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How The Avalanches Taught Skylar Spence to Appreciate Sampling as a Form of Expression

The American electro-pop artist reflects on the Australian band's legacy and latest album 'Wildflower.'
July 18, 2016, 4:20pm
Photo by Jordan Neel, courtesy of Skylar Spence's Facebook

When Australian cult heroes the Avalanches announced their return and highly-anticipated follow-up to their 2000 debut album 'Since I Left You' earlier this year, nobody had any idea what to expect from the group's sophomore release. Would 'Wildflower' follow the sample-heavy blueprint of their previous work or be something completely different? How would the trio incorporate a diverse list of guest vocalists including Danny Brown, MF Doom, Toro Y Moi, and Ariel Pink into their lush, textured soundscapes?


Luckily for longtime fans, including American electro-pop musician, producer, and singer Skylar Spence (aka Ryan DeRobertis), the record proves their lengthy hiatus hasn't diminished their crate-digging mastery, while also featuring Technicolored live instrumentation. We asked DeRobertis to write about his personal history with the Avalanches' discography and how it influenced his own music, and he gratefully obliged.

The first live show I ever played as Saint Pepsi was in April 2013 for my college radio station's spring concert, which was headlined by Javelin. I begged the organizers to let me open and they were cool enough to let me do it, especially considering I didn't own any equipment and hadn't played a show before. During my soundcheck, I did my bullshit vaporwave thing, and in the green room the dudes from Javelin were like, "We really like your sound, man. It reminds us of the Avalanches!" I was like "Oh, cool, thanks so much!" but I didn't get the comparison because I had never heard anything from the Avalanches, save "Frontier Psychiatrist."

You know how the story goes: I download the album, it changes my life, and changes my work ethic in a weird way. Since I Left You was one of the first electronic albums I consciously digested as a "producer" and the technical aspect of their music thrilled me. I became obsessed with their ability to twist and turn different genres of music, weaving seconds of instrumentals together with sound effects and film dialogue in a way that wasn't corny or disrespectful to the source material. Since I Left You felt more radiant with each listen, more satisfying with the passing of time, and conducive to my greater appreciation of sampling as a form of expression.

I don't know what it's like to wait 16 years for a record release. I'm sure that kind of hype would taint my initial reaction towards it, and unsurprisingly, I was hearing from friends that Wildflower didn't touch its predecessor just hours after it was released online. But I've spent most of my spare time digesting the elusive Wildflower since July 1st, and I'm shocked at how quickly it has become one of my favorite listens of all-time.

Although I initially had qualms over lead single "Frankie Sinatra," which I dismissed the first time I heard it as an "oompah" beat with a Danny Brown verse, I appreciated it more in the context of the record. I became enamored with it once I started paying attention to the crazy shit that was going on in the background. I also hadn't realized there was original instrumentation on this record. Guest vocalists sure, but songs where there are no samples? Or songs where samples serve as ornaments to the song, rather than the backbone? Or songs where a sample is completely removed from its original context to elicit a different emotional response?


Take "Sunshine," for example. The song starts out so deceptively simple and cool, like "Oh man, I love what they're doing with that vocal loop," until they throw you into the depths of heartbreak ocean 50 seconds in. Play the intro to "Colours" in reverse and you'll find a secret message: "After the tears, true love can start. Where there's a heartache, there must be a heart." I later found out those bars were lifted from the Sandpipers' version of a Burt Bacharach tune, and it's through gaining knowledge like this that I more properly appreciate the world they've now built around meticulous sampling, in foundation rather than formation. If you're not actively watching these tracks blend into each other, you probably won't even realize where you are, or when it's over.

On the other hand, the "vocals" on the record span a wide scope of subjects: self-love, loving others, flying, isolation, noisy eating, pentagrams, and pot leaves, amongst others. By the time I hit David Berman's monologue in "Saturday Night Inside Out," I'm usually winded, but I'm always glued to my seat until the end of the hour-long ride. Even Since I Left You didn't hit me as strongly as Wildflower does. I don't see how any love letter to the history of recorded music—to the history of humanity—couldn't put a smile on your face.

It almost seems too timely that we're graced with a record of this caliber; maybe we're too disillusioned by the darkness of modern history to properly appreciate the Avalanches' childlike sense of wonder. But I also feel like they've spent their 16-year long dormancy living and learning too, and it's with a jaw-dropping expertise that they're still able to dial in the ornamental magic of their previous work, with less reliance on source material (or at the very least, stunning recreation). If Wildflower didn't pique your interest on the first listen, I implore you to give it another shot, you might find more beyond the surface of an album that took a pretty long time to put together.

Skylar Spence is on Twitter.