If you could travel back in time and impart wisdom on your younger self, would you? And if you did, what would your message be? It’s a quandary that’s preoccupied Antlers frontman Peter Silberman these past 18 months, inspiring Familiars, an album which examines the discourse between memory and identity.
“I think I’ve always been a self- examining person, maybe even to a fault,” he explains over Skype, from his Brooklyn apartment. “But after years of touring, and massive amounts of change in my life, I found myself really picking apart the past; trying to wrap my head around where I had been, where I was and where I might be going. Sometimes it feels like a younger version of you is actually a completely different person.”
From the empathetic twinkle of piano-led album-opener Palace onwards, it’s obvious the band have undergone something of a sonic transformation too. Gone are the reverb-laden, electronic layers that pervaded 2011’s darkly-beautiful Burst Apart, and in its place is a soulful palette of lushly- arranged “organic” instrumentation, imbuing their recordings with new-found warmth.
I don’t think I’ll ever make a record like this again.
“I decided I was going to simplify my approach,” Silberman confirms. “I wanted to strip away the gauze and capture that ‘played’ quality, gravitating towards cleaner sounds instead of processing the hell out of everything with tonnes of reverb and delay.” Conversely, simplifying their approach actually proved pretty difficult. Written, recorded, engineered and produced by the band at their Brooklyn studio, it took a year before Familiars was ready to hand over to Chris Coady for mixing. Silberman tactfully alludes to the process as being “exploratory”, “very detail-oriented”, and requiring “painstaking effort”, but when I speak to multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci he’s a little more candid.“I think it was definitely more challenging [than previous records], but I like to push into new areas. If you’re too conscious of your past work – or pandering to what you think people want to hear – you’re putting yourself in a very uncreative corner. And if you’re not taking risks, what’s the point?”
“It’s been an adventure, learning to accept patience and playing a lot of slower, more emotional songs,” he smiles, before adding with a laugh, “But I don’t think I’ll ever make a record like this again.” Though the songwriting process has been collaborative since Hospice, there’s a more obvious parity on Familiars, with the diverse timbres of Michael Lerner’s percussion and Cicci’s horn arrangements both integral to informing the mood ofthe record. Cicci credits his input to a diverse list of influences, ranging from the music of Nigeria, Ghana and Cuba, to American jazz of the 50s and 60s and “the bright fullness, and dark, soulful, sexy overtones” of the Memphis Sound. Silberman, meanwhile, reconnected with the records he first heard as a child. “Astral Weeks by Van Morrison was a big one, but also Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, George Harrison… I listened the hell out of them, just trying to imagine being alive when they came out.” “There was some kind of innocence in music 40 years ago, that’s harder to come by now,” he muses. “Back then, it was a given that music is the playing of instruments as a human expression of what it is be to alive, transformed into something indescribable. I wanted to tap into that, without taking a retro approach to it.”
Familiars also finds Silberman abandoning the aphoristic lyrical approach adopted for Burst Apart and 2012’s Undersea EP. I’m curious what prompted the change. “I don’t know exactly. I think the whole minimalist thing began partly because I was exhausted by the wordiness of Hospice. But this time the ideas were coming in bulk, and I couldn’t articulate them in that Haiku-like approach.”
I wanted to feel differently about life, but also about what I was putting out into the world.
Though not as rigidly conceptual as Hospice, Familiars is underpinned by a strong lyrical thread. Fascinated by the way “the past colours the present”, and the sense of disassociation he felt remembering his younger self, Silberman began singing as “two sides of the same person… trying to find each other in a shared mind.” This duality further manifests itself throughout the record in the recurring motif of doubles, twins and doppelgangers, and in Cicci’s trumpet parts, which act as an “emotional antagonist”, weaving around the vocals.
However, what really differentiates Familiars from previous records is its acute sense of hope. Stunning, penultimate track Surrender feels particularly important in this respect, featuring Silberman’s couplet, “To find the peace within the calm at where we’re standing / We have to make our history less commanding.” Both he and Cicci concur with this interpretation, identifying the song as the album’s emotional core.
“It’s the climax: the final acceptance of the turmoil that’s been going on throughout the record,” says Cicci. Silberman elaborates further, “Without that song, I don’t know that I would feel this record is accomplishing what it set out to do. It begins in a place of feeling estranged from yourself and, in the course of travelling back through memory, there’s a return to an original, innocent state of mind. It was really important to me that it had that happy ending, arriving in a place of safety.”
Does that sense of hope mirror where he’s at mentally? “I think it does. It’s also a reflection of what I’ve come to want out of life. I went through a phase of being fairly nihilistic for a couple of years, and a lot of that is reflected on Burst Apart. And before that, with Hospice, I was going through some totally different shit…”
“I wanted to feel differently about life, but also about what I was putting out into the world. In many ways, I think I was trying to find that sense of hope for myself. I started to feel a change in outlook on what it is to be alive – and what reason there is to be alive – and tried to capture that on this record.”
“Life can be very short or very long and, really, the reality you bring shapes how you experience it,” he concludes. Perhaps if he were to appear to his former self, it’s this message he’d pass on.