Very few records in the history of records have included, in a single album, samples from Madonna, Mama Cass, X-rated rapper Blowfly, an entire assortment of ship sounds, and a beat-boxing parrot. Okay, make that no records. Until now.
Welcome to the wonderful, weird world of the Avalanches, a Melbourne, Australia, unit whose dance-based debut Since I Left You shimmies intoxicatingly into both hip-hop and rock. Its catch is the recording process: Since I Left You is crafted from literally thousands of samples and virtually no live instrumentation.
"Part of the initial planning of the record was we wanted it in some ways to sound unlike anything else," says Darren Seltmann, who with pal Robbie Chater formed the Avalanches in the early '90s. Sitting in a London brasserie shortly before the band plays to an adoring, sold-out crowd, he adds, "My Bloody Valentine sometimes has that effect, where it just has a completely unique sound about it. We're still searching for what tools we can use."
Early on, the tools were traditional rock instruments, and the band, using unfortunate monikers like Swinging Monkey Cocks, perplexed the Melbourne scene with silly stage antics. Then they settled on the name the Avalanches and, for 18 months, Seltmann and Chater holed up in the studio, poring over immense piles of vinyl records, many of which came from junk shops. The result, Since I Left You (which gets a second release in the U.S. this spring, following the band's switch to Elektra records), is a sweeping collage of sounds, bounding from the swaying "Two Hearts in Time" to the heady disco of "Flight Tonight" to the just-released single "Frontier Psychiatrist," an infectious, expansive mix of animal, musical, and verbal samples, including the beat-boxing parrot (which came from a record of Christian children's stories, says Seltmann).
The album produces equal parts wonderment and respect, an acknowledgement not only that the sound is unique, but that achieving it required an obsessive mindset. How else to explain the sonic quilt that weaves together dozens or hundreds of samples in a single song?
"It's a case of thinking ahead while you're listening and being really aware of the sounds you have in your library and trying to make the combinations," explains Chater, almost making the process seem simple. "It's when two or three things click that something special begins to happen."
A key to Since I Left You is the fact that any sound, not just a musical note, can serve in an Avalanches song. Whether its a guitar riff, a snippet of conversation plucked from a spoken-word record or even the recurring ship clamor that gives the album a nautical theme, the Avalanches treat all noises as equals.
Still it's the musical samples that boggle, as they carom from Madonna's "Holiday" (reportedly the first time the Material Girl permitted the use of one of her tunes), to Blowfly's "Rap Dirty," to appearances by Jimmy Webb, Debbie Reynolds, and Kid Creole & the Coconuts. In fact getting the rights to the samples was nearly as difficult as making the record; gaining clearances took six months and the skills of someone known as Pat the Detective ("Pat's kids will be going to good colleges now," laughs Seltmann when asked about her fee). Although the estate of Rodgers and Hammerstein said no, the Avalanches report a surprising amount of acceptance.
"We had a list of key samples that the album really hinged on, and if they weren't cleared the album probably wouldn't have come out," says Chater. "The album has had a sort of charmed life. Everything that was really crucial has been okay."
Perhaps the Avalanches' biggest challenge lies onstage. Although the live band is filled out by Australian DJ champion Dexter Fabay, keyboardist James De La Cruz, and old friend Tony Diblasi, Chater and Seltmann admit that the concert is only a vague approximation of the record. Indeed, the London date is gloriously chaotic, as the band members trade instruments, jump off speaker cabinets like teenage punks, and inject samples from "Welcome to the Jungle" and a record of Jewish aerobics (yes, Jewish aerobics). It's frenetic and energetic, and when De La Cruz busts a chair and sends a thick piece of wood whizzing perilously by Fabay's head, the grace of the record seems secondary. "The live thing is really hard for us," intones Chater. "The juggernaut of the performance and the different personalities."
"It's like it's disrespectful to the album, if that makes any sense," interrupts Seltmann.
"A lot of the time it is," agrees Chater. "A lot of the time I think I just want to make records."
The Avalanches' Discography
Since I Left You
(Elektra reissue, 2002)