Originally published in Arthur No. 19 (Nov. 2005)
How do the four humble critters that are Animal Collective make such wildly beautiful and beguiling sounds?
By Trinie Dalton
Photography by Susanna Howe
As pathetic as this sounds, I originally started listening to Animal Collective because they were an “animal band,” and I make a point of hearing all new animal bands because I’m obsessed with animals. There are so many animal bands these days, especially lupine ones: Wolf Eyes, Wolf Parade, Wolfmother…I figure anyone who names their band after animals must like animals too, so we have something in common, and maybe they’re also into classic animal bands, like The Animals and The Turtles. So far, this theory for checking out new bands has worked, and I like most animal bands. But Animal Collective are by far the best. They’re King of the Jungle.
This is an especially lame confession because the members of Animal Collective barely even like having a name; they’d much prefer to be individuals who come together in various combos and in various locations to make intriguingly titled albums, like Danse Manatee, Campfire Songs, or Here Comes the Indian, sans band name. That’s one refreshing thing about Animal Collective: they aren’t glory hogs. In animal terms, they’re like prairie dogs, bees, or penguins—humble critters that understand the definition of teamwork. In the beginning, Animal Collective often wore masks and costumes hiding their individual identities, and they’ve always used nicknames to keep alive the secret society element of what they do: Dave Portner is Avey Tare, Brian Weitz is Geologist, Josh Dibbs is Deakin, and Noah Lennox is Panda Bear. Having a band name is too traditional, they say; they only have one because record labels have told them that listeners need to identify the group as a cohesive, named unit.
Which is important, because Animal Collective are one of those rare bands who sound completely different live and on record. Sung Tongs, their last full-length album, is infused with psychedelic wall-of-sound production, Brian Wilson-style. Sung Tongs is so classic it gives me chills. I imagine Sung Tongs on the cover of that Arthur issue 50 years from now featuring the best albums of the past century. The cool part is, I’ll recall how I nearly went deaf hearing tweaky live versions of harmonious tunes like “Leaf House” and “Kids On Holiday.” On headphones, certain Animal Collective songs sound sleepy and hypnotic, while live those same songs make the club’s floor vibrate from heavy bass and guitar distortion. Hearing Animal Collective live is nearly my favorite pastime. Recently, while living in Berlin, I was so dying to see them that I almost flew hundreds of miles to southern France to catch their gig. Getting a grip, I reminded myself that this was a little extreme, not to mention expensive. Each show is different, though: live versions of songs render them unrecognizable or mutate into new songs, so you can’t say, I’ll just stay home and listen to the album.
Feels, Animal Collective’s new release, is heavily injected with sentiment without being sappy. Dedicated to such lofty romantic themes as Love, Purple (the color of passion) and (they say) “synchronicity, or connections between people,” Feels is highly emotive. As opposed to Sung Tongs’ choral vocal layerings and druggy nods to Smiley Smile, Feels contains fewer vocal harmonies but compensates with an abundance of rock-out moments balanced by a “warm hum” of instruments. I can’t wait to see these songs performed live, since the instrumentation on Feels is so elusive. This new record also further distinguishes Animal Collective from the Freakfolk bands they’ve sometimes been lumped together with. I never thought they sounded even remotely folky; Feels instead sounds a lot more influenced by their early inspirations, My Bloody Valentine and Pavement.
Animal Collective are childhood friends. Noah and Josh met in second grade in their hometown, Baltimore. In 1996, Josh hooked up with Brian and Dave, who were also high school buddies from Maryland. They all hung out sporadically throughout college, and by 2000, they were all living in New York, where they recorded and released Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished, which gave them their first taste of success. Since then, they’ve made several albums and started a record label, Paw Tracks, home to artists like Ariel Pink and The Peppermints. Prospect Hummer, their last record, is testament to all the European touring they’ve done; they met and recruited Vashti Bunyan in England for vocals on it. Three of the band left New York years ago—Noah for Lisbon, Brian for D.C., and Dave for Europe—so Animal Collective functions via satellite, in a way, until they convene for recording sessions and tours. Even interviewing them was a feat—I received four separate phone calls from around the world—although I really enjoyed it because Animal Collective were so friendly. Each man spoke highly of the others, discussing how the group sound has evolved instead of geeking out on who plays what. They gave uncannily similar answers, and Brian confessed that Animal Collective may know each other “too well.” I had this feeling before, but I know it now—Animal Collective are four best friends committed to experimenting and having fun.
Arthur: What are your ideas about collectives? Animal Collective’s lineup is constantly changing, so your aesthetic is extremely dynamic. Live, for instance, you always play new songs instead of the songs from the album you’re touring for.
Josh (Deakin): The word “collective” is oddly touchy for us because it has a certain political air. The idea of calling ourselves a collective was for our own state of mind. We weren’t thinking of it in a broader sense. We’re a fairly exclusive collective. There are people are in our lives that we work with who we consider part of it, in a way, but we aren’t a collective in the big sense. We’ve known each other since we were kids, and really enjoy doing this together. We don’t want to just form a regular band where it’s like “he plays guitar, he plays bass, and I sing.” We came up with the idea in college, when we couldn’t always all work together. Originally, our records had their own titles without band names attached. It’s this idea of creating an environment where you’re not wed to specific habits. Habit contributes to complacency. We wanted to allow for as much change and development as possible. My perception of collectives is that there is some kind of collective consciousness that is an element for us, but mostly we’re strong individuals who have different ideas and like to share them with each other.
Brian (Geologist): Our labels told us that fans need to be able to identify a band by name so they know what to buy. The first label we started was called Animal, so we became Animal Collective. I found out later that schools of fish, gaggles of geese, and murders of crows are actually called animal collectives.
So you aren’t a political band?
Brian (Geologist): We’re not a political band, really. Some of us are interested in politics and policy and current events, some of us aren’t. And we have narrowly different opinions, but always to the left side of the political spectrum. When we’ve been approached to do political things, we’ve turned them down. But we could all really get behind the chance to do something related to environmental policy. A lot of the sounds I use are natural sounds from field recordings and processed animal sounds, but I don’t make that known to the public as a statement. That’s why it’s been important to me to devote my free time to environmental issues. When I consider what I want to contribute to the world when all is said and done, it’s environmentally related. This past month I was on break from the band so I started calling environmental organizations in DC, where I live, to offer my resume and ask them if they need free help.
Does politics have a place in music, or is that an automatic cliché these days?
Brian (Geologist): Oh, music is absolutely a good place to express political opinions! But you have to make a decision as a band what your message is going to be, and we’ve decided on exploring other themes, like our lives and relationships, our experiences.
There’s an interest in 60s Revivalism right now, especially with the “freak-folk” bands, maybe because people see some parallels between today’s political climate and the Vietnam Era. You’d expect the politics of the ‘60s to filter through these new bands.
Brian (Geologist): A lot of the 60s Revivalists or the Freakfolk people don’t seem to be getting engaged politically. I don’t listen to all of that so much; like you said, we aren’t really part of that scene. I think maybe they’re doing the opposite thing, disassociating themselves from politics, even though I know some of them care about the issues. But I’m surprised that a lot of mainstream bands aren’t commenting on anything. The last Green Day album was pretty bad, but I respect them because they’re the only band out there that says anything in a time when people think that punk is hip. Green Day and the Dixie Chicks!
Although, Sun City Girls integrate politics and music really well. Bands like them get attention in Arthur, but not in a lot of other places. They’re sort of intentionally underground, so their message doesn’t get out there so much. But what they do, and what they’re doing with their Sublime Frequencies label, is exposing you to other cultures. I’ve been listening to them since I was in high school, and they’ve definitely opened my eyes. Not that I agree with everything they say, but they do provoke a lot of thought. Society would be better off if everybody listened to them. American Imperialism in the Middle East has been something they’ve cared about since the 80s, and now it’s in the forefront on the news.
Animal Collective is known for its sincerity, for capturing childlike innocence through sound. Also, your music is packed with references to nature and emotional states. I often think of the weather when I listen to you. Maybe it’s your choice of samples—you re-create environments.
Josh (Deakin): That’s exactly what we’re going for. As much as writing about things in our lives now, we write about childhood, and what’s it like deciding how to grow up. It’s a way to stay true to childhood feelings. They’re so easy to lose as you get older. We don’t want to act like children for the rest of our lives, but we want to keep our openness. It’s funny, the last guy I was talking to asked me what my first experiences with music were, and I talked about listening to my dad’s records. But really when music became important to me, it wasn’t so much about listening to music on records…as a child I heard everything around me as music, including things like the weather. As a four-year-old, everything around me was visceral. Whether it was the sun, or someone talking, how tired or excited I was, all those things turned into sound.
Then, finding carpentry was a big step forward for me. I’d always worked in my head. I lived in the world of thoughts. There was this moment when I realized I could affect my environment in this very physical way. I learned how to use my body, to use tools and materials to make something, and it was empowering. It’s transformed the way I relate to the world and to music.
Dave (Avey): In terms of us all trying to work together, the nature thing’s definitely there. Brian and I grew up spending time outdoors while listening to music. We didn’t party so much, we just hung out with a stereo outside. We lived in a forested area. Driving around the Maryland countryside listening to Incredible String Band, that’s what I connected music to. The way we approach songwriting is very natural. The most important thing for us is to take sound and create some sort of individual landscape for each song rather than thinking of a song as something you put on in your car and tap your feet to. We put effort into listening to music.
We have a youthful way of looking at the world. Experiencing everything with a sense of wonder gets lost as you’re sucked into life’s repetition. Even in the most boring situation, there’s something. That song on Sung Tongs, “Kids on Holiday,” represents how even standing in line at the airport becomes interesting when you notice what’s around you. There’s always a situation occurring, you just have to use your imagination.
Noah (Panda Bear): This album’s the same and different at the same time in terms of childhood stuff. We’re talking about more mature adult topics, so there is a bit of the sour mixed in with the sweet. The way we like to describe experiences from childhood or see things in a childlike way, the uninhibited, anything goes, everything is new attitude, that’s all still there on Feels. In that way, our music is always the same. Now, the kinds of relationships we talk about are more adult, but the spirit of creating the music is still anything goes. Keep it new, fresh, and explore stuff.
Brian (Geologist): Part of the reason we started playing live and releasing records, in 2000 I think, was to react against what we saw happening in late 90s indie rock. It was so intellectual and a lot of it lacked emotion. There isn’t a lot of irony in our music because we relate to music on a more pure, emotional level.
A lot of us have been in more serious relationships this past year, so we figured Feels would be our “love” record. It’s not exactly childlike this time. Only some of our records really touch on childlike innocence, or the innocence of nature, but there’s still similar themes throughout about touching our lives and feelings, instead of intellectual concepts that we don’t have any connection to.
In some songs, you remember being somewhere as a kid in the past tense, while in other songs, like in Prospect Hummer’s “I Remember Learning How to Dive,” you recall a childhood memory in the present tense. Then in your new song “Flesh Canoe” you’re a kid making faces in the mirror, totally present tense. You’re so good at confusing time.
Dave (Avey): Things change so fast now, even from month to month. In terms of relationships, the way we deal with people has changed so much. Career-wise, we haven’t noticed the changes so much because it’s been gradual, but there’s more physical distance between us now.
We like confusion, and confusing the audience. Sometimes we even confuse ourselves! Early on, we were so intent on playing at least one show per month in NYC, something new each time, so we’d only have a week to practice before the show. Sometimes we didn’t even play the set we planned. We never knew how we’d make it through. It was so open, that if things fell apart we had to figure out how to keep it going. You don’t want to stop in the middle of a set. Even if it was just clapping our hands, something was always happening, then things grew out of that. That’s where the confusion and rise in emotion comes from.
Noah (Panda Bear): Confusion is another way to describe childhood illusion. When I was younger, I’d get fevers, so sick that I would feel crazy. I would go to places I’d never been to, in terms of hallucinating. Weird kid dreams are really confusing.
Josh (Deakin): I hate to generalize, but there have been lots of new approaches to music and art in the past five, six years. We’re trying to get music and art back to expressing itself on some visceral level, not just being something on display that you look at and analyze. There shouldn’t be a wall between us and the audience. A lot of bands are into creating physical sound right now, and some of it I’m not even that psyched on, but I’m glad it’s happening. The fact that a magazine like Arthur is doing so well these days is a reflection of that. I don’t think Arthur would have happened in 1996. A lot of people are looking for things to connect them right now. I love it when people are seeing and hearing us in a new way, instead of just watching a band play.
Part of the confusion you’re going for seems to stem from the horror movie soundtrack influence. On Feels, the horrific and the psychedelic are intertwined. For example, the feeling of suspense in some songs like “Banshee Beat,” where there’s a quiet start, it gets louder, you sustain tension where I’d expect the song to explode, but it never does. Or, the echoes in “Turn Into Something” sound ghostly, it sounds like a carnival nightmare or an evil farm song.
Brian (Geologist): A formative moment for Dave and I was when we watched The Shining once in high school. We’d seen it before, but this time we just watched it just for the music, and got really into the soundtrack. We realized that pure sounds are music too. We grew up on indie rock, punk, and hair metal, so we thought that music had these traditional elements. We learned how abstract sound conveys the same emotion that a lyrical and melodic song can. So we started making horror movie soundtracks and abstract sounds in our parents’ basements. And we didn’t know musique concrete or anything like that had already been invented. That’s why there are sounds in our music that relate to that night.
In “Banshee Beat,” there’s no direct reference to Texas Chainsaw Massacre per se, but there are like three different recordings of Josh, Dave, and I making our way through the woods at night, having to break through branches, pushing thorns away. So you can compare it to that scene in Texas Chainsaw Massacre where Marianne’s stuck in the brush, running away from Leatherface. When we discussed how to mix that song, the movie came up because you’re supposed to be hearing the song through the sounds, through the branches. Like you have to claw away the branches to hear where the song is coming from.
Dave (Avey): In cases like “Banshee Beat,” it would be too easy to go for the crescendo rock. You could do an explosion, but it’s nice to know something else will have a stronger effect. As far as soundtracks, I like the more texture oriented soundtracks—like The Shining , by Kristoff Penderecki. The coolest part in horror films is when the murder is happening. Everything becomes so insane. Anything goes in that genre. Dwarves will appear, but since some scenes make so little sense, the dwarves are humorous but also dark and confusing.
Noah (Panda Bear): The first part in “Turn Into Something” is all Dave’s work, and the high singing in the last part is mine. I was singing to my baby. We did that song before she was born, and was telling her how I wanted to hook her up and show her good stuff. I want to teach her about the supernatural things in the world that make life worth living.
On the new album more than ever, there’s a dizziness: lots of looped effects, buzzing guitars, repetitive vocals, and lyrics are abstracted, like in “Bees” the vocal focus is on the long vowel sound. What are some of your recording secrets?
Dave (Avey): In “Bees,” the spinning in circles is created with piano and autoharp. But in general, it’s a combination of things. Noah and I can get our voices to sound really similar. We used to listen to a lot of Indian singers, music that has to do with following one voice. We do vocal experiments, like one of us will sing something and the other will try to follow. We use delays on our voices to create a double-overlap. Josh and Brian create all the backgrounds and do some chanting, but on Feels we tried not to overload it so much. We didn’t want it to have the same feeling as Sung Tongs. Sung Tongs had a more doo-wop feel, with multi-layered harmonies, whereas with Feels we didn’t go beyond the two-part harmony. Feels is more about a cyclical, repetitive, trance feel.
Noah (Panda Bear): Vocally, it starts when you go, “I want to use my voice to sing but not just to sing words. I want to use my voice like an instrument.” There are all kinds of things you can do with your voice in terms of tone, pitch, the color of it. You can tweak it any which way you want. For some people, it’s all about the message, but we have a lot of fun making weird sounds with our voices. With instruments and effects, one goal of ours is to make it NOT sound like what we’re using, to disguise the means. But with the voice, you don’t need to use effects on it so much because you can mask it in all kinds of ways. It’s the ultimate instrument.
Brian (Geologist): We composed “Bees” like a Chinese landscape painting. Somebody’s part was the clouds, somebody’s part was the mountains, somebody was the little Yeti. We had Eyvind in for violin, and when we explained this to him, he totally got it.
A lot of times we have an idea like this, or make up our own movies to our songs. We’ll work on a song and see what imagery would fit it, or imagine what a video for it would look like. We make songs to describe something we have in our minds, as an audio representation of that scene or story, rather than an explanation of it. “Grass” is another one that we composed with a visual, at least during the bridge. We thought of it like a Disney movie with Dave coming out of this house, singing the song, flowers dancing around, windows of the house coming alive.
At the same time, though, the dizziness is pleasant to listen to. As far as visceral music goes, and wanting your audience to physically feel your music, Feels never aims to give you a headache!
Noah (Panda Bear): In the past year, a lot of the issues we’ve had with each other have been resolved. We’ve always been tight in the sense that a relationship with a person is an ongoing thing, and of course it’s not always perfect. We’ve made huge steps, and we understand each other better than ever. We’re having so much fun hanging out. Now, since we live far apart, when we do get together to play music or tour we’re immediately psyched to be best friends again. Three out of four of us have been affected by love in the past year, so there’s lots of emotion there. Feels sounds positive because it’s all about good times. There’s no room for abrasion on this one because everything is sweet. No matter how much work I do, I’m happy to do it.