Interview: The Antlers

Photo credit: Eleanore Park

Since the conception of The Antlers’ second full-length album, Hospice, Peter Silberman has lived in a bubble. Nearly a year after self-releasing and touring on Hospice, the rich, layered world of that album has in some ways come to define him. Silberman is an artist who is crucially honest about his own psychology and emotions. He attempts to learn and to differentiate the elements of fiction and reality from his own work, as vividly demonstrated by his lyrics.

Hospice dominated indie Best Of lists in 2009, but the record commits to elements and a cathartic process more prevalent in film and literature than in today’s popular music. By refusing to downplay intelligence and complexity, Silberman’s lyrics curiously intertwine rock and roll with literature, self-realizations with popular culture, and the classical elements of storytelling with the band’s three talented members.

We sat down with Silberman during his April 28 show at the Casbah to discuss the importance of half-awake states, short stories, and the group’s upcoming record. Prior to answering my questions, he admitted that he was waiting for the airplanes flying overhead to crash into us at any moment.

Owl and Bear: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that Hospice had come from nightmares or half-awake moments. Did the process of writing the album help make those moments more relevant? Did you find writing the album to be a cathartic process?

Peter Silberman: It was kind of a way of connecting what nightmares and dreams and that kind of half-awake state. What was actually happening which is why the record itself is this fictionalized — fictionalized is kind of the wrong word — not a word for word re-telling of something that happened to me. It’s a true story that has warped into something else, and a lot of that is from dreams of things that happened. This period of time in my life where things seemed very dream- or nightmare-like and didn’t make sense. It was a very disorienting couple of years.

Owl and Bear: Did you feel that writing and creating the album helped make more sense out of that time and what was going on in your life?

Peter Silberman: I think so. It made sense of it in a major way for me, and then I think I am understanding it better and better everyday. At the same time, what is weird about it to me is that I’ve lived with this record for so long because we put it out a year ago, began recording it almost exactly three years ago. So, in a way, the record itself is more real to me than what it was about.

And not that “it’s more real” but I’ve started to get a little bit confused as to what the record is, literally: the real life experiences and what happens on the record. The lines between the two have blurred a little bit and I have a hard time sometimes remembering exactly what happened as opposed to what is depicted on the record. It’s weird. It’s kind of changing everyday but recently I have been trying to differentiate the two for the sake of my own sanity.

Owl and Bear: Has touring with this album, and having the time to sit on the album for this long, enabled or prepared you to start work on a new album?

Peter Silberman: Yeah we’re actually working pretty hard on a new record but we’re also on tour a lot. It is a lot of writing while we’re gone, and then we come home kind of make sense of what we had been working on, and then leaving again, and then giving more thought to it—which in a way is distracting that we keep going on tour.

At the same time, I think it’s good because we have had a lot of time to sit with these pieces of this new material and decide what we like and what we don’t. And I think the more time you have with something, if it stands the test of time, and you don’t look back on it three months later, and think that it’s awful, then it probably means you’re going to still like it in three more months. So the other way to go about it is rushing and having three weeks in a studio and when you get home, just doing it and banging it out and then not really having the time to think about it and think it through.

Owl and Bear: Do you get much writing done while touring? Or rather, how does touring affect your writing?

Peter Silberman: The first few months of touring I wasn’t getting anything done, but I also wasn’t really thinking about a new record. Since the new year, I’ve been making sure that I am writing a lot more while on the road, whether it be with things for this new album or just writing for things in general to keep the brain going, because it’s really easy to go brain-dead on tour. You’re just in the car a lot and driving or just hanging out. You’re doing a lot, but there’s a lot of…

Owl and Bear: Individuated time?

Peter Silberman: Yeah, and I am enjoying it more now that I am trying to be productive — using all that down time to construct something.

Owl and Bear: I recently watched the video for “Sylvia” and really loved it. It recalled the elements from the silent film era and even has a Bergman feel to it. What other forms of media outside of music have influenced your song writing or music making?

Peter Silberman: Well, definitely film to a certain degree. I think especially the beginnings and ends of films are really important — the way it opens, the way it ends. A really powerful ending can make a film, and I think it works the same as an album. The album needs to end the right way and needs to start the way, but as far as building the rest of it, I think it’s tricky.

I think a lot of it for me is, with either novels or short stories, that way of thinking and that way of developing plot really can work for a record. Even if it’s not a narrative record but just as far the way sound works, the way songs go together, the way the mood of a record develops. I think it’s similar to the way a novel works, and similar to the way a movie works, too. It’s the whole story arc — it really works in a lot of ways.

Owl and Bear: The importance of a strong beginning and ending is apparent on Hospice. The opening track “Prologue” is entirely instrumental, and yet looking at the liner notes, there are lyrics that accompany the track that go unsung.

Peter Silberman: Well the lyrics in the liner notes for that are actually a slightly changed version of the lyrics for the song, “Sylvia: An Introduction,” which is on an EP that came out before Hospice. I kind of felt like those lyrics needed to be included in the liner notes just because they work as a back story before the beginning of the record — and that to me is the prologue or an introduction or whatever it is.

It just describes the character, this Sylvia character as a child, but then also transforms that into this relationship between the two characters — and the narrator too — and their hopelessness. There is this attempt for even the narrator to understand that information, [this] childhood background but still not reaching an understanding. And that is what a lot of the record is — trying to understand this person, trying to help them, and then realizing that it’s impossible.

Owl and Bear: There is a strong use of literary devices throughout the record: character development, significant exchange of dialogue like in “Sylvia,” creation of a setting and the use of chapters. You have already touched on this — but what pieces of literature have affected your writing?

Peter Silberman: Right before I started writing the album, my mom actually gave me a book that had come her way by Leonard Michaels called “Sylvia” and it had really, scarily accurately reflected something that I had just gone through at that point in time and just closed that chapter in my life. It kind of creeped me out — and that is largely where the idea for the record came from.

I guess leading up to that point, I had been reading a lot of Raymond Carver, mainly because I really love the tone of everything he writes. It’s all very spare, the language. So I think those two were very important as far as Hospice went. I’m still reading those things, but now moving onto a little bit more erratic writing a little bit. Right now, I’m reading a book by David Foster Wallace that I am liking a lot.

Owl and Bear: Hospice is lyrically dense and seems to contain more layers when examined more closely. There are seemingly fewer and fewer albums that take the time with things like plot and character development throughout the record. A lot of people listen to music in a somewhat mindless way in that single tracks are constantly being streamed through. What motivated you to include elements that would compel your audience to listen more closely?

Peter Silberman: I wanted this record to be all encompassing, at least for the time it was being made. But in the time leading up to that, I just thought that there were little things that should be included. Though I felt like the album was complete, I just thought that I could add to it. Something like an introductory chapter or bits and pieces of research. All of that was worth including just so that it would be comprehensive in a weird way.

And it was almost like a “just in case” — in case the point didn’t come across through the record itself. And I was kind of obsessed while I was writing it and every piece that related to it. I just wanted to throw at it and there was also this feeling while writing the record that I had to write it then and there because memory degrades. You’re constantly forgetting things. It needed to happen. I needed to make it happen — not as quickly as I could — but before I forgot it. Before it didn’t make sense to me anymore.

Owl and Bear: With it being such an involved album, which came first: the process of writing or the music? And I ask because I feel like your voice sits on this album almost seamlessly, lyrically and musically. Collaborating with both Michael [Lerner] and Darby [Cicci] seems like a harmonious marriage. Which came first on this record?

Peter Silberman: It was kind of both at the same time, but separate from one another. The music was being recorded over a long period of time and they were playing on it and coming up with different parts, helping it take shape. But, separate from that, I was working on these lyrics.

If I was putting down vocal tracks, it was a scratched track with no chords on it. They didn’t hear the lyrics until the record was done, in fact. I kept it pretty—until I was sure the lyrics were done I didn’t want to [share them]. I’m kind of like that a lot — I don’t like having unfinished lyrics, and I usually feel weird about lyrics. I start to think they’re bad really quickly so I need to be totally sure that I am okay with them until I start singing.

Owl and Bear: So it was something that you presented to them later on then?

Peter Silberman: The lyrics were the last thing after everyone had played on the record after all the recording was done. Then I went and did vocals by myself and put the lyrics on it. So this is in a sense what this record is about.

Owl and Bear: It almost sounds too serendipitous. That’s interesting. Just given the nature of the album, it seems almost more calculated than that.

Peter Silberman: A lot of it was calculated as far as the parts that we were all playing on. They had an idea what the record was about, but it was a pretty vague idea. We were all connecting on a sound level and on a songwriting level, and the rest had to kind of had to wait until the end of it.

Owl and Bear: How long have you guys been a trio for?

Peter Silberman: Since right when the record was finished — because there were actually a couple of other people on the record. Justin Siebers played bass on a couple songs and Sharon Benet sang on some songs. When we decided that we were going to tour on this record, which was almost a year ago, it became just the three of us.

Owl and Bear: Is it going to be just the three of you on this upcoming album as well?

Peter Silberman: Yeah. We might have some guests singers — hopefully Sharon will join us again. Paul and Miranda: we’ll see. But pretty much whoever is around.

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