Concert preview: The Antlers untangle life’s ‘thornier issues’ on the intimate Familiars

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From the June 26, 2014 edition

In the midst of “Intruders,” a dreamy track that falls near the midpoint of The Antlers’ gorgeous, jazz-flecked new full-length, Familiars, frontman Peter Silberman sings, “I beg for answers to all my questions.”

It’s a key moment on an album where the musician struggles to come to grips with some of the universe’s most confounding riddles.

“I think I found myself in a place of reevaluation working on this record, where I was really taking stock of everything that has happened up until this point in time, and I hit this point of a big ‘Why?’” said Silberman, 28, who joins his bandmates for a concert at A&R Music Bar on Saturday, June 28. “Why us? Why this project? Who do I think I am? Is that really who I am? What am I trying to do here? Why am I doing it?

“It’s pretty easy when you’re writing to sort of say, ‘These words sound nice and they fit in the song and that’s that.’ And I thought, ‘I could do that again, but I don’t think that’s what I ought to be doing right now. What I ought to be doing is getting down to some thornier issues … and trying to untangle some of that stuff.’”

Songs, in turn, gravitate toward heady subjects. On “Doppelganger,” an atmospheric track bathed in woozy horns, the singer attempts to reconcile the man he used to be with the man he is currently, while the delicate “Refuge” finds him confronting death with a startling degree of maturity. “When you lift me out of me,” he sings in his eggshell-fragile falsetto, “Will I know when I’ve changed?”

“On this record, I was thinking about [death] a lot,” said Silberman, who grew up in Somers, New York, raised by a professor father and a writer/editor mother. “None of us knows how long we have, but it’s nothing to fear. It’s simply something that happens, and after that we don’t know. If I’m in an argument, or getting really worked up about something relatively unimportant, I start to feel a need to lighten everything in my life and just say, ‘It’s no big deal. It all ends the same way for everybody, so this kind of race, this competition … what is it moving toward?’”

The music itself is similarly unhurried, Silberman and Co. crafting a lush, ethereal environment designed to foster meditation and contemplation. Songs build around elegant piano, ballerina-graceful swaths of brass and Silberman’s measured, evocative vocals, which find the frontman stretching and bending syllables as casually as Silly Putty. Most tracks unfold gradually over five-plus minutes, and the slow pull of the music tends to exert a gravity-like force, holding listeners in its orbit like so many celestial bodies.

“It felt like the best way to grow was to give ourselves space and time in these songs,” Silberman said, noting he’s become a more patient person with age, a trait that reveals itself time and again on Familiars. “[British writer and philosopher] Alan Watts frequently said … the point of music is not the race to the end of it. If that were the case, people would go to see a symphony and only be there for the final crash.

“The problem with very concise pop songs, at least to me, is it feels like a race to the end of the song, and it’s such a funny idea to me that you would listen to something in order to be done with it. This is a big undertaking for us, so we might as well spend time in these songs and exist in them while they’re happening. When the end arrives, the end arrives. But it’s not hurtling toward that all the time.”

Silberman, who confessed to being uncomfortable in the traditional frontman role — “There’s a grandiosity or self-serving quality to it … that’s not my natural state,” he said — noted the months spent soul-searching, writing and recording eventually led more to a simple refinement of principles than some earth-shattering revelation or a grand awakening.

“I don’t know if I came to any concrete conclusions, but one of the questions I asked myself was about success, and if success was something I was chasing,” he said. “I realized at times it had been, but it wasn’t now. This time it was definitely of secondary importance to something else, and that something else was kind of elusive for me, but I think it comes down to compassion and peace. I needed to create that for myself, and, as I did, I think the music became a way to help that peace emanate outward to anyone listening.”

Marc Lemoine photo