Consider for a moment the unnerving prospect of creating a follow-up to one of the most passionately celebrated debut albums of the 21st century. This was the daunting task facing Australian band The Avalanches in the wake of their thrilling and technically fascinating masterpiece released to near universal acclaim in November 2000. It reinstated the importance of a dwindling art-form, and reaffirmed the joyous sense of discovery inherent to the act of record collecting – an obsession that could be used to shape new stories out of old and familiar sounds. Sampling had rarely sounded as carefree and naturalistic as it did here. It would take a whole decade and a half for the band to recover from and build upon the singular formula they had so carefully crafted. Despite this, their reemergence in 2016 was a remarkable event, bolstered by music which seemed to pick up right where their ethereal debut left off. Moreover, Wildflower offered a welcome opportunity to reappraise the idyllic fantasia of Since I Left You.
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Back in the 1990s, The Avalanches began life as an altogether very different entity. Their earliest Melbourne performances of 1994 revealed a four-piece noise-punk outfit inspired by the likes of The Fall and Drive Like Jehu. This original lineup, named Alarm 115, was disbanded after the band’s drummer, Manu Etoh, was deported from Australia, and the rupture prompted a reevaluation amongst its remaining members. Robbie Chater, a film student at RMIT University, took advantage of his access to a recording studio, where he and Darren Seltmann experimented with the second-hand instruments the band had recently bought. In the interim they had also been trawling their local record shops, digging through the dusty stacks and amassing a formidable collection of records across a broad variety of genres. An early draft of the sound with which they would later become synonymous was realised on an early demo-tape titled Pan Amateurs, and Tony Di Blasi was welcomed back to help perform their new material live. Following a succession of short-lived names the band settled on The Avalanches – borrowed from an obscure ’60s American surf band, whose sole album was called Ski Surfin’ with the Avalanches.
The band’s profile grew steadily throughout the late ‘90s. In 1997, after a stint supporting the New York band Jon Spencer Blues Explosion their audience had grown enough to encourage the release of their debut single ‘Rock City.’ The song was a recorded representation of the group’s energetic live performances, which as Chater recalls were “all the things that we love about live music– the fun, the energy, the chaos… .” Featuring Seltmann on vocal duties, the song is a chaotic rap-rock crossover, heavily indebted to the Beastie Boys and practically bursting at the seams with musical detail both sampled and performed. The El Producto EP which followed soon after continued in this spirit, full of quirky jazz samples, electronic noises, and skilful turntablism by new recruit Dexter Fabay.
The band’s stylistic evolution continued through ’98 and ’99, first on the release of the UK exclusive EP Undersea Communitywhere Seltmann’s rap is discarded in favour of a greater emphasis on musical clarity and vocal sampling – note the Japanese phrases quoted on its title track. The benefits of leaving rap behind were made clearer on the 12” Electricity EP, which contains an early version of the song that would soon become a standout track on their first full-length. The songs they were now producing had the ability to hold a listener’s attention without the need for lead vocals, such was the level of detail and personality carved into these tracks. Consequently The Avalanches were earning high profile fans in the music industry, playing support shows for Stereolab, Beck, Public Enemy, and Beastie Boys.
The task of labelling the band with a genre was not without precedent. Back in 1985 composer John Oswald had coined the term plunderphonics in an essay titled Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative. In this piece of writing he identified the moral and creative complexities which surround the act of sampling, but ultimately concluded that the practice was referential and self-conscious – a subversive tool which could be used to interrogate entrenched notions of identity and originality in music. This might explain why sampling became an intergenerational battleground in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, as young hiphop artists pioneering a new post-modern form of sound-collage butted heads with an ageing cadre of musicians who understandably took issue with the unauthorised use of their work as raw material.
Nonetheless, examples of plunderphonics can be heard as early as the 1950s, on Buchanan & Goodman’s incredible novelty record ‘Flying Saucer’ which hops across a variety of sampled material like a deranged radio host locked in a studio. The work of various club DJs and later Oswald himself extended this practice throughout the 20th century, before hiphop production crews such as Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad took sampling to new levels of dynamic power. Just as The Avalanches were picking up pace, DJ Shadow released his genre-defining masterpiece ‘Endtroducing’, which used the plunderphonics template to evoke a creeping sense of pre-millennium tension – a mood that intersects with the neo-noir of Massive Attack and Portishead.
But as far as The Avalanches were concerned, this rather self-serious approach to sampling was never going to work. The band’s creative ethos centred on the feelings of joy and bliss that could be squeezed from every fraction of sound. For Chater, this need of a positive outlet was justified by the alcohol addiction which had been derailing his life since the age of fifteen. By the time he reached twenty-one his withdrawal issues had become so serious that he was admitted to intensive care for a number of weeks. As he recalls: “Since I Left You came maybe two years after that, when I was sober and just glad to be alive. That’s a lot of the feeling and the joyousness behind that album – me at 23, making music and just happy to be alive… .” They started work on Since I Left Youin 1999, initially under the working title of Pablo’s Cruise. The band had intended to adhere to a specific concept by tracing the story of a guy following a girl around the world, from port to port, in an international search for love that would ultimately showcase the global span of their record collection. Out of a fear of being too literal, they soon dropped this framework, choosing instead to explore the same underlying themes in a more abstract sense.
Settling into the studio for long stretches, Chater and Seltmann spent hours working with their Yamaha Promix 01 and Akai S2000, harvesting samples from stacks of vinyl and building initial arrangements out of what they discovered. The total number of samples which would eventually feature on the album exceeded 3,500 – a figure which would be the source of a huge headache for the band when they were forced to retrace their steps and identify the source of this material due to the legal vulnerabilities of an international release. Once the basic skeleton of a song was formed the pair would swap recordings and flesh out each others ideas, engaging in a collaboration that still allowed their individual imaginations to flourish. Nevertheless, the creative vibe was changeable – as Chater notes: “There were times when everyone’s in the studio and everyone’s bringing in records and it’s kind of spontaneous. But there were long periods of time where it was one person just slugging it out, and [that wasn’t] a party at all.”
The seamless way in which these samples gel together is awe inspiring and its often hard to tell where one thread begins and another ends. In the music video for the album’s biggest hit, ‘Frontier Scientist’, each sample is physically represented on stage as part of surreal theatrical revue directed by the song’s many vocal snippets. The many colourful characters jostling for space underlines the incredible span of their source material, ranging from physical records to YouTube recordings of a woman imitating her pet Parrot. It also underlines the band’s sense of humour and self-awareness; their ability to laugh at the ridiculousness of this music and marvel at the good fortune of living in a time when its creation is both possible and applauded as a form of art. As Seltmann proclaims, “the more rejected and unwanted the record that a sample comes from, the more appealing it is.”
But it’s the freewheeling beauty of Since I Left Youthat leaves the greatest impression. As each track smoothly rolls into the next we’re treated to a new imaginary idyll – places that exist outside of time and place. The swooning melodrama of the title track and album opener contains samples from at least three separate decades and several continents: following a guitar introduction from Tony Mottola, the majestic vocal hook is a pitched up slice of American soul group The Main Attraction’s 1968 song ‘Everyday’, supplemented by German keyboardist Klaus Wunderlich and the drums of Lamont Dozier’s ‘Take Off Your Make Up’. On another highlight, ‘Electricity’, Chater and Seltmann create a psych rock stomper out of Blowfly’s 1973 song ‘Rapp Dirty’, the cosmic jazz of Sun Ra’s ‘Say’, and the primetime funk of Vaughn Mason and Crew’s ‘Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll’. Samples of Françoise Hardy, Raekwon, Sérgio Mendes, Wayne and Shuster, and Madonna are just some of the recognisable sounds which appear throughout.
Despite the thousands of separate influences, the finished album sounds remarkably cohesive and identifiable. As Chater summarises: “Since I Left Youwas just an attempt to find our own little corner of the musical universe, a spot where we could just do our own thing rather than be in competition with anyone else. A lot of dance music at that time was about big drums, big production: think of a record like [the Chemical Brothers] ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’, with those amazing drums, and how huge those records sounded. We thought, “We’re never gonna win a battle of beats with a record like that.” So instead we went, “Why don’t we try to make a record that was more ’60s influence, with less bass, inspired by Phil Spector and the Beach Boys — but using dance music techniques? A light, FM-pop record?”.
In the wake of its release, The Avalanches’ legendarily chaotic live shows attempted to approximate the ephemeral magic of Since I Left You using both turntables and a band setup to recreate its wealth of detail. It was a near impossible task and moreover the band was uninterested in a slavish recreation – “The live thing is just a party, really, and it’s just about having fun. It would be really boring to just recreate the record with a couple of guys at computers. We just wanted it to be all the things that we love about live music”. In the same way that the album revels in the happy accidents and chance encounters of fallible human creativity and electronic hardware, these free-form performances were perhaps a far more honourable tribute to the ethos so wonderfully expressed on the album.
It’s safe to say that the legacy of Since I Left You has surpassed even the most optimistic forecasts given to the career of an Australian band who have undergone multiple lineup changes and released just two albums in twenty-five years. In 2013 fellow Antipodeans Astral People, Jonti, and Rainbow Chan composed a complete live rendition of Since I Left Youto be played by a 17-piece orchestra at the Sydney Opera House – evidence of just how widely respected and highly regarded the album remains in both artistic circles and mainstream society. The long sixteen year delay between their debut album and its impressive follow-up Wildflowerspeaks to the crushing expectations placed on musicians by an audience who have already tasted the peak of their talents. More so it highlights the lightning in a bottle nature of Since I Left You, of which The Avalanches are surely all too aware. As an artistic achievement it will never be replicated, but as an ode to the absorbing power of music it is surely destined to be repeated time and time again.