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Interview: Tony Di Blasi of The Avalanches

Interview: Tony Di Blasi of The Avalanches

“We don’t want to limit ourselves by saying, “Oh, we’re just gonna use funk samples,” or something. We’ve got an open mind with everything that we use.”

Australian electronic outfit The Avalanches have a storied history: once an eight-person lineup, the band now consists of only two original members. Their music is born from the late-’90s house boom with its glittery sensibility and its panoramic sampling from multiple decades. Their 2000 debut, Since I Left You, is considered by many to be one of the ’00s peak musical achievements, and their sophomore record Wildflower was finally released last summer to similar critical acclaim. They’re headlining a North American tour for the first time this summer, and we caught up with keyboardist Tony Di Blasi to discuss the process behind Wildflower and the band’s future plans.

Can you talk a little bit about the way The Avalanches came together as a group?

Oh geez, that was a long time ago. Robbie [Chater] and I had met, and we had a couple little bands—this is way back in ‘91—and then we met Darren Seltmann in maybe ‘93. And then I left the band, started doing some other stuff. And then I got together with Gordon [McQuilten], and in about ‘96 I came back. About 6 months after that we started playing some shows, and then a couple years later got Dexter [Fabay] in to do some live scratching stuff. And after 16 years a lot of people dropped out. (Laughs)

What would you say the new, smaller lineup has done to the sound of the band?

I don’t think it’s done a hell of a lot much. I think we still sound pretty Avalanches-y. And when we play live, we’ve still got five people: a live emcee, live singer, live drums, live keys, live guitar. So as far as the live sound and the recorded sound, it’s all still good and big. It’s not like it’ll be just Robbie and me for the live shows.

What accounts for your synthesis of so many genres-—there are all these psychedelic elements, a lot of hip-hop, a lot of electronics, samples from all over?

I think it’s just having a love for all types of music. A lot of people in bands will like one genre, or a few, but we love everything from jazz and classical and weird crazy psychedelic stuff to ‘50s boy bands and metal. And with sampling, you can just take from so many genres and put it all together to create your own little thing. There’s just a whole world there to choose from. We don’t want to limit ourselves by saying, “Oh, we’re just gonna use funk samples,” or something. We’ve got an open mind with everything that we use.

When you’re compiling all of these elements into one song, is there a process, or does it vary a lot?

A lot of times, we’ll just start with a groove. And we won’t really know what we need, but we’ll just try some things or listen to something and go, “Oh, that might be really good for the change.” Or you can come into it with a bunch of samples and try them and go, “Well that worked and that didn’t.”

What other acts have influenced you guys in terms of sound curation?

The Basement Jaxx record, Remedy, was definitely a big inspiration for us. I remember listening to it and just going, “Wow, listen to all those little voices and screams in the background” that were giving it a quite psychedelic effect—especially if, you know, we’d been out for the night and had things to alter our perception. We love stuff like Kaytranada, and even the new Drake record, More Life. I don’t know too much about it, but I’ve listened to it at the gym, and it’s just amazing. It’s so poppy, but it’s got this weird bit of psychedelic sampling in there and all these beautifully placed flutes and stuff like that.

Sort of a big question, but is there something that you hope your music accomplishes? Like when somebody puts it on, what do you hope happens?

With us—and this is hard to describe—we think that the music always has to have a strong feeling. It might sound a bit nutty, but there is always a feeling we’re searching for, and often it’s that beautiful, dreamy, happy-sad kind of feeling. We’ll play something and then sit there and look at each other and ask “How does this feel?” It’s got to create a little spark in someone.

What do you think that “spark” is?

I think it’s a feeling of beauty and love, to be honest. I feel like Since I Left You is so beautiful and light, but there are things on there that feel like what we love about The Beach Boys and The Beatles, which is this sense of melancholy and happy at the same time. We don’t hear a lot of stuff that sounds like that, and so that’s something we always try to bring together.

What are the unique challenges of eliciting those feelings when you’re not necessarily writing verse-chorus songs like The Beatles and The Beach Boys did?

Part of it is that we can’t do it with every song or the album would sound sort of same-y. But I guess it’s a lot of experimenting and playing around to try and induce that feeling, whether you just speed up a vocal just enough so that the pitch of it changes and there’s this kind of beautiful heartache feeling about it.

Switching gears a bit, what would you say accounts for the 16 year gap between Since I Left You and Wildflower?

It was just a perfect storm of so many things. We did start writing this whole other record in the first few years that was almost a bit too—not dark, but it was very very heavy. So we essentially had to start over again. I guess for us, because we’re so visual, we all wanted to make a whole record that sounded like it was the same. If we started to just make a record of any 15 songs, it would’ve come so much easier.

And also, being brutally honest, as the years got on, Since I Left You started to gather its own almost iconic-ness, and the pressure started to build. It became harder, and it was just like, “Shit, everyone’s talking about this second record and it’d better be amazing.” We went into ultra-perfectionist land where we overthought and overanalyzed everything. And eventually, mostly in ourselves, we just decided to let go of a lot of pain and stuff like that that we’d been holding onto, which let us do the same thing with the record. We were able to say, “Okay, this song’s finished, let’s move on to the next.”

Was there some sort of eureka moment where you decided to let go of all of this baggage, or was it more of a gradual process?

I don’t think it was a eureka moment, but Robbie started getting into some David Hawkins and all these—not self-help—but just enlightened, cool dudes. And we started reading about letting go and fear, and it might sound really stupid but that just helped us so much. It started in our personal lives, but then it carried over into the record.

The amazing thing is that now that this is out of the way, we’ve already started writing new songs and we might have something out next year. (Laughs)

What does the new stuff sound like?

I wouldn’t want to give too much away, but I think it’s going to be a lot lighter than Wildflower, and probably a bit poppier. We actually just went to the record company and played about eight songs on Monday. It just feels like, as it was always going to be, once we got over making Wildflower, we just feel lighter now and we can make music without overthinking it.

So you’re headlining in North America for the first time. What’s the experience of that like?

It’s quite different from Australia. We did Coachella recently, and it was amazing. That was just incredible. With everything that we’ve talked about, how hard it was and how the record took 16 years and stuff, to be able to do this is still just amazing. We love America. I’d only been once really briefly, and there’s just an an energy that’s so much bigger than Australia. And I love getting caught up in it.

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