Concept & Catharsis: Antlers' Peter Silberman On Hospice

Words and interview by Michael Cranston
Photos by Ben Ritter

A month after releasing his fantastic Hospice LP, we spoke to Peter Silberman, the brainchild of The Antlers, from his bedroom in Brooklyn. I’m inexplicably nervous and consequently overuse the words "like" and "fuck." Silberman is soft-spoken and modest (but grateful) regarding his band’s influx of media attention from the likes of NPR, The Wall Street Journal and Pitchfork. "But the album is, like, so fucking great," I tell him, and I’m not lying.

Hospice played on repeat as I followed the storyline like a lit student writing a dissertation. Hospice, a story about a helpless and emotionally devastated boyfriend as he watches his girlfriend die in a hospice, unfolds with incredible precision, accomplishing a deep poignancy. Speaking with Silberman, my questions constantly lingered in the area between critic and fan: the former trying to exercise restraint and formulate intelligent questions, and the latter, just wanting to tell him my own interpretations of Hospice. “I don’t want to decide for anyone what it’s about,” he says, and that’s probably for the best.

Antlers - "Two"

When did the concept for Hospice begin?
The first idea for a song came in May of 2007, right after self-releasing the record In the Attic of the Universe. Right after that, I started getting ideas for these songs and they were all sounding the same – the same subject matter, and the same melodies, they were all coming from the exact same place, and turning into variations of one another.

The first song I wrote was the last song [on Hospice] “Epilogue”.

That’s interesting that “Epilogue” was written before the others.
I wrote it in my head, which I’ve never done before. Usually, I have to have a guitar, in my bedroom and sing it to myself and play along with it … I was actually on a train when I started thinking about the lyrics and then the melody was in my head too, but I’m surprised I remembered it because I have very bad short-term memory, and have forgotten so many songs that are lost forever. This one I managed to remember and (turn) into something once I got to wherever it was that I was going.

When did the actual story line of Hospice emerge?
Well, it’s hard for me to figure out how that happened. The album is based on something that happened right before I began writing it. But the way it came together as a story and what the story turned into, it took a lot of organizing and a lot of working with it and trying to make sure the plot was coherent, that certain details were included, and making sure the way the story was playing out in my head translated to what it became in the record.

Why did it take so long?
I don’t usually demo songs … I would be recording parts of songs, then cutting them out and re-recording other parts of the song on top of it. So there’s some instruments being played that were recorded a year and a half apart from one another. There might be a bit of accordion on one song as one of the first things recorded on the song, and there are things put on a year and half later as a result of piling things on top of each other and weeding some out and re-recording others.

Did you record mostly in a studio?
I’d love to call it a studio, but it’s basically a computer – Pro Tools with an M-Box and two microphones, not necessarily the microphones I should have been using from a recording standpoint, not really any of the hardware I should have been using if I was legitimately trying to record an album. (Laughs.) On the next one, we’ll try to upgrade a little bit.

When reading the plot line, it’s difficult to know at times who is speaking. Is this deliberate?
I realized while I was writing it that it might not be clear who was being addressed. Pretty much, at all points throughout the story, it’s the narrator speaking, with the exception of “Thirteen” where Sylvia is speaking.

When I reviewed the album, I referred to two characters – The Narrator and the Patient.
Well, there is one other one that is the least introduced or obvious, it’s the most confusing point.

Are you willing to reveal that character?
Well, that character doesn’t have a name but in “Wake” it’s not Sylvia who’s being spoken to, it’s a friend being spoken to after the Narrator emerges from a situation.

Can you elaborate more on “Wake”?
The first half of that song is the narrator speaking to his friend, kind of atoning, apologizing. The second half, the “don’t be scared to speak” part, is the narrator talking to himself and talking to anyone.

Antlers - "Wake"

Is there one song that best captures the album’s mood?
It’s a tough call because I have a different relationship with the songs now than when I was writing them. They’re all songs that are really close to me – as far as the song that’s closest to my life now, probably it’s “Wake." It’s kind of the liberation.

“Wake” feels like the end of the story too; I was surprised it didn’t end the album.
Well it came close, but I always knew “Epilogue” would (end it). I listened to “Wake” and thought it felt like the end of the album, but not the end of the story – the things I’m talking about in “Epilogue” are really the ellipsis at the end. I felt like that needed to be the end because it’s what happens after the story is over.

You mentioned your changing relationship with these songs, how has your relationship changed considering the attention to the album?
It’s the strangest experience of my life because I thought about the possibility of that happening but it wasn’t something I could recognize. I decided at the beginning of the recording [that] I wasn’t going to go into detail as to what the album is about.

Do you think you’ll ever delve into that detail?
I’ve been thinking of it a lot lately, and trying to decide whether I’ll ever go into detail about the album is about, and what way it’s based on my life. I mean, it’s obnoxious of myself to be referring to things so vaguely.

Basically, what I would say the album is about, I would say this for the sake of anyone who would listen to it, it’s about an experience I had in a very emotionally abusive relationship and the pulling myself out of that, and the effect that it had on my life at the time.

So why analogize that through a hospice?
A hospice can be representative of what emotional and psychological abuse can do. Let’s say as a hospice worker, you’re taking a lot of verbal abuse from someone who is dying, cause they’re, absolutely and rightfully so, bitter about what’s happening and feeling like it’s completely unfair, which it most obviously is. And you’re in the position of feeling like you have no right to complain about your situation because it’s so much worse for them. So you think the least I can do is give them a punching bag.

What’s the attention been like in the past month? Is it validating?
It’s surreal. It’s been a strong response, and extremely encouraging. It’s more than I could have ever hoped for, it does feel validating, it’s overwhelming, for sure, and it feels like things are moving in a new direction. It’s a dream come true, I’ve never been happier than I am right now.

Were there other concept albums that influenced the direction of Hospice?
A huge influence on me was In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It was a life-changing record, as I’m sure a lot of people say it is. It’s responsible for a lot of decision in my life.

I can agree with you on that one.
There is so much happening lyrically, the story is so chilling.

Anything else you want to mention?
… As far as concept albums, The Soft Bulletin was a big one. Make sure you include something about The Soft Bulletin. (Laughs)

Concept & Catharsis: Antlers' Peter Silberman On Hospice