The Antlers are not what I expected. These are the Brooklyn based art rockers whose debut concept album Hospice was based around an abusive relationship between a nurse and a terminal cancer patient. I am anticipating navel gazing, glum faces and tortured artist shtick. Instead I find myself in a shabby tour bus somewhere in a welsh field, crammed around a minute Formica table with three chatty, cheerful musicians who are more interested in raving about their Matt Berninger fandom, than droning on tediously about the ‘creative process’. These initial assumptions were of course wildly unfair. Hospice was an underground hit back in 2009 and now the band are touring a brighter, poppier follow-up Burst Apart. The new album still displays The Antlers’ penchant for heart wrenching theatrics (as witnessed on epic closer “Putting the Dog to Sleep”) but it is noticeably lighter in tone. Floppy haired keyboardist Darby Cicci confirms this change of tone: “it feels like a very dramatically different thing in lots of ways,” he says, “it’s much lighter, it’s a little more experimental, it feels more like catchy pop at times”. Indeed, tracks such as “No Widows” and “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out” seem to demonstrate a newfound urge to write more immediately accessible singles, complete with beguiling electro-pop riffs and hooky choruses.
This move towards lighter material seems to have been a natural reaction to Hospice, an underground success that brought critical acclaim and a dedicated fan base, but also left the band at risk of being pigeonholed as arty miserabilists. Softly spoken frontman Peter Silberman confirms a desire for change after extensive touring. “We got tired of the black cloud hanging. The fact that it was such a serious thing meant people connected with it, which is great, because a lot of people really strongly connected with it…But it can get to you after a while, it’s just kind of exhausting.” I wonder if it was difficult performing such emotionally draining material with commitment every night? “It doesn’t feel difficult whilst you’re doing it,” insists Silberman, “at least with me I wasn’t getting sad every night. It felt like a performance… But when we’d get back from tour it would be like ‘holy shit I’m really exhausted!’ Really burnt out. But I think that would happen even if you had a kind of upbeat happy kind of show, after a while… just that persistence…” The band are grateful for the positive reaction to Hospice, but they are also keen to avoid complacency. “There were definitely a lot rumblings initially, positive things, then a few more larger publications like NPR was very big for us in the States,” says drummer Michael Lerner, “but at every level we sort of experienced growing pains a little bit, it really wasn’t over night. I guess it helped us just get better as a unit, as a band.” The bonding experience seems to have paid off. Whilst the band was originally established by Silberman largely as a support act for solo material, Burst Apart seems to have been a more collaborative project, generated from all night improvisational sessions at the band’s studio in Brooklyn. Did this close working environment lead to any tension? “I’m sorry I got my Darby tattoo now, I can tell you” deadpans Lerner, and the ease of the ensuing jokes between the musicians seems to suggest that it can’t have been too painful a commitment. In fact The Antlers seem to benefit from self imposed isolation. Although Hospice and Burst Apart are very different albums, both demonstrate a peculiarly distinctive brand of electronic indie, immersive, half hushed and drenched in alternatating streams of darkness and light. Although Silberman acknowledges the influence of Cocteau Twins and Portishead, the sound The Antlers create is often definitively their own. When I ask if there is anyone they would consider collaborating with there are hesitant mentions of Caribou and Four Tet, but it is clear that the band really envisage themselves continuing alone for the next few years, touring, experimenting and just seeing how things turn out. This is an unmistakably tight unit, and for now there seems to be no need for outside intervention.
To an outsider, Brooklyn appears to have been something of a creative hub over the past few years, generating early breakout bands like Grizzly Bear, Yeasayer and MGMT, as well as more recent ones to watch such as She Keeps Bees, Here We Go Magic and Shadwbx. The Antlers have been firmly based there for the past few years, but they dismiss the idea of a distinctive Brooklyn scene. “There’s been millions of New York bands and scenes for a long time,” says Cicci, “I mean now everyone just lives in Brooklyn cause everyone has been edged out of Manhattan. So there’s a million bands happening there, a lot of good ones, but not really a scene that kind of unifies all these bands, more bits and pieces”. “Maybe a few years ago it felt… it seemed like that was kind of a thing,” adds Silberman hesitantly, “but a lot of those bands have sort of gradually made it to the big time. I feel like scenes, circles and collectives have kind of happened on a smaller level. It just be that we’re on tour all the time we’re just not there to see it.” When I bring up The National, another Brooklyn based band who The Antlers supported on tour 2010, the response is far more enthusiastic. “They’re great career/life role models,” enthuses Cicci, “they all work together so well and the whole crew are just really nice and professional. Hopefully one day that’s what we’ll become.” Lerner agrees that they were inspired by The National’s famously powerful live performances: “they’re just a fucking force onstage! I got goose bumps at times, it was like holy shit I’m actually that excited about this band! I’m seeing them every night but still… when Matt [Berninger, the front man] runs into the crowd…” The interview winds down as the band collapses into sighs of admiration, but later that afternoon I manage to catch their set in a crowded, dimly lit festival tent. There are no Berninger style flourishes, no stage invasions or stage dives, but it is an intense, mesmeric experience nonetheless. As audience members leave reeling, murmuring ecstatic praise with wide-eyed enthusiasm, it’s easy to see why such a buzz surrounds The Antlers. With this impressive a presence so early on in their career, it would be no surprise if The Antler’s turned out to be the next big Brooklyn success story. Berninger and co should watch their backs.