Gen Kay*

Home Music Music Features

As The Avalanches' debut album receives the long-awaited anniversary edition it has always deserved, Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi reflect on the groundbreaking record.

To many, The Avalanches’ debut album felt like it came out of nowhere, and for the band itself, it kind of did. Just years prior, the Melbourne outfit had been supporting the likes of the Beastie Boys and Stereolab, while their genre-defying sound seemed more in line with the former than the latter.

But by the end of 2000, The Avalanches had emerged from what was ultimately a period of transition with Since I Left You. While they knew the album was strong enough, they had no idea that years down the line, it would become the thing of legend. They had no idea it would become the basis for artists to embark upon their own musical journeys, and they would never have dreamed it would go on to be regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time.

While much of The Avalanches’ story would later be wrapped up in their mysterious existence during the 16-year period it took to follow up their debut, you can’t focus on the second half of the story without reading the first. Since I Left You was a thing of a beauty, an hour-long journey between genres, between sounds, and feelings, with samples serving as the tour guide.

Indeed, sampling was the main takeaway from the record, with varying sources claiming that it utilises anywhere between 900 to 3,500 samples across its 60-minute journey. However, while DJ Shadow had undoubtedly proven what sampling was capable of just a few years earlier with the groundbreaking Endtroducing, it was The Avalanches who helped to provide competition at the top end of the nascent plunderphonics genre hall of fame.

More than 20 years on from its arrival, Since I Left You is truly a musical force to be reckoned with, and rightly finds its way onto lists of the greatest records of all time, with its influence still felt today. In 2011, The Avalanches had announced a long-awaited anniversary edition would soon be finding its way out into the world.

Sadly, this never arrived, and while rumours of its arrival continued to circulate over the last decade, the group itself were more focused on their second and third albums. Now, 20 years since its UK release, Since I Left You has finally received the appropriate anniversary edition it has long since warranted, with remixes from MF DOOM, Stereolab, and Prince Paul complementing the original record and other assorted rarities.

To celebrate its long-awaited release, founding members Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi chatted with Rolling Stone to discuss the record’s creation, its release, and its resounding reception, two decades on.

Let’s take a look back at the early days of the group. Obviously The Avalanches’ story is a little convoluted given its roots in earlier projects, but when you both got into music together, was there any particular goal in mind? Were you looking for the fabled “fame and fortune”, or were you just keen to make some noise and have a good time?

Tony: For me personally, it was never my ambition to be [famous] – though that did come later, and we were like, “Ooh, let’s have a crack at this” – but at the start, it was just fun. It was a lot of fun, and we all used to get along so well, and we were all best mates. You were doing this really fun thing with your best friends on the weekend. And our practices were hilarious and fun.

At the start, it was just so much fun and innocent. There wasn’t any pressure like you feel now. Now there’s big shows like the [Sidney Myer] Music Bowl, you’re putting out records, it’s a big things. But back then, it was just fun.

Robbie: And we were all people that, like… I never thought I could do or wanted to do anything else. Since I was very, very young, I was like, “I’m going to make music somehow.” I was just in love with it, and fascinated by it; sound. And then you meet friends who are into it too, but we were all pretty wild kids. So it became thing thing where, like there was musical expression, but we loved the chaos, and I think we loved causing a ripple. In the Melbourne pub rock scene, it was fun to go in there and just cause a riot with samplers, and nobody had probably ever seen anything like it.

“They used to laugh at us. They used to be like, ‘This looks like a bargain basement!’ There were all these junky organs and samplers, but then after the gig they’d often come up to us and say, ‘Actually, that was pretty good!'”

Tony: We’d turn up to like, Push Over festivals and things like that, and you’d get up on stage and the stage crew were like, “What the hell is this? What do I do with this?” Because no one had been doing anything electronic.

Robbie: They used to laugh at us. They used to be like, “This looks like a bargain basement!” There were all these junky organs and samplers, but then after the gig they’d often come up to us and say, “Actually, that was pretty good!” [laughs]

Tony: We supported Sneaker Pimps in Sydney, and I just remember their crew were laughing at us. We’d set up, and their crew were just looking at us like, “What the hell is this? The bargain basement or something?” Because we had this old keyboard that we’d cut the legs off, it’d take two of us to carry it, and it would work sometimes, but it had this amazing sound.

Robbie: And we used to load it all into the Torago if we had to go and play in Sydney. It was just shoved in the back and then we’d make the drive to Sydney.

Tony: No road cases, we’d never have a road case [laughs]. It was so much fun though.

When The Avalanches had solidified into the group it would become in those early years, was there a specific sound you were aiming for? Obviously this era gets lumped in with the inevitable comparisons to the Beastie Boys from those on the outside, but what was the sonic goal you had?

Robbie: When I was a teenager, I had a four-track recorder and I was always making tape loops and there was something about that [I loved]. I loved that kind of either emotional guitar music, like I loved The Smiths, because you know, you’re a teenager and you’re full of angst and mood. And British bands in general, like, I always had a fascination with England and bands from there, and I had always wondered if I would ever get to go there.

So there was that, but there was also this fascination with being able to edit sound and making tape loops. Those were the two parallels for me, and then when I met Tony I guess I was already down that path, but we were buying old junky organs and stuff to make this kind of noisy punk music, and then we started finding records in those old op-shops. I think we just wanted to be different somehow. And it’s a gradual path to finding your own identity.

“I was instantly like [snaps fingers] “This is amazing. This guy, he’s got the taste.” It just automatically made me gravitate to him, and made me think I could do stuff with him..”

Tony: I do remember the first time that Robbie played music, and I do really remember this because I’d just moved to the country town at 18 after being in Melbourne my whole life. It was a real culture shock; very backwards, and you’d get called a wog if you were Italian, which I am… It was a whole different thing, and you just latched onto people, like-minded music people.

So I just remember going around to [Robbie’s] shed, and we’d probably had a couple joints, or a few bongs or something, and he played me My Bloody Valentine. So he was always into that kind of stuff. It was like, “You Made Me Realise”, it was just…

Robbie: I remember that. I had that on vinyl.

Tony: It was on vinyl, and I was just like, “What the fuck am I listening to? This is just completely out of control.” And it was something like I’d never heard before, and I was instantly like [snaps fingers] “This is amazing. This guy, he’s got the taste.” It just automatically made me gravitate to him, and made me think I could do stuff with him.

Robbie: They’re still an influence today. That warped, layered thing, that was like we were samples. I only learned later they were sampling their own guitars and bending them with an [Akai] S900 sampler, and we were pitch-bending our samples with an S900 sampler – just that wooziness. I think we just liked psychedelic music that wasn’t particularly dance or rock or anything. That was just like where we were headed.

So would the sort of material that appeared on the likes of El Producto have come out of this desire to explore things that weren’t necessarily rock or dance. It’s a little genre-defying in a sense.

Robbie: Yeah, that was… We were living in a sharehouse with our friend Joanne who we went to high school with, and she started dating this guy called Darren [Seltmann], and he moved in. So it was like four of us in this tiny place.

Tony: Robbie and I would share a bedroom; on a single bed next to each other.

Robbie: Then [Darren] brought this… I can’t really remember if we were making music or just fucking around, getting wasted, but he brought this Dr. Octagon record [1996’s Dr. Octagonecologyst] and we used to listen to that all the time, and then we started jamming with him, and it sort of came out of that. Because that music was very sampled as well, with the strings…

Tony: I listened to it the other day, and the sampling on that is very good. I remember we were quite inspired by that, and even the lyrics of Dr. Octagon, when you listen to them and then you listen to the El Producto lyrics, you can hear there’s a lot of similar abstract lyrics.

Robbie: I think we loved how nutty it was. It’s actually lovely to sort of go back over it, because I’d never really stopped to think how it all came together. But it was like, druggy rock music, and there’s Velvet Underground and Spiritualized in there too, and noise music, and then hip-hop stuff. I also remember how everybody loved [De La Soul’s] 3 Feet High and Rising and that sort of fun sampled music. Like, Prince Paul is a huge influence by way of the skits that he would do.

Tony: There was soulful music on 3 Feet High and Rising but then there’s be these hilarious skits in-between. That was great too, to realise that humour can be just as important as heartbreak, or just as important as emotion.

It’s like the classic Frank Zappa question: Does Humour Belong in Music? It seems that the answer is ‘yes’.

Robbie: Exactly! But without Prince Paul, I don’t think there’d be “Frontier Psychiatrist”. That gave us the confidence that we could still make what was, to us, an emotional record with Since I Left You, but you could have funny, light-hearted moments and still make it work.

There’s also something of a mixtape quality to that record as well in that it switches between sounds so frequently, going between heartbreak and levity almost immediately.

Tony: That’s something I think we’re both just so against, like similar, similar, similar. We find that so boring.

Robbie: For some reason we just connected with The Beach Boys and their weird ’70s era. Like, there’s songs like “Surf’s Up” which are as deep and beautiful as you can get… And now that I think about it, the Since I Left You cover was our homage to the Surf’s Up cover with the deep blue painting. But then, Brian Wilson would also have these tripped-out songs about vegetables, or these bizarre comedy songs as well…

Tony: I’m not sure he was intending for them to be comedy [laughs].

Robbie: But we just started to draw these connections that you can have these deeply-felt sample-based music styles, and these woozy sounds, and we gradually just found our own thing. Then in the ’90s there were these banging, sample-based records by The Chemical Brothers as well, and it was – the first Daft Punk record as well – just a very fertile time, I think.

“We just started to draw these connections that you can have these deeply-felt sample-based music styles, and these woozy sounds, and we gradually just found our own thing.”

When exactly then did Since I Left You start to form? I’ve heard that it was around 1998 that you first started looking towards a full-length release.

Robbie: 1998 or 1999… It was definitely around then…

Tony: A couple of samples did get repurposed from El Producto. Like, in “Since I Left You”, the main sample was a whole different rap song.

Robbie: That was from our live shows, it wasn’t on El Producto, but it was from that time. That’s what I remember though, it was these kids playing these crazy shows with old samplers, and we had all these samples on floppy disks. Then we kind of paused and this shift sort of happened. Not like, “We’re going to try and make an album now,” but there was all this library of samples that we had from our live shows. We had a big collection to draw upon, and then I guess there was this particular sort of transition where we thought, “We’re not going to have our voices on this record, we’re not going to play instruments. It’s just going to be this beautiful flowing thing.”

And our inspiration, everybody always thought it was like a DJ mix, but our inspiration was What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye, because that just flowed and themes recurred. So we were just like, “Let’s try and do something deep and moving like that. It doesn’t have to have heavy beats.” Like, you’re a kid and hearing a Chemical Brothers record and you’re trying to make a beat as heavy as that, a sampled breakbeat record you realise that’s a whole art form in itself.

So it’s like, “Let’s not try and compete with those guys, let’s try and make something lighter. Let’s just be ourselves! Let’s express ourselves of The Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, and write pop songs.” I was trying to make a song like The Jackson Five when I made “Since I Left You”. Like, “Let’s try and make songs with verses and choruses.” So there’s this shift from this craziness to a deeper expression.

Tony: Robbie had a stint in rehab around that time, and he just came out with a completely fresh [outlook]. I feel the catalyst came from that, and it was like… Even the song, “Since I left you, I found a world so new“, it feels so reflective on his journey of getting over the addiction and all that. I remember going to see him in the rehab clinic, and he had the samples for “Radio”.

Robbie: I had a sampler in there, in the hospital.

Tony: Yeah, I bought you a sampler in there, took you one, and he already had that going, and I was like, “Wow, this is cool!” So that felt like it was starting to be a new direction from there.

Robbie: It was a rebirth, both personally and musically. I was a different person. I had struggled with drinking from when I was really young, like, 14, 15, and then by the time I was 20… Like, I was in intensive care and I nearly didn’t make it. I had a seizure withdrawing from alcohol, because I was drinking so heavily, when I tried to stop [I ended up in hospital]. I didn’t know any of that, so I just woke up in St. Vincent’s, I’d been in intensive care. I was in there for a long time, and I was in the psych ward for a while, I was getting all these brain scans… They didn’t think I’d make it through.

“I remember going to see him in the rehab clinic, and he had the samples for ‘Radio’.”

They stabilised my body quite quickly but they couldn’t bring me ’round. They thought I’d damaged my brain. So after a long stint in hospital and then physical rehab, then I went to an actual rehab. As I got well, I was just so grateful to be out of this cycle I’d been trapped in for probably over five years. I just felt alive for the first time ever, and all the music just kept pouring out. I guess as you get older and you reflect, that is a big part of why the sound changed.

Tony: Robbie just went kind of on a tear. It was like this whole new person, this whole new attitude, and he just went on a tear of creativity. I felt like it didn’t even take that long [for the album to appear]; it was really quick.

That makes sense, because if you look at the fact that such an intricate album arrived in what is effectively just two years, it seems like an awful lot of creativity to be concentrated into that small timeframe.

Tony: It was a big burst, and you hear about these bursts and you read about artists like that, and it’s just [amazing].

Robbie: It was just joy to be alive. There was the melancholy of what I’d experienced, and I was young – I was 21 – and I was drinking spirits around the clock for a couple of years before that, and I was gone for all money. It was like chronic alcoholism already, and I shouldn’t really have made it through, so when I did it was just a pure expression of love to be alive through music.

Tony: It was like a rebirth after a near-death experience.

“I just felt alive for the first time ever, and all the music just kept pouring out. I guess as you get older and you reflect, that is a big part of why the sound changed.”

Robbie: And I was not even thinking about; just pure feeling. Not an intellectualism of the music or the process, it was just love. The melancholy of the experience was in there as well, and the undertones, which makes it a beautiful product. It really did flow really quickly, because I still remember the equipment we were using at the time was so primitive that it took a couple of hours to burn a CD if you wanted to make a demo of what you’d been working on.

So I’d sit there at the end of the day and make a CD and then go for a walk in the evening with my CD Walkman and have a listen to the day’s work. I was getting this feeling like, “This is really special, we should finish this.”

Tony: It was even just the transformation from El Producto where it was all wild and crazy and everything. I remember when Robbie played me “Since I Left You” and he was embarrassed because it was such a departure from what we were doing, and he was like, “Does this sound like a shampoo commercial or something?” And he was almost not going to play it because he thought, “I just don’t know if this is us.” That was the big step from what we were doing, but in the end, that was such a key, defining moment of The Avalanches.

Robbie: I remember saying to the dudes, because we used to play basketball together in the park and I remember they came by to listen to this song I’d made, and I was like, “It might be a bit schmaltzy or something, I’ve been up all night finishing it,” and they were like, “No, we love it!” We had quite a bit of the album by that point, so I said, “Well, maybe we could stick it at the end of the album?” and they were like, “No, that should be the first song and that’s what the album should be called.” I was like, “Really?

What was the lineup of the band like at the time? Obviously there were the both of you and Darren, but who else was there at this point?

Robbie: Yeah, there was us, Darren, and Gordy [Gordon McQuilten]. We were the guys that were like, finding samples and making music. I think technically on the record contract it was us four. And there was a gang for like, when we would play live. It was a funny thing because it was almost like two projects in the end. There was the Since I Left You record, but the only way that we knew how to perform was this crazy…

Tony: Mayhem. And adding in Dexter [Fabay], we were like, “Cool!” I think we added him around the hip-hop phase…

Robbie: He was playing live with us during El Producto, I think.

Tony: Yeah, he did a couple of scratches and was on Recovery with us. So he was doing a lot of scratches, because that was the cool thing at the time.

Robbie: It was funny though, because when Since I Left You came out and we got to play in England, it didn’t really sound like Since I Left You when we played it live because we were still doing it like the punk way.

“We still had the punk thing, and that was either overconfidence or a lack of confidence that made us do that. Whether we just thought that that’s what we have to do, and that’s what we’ve always done…”

Tony: I mean, Since I Left You was such a beautiful record, and we went to V Festival and Kylie Minogue was playing. I remember looking over at her and she was [about five metres] away from me, obviously thinking, “I’m going to see this glorious Australian band that have made this beautiful record,” and the first two songs were like the heaviest punk songs you’ve ever heard. Not on the record, just songs that nobody knew.

Robbie: We were very brash in that way, just like, “We’re going to play these songs that sound cool to us as live music.” Then a couple of songs later she was just gone[laughs].

Tony: We looked across two songs later, and Kylie had left the building [laughs].

“Kylie, come back! It’s get’s better!”

Tony: “We do play ‘Since I Left You’ eventually!” [laughs]

Robbie: But yeah, thinking back to the show we played [at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl], I almost feel like it’s taken us this long to figure out how to perform the songs live and just…

Tony: Just own it. Just own what it all it is.

Robbie: Yeah, and to bring it back to the art form of sampling, which is what the songs really are. And in this new live show, we sort of reveal the source elements and play some of the records that go into making the songs, one by one, and then play the song. That’s probably what we should have always done, but it was just like we were attached to this older way of doing things which was very punk.

Tony: And we did have a very mad energy. All of us together was just a mad energy. So we’d be onstage smashing shit. It wasn’t like a beautiful Since I Left You show. We still had the punk thing, and that was either overconfidence or a lack of confidence that made us do that. Whether we just thought that that’s what we have to do, and that’s what we’ve always done…

Well you can still see some of that in the footage for the Recovery performance, where you’re smashing the records. These days if you look at the comments there, you see people wishing you were sampling those records rather than smashing them.

Tony: They were all crap, it’s okay [laughs].

Robbie: I remember that I started to feel uncomfortable when we toured England. Because we had made this beautiful record, and back then there was not internet, like, CDrs got passed around in the UK and they started getting spread around and people started to get interested in this album, Since I Left You. And remember The Face magazine? They flew out and did this big story on us and saw us play. Then there was this whole, “These crazy fucking’ punk kids do these shows and it’s a riot and everything.”

Then we got to England, and I mean that was true, but we’d only play once every couple of months, so there’d be all this built up energy and then we’d do a mad show. It was like a party, and that would be it. But then we get locked into a proper scheduled tour, and people were coming expecting that every night. It almost became a bit like, “Oh, now we have to go crazy…”

Tony: Like, The Who. He has to smash his guitar. “When’s Pete [Townshend] going to smash his guitar?” Or, “When are they going to explode the drums?”

Robbie: It kind of became unsustainable. It was a natural youthful energy, but when you have to do it night after night and people are expecting it, I started to get uncomfortable.

Tony: The music had shifted from that, too.

Robbie: It wasn’t representing the music any more.

Well by that point, the shows no longer spontaneous, and it’s lost the fun that it once had.

Robbie: Exactly! And the equipment was so old that half the time it wasn’t working properly and we’d be frustrated and excited, and everything would sort of get wrecked in a big shambles because it was very unpredictable.

Tony: You can’t just dial that up, time after time. And I remember that first show we played in Barcelona. It was our first European show ever, and we pretty much smashed everything within ten minutes. The crowd are all going, “Yeah!” but we were also like, “What the fuck is this?” But yeah, I guess as you get older, the calm is nice [laughs].

When it came to making the album, what exactly was the process you were using at time? 

Robbie: We [were on] the Questlove Supreme podcast recently, and that discussion all came down to the simplicity of a process and how that can unleash boundless creativity by having very limited resources. On reflection, that’s what happened for us. But Akai S900 samplers, we had first, then S2000 samplers were what we were changing over to when we made Since I Left You.

Tony: And they just had a lot more memory.

Robbie: The S900, you could have like, eight seconds of music on one floppy. So by the time you have a drum beat and a sample, that was pretty much it. So that was the El Producto era, and that was on floppy disks. So then the S2000s we had floppys, but also zip drives, and that could hold like… One Since I Left You song – and I still remember because I can picture the zip disk – could fir on a zip. So “Frontier Psychiatrist” could fit on one.

And that was a fair bit of stuff for us. It was huge. We were like, “Wow, we can really express ourselves now in detail. Songs can have intros and outros, three different drumbeats, and percussion, and vocal samples, and backing vocal samples.” Now I look back at it and it’s so primitive, but for us, it was amazing. So it was very simple samplers, junk shop records, and a turntable. That was it. No effects units, no EQ, no mixing desk. If we wanted to EQ something, we’d use the filters in the sampler. No delay.

“Now I look back at it and it’s so primitive, but for us, it was amazing.”

Tony: Robbie was using a program called Studio Vision, which just go decommissioned. They stopped making it in 1997. So even then it was old technology in 2000, 1999.

Robbie: And we kept that right up until Wildflower, actually.

Tony: We had the same software, the same computer.

Robbie: And it was that beautiful thing where you get so good at one piece of equipment – like your guitar or a sampler – that you get so quick at using it. It’s hard to explain, but it’s like it becomes invisible. You’re not having to go, “Wait, how do I do this again…?” Thought disappears and it’s just your imagination. And also it’s not like looking at a screen, so you’re just listening and playing in front of the sampler. And we didn’t even have massive record collections – they were just junk store records. You would just find these little magical moments.

That was just the joy of it, you’d wake up, have a cup of coffee, it’d be a morning like this, the sun would be coming in through the window, you’d find a little fragment [of sound], and off you’d go. Then maybe later in the day, someone would come over with what they’d found and the pieces would start to fit together.

Was there any specific sound that you were seeking from these junk store records? Because when you think about how you happen upon these records, it’s amazing that the album could’ve been so different had you stumbled across different samples.

Robbie: It could’ve, but that’s the unspoken thing of how we know – and I guess that comes from a long friendship – what it is. Whereas other sounds will be like, “That’s not us.” How do you know that? You just do, but I think because we were trying to express something through feeling, you know if the sounds you’re finding fit with that feeling or not.

So we weren’t trying to make a ‘cool’ record, or a banging record, or a tough record, or a funky record, or an aggressive record. It’s like, if you’re going for a certain melancholy in that beautiful spot between happy and sad, then you know if the sounds you’re finding fit that. If you’re chasing a feeling, you can find it.

Tony: It’s funny, we had a chat with Mike D on his podcast or Apple show and we were talking about how in Australia, the different records that they would find over there in record shops, and what we would find in record shops, were world’s apart. If we were in New York, it would’ve been a completely different record, just because of what’s there. For us, it was a lot of lounge music, Hawaiian stuff, and strings records and all that sort of stuff.

“We weren’t trying to make a ‘cool’ record, or a banging record, or a tough record, or a funky record, or an aggressive record.”

Robbie: There wasn’t amazing funk and soul records in Australian junk stores.

Tony: And that’s all we could afford, so we couldn’t afford to go to a proper record store.

Robbie: It’s so different for someone like DJ Shadow living in the Bay Area. It’s a whole different world. The music that we were drawn to was this whole era of ’50s music that came out of the States where they were trying to… It was like Martin Denny, all these kind of lounge, exotica records that were made for Americans to have in their backyards to recreate the sound of Hawaii while having a barbecue or a dinner party.

Tony: And it was considered just schmaltzy junk, and that’s the sort of thing where we would find these moments in these records and that became the background to Since I Left You. I guess it gave it that vaguely Latin-y, travel, holiday vibe.

There’s been talk of how it was originally a concept album by the name of Pablo’s Cruise, with a focus on the theme of travel. It does still sort of have that vibe depending how you look at it, but how did it evolve from this concept album to what it eventually became?

Robbie: I think we do what we always do, and I’m glad we did, which is how you have a theme or a concept that gives you the energy to get going. Then because Australia’s so geographically isolated, we were looking out at records from South America, Hawaii. We’d never even travelled, so it was almost like we could draw on these disparate elements, like Californian pop records from the ’60s, and one band that we were sampling was called Pablo’s Cruise.

So that’s what we were going to call the record, and we thought it would be about a guy chasing a girl from port to port around the world, and he was always one step behind. It was going to be this love story which would allow us to use all these exotic sounds. In the end, we didn’t want to make anything so literal, but that was what got us going and it was a fun way to start.

You can definitely still see remnants of that theme in the album still.

Robbie: Yeah, with the ocean liner sounds, the ocean sounds…

Tony: [Singing] “Flight 22 is off to Honolulu.” [laughs].

Looking back at the samples, there’s always been that real discussion about how it’s unclear how many samples are on the album. So if you consider something like that, how the hell does it pass the legal test? There’s a lot of clearance involved, so obviously there’s have to be some grey area there, right?

Tony: Oh, it’s grey [laughs]. It’s massively grey.

Robbie: It’s very grey. I mean, we worked hard on clearing everything. I mean, “Since I Left You” is cleared, that song. And all those big grooves from other records are cleared, but like, every fuckin’ drum hit and bird noise and wave and car crash and horse… You could never…

Tony: It’s impossible to make a record if you’re having to clear a horse noise.

“It’s impossible to make a record if you’re having to clear a horse noise.”

I mean, good luck getting the horse to sign off on “Frontier Psychiatrist”. But there were also a few big samples you managed to clear as well, like the famous Madonna one.

Robbie: Yeah, we got that cleared. It was just a process of, “Okay, these kids made this record and they didn’t really think anyone was going to hear it, so it’s full of samples.” And then it was gradually catching on, and then they were clearing more and more and more as interest grew. And then it’s like, “Oh it’s going to come out in England; this label XL want to put it out.” Then we’re like, “Oh fuck, we can’t.”

So Richard Russell, who owned XL… Well, Madonna wanted to sign The Prodigy – who were just blowing up – to her new label, Maverick, and [The Prodigy] were on XL. So Richard Russell was like, “Cool, cool, but can you clear this ‘Holiday’ sample for this Australian band?” And she was like, “Okay.” So gradually as it got released in England and America, they cleared more and more samples, and it got to the point where it was legit enough.

And Pav, we should mention Steve Pavlovic. From the very beginning, he loved it, and was like, “No, no, people are going to love this, and we should start clearing samples.” He was a big part of getting it out there.

Obviously if you’re starting out and making an album you don’t think anyone will hear, you’re not going to be keeping stock of the samples you’re using, are you?

Robbie: You’re not going to be like, “Oh, are we going to be able to clear this one?”

Tony: We just did not care.

Robbie: That was what was cool about it though – we just made what we wanted to.

Again, if you’re thinking ahead of time if it’s something you can clear, it’ll deeply restrict your creativity.

Tony: That’s what it’s like now. You’ve got to keep that in mind with every song.

Robbie: I remember though that with Since I Left You, we were going back through the floppy disks – because we were like, “What’s that sample?” and go back through the floppy disks – and some were labelled and some weren’t. But now we kind of have to be grown-ups and keep track of what they are as we go.

Tony: And EMI, that we’re on now are a lot more on that kind of thing than Pav was. Because Pav was very, “Nah, it’ll be alright.” Which is cool, but yeah, there’s a lot more attention to samples now than there was back then, because everyone finds everything these days.

Well there’s still a massive search for a lot of samples you guys have used on a lot of online communities.

Robbie: Have you seen that WhoSampled website? How do they find them all? I’ve had a look at it, and I can’t remember who it was, I think it was a Burial album or something, and I was looking at the samples they’d found. It was really weird shit, but I’d look at it and yeah, that really was [the song that was sampled]; they’d found these obscure samples.

But on the topic of clearing samples, there were a handful of different versions of the album as well though, with more samples than others. There’s a promo version which some fans prefer, and then there’s a version of “Frontier Psychiatrist” which has a lot of sampled taken out.

Robbie: Yeah, it’s a comedy duo by these guys Wayne & Shuster from Canada, and they were big in the ’50s, and they’re the guys that say “That boy needs therapy”. We cleared it, it came out, and then whoever owned their estate or whatever disputed it – or maybe we’d only cleared it for Australia, I can’t remember – so there was like, two years where their voices were off it and recreated by actors and it was terrible.

Then we kept working on it behind the scenes and re-cleared it and now it’s back, but there is that version [where it’s not]. But then there’s the original Zomba promo where it’s got the Rogers & Hammerstein sample at the start that we had to take out.

We spoke about the new album last year, and you’d explained how if there was the situation where if you can’t use a sample vital to the track, you’d effectively can it rather than replace the sample since it’s so integral. But in the case of a song that’s already completed, that must be a difficult situation.

Tony: We were just lucky. The record stayed largely intact.

Robbie: But there were a few things we had to leave off that we couldn’t include. I think the record was made as one whole piece without thinking about that, but there were some things – like a song called “With My Baby” – that got left off. But it pretty much still exists today as we made it.

“Certain samples could fuck your project. Or say that your vocal sample is the title of the album, and it’s set up a whole theme and you can’t use it.”

I couldn’t imagine going through and making such a massive body of work and then being told at the end that you can’t use this vital centrepiece.

Robbie: It’s stressful, man. Like, when we were making Wildflower, we got the songs “Subways” and we thought, “Well, what if we can’t use the vocals?”, because that song sort of ties together the first and second half of the record. Certain samples could fuck your project. Or say that your vocal sample is the title of the album, and it’s set up a whole theme and you can’t use it.

I even remember thinking how, because Wildflower took so long, “What if someone else uses the ‘Frankie Sinatra’ sample before we do?”.

Tony: We had “Because I’m Me” for so long, and then Girl Talk put out a song with the same sample and we were like, “We knew this was going to happen! What do we do?” But in classic Avalanches way, we took even longer and longer, so that had kind of died down eventually.

Robbie: I think what happened was that we had found the little kid singing over it that made it really different. But yeah, it’s difficult, and we did have a bit of fear of that sort of thing.

Once you had the album completed, what were your feelings? Did you feel like you’d just made a regular album, or was there any feeling that this was a record which could get some major acclaim down the line?

Tony: I really believed some of the songs were quite special, but I didn’t feel like, “This is going to propel us to some…” Nah, not at all. Like, it came out in Australia and it kind of went okay and then it sort of blew up in England. It came out here in November [of 2000] and then it was all good and everything, and then it came out in England and it was like, top eight or something.

Then I feel like we came back and went so much bigger in Australia. It was kind of like it had to get big over there first, and that used to happen a lot more than it does now, where you get bigger over there first and then you’re accepted in your own country.

Robbie: I remember finishing it and being really… I just loved the process of making it. When it was out, I looked at some songs and thought, “Hmm, this went on a bit long, I could’ve edited this here. Anyway, that doesn’t matter, we’ll make another one soon.” And then it was like, 2005 and my girlfriend at the time said, “You know that people think that that’s a classic record?” And that was the first time I had heard someone say that.

Tony: It really grew in stature.

Robbie: It was time that helped it get bigger. And lots of things have to happen– It was the turn of the millennium, it came out in that summer, and lots of things lead to it sticking in people’s memories. It could’ve come out at a different time and been received differently.

You mentioned Questlove before, and he’s a noted famous fan of the record. Have there been any other big names who have cited the record as one of their favourites?

Robbie: People are always very kind about it, and we’re always surprised that people know who we are. I remember, the most nerve-wracking experience of my life was when the album was out and I would’ve been 23 or 24, and I got flown over to the MTV Europe Awards in Berlin, and I was like, “I don’t want to go”. Got flown there, got straight off the plane, and I was so tired and jet-lagged and had to walk straight down this huge red carpet, and there’s Huey [Morgan] from the Fun Lovin’ Criminals sticking this microphone in my face. I was such a shy kid, and I didn’t know what to say.

Went inside, and it’s this huge tennis stadium – ginormous, full of people – and we were just sitting at the back. Then “Since I left You” won Video of The Year or something and I had to do – what felt like 15 minutes – walk down to the stage and Pink gave us this award. I was so shy, I didn’t know what to say.

Then afterwards, we were sitting backstage and I was just trying to gather myself after this whole overwhelming experience. This dude comes over and he’s like, “Jay wanted to say hi and let you know that he loves the record.” I look up, and over there is Jay-Z and he’s just like [nods head]. He sent someone over to say congratulations and tell us he loves the record [laughs].

Then afterwards I was just like, “Alright, take me back to the hotel so I can go to sleep. This is overwhelming.” That was all a bit much for young Robbie at that point. We hardly ever left Australia and I was a shy kid. Especially if I had to do something without my mates, too.

Tony: It was him and Dexter DJing over there because Darren broke his leg, so we couldn’t go over there and play. So it was just those two.

Now we’ve got the big anniversary edition of the album out in the world…

Tony: It was meant to be the tenth anniversary [laughs].

That was my question. What happened there? I still remember listening to triple j back in 2011 when you announced it.

Robbie: Yeah, it was planned as the tenth, and then it was going to be like, 15 or something. Then Glen [Goetze], who was the A&R guy at Modular, and I worked on it for so long. And it took forever, because Wildflower also took so long as well. Then it was going to come out last November…

Tony: Because of COVID, We Will Always Love You was going to come out in May, and then we were going to have the Since reissue in November, and that felt really good. Then we ended up having to push We Will Always Love You back to December, so we couldn’t release two things at the same time.

I remember going to the ARIAs with Pav back in 2008, and saying, “You wait, the record will be done by the end of the year,” or something like that. I think the ARIAs were in October or something [laughs].

And that was Wildflower you were talking about, right?

Tony: Yeah [laughs]. It felt like it was just around the corner. Which probably kept us from going completely insane, if we knew how long it would really take.

Well things did take a while, but at least we finally have Wildflower and the long-awaited anniversary edition.

Tony: Yeah, and it’s the on the 20th anniversary of the UK release. So… we’ll take that [laughs].

The Avalanches’ deluxe edition of Since I Left You is out now. 

Get unlimited access to the coverage that shapes our culture.
to Rolling Stone magazine
to Rolling Stone magazine