We Will Always Love You: The Avalanches Return... Again

We Will Always Love You: The Avalanches Return... Again

The Australian duo unpack their triumphant third album...

It’s been just four years since The Avalanches last graced us with new material – a timeframe that would hardly seem noteworthy for most artists, but The Avalanches aren’t really your average band.

After the 16-year gap between their legendary debut, 'Since I Left You', and 2016’s 'Wildflower', fans could have been forgiven for anticipating a similar wait for a follow up. But in a year where small joys have been in short supply, their sooner-than-expected return has proven to be a joyous affair.

'We Will Always Love You' finds Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi in a surprisingly contemplative mood, balancing some of their most ethereal work to date alongside more dance floor oriented moments. Underpinned by stark spiritual themes of life, death and everything else in between, it’s a journey quite unlike anything the duo have crafted before.

Samples of course remain an essential part of the experience, but while Wildflower featured memorable guest vocals from the likes of Danny Brown, MF Doom and Biz Markie, 'We Will Always Love You' sees Chater and Di Blasi going all out on collaborations, putting their musical peers front and centre.

Boasting support from a ridiculous roster of guests, including the likes of Dev Hynes, Neneh Cherry, Sananda Maitreya, Tricky, Perry Farrell, Johnny Marr, MGMT, Jamie xx and Mick Jones, to name just a few, this is a record that wears its affection for others on its sleeve.

The end result is a one of the year’s most life-affirming albums – and after the absolute shit-show that was 2020, it’s something truly worth celebrating. - Paul Weedon caught up with Chater and Di Blasi for a chat to reflect on shaking off the highs and lows of their comeback, their journey of self-discovery and an ongoing mission to shirk expectations.

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Congratulations on the new record, guys. I think I speak for everyone when I say it’s great to have you back so soon.

Tony: It’s sort of like after the sixteen years, why not take a bit of a holiday from that and then come back to it? [Laughs]. Nah, we were very keen to just get right back in to it again and it felt good just playing live and feeling like a normal band, rather than this weird sixteen-year journey… We love touring and doing all that stuff, so we’re so excited to have something out again.

Were things just kind of flowing naturally after 'Wildflower'?

Robbie: After we came back we didn’t want to go away again. I remember Tony saying to me, ‘Look, I just want to be a normal band and put out records regularly and be working musicians on the road.’ The music flowed really easily... We just didn’t want to stop. It had been so labour intensive making a record like 'Wildflower' and 'Since I Left You' and I don’t think we wanted to just go back in to our studios and be at home for another five, ten years, or something. We just thought, ‘Let’s just make a different kind of record and keep moving.’

This feels like a much more reflective record for you guys, but it’s also incredibly jubilant and celebratory. What inspired that direction?

Tony: I mean, the weight of Wildflower and the sixteen-year journey was off our shoulders… Even for us it was such a struggle to kind of get through to the end. It’s like running a marathon, basically. So to kind of come at it with that weight off, that second record was done and we could go, let’s just do it and not worry too much about expectations... We were a bit freer in our thinking and that’s definitely reflected in the music.

Robbie: In terms of the tone and it being reflective… we were thinking about bigger things; life and death and our mortality and being human and how precious life is… It’s maybe a more inward-looking and reflective record in that sense and I guess there a lot of slower songs too, but sometimes you don’t know until you just choose your favourite songs at the end and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, there are quite a few slower songs,’ but that wasn’t sort of the plan.

When we spoke a few years back, Robbie, you mentioned that you were cutting material while you guys were on the road. How much of that made the cut?

Robbie: None. We got back after all the touring and there was all of this stuff leftover from Wildflower, but we kind of made the decision to say that’s the past. Even though it’s tempting and you might think it’s quicker to have half-finished songs and make another record, it’s kind of like they were just attached to that long journey for us and we wanted that spontaneous free feeling of ‘Let’s just write a record really fast about how we’re feeling right now.’

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Sampling obviously plays a massive part in your work and it plays a huge part in this record too. How much of it was sample-based versus material recorded as a band?

Robbie: In whatever we do there are so many fragments. I guess in this record there are two or three key samples per song and then the rest are kind of up really high – whispering voices and ghostly sounds and fragments of spooky old movies or actual recordings, medium’s recordings of voices supposedly from the other side – that kind of thing; this sort of whispery static stuff, which is all samples. And then our really close friend who we worked with on this record, Andy [Szekeres], played a lot of keys, so there are songs built up around a sample and chord changes, which we had never done before… It was definitely a different process, but we just kind of thought if we make another record the same, no matter how great it is and how well done it is, people will be like, ‘Well that’s what they do.’ We kind of wanted to keep people guessing a bit.

Tony: We didn’t want to become stuck in a moment. We do say it’s where bands go to die. They release a certain amount of records and they have success from them and then they’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s what we do!’ And it’s really good and it’s successful, but eventually it just becomes predictable and there are no surprises. Personally as music listeners, we love music that gives us that little, ‘What the hell is that?’ That’s really exciting and we’d rather fail trying to do something different than doing the same thing.

That spiritual element is a really interesting aspect of it too. The ‘party’ element that fans know and love is still there, but there’s a core central spiritual theme. Can you expand on that a little more?

Robbie: We were thinking a lot about the history of recorded music and how we’d always sampled and there are these human voices that we might use from the 1940s, or something, and that person has long since passed, but that person’s voice lives on through this music and it’s like a transmission.

Tony: It’s like a spiritual transmission.

Robbie: Yeah, it’s like a ghost. There was this beautiful book that I found in a junk store called The Recording Angel that talked about the solitary ceremonies of sitting down with a record player alone and listening to voices from the past and it’s this really, really beautiful thing… We were watching a whole bunch of movies that were about the afterlife and the record opens with a phone call from someone who’s perhaps no longer with us – that kind of thing.

Tony: Yeah, it was like exploring our own mortality and that kind of thing. I think a lot of people try to avoid thinking about that, but it’s really good to embrace that and kind of go, we’re all going to die at some point and how that makes you feel and it’s such a strong emotion for everyone, but I think that once you kind of just realise that we’re all just atoms and we’re all born and we’re gonna die, that’s okay.

What struck me was the way you’ve crafted something really beautiful and celebratory out of something that, on paper at least, sounds quite morbid.

Robbie: Yes. But the reason for that is because life is beautiful and it’s fleeting, so it’s like every moment is like… If I wake up and the sun is shining and I feel it on my skin, sometimes that’s enough for me. I’m just ecstatic to be alive.

That crackling sound that permeates the record too - there’s an authenticity and warmth to it, but there’s more to it than that, right?

Robbie: Yeah! They’re like the ghosts of the recording as well. Like, who owned the record before me and what did they do with it? Were they going through a break-up and listened to the same 7” a million times crying and spilt wine on it and they’re the crackles? They’re part of the story too. It’s great.

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Thematically, was it the case that you thought you’d write tunes based around the idea, or was the process a little more organic than that?

Robbie: The idea was very clear and that’s why I think we could make this record so fast. Because Wildflower was almost a journey to find what the idea was behind it.

Tony: Robbie had a great set of notes that clarified what it was about and every artist got that and was like, ‘Okay, when I write lyrics or when I write a melody then I know the place that I’m meant to be in to fit with this song and with this music.’

I like that – a sort of mission statement.

Robbie: We needed it because if we’d got back a vocal about partying or getting high, it just wouldn’t have fit.

Tony: It would all be just too random.

Robbie: That’s always the danger when you’ve got a collaboration-heavy record, so there was as much time doing that as there was making the music... And occasionally someone would come along and go, ‘I just don’t even know what the fuck you’re talking about.’ And if someone’s not in that place at that point in their life, then that’s great because they obviously need to be making a different kind of record. Then, occasionally, someone like Kurt Vile or someone is just like, ‘I know what you’re talking about,’ and it’s just beautiful.

How did you go about choosing collaborators?

Robbie: It starts with the voice, really. Often we’ll have an instrumental that just floats around for ages until the right voice comes to mind and then, often we’ll sample some of their other music and have their voice alongside it… and then we’ll eventually approach the person after agonising for ages and then they might not be available or interested, or you might not be able to reach them. That’s where it’s kind of slow and we’re very careful about it. It’s not just like a random thing.

Tony: It’s definitely more about listening to a song and going, ‘Wow, wouldn’t Perry Farrell be amazing for this one? Or Dev [Hynes]?… We’re not just trying to get whoever we can get, it’s like, ‘This voice we think would sound really good with this. Let’s ask them’.

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Even though you guys are an established act, is it still kind of a nerve-wracking experience of reaching out to an artist that you’ve never worked with before and going, ‘Hey, Want to do a tune together?’

Robbie: Well, it’s always surprising if they’ve heard of us. It’s like, we’re not like a mainstream act. So, Dev [Hynes] was like, ‘Oh, I love your records,’ and he knew our music. Tricky did too, but that’s not always the case. For some people it’s through management and some people it’s through social media and saying hi. Tricky was like that, just on Instagram. It was just beautiful timing because he was in Berlin making his album… He was saying, ‘I’m back in the studio and I’m running hot, send me what you’ve got.’ And after about two days that song came back and he was like, ‘What else have you got?’ And this happened about eight times… Then one day our management called and they were like, ‘Are you working with Tricky? Have you done half a record, because I got a worried call from his manager.’

Tony: Taking the business people out of it was just purely a creative thing and he’s just going, ‘Oh, I love that track. Can you send me more?’ So he’s doing it for the reason that he got in to music, which was to make music and it’s not about anything else but purely getting a great beat and going, ‘I want to rap over that.’ It’s beautiful. It’s a pure process.

Were there any artists who ended up on the record that that you were like, ‘There’s no way this is going to happen’ and it happened?

Robbie: Yeah. A lot of them! - Tony: For me, I think the most surprising one was Mick Jones… I think we did a DJ show or something and we were in Sydney and management sent us a note saying, ‘Check your emails – we’ve got an MP3 from Mick Jones. He’s just done something.’ So we didn’t even get an email saying, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it. What do you want me to do?’ or anything like that. We just kind of reached out and sent him the song, obviously, and he’s just sent something back and we were like, ‘This is so strange – but amazing!’

'The Divine Chord' features Johnny Marr and MGMT. That tune feels very reminiscent of earlier Avalanches tunes. Talk me through that collaboration.

Robbie: Yeah, it’s a bit Since I Left You-y. I just had a moment when you were saying that actually where I was like, ‘Oh yeah. It’s Johnny Marr and MGMT – that is pretty crazy’. Because this is the first time we’re stopping and evaluating it, processing it all. I was sitting in this exact chair on this laptop with the Johnny Marr guitar parts, listening to them for the first time thinking about the 15 year-old me that was listening to The Smiths and didn’t know where life was going to take me and wanted to go to England one day. He wouldn’t have been able to believe it… And MGMT are really talented dudes. They’re not afraid to take a left turn either, so I really admire that.

Tony: After they had that massive album, which was all those big hits and then, from that, they were almost the biggest band in the world for some time – and then they took a big left turn after that and it’s really admirable to do something like that. It’s so ballsy. We really respect stuff like that.

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'Reflecting Light' features Sananda Maitreya and Vashti Bunyan on the same track. How did you manage that one?

Robbie: An old friend of ours, Glen [Goetze], who had been our A&R guy on 'Wildflower', had been chatting to Vashti for years and she was kind of always up for something… We never really did anything directly, but we still had a way to contact her when we used her sample on this song and we thought, ‘God, it’s such an integral part of the song, she should be a featured credit’, even though it’s a cut up sample. She was really cool with that. And with Sananda, [Vashti’s] sample was in place, so it was a challenge for him, I think, to write around that and also, it’s almost like the centre point of the record, that song. He really got what we were on about. And he’s someone that was just incredibly open to just being open and being vulnerable and we shared kilometres of emails together.

Tony: They’re the best emails you’ve ever read in your life... It is just eccentric and wise and expressive and emotional and beautiful and it’s just everything. And yeah, what a guy. An amazing, amazing dude… He’s got one of the greatest voices in the world – and I don’t think that that’s exaggerating.

What was it like working with Perry Farrell on Oh The Sunn?

Tony: He was so welcoming. We recorded in his home. We were two complete strangers who’d had some correspondence from Australia and we were in LA… And he was like, ‘You guys just come to my home and we’ll record for the day in my studio’ – in his basement there. So he sent us the address and we were in the Uber going, ‘Holy shit – we’re going to Perry Farrell’s house’… We grew up in the 90s and listened to Jane’s Addiction heaps and we’re getting text messages from him saying, ‘What kind of Indian food do you like?’… We spent the day recording with him and he’d go upstairs to get something to eat and he’s making up melodies as he’s wandering around upstairs in the house and we’re just sat there in the studio just looking at each other going, ‘There’s Perry Farrell, making up melodies for one of our songs’.

You collaborated with Cornelius on this record too. What’s it like working with him?

Robbie: He’s a friend. We spend a lot of time in Japan and we’ve got a wonderful group of friends there… Tokyo’s a home away from home for us. We got to know Keigo [Oyamada] and his partner on these various trips, just spending time with him… It was my birthday and we were in LA and he just happened to be there and it wasn’t planned. They just came to the studio to say hi and we were recording and this song just kind of happened. That was pretty special. I’ll never forget that day.

Tony: He’s a quiet, unassuming dude and there were maybe ten of us all there hanging out and he was like, 'I’m just gonna play something’… It just started out with him playing a few notes… As it just built, we couldn’t see what he was doing, but in his mind he knew exactly what he was doing. Ten layers later, there’s this amazing guitar bit that he’d done. At the start we were like, ‘Oh, okay. Interesting…’ And by the end of it everyone’s like ‘Yes! We get it!’

How did COVID affect you guys and the record?

Robbie: We were sort of finishing it. I mean, it was supposed to be out in May, wasn’t it Tone?

Tony: Yeah, just in terms of the pressing plants and everything for vinyl shutting down. And, obviously we had a big tour booked from June… We’d made this really conscious decision to be a normal band again and make a record, tour it and COVID happens and all of the tours fall apart. Hopefully there seems to be some good vibes on the vaccines recently, so hopefully by next year we’re all out there, having a good time and being 18 again. Fingers crossed.

Robbie: All of our musician friends thought that they’d have all this time and they’d make all of this music and it just hasn’t turned out that way. You realise that without going to shows and without this flow of energy, you’re not as inspired.

Tony: Being in a rammed venue – everyone’s struggling to get to the front and the band is about to play and that energy of waiting and you’re crammed in? You wouldn’t even think that that would have been a great thing two years ago, but now you’re like, ‘How amazing would that feel to be surrounded by people again?’

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'We Will Always Love You' is out now.

Words: Paul Weedon / @Twotafkap

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