Falling Rock

The Avalanches are hard to pin down but easy to love

Dimly, across the crackling phone line, all the way from Australia, there it is: undeniably, a rooster. It's dark all over America, but on Avalanches founder Robbie Chater's end, countryside morning is being trumpeted. Cock-a-doodle-doo, punctuating commentary about The Avalanches' summer-in the-city debut, Since I Left You. Odd, but appropriate.

Appropriate, since this confluence of incongruities makes a fitting metaphor for The Avalanches' music itself, wild collages of sampled hooks and spoken-word clippings and found sounds. Take "Stay Another Season," which kicks off on a loop of Madonna's "Holiday" hook and peters out with the neighing of horses. It's a typically gleeful showcase of the band's vibe, a far cry from the often somber and academic-seeming cut-and-paste music of, say, DJ Shadow. Rather, The Avalanches come off as mad scientists of sound, concocting the perfect late-night shambolic cocktail.

"For us, it's always been about a concept and a feeling," explains Chater, "and trying to create a really special atmosphere. And we don't really care how we accomplish that. I mean, when we first started out it was just about, you know, making a racket with junk-shop guitars and a four-track, and the whole record was done using cheap samplers and a cheap computer. We were pretty much doing it for ourselves."

The Avalanches sample Madonna on their latest, Since I Left You. And, like, 900 other people.
The Avalanches sample Madonna on their latest, Since I Left You. And, like, 900 other people.

Though their music is more Ecstasy-driven than X-like, The Avalanches come by their punk ethos honestly: Chater and band co-founder Darrin Seltmann played together in a series of Melbourne rock outfits before getting turned on to turntables and kick-starting The Avalanches. Since the band's 1996 formation, Gordon McQuilten, Toni Diblasi, Dexter Fabay and James De La Cruz have joined the lineup--about "one per year," Chater says. Along the way, The Avalanches have released several Australian EPs and toured with the likes of the Beastie Boys and--more incongruities--Public Enemy. If you're starting to get the sense that The Avalanches' sound is hard to straitjacket, you're right.

Similarly, Chater notes that although he and Seltmann were the driving force in starting the band and remain its official spokesmen, when it comes to the music there are no strictly defined roles among the six Avalanches members.

"Everybody contributes," he says. "I mean, it's not like all six of us sit at the computer together, but someone might come over with a record that totally changes the direction of the song one or two people have been working on. Like, with 'Frontier Psychiatrist': I have a really big collection of live stand-up and spoken-word records I'd never really done anything with, but couldn't stop picking up, and I decided to try lacing bits of things into this groove for a song Darrin had been working on for a long time. And then we all kind of passed the track hand to hand, adding stuff--little moments we think are special, from otherwise quite boring records. It just comes out of us hanging around together, really."

Playing off their shared interest in electronic music's hypnotizing rhythms and the lazy, dogged beats of abstract hip-hop--plus a zillion other influences--and pooling the resources of all the members' ample record collections, the band took the punk-rock approach. Making music, as Chater puts it, for "the sloppy, good fun" of it, they went on a sampling spree. Since I Left You is composed of something like 900 samples--a licensing nightmare, though the album hit relatively few snags over the long process of clearing the record for release. Where others rip off, The Avalanches riff, and the assemblage is seamlessly, joyously their own. Madonna herself personally approved The Avalanches' use of her "Holiday" lick, the first time she's let herself be sampled. She's a savvy one: The Material Girl no doubt realized that The Avalanches' celebration of her song's feather-light exuberance could only redound to her hipster cred. Chater and Seltmann should await an invitation to produce her next record.

That would be typically smart on her part. Though Since I Left You is reminiscent of the Beasties' Paul's Boutique in its sense of spontaneity, a seemingly serendipitous product of the band member's pleasure in tinkering, don't be fooled: The Avalanches are meticulous about songcraft.

"We came from a traditional songwriting background," Chater says, "so for us, the most important thing was that all the samples be in tune with each other, and that there could be chord changes within the song. We found that the key was getting them to lock together through melody." He explains that the melodic line served as a sieve, allowing them to parse out all the millions of samples that couldn't have worked.

"Like, on 'Since I Left You,' we started with this organ groove and then added the vocals," he says, "and after that it was a long, slow process of finding the little bits of things that worked--icing on the cake, really--but nothing was an option if it didn't fit melodically."

The band's emphasis on melody is what makes Since I Left You, finally, a pop record that only happens to be structured in the mode of ambient electronica. And out of that symbiosis, the band wound up with the album widely reckoned as the party soundtrack of 2001. Inasmuch as last year was one of the least party-hardy in recent memory, Since I Left You served as a much-needed antidote to post-9/11 gloom and doom. Songs like the title track and "Two Hearts In 3/4 Time" practically flutter by on a summer breeze, replete with Motown-style vocals looped into percussive catchiness. Others, notably "Frontier Psychiatrist," are downright funny in their juxtaposition of spoken-word excerpts and sound effects layered over a jubilant groove.

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