The Antlers have gone from the bedroom project of singer/guitarist Peter Silberman to a collaborative trio that also includes drummer Michael Lerner and multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci. Together they played hundreds of tour dates supporting Hospice, a concept record that gained steam with critics and fans and ended up on many a Best of 2009 list.
For The Antler’s new record, Burst Apart, the three tinkered and layered in the studio for months, emerging with a sound that’s distinct from Hospice, yet still uses “their simple, seductive method of building quiet texture into a crash of energy.” A couple of weeks into the band’s current headlining tour, Paste spoke to Darby Cicci about the gradual process of success, recording without a producer and Cicci’s electronic side project, Minus Green.
Paste: I was thinking about Hospice, and how it was kind of a game-changer for you guys. I remember when it first came out. I really liked it, and I went to see you guys in the summer of ‘09 here in Columbus, Ohio, at a place called Cafe Bourbon Street…
Darby Cicci: Ohhh… [whimpers, moans]
Paste: So you remember that?
Cicci: Ohhh… We played there twice.
Paste: I just saw the one.… It was completely empty.
Cicci: Yeah, both times were completely empty. Cafe Bourbon Street has long marred my thoughts of touring as being one of the worst places ever to play. Nothing against Columbus. I love Columbus. One time when we played the stage was covered in broken glass. It wasn’t dangerous or anything, but for almost a year we were still finding pieces of broken glass in our pedal boards and stuff. Somebody would ask, “Where’d these little pieces of glass come from?” Cafe Bourbon Street.
Paste: Ugh. But the next time you came through town it was at a much bigger venue, and the place was packed. So I’m curious, in between that time, when did you realize that the album was really starting to take off?
Cicci: Good question. It’s really hard to tell. You slowly, gradually grow, and every time you think you’re getting somewhere, you play some horrible show somewhere. You don’t feel like you belong there, but you’re playing there, so you do. You’re constantly being dropped down a stair. I think when we toured with The National, that was a big moment for us. All those shows were pretty glamorous and big—Radio City Music Hall, etc. In the indie rock world, we were becoming a household name—when you start telling people you’re in a band and you say your band name and people have actually heard of you. That kind of thing.
Paste: Did it surprise you or was it so gradual that it made sense? Did you still have to pinch yourself?
Cicci: It was so gradual, and we toured so much. This has been my full-time job now for at least two years. We put so much work into it that I guess it made sense, but it still felt really weird. Seeing our pictures [in magazines] more and more and bigger and bigger.… The fact that my band is something people have heard of is still beyond our grasp.
Paste: How has touring behind an album that’s not necessarily a concept album affected your shows?
Cicci: We never really approached Hospice as a concept record live, as far as playing it all the way through. We’ve only done it on a couple of occasions. I think when people listen to a record the order becomes a lot more significant than it is for us. I mean, we work tremendously on that order and we think it works well, but when we start playing shows, we start changing things up. With Burst Apart, in just two weeks time, it’s become a drastically different sound than what’s on the record. The songs we thought were going to become bigger sounding on stage have actually becoming smaller and more chill and more textural. I thought “French Exit” was going to get this huge sound, and it’s ended up being very mellow and groovy-sounding. “Rolled Together” I thought was going to stay very calm, and it’s turned out to be this very loud, exotic statement. We’re still experimenting a lot.
Paste: When you went into the studio for Burst Apart, did you feel more pressure on the writing and recording process this time around, since this is your first “proper” album release?
Cicci: We spent a month last January working on the record, trying to figure out starting places, experimenting a lot, making a lot of noise. I think the only things we finished in January were the drum loop for “Parentheses” and some of “Putting the Dog to Sleep.” Then we went to the studio again in September. But I think most of the trepidation and worrying was in between that time. We were touring a lot. We’d think about it and talk about it. By September I think we got over any issues.
Paste: What was the recording process like this time? Was it more collaborative?
Cicci: It was totally collaborative. We have our own studio, so it’s the three of us there, and we just go there around noon and maybe stay till 8 p.m., sometimes midnight. And we went there every day. Someone would say, “I was thinking about ‘Rolled Together’ and wanted to add a sweet mellotron thing that would go through the whole song.” So we would. We’d just hang out and record lots and lots of layers. As they built up, we’d mix them over time, EQ everything to make it fit together.
Paste: Did it make you wish you had a producer, or did it make you enjoy that experience so much that you feel like you don’t really need a producer?
Cicci: A producer is good for a lot of reasons. But I think the three of us working together sort of covers all the ground that people normally hire producers for. People hire producers to help them stay focused in a recording environment. Or they don’t actually know the technical side of things—how to engineer, how to record, how to use the equipment to get what they’re going for artistically. But I engineered it myself and didn’t really have a problem coordinating the two. We all sit around and talk a lot about the songs. If we really can’t figure out how to make things sound the way we do, it might take a while to figure out, but it’s not like we’re never gonna get what we want. Usually when you get a producer you book a studio to record and you have two weeks and it’s gonna cost $20,000 to record the record, and you really need someone cracking the whip and keeping you focused. But we’re talking about five months in our own studio. There was plenty of time for troubleshooting.
Paste: Right. So going into it you knew you wanted to spend as much time as you needed on this.
Cicci: Absolutely. For us, the writing process is really the recording process. So, the thought of us doing the normal studio process—going to an expensive studio and being on a clock and spending a lot of money—I didn’t think it would end up being creative at all and we wouldn’t be happy with it. The way we went about it I think was best for everybody. It gave us plenty of time.
Making a follow-up you should really spend as much time as you want on it. Either way you’re going to be spending the next two years, probably, touring on that record. If you like it, you’ll have a great two years. If you hate it, or you think it falls short, you’re gonna have a horrible time and the reviews are probably going to be bad. In that case, you’re going to be in this place where nobody likes the record, including you, and you know the bad things people are saying about you are true. Some bands don’t realize they should have been making their second record the way they made the first record—which is, do whatever you want.
Paste: In addition to engineering the album, you’re also listed as a “multi-instrumentalist.” What did you end up playing on the album?
Cicci: I played all the keyboard instruments and synthesizers. I played all the trumpet, all the bass. There’s also banjo on there—some audible, some not audible. Lots of little things that were sitting around. Toys, glockenspiel. I did a lot of the harmony and backing vocals.
Paste: Has it been tough to replicate live?
Cicci: The tricky part is there are so many different parts to be played. There can be three different guitar parts and a banjo and a bass line. We had a tough time figuring it out with the three of us, so we’re bringing a fourth member along to play guitar, bass on a couple songs, translating some of the trumpet and banjo stuff to guitar.
Paste: The overall sound is a little more electronic than last time. Did you guys get into more electronic music in the meantime, or is that something you’ve always wanted to include more of?
Cicci: Honestly, I don’t really hear any sort of strong electronic influence on this record, maybe because it came about so organically.
Paste: Not necessarily that it sounds like the genre of electronic music, but it seems like there are more of the type of instruments and sounds you’d hear in electronic music being used in your band.
Cicci: There’s definitely more synthesizer and stuff like that. There’s the [electronic drums and samples], but they’re triggered from the live drums. All the drums on Hospice were also electronic drums. This time it’s just a little more prominent. I don’t know. A lot of electronic music I think of as being programmed, organized and digital—focusing on repetition and the trancey-ness of it versus the more organic, human qualities of songwriting and producing pop songs. I think of this more as a pop record.
Paste: There’s certainly nothing robotic about any of the Antlers’ music.
Cicci: It would be really easy for me to make this trance-y, dance album. And I would totally love it. It would be so much fun. But I don’t think it would be appropriate given what the Antlers have made up until now. So, I think we need to make a few more records before we get into the rave culture. [laughs]
Paste: Maybe that’s the next Darby side project, a trance record.
Cicci: I’ll wear lights on my head. [laughs] It’s funny because I’m working on a side project, and it’s pretty much an electronic record, so that’s not actually too ridiculous.
Paste: What’s it called?
Cicci: It’s called Minus Green. [Download the record for free at minusgreenmusic.com Right now it’s pretty impossible to replicate live. It’s just the product of lots and lots of hours of programming and synthesizers and things. It’s all song-based, too. But I don’t know how I’ll ever play it.