The story of The Antlers’ third record, Hospice—a concept album about an abusive relationship between a terminally ill patient and her caregiver in a hospital cancer ward—is part real, part imagined, and entirely stunning. Peter Silberman, The Antlers’ founder, wrote and recorded the songs on his own over a few dark years in New York City; he self-released the album in early 2009 before signing to Frenchkiss Records, which re-mastered and reissued the record in August. He’s since added two musicians to the band—drummer Michael Lerner and multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci—and Paste has since fallen in love with the record, proudly including it among the Best Albums of 2009. We recently spoke with Silberman about the story of Hospice and the emotional experience endured while making it.
Paste: Hospice is a concept album—tell me about the concept and how it began.
Peter Silberman: The exact moment it started I was taking a train to my parents’ house, I guess in the spring of 2007, and I started writing some lyrics, and I could kind of hear this melody in my head. I was just writing lyrics to this melody, a lot of them—pages and pages—they were all about the same thing. They were divided as if they were different songs, but they all sounded the same. I started to notice that everything evolved around this one idea. It was basically telling the story of a relationship that had fallen apart. It was kind of a damaged, manipulative relationship, guilt ridden, with a heightened sense of mortality.
As far as in the past, I had always worked in terms of albums more than songs when I was recording on my own. It felt like this album was forming very quickly. I think it was later that weekend that this idea of telling the story through the analogy of a hospice just seemed to fit really well. From then on it was really about telling the story and explaining the sequence of events through the analogy, and attempting to make it all make sense. Which I’m not entirely sure that it did. (Laughs)
Paste: Is it a breakup story?
Silberman: In a way it was a breakup story. It was a record about a relationship and a breakup, but not necessarily about lamenting that loss. It was more about screaming about it a little bit, trying to understand how something so awful could last so long. Trying to sort through a lot of events from the past couple of years and try and make sense of them. I didn’t want to just make a breakup album. I wanted to try and make something that could be relatable on a couple of different levels.
Paste: Is it fictional or autobiographical?
Silberman: Sort of both. It was kind of like transforming events from my own life into something that could help me distance myself from it also.
Paste: Why did you choose to set the story in a hospice?
Silberman: I was trying to write about a relationship that was very centered around guilt. I was thinking about the idea of selflessness and selfishness. In the hospice scenario you have a patient who’s terminally ill, and you have a caretaker who is basically there to provide them comfort and ease them into the process of dying. While on paper it seems like that should be a relatively smooth exchange between the two people, you have to realize that the person who’s dying may not be accepting of death and may be resistant to it, and they feel that they have the right to lash out, which in a way they do. They have the right to sort of act however they want. But it’s about this feeling that people can be blameless, and that you have a job as a caretaker to sort of swallow that. I think I was just trying to understand what’s an appropriate extent to that, how much you should really let yourself take the blame in the interest of easing somebody else’s pain. So a hospice almost seemed too perfect as an analogy for that kind of relationship.
Paste: How do the patient and caretaker roles play out in the record?
Silberman: I think throughout the course of the record, towards the end, there’s this kind of role reversal. Much of the record happens with the patient being dependent on the caretaker not only for care, but also to have as a punching bag. And I think as time goes on, that sort of abuse wears down the caretaker to the point where they’ve come to accept it, come to think like the patient. And by the end, by the time the patient passes—or as it is in the record, they don’t necessarily pass they just sort of disappear—the caretaker has become the patient. They’ve sort of switched. The final chapter of the record is about the caretaker pulling himself out of that, learning how to stand by himself again, being independent again, which is kind of a difficult thing to do.
Paste: Does he pull himself out?
Silberman: I’d say he does, but it’s not as simple as that. As much as you can move on from a difficult situation, there’s always some lingering damage. That’s something that takes a long time to sort through—sometimes you never get past those things. But hopefully it helps you avoid these kinds of situations in the future.
Paste: How much did you develop the characters’ backgrounds—did they have stories beyond what we hear in the lyrics?
Silberman: These characters are all based on real people, so in that way I knew them really well. The only one with a name is Sylvia. Sylvia’s this amalgamation of a few characters—Sylvia Plath and a character from a novel called Sylvia, which is about somebody else, and this other person that I knew. These characters sort of wrote themselves in a way, just because I knew the story already, and I knew how everything played out. It was just about transforming them and having them play themselves in a film but wearing different clothes.
Paste: Did any other concept records influence yours?
Silberman: One of the first ones I really got into was a few years ago, a Microphones album called The Glow Pt. 2. From my standpoint, I would never claim this is the absolute meaning of this record, but it’s a very dark record about, on the surface it’s about humility before nature. I’ve listened to it probably like a hundred times now. The more I listen to it the more I think it’s telling the story through the guise of nature, and the massiveness of everything. It’s a difficult record to wrap my head around, but that’s the fun of it. And that’s the fun of all concept records—you have to study them a little bit.
Paste: What else were you listening to while you were writing?
Silberman: A lot of post-rock kind of stuff, like more instrumental things like Godspeed You Black Emperor and Dirty Three. I was listening to a lot of Low and Sigur Ros. But I’ve always been listening to a lot of electronic music, like a lot of trip-hop and Massive Attack, ambient music, things that are a little washier, with less structure.
Paste: How long did it take to make the record?
Silberman: It took about a year and a half. It’s home recorded, so there’s a lot of freedom to totally scrap everything. There’s also the writing process, which is kind of weird because it really needed to fit together in a way that would make sense as a story, and I didn’t really thing it was going to do that until it was finished. So I think that was part of why it took so long. And there were just long periods of writer’s block when I needed some space from it.
Paste: In what ways does the music support the lyrics?
Silberman: I wanted the music to be shaped around what was happening in the plot, so that required a lot of atmosphere and a lot of dynamic. The instrumental sections in a way are kind of meant to speak louder than the lyrics. Especially because what I was trying to do was create this sort of weird time warp—not time warp, that sounds really fucking stupid—but this sort of thing where it doesn’t seem like eight minutes has passed—it’s almost surprising that that much time has passed. Not that you’d be thrilled and entertained the entire time, but more like I think there’s a way, especially for more atmospheric music, to have more time pass and have it seem like three minutes have passed, but it’s actually been ten minutes.
Paste: Considering the heavy subject matter, how did the writing and recording process affect you emotionally?
Silberman: It was really intense for sure. There were definitely times where I was like, “Fuck, I really don’t want to be writing about this anymore. I need to move away from this subject matter, and I need to start moving on,” but at the same time I felt like it was the only way to sort some stuff out that I had in my head. But when it was done it was a big relief. It was weird because it was all I had been doing for a year and a half, and it had really been my life. It was a hard thing to let go of.