Music Interviews
2:48 am
Mon June 16, 2014

The Antlers: Holding A Light To The Darkness Within

Originally published on Mon June 16, 2014 11:18 am

A few years ago, Peter Silberman was recovering from a breakup that has haunted him. He decided to write an entire album about it for his band, The Antlers, and he made a risky artistic choice: He used a patient dying of bone cancer as a metaphor for the girlfriend he was refusing to let go of.

"I was thinking in terms of a caregiver's relationship to a patient," Silberman says, "and how there is a kind of willingness to put up with whatever emotional state the patient is in, in order to help them through this process of dying."

That 2009 album was called Hospice, and it was a big success. The Antlers' latest release deals with heavy themes, but they're less tangible than a story about cancer. NPR's David Greene spoke with Silberman about conjuring monsters, demons and alter-egos on the new album Familiars — as well as what happened when fans of Hospice began coming to Silberman with their own stories of death and loss. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read part of their conversation below.

DAVID GREENE: There's a song on the album, "Doppelganger," that struck me as almost like what you'd hear at the beginning of an old black-and-white horror movie. And in the lyrics there seems to be some sort of monster trapped behind the mirror that you're looking into.

PETER SILBERMAN: I was really trying to explore these hidden mental states. And in this song in particular, it was really about the depths ... the darkest impulses and the most disturbing aspects of your own personality. And it did help me to think of that as kind of a monster living within a person.

I don't want to sound too much like a therapist, but I do want to get out of the abstract and understand a song like this a little bit. Is there an example from your life you can give me to help us understand who this monster is and what these disturbing thoughts are?

I think it's something that comes out at times of stress. ... It's maybe a kind of paranoid impulse. It's the kind of thing that, when it arises in you, you feel like a stranger to yourself. ... A good example would be any kind of inebriation that leads to unpredictable behavior.

I want to bring up another song: "Revisited." What's the story?

I guess the way that I think of it is about traveling back in time in your own memory, finding a period of time that you're hung up on and seeing it from a different perspective. An easy example would be a relationship that, when it ends, you feel like you've got a clear idea of who is at fault for the way it fell apart. And you can hold onto this idea of it for years and years and years, and it can inform so much of what you do, if it was important to you.

I think I kind of woke up to a different way of looking at it — and a lot of that came through trying to write about it, and realizing that I could maybe see both sides of it more clearly. Like, maybe I was able to see my own role in it.

This is the relationship from Hospice we're talking about, I gather.

I guess you could say that. I don't think of this song as so much being about me as just ... trying to illustrate a point about memory.

Hospice brought you a fanbase: Many people who were drawn to that story have stayed with you. I wonder if there were people who wrote to you, who might have actually been dealing with a family member who was dying of cancer — and you think to yourself, "Wow, I used it as kind of a metaphor for love and loss in a relationship. I don't know if I went through the pain that you're dealing with." And if there's some sort of disconnect, or you worry about some sort of hollowness, if you're singing about something so intimate but it's not literal for you.

Yeah, that's precisely what happened for years. I did have a lot of people approaching me and telling me about people who were close to them who had died of cancer, and initially, it did make me question what I was doing, what I was putting out there. But I think pain is pain. And it doesn't have to be an identical experience for somebody to be able to relate.

At the end of the day, maybe it doesn't really matter what literally happened to me versus what literally happened to somebody else. It's kind of just a meeting in the middle and saying, "We had different experiences, but we both came out of our respective situations feeling confused and hurt, and scared and isolated." And if there's any way to alleviate that, I think it's probably a good thing.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Some of the finest works of art are inspired by love and loss. MORNING EDITION's David Greene recently spoke with one indie rock band about how it's channeling the pain of lost love into music.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A few years ago, Peter Silberman, he's the singer and songwriter for the band The Antlers, was recovering from a breakup that has clearly haunted him. He decided to write an entire album about it. And he made a risky artistic choice. He used a patient dying of cancer as a metaphor for the girlfriend he was refusing to let go of.

PETER SILBERMAN: A lot of it has to do with psychological abuse but I think, really, it's about dysfunctional relationships. I was thinking in terms of a caregiver's relationship to a patient and how there is a kind of - a willingness to put up with whatever emotional state the patient is in in order to help them through this process of dying.

GREENE: That 2009 album was called "Hospice" and people who had actually watched a family member die of cancer were drawn to the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KETTERING")

THE ANTLERS: (Singing) And walking in that room when you had tubes in your arms. Those singing morphine alarms out of tune.

GREENE: Like so many indie bands, "The Antlers'" experiment to try and find a distinct voice, and the album "Hospice" was a success. Their latest album deals with heavy themes as well, but they are less tangible than a story about cancer. It's called "Familiars." Silberman writes about alter egos and inner demons. In this song "Doppelganger," he sings about a monster he sees in his own reflection.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOPPELGANGER")

ANTLERS: (Singing) Can you hear me when I'm trapped behind the mirror?

SILBERMAN: I think I was really trying to explore these hidden mental states and in this song in particular, it was really about the depths, about the kind of darkest impulses and the most disturbing aspects of your own personality and it did help me to think of that as kind of a monster living within a person.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOPPELGANGER")

ANTLERS: (Singing) And now's he howling, but I'm muted by the horror.

GREENE: Now, I don't want to sound too much like your therapist, sitting you down on a couch. But I mean, I do want to get out of the abstract and understand a song like this a little bit. I mean, where - is there an example from your life you can give me to help us understand who this monster is and what sort of some of these disturbing thoughts are?

SILBERMAN: (Laughing) That is a bit of a therapist question, but I think it's something that comes out at times of stress and it's kind of - I don't know - it's maybe like a kind of paranoid impulse. It's the kind of thing that when it arises in you, you feel like a stranger to yourself. And that was really what I was trying to get to through this song, was about feeling a kind of dissociation from yourself.

GREENE: Moments, maybe, we can all relate to when you don't like yourself.

SILBERMAN: Yeah. I think that could definitely be a good way to put it. You know, I think a good example would be any kind of inebriation that leads to unpredictable behavior.

GREENE: A few too many drinks have led you to do some things you're not thrilled with.

SILBERMAN: (Laughing) I guess so, but it's not really a record about a drinking problem, per se.

GREENE: I want to bring up another song, "Revisited."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REVISITED")

ANTLERS: (Singing) I let them strip your mausoleum so nothing was left. But they forgot to close the casket, they sent you shivering to my doorstep. Gently clawing at my window...

GREENE: What's the story?

SILBERMAN: The story's kind of complicated, but I guess the way I think of it is it's about traveling back in time in your own memory and finding a period of time that you're hung up on and, I think, seeing it from a different perspective. Like an easy example would be a relationship that when it ends, you feel like you've got a clear idea of who was at fault for the way it fell apart. And you can hold on to this idea of it for years and years and years, and it can inform so much of what you do if it was important to you. And think I kind of woke up to a different way of looking at it and a lot of that came through trying to write about it and realizing that I could maybe see both sides of it more clearly, like maybe I was able to see my own role in it.

GREENE: This is the relationship from "Hospice" we're talking about, I gather?

SILBERMAN: I guess you could say that. (Laughing) I don't think of this song as so much being about me, as just my processing of something and trying to illustrate a point about memory.

GREENE: You have a fan base, many of them came to you and stay with you now and, you know, were just drawn to the story. You know, I wonder if there were moments when people who would write to you, and they might have actually been dealing with a family member who was dying of bone cancer, which was sort of part of the "Hospice" story, and you think to yourself, wow, I used it as kind of a metaphor for love and loss in a relationship, you know, I don't know if I went through the pain that you're dealing with. And if there's some sort of disconnect - are you worried about some sort of hollowness if you're singing about something so intimate but it's not literal for you?

SILBERMAN: Yeah, that's precisely what happened (laughing). For years, I did have a lot of people approaching me and telling me about people who were close to them who had died of cancer. And initially, it did make me question what I was doing, what I was putting out there. But I think pain is pain and it doesn't have to be an identical experience for somebody to be able to relate. And I think at the end of the day, maybe it doesn't really matter what literally happened to me versus what literally happened to somebody else. It's kind of just a meeting somewhere in the middle, saying we had different experiences, but we both came out of our respective situations feeling confused and hurt and scared and isolated. And if there's any way to alleviate that, then I think it's probably a good thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REFUGE")

ANTLERS: (Singing) You're already home, and you don't even know it.

MONTAGNE: That's David Greene with Peter Silberman of "The Antlers." Their new album "Familiars" is out tomorrow. You can listen to it today at nprmusic.org. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.