Prince frequently recorded in the ‘80s unchanged – and the courtyard ring where he’d shoot hoops unsullied. “It has such a great atmosphere, and we were there for so long… well, not so long, but it did feel like home. It really did it. It's got a great presence.”

“We can just sit on the couch and chill,” jokes Robbie of their Sunset Sound setup, “allowing room for accidents, and also for other artists interacting.” The result is a mission that refracts through many voices and visions, such as on Gold Sky, where Kurt Vile’s spoken word pulls from the deeply personal trials that inspired the album. “I gotta tell you, I’m feeling just the right amount of minimal to maximal amount of shattered by life,” he quips like a skittish beat poet. “I have been reborn… I have made a very big decision.” 

The divide between “the macro and the micro” is never too vast, with Robbie’s belief that “we really are children of the universe” underpinning a much-needed sense of harmony throughout. The mantra at the heart of slow-burning club mix Wherever You Go we go, we go, wherever you may go – comes back to the binds that tie us together, and the titular emotion of Interstellar Love is one too big for our limited bodies.

Inspired by the story of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, the latter of whom is pictured on the album art, Leon pulled from the inclusion of her lovestruck brain waves on the Voyager Golden Record, still drifting somewhere in the cosmos. Our souls belong among the stars, our bodies can’t hold them in,” he sings, pieces of conversation quietly lingering, transmissions phasing in and out of the mix until Leon’s own melodies become similarly fleeting shadows.

“It was just lovely that her story had inspired us so much, and then it came full circle with her being part of the album,” fawns Robbie of the album cover, grateful even as their plans to record Ann as an interstitial storyteller fell through. “It was basically a conversation between me and her, just a spoken conversation that was going to be recorded, and then we're going to use snippets of her telling her story as little interludes on the album,” he explains, but for whatever reason, the session didn’t come to pass. “I just kind of assumed perhaps it was too personal… I mean it's her late husband, and I definitely didn't want to take for granted the fact that she would have to open up and talk about a very personal story.” Even in that absence, that story of interstellar passion runs deep throughout the record.

There’s a gravity to that thread, but also a joyousness. The zany fun of cuts like Frontier Psychiatrist and The Noisy Eater carries forth in We Go On, a sunny duet from Cola Boy and Mick Jones. A sort of cosmic tropicana runs throughout, Cola Boy’s peppy lyrics more contagious than complex, his clear bewilderment at Mick Jones’ very presence joyous in its own right. The same could be said of Oh The Sunn!, which puts Jane’s Addiction frontman and Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell on centre stage in a rapturous gospel-infused dance number. Music Makes Me High hits with a sharp nu-disco edge; Born To Lose unfolds about an irresistible bassline. The instruments are sharper, the arrangements deeper, and the plush mixes like a deep pillow worth sinking into.

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The power of sound is on full display on We Will Always Love You, and the tracks replete with mentions of “light,” whether they be red, reflecting, daylight, in your eyes or “the light of my life,” a recurring quote that summons the spirit of late collaborator and friend David Berman. “He heard his contributions to this record before he passed,” says Robbie after some thought. “It was more a lovely through line, because during the making of Wildflower I'd had some dark times, and he'd been there for me… he'd just become a very important person in my life, through his work and then personally.”

The flurry of light, sound and spirit that runs throughout is dressed by a swathe of devotional music, whether gospel or otherwise religious, and there’s almost something divine to the ideas at play. “It's just fascinating to me how it works,” offers Robbie, framing the gospel voices as part of a greater interest in mass singing. “Rave culture is the same thing – you can be in a club with a bunch of people and you're connected on a bigger level.” “It's just a different kind of church,” says Tony of those shared experiences, “it's a different kind of dedication, and it's all kind of based in this euphoric joy.” Robbie frames it as “a connection to something higher through lights and sound – everybody's hands are raised at the moment the song's peaking, and that's not that different to a gospel choir.”

There’s certainly something greater in the collective humanity of We Will Always Love You, a celebration of music that wonders just what makes us what we are, exploring how sound and light bridge even the farthest distances – in space, time and emotion. “For me, we all are the universe, and God is just us at our best,” waxes Robbie, shaking off that loaded language. “A collection of everything is perhaps what people term God,” ponders Tony, that higher power “the betterment of what we can be potentially in millions of years.” Hands raised, music blaring, eyes starry and spirits soaring: who’s to say that’s not a higher power in itself?

We Will Always Love You might just be the most Avalanches album: a record defined by not only their deep crates and intricate craft, but by their own trials and tribulations. The collaborators feel like family, the samples like spirits and The Avalanches like summoners, tackling their exhumations with more poise than ever before. It pairs a galactic gaze with an Earthbound heart, calling on the vastness of the cosmos to help us consider our place within it. On a planet consumed by lines, markers and divisions, maybe it’s the message we need to hear: we are still “the children of Earth,” and you will know us by the bright, loud spirits we leave in our wake.

Were extraterrestrials to find We Will Always Love You floating in some distant constellation, it’d be as great a first impression as we could hope for – a sweeping testament to humanity, touching the crowning highs and scraping the despondent lows, distilling our bittersweet existence into a beautiful collage that brings out our very best. 

Plus, they’d be Avalanches fans by the time they got here, and that’s got to up the odds that they’d come in peace.

The Avalanches' third album, We Will Always Love You, is out now via EMI Music Australia. Watch an album launch party on December 19th, more information and tickets available here.

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