The Avalanches' teenage obsessions: 'I cried hearing Strawberry Fields Forever'

Interview Rhi Storer
·6-min read

Tony Di Blasi

My first guitar

When I went to high school we had one free term of extracurricular activities – I chose guitar. I wouldn’t say it was like a Harry Potter moment with his wand, but I just found playing guitar really enjoyable. I remember looking at all the other kids struggling with the timing of learning songs or fingering chords, and thinking: “I understand this really easily!”

The first thing I learned to play was House of the Rising Sun; I still to this day play that song if I have to tune my guitar by ear since you can use the whole six strings. I used to sleep with that guitar and go into the bathroom and play it because of the beautiful acoustics.

Getting that guitar changed my life because from that moment I knew it was what I wanted to do. But my parents hated it from the moment I said: “I’m going to be in a band, and I’m going to be a rock star,” and that I didn’t give one shit about school. I used to wag so much of it. I just knew what I was going to do with my life, and that was it!

Mongoose BMX

I had this awesome 80s fully chrome Mongoose with red Araya rims and tires. These were the coolest shit you could find. Not all the kids, but us “cool kids” had these bikes. We would just ride around and cycle to a place called Oakleigh Pools. It was like an 80s movie – everyone in the area would congregate there during summer.

Oakleigh had two different gangs and they’d have their own seating areas. I’m half Italian and half Australian, so I was always thinking: “Well, where do I fit in?”

The pool had this amazing 10-metre tower. You were allowed to dive off, or do backflips, but you weren’t allowed to just jump in. We used to sneak to these pools, sit on the tower, wait for a lifeguard to turn around and jump in. If you got caught, you got kicked out. And, of course, no sunscreen at all back then – we didn’t even learn about those things.

Mixtape of the Beatles

My sister had had a Beatles mixtape since she got into psychedelic music. I think during the 80s there was a bit of a hippy revival, people were wearing flares again. Before that, I was into Duran Duran and Madonna – I had heard of the Beatles, but it was just stuff that popular radio would play.

I remember putting it on through my dad’s Pioneer hi-fi system. I had my headphones on, listening to Strawberry Fields Forever for the first time, and I cried. I’m not joking! That was the first time I realised: this is what music can feel like. That just changed my whole direction of what music was about. Even now, whenever we talk about anything music-related with our band, it’s all about the feel of it – and going back to the first moment when I could remember that.

Robbie Chater

Pump Up the Volume

I grew up in the city [Melbourne] but then we moved to the country for my teenage years. I don’t know how this video ended up in this little country-town video store, but it did. I discovered it randomly and I watched it over and over again.

The film is about an illegal pirate radio station where Christian Slater’s character would broadcast to the neighbourhood. It blew my mind, the whole concept of being a DJ, playing cool underground music, and pissing off your parents.

Christian Slater in Pump Up the Volume, 1990.
Christian Slater in Pump Up the Volume, 1990. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

The film had one song that really fascinated me – Titanium Exposé by Sonic Youth – but I think it was abridged. After watching the film I rode away to a record store in Melbourne and bought the seven-inch of that song and that was my first introduction to cool music. I just played it over and over and over again. Through that music, I discovered the Pixies and Henry Rollins and a whole bunch of bands like that.

When we made the Wildflower (2016) album, we made a video collage to go along with it called The Was. We sampled some of Pump Up the Volume, so it was nice that it kind of came full circle.

Tascam cassette Portastudio

This is very old school. I remember it was left at my teenage home by a family friend. I’d record on a normal cassette tape, but the Tascam could split the tape into four tracks – it was like a home multitrack recorder.

I dived straight into it and this is where I first learned about recording. I would layer sounds, almost like a primitive sampler. I spent a bunch of my teenage years in this country town, smoking dope and playing around with the Tascam, probably the same way that Tony did with his guitar.

It was all about how to manipulate sound. And by the time Tony moved up to that country town for his last year of high school – that’s where I met him – we started making demos on this Tascam. He was already super into music like me. So it’s just a cool clunky old piece of gear that changed my life.

‘The Smiths made me dream about what England would be like.’
‘The Smiths made me dream about what England would be like.’ Photograph: Sheila Rock/REX/Shutterstock

The Smiths

People may think: “Oh whatever, it’s just British music.” But to me the Smiths were this strange, mysterious music from this faraway place. This was pre-internet, remember. NME used to arrive in Australia a month late, so I would read the old issues and see all these British bands like the Jesus and Mary Chain. But I’d never heard music with such atmosphere and gloom and just that sad teenage melancholy.

As a kid in this country town I felt quite disconnected from life there, and felt like I didn’t fit in. The Smiths made me dream about what England would be like, and think: “I want to go there one day and be a musician.” I remember thinking: get me out of this country. And I just wanted to go there, where all this great music comes from, and where people will appreciate music.

I didn’t get to see the Smiths growing up but I did see Morrissey play at Summer Sonic in Japan in 2002. He was on stage after us – we were performing to 10,000 kids in this hot sweaty shed at the height of the Japanese summer.

We finished and the crowd cleared out completely. Morrissey then started to play, but no one was there. I was standing at the side of the stage and I felt terrible. He looked a bit upset. What had happened was there was a mixup with scheduling, and for some reason they were stopping the Morrissey fans coming in until every last person had left our set. Morrissey was about two songs in at this point.

The festival management clocked on what was happening and soon let everybody in. There were thousands of kids screaming, running towards the stage, holding daffodils and throwing them. The whole mood lifted and Morrissey must have realised: “No, these people were really waiting there to see me.” It was just this beautiful moment for everybody; he breathed a big sigh of relief and played quite a beautiful sunset.

• The Avalanches’ new album, We Will Always Love You, is released 11 December on EMI