Paradise Found: The Avalanches’ ‘Since I Left You’ at 20
The Avalanches’ debut ‘Since I Left You’ is one of electronic music’s all-time classics, a sample-heavy travelogue which charmed the globe in 2000-01. Then they disappeared. On the eve of the album’s 20th anniversary reissue, we hear how the duo came back from the brink and found joy again
There’s a phenomenon which takes place when you ride the Shinkansen between Tokyo and Kyōto. Bulleting past Mount Fuji at 199 miles per hour opens up to a rare sensation: The bamboo outside your window appears to dance. It’s an optical illusion generated by speed, of course, but once you become au fait with the motion blur, the view is intensely beautiful, implicitly exotic, a little uncanny and oddly becalming. There’s no way to control it, so you slip inside this bizarro logic and get cosy.
That is the feeling of ‘Since I Left You’. The Avalanches’ majestic and hugely popular debut album, released in Australia at the tail-end of 2000, and then internationally across 2001, played all sorts of tricks on the listener. The album isn’t fast — even when bombastic it’s quite mellow. But there’s a mind-boggling amount going on at all times. Anywhere between 900 and 3,500 individual samples employed during the making of the album ping off one another constantly, rising and fusing and fizzing away like bubbles in a champagne glass, or molecular chemistry writ large.
With the pacing of an expert DJ mix, the crate-digging ingenuity of a blockbuster hip-hop record and the personality of a theatrical popstar, ‘Since I Left You’ has no real brothers or sisters. You can forge a link to other magpie classics like DJ Shadow’s ‘Endtroducing’ or 2ManyDJs’ ‘As Heard On Radio Soulwax Pt.2’, but really it sounds like neither. It is a sui generis statement that never became outdated, because it didn’t exist on the axis of regular time in the first place. Which is handy, as it’s pretty much all The Avalanches had to their name for 16 years after the album’s release.
“It is remarkable that the strength of that one album was able to sustain us,” says the duo’s Tony Di Blasi with a wide-eyed expression. “There were numerous times where I was 100% sure that my career in music was over. We went into serious debt and relied on friends and family to help get us over the line. It’s a rare thing that enough momentum was generated to keep people eager to hear what we were doing, and ‘Since I Left You’ did just that.”
“We were getting offers all the time to tour,” chimes in Robbie Chater, who stands today as the only other remaining member of The Avalanches, a group that has variously counted three, five, six and seven members in their ranks at different stages. “And they were really good offers — even five years after ‘Since I Left You’ dropped, they didn’t stop coming. Financially we desperately could have done with the work. But we had to resist. As the years dragged on, we didn’t want to be a band trading off one record. We set our sights on the long game and feel it paid off. But I do wonder: what would have happened if we followed up in 2002?”
We’ll never know. The story surrounding ‘Since I Left You’ has become intractable from the album itself. It took 16 years for follow-up ‘Wildflower’ to arrive; Guns ‘N Roses’ ‘Chinese Democracy’, a byword for tortured creative process and endless delays, only needed 15.
Australian dance music was booming in the mid-to-late 2000s, as The Avalanches’ label Modular rocketed to the front of the blog-propelled electro-house scene. Artists like Cut Copy, The Presets and Midnight Juggernauts toured relentlessly, but save for the odd DJ gig, The Avalanches were unable to surf the wave.
Chater, who had struggled with alcohol dependency since his teens, went through hell around this time, laid low for over three years with autoimmune issues. Even as denizens of alternative and electronic music cottoned onto the band’s love of ‘70s AM radio staples and plundering the past, the 10th anniversary of ‘Since I Left You’ was met by silence. It looked for all the world as if The Avalanches would be a one-and-done project, a flickering memory as sepia-toned as the records they used as the building blocks for their masterpiece.
The Avalanches’ creative isolation in the wake of ‘Since I Left You’ was mildly ironic, given that the album itself was fixated with the allure of tasting all the world’s cultural fruits. Originally entitled ‘Pablo’s Cruise’, with an overt concept about chasing love from port to port, today ‘Since I Left You’ stands as the last foghorn of a faded age.
Word-of-mouth phenomena like ‘Since I Left You’ still take place in the digital era, but they aren’t passed around on burned CD-Rs, and you’d be hard pressed to find any album with a month’s gap between release in different markets, let alone a year. As Mark Richardson elegantly wrote when Pitchfork anointed ‘Since I Left You’ as the 10th best LP of the 2000s, “The Avalanches started in Australia in late 2000 and took the slow boat west, moving from one 56k modem to the next.”
“It’s hard to describe just how different the world was back then,” Chater reflects. “My favourite music magazines from the UK took, like, two months to arrive in Melbourne on the boat. You had to be passionate to discover new music when we were geographically very distant. Our album came out here and drew a good reception, but it was nothing crazy — maybe 1,000 or so sold. Then you find out there’s a buzz brewing half the world away. I remember we were in a shared house on the dole, and one of my flatmates shouted down the hall, ‘There’s someone from England on the phone! Your album’s debuted at number 8...’ It just doesn’t compute.”
By the time ‘Since I Left You’ arrived in America, fully 12 months after the album’s Australian release, the world had profoundly changed. The after-effects of the 9/11 terror attacks caused a schism in the role of aviation. Prior to the album’s release some of the group, including Di Blasi, had never ventured outside their national borders, so regarded jet-setting as a classy, romantic folly. As a love letter to carefree travel, ‘Since I Left You’ inadvertently wound up as a time capsule itself, tying a bow atop an era that had lasted for over a half-century, yet conclusively ended in a matter of seconds.
When it comes to the making of ‘Since I Left You’, sampling is the operative word. “It’s been in my heart since I was a 15-year-old kid making tape loops,” Chater explains with a self-admonishing chuckle. “The sampler is my guitar, and it really affects how I listen to the world: ‘Am I enjoying this, or am I just looking for something in it?’ ‘Interstellar Love’ on [2020 album] ‘We Will Always Love You’ came about because I heard the Alan Parsons Project in a café while eating lunch and pretty much sprinted back home to sample it.”
The process of finding records and pooling ideas for ‘Since I Left You’ was entirely collaborative between the then-five piece, though it was Chater and former core member Darren Seltmann in particular who would spend long stretches tinkering on the Akai S2000 and Yamaha Promix 01.
Legal tripwires meant the album most people are familiar with today sounds a touch different from the original version. The filter-happy thumper ‘Live At Dominoes’ was one of the few songs that didn’t turn out quite as the group wanted. It was their de facto audition for a spot on Thomas Bangalter’s Roulé label, but shorn of some essential samples, it came out a little muted.
Most of the album’s samples are microscopically interwoven, a filigree of good feelings. Some, though, do leap out. On ‘Radio’, an interview given by Laurie Anderson in 1986 about signals and wavelengths is cut up and peppered over a backbeat which sounds like a particularly eager DJ crankin’ on the EQ. The lovelorn nonlexicals which breeze through ‘Two Hearts in 3/4 Time’ are lifted clean off Marlena Shaw’s 1977 soul hit ‘Yu-Ma’. And yes, that’s the bassline from Madonna’s ‘Holiday’ running under both ‘Stay Another Season’ and ‘Little Journey’ — although, it was technically pulled from Dutch novelty duo MC Miker G and DJ Sven’s ‘Holiday Rap’. Di Blasio delights in the fact it was, as far as he’s aware, the first sample Madonna ever formally cleared.
For a group of plucky stoners in their early-20s, the fact ‘Since I Left You’ survived being chewed up by industry lawyers is a small miracle. Di Blasi and Chater owe it all to a sample clearance expert named Pat Shannahan. Chater grins when Shannahan, known to some as ‘The Detective’, is brought up in our interview.
“The story is this: Steve Pavlovic, who founded Modular, was a calm presence when a lot of other people were freaking out that the record would be blocked from international release. He realised the hype could work to our advantage. So he found Pat, a key player at Island Records who had worked with the Beastie Boys, Ice-T, Tone Lōc and all these other hip-hop heavyweights. She signed on and this friendship developed.”
Di Blasi picks up the strand here. “Pat is a legend, fundamental to so many key records, and absolutely essential when we made ‘Wildflower’, too. She was this little old lady living in LA with bright red hair, who was extremely wily. We would have to Skype her rather than emailing, in case we left a paper trail!” Shannahan, who passed away in 2020, stayed in contact to the last. “We got the most beautiful email from her husband, breaking the news while telling us how fondly and how often she spoke of us. We truly couldn’t have made it without her.”
Following a tour-less, truncated cycle for ‘We Will Always Love You’, The Avalanches announced in April 2021 that a deluxe edition of ‘Since I Left You’ would arrive to kickstart some belated 20th anniversary celebrations. A ripple of hot pink paint has been splashed over the LP’s seafaring cover — although, the duo bashfully admit, they never actually got approval to use Fred Dana Marsh’s 1920 painting ‘The Sinking of USS President Lincoln’ in the first place.
A few new remixes add to the package, including one from Leon Vynehall, whose own signature of thoughtful sampling, sunburnt wooz and wanderlust makes him a stylistic descendent of sorts. The reissue mostly rests on old edits, mind, including a deep cut by Prince Paul which launched the release campaign. Was that some kind of cosmic debt, gratitude for his sample-stitching heroics on visionary albums like De La Soul’s ‘3 Feet High and Rising’, we wonder?
“100%,” nods Chater. “Prince Paul had a huge impact on our production and our spirit. I love the way he would smash samples together with a sense of humour. You can have skits sitting next to heartfelt tracks, but they wouldn’t take away from the beauty of the other moments. If anything, they made those moments more beautiful. He gave us the confidence to be stupid. I don't think we could have made ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ without his influence.”
If there’s one Avalanches song everyone of a certain age knows, it’s ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’. If they don’t, well, they’re crazy in the coconut.
A completely unrepeatable feat of anarcho-surrealism, ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ was 2001’s least-likely crossover hit, etched into impressionable brains like fingers into putty. If the notion of ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ gatecrashing the upper regions of the charts seems strange on reflection, it appears even more bizarre under a microscope. Look at the UK top 20 on 21st July ‘01 and you’ll find The Avalanches nestled next to Robbie Williams, Roger Sanchez, Ian Van Dahl, D12, Aaliyah, Shaggy and Usher. One of these things, politely, is not like the other.
Meshing rented Western movies and a recording of Canadian comedians Wayne and Shuster, ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’’s musical motifs manage to be as lucid as each of its 37 spoken word snippets. Some might vouch for the lilting calypso that guides us onto the cruise liner deck as the “record-ecord-ecord” winds to a close. Others prefer “the violin!” — Laurie Anderson’s voice again — which bursts from the rubble of crunching breakbeats and garbled nonsense, then glides through the track like scissors through wrapping paper. And though wildly scribbling turntables were commonplace at the time, who would ever think to scratch over a parrot?
Horses bray, grandfather clocks spin backward and some unnamed craftsman is making a set of false teeth in perpetuity. God bless whoever sold The Avalanches the weed when they made this one.
“The promos for ‘Frontier’ and ‘Since I Left You’ really took us to strange places,” marvels Chater. “We were flown to Germany to collect an MTV Award for Best Video — just a bunch of shy, jetlagged kids wandering around backstage, not really knowing what to do. This dude comes over to me and he’s like, ‘Jay likes your record’. I look across the room and JAY-Z is standing there, nodding at me. All you can do is laugh, like, ‘Honestly, what the fuck is going on?’”
If humour is one strand of ‘Since I Left You’’s DNA, melancholy completes the double helix. The sweeping title track which begins the album’s grand adventure has a bittersweet quality to it. This comes down to a sly bit of editing on the central refrain of, “Since I left you, I found the world so new, everyday”. The hook is lifted from soul group The Main Attraction’s ‘Everyday’, however the word “met” is pitched-up to sound like “left”. Now, rather than being a paean to young love, it is a commitment to breaking free and embracing new beginnings.
This is a trick memorably employed by hip-hop’s exalted beatmaker J Dilla, who rearranged syllables on 2006’s ‘Donuts’ to devastating effect, beseeching family members not to cry, even while making an album he knew to be a goodbye note. Though ‘Donuts’ came five years after ‘Since I Left You’, the profound influence it had on Di Blasi and Chater suggests the lineage is back-to-front. They speak about it in hushed tones to this day.
“Some people made the comparison between ‘Donuts’ and ‘Since I Left You’ in terms of the sampling, which we found hard to accept at first, because ‘Donuts’ is perfect,” states Di Blasi. “We can’t listen to our own album with fresh ears, but people tell us they get a similar feeling from those two records. It’s very humbling to listen to Dilla and imagine that might be what people get from ‘Since I Left You’. I actually struggle to listen to ‘Donuts’ at times, because it really pushes me to my emotional limits, knowing the backstory.”
Emotion frequently flashes across both Di Blasi and Chater’s face when reflecting on ‘Since I Left You’. They went through a torrid time in its aftermath, which could have easily turned a sparkling record into an albatross around their necks. We get the sense the pair came through the other side with a commitment to never go it alone again, and their follow-ups bear this out.
Rather than resting solely on archival voices, ‘Wildflower’ and ‘We Will Always Love You’ enlist numerous charismatic guests: MF DOOM, Danny Brown, Leon Bridges, Denzel Curry, Neneh Cherry, Perry Ferrell, Karen O, Blood Orange and more combine to create something of a carnival atmosphere. Neither album has the same critical reputation as their debut, but you imagine it was a necessary process for the duo to feel good about creating art again.
Di Blasi laughs when we mention the exuberance of their comeback shows in 2016. “I mean, oh my God — what a rush! People noted that we were pretty over-the-top on stage, but when you’ve been on a desert island eating rats for 16 years, yeah, you’re gonna enjoy some lobster and champagne.”
Chater mirrors this with a crack of tenderness in his voice. “We’ve made friends for life around the world. We’ve recorded in the same studio Prince has, we’ve put Leon Bridges and Cornelius on the same record, and we’re still the same nerdy kids at heart. I am incredibly grateful for this cycle of music we get to be a part of. That’s what matters to us. With more maturity, I can really take in those moments of a charmed life. We travel to Japan to play at Fuji Rock, and watch 40,000 people dancing and hugging to the music made in our bedrooms as teenagers. These records flowed through us, and now they’re flowing through the mountains.”
“That’s the beauty of looking back,” continues Di Blasi. “Life can be good and it can be bad, and ours certainly was a mix, but after 20 years you cherish the memories fondly. Those negative emotions strip away. We went through the shit and now we get to stop and smell the roses.”
Chater signs off with a smile: “You eventually forget the hangovers and just recall the night out. There were fortunate circumstances about releasing ‘Since I Left You’ at the turn of the century — we were definitely in the right place at the right time — but this record was made with the joy of the discovery of music, adding this youthful energy to old records, and people responded to that. They don’t really feel like our songs anymore. We just stand back and admire this big thing that has kept growing and expanding. And the memories will only get more golden over time.”
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