When Myth Becomes Legend: A Chat with The Avalanches’ Robbie Chater

One half of The Avalanches speaks of samples, Danny Brown, and writing letters to Sir Paul McCartney.

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Jul 8 2016, 10:54am

This article originally appeared on Noisey Australia.

The Avalanches are masters of the sample, the simple—or not so simple—act of taking a portion of one sound recording and reusing it as an instrument or a sound, in another song. Since I Left You, the Melbourne collective’s 2000 masterwork, is said to contain over 3000 samples, that include John Cale and Madonna to a sped up version of “Everyday,” a track from 60s psych pop band The Main Attraction.

Created from op-shop bargain bins, Since I Left You became a once in a generation album. It was a record that built a cult. But like the samples, there was a cut. A rather long cut.

Now The Avalanches, stripped back to a creative duo of Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi, are back with Wildflower their first album in 16 years. The unique samples remain but there are now also vocals from a guest list that includes Danny Brown, Father John Misty, the Silver Jews’ David Berman, and hip-hop legend Biz Markie.

On the Monday morning before Wildflower's release Chater is fieding calls from music journalists eager to find out what has been happening over the past 16 years. The Avalanches have never been a ‘press’ band, preferring mystery and the presupposition of others to do the talking for them but Chater is in good spirits and eager to chat.

“Actually, the interviews haven't been that bad” he laughs. “We haven't done many for a while. "It’s good to be back". Too true.

Noisey: You’ve never been considered a singles band. How did you decide on “Frankie Sinatra” as the first release?
Robbie Chater: I just removed myself from the process.The same thing happened with Since I Left You which was also like one piece of work. I remember people really struggled to pull singles of that record too. So I just let other people decide.

Label and management?
And feedback from friends. “Frankie Sinatra” was one song people’s kids really seemed to like. Our manager’s little boy actually said that one song sounded like a Japanese farmer and they kept saying, “I wanna hear that song again with the Japanese farmer.” It turns out that he was talking about “Frankie Sinatra.”

You’ve built some sweet connections over the years. How does this come about? Is it just through hanging out?
It happens in different ways. Sometimes it’s a direct email to the artist or I’ll get in contact through a friend. We make really careful considerations before approaching collaborators just to make sure that we have the right people and that the vocals doesn’t sound just tacked on.

Sometimes it’s about people whose music we connect with on a pretty deep level. Sometimes it’s just random chance. Danny Brown’s previous manager was a massive fan of Since I Left You. Six months later he was no longer his manager. If we’d approached Danny later it wouldn’t have happened.

You just destroyed my romantic vision of you guys hanging at an LA party and Danny Brown yelling across the pool, “Yo, Avalanches we should do some shit!”
[Laughs] No, it doesn’t work like that. But when he came to Melbourne to do Wozard of Iz, it turned into a fucking really fun night.

He has quite a stylish wardrobe.
[Laughs] He was wearing adidas shoes that were made to look like panda teddy bears!

"Noisy Eater" is getting attention because of the Beatles sample but I’m stoked that it includes Biz Markie. What was it like working with him?
It was just a beautiful thing really. He got what we were about. It was recorded remotely so it took a fair bit of back and forth and patience on his part. Especially when we would say, “Can we add a layer of munching sounds?” But a lot of those ideas he just hint on on in a little adlib. Like a bit of munching or burping. The final vocal was one take that had this great and joyous spirit to it.

Did you actually write a letter to the Beatles asking for clearance of "Come Together"?
Yeah, Tony wrote it.

The thought of him sitting down and writing, “Dear Sir Paul McCartney and Miss Ono can we please use this track?" seems pretty amusing.
[Laughs] It was a bit like that. It was just explaining what we do. That sample had been knocked back and we’d hit a brick wall. But then our management had a way of getting a letter to each of them directly. So we were just explaining what we do and the spirit in how we’d use the sample. That it wasn’t a sort of gratuitous thing, but just from or love for the music.

The story of Pat Shanahan who works on getting all your samples cleared sounds amazing. I’d love to chat to her about the process.
You should, she is the most amazing lady. We’ve had many long chats with Pat. We actually got an email from her yesterday saying this is the first time she’s listened to the finished record and that she really loves it and that “Livin’ Underwater” is her favourite song.

Do you and Tony approach the songs equally or are there songs that you have more individual involvement in?
Yeah, it’s like a process of helping. There’ll be an idea generated by one person, and then it’s cool to come in together and figure out—"Is this anything, could it be anything and how would we turn this into a song?" With something like “Colours,” he had the whole musical bed and then we would work on it together.

The story of creatives working together can be interesting in itself.
It’s a wonderful thing actually. I feel privileged to have had this working relationship with Tony. To be close enough to be brutally honest. To tell them that a piece of music they made in five minutes is heaps better than something they worked on for a month. Being told that isn’t easy.

I can't imagine it would be.
But often when I’ve been working from a more intellectual place, with a concept in mind for a length of time it sort of loses that spark. Whereas something I’ve made from the heart one morning in half an hour just captured a feeling. I don’t want to hear that I’ve wasted a month on something. But with the benefit of hindsight, of course he’s right, and it’s lovely to have that kind of relationship where we can just tell each other those things straight out.

What about Modular Records folding? You’d been long time friends with Steve Pavlovic the label's director Pav. What was the feeling around that?
It was just something that happened. They’re a Sydney based thing so our contact wasn’t that regular. Glen at Modular has been amazing through the whole journey, and Pav’s always been very supportive. It seems like there was this conflict with Tame Impala and the whole thing was sort of dissolving, so we didn’t know where we stood. In the end we’ve shifted over to EMI and those guys have been amazing.

You are playing Splendour in Grass with a live band lineup. Are you guys handy on the guitar and bass?
[Laughs] No. I’m actually playing guitar at this show and I haven’t played since I was 15. I’m just practicing everyday, going “Fucking hell!” [Laughs], I’ve got a lot to remember.

How many people in the band?
We’re still fine tuning it but it will be about six or seven.

On the bigger festival stage does holding a guitar makes it feel a bit more festivally?
Yeah it’s a funny one. I love DJing and playing live equally. I think Tony much prefers the live band thing. I’ve done lots of gigs and festival DJ spots over the years, that have just worked really well in front of really big crowds. But I think that there’s something about the energy of a live band and live drums. It just sounds louder and bigger and has much more impact.

Regardless of guitars or no guitars, I think people are excited to see you play live again.
Cheers. It's going to be fun.

'Wildflower' is available now.