No band has struggled with difficult-second-album syndrome quite as much as Australian DJ crew The Avalanches. Having kicked off the new millennium releasing one of the most striking pieces of high-concept pop, patchworked from some 3,000 individual samples, they toured the world, won themselves cult status with a die-hard contingent of fans, and then promptly disappeared. Now, 16 years later they’ve resurfaced without their most prominent member or their original record label, but somehow clutching a follow-up worthy of a delay that lasted four whole election cycles.
The story of the band’s own struggle has been told extensively elsewhere, but mostly overlooked have been Hopkins and his business partner Axel Moline, who spent the best part of the last decade creating the campaign visuals and record covers for this strangely-fated comeback album, chopping and changing direction on a regular basis until they reached the aesthetically and conceptually cohesive version of Wildflower that many of us have come to know and love these past few months. In the intervening years they also established their own agency, Lost Art, that found favor with Apple, MTV, and more of the biggest names in global music.
Before he became embroiled with The Avalanches, Hopkins variously worked for a large Australian advertising agency, as a freelance illustrator, graphic designer for several Japanese fashion brands, and as a co-creator of illustrated zines with his partner, illustrator Emi Ueoka. It’s not hard to see how his creative polymathy would have proved attractive to The Avalanches’ Darren Seltmann, who in 2006 contacted him to come and make a video for the band.
“When Darren first contacted me,” says Melbourne-based designer Chris Hopkins, “George W. Bush was still president.”
“At the time,” says Hopkins, “the idea was for the record to accompany a feature-length animation. It was going to be called Blueberry Sky, so I came on board to help realize that project.
“I spent the best part of two years doing story boards; I met with some animation studios and spoke to some places in Korea that could do the type of hand-drawn thing we were looking for. It’s really expensive, and we didn’t really ever get the funding we needed to get past a conceptual stage. We published four copies of a hard-bound book which explained all the conceptual work to try to secure funding, but it was just a little bit too ambitious—although I think many of the ideas live in the work that did make it”—the epic video montage produced by Soda Jerk, The Was.
The Was by Soda_Jerk & The Avalanches, Post-production: Soda_Jerk & Al Smithee, Additional production: Chris Hopkins & Al Smithee, Design: Chris Hopkins, Music: The Avalanches [Contribution of Chris Hopkins independent of Lost Art]
Hopkins was working in Japan when the project began, at times flying back and forth between Tokyo and Melbourne to collaborate closely with the band. He and Avalanches member Robbie Chater worked well together, and the project seemed to be gaining momentum. Then he returned to Melbourne permanently, and things started to flounder. Seltmann jumped ship, Chater spent three years battling an auto-immune condition, and to complicate things further, the legal procedure for acquiring the rights to each sample used on the record ground to a halt. Then Modular Recordings, the band’s record label, were bought out by Universal Music.
“I just stuck around, and every year we thought the record was coming out—every year was going to be the year. It’s just crazy that it actually happened.”
While the fans waited, speculative commentary on forums concluded that The Avalanches had fallen foul of their own stubborn perfectionism and were thus painfully slow to create new tracks. But much of the music Hopkins was working with back in 2007 still appears on the final version of the album. “It was a different record back then,” he says, “but yeah, a bunch of the songs are on the current record, and stuff like Frankie Sinatra was basically there.”
So what was Hopkins doing for a decade? Didn’t he lose his mind trying to create work for a project with constantly shifting goalposts?
“Everybody just kind of did what we had to do to try and make something. It was exhausting, though. So much work has been done, and the stuff that’s out in the world is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s versions and versions and versions of the album cover and the animations that are not like the final one—with different music and different visuals—but they just weren’t right. But that’s kind of how the record stuff was too. The stuff that made it into the world just happens to be the stuff that was there when the records came in, you know?”
After such a protracted gestation period the rights were finally cleared and XL took the record on for release. Once contracts were inked Hopkins and Moline suddenly found themselves with deadlines to hit. Tight ones.
“You spend a long time concepting stuff. You have ideas, and then, it’s like, ‘Hey, the record is going ahead,’ and then suddenly you have a month or something to realize it. I had a few flags made of the record cover to see how they looked, and you get stuff back, and it’s always completely underwhelming. Then you go: ‘Well, shit, maybe the album cover shouldn’t be a flag. Maybe I need to find someone who does quilting and patchworking and that’s going to give it more of that flag feeling than it actually being a flag.’ Before you know it, you’re down some rabbit hole, researching quilters and people who do patchwork, and trying to make it happen, and everybody else is off doing music in their own kind of panic as well. But I just think that a record cover and all that stuff is never perfect.”
Maybe not, but the attention to detail in Wildflower comes pretty close.