Speaking over the phone from Brooklyn, Peter Silberman pauses carefully between phrases. He’s good with words because he takes his time with them, both in conversation and in the intricate, powerful lyrics that spiderweb across the records he makes with the Antlers. In 2009, the Brooklyn band’s album Hospice broke through to a wider audience on the twin strengths of its atmosphere and its story. That record navigated the deep pockets of pain that linger in the wake of an abusive romantic relationship, something Silberman had recently survived. It’s a heavy piece of work, but also a delicate one.
Two albums later, the Antlers have grown out of the volatile crescendos and trembling lows that marked Hospice. Their new album, Familiars, seeks peace amid the inevitable ups and downs of human life. With its patient tempos, ebbing horns and generous space in the mix for Silberman’s voice to ring, it carves out a new kind of refuge.
We caught up with Silberman ahead of Familiars‘ release to talk about how fiction can inform lyricism and how music can serve as a tool for personal growth.
This might be the steadiest record you’ve made. There were a lot of extremes on Hospice, a lot of loud-quiet dynamics, but Familiars is mid-tempo all the way through. Why do you think that’s become an easier idiom for you to express your ideas?
A lot of what this project has become for me is about trying to create more peace, or more evenness in my own mind and my own life. I think in some ways the album stands in contrast to the more tumultuous nature of actual life. I was trying to create a kind of safe place.
Does the music let you enter that safe place, or does the peace lead to the music?
I think the two work off of each other. Music is such a huge part of what I do on a daily basis that there’s definitely crossover between what I’m doing in my life and the music I’m working on. During the making of this record, there was an across-the-board shift happening for me in my life and in the music as well.
You use the imagery of physical spaces a lot. There’s the hospital on Hospice, and on this record you’ve got a palace, houses, a hotel. To what degree do you imagine these as literal spaces as opposed to symbols for emotional states?
I think they operate as both at the same time. These spaces represent a state of mind most of the time. They act as the environment and the setting for these stories, so a lot of the time it just helps me go, “OK, first thing I need to figure out is, where the fuck is any of this happening?” It helps me organize what I’m trying to talk about. I guess ultimately it does come down to the emotional states that the structures represent. I think that’s what a lot of architectural structures do anyway — most people’s houses are some kind of manifestation or representation of who they are, what they’re like, what they are interested in, what state of mind they’re in.
For this record I found it helpful to stick with that comparison. It became the way I started to think about what a lot of us are, or maybe what everybody is. There’s this idea that each person is like a house with life inside of it. Once I had that idea, it started to make a lot of other things make sense: what the feeling is to be outside of that house, or to be far from that house. All of them are things that you might feel at a certain time in your life when you feel like you’re far from yourself, or you feel like you don’t know yourself. There’s a sense of home that goes alongside that, a sense of comfort or a sense of security. I like to keep writing about it and see where it takes me.
We’ve been talking about characters and environments. Would you say that you draw from fiction in your lyrics more than other types of writing?
I draw from a lot of places, but least of all lyrical pop songwriting. A lot of times, the narrative is shaped by what I learned about writing fiction growing up and what I’ve continued to practice, to the extent that I will sometimes write out a song as a short story just to get a sense of sequence, and of what it might be if it wasn’t being written as lyrical poetry. Fiction has definitely played a huge, huge role in it. But poetry does too. Sometimes spiritual or religious writing does, which could really fall in either one of those categories. I tend to try to read a lot of things all at once.
You wrote Hospice about a specific series of events. To what degree has Hospice’s story continued to unfold through the rest of your music? Do those events tie into Familiars?
The story continues for me, because it’s the story I’m working on throughout all my life. It’s never really independent of the things that came before it. Those inform it. It’s kind of a soft-focus version of re-approaching some of the things I was writing about in the past from a different angle, like the way that memories become blurrier as time goes on.
Hospice was a record about pain. To what degree is Familiars about healing from that pain?
I don’t know if this record is about specifically healing from that. I think it’s a record about the idea of healing. A lot of that comes down to how you understand suffering. It’s such an intense, heavy word, but most of the time it actually refers to a very subtle kind of pain where you fixate on something from your past and allow it to eat away at you over time. In some ways, this record is about letting go of suffering. If suffering is the way that you’ve attached pain to yourself, there’s a way to undo that attachment. That was kind of what I was attempting to do on this record, to really explore what that attachment is, and through the record let go of various fixations. I think that is all part of the healing process, a kind of letting go, allowing the past to be the past and not to live with it in the present.
So you’re not just making songs about that process; making songs is the process.
Yeah, for sure. It’s weird, because it’s the process for me while we’re working on it, but it’s also a process that involves creating something that hopefully can have the same effect on someone else. Someone else could put themselves into it and have that experience of letting go of something, of releasing themselves from some kind of mentally-constructed prison, which we all probably have to some degree. I think that was part of why I tried not to attach this album too much to my own personal experiences, or how it might specifically relate to things I’ve written about in the past. I definitely wanted it to be a little less specific this time around.
Have you connected with people who say that your music has helped them let go of something?
Yeah, definitely. That happens a lot when we’re on tour. People will often approach me and just tell me about how, for whatever reason, one of our records helped them figure some shit out for themselves. It’s always immensely flattering, and something I never really expected to be able to do for anybody else. But it’s kind of the goal in the first place. A lot of the stuff I write is about the ideas people have in their heads that they don’t feel are relatable, so they don’t talk about them. Things that seem crazy when you’re just thinking them to yourself. I like the idea of making people feel less crazy.