Originally published by PopMatters on September 6, 2012
They’re supposed to be difficult, as impenetrable and stubborn as the music they’ve created together or separately or whatever. It turns out not to be true, of course; the four guys who make up Animal Collective are normal dudes. Immensely talented, urbane and intellectually complicated dudes, but still. Panda Bear recognizes the logo of the former Las Vegas minor league baseball team on the cap I’m wearing because he’s seen it in a video game.
In the tiny living room of a sweltering second-floor walkup on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, three members of Animal Collective – Noah Lennox, Brian Weitz and Josh Dibb - sit elbow to elbow on a small sofa, with the fourth – Dave Portner - on the other side of a coffee table perched on a chair. It’s early summer and they’re flipping through stacks of photographs. The intimacy of the room, the attention to detail, it all matters when talking about the Animal Collective story in 2012. But more on that in a minute.
Like a psilocybin Super Friends, the members of Animal Collective are known the world over by aliases: Panda Bear (Lennox), Geologist (Weitz), Deakin (Dibb) and Avey Tare (Portner), though since they referred to one another by their real names, that’s how it’s going to work here, too. But before I do, I just want to say how disappointed I was to find that there’s no Animal Collective name generator on the internet. Remember how much momentary fun it was to get your Wu-Tang name? Donald Glover certainly does. So get on that, random hipsters.
Animal Collective have long been critical touchstones, a recording history stretching back to the turn of the 21st century with a series of densely assembled releases with sounds buried deep in the mix and sudden harmonies and, fuck, is that some lost Beach Boys track I’m listening to? Such is how many music journalists, perhaps robbed of the ability to think straight after deep contemplation of songs like “Peacebone” or “Grass,” have described Animal Collective, and maybe there’s a kernel of truth there: The perceived obsessive attention to minute detail; deceptively simple melodies and rushes of sheer vocal beauty; a sandbox in the living room? But to constantly reference the Beach Boys is missing the point, and it’s also lazy, and while Animal Collective seems wary of tags, there are far worse things to be compared to.
“It has to be flattering,” said Weitz.
“Definitely not irritating,” added Lennox.
“With the Beach Boys thing, from Sung Tongs on it’s been a band we’ve been associated with or a reference point,” said Portner. “And I think when it got down to making Strawberry Jam and people said, ‘Oh, it’s a Beach Boys thing again,’ and we were like, did you even listen to the record? I don’t get that in that at all. When it becomes this lightning rod to make people understand something, we’re not annoyed but we just don’t get it.”
There are degrees of perplexity with the reference, too.
“You can tell when it’s a product of lazy journalism,” said Weitz. “You can usually tell from the publication, like if we’re not the kind of band they usually cover, it’s like, ‘Did you really listen or did you get that from a Google search?’”
In early 2009, Animal Collective released Merriweather Post Pavilion, the album which made them as close to household names as they’re likely to ever get. The group’s most electronic-and-sample-based album, it was for many also its most approachable. Singles like “My Girls” and “Summertime Clothes” were all over college and internet radio stations, comparatively sparse and unabashedly lovely. The album was perhaps the year’s most critically-acclaimed, living up to the advance hype and somehow managing to transcend the buzz. It gained the group legions of new fans, which was something of a blessing and, if not a curse exactly then perhaps a new puzzle to solve.
“Dave and I were just in France doing some DJing, and the guy who promotes our French shows came out,” said Weitz. “And he was like, ‘Your last show in Paris, a reviewer was talking about how you’d only played two songs from your first album,’ and we were like, what do you mean our first album, and they meant Merriweather.”
The mistake almost feels unforgivable in the digital age, where a group’s entire history is merely a keystroke away. With Animal Collective, there’s not just a long history of complex musical exploration on record, but also on the stage. And as any fan of any band knows, some people want to hear their favorite songs exactly as they know them from the record. To paraphrase an apocryphal Beach Boys tale, when Brian Wilson abandoned the band’s girls/surf/cars themes in favor of comparably deeper intellectualism when creating Pet Sounds, the famously cantankerous Mike Love reportedly said, “Don’t fuck with the formula.” And if there’s one thing Animal Collective enjoys, it’s fucking with the formula.
“One comment I heard, or was talked about after we actually played at Merriweather Post Pavilion(in 2011), is even though it was three years after the record came out was how can these guys tour a record and not play and of the songs off that record” said Portner. “We weren’t touring the record, and for us it’s interesting to know that there are people that haven’t clued into that fact, because I feel like it’s pretty widely known.”
It is widely known, so much so that the group received a curious warning prior to playing the Maryland venue which bore the album’s name.
“Even the promoter sent our booking agent a semi-threatening e-mail saying he heard we weren’t going to play a lot of songs from Merriweather, and we’d better behave like professionals and play the songs people were coming to hear as we recorded it,” Lennox said.
And, let’s face it, that’s not something anyone should expect from Animal Collective. A festival set at Coachella last year was one such example, with countless people taking to the Twittersphere to call the set a disaster and just as many calling it a triumph.
“It’s intense to play Coachella or a venue that large where there’s people for all different reasons coming to see you,” said Portner. “And for us, we feel like we’re throwing enough old stuff in there people will respond to, but we rework songs to the point where people don’t even recognize them. It can be scary, especially at this point where, in environments like Coachella where you’re playing for 30,000 people or even at Merriweather where we played for 8,000 people.”
“It’s highlighted at festivals, because presumably you have a lot of people who are like, ‘I’ve heard of that band, let’s see what they’re about,’ and you don’t have that crush of people who say, ‘I know this song, it’s my jam,’” said Lennox. “You have tons of people who say, ‘I’ve never heard this before.’”
“There are some fans who are like that, who would only be satisfied if you played ‘My Girls,’ ‘Fireworks,’ ‘Banshee Beat,’ ‘Brother Sport,’ ‘Summertime Clothes,’” said Dibb. “If they heard that set, they’d be psyched, and otherwise they’re like, ‘What the fuck?’”
It’s enough to make even the famously adventurous Animal Collective admit to the odd bouts of second-guessing themselves, but only a bit.
“It affects me more in club shows,” said Portner. “To me, these are people who are Animal Collective fans, and to see someone with that bored kind of, ‘What are they doing?’ kind of look. That’s the most disheartening thing. The thing is, you can’t be like…if you’re going to get into a wormhole where you start thinking about that stuff it’s going to be no fun. And there are definitely some nights where I’m like, ‘Why do I do this anymore?’ Usually more because I didn’t think we sounded that good. But it’s too easy to get wrapped up into thinking, ‘Is this person enjoying it?’ ‘Is that person enjoying it?’ And the reality of it is, like at Coachella, there’s going to be 30 percent people there that hate it. Not everybody is there to see Animal Collective, and it’s cool to think we can turn people on to something different and we can have this new way of doing it, but there are also people there that just want the typical festival band who just goes out there and plays the hits. But I think that’s why festivals are cool, too. They’re supposed to offer this wide array of music, and it’s exciting as a fan of music.”
Dibb sees a clear connection between Animal Collective live and Animal Collective on record.
“I think that also goes in line with the way we release records, and it’s ultimately what’s exciting to me,” he said. “Releasing a record like Merriweather and then releasing a record like this (Centipede Hz, the group’s new album out this week). Or going back to Feels or Sung Tongs. They’re all different. There are always going to be people just into one of those sounds and that’s all they’re going to want to hear, and then there are people who are like, ‘I’m really into all these different angles of what you guys can be,’ and I feel the same about the live experience. I want it to be unifying so all the people there can connect to it, but there’s also a part of me that wants the music to be challenging, in the same way that I expect people coming into this who were introduced to us through Merriweather and it’s the only experience they had: You’re either going to be up for this being something new, or you’re going to listen hoping to hear more of theMerriweather sound.”
The success of Merriweather Post Pavilion gave the group some new pressure, though not externally. The album, recorded in Oxford, Mississippi during Dibb’s hiatus from the band, wasn’t just a critical and commercial smash: It was also a high water mark for Weitz, Lennox and Portner.
“Noah has used the golf analogy of trying to beat your personal best,” said Weitz. “For the three of us, Merriweather was really special, and having that feeling like when we finished it and feeling we’d made something we were really, really proud of. I know what that feeling is, so now I know more when I’m settling or compromising myself. But I don’t think commercially, it’s too difficult to anticipate what anybody wants.”
Dibb rejoined Animal Collective in 2010, heralding something of a return to their roots, as the group headed back to Baltimore to write and record in a room together for the first time in…well, a long time. “I would say it was integral to the way the songs turned out,” said Lennox.
“We always throw some words around to get the inspiration, and we had some melodies going in,” said Portner. “Josh, Noah and I had written between the three of us five songs when we went in with the idea that we would keep jamming and write as we went. The three months there was kind of like a workshop and we also had time to work individually and produce stuff as we were writing.”
Though the move was deliberate, the group said it wasn’t because they felt a particular need to tap into what made Animal Collective so special all those years ago.
“I don’t think we ever lost that,” said Weitz. “I don’t think this was so much about needing to recapture something, so, ‘Let’s go back to Baltimore.’”
Instead, it was more about wanting to take a different approach, one which was less about technology and more about the immediacy of smashing the shit out of one’s instruments.
“It was a bit reactionary maybe to the sort of sample-based nature of Merriweather,” said Weitz.
“That manner of interacting with music and performing music, we felt like we had taken that with Merriweather where we wanted to. We needed a change, and with that change we needed to bring energy back into playing music as just a contrast. And the four of us playing live together with this instrumentation seemed like it would accomplish that. Baltimore was chosen more as a convenience than an attempt to recapture something, because I don’t feel like we’d really lost all that much.”
The members of Animal Collective grew up in and around Baltimore, playing music together in various incarnations. But it wasn’t until after high school that the group began to come together as we know them now. Lennox and Dibb headed to Boston for college, while Portner and Weitz went to school in New York City. After working long distance and traveling back to Baltimore to record for a few years, the group turned New York into their home base in 2000, with Portner and Lennox working in one of the city’s still-surviving independent record stores, Other Music. It gave them a chance to both fulfill and destroy their dreams.
“My big goal as a musician was the have a barcode and a really official-looking package,” Lennox laughed.
“I always wanted to find my music in a section of a store I’d usually shop in,” said Weitz. “And at first you’re just in ‘Miscellaneous A.’”
“The first record Noah and I worked on (Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished), that getting a write-up in Time Out and it was featured in Other (Music), it was like, ‘Alright, that’s it!’”
But getting what you want isn’t always a blessing.
“Actually, working in a record store made me hate music for a long time,” Portner said. “Having access to everything all the time, I was like, ‘I can’t even decide what I like anymore.’”
Initial reports of the music on Centipede HZ were often based on live performances of the songs played around the world last year, though as we’ve already established, with Animal Collective that doesn’t exactly give on much to go on. It was believed that the album would be a severe and unapproachable departure from Merriweather Post Pavilion, though that’s proved not to be the case. As PopMatters’ Arnold Pan pointed out in his album review (8-out-of-10), “Centipede Hz is an album that’ll get a hold on you as all its arms grab on and don’t let go.”
“I think there’s something very inherently Animal Collective about it,” said Lennox of the new album. “Compared to Merriweather, there’s a lot more going on and a lot more to navigate. But I don’t think that makes it a difficult record, because some of my favorite records have been like that and you hear more with repeated listens.”
“I think Merriweather was one, and some of our other records have been like this, that it’s an instant thing,” he said. “At least that was my experience listening to it as a fan, that it immediately struck a chord and took off. Not that it wasn’t challenging, but it didn’t take a lot of work to get there. And I don’t think this is an instant record. You have to think about this for a second and take it in.”
It’s worth noting that the group released music between Merriweather Post Pavilion and Centipede Hz: ODDSAC, an experimental visual album collaboration with filmmaker Danny Perez which took four years from inception to completion, was released in early 2010. And a few months prior to the release of Centipede Hz, the group released a double-sided single with “Honeycomb” and “Gotham” an admitted red herring they acknowledged would probably make some fans incorrectly feel like they knew how the album was going to sound.
“Those songs didn’t really fit on the record, and we thought they’d be a good introduction to the band stuff,” said Weitz.
Visuals are also an important part of the Animal Collective experience, from their stage show to ODDSAC. While all four members of the group have had a hand in how their record sleeves are designed, Portner is the most connected to that, often working with his sister, Abby Portner, an artist and musician, to create the final product.
“It’s varied from record to record,” Portner said. “For Merriweather when we were on the way to one of the studios we found that optical illusion and we were all like, ‘Oh, wow.’ For (Centipede Hz) it was more like collecting and we were all involved. Sometimes I have this idea in my mind and ask my sister Abby. Something else I might do on my own or we might all contribute something.”
Asked whether he felt as though any particular Animal Collective record sleeve had visually captured the sound of the music, Portner said it wasn’t that easy to define.
“People react to that kind of thing so differently and it’s so specific to the experience of listening to music,” he said. “With Strawberry Jam there are lots of people who think it’s just disgusting, but for me, it’s a really pretty colorful way of presenting something, and you start to realize the more you do something…Like ODDSAC, which I think is the perfect combination of music and visuals that people are just not always going to get what you’re trying to push out there. But I think there’s something to be said for a really sweet record cover. I really like the cover to Feels a lot, that’s one of my favorites, but I wouldn’t necessarily think that you can listen to the music and stare at the cover and think, ‘That’s perfect.’”
“The cover is just an added flavor to the music,” Lennox said. “It doesn’t affect how the music sounds.”
Animal Collective begin a three-week North American tour later this month, with European dates to follow. They’ll make stops in New York and London, two cities they admit to being among the most difficult to play.
“With cities like London or New York, on any given night there might be four great shows and the people in the audience go to music all the time,” said Dibb. “If you play places that are a little more afield, there’s pure appreciation of the experience of having us show up that can be really gratifying. There’s less pressure in this weird way. In Zagreb, Croatia people are just psyched. We played Moscow for the first time and people were psyched. Those are places where it’s special for bands like us to come through.”
Portner admitted that it’s not always easy to know from the stage whether they’re playing a good show or not, and they don’t always agree with the crowd.
“There are some rooms that are great to play in and some that are tough,” said Portner. “But then I met this guy last night who found out I was in Animal Collective, and he was like, ‘Man, remember that one warehouse show and I DJ’d after you guys,’ and I thought, ‘That show was a nightmare,’ and he said he thought it was amazing. We played this show in New York where I basically just stopped because the bass frequencies were too intense, and for me it ruined the show, but for a lot of people they were like, ‘You guys were playing great.’”
Television provides its own difficulties for a group accustomed to experimentation, and much more so than in festivals the studio is not filled with partisan fans.
“I think the audience in those TV studios is completely irrelevant,” said Weitz. “The times we’ve played shows like that we’ve never even looked at the audience. They’re told with an applause sign to clap. I think more about what it’s going to translate into on the other side of the TV.”
“It’s the furthest away, especially in the live situation, of what we would do, take one song and play it,” said Portner. “Based on our history of how we feed off of live energy is to get this thing going and going and going, and then you’re put into that situation and it’s like, ‘Okay, guys: 4 ½ minutes. Do it!’”
The regimented time slot of a TV appearance isn’t the only hurdle for the group in using the medium.
“It’s difficult for us because they ask what we’ve got that’s four minutes long, and it’s not much,” said Weitz. “And we give them this one or this one, and they’re like, ‘You can’t play that.’”
In 2009, the group played “Summertime Clothes” on Late Show with David Letterman, a clear reminder that Animal Collective exists on the periphery of the entertainment industry.
“Paul Schaffer was really nice to us and acted like he listens and cared,” said Portner. “And David Letterman just made fun of our record cover.”
Things were even worse two years earlier when the group made its national television debut on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, where they remember switching gears at the last minute and performing “#1.”
“Conan O’Brien we’d heard was a really big music fan, and I’m friendly with the guys in Yeasayer, I’ve known them for forever,” said Weitz. “And they said, ‘He was really psyched to have us on the show, he loved our record.’ And I was like, ‘Really? He talked to us about how the Amtrak went through Baltimore, and that was it.’ We changed the song at the last minute, and I think he got word of it and was pretty bummed.”
Dibb remembered almost no direct communication from the lanky host following their performance.
“He actually didn’t say anything to us at all, but after we played he walked through and as he was shaking my hand, he said to the camera, ‘Baltimore, huh? I went through there on Amtrak once,’” Dibb recalled. “Cool. Nice to meet you.”
The sense of relative alienation doesn’t just apply to the world of television; they also feel it within the music industry. Collaboration outside of the group dynamic isn’t a natural fit for Animal Collective.
“There are certain people, especially in New York, where we’re not part of this fraternity who gets the stamp of approval from, like, David Bowie or David Byrne,” said Weitz. “We don’t make records with those people, but everybody else seems to. Not that we don’t like those people. For us it just doesn’t feel like our thing. Like with Arcade Fire backing up Bruce Springsteen just feels like it would be so far off from anything we’d do. And not even just those people, because I remember when Damo Suzuki was on tour, and in every city he said he wanted a different backing band. And for me, I just couldn’t imagine us sitting around the practice space and saying, ‘Damo Suzuki wants a backing band: Let’s do it!’ I just can’t see us making that decision.”
For a group so closely associated with dense sonic experimentation, they’re also acutely aware that not every journey is a good fit for them.
“There’s many different ways you can mix certain songs, and you can take a song like ‘Also Frightened’ and make a crazy mix out of it, and then you sit back and think, ‘Are people going to be into this? Am I even into this?’” said Portner.
“And it’s the same thing with an instrument, too. There have been times where it’s been like, let’s try that and then we realize it’s just not right for us.”
Weitz picked up the thread.
“Pedal steel is a good example,” he said. “I love pedal steel, and before we made the record I thought it would be great to have a pedal steel, because I lived in Arizona for a while and fell in love with that sound, and there’s this record, Chill Out by the KLF, and I wanted to incorporate that into this record. But the notes played in a lot of those country songs might not work with what we’re doing. So we thought maybe about having it played live and we invited Dave Scher who plays in a lot of bands and plays lap steel. And a lot of his stuff stayed on the record, but sometimes when it was too far up in the mix it was just like, ‘That doesn’t sound like Animal Collective.’ The closest thing it sounds like is maybe Wowie Zowie by Pavement or something, but it just takes you out of our world.”
While the musical world of Animal Collective is always evolving, so too are the personal lives of its members. They live in different cities living different lives; two of them, Weitz and Lennox are fathers. For Weitz, the latter in particular represents a big change.
“My work ethic I think is a bit stronger,” he said about fatherhood. “I feel like I can push past exhaustion more. Being a musician can sometimes be a cushiony lifestyle, and I have to think, ‘You know, for the next two weeks I’m not just going to smoke pot.’ And I think that’s necessary – not smoking pot, per se, but recharging – and the idea of sort of having someone to observe your work ethic a bit more, there’s just no excuse for laziness.”
“’I’ve got three hours to sit around and smoke pot and listen to records…Go!’” joked Dibb.
“The writing session we did was probably the most exhausted I’ve ever seen these guys,” added Portner.
But it’s a good change, not just personally but in what it brings to the music, both in its sound and its creation.
“I used to work on Capitol Hill and you don’t get a lot of sleep but you’re psyched,” Weitz said. “I loved my job there, and you’re happy to almost be exhausted. Work is your life, and that’s what this record is like. And the idea that there’s a child observing that, you should love what you do and put your all into it.”