The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

CLASSIC ’00s: The Avalanches – ‘Since I Left You’

On the surface of it, the prospect of a six-piece Australian DJ collective spinning tunes sampling The Osmonds, Boney M and Madonna doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that an influential, taste-making classic is made from. However, the musical reality of Since I Left You, released quietly in late 2000 by The Avalanches, was to present the listener with a sonic patchwork that sounded like the greatest mixtape on Earth, featuring familiar strains of every single kind of music imaginable but which resembled something new and revelatory. Not only that, it’s been a touchstone of electronic music in the two decades since, with countless musicians taking inspiration from its dazzling, kaleidoscopic vision and innovative approach to sampling.

The line-up that became The Avalanches gradually took shape through the mid-to-late Nineties in Melbourne, forming out of a noise-punk threesome named Alarm 115 consisting of future core members Robbie Chater, Tony Di Blasi (both keyboards) and Darren Seltmann (vocals). Part of their evolving aesthetic was the use of second-hand records, and these became the basis for the group’s future direction after percussionist Manabu Etoh was deported from the country, thus precluding Alarm 115. Gradually adding another keyboardist in Gordon McQuilten, competition-winning DJ Dexter Fabay and turntablist James Dela Cruz over the years, their 1997 EP El Producto caught the attention of national indie Modular Recordings. From mid-1998 onwards, the six began the diligent, methodical but inspired work on what would become Since I Left You, selecting, assembling and mixing what was at the time rumoured to be around 3,500 samples (more likely to be around 900, but still!).

By the second half of 2000, word was beginning to get out about The Avalanches, but all they had to their name by that point was three highly limited edition EPs, a small handful of live appearances supporting other artists and a remix for Badly Drawn Boy. To combat piracy and generate publicity, Chater made public a short mixtape titled Gimix, previewing some of the new tracks in brief alongside live favourites before Since I Left You was released in Australia in November 2000.

The American and European publics at large didn’t get to hear Since I Left You until mid-2001, and then in slightly altered form as a result of delays in order to obtain permissions for samples, and to record replacements if they were refused. Chater and Seltmann had begun work on the project with the mindset that “no-one’s going to listen to it anyway”, not planning for any kind of conventional release let alone a wide international one. Therefore, they didn’t keep track of what they had sampled as they proceeded, meaning the whole morass had to be painstakingly unpicked in order to gain legal clearance.

The wait, however, was worth it. Entering the UK Top Ten in its first week on sale in April 2001, Since I Left You moved nearly a quarter of a million copies in just a few months, and was lavished with praise from professional music critics and casual music fans alike. For good reason, too. The Avalanches presented us with arguably the final word in sample culture, filtering disparate genres from soul, disco, Daisy Age hip-hop and jazz to all manner of pop culture detritus, from mainstream Eighties pop, film soundtracks to resolutely unfashionable novelty pop, lounge music and ‘50s ballads from the likes of Debbie Reynolds. This incredibly detailed, constantly shifting pattern was set to a backdrop of the hiss and crackle of vinyl and the breezy sounds of flutes, providing a constant thread tying the 18 tracks together.

Music video for ‘Since I Left You’

In contrast to the kind of big beat dance music that had been dominating the Nineties, The Avalanches wanted to present a different kind of vision for the genre, one more reminiscent of classic Sixties sunshine pop like Phil Spector and The Beach Boys rather than the hard beats and loud bass of house music. In this endeavour, they were astonishingly successful. The heart-bursting joy of the opener and lead single ‘Since I Left You’ is the perfect Avalanches mission statement. An unknown man tells you “welcome to paradise”, before sighing trills of woodwind and strings and gauzy, ecstatic vocals bear the track up. ‘Since I Left You’ could have seemed ironic, detached and glib in less-skilled hands, but with The Avalanches, it’s as pure an expression of loveliness in music as you’re ever likely to hear.

In a stroke, that track also destroys the lazily followed concept that sample-based dance records necessarily require booming, dancefloor beats. Since I Left You integrates its samples in an immersive, textured sound-bed, as opposed to simply slapping them on top of a beat. In doing so, it fulfills the original promise of the very art form of sampling itself, of wringing glorious new sounds through the repurposing and arranging of old ones. The presence of damn near a thousand different samples – some of them prominent and serving as the main arteries of tracks, many others heard in mere snatches and seconds – suggests The Avalanches were engaging in some kind of riotous blowout, but Since I Left You is in fact an extremely disciplined exercise. It simply wouldn’t work if it wasn’t.

That opening salvo settles (or rather, doesn’t) into a lively carousel of stylish, well-executed ideas that keep the listener’s imagination fired and limbs moving. ‘Stay Another Season’ acts a coda to ‘Since I Left You’, sampling Madonna’s ‘Holiday’ and thus representing the first time ever that she cleared her music for use in this way. High points are so consistently reached that it’s pointless diving in to describe all of them, but the daft, Disney-esque fantasia of the opening bars of ‘Two Hearts In ¾ Time’, the body slamming beat of ‘Electricity’, the mellow funk of the Isley Brothers-appropriating ‘Close To You’ and the kinetic dancefloor shuffle of ‘Live At Dominoes’ represent some of the key sonic topographical features in this album’s wondrous landscape. Even woozy cocktail-jazz interludes like ‘Tonight’ or the simplistic, luxuriant ‘Little Journey’ work as bridging moments.

Music video for ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’

The carefully selected positioning of ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ just into its second half is a masterstroke. A stylish, deft and endlessly amusing Frankenstein’s Monster of a track, based primarily on a blaring Bert Kaempfert brass riff, it was probably the track that most people associated with the album and The Avalanches themselves at the time, interpreted as a kind of novelty song by the industry. However, underneath the swooping, hundred-mile-an-hour blur of samples, ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ is an absolutely perfect expression of the joy of crate-digging – you imagine that the snatch of dialogue saying “Dexter is criminally insane” must have been a wonderful discovery for a band with a member called Dexter. It’s also a concise microcosm of Since I Left You at large: a mish-mash of countless, seemingly unconnected parts resolved, somehow, into a coherent whole.

From this point on, the longer, mellower tracks are weighted into the back-end of the record. In these pieces, like the lackadaisical hip-hop of ‘Etoh’ and its sun-drenched coda ‘Summer Crane’, the Avalanches let up the hectic pace at which they’ve been jumping from one idea to the next. Instead, they allow the listener to truly immerse themselves, allowing those sparks of creativity to smoulder a bit longer. By the time the dreamy closer ‘Extra Kings’ reaches its final minutes, a very similar vocal sample to the one from ‘Since I Left You’ fades into the mix, seeming to bring the entire experience full circle, back to where it started.

The enduring marvel of Since I Left You is one of engineering at it finest. At no point during this hour-long listening experience do The Avalanches draw attention to the nature of its creation, which, considering the enormous number of disparate samples, is borderline miraculous. Along with DJ Shadow’s mighty Endtroducing….., it stands as the definitive artistic statement in the niche (but influential) art-form of plunderphonica, influencing countless subsequent artists in the two decades since.

The Avalanches themselves didn’t begin work on a follow-up to Since I Left You until 2005, after which ill-health, the departure of founding member Darren Seltmann, various side-projects and general development hell conspired to delay its progress for over a decade. Finally, in July of 2016, just over fifteen years after its predecessor, Wildflower arrived. While it could never hope to replicate the nature of Since I Left You’s success, it was a more than worthwhile undertaking. At the time of writing, their third album We Will Always Love You is being prepared for release in December 2020, its list of guest contributors both impressive and promising a Gorillaz-style genre blowout. One suspects, however, that nothing will ever come close to the significance of their 2000 debut.

Listen to Since I Left You by The Avalanches here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

Influenced: 2manydj’s, Gorillaz, Basement Jaxx, The Go! Team, Lemon Jelly, Bibio, Four Tet, J Dilla, MF Doom, Caribou, Mount Kimbie, Gold Panda, James Blake, Jon Hopkins, Air France, D.D. Dumbo, Superorganism, BADBADNOTGOOD

Influenced by: A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Beastie Boys, Saint Etienne, Primal Scream, David Holmes, The Chemical Brothers, DJ Shadow, Boards Of Canada

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