Did Antarctica's Eric Richter Play Glacial Shoegaze on Johnny Cash's Jaguar?
BY GREGORY ADAMS
A few months ago, I spent the back-half of a newsletter praising the then-upcoming re-release of Antarctica’s 81:03, a doubled-sized debut album incorporating anything from New Order-style mood swings, to esoteric guitar-gazing, to late night club pulses. It’s a hell of an album — a longtime favourite — and I’ve been bumping it like crazy this fall.
Antarctica was formed by guitarist-vocalist Eric Richter after the folding of now-iconic Denver emo outfit Christie Front Drive. There’s a similar bit of aching melodicism to Antarctica’s 23:03 EP from 1998 — the yearning chorus to “Drown the Days,” in particular — but the arrangements are more epically wide-scope, rarely dipping beneath the six-minute mark. That was arguably a more rock-centered release than 1999’s 81:03, where keyboardist Nicole Waxenblatt jumps into Antarctica’s lineup alongside Richter, guitarist-vocalist Chris Donohue, bassist Ben Zimmerman, and drummer Glenn Maryansky. The album is substantially more driven by Midi, Roland loop pads, and synthesizers than the project’s six-string beginnings. In particular, 81:03's opening one-two punch of the “Bizarre Love Triangle”-channeling “Absence” and the highly syncopated, never-ender hypnotism of “Tower of Silence” is hard to beat.
With 81:03 having just got its vinyl debut through Solid Brass, I reached out to Eric to dip into the glacial majesty of Antarctica. He also spoke on how his guitar tone had evolved from his Christie Front Drive days, and where’s he’s at now with his most recent project, Suburban Eyes.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Did any of those first Antarctica songs start out in Colorado, or was this a fresh New York thing for you?
ERIC RICHTER: Fresh for New York. I definitely went into Antarctica with the idea that I wanted to do something different. I always try to do that, because it’s nice to be able to like clean the slate.
I had to learn to play differently in Antarctica. Christie Front Drive was very “guitar”. I had a Park head, a Marshall cabinet, and I went into a Tube Screamer; that’s all I used. With Antarctica, I had to bring it down and start playing clean. It was a little janglier; sometimes more picking.
There is a progression even within Antarctica before you got to those cleans, though. That first EP features some blown out wah-wah solos; “Drown the Days” immediately jumps into guitar distortion. How did you go about learning to avoid the crutch of distortion, to really let your guitar sing in a different way?
RICHTER: I don’t remember thinking about it so much. I’m not sure I was using distortion as a crutch. We were definitely going for more of a shoegaze sound on that EP, and it did start off that I was still using my distortion a lot. As 81:03 happened, though, we started adding the synths, and I really had to change. Synthesizers and distorted guitars are odd together. They can take up the same space. You want them to have their own area and frequency. An organ goes well with distorted guitars, usually. Not so much with synths, I find.
Tell me about some of the textures you ended up taking into 81:03, then. If you had been a Tube Screamer player in the past, what pedals were you turning to for tonal elements like chorus or flanger?
RICHTER: Like I said, in Christie Front Drive I just used a Tube Screamer and played dry through the amp. When I moved to New York City, I realized I couldn’t carry around that half-stack with me, so I traded that to someone Ron [Marschall, Christie Front Drive drummer] knew for a littler Fender combo amp. It was a whole different vibe, that amp; I think it was a Vibroverb. You could plug it in and get a vibrato and reverb at the same time. Then I bought this really cheap Zoom pedal made out plastic, like a 507. I used that for a long time. It brought chorus into the less distorted parts, and I could add delay to guitar parts to fatten them up. That was one of the best parts about Antarctica: being able to explore guitar tones and different effects that I’d never used before.
What guitars were you playing at the time?
RICHTER: I’ve always used the same guitar. When I was in high school, my dad bought a guitar from some guy he worked with, who claimed it was used on a Johnny Cash recording. I’m not sure if he said that just to sell it to my dad, but it’s possible. If you ask me, it happened [laughs].
It’s an early ‘60s Fender Jaguar, and the guy sold it to my dad for $50. I think he thought he was putting one over on my dad. My dad brought it home, and I didn’t love the guitar when I first saw it. I went through a phase in junior high where I liked hair metal and thrash metal. You know, that guitar doesn’t look like a B.C. Rich Bich! As I got to know the guitar, though, I fell in love with it.
The original pickups on it were very unforgiving. If you plugged into an amp with any kind of overdrive, they would just squeal. So, I took it to this guy in Denver who suggested to disconnect those, take one of the pickups out, and put an active pickup back in. It was being powered by a battery. That’s where the really great tone in Christie Front Drive came from. It was coming from an active single-coil pickup into a Tube Screamer. It just made a phenomenal noise. I could control feedback! It also sounded really good once I started playing without distortion in Antarctica.
If the EP was going for more of a shoegaze thing, what inspired you for the full-length?
RICHTER: Well, of course we were all fans of New Order. I was also friends with someone who worked at a label and would get a bunch of free CDs, and one of the CDs she gave me was a single from Underworld. They were famous for having a song in Trainspotting. You know the scene where the baby’s crawling on the wall while there’s a techno song going? That’s Underworld. They were one of those bands that would put out an album and then have these singles with 5,000 different mixes of their songs. I got that and I really loved it. Then at one of the practices, Chris, Glenn, Nicole, Ben and I were talking and somehow we all realized that we were listening to Underworld independent of each other.
I would say Underworld are like a mix between EDM and goth music, in a weird way, because they had a dark tone. They had a very charismatic lead singer that would go up and get the crowd dancing; they were running Midi, and stuff. They have an album call Second Toughest in the Infants that’s just amazing. That was a huge influence on 81:03.
What can you remember about a song like the album’s “Hallucinus”? I want to say that you started the set with that one when I saw you play in 1999. It’s a nice, epic builder.
RICHTER: We used to start with that one a lot. That was sequenced; I think that was a Midi part, so Nicole just had to hit it and it would start. It would give us time to get our bearings. Sometimes I would tune through the beginning. It was a long enough part [that the band could] get settled into the set. By the time my guitar part came up, I was ready to play. It’s an interesting song, always loved it. I liked the dynamics of it, and the build into the vocals. If there was ever a part that was “emo-sounding,” I guess that last part of the song had that vibe.
Everything came organically with Antarctica. Chris would come in with ideas, obviously — he actually came in with more ideas than I did; I feel like I would do a lot off the cuff. We used to practice at this funny place in Long Island that had Billy Joel posters up all over the place. We worked really hard on those songs, and spent a lot of time on them, but it never felt like we were working too hard, you know? We just got in a room and the songs just happened. I love when that happens.
There’s 104:06 of music between the two official Antarctica releases. Is there anything else in the archive that people haven’t heard yet?
RICHTER: It's possible. Glenn said something about having a practice tape where there might’ve been some songs that were started up before we went on our second tour, but I don’t think we have any finished music. Or at least anything that wasn’t from a boombox recordings in a practice space.
What do you remember about the end of the band?
RICHTER: After the last tour we just kind of split up. It wasn’t like a bad breakup — no big shouting match, or anything — we just kind of came home and we stopped practicing. Chris started his Ova Looven thing. I wanted to keep going, but I think Chris wanted to go more into synth songwriting. We played one show at [New York venue] the Wetlands when we got back from that tour, and just never played again. It was kind of odd, when I think back on it, but sometimes bands end like that. We still get along; it’s not like we hate each other. Especially since we’ve done this repress, we’ve been talking more. It’s been cool to reminisce about stories and tours.
Christie Front Drive have done reunions over the years. Does getting back in touch with the rest of Antarctica bring up the possibility of performing again?
RICHTER: It wouldn’t necessarily be that we wouldn’t like to, it's just that we’re in different places in our lives. Literally! That’s a problem. And it would take a lot of practice. I don’t even know if we still have the same loops. I’d have to talk to Chris and see what he still has on the synths, or even if he has those same synthesizers. There were a lot of really specific samples that we would need to have. It sounds like a herculean task, to me, to get all that stuff together and get us all in a practice space again. I don’t even remember all the lyrics, truthfully. When I was listening to this, there were a couple songs where I was like, “I have no idea what I’m saying, there.” [laughs]
Looking back on Antarctica — some 24 years, now, since 81:03 came out — what is your biggest takeaway from the experience of this band?
RICHTER: Listening to this record is a really good time capsule for me. It was an exciting time. I had just moved to New York. Everything was wide open. I was having the time of my life living in the city, [and] those tours were just constant laughter. Chris and Glenn together are two of the funniest people I’ve ever met.
It’s nice to listen back and bring back a lot of memories. It seems so long ago. I was so young! I loved every second of being in that band.
Putting Antarctica back together might not work on a logistical level, so what’s going on with your newest band, Suburban Eyes?
RICHTER: We just finished a full-length, actually. We’ve got it mixed and mastered, and we’re just about to start planning a release date. That’s exciting! We’ve been recording it for a few years. It’s one of those Covid bands, where we were just sending tracks back and forth. It’s not my favourite way to work, but somehow with Jeremy [Gomez, bass] and John [Anderson, drums] it just clicked. We’re pretty proud of it.
It’s a cool project in that it reunites you with Jeremy, taking you back to that Antarctica/Gloria Record tour in 1999. With John as well, though, it continues the long history between Christie Font Drive and Boys Life [ed. who'd played shows together and released a split 10-inch in 1996]. I actually saw Boys Life in Vancouver when I was 16. I remember going with a friend who was a drummer, and he lusted over John’s bass drum — he just thought it was the most beautiful, big, booming kickdrum. Do you feel the force of John’s playing in Suburban Eyes?
RICHTER: I mean, John is kind of a legend in the emo world, through his other bands. And having a good drummer in your band is everything. You need a strong backbone to work off of.
John plays with a jazz background. He can play beautiful, soft passages, and then the next minute be like [ed. Eric starts air drumming wildly]. The dynamics of his playing are phenomenal. It definitely influenced Christe Front Drive; I noticed Ron starting to do some John-style fills. People that saw Boys Life definitely took some pointers from him.
The great thing about the Suburban Eyes album is that, drumwise, it is the most impressive thing he’s ever done. Every song has an air drum moment. You can feel them coming up. He knows how to do drum hooks, you know? Every song on the Suburban Eyes record has a moment where you pick up your air sticks [laughs]. I think it’s the most impressive thing he’s ever done, and I’m glad I’m a part of it.