Knit together by close personal relationships and a shared aesthetic vision, the A.C. guys still find ways to get weird.
BY A.D. AMOROSI
[Ed. note: everybody’s favorite post-freak/folk anthropomorphilites– you know, the ones who don’t use the word “deer” in their bandname – just announced the postponement of their U.S. tour. Writing in a press release, Avey Tare detailed a sudden illness: “To all of the AC fans out there. I feel its best you hear it right from the horses mouth. It kills me to have to postpone all these shows and it’s something I could never even have imagined happening. I’m positive that we were as excited as you all to visit all of your towns and have a good time together. But because of the strain on my voice that’s being caused by an intense case of strep throat, I am unable to play any of these shows. Unfortunately, I wasn’t diagnosed soon enough and haven’t been able to kick this in the right amount of time. We promise you all that we are doing everything we can to reschedule all these shows asap and we will be visiting your cities. We hope you can all understand and sympathize with the situation. It’s been really fun for all of us to be playing these days and the energy you all give us makes us want to take it further and further with you and give it right back. Hopefully, we can continue to do this together soon. Until then. Stay Well.” Never fear, gentle BLURT readers, as we have this feature on the band, expanded from its original appearance in our 13th issue (Grizzly Bear cover), to help tide you over. Enjoy!]
Animal Collective used to be a simpler proposition for the first ten years of its existence, despite its florid experimenting, noise mongering and genre hopping. They were quiet guys with quaint funny nicknames and concerns who had gone to grade school and high school with each other in different formations and played in or opened for each other’s bands before they collected themselves animalistic-ly.
Avey Tare (in reality, David Portner), Panda Bear (the shy Noah Lennox, who moved to Lisbon), Geologist (Brian Weitz), and Deakin (Joshua Dibb, who left AC in 2009 only to rejoin the fold for their newest album) were borne-of-Baltimore County bastard sons of Flaming Lips — or was it Holy Modal Rounders? or Steely Dan? or DNA? or Silver Apples? you get the drift… They are also known as the Paw Tracks label owners, hosts to Ariel Pink as well as their own prolific solo output.
As Animal Collective, since ’98 the band etched its own numbly humming brand of busy drama across a small slew of albums, EPs, collaborations with Vashti Bunyan and Arto Lindsay until they hit upon 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion , the eighth full length. All of a sudden their child-like voices and newly found love of samplers made for an approachable experimentation that turned Animal Collective into blogosphere superstars and record sellers. And yay them.
Now, they’re at their ninth album and the happy crossroads of Centipede Hz (Domino), recorded in their old home town with all the original band members, and song titles touching upon apt near-middle age themes such as “New Town Burnout,” “Gotham” and “Father Time.” The entire album just buzzes with an insistent through line of radio static, bugged out twitchiness and panicky rhythms the likes of which make them sound more nervous than they are, truth be told.
“That panicky sound is a reaction to the last album, I think,” says Noah Lennox during a relaxed afternoon chat in New York City about Centipede Hz ’s abashedly aghast soundtrack. “The last group of songs that we did, where it was just three of us not four, found us using a bunch of samplers. The songs were built around samplers and we became, kinda like, slaves to the sounds of the machines, so to speak.” He knows that’s a cheesy way of putting it, but Lennox has a disarming, ebullient charm to his manner of speech that would make it possible for him to read aloud from Mein Kampf and still seem like a gently playful soul. “The human element was missing from Merriweather Post Pavilion and our tour that followed it. Or maybe it was a little more disguised. All I know is that we would play shows where we’d get off the stage and realize that we hadn’t even worked up a sweat.”
So then Animal Collective just wanted to sweat more?
“We hadn’t really gotten physical with the music,” laughs Lennox at my damp focus. “Or it with us for that matter. We missed having that sort of experience. For me personally I hadn’t sat down at a drum kit in eight years. That was my immediate goal, regarding this new album, that I wanted us to do something more physical and visceral. I think me getting behind the drums, with all of us back in the old home, all crammed up against each other—everybody’s instinct was to just get loud. I think that new proximity gave all the songs on Centipede a forceful intense quality.”
So they wanted to sweat near each other and be loud. But what about that radio static? Put a radio near sweat and somebody is bound to get shocked.
“The radio noise was an image we had in our head,” says Lennox. “There was an idea that we spoke about at Centipede ’s start of radio waves bouncing in space, a band in space, an alien band hearing all these surges of radio noise coming off the earth and how they might regurgitate that noise if they came near our hemisphere; all these different sounds from literally around the globe. If they formed a band what type of music might they make? That type of thing.”
Lennox pauses from his enthusiastic reverie. “I know that all sounds a bit silly but we were really psyched on that idea.”
Who wouldn’t be psyched about a sweaty alien band?
Lennox says that there was also a familiarity — albeit one created with Merriweather — that they wanted to break through, one equitable with the band’s first decade of experimentation. ”Let’s try to push these new songs into an alien foreign vibe that we might not be quite comfortable with. All the radio identification noises and squiggly sounds all crammed against each other really fast: that intensity was definitely inspirational.”
A big part of Centipede Hz’s newfound alien vibrancy was its one-time vibrancy and the participation of Deakin (vocals, baritone guitar, sampler, percussion) who as noted above left the Animal Collective fold before 2009. There was nothing horrible about his departure. It wasn’t even as if he didn’t play with Animal Collective, as he was part of the band’s ODDSAC film, its original music and the band’s curatorial efforts in the name of a Guggenheim Museum exhibition tied to that music. “He just was not into being into the band for a minute,” states Lennox in regard to his old bandmate. “Animal Collective was all-consuming and he just needed to do something else, think about other things in his life for a little bit. But he was part of the visual album called ODDSAC, he was always around; and after Merriweather, when we knew that we wanted to do something pretty different, having him back full time wasn’t so strange.” And then again, it was completely strange, which was the entire point of Centipede’s anxiously daunted crawl — to make a new musical language that was both a seamless transition and a bizarre break from anything they’d accomplished previously.
But if Deakin could leave and come back without fissure in the Animal Collective aesthetic, would the same thing hold true if Lennox or Portner—both armed with several solo albums between them—left the Collective for a minute? Could it still be an Animal Collective without Lennox?
His answer is yes. Absolutely. David and Noah may be the only single members to be on every Animal Collective recording since its start, but that doesn’t mean the Collective couldn’t exist with a missing member for a minute. “I could totally see an Animal Collective without David or I,” says Lennox. “In a way, I kind of consider that all of the solo material that we’ve gathered apart from the band is yet another section of Animal Collective, in that the stuff I work on by myself is always totally informed by the stuff I do with the band. For me personally, everything that we do apart feels like part of the same creative trajectory that we have together.”
In a sense, that togetherness is based on the notion that there is a tone to everything Animal Collective does, something that Lennox can’t quite describe (“Honestly, I can’t out my finger on it”) but knows when he hears it during a self-sequestered writing session or a group rehearsal. Lennox knows—or has to know—when a song he’s penned has room, literally and figuratively, for other Animal members. “If I’m writing for the band, it has to be one of four parts and it has to have room not for another sound BUT for another personality entirely.”
Ultimately though, Animal Collective doesn’t know what they sound like until each album is done. Like the band who moved from Baltimore to Brooklyn and changed their sound from show to show, it is an unspoken part of their collective mentality that they play first then talk about the process, if it all. “That’s always the way it’s been, from the start through to Centipede,” laughs Lennox. “We don’t like to be too mental or academic about making music. David and I used to get on stage back when we started out and not say two words to each other until after the gig. We work on instinct.”
Though they live apart and away from each other, Lennox states the band is as close as it’s ever felt and as knit together by its aesthetic vision as they’ve always been. “The bond between us personally is strong, but like any intimate relationship, you never solve the mystery of what makes it good. You just work through it.”