Ending this year on a high note feels like an impossible challenge to do. Although over the last years a certain appetite for doom and gloom in our society has increased, this year and the Covid-19 pandemic felt like a next level shift for many of us. This crisis affected all of us (some more than others) and even though we are facing the final days of the year, a fixed end of this weird thing we call ‘the new normal’ isn’t exactly on the horizon yet. It’s easy to give up hope in the bleak winter of late 2020 but it’s also a good moment to spin the wheel around and to allow ourselves to actively envision a better future for all of us – even beyond Corona. The first vaccines are tested and are about to be given out to those who need them most in early 2021, Planet Earth had a few months of less environmental suffering and we even got rid of Donald Trump as president (even though he’s currently still fighting it). Hope is on the horizon and I’m telling you this because The Avalanches provide the perfect soundtrack for that mood shift, just as they always have. Almost exactly twenty years after their groundbreaking debut album Since I Left You, the Australian group returns with a new studio album that follows familiar patterns but also adds new twists to the much-loved formula of these guys.
“It does feel like something’s shifting a bit towards the end of the year,” says Tony DiBlasi. The founding member of The Avalanches and I met for a video call in November, shortly after the US elections and the confirmation of the vaccines, so it was natural to talk about that brief glimpse of hope in our lives first. “With this virus happening there was no light at the end of the tunnel for many people and if our album can provide it I’m more than thankful for it,” he continues. “It’s easier to cope with the situation once there’s an end point in sight and for a long time there simply wasn’t.” Of course, the pandemic also had an impact on that new The Avalanches album. They originally planned to have We Will Always Love You out in May and celebrate the 20th anniversary of Since I Left You in late November but at least the second part is still happening as DiBlasi tells me: “It’s sad that we can’t celebrate Since I Left You the way it deserves to be celebrated but we still have plans. November 2000 was only the Australian release and April 2001 the official one in Europe and North America so we’re going to celebrate the 20th birthday next year in some form.” It still gets its birthday he says with a big smile before adding “It would be a shame since it’s such an iconic record. We feel like we need to do it justice and putting out an entirely new album is only one part.”
The return of carefreeness
And indeed, there is a certain connection between the first and the third longplayer of The Avalanches. “This new album came more from a place of creative freedom, similar to our first album,” he explains. The warm harmony and playfulness of the Avalanches sound was also sensible on 2016’s Wildflower album, only the circumstances were a bit different. For a long time, Tony DiBlasi and his musical partner Robbie Chater suffered from the pressure of delivering a follow-up to their iconic debut album. In those 16 years between their first albums founding member Darren Seltmann left the group while others like James Dela Cruz left and then later returned (only to leave again over the past years), leaving Chater and DiBasi as the creative core of The Avalanches. As beautiful as Wildflower turned out, it was a big fight. “For us the big victory was simply getting it done,” the producer tells me. “There were so many times when we thought ‘Oh, this is never going to happen’ and we almost gave up. Whatever happened after the actual release was just a victory lap.”
“Getting the positive feedback on ‘Wildflower’ and being able to play live truly gave us an energy boost. We were thinking ‘God, this is so good. We don’t want to leave it for another 15 years.’ And once the crowd realizes how much it gives to us it becomes one of the greatest joys there is. If the fans love it, we love it just as much.”
That feeling of being a normal band again, as he recalls it, helped to ignite the group’s love to move forward, writing a new chapter on the back of the legacy of Since I Left You. Over the years, the Australians learned how much their iconic sample-based masterpiece means to fans all over the world and how much it actually influenced other bands and musicians. To this day, the two artists often aren’t aware of their impact. “Every time we ask people to collaborate we are surprised that they say yes. We often hope they have at least heard of us.” Tony laughs and remembers a time at Fuji Rock a few years ago where they performed and legendary The Smiths mastermind Johnny Marr as well. They were simply too shy and nervous to approach him backstage. “We are very humble and grateful when it comes to these things,” he keeps telling me. Luckily they got their management to contact Marr’s management and so he did end up playing guitar on a song of the new album.
He joins a pretty impressive rank of guests on the record, from Neneh Cherry to Jamie xx, Kurt Vile, MGMT, Leon Bridges, Blood Orange, Weezer‘s Rivers Cuomo, and a few more. Often The Avalanches team up iconic artists right next to more unknown ones and make it work in the smoothest possible way. Where else would you get The Clash‘s Mick Jones on the same track as rapper Cola Boyy? Well, on a Gorillaz record maybe but the approach truly is a different one here. The guests remain equal puzzle pieces of a bigger picture and the two creative heads keep the whole thing cohesive. Still, they can’t help but get starstruck every now and then, especially when Perry Farrell invited them to record their joint track Oh The Sunn!.
“Growing up in the 90s we were obviously big fans of Jane’s Addiction and he’s a legend for us. Then we went to his house in Santa Monica, we sat at his table, ate with his family, had amazing conversations. And then we went down to his recording studio and he briefly left the room and me and Robbie looked at each other, saying ‘This is insane! We’re at Perry Ferrell’s house and he’s making melodies for our song right now.'” (laughs)
To this day, The Avalanches remain humble, they appreciate moments like that and know how lucky they are to be able to do that. By inviting other artists to their cosmos they spread the enormous love they got for music, something that has been there right from their first releases in the late 90s. Getting more and more featured artists on board feels like a natural step in that progress and it was also a decision made out of efficiency. DiBlasi explains to me that “the whole aspect of having featured artists goes back to the essence of The Avalanches because finding the perfect vocal sample that fits with the rest of the music was always important to us. Adding original vocals to the music really helped to get the album out quicker this time. Otherwise we would’ve searched months and months for samples.” And in the age of information overload where every song appears to be only one click away, one can only assume how difficult the sample-searching process was two decades ago. It’s a massive change compared to Since I Left You as he explains: “We spent hours and days in junk shops, looking for vinyls and back then you could never know how good the quality actually was. And via YouTube you can listen through Millions of songs and I must confess the algorithms are pretty good. We try to keep up with technology, of course but every now and then we enjoy good old analogue digging as well. Now vinyl records are cool again but twenty years ago we really had to go through thrift shops to get the good stuff.”
How to get sample clearance from The Beatles
In the past the band’s passion for unique samples got a bit out of hand, especially during the 15-year-long making of Wildflower. “We had thousands and thousands of samples, ordered in categories, all with cross-references and stuff. It was so organized and processed that we partly lost the spark of creativity along the way.” For the new album, him and Chater had one simple yet effective rule “Find a sample – make a song, and don’t lose yourself in the process.” That doesn’t make We Will Always Love You a simpler or less wonderful experience. There’s still plenty of great elements to be discovered and often it’s hard to tell where the sample ends and the original recording begins. Well, except for the ‘one popular sample’-running gag that they stuck with. Holiday by Madonna was on their first album and Come Together by The Beatles snuck its way the second one. And this time, Eye In The Sky by The Alan Parsons Project found its way into Interstellar Love. “I think Robbie brought it in since he has always loved it. It’s looped in such a strange way, like an ‘in-between bridge bit’ so it’s not too obvious.” Usually, no sample is off-limit for the band although they try to avoid the most popular ones and they are willing to go the extra mile when it comes to clearance. For the Beatles feature on Wildflower they ended up writing personal letters to Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono to get sample clearance. They simply remain dedicated music lovers.
“Somewhere in the back of your head you are probably always listen to songs with that approach in mind. I always appreciate music, especially the one you can’t sample. But when I hear something I like I do Shazam it, make a screenshot etc. … that’s just how I work.”
We Will Always Love You is The Avalanches’ vow to music, fans, and people all around the world. They will continue spreading the love for music because that’s what their albums always have to offer. It sounds like sixty years of popular music making viewed through a kaleidoscope lens. They might take a sample from the 1940s, mix it with something from the 80s, and have a contemporary rap artist drop some lines on it. It’s a cliché, I know, but in the end music is a universal language and there are only a few bands who manage to speak it as fluently as these Australians do. In the end, the mixed-up release schedule of this year benefited the music as the band continued to release plenty of songs throughout the year to keep the people’s interest and also provide comfort. Tony DiBlasi says: “It was fun to do it this way because throughout this weird year people really appreciated music as an outlet for all the emotions we experienced. But we’re happy that the entire thing is out at last. It’s been going on for way too long.” He laughs and I laugh too, there’s an addictive positivity to this man, I must say.
And that’s why it was actually a good idea to release this new album during the final moments of 2020, when the world appears to be at a low point. The Avalanches know a thing or two about leaving those moments of despair. “We went to dark places during the recording of ‘Wildflower’. Following that, we started working on ourselves by meditating and talking to friends. We figured out that our thoughts are not necessarily ourselves. They don’t own us, you know, so you can let them go. Once you are able to do that you’ll find something underneath that sees and hears the thoughts.” And even if you still struggle to find hope in the cold winter days at the end of this wicked year, maybe this album is the perfect soundtrack to awake it in you. We Will Always Love You unleashes a rich and colourful air of utopian delight; a world where time, music genres, creative ideas, and love are not held back by restrictions. There’s an uplifting house music track on it which goes by the name Music Makes Me High and that sums up the addictive notion of this group and their music pretty well. May this new album be the perfect gateway drug for you on a path to a better future because, damn it, we could all use one after this year.
We Will Always Love You is out now via EMI.