The Antlers are a Brooklyn-based indie rock band best known for their intense 2009 opus “Hospice,” a concept album about a terminally ill child in a cancer ward. However, to label the group as “sad rock” would be to underestimate their talent.
Prior to “Hospice,” The Antlers was singer Peter Silberman’s solo project. He released an album and two EP’s of sparse acoustic folk before producing “In the Attic of the Universe,” an album that signaled his more epic, layered sounds to come. Multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci and percussionist Michael Lerner joined Silberman as full-time members after those releases in 2007, filling out the band’s current lineup.
“Hospice” displayed a rare form of musical and conceptual ambition, and NPR named it the best album of 2009. Since then, their music has loosened up considerably, but heavy questions about life, death, and individual identity remain. 2011’s “Burst Apart” saw the band incorporate sleeker electronic sounds and more up-beat tempos, but stark pessimism and anger lurked in the lyrics.
The band’s latest album “Familiars” (Anti- Records, June 17, 2014) finds the group settling into a slower, more meditative groove, full of ambient horns, organs, and finger-picked electric guitar melodies. The songs aren’t too far removed from the heartbreak of “Hospice” and the desolation of “Burst Apart,” but the tone is certainly more hopeful. On the record’s second single “Hotel,” Silberman sings: “I rent a blank room to stop living in my past self.” (The album’s first single was “Palace,” released in March.)
The group embarked on a tour in June that will take them across the US, Canada, and Europe. Frontman and songwriter Peter Silberman spoke to the Forward about the band’s evolution and how his more optimistic spiritual philosophy made its way onto the new album.
GF: The band’s sound, although it’s been atmospheric for a while, seems even more expansive on “Familiars.” Has your songwriting and recording process changed for this album?
PS: Yeah, I’d say it changed for this record. Although I think it’s the natural evolution of what we’ve been doing for a few years. About 3 or 4 years ago we moved into our own studio in Brooklyn, right before we started working on “Burst Apart.” Since then we’ve taken on a new way of working. It was no longer just a bedroom project. In our own studio we were able to give the record the chance to really grow and for us to get familiar with engineering our own records in a more professional capacity.
“Familiars” has definitely been through more of a long gestating process. We worked on it for way longer than we worked on anything else. I think what made it different than the records that came before is that we had a long time to sit and contemplate it. That led to a lot of subtle differences, which are a little hard to put my finger on.
Did you always want to be a musician? How did you get to this point?
I always wanted to be doing this, but I don’t think I knew exactly how I wanted to be doing it. I’ve been in bands since I was a kid and have been making records probably since I was 14 years old, so this has just been what I do for a really long time. And as it became more successful and we developed it into more of a career, it’s given us more of an opportunity to do it correctly, so to speak. We were able to have a really good environment to work in, and also just to have a lot of time to work on it as well, so that this could be our full time job. And so we could really get to know these records that we’re making.
To me, your songs seem to be based more on a feeling than a traditional verse-chorus, verse-chorus pattern. It’s as if you take a theme, a lyric, or a chord progression and build on it, pushing it as far as it can go. Is that how you feel about songwriting?
Yeah, sometimes. I don’t know if that’s true for all the songs, but it is for a lot of them. There is an intentional repetition to help create a sort of entrancing quality and to lose the sense of time, so that you’re not really sure how long you’ve been listening to a cycle of chords. And to create a kind of circular motion. Sometimes I find that to be a better template for me to write lyrics on top of – when there’s a stable base below it.
It’s tempting to call “Familiars” a spiritual experience – it’s very introspective, the songs are long, and it begs to be listened to as a full album. Is music a spiritual thing for you?
Yeah, definitely. I never really considered myself a spiritual person until fairly recently, and I don’t even know if I would call myself that. But there’s definitely a lot of spirituality making its way into this record, partly based on a lot of things I was reading while we were working on it.
I’ve seen that you were reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead?
Yeah, I’ve been reading a lot of different spiritual texts, from when we were working on the record until now. I was trying to take a kind of “perennial philosophy” approach to it, pulling from a bunch of different cultures and traditions to try and find common threads. And to explore some of the more difficult questions in life – not really expecting any answers but trying to get closer to answers than I was before.
I wanted that experience of contemplation and meditation to be made real by this record. I think that’s why to some degree the songs are longer and why they reside in the lower tempos: to activate the part of your mind that needs a certain kind of relaxation in order to expand it.
There’s also a lot of passing through to other sides on the album, but it isn’t exactly a heaven and hell dichotomy. It’s more akin to the metaphorical hotel (in the song “Hotel”) and the mirror in “Doppelganger.” Have you ever been religious? Or is what you’re getting at a broader spirituality?
I was raised Jewish until I was 13, I went to Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah. But in the process of doing that I realized that what I was being taught was not resonating with me. It wasn’t any fault of the texts or traditions or material; I think I just didn’t believe it. I realized that pretty early on, and once I was able to be done with it, I pushed very hard against it and didn’t consider myself religious or Jewish for a long time.
I think a lot of the references to heaven and hell on this record are not associated with a specific tradition. There are a few biblical references on the record, and if anything, I think I’m trying to undo those sort of ways of thinking that I’ve had in the past. But even though I may have rejected the religion I was raised with, I still kind of naturally categorize things that way, into heaven and hell and into ideas of paradise or the Garden of Eden. These notions of happiness and perfection no longer really worked for me. I didn’t feel like they were the best way for me to understand my life. I think the idea of a heaven outside this reality became almost a distraction from this reality, and I became much more interested in the idea of heaven on earth. Just that idea of creating a kind of peace here, in this life.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Gabe Friedman is the Forward’s Arts and Culture intern