Concept albums are naff, received wisdom states. They’re the domain of longhaired dinosaurs, writing delusional, overwrought epics about dull mythology. But then, I suppose, it depends on your concept. Sufjan Stevens made it work by taking the mundane and elevating it (apologies to Michigan and Illinois residents). Peter Silberman and The Antlers, on the other hand, chose the biggest, weightiest concept there is. Death. Or dying, and how it’s done in the modern world, in a bed, attached to alien machines in an unfamiliar place. Over ten beautifully sad, atmospheric songs, Hospice traces out stories that will hit close to home with very many people. It’s a work of astonishing ambition, almost reminiscent of a great novel in scope, but, just like In The Aeroplane Over The Sea before it, dizzying lyrical weight doesn’t make it any less eminently listenable. When we caught up with Peter Silberman, we were a little surprised at how friendly and easy-going he was, given all the noted scale and darkness of his album. It’s not the first time someone’s thought that, though, gladly.
Can you explain a little bit about what Hospice is about?
Well, it’s basically the story of a hospice worker and a dying cancer patient, or that’s the framework for it. It’s also about a relationship, the hospice is just the starting point for all these songs about this relationship, dysfunctional I suppose, and its sort of slow decline into manipulation and guilt, and all the things that tie into that.
So it’s more about love than death?
Yeah, but not on the positive side of love. It’s more about falling out of love, and the difficulties of it.
The way it’s put together, each song as a different sketch or viewpoint, is very literary. How did you come to write it in the form that it’s in?
The record started with the name, really. It sort of documents a certain period of my life, which coined with the end of a relationship. I just started coming up with all these ideas based around the idea of a hospice. It came about in a weird way. I wrote a lot of lyrics with the hospice as the centre-piece, and from there I was fitting them to melody lines, and instead of just taking one and using that, I decided to use them all. They have different contexts, like the melody that’s in Bear and also in Epilogue. The rest of the songs were designed around the story or plotline that started to emerge, as the characters started to emerge and their stories had to be respected. It was weird when we were writing it, because we recorded them all simultaneously, and it felt for a long time like we had huge plot holes that were unresolved. But I’m really happy with how it came out.
It’s quite emotionally heavy, given the subject matter. Were you worried it’d be hard on the listener?
Well, I think it’s an honest record, and we made a conscious effort not to dull it down or obscure too much of the personal detail. I didn’t want to make something dulled down, and for that reason it can be kind of uncomfortable. Like, especially when we tour, it’s something that has to be confronted, and I suppose confronted in different ways as you go on. But that’s what reality is. It’s like the scars from surgery.
Yeah, I was wondering how the album plays live.
It’s different for sure. The songs are changed a little live, to make it into more of a live show. I suppose we try to make it bigger, and put more focus on the sound rather than on what’s actually being said. Because I mean, from personal experience, you don’t really hear the lyrics that well anyway in a live show, or especially not the first time you see a band play. I feel like, if you know the words, you’ll follow them, but even then it’s not really the same. So we go for the mood and feeling of the record, rather than an exact live version.
You must meet people who have quite a deep connection with the album when you’re touring. Do you ever feel pressure to be a sombre person all the time?
Yeah, well not so much a pressure to be sombre, but I think people expect me to be a sad or a serious person, and I’m not like that really. I’m quite a positive person. I’m doing what I love, so I try to remember that and it puts me in quite a positive place.
Is there anyone making music at the moment that you think share your motivations or goals?
Yeah, I don’t know about goals, but when we toured with Frightened Rabbit, it felt like we connected with them a lot. Obviously they’re a lot further down the road than we are, they’ve got a couple of records out and we’re really only on our first record. But I mean, we shared stories and got to know each other on the road. I guess they’re kind of relatable, maybe in the attention they pay to story in their lyrics.
Is the concept album something you want to do again on your next record?
We’ve been writing bits and pieces, but really we’ve been busy touring since the last record, so we haven’t got a chance to sit down and really work on anything. I’m not sure where it’s going at this point, but I don’t know, maybe not a story, but a central theme or something? So maybe a concept album, but not a narrative story like the last album.
The Antlers’ Hospice is out now on !K7 Records. Their first Dublin gig hits the Academy 2 on December 4th, tickets are priced €12.50.
Words: Karl McDonald