Today's Supernatural: PopMatters Interviews Animal Collective

A few months before the release of their latest opus, Centipede Hz, the psyilocybin Super Friends sat down with PopMatters to talk about the past, the present and the future of Animal Collective.

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 the Merriweather 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.”

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