Gut-churning emotional violence, bone cancer, and death don't have to be all boo-hoo and sniff-sniff, you know. That's what Darby Cicci insists, although, in the interests of journalistic semi-integrity, we should maybe back up and provide a little context to his thoughts.
The Antlers' multi-instrumentalist is talking to the Straight about the band's live show, from a van “somewhere in Illinois”. Naturally, the Brooklyn-based three-piece is leaning heavily on its 2009 album Hospice for this tour, but Hospice is no ordinary record.
Written and recorded over two years by guitarist-vocalist Peter Silberman, with Cicci and drummer Michael Lerner getting tractor-beamed into the process along the way, Hospice is a devastating concept piece about an abusive terminal-cancer patient and the caregiver who loves her. Between Silberman's delicate lyrics and wounded-choirboy voice, and perfectly judged musical accompaniment hanging somewhere between lo-fi post-rock, shoegaze, and Neutral Milk Hotel, Hospice is a jaw-dropping success.
Because it's weighted with so much sensitivity, Hospice has also taken on a heavy aura as its reputation has grown, and it's tempting to imagine that Cicci and Lerner were there to lend emotional as much as musical support. Not so, Cicci maintains.
“It wasn't like that,” he says. “I mean, the record's about things that happened a long time ago. There's all these stories about Peter sitting in his room making a record, and it makes it a very melodramatic story, and people get attached to the romanticism of the singer-songwriter character, all alone and sad. People like the myth of that. But it definitely wasn't anything like that. It was mostly made in the summer. We liked to hang out and go to the park and drink 40s. There wasn't any depression going on. It was all fine. That myth is sort of a tired thing, especially across the Elliot Smith and Jeff Buckley eras. Music is generally fun. It's not this depressing experience.”
Indeed, the album's first single, “Bear”, is an overt stab at fashioning a head-rush pop song from tragedy. “Things can be dark, and moody, and beautiful, and still be fun,” Cicci continues, pointing to Brian Wilson's gift for crossing what he calls “pop-culture sensation” and “intense, intelligent composition”. And since he brought it up, there is a distant genetic connection between Pet Sounds and the mutated Latin rhythms of “Shiva” or the soaring melancholy of the track “Wake”.
But Hospice is also an explicitly painful record. Cicci's larger point is that he's simply having a ball bringing the album to life night after night, mostly because the former actor and his bandmates have no interest in religiously trying to re-create it. Along with working up a new song over the course of the tour, and—intriguingly—tinkering with a version of the xx's “VCR”, fans should expect a “livelier” and more improvisational take on the album's songs.
“It's about experiencing it and letting it happen,” Cicci argues, positing that music—like acting—requires the artist to be “in the moment”. “It's about understanding a song, understanding a mood, and just sort of going with it. I think that's really important in music.”
The Antlers play the Biltmore Cabaret on Tuesday (May 4).