Frontier Psychiatrist (The Avalanches)

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A certain generation will bang on about ‘today’s music’ not being anything original, well back in 2001 they may have had a point if they’d heard the new debut album, Since I Left You by the Avalanches which comprised totally of samples.

The Avalanches were originally called the Alarm 115 when they got together in Melbourne in 1994 and were Robbie Chater and Darren Seltmann . Their first four shows were performed under the variously named bands Swinging Monkey Cocks, Quentin’s Brittle Bones, and Whoops Downs Syndrome. It was at their fifth gig that they chose the name the Avalanches taken from an obscure 60s surfing song called Ski Surfing with the Avalanches by an American band with the same name.

By 1995 they were fed up playing punk music to small audiences and so they recruited Tony Diblasi, Gordon McQuilten and DJ Dexter Fabay to create sample-driven music leaning towards funk. “Our music is about finding the beauty in what people throw away,” described by Chater, “A lot of sample based music is really lazy and I guess we have a point to prove and want to put it on a par with traditional songwriting.”

The debut single, the title track, reached number 16 in April 2001. Q magazine described it as ‘The most dazzling record of its kind since DJ Shadow’s Entroducing some five years earlier. The Austin Chronicle in Texas claimed it was ‘hands down the best example of the sheer giddy pleasure of turntablist art you’ve likely ever heard’. Matthew Horton, said in his book 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, ‘It is microcosm—busy, daft, composed of countless unconnected parts, yet somehow entirely natural as a whole.’

Some ‘samples’ on the album came about by accident, Robbie explained, “I guess the last six months, once we had sort of finished the main part of recording, we went back and listened to what we had, and there’s lots of great little moments that we thought maybe should be on there, and they ended up being bridges between the tracks, even if they weren’t finished songs. Frontier Psychiatrist was a good example of something we didn’t plan and just happened from us just fucking around.”

Frontier Psychiatrist starts with horse neighing noises followed by dialogue which comes from the John Waters film Polyester, followed by Maurice Jarre’s overture from Lawrence of Arabia. Other verbs came from Canadian comedians Wayne and Shuster. “They used to appear on the Ed Sullivan show in the US.” remembered Chater, “I have an old spoken word comedy record of theirs and it has a track/sketch called Frontier Psychiatrist. The plot of this is an outlaw who comes into town and shoots people, the Frontier Psychiatrist intervenes, cures the outlaws neuroses, so he is a “well adjusted cowboy”. The outlaw leaves the saloon greeting everyone cheerfully instead of shooting them, and then the Sheriff shoots him. The psychiatrist questions why the Sheriff shot him, and whole cycle begins again.” There is a parrot in there too. DJ Dexter reveals where the parrot came from, “It was a record by a Christian lady who talks about finding religion through animals. It’s actually her doing the voice of a parrot.” All of this is set to an orchestral background plucked from obscurity and features the Enoch Light version of the composition My Way of Life from 1968 and was composed by Bert Kaempfert, Herbert Rehbein and Carl Sigman.

The album was produced by Bobbydazzler which was an alias for Robbie Chater and Darren Seltmann. Only the comedians and the parrot were credited on the album sleeve but I can reveal the other uncredited samples include golfing instructions, Christianity records and Reading for the Blind tapes.

The song’s video was directed by Kuntz and Maguire and features various characters re-enacting and playing various elements of the track, including vocal samples, violins, horns and drums.

Their sound impressed many artists who willingly gave their permission for their music to be sampled, this included Madonna who let them use a riff from Holiday and Jimmy Webb for By The Time I Get To Phoenix.  The Manic Street Preachers and Badly Drawn Boy have both commissioned the boys to remix their tracks and in the early days, they supported Public Enemy at a concert in Australia and that was enough for Flavor Flav from the group to take them under his wing and manage them properly.

They’ve never been forthcoming with too much new product although they did announce in 2007 that they had recorded approximately 40 new tracks and were very hip-hop based. At the beginning of 2012 a few musician who had been working with the band had revealed on their own Twitter accounts what they had been doing and once of the tracks was Called Frank Sinatra, although it has yet to materialise.

However in August 2012, a demo of a new track entitled A Cowboy Overflow of the Heart was released and it featured the musician David Berman reading a poem he composed over music by The Avalanches.

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