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Drift Driving

Revisiting the oceanic origin and enduring relevance of The Antlers’ Undersea on the EP’s tenth birthday.

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So I feel much different
So confused
So I feel refracted…
Split in twenty-two
So I’m really here now
In a place and time,
Though I know I might not be on another side
—“Endless Ladder”

January 2012: Perhaps it was how seriously Peter Silberman and his bandmates were taking their judging of a belly-flop contest aboard the Weezer Cruise that the sheer absurdity of the moment, and indeed the prior few years of nonstop tour life, finally dawned on The Antlers’ founder, singer, and principal songwriter.

Beginning with the release of their fourth album, Burst Apart, in May 2011, the band had found themselves on a bewildering upward trajectory. Their previous record, the raw and unnerving Hospice, had been their critical breakthrough, but it was Burst Apart’s more polished sound that saw them pack theaters around the world and appear on The Tonight Show. Consider, then, their predicament: enlisted to perform for a couple thousand drunk and sunburnt Weezer fanatics while aboard a hulking cruise ship off the coast of Mexico—part of a four-day-long bacchanal. 

Yet only days after disembarking in a sea-legged haze of salt air and leftover party goods, The Antlers—Silberman, drummer Michael Lerner, multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci, and guitarist Tim Mislock—slipped into their small Brooklyn studio to begin sessions for what would become their true masterpiece: Undersea.

At just over 20 minutes and composed of only four songs that spiral out like one symphonic movement, Undersea remains an utterly singular piece of music, as beautiful and strange a recording as has been released this century, drawing upon genres as disparate as ambient, jazz, R&B, and electronica. The result is a cocktail of soaking-wet psychedelia—one part space rock and two parts funeral music by way of shipwreck. And it’s clear from the jump that the listener is strapping in for something radically transformative. 

As recording for the EP began, ideas came together quickly. Traditional models of song structure were discarded and replaced with mind-bending, anticlimactic builds. Guitars were fed through filters, then chopped up and reassembled into unrecognizable shards. 

“Thematically, we were still out to sea,” Silberman says. “The music was reflecting that.”

Silberman had intended Undersea to be a watery vessel for reflecting on the more surreal and disorienting effects of tour life. Yet it wasn’t until the EP’s mastering stage that it dawned on him and the rest of the band how deeply the underwater concept had permeated their collective membranes. 

For the cover art, the band selected a picture of a diver in an ancient suit, pulled from an archival US Navy reel, which they then distorted to great effect. “It wasn’t clear if he was reaching for help or letting himself go,” says Cicci. “That ambiguity caught [our] attention.”

Ten years on, part of Undersea’s enduring qualities lie in its explorations of themes of disillusionment and unreality that are as apropos as ever. “That sort of radical change can be extremely destabilizing,” says Silberman. “At the time, that was happening for me personally, but it’s global now.” 

Toby L., cofounder of The Antlers’ UK record label, adds, “The EP is about attempting to find points of connection with each other and in ourselves, and how sometimes there’s an unavoidable ocean expanse between us all. It’s probably a more helpful and healing tonic for the human race [now] than it was back then.”

In all the madness of the past few years, the ocean has remained that stabilizing force in our lives, the place we can seek refuge and find joy. Just like with music, we cling to it, need it, are consumed by the feelings of escape and release that it provides. As Silberman so appropriately sings on “Drift Drive,” the opening track, “Diving in late at night/ We come together/ Dissolving into a million pieces in a billion places.” 

Even as it pulls us ever down into the deep, the ocean always has the power to heal.

[Feature Photo: The Antlers’ Undersea EP cover art, the image pulled from an archival US Navy reel.]