The Antlers' 2009 album Hospice was recorded in vocalist/guitarist Peter Silberman's bedroom — a space too small for the band's three members to play at the same time (forget about a full drum set). Silberman wrote the songs, then enlisted drummer Michael Lerner and multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci to take the project from a solo effort to actual group. Lerner says the intimacy of the recording process mirrored the intimacy of the record — a heavy, emotional account of a tumultuous relationship told through the narrative of a hospice worker and patient. Fronted by Silberman's falsetto, Hospice told its story against haunting, quivering soundscapes ("Kettering"), bombastic, electronic hysteria ("Sylvia"), and unhurried acoustic guitars and doubled-up vocals ("Shiva"). They self-released Hospice with no expectations, but upon its re-release through Frenchkiss, they found themselves on a long tour with the National, playing summer festivals, and eventually arriving at a place where they could do anything they wanted for their follow-up.
Like Hospice their new LP, Burst Apart, reflects its recording and performing environments — but this time, it was a spacious studio and the large venues they filled during the second half of Hospice's touring run. Having room to breathe (literally) meant holding back on lyrics — not as heavy, and not as many of them — and instead letting the music take up the space.
Laura Leebove spoke with Silberman, Lerner and Cicci in their Brooklyn studio about starting from scratch, reaching a wider audience and putting Hospice to rest.
How did having your own space affect the making of the album?
Michael Lerner: Much awesomer [gives double thumbs-up].
Peter Silberman: We can all be here at the same time!
Lerner: I liked doing what we did for Hospice with Peter, because I've done it before and there's an intimacy that ended up being a literal translation on the record. It's weird to say, but everything is so much more professional because we have room, and it felt at home while being at work, also. There's a lot of studios I've been to that are great, professional studios, but they're kind of cold. So everything was in every way what we had hoped would happen, and we're psyched about it.
Silberman: It's a very relaxing space. It's hard to be too stressed out here. That was a big part of making the record, not having any feeling of time constraints or pressure from the outside, it was like our own little world. A lot of physical space, too.
Lerner: Somebody recently was like, "Does it feel like it's a job?" but even if it is the crappiest day at this job, it's obviously the best day at any other job for all these reasons, besides just getting to play music every day.
What was the space you recorded Hospice in like?
Silberman: It was my bedroom. We couldn't all even be there at the same time.
Darby Cicci: We could barely even fit in there.
Lerner: Literally. It was challenging, but we made it work.
You've been performing the songs from Hospice for two years now. How did the meaning of those songs change as you kept playing them over and over?
Silberman: For me it went from…less playing for myself and more for the people watching us, transferring it over to them. Which was good; I think that was the best way for me to get through it, considering how many times I've played those songs and wanting to keep enjoying them, and I think the best way to do that was to have a little distance from it.
Your live performance has changed so much; it's a lot bigger than it was the first time I saw you play, during CMJ 2009. And a while ago Peter, you were quoted as saying you were becoming more a live band than a band interpreting a record. How do you feel like you've changed the most in terms of performing?
Silberman: I think we've all changed individually as musicians as we've gotten to know each other better as musicians. Now that we're going into a new phase of playing very new songs, songs that sound pretty drastically different from Hospice, I think the band's gonna change again. It is already, as far as the way we're playing these new songs, turning into a different thing.
Lerner: The sizes of the rooms has also been a big part of that. Even the chance to support some of the bigger bands that we've toured with, playing couple-thousand-capacity rooms…I think that helped us conceptualize how to get it there, because it was happening.
Darby Cicci: That's a good point. I feel like when you're used to recording in a small space and also playing shows at really small venues, you figure out ways to do certain things well, but you don't really have a lot of options. So now I think it's more about trying to figure out exactly what we want to do and how to do it bold and big.
The new record sounds to me a lot more like how you've been playing live more recently. Did playing in such huge venues and how you've changed as a live band affect how you approached recording this?
Silberman: I think the mindset going into the record was just to see what happens and not plan it too much. The best way for us to do that was having all our stuff set up, and for the first time in a long time, just getting to play aimlessly and see where it went, and tracking as we went, turning it into something as time went on.
What kind of music were you listening to while recording Burst Apart?
Lerner: I don't listen to a lot of music when I record, to be honest. We're in here so many hours — I get tired ears, and I wanna hear maybe some sessions if we're gonna [work on] tracks…We were in here some days eight or 12 hours. Maybe some classical, but I wasn't getting inspired by something that I could think of.
Cicci: I pretty much avoid [other music]. Anything I'd go home and listen to would work its way in subversively, so I just avoid it.
Lerner: I think I notice that now, as well, that I was psyched about a few new records that have just been released, and me feeling like a music fan again. It's a totally different frame of mind — like, "God, this new TV on the Radio record is really good!" or whatever. I wasn't doing that in the fall; I was just very huddled in a corner.
Cicci: Some of what I did listen to was when I'd drive to the studio, like 15 minutes of driving, I'd listen to the worst pop radio, like Katy Perry. It makes you feel a lot more optimistic about what you're able to do.
Silberman: It cleanses your palate, somehow, from everything you've been listening to. I was doing kind of the opposite of them. I was listening to a lot of stuff. When we started recording this, it was the first time that we'd been home for an extended period of time, and when I'm home I always have music on.
But I made a point to not listen to anything recent, for the most part. I was mostly listening to older stuff just 'cause, like, when that Deerhunter record came out, I started listening to it and was like "This is awesome." And then I made myself stop listening to it because I was like, "I don't want to accidentally start ripping this off." Just 'cause I like it a lot. So it was a lot of Motown, and the last couple Beatles records, for the guitar playing, mostly. And a lot of dub music, too. King Tubby and Mad Professor.
Peter, you mentioned in recent interviews that you wanted this album to have fewer lyrics. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Silberman: There were a few reasons I wanted to do that. One was just the way that I was writing for this record was not these huge outpourings of lyrics like it was with Hospice. There, I was trying to tell a story and only having 51 minutes to do it, so I was cramming a lot of lyrics into not very much space. That kind of lyric writing didn't really happen on this record; it was more these lines that I wanted to include and wanted to build a song around one sentence, maybe. And try to do more with less, in a way — more repetition and a little more restraint lyrically. Part of it was also wanting to leave more room for the music. That was how we began this record, and the majority of the time spent in the studio was us thinking about the music. The lyrics were being worked on throughout, but the vocals weren't added until the very end, so I didn't want to cover anything up by overdoing it lyrically. There was a lot that I wanted to bring to the surface, and we were all experimenting with it. Lyrics are important, but they can also be distracting.
How did going into it like that affect how you made the rest of the music?
Lerner: Maybe not as much as you'd think, because the lyrical content doesn't form my musical choices — the same way that Peter didn't bring in lyrics. The majority of the material, I had no choice but to not know while we were writing.
The same with Hospice, actually. People are always like, "Oh, sad, how'd you get through the sessions?" [The band laughs]…With Hospice I knew nothing, just "This part's gonna have this feel or do this thing." Then later when I got the liner notes and read it, and heard it for the first time together, I was like, "Wow, this record's good, because it's more than I thought it was." [Even if] you think, "Oh, this is a sad song about this subject matter," I'm more like, "This music sounds cool so Peter's gonna bring in lyrics and I trust him as a lyricist, it's really out of my hands anyway."
The same way, live, [people ask], "How can you play those songs without killing yourself?" For example, with "Sylvia," you're like, "Oh, god, that's depressing." But if I'm hearing the same words over and over, it eventually becomes meaningless — I'm mostly hearing the sonic quality. If I hear his voice and it's hitting a note, it's like, "That's fucking awesome," not, "Oh, I'm sad again." People who are at the shows and who are sad and get into it, it's fucking awesome, but I think there's a disconnect where people think we're just doing that same [emotional] ride all the time.
As far as the lyrics on Burst Apart go, there are a couple times you're mentioning losing teeth — there's the line in "French Exit" about pulling teeth out and obviously the song "Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out." Where does that come from?
Silberman: There's a lot repeated imagery on the record, and it was kind of accidental. It's not that it doesn't mean anything, it just wasn't really intended. With "Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out," it's kind of about anxiety dreams. I think usually when I'm writing lyrics, sometimes a word just kinda pops in. I like it, it works, it's intended to mean something, but sometimes it's just what happens. I have a tendency to repeat myself, I guess.
Can you tell me a bit about "Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out" musically? It's so different from the rest of the album and the other stuff you've done.
Silberman: I think I came in with that guitar riff and just recorded it. We could hear what it was going to sound like in the finished product before it was done, to some extent, which isn't the case with most of these songs.
Lerner: Sometimes I probably spend way too much time trying to think of something that's original. A couple things [in this song] just seemed like they were so paint-by-numbers rock, so to do it and to make it unique for us, I sort of had to find a place I was happy in.
Cicci: I think it's the only song with only real drums.
Lerner: There's a lot of blending of the electronic drums. I don't know what people are distinguishing.
I think it's hard to tell what's real and what's not.
Lerner: That's good if you feel that way. The process here, recording electronic and live drums wasn't that different from Hospice. It's funny when people talk about there being an electronic influence or whatever — to me, it's just that the palate is wider. We're giving ourselves more opportunity for more interesting sounds.
What did you all do differently as far as instrumentation goes?
Silberman: For Hospice I played a lot of instruments — a lot of keyboards, a lot of guitar, also a lot of keyboards and harp. For this one, I decided I was just gonna sing and play guitar. I think I play organ on one song. But for the most part, I was focusing on being a guitar player.
Cicci: This is mostly focused on synthesizers and keyboards. There is banjo and there's trumpet — I wanted to make sure they got in there — but as far as everything else, it's pretty much organ, electric piano, there's a Wurlitzer over there. I have a ton of synths now, so I tried to make sure they each got used and there was enough texture.
Lerner: It was exactly the same for me, more or less, just a couple different sounds. A couple things I went through filters and some pedals.
Cicci: Without having some real direction one morning, just sitting around, making crazy sounds and being just like, "That's awesome! Where does it go? I don't know! How about at the end of this song?!"
Lerner: That's really the fun, fun part, the ear candy side. That's where we get inspired.
Cicci: And the stuff you don't always necessarily hear. There are so many things that aren't featured, that you can feel, and it adds into the mood and the emotional quality of it. That weird guitar pitch shift…
Silberman: These songs had tons and tons of tracks.
Cicci: Yeah there's probably about 60 on each one. My computer wasn't really working fast enough to deal with it.
Silberman: The more you listen to the songs, you might hear something different every time. At least I know I do. I've listened to the record a lot, but I focus on something different every time 'cause there's just a lot going on in the background.
Did you feel any pressure going into this record, like people expecting you to put out another Hospice?
Silberman: I feel like there may be an expectation for Hospice 2, but I think that, if actually presented with it, nobody would like it — including ourselves. I think when we finished Hospice, considering its subject matter and sound, I was OK to put it to rest. We had done it, and we had done it right. Doing it again or continuing in that realm would've just been repeating ourselves. I think we didn't really have a choice but to do something different.
There's definitely pressure, but it was really exciting to record it, 'cause we're basically like, "Well, we know we're not going to do Hospice 2, so we can do whatever we want."
Cicci: I felt some pressure when we were touring, before we actually got to the studio. It was kind of this feeling like we were going, going, going, and everything was going really well, and then all of a sudden just like hitting the end of the road it felt like, "Shit, now we actually have to make a record. What do we want to make? What should we make?" There were a lot of questions then, but once we figured them out, we came here and were like, "Fuck it, let's just make what we want to hear," because then if people hate it —
Silberman: — At least we can still stand by it.
Lerner: Our goal was to create something that we were all really psyched about. The same way with Hospice, we didn't predict what was gonna happen with that. We had no way of knowing or expecting that, by any stretch of the imagination. The pressure that I felt was a separate — psyched that more people are gonna be exposed to the new album.
What was it like recording an album already being on a label versus releasing it yourself and rereleasing it? Were there expectations from the label?
Lerner: They're very good like that. They're very hands-off.
Cicci: They came by and hung out a couple times, listened, and they were like, "Sounds great! Keep up the good work." It's nice to know that it's actually going to be heard. Instead of just making something in a bedroom and thinking, "Where's this gonna go? Maybe where 90 percent of other records go."
Silberman: Every step of the way with Hospice was a surprise — just that it got out to people at all. So this is a nice piece of the puzzle to just be like, "Well, it is gonna get out there at the very least. We don't know what people will think of it, but at least we know they'll probably hear it." It's exciting.