The Antlers first rose to prominence in 2009, when they received critical acclaim for their masterwork “Hospice”, an emotionally ragged and vulnerable concept album which told the heartbreaking story of a hospice worker falling in love with a terminal patient.
Earlier this year, the band released their fifth studio album, “Familiars”.
On “Familiars”, Silberman’s voice floats weightlessly in a landscape blanketed by reverb and titanic instrumentals. The music of The Antlers presents the world through the eyes of the troubled introvert, capturing the feeling that the inner world of turbulent emotions and imagination can seem just as vast and mysterious as the world around us.
Earlier this week we spoke with singer Peter Silberman about the songwriting process for the new album, his newly optimistic view of his own past and the changing definition of humanity in the digital age.
Dailyer: Can I ask where I’m talking to you from?
Peter: I’m at my home in Brooklyn right now.
Dailyer: Right on. I’ll get right to the questions, then. What always struck me about Antlers albums is that they always seem very cohesive. Each song fits in with the others really well. Do you write songs with the end result, the album, in mind?
Peter: I think I have this weird natural tendency to come up with ideas, like, conceptually, to come up with ideas for albums, as opposed to coming up with an idea for a song. The first idea I get will be kind of a “big picture”, a sort of guiding idea.
Dailyer: Like an overall theme for the album?
Peter: Yeah, exactly. And then that’s something that changes throughout the process of recording. I might have this overarching idea at the very beginning, like ‘Oh, what if there was a record called this, and it was about this?’ and then that sort of forms the progression of thoughts and ideas for the album. Then, in the process of exploring that, I’ll often end up throwing that idea away and starting on something new, or at least something on a different track. The songwriting, then, happens in the process of exploring that idea. Sometimes it ends up being a clear metaphor that forms the basis of an album, like ‘Hospice’. And with ‘Undersea’, I would say that halfway through recording that there was very much an impression I was getting from the music that we were all sharing in, that it had a very aquatic feel to it. Once we had that, it helped us make everything more cohesive, like you said. With ‘Familiars’ that sort of overarching idea didn’t really happen.
Dailyer: So did you feel it was more of a free-form album?
Peter: Yeah, in a way, it was much more free-form. I had a lot of ideas while we were working on it that were kind of guiding me through the lyrical process. But those ideas were constantly changing in this way that I think happens when you’re in a period of life where you’re trying to seek a sort of underlying fundamental truth to everything and it keeps evading you. You want to keep naming that kind of truth, that basic understanding of all things that you’re looking for. You feel like you know you can find it, but every time you try to put a name to it and kind of say “Oh, I’ve got it!”, it changes shape.
Dailyer: And this search for truth sort of forms the central theme of “Familiars”?
Peter: Yeah, I think there was definitely a search for truth in the process of creating the album.
Dailyer: “Familiars” had the type of sound and style we’ve come to expect from an Antlers album, but the music seemed a little warmer to me than previous efforts. Would you say that that’s indicative of any changes in your life or your approach to music?
Peter: I think we definitely shared a desire to make something that felt more human. “Human” in sort of a bolder sense of the word. There was this feeling I had when we started this record and as we were working on it, and I still feel this way, it’s the feeling that there’s this natural humanity that, I don’t know if it’s being lost exactly, but it feels like it’s changing.
Dailyer: With the way the world’s changing and how communication is changing?
Peter: Yeah, definitely. And the way that identity is changing, this way that we’re kind of merging ourselves with our technology, that we’re becoming part of it and it’s becoming part of us. It’s getting to this point where it’s getting kind of inextricable from us. To step outside of it in some ways puts you at a disadvantage. It’s a time of change for people, there’s something very natural that is changing.
Dailyer: And do you feel like this natural humanity is being lost?
Peter: It might feel like it’s being lost, but we also don’t know where this is headed. We don’t know where any of this change is really taking us. It could be actually connecting us to something more deeply human than we’ve ever experienced as a species before. But currently it does sort of feel like something’s being lost. With the record we weren’t trying to change the world with music or anything, only trying to preserve that humanity from another time. From not even that long ago, really. Trying to rediscover it.
Dailyer: That’s an interesting perspective. I feel like few people consider that technology might be connecting us on a deeper human level rather than pushing us apart. But let’s get back to the music, real quick. The Antlers was originally the name of your solo recording project. Since the others joined, has the songwriting process become more collaborative for you?
Peter: Yeah, absolutely. It’s totally collaborative at this point. The last time I was really working on music by myself in this project was around “Hospice” and even then, Michael, Darby and I were starting to collaborate. From that point on it’s become a fully collaborative thing.
Dailyer: All the lyrics are still written by you though, right?
Peter: I write all the lyrics, but we write all the songs together. There’s a lot of moving parts that go into a song, and we all kind of handle different territories within a song, and try to gel in the process. One person will be occupying one area and another one of us will occupy another. Everything is intended to complement one another, but there’s also a certain amount of struggle that goes into it, too. Depending on the song, there can be a competition of voices, as well as a harmony of voices. It’s sort of this push and pull that I think creates the life behind the music.
Dailyer: Do the lyrics come first or do you write them in response to the music?
Peter: The lyrics are kind of this writing project that I’ll have alongside the music-making process. The music-making is the process that we do together. We have our own studio that we spend a lot of time in to let our ideas grow and change. Meanwhile, when I’m home or if I’m travelling or exploring, I’ll be writing partly in response to the music and partly in response to my surroundings. I’ll write about my life and think about putting that into the context of the music.
Dailyer: Do you end up writing a lot and then picking parts of it that you want to bring to the music?
Peter: It depends. When we begin writing a record, usually that becomes sort of a period of more writing. I’ll open up something in myself that allows my surroundings and my life to come in in an intense, sensitive way. There’s kind of this machinery in my head that’s working on transforming it all into fiction. That becomes a constant writing process. Going back to technology, one of the benefits of the way things are now is that I can write wherever I am all the time and have a pretty good system of transmitting words that I’m writing on my computer to my phone. It’s a very fluid process. Then I have these passages that I travel around with editing during my downtime, thinking about them and changing them. I guess I’m always writing, but when we’re working on a project I’m much more focused on it.
Dailyer: The song “Palace” was one of the singles released before the album dropped. That song seemed to me to be about the process of becoming more bitter and weighed down with age. The lyrics mention a desire to “carve a palace from within”. Is the song about cultivating an inner world in response to growing cynicism about the nature of reality? Can you explain the significance of that line?
Peter: Sure, yeah. I think the song is definitely about this loss of childhood that happens when you get a little older, and not even that much older. I found it surprising that I can be in my mid-to-late twenties and already feel like I’ve experienced an entire life.
Dailyer: So is the song more of a self-reflection, then, or do you notice these tendencies in others around you?
Peter: It’s kind of both. I think when I’m making an observation about something I’m experiencing I’m trying to find a common ground between what I’m experiencing and what other people might be experiencing too. I think there’s something that happens in the process of growing into adulthood where you lose this playful sense of things. The world is no longer new to you, and you’ve established all these ideas of how things work and who you think you are and what you think your life’s going to be.
Dailyer: I think a lot of people could relate to that.
Peter: This feeling can be very limiting, though. While working on the record I was interested in what would happen if you undid all of that. If you put yourself in the mindset of being a kid again, and in any given moment let the world be completely new to you. Putting aside the way that you value things, the way that you judge things. Kind of pretend that everything is undefined to you.
Dailyer: Trying to take a childlike view of everything, looking at the world with fresh eyes.
Peter: Yeah, exactly. At the time, working on the album, I felt particularly weighed down by the past, kind of exhausted by it. I wanted to experiment with being free from it. I tried to relate it to a place that you live, moving into a new place and creating a place based on your own terms. I think building an inner world is a good way to look at it. And part of doing that is starting with a blank canvas, a raw space. There’s so much potential in a raw space. I began to think that I didn’t need to be defined by the past ten years of my life, the past twenty years of my life, or however many. You can’t really erase the past but you also don’t need to carry it with you and be weighed down by it, and that was the idea behind the song.
Dailyer: I see what you’re saying. I have just one more question. What music have you been into recently?
Peter: Actually, when you called, I was just watching this documentary on John Coltrane. It’s called “The World According to John Coltrane” and it’s not even very much of a documentary. It’s a couple short interviews and then long footage of performances.
Dailyer: So it’s more of a concert film?
Peter: Yeah, it’s a bunch of different concerts and some of a documentary. I’m kind of in a jazz black hole right now. In a good way.
Dailyer: I did notice that there were a lot of horn arrangements on the new album that I really dug a lot.
Peter: I think Darby fell into the jazz black hole a little before I did (laughs). It definitely influenced his playing on the new record, on the horns and the arrangements. There’s so much to explore in that world. To talk about something that’s been lost recently, there’s this incredible musicianship in some of these people like John Coltrane, but there’s also this very intense spiritual connection between what is inside of them and what is coming out of them. It’s this really uninhibited, wild energy that they’re able to unleash that I’ve always admired.