Things fall apart when the Avalanches get together. Cars break down, bones snap, and musical barriers come tumbling down. Even a soft-spoken son of a preacher man, Darren Seltmann, cofounder of the Melbourne, Australia group, can testify to that.
Seltmann is on the mend, recovering from ankle-reconstruction surgery in New York. He and fellow Avalanche-in-arms, Robbie Chater, are doing a clutch of DJ gigs there before they go on the road with the Area 2 tour. It seems he took the "break a leg" saying literally and fractured an ankle onstage in London last year, and it never quite healed correctly. "I came off the top of some speakers and landed silly," he says with a soft snicker. "The year before that I also broke the other leg onstage. ... But that never happened till we started the Avalanches. Before then I was quite mild-mannered."
The bespectacled 27-year-old Seltmann says all this in the most delicate, deliberate, and lucid manner imaginable, sounding like the very antithesis of a tantrum-throwing, TV-tossing, brown-M&M-loathing multiple-city musical maniac. But that's the Avalanches -- a study of contrasts, a band that has had its share of lucky breaks as well as a few bad ones. Anchored by Seltmann and Chater and joined by guitarists Tony Diblasi and Dexter Fabay along with keyboardist James De La Cruz, the band revels in its spazzed-out live shows. The group cuts up so hard onstage that it's known for completely falling apart at the seams -- De La Cruz is said to have wound up with a concussion after slipping on his own blood. Conversely, Seltmann and Chater are known for going monastic and bunkering down to work, cutting and pasting together unexpected found sounds and strangely familiar grooves, as they did on their 2001 debut CD, Since I Left You.
Everything falls into place on Since I Left You. The dance, hip-hop, and rock hybrid seethes with freewheeling, passionate abandon, throwing together a wilderness of rump-shaking beats and a lush, overgrown thicket of samples. In the Avalanches' carefully cultivated, inviting sonic landscape, Madonna's "Holiday" grinds with Sergio Mendes' "Cinnamon & Clove" (one of the first times the Material Mom has consented to a sample) and then bumps with Mama Cass off the Mamas and the Papas' "Midnight Voyage," before the next track takes a waterslide of synth chords into Boney M and then the Fifth Dimension.
After a single and an EP and tours that included opening dates with Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys, Seltmann and Chater settled down to work on Since I Left You in earnest more than four years ago. The painstaking process included a year of gathering samples and a year of assembling them; the Avalanches made an effort not to get pulled down by the process of working exclusively with samples, vowing not to let the music and their original recordings dictate or influence their musical recontextualization.
In the end, the album comes off as an orchestral tour de force of sample-ography, sewing together slivers of silvery strings, inexorable techno beats, and buttery funk grooves into a narrative-like pastiche that mirrors the story arc of a film; a brilliantly tweaked electropop opera of sorts. Since I Left You embraces both the jump-cut disjunction of mixing John Barry and Marlena Shaw with Mandrill and the Isley Brothers, all the while reveling in the organic. The continuous groove surges in and out of focus like the rhythms of a crate-swapping DJ set, a drunken party on an insanely bobbing vessel, or the rollicking rhythms of surf smashing against a sparkling bell-like sound of sand.
It's a balancing act that came naturally for the Avalanches, since both Seltmann and Chater had seafaring grandfathers. Their other inspiration came from something a bit more romantic. "We listened to a lot of their tales from the sea, and that was sort of an inspiration," says Seltmann, mulling over the album's ocean journey concept. "We did have this idea of what it would be like for somebody to be following their love around the world, even in a stalk-ish way," he continues with a chortle, adding that he was inspired by proto-Beat scribe John Fante's 1939 coming-of-age novel, Ask the Dust, and its tale of a writer following a love obsession into Mexico on a disastrous lost weekend.
Since I Left You's title track entered the UK Top 20 in March 2001 and the album followed a month later into the UK Top 10. Elektra picked up the band Stateside, and critics from Vibe and Rolling Stone included Since I Left You in their end-of-year Top Ten lists.
Seltmann's own musical history began like many of his favorite soul and R&B artists -- in the church. He was the son of a preacher in the Emmanuel Christian Fellowship in Melbourne, which he describes as a self-supported compound that forbade TV and secular tunes. Nonetheless, he grew up immersed in music. "The church was very excluded from society," he says. "It was actually a little bit strange in a lot of ways, but the church was musically based. ... It was so selfless, no sort of ego involved, so pure. So that was definitely the start for me."
Of course, as these things usually go, demon jazz started creeping into the picture. "I really liked Miles Davis," says Seltmann. "I used to say that he was a Christian. When he came to Australia to tour, I asked if I could go, and my Mom and Dad saw the tour poster, which said 'Live Evil.' They realized he wasn't actually born-again. No more Miles Davis."
Seltmann left both home and the Christian lifestyle for art school and, after a stint in an indie rock outfit known as Ripe, he decided to work on music with his flatmate Chater in 1994. At first the collaboration consisted of the duo writing songs by commandeering a film-tracking studio at Chater's university. A year into the project, they sent out a demo tape influenced by everything from Van Dyke Parks to Brian Wilson, as well as Japanese organist Kiochi Oki's Yamaha organ demo record and Japanese noisesters Ultrabidet.
To Seltmann and Chater, genre distinctions just fell by the wayside -- everything was manipulated, spindled, and mutilated under the record-player needle as they tossed records of orchestral music on the turntable, dripped wax on the vinyl, looped the random sounds, and built songs over the fragments. "People don't really connect punk with primitive sampling, but the attitude behind punk and hip-hop is quite similar," Seltmann says. "We love the Fall as much as Wu-Tang. They're the same."
Indie labels started to fall in line after they listened to the pair's demo, on the condition that they produce a live band, so Seltmann and Chater whipped up an ensemble with old friend Gordy McQuilten and Tony Diblasi, and Swinging Monkey Cocks was born, named in honor of Dudley Moore and Peter Cook.
"We actually changed our name every show," says Seltmann. At the next show, the group went by the moniker Quentin's Brittle Bones, at another after that, Whoops Downs Syndrome, and then by chance, the Avalanches, and that was the name that stuck. "We sort of developed an idea that if we ever got signed to a label we would keep the name that we had, and that happened to be Avalanches on that day." The name, they say, came from a '60s surf band that called themselves the Avalanches so they could also play "ski" rock in the winter.
As the group continued its path of chi, or synchronicity, or whatever you want to call flying by the seat of their pants, Seltmann eventually crossed paths with one of his idols: Van Dyke Parks, the songwriter, arranger, and producer whose 1972 album, Discover America, had a major impact on him. "There's such a happiness in the music -- it's something that's almost spiritual," he says. "I think as a lyricist he's probably the best in the world." The friendship between the two was struck up through a fan Web site.
After Seltmann spent some time with Parks and played him the Avalanches' music, the songwriter became an admirer of the band as well. "They dazzle with their razzle," says Parks via e-mail. "They make flawless musical decisions and have a gift for taking an audience to another place and level of thought, while still entertaining. The Avalanches have really stretched the creative envelope."
Once all the pieces were put into place, the band nestled into recording Since I Left You. It's one thing to get the party started; it's another to make it sound spontaneous while very carefully constructing an album over the course of years. The parameters were set by using primarily found sounds, yet the entire enterprise began to sound as if it was one organic piece. Using "the cheapest sampler and computer money could buy," which required even more time and fortitude, the pair would welcome input from members of the live band as well as friends. They relied mainly on music culled from thrift stores, giveaways, and grandma's hand-me-downs, although the record-gathering could get out of hand: Seltmann says one hefty score of ten thousand discs once put the kibosh on his car.
To give themselves a break during the album's making, they put together comedy songs. One was "Frontier Psychiatrist," which cobbles a chorus out of the phrases "that boy needs therapy" and "you're a nut -- you're crazy in the coconut" and rhyming non sequiturs such as "tighten your buttocks, pour juice on your chin -- promise your girl you'll play violin." Seltmann chuckles at the thought. "I guess to let off steam from the really painstaking concentration that we sort of needed, we would make comedy songs, these ridiculous things that would never see the light of day but helped us to get through it."
As for Seltmann's parents, they have just had to put up with the fact that their son has traded the life of a holy roller for the strife of rock 'n' roll. Van Dyke Parks is expected to collaborate on the next, eagerly awaited Avalanches album, which the group will continue following its American and Japanese tours. Seltmann says the band is going to take its own sweet time on the follow-up album, letting the samples and songs all fall where they may.