Last week I wrote an article for The Conversation about the legacy of mash-up pop band The Avalanches, whose last record dropped shortly after the dawn of “the new millennium.” I really enjoyed working with the site and their editors were fantastic, but I ended up writing twice as much as they could print. Below is my original draft, which features a lot more history of the band, and more theorizing about how technologies like sampling, record albums and digital music have changed the way music gets produced. Basically, I don’t think a band like The Avalanches could have emerged much earlier or much later in time — their record wouldn’t have been possible in 1997, and wouldn’t have been commercially viable by 2003. It will be interesting to hear what their new album sounds like in a few weeks. Here’s the original piece:
Can The Avalanches flourish in a pop music world remade in their own image?
Sampling pioneers The Avalanches are returning with a new record 16 years after their only major release. Their first album, 2000’s Since I Left You, has been dubbed a modern classic. A joyous, witty and funky melange of more than 3,500 samples, taken from vinyl albums bought in op shops, it sold more than 600,000 copies and influenced a generation of musicians.
The Avalanche’s brand of sample-saturated electronic music was unique in 2000. And their organization as enigmatic, amorphous collective challenged conventional ideas of what a band could be.
But the Melbourne-based band are reemerging to a world of pop music remade in their own image. Sixteen years on from Since I Left You, the music industry has transformed. It brims with samples, superproducers and music that is largely produced and consumed on computers.
The cut-up aesthetic that The Avalanches used so brilliantly in songs like the unforgettable Frontier Psychiatrist can be seen all over the Internet, not just in music, but also in the form of memes and GIFs that re-purpose and re-contextualise older media in evocative or amusing ways. Sampling existing material has become one of the most common ways that people communicate online.
Returning from the pages of music history
Last week, The Avalanches debuted their much anticipated new single, Frankie Sinatra. But the critical reaction was lukewarm. Some reviewers lamented that the song could have been released at any point since at least 2006.
The Avalanches’ turn of the millennium music still stands out in today’s sea of samplers. For example, other hip hop and electronic music artists like J Dilla and Wax Tailor have made great uses of spoken word samples, but few songs compare “Frontier Psychiatrist” as a eclectic tour de force that manages to work as a catchy pop record.
By contrast, Frankie Sinatra includes big name vocal features (from Danny Brown and MF Doom), something that is unique in The Avalanches’ oeuvre, but completely conventional for pop music in 2016. The bands’ fans are waiting to hear how Frankie Sinatra sounds in context of their second album, Wildflower, since the real beauty of their first album was how it held together as an hour of interwoven music and emotions.
Double J even published a story titled What To Do If You Don’t Like The Avalanches new Track. (“You think that the track sounds like the Hilltop Hoods remixing the Cat Empire? You think that the song sounds as though it belongs in a cordial commercial?”) After sixteen years of anticipation, there was bound to be some disappointment, but The Avalanches are also returning to a world where the kinds of sounds and techniques they pioneered have become commonplace.
Backpacks full of vinyl
It was not always this way: In the late ‘90s The Avalanches were at a cutting edge. Sampling was already a well established staple of hip hop and house music, but the band (along with other musicians, like DJ Shadow used samples in a more layered and sophisticated way. However, the process took a certain kind of dedication.
The Avalanches sang about this kind of dedication in 1997 (back when they still sang!) on the track Run DNA a song about carrying obscure seven inch singles and second hand sampling equipment in — what else? — a backpack.
Today it might sound insanely impractical to lug all that around, but before an infinite amount of music could be sampled and mixed using the phone in your back pocket, The Avalanches’ found their samples by buying up dusty records from op-shops.
Unlike other classic sample-saturated “plunderphonics” records like DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing and J Dilla’s Donuts that were solo projects, The Avalanches have always presented Since I Left You as a band effort. However, its fragments were largely pieced by founding members Robbie Charter and Darren Seltmann together in the isolation of their individual bedrooms studios without anyone so much as playing an instrument. The fact that The Avalanches were also a rock band that played live, at one point as a six-piece, gave the project an impish energy that contrasted with the intense laser-like focus of other electronic music of the era.
A live performance of Run DNA on ABC’s Saturday morning Recovery shows The energy The Avalanches had live: the band flings op-shop records recklessly at each other, stomping on them and smashing them against the floor until they break. By the end of their two song set, the stage was a battleground of vinyl fragments, an apt metaphor for what the band would be building from.
The lost art of the album
In the ‘90s records were long dead, but still a decade away from their resurrection as a totem of hipster cred. However, the album as a discrete unit of music, a format that vinyl LPs had pioneered, was thriving on compact discs.
Moving forward from the punky hip hop of Run DNA, The Avalanches aimed to transform shards of discarded vinyl into a shiny new album that they hoped would replicate the feel of classic records like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and The Beach Boys’ Surf’s Up. Working with desktop computers and floppy discs in their bedroom studios, progress was slow, and their debut missed deadline after deadline.
When Since I Left You was finally released in 2000, it was just in time to catch the historical sales peak of both CDs and albums of any kind.
Starting in 2001, file sharing, iTunes and streaming services would erode the album market to 70% less than that peak by 2013.
Delicate on record, combustible on stage
The real strength of Since I Left You was how well it worked together, with songs and samples flowing into each other, like an ocean of forgotten music washing over the listener in waves of memories and emotions. Delicately constructed like a musical house of cards built on the samplers and home PCs, the nature of the album presented a dilemma of how to perform live, a challenge that was simultaneously facing other bands like Radiohead who were moving away from guitars and drums and toward music made in computers.
To tour songs from Kid A, an album contemporary with Since I Left You, Radiohead’s guitarists Johnny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien would ditch their guitars to sit down on the stage and play samplers. The Avalanches took a more energetic approach, programming Since I Left You samples into their instruments so that they could be played while jumping manically around on stage. A good idea in theory, in practice it quickly backfired with technical problems. The band compensated by simply upping their energy levels.
The band’s live performances frequently pushed beyond enthusiastic and became unsustainable. Darren Seltmann, who acted as The Avalanches’ the frontman, broke his leg in November 2000 when he fell over an amp and collided with a whirling Tony Di Blasi. Seltmann continued to tour on crutches, but the band tended to smash them to splinters during performances, injuring an audience member who threatened to sue. In August 2001, Seltmann broke his other ankle after jumping off a six metre stack of speakers in London. This second break nearly put an end to The Avalanches as a live band. They where they won best new artistmissed out on performing at the ARIAs, and their remaining shows, including their entire US and Japanese tours, were downgraded to DJ sets.
Where have they been for sixteen years?
With full band shows now largely out of the question, and Charter and Seltmann insistent that another album would take years to produce, the band was in a holding pattern. Everyone in the band could DJ, including champion turntablist Dexter Fabay, but The Avalanches as a six DJ collective was an unworkable prospect. The band began to shed memebers. Original keyboardist Gordon McQuilten left the band in 2001, followed by Fabay in 2003 and DJ James Dela Cruz in 2004.
The remaining Avalanches, effectively just Charter, Seltmann and Di Blasi, took on interesting projects that blurred the idea of what a band could be. They headed up a 2003 charity record to benefit African refugees in Australia. In 2004 and 2006 produced remixes for Belle and Sebastian, The Concrete, Wolfmother and Franz Ferdinand that punked those bands by transposing their base tracks into unpredictably divergent genres. They played full band sets at the 2005 Merideth Festival (where Seltmann’s antics once again nearly ended in disaster and 2006’s Splendour in the Grass.
Perhaps most significantly, they played a key role in establishing the now legendary St Jerome’s Laneway Festival, where they established a monthly residency called Brains where the band spun calypso and soca records accompanied by a cadre of African musicians. The carnival feel of Frankie Sinatra seems to be directly spun out of the Brains sessions, and this was a particularly creative period for streamlined The Avalanches. However, these mixes, parties and remixes incorporated music from other musicians in ways that went beyond sampling. The Avalanches’ mix tapes and live sets are beloved by fans, but this work could never have been released commercially.
Over the past decade, the band has appeared less frequently. In 2014 Seltmann’s wife revealed that he had not been in the band “for some time now“, but when or why he left remains unclear. During this period, the band worked on music for Melbourne’s 2013 King Kong musical (the soundtrack was never released), produced a rave-up remix of a Hunters and Collectors song, and released a head scratching single based around spoken word poetry. In an interview with Zane Lowe last week Charter also mentioned that they had been involved in a feature length Yellow Submarine-esque animated film that never saw the light of day.
The band’s dwindling members had been busy making music, but it wasn’t the singular LP-style album that fans had been anticipating since Since I Left You. Now that Wildflower is imminent, the slow exodus of the band’s members has made it unclear how much of the original creative force remains.
Last weekend The Avalanches played their first shows in about a decade at the Primavera festival in Spain, but there were only two Avalanches on stage. James Dela Cruz has apparently rejoined the Charter and Di Blasi, but passport issues have prevented him from leaving Australia. Their initial comeback show was postponed due to passport issues, and the Primavera performances were essentially just two solo DJ sets, one from Charter and one from Di Blasi.
Charter was enigmatic when Lowe asked him how much the departed members contributed to their music: “The Avalanches is just the music, it’s not myself or Tony or anyone. It’s just what happens when you find a record that might be 50 years old and sample that and combine that with other old records … that whole cycle of music.” Essentially, as Di Bassi suggested, “We’re all Avalanches.” Perhaps, but what THE Avalanches sound like in 2016 still remains something of a mystery. Their new album will be released next month, and fans are waiting to see how it stacks up against Since I Left You, a record that perfectly captured the zeitgiest of the dawn of the era of sampling and the twilight of the era of albums.