Featured: The Avalanches – Illinois Entertainer Magazine
“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door,” goes the old Emerson-attributed adage. And Australian producer-multi-instrumentalist Robbie Chater can definitely relate. Back in 2000, his unassuming but ambitious little electronic trio The Avalanches came up with a debut disc like no other before it, the buzz-crackling Since I Left You, cobbled together from over 3,500 mostly-obscure vinyl samples. And the music industry took notice. Hip Down Under radio station Triple J began spinning its scratchy oddity of a single, “Frontier Psychiatrist” nonstop, until it rocketed into the Top 10, and one year later, the outfit took home four Grammy-equivalent ARIA Music Awards, including Best New Artist for single and album. As it was gradually unveiled around the globe, scaling the charts in Britain, Japan, and America, the album took on an almost mythological quality. It was a complicated but remarkably effective mousetrap that no one had really seen before.
There was just one little problem. How could Chater ever manage to top — or even equal — such a prestigious introductory achievement? Believe it or not, nearly two decades would pass before he and his bassist-vocalist cohort Tony Di Blasi in The Avalanches — which had pared down to a duo — were finally able to answer that question with a sophomore followup, 2016’s Wildflower, which hit so many snags (including a few stints in rehab after recurring battles with the bottle) he’s hard pressed to remember them all. Chater would never rest on his laurels again. The Avalanches jumped wholeheartedly into the record’s new December-issued followup, We Will Always Love You, and found that top-notch artists from around the world were not only huge fans, but ready to make that jump, too. MGMT and Johnny Marr punched in on “The Divine Chord,” Perry Farrell helped with “Oh the Sunn!,” Karen O chimes in for “Dial D for Devotion, and Jamie XX, Neneh Cherry, and Clypso beef up the mix on “Wherever You Go.” Over 25 generous tracks, well-wishers like Tricky, Blood Orange, Rivers Cuomo, and Leon Bridges chime in, and most telling of all is Clash axeman Mick Jones on “We Go On” (with Cola Boyy), as it was Jones’ sample-heavy spinoff combo Big Audio Dynamite that first gave a teenage Chater, now 45, the idea that he could jerry-rig his own music at home in Melbourne. He checked in right before Christmas to discuss how far he’s come since.
IE: I was actually in Sydney, Australia in early 2001, and The Avalanches were everywhere. Every record store had Since I Left You on its main display racks, radio was playing you constantly. I bought a copy and brought it home. Then, 16 years of silence? What happened?
ROBBIE CHATER: In the 16 years? Well, speaking of technology, that was pre-YouTube, and records back then were released the old-fashioned way. And Since I Left You came out in England in 2001, and then it came out later in the States. So we were still traveling around promoting it in 2003, 2004. So in a nutshell, it was a combination of things that led to a personal creative block that became a massive creative mountain to climb. And I think that, as the years went on, it was almost like because we didn’t follow up Since I Left You right away, the myth around it grew, and the longer we didn’t follow it up, the bigger it loomed in our minds, and the more people seemed to reflect on what a special record it was. And I often wonder — would it have grown to such status if we’d followed it up 18 months later with another record or something? And we’ll never know the answer to that. But the journey of Wildflower really was one of…well, a very sharp learning curve for me, personally, to learn about where my expression comes from and who I am as an artist. And to learn that an effort doesn’t necessarily mean great results, and that it’s important to be in a state of flow, and to be in touch with your intuition when making music. I think following up Since I Left You, honesty — and not to sound flippant — but I thought that since it had come flowing out of me so easily, I kind of thought, “Well, if people think THAT’S good, if I try really, really hard, I could do something that’s ten times as good!” And I learned the hard way, of course, that that’s not how it works, and that Since I Left You came from a place of pure inspiration. So the journey of making Wildflower was all about getting back to that place.
IE: How did liquor become a problem? You weren’t in some dark 30-days-of-night Scandinavian country.
RC: There’s a huge drinking culture in this country. Huge. And — just to be honest — there’s a lot of alcohol-related violence, and it’s very accepted for everybody to be a huge drinker. And that’s not why I drank. I drank because I wanted to numb myself, because of my own inherent personal…incomplete relationship with myself. I had extreme shyness and anxiety as a young person, and alcohol was a way for me to deal with the world and deal with life.
IE: A lot of artists drank just to get the courage to go onstage.
RC: Well, yeah. I mean, for me that’s not the story. I’ve never been able to perform or write music when I’m drinking. When I’m drinking I’m alone, and I get very unwell, very quickly. I got sober for the first time around the age of 20 — I was very young when I started drinking, only in my teens. And I was only able to make that first Avalanches record because I’d almost died from drinking already, and I was so young and happy to be alive and free from this trap of addiction I’d been in that first album just came pouring out of me when I was 22, 23. And then I had a long period of sobriety, like 12 years after that. So when I’m well, I’m making music, and when I’m unwell — if I’m drinking — I can barely function. So it’s definitely not that old myth that being fucked up makes for great art. That simply doesn’t apply to me.
IE: What was your poison of choice? And of course, every rehab teaches the same crucial lesson: You use, you die. All of us still left to tell the tale learned it.
RC: I would just always end up with vodka, usually. And yeah, that was the lesson. And in fact, I was very lucky on a number of occasions NOT to die, and I think I was just so unwell, it was either you start listening to a new way of doing things and perhaps recover, or you keep going the way you were and you die. But there was still something left in me that I’m really grateful for, that I fought through it and held on and I finally began to get well.
IE: And this new album, you seem to recognize music as this force, this saving grace that you want to honor in “Music is the Light” and “Music Makes Me High.”
RC: Very much so. Thank you — that’s a lovely way to put it. And we are doing that. We are. Music really unifies. And it has gotten me through so much — it’s been the foundation that’s driven my life forward, and it’s been the foundation of so many friendships, and definitely of my friendship with Tony. And yeah, we are honoring it. It’s extremely powerful. And I really love the different levels that music can work on. If you’re a teenager alone in your bedroom and you feel disconnected from the world, you can listen to music alone and it can be a deeply personal experience, or it can connect you to other people. Or you can get 100,000 people together in a field at Glastonbury and it’s a huge unifying force, or in church, music can affect you in the same way. Music affects all of our lives.
IE: And it kind of keeps you, as the song says, forever young.
RC: And isn’t it wonderful? And I’m always surprised. There’a always another record that I’ve never fucking heard of that just comes along out of nowhere, and I’m like, “This was made in 1972?! What IS this?” It’s endless. And I’m starting to realize that it’ll be like that for the rest of my life — you’ll never be able to read every great book, you’ll never be able to hear every great record in just the same way. But I think it was great growing up as a kid in Australia, because we were so geographically removed from the rest of the world that we didn’t have so many judgments — like the genres of what’s cool, what’s not cool. We soaked it all up. We soaked up the music from London, the United States, and music from Asia made its way here, too. And AC/DC was the soundtrack to my youth, but also ABBA was HUGE in Australia, just huge. So I like the fact that we’re not particularly cool. Like, Since I Left You, our first record, wasn’t made from sampling super-rare records — it was just records that we found in the junk store.
IE: How did you assemble your wish list of guest vocalists on We Will Always Love You? It’s insane!
RC: We just let the music lead the way. And like you said about honoring the music, a song would be coming to life just the same way that all of our songs do, just by sampling. We still begin all of our music that way, so we’ll just let the music lead the way and imagine, “Who’s got the right tone in their voice? Who’s got the perfect timbre in their vocals? Who might be perfect for this music?” So it wasn’t so much a wish list — the music always led the way. And I think that’s why it ended up being — hopefully — a very cohesive record. And then it was just a matter of beginning a conversation and reaching out to an artist like Sananda Maitreya (who appears on “Reflecting Light”) and just saying, “Look — this is what we’re interested in exploring, these things.” And that’s when people would say, “Listen — I know what you’re talking about, and I would love to try something!” And then a back-and-forth, collaborative process would begin.
IE: Who was your toughest ‘get’? The white whale you never expected to land? Johnny Marr?
RC: No, that ended up being really easy. And his part just came through one night in the middle of the night. I woke up the next morning, and there was an email with Johnny Marr’s guitar parts, and I nearly fucking died! I couldn’t believe it. And that was one of those ones that we thought would never happen, not in years. But often with an artist, they’re part of our DNA already anyway. And I know, obviously, that The Clash is so iconic. But for me, Mick Jones’ work with Big Audio Dynamite was some of the first sampling I ever heard, and my young brain was like, “What the fuck is that?” Because Big Audio Dynamite had some hits on the radio in Australia when I was growing up. So that was some of the first sampling I ever heard, and I was instantly curious – I wanted to make music like that. So it just makes perfect sense to me that Mick Jones ended up on one of our songs, because he’s part of our musical DNA already.
IE: Did you meet any artists in person, or was it all done by exchanging files?
RC: A bit of both. In 2019, I was lucky enough to travel and I recorded in Los Angeles, and that was really great. Because we’re sample-based artists, so we’d made our previous records kind of in isolation. So part of the joy of making this record was just being in the studio with other real, live human beings, and not working with artists that we were sampling from the ‘40s. I feel like I’m working with spirits and ghosts a lot of times when I’m sampling old music. So working with real live musicians was a real kick for me, and the change in lifestyle was really invigorating. Traveling the world and working with other people was a real gift, and something I will never forget.
– Tom Lanham