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50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time – #15: The Avalanches

Dan Whitford of Cut Copy reflects on the band that helped put Australian electronic music on the world stage, The Avalanches.

50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time - The Avalanches

Grant Spanier*; Tamar Levine*

In December of 2020, Rolling Stone Australia released a special edition issue which looks at the 50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time, paying tribute to the best and most impactful artists in Australian music history. While it would have been easy for the editors and writers of the publication to profess their love of the listed artists, the decision was instead made for those who found themselves inspired by these world-renowned names to share their own testimonials of why these artists deserve to make the list.

In celebration of the issue’s release in December, we’re counting down the full 50 artists and their accompanying testimonials in this ongoing online feature. If you want to get your hands on an physical copy of the magazine, be sure to subscribe now to experience the double-length edition featuring some of Australia’s best and brightest discussing the finest names in local music.

50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time – #15: The Avalanches (by Dan Whitford of Cut Copy)

It would have been hard to imagine the idea of “punk” before Iggy and The Stooges exploded onto stage, showing wide-eyed kids what was possible. And in the same way, it’s hard to imagine the existence of our Australian electronic music scene without the breakthrough success of oddball cult heroes The Avalanches.

To really understand this, you have to forget about the flourishing electronic scene that now exists in this country, and imagine your way back to the indie-dominated music landscape of Australia in the late Nineties. Back then, electronic music was just not part of the conversation. If a band didn’t have fuzzy guitars, sideburns, and a chain wallet, people just didn’t want to know about it. And anyone like me who obsessed over electronic music were forced to look to the sounds coming from the UK or US to scratch the itch… until The Avalanches came along.

I first saw them play at the old Evelyn Hotel band room in Melbourne in front of 20 people, supporting Jimi Tenor. My first reaction was “what kind of music even is this?”. They had synths, samplers, and live instruments, but over the course of their set proceeded to destroy the stage and their instruments. Yet somehow, through all the chaos, there was something bizarrely infectious that hit like a force of nature. My wide-eyed teenage self walked away thinking that this was like nothing I’d ever heard before.

“My first reaction was ‘what kind of music even is this?'”

Shortly after that I was lucky enough to get signed to the same label as The Avalanches. We became good friends, bonding over a mutual love of records, and we had a ritual of a street basketball game each afternoon with a random assortment of other musicians and friends. But suddenly when their debut album, Since I Left You, was released, we found our basketball game on permanent hold.

That moment transported The Avalanches from a local oddity playing gigs to 20 people, into being one of the most unique, internationally loved electronic acts. Suddenly the world was watching. It was the kind of record that would have seemed impossible before they went out and actually made it. Their finesse with layering samples really changed expectations of what could be done with sampling as an artform, to the point where two decades on, it has never been surpassed. In that moment it focused international eyes on Australian electronic music for the first time as something to watch.

To me The Avalanches bring out what is most special about music, because you can hear the love they have for it. Great music is sacred. It’s not something to be churned out, it’s the magical essence of melody and lyric that can take you back to the best moments of your life. And throughout their career they have harvested these moments from all eras of music, then painstakingly stitched them together in an impossibly detailed tapestry for everyone to enjoy.

Parts of that tapestry feel joyously familiar, like a favourite pair of vintage jeans that fit in the most satisfying way. But then wedged next to it would be a different sound, so bizarre that it could have been made in a laboratory or beamed to us by aliens. Somehow in the hands of The Avalanches these moments just make sense. They have forged a career from making the impossible possible, and that’s their genius.