DIVERS DOWN Animal Collective’s Geologist and Deacon share the scuba experience with Morgan V. Lebus
Arthur: When and where were these photos taken? Deacon: We went diving off the east side of Marathon Key in Herman’s Hole. The visibility underwater was crystal. Herman is a very large moray eel who no longer lives in his hole–he’s relocated to an aquarium in Miami.
Isn’t scuba diving expensive? Deacon: The toughest part is getting certified, which costs about $500. I was lucky enough to have a dive master friend who certified me for free. The most expensive part of scuba diving is the travel. You can dive almost anywhere, but unless you’re pretty gung ho about it, diving in the local quarry is less than choice. You want to go somewhere that has a a tropical vibe, with lots of reef life and clear waters. Once you’re there, a full day of diving with boat and and gear rental will run less than $100. Geologist: While this is true, if you are into cold water diving, there are some good lake spots in New England. I’ve never done any cold water dives because you need to buy a dry-suit.
Your most fascinating underwater find? Deacon: It’s all fascinating: scuba diving is the best drug ever. My first open water dive (off a boat, away from the shore) was in South Carolina. The visibility was low and we didn’t see much more than a few barrucada and some flounder (a flat bottom feeder fish with both eyes on one side of its head). On the way up the surface I couldn’t see the bottom or the surface but off in front of me about fifteen feet away was a jellyfish. A very simple translucent specimen, but I could’ve watched sway it for hours. Geologist: In the Gulf of California I went diving off the coast of an island that was home to a sea lion colony. The pups had just been born and they were extremely curious. I also saw a seahorse there—they’re pretty rare. My big dream though, is to see whale sharks, mantas, leafy sea dragons, and a school of hammerhead.
If you could dive anywhere on earth, where would it be? Geologist: The arctic or antarctic. The way the light filters through the ice is supposed to be amazing. I´d also like to dive in the Andamen sea off the coast of Thailand, but further north, closer to Burma. Deacon: I think for me it is more a matter of when. Coral is being damaged at an intense rate and a lot of marine life is gone. I imagine that diving 100 years ago would have been a dramatically different experience, regardless of where you did it.
Your deepest dive, ever? Deacon: South Carolina at about 68 feet down. Geologist: Deep dives are not necessarily the best because your bottom time is extremely limited. With a normal tank rig you get about 15 minutes of dive time at 90 feet before you have to to a shallower depth and decompress. However, a 30-foot dive can have amazing stuff as well and your dive can be an hour long. My deepest was just above 100. The limit was 90 feet but it was a wall dive—the sea floor was about 65 feet and it stretches out from the island and then you reach the edge and the wall drops 6,000 feet! We swam over the edge and dropped to 90 feet and viewed the wall along our side. It’s an amazing feeling to look down and see nothing but darkness and try to comprehend the bottom being 6,000 feet below you.
C: I feel dutybound to advise you that we shall be reviewing many records today that have shall we say significantly progressive overtones. D: It should be no problem. I came prepared. [smiles mischievously] With beer.
Jana Hunter Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom (Gnomonsong) D: This is Cat Power covering Patsy Cline. After a plate of lasagna. C: Are you sure? D: I cannot be sure, but I feel it to be true. I am trusting my intuition. My blink-of-an-eye insight. C: Looks like you got something in your eye. This is Jana Hunter, from Houston, Texas. D: The home of Mike Jones? C: The same. D: I see. What would you call this? C: I dunno. Downbeat lo-fi folk music with a touch of glum? But it’s more lonesome than depressing, and she tries a lot of different approaches in arrangement, texture and just general aesthetic. D: There is definitely a deep longing at work here. C: The album title hints at a sense of bleak but playful humor—you know the way it mimics doom metal phrasing, half believing it, getting off on how suited to these times this exaggerated language is becoming, what with all the war, pestilence and natural disaster. But sonically this is obviously not High on Fire, so you get a little wink there. Her guitar lines can descend towards doomland like Sabbath. D: Sometimes I see where she gets the title from…
Vashti Bunyan Lookaftering (DiCristina) D: Spectacularly beautiful. C: Quiet English folk artist who made a single, slightly psychedelic album in 1970 with various Incredible String Band personnel and so on, and was then lost to the world. Championed by Devendra Banhart, Animal Collective and Four Tet, who’ve all collaborated with her during the internet era. I think some of them are on this but you just spilled your beer on the notes from the record publicist. D: Sorry! C: Anyways, her first album was re-released last year and here’s the follow-up. Next album is scheduled for 2037. D: She sounds the same as last time. There’s an almost Burt Bacharach-like feel to this. C: Yeah the orchestral hook is sweet. D: They’re very shy, mellowcholic songs. C: There’s more piano than one might expect. Very pretty, very modest. Quite a comeback, eh? D: She saved a little…
M.O.T.O. Raw Power (Criminal IQ) D: [instantly] I like this band. Make it louder! C: [turning it up] Andrew W.K. meets Guided by Voices: power-pop played with Marshalls. D: A melodic Fear. Big influence. [increasingly ecstatic] Perfect music for smart hooligans! You can quote me. C: I am. D: “Let’s Nail it to the Moon” is like Blondie’s first record. And “Spend the Night On Me” is full-on Lazy Cowgirls. C: [quizzical look] D: Aha, you don’t like them, but they have mighty hooks! “Teenage Frankenstein” is righteous rock, I’m telling you. C: Who on earth would call their record Raw Power? At first you think they don’t know what they’re doing, then you think they’re just stupidly audacious, then you find out they’ve been around since like 1988 and so it’s just a great reverse inverse record-geek joke. D: I never heard of M.O.T.O. But they have heard of themselves. They are their biggest fans. They’re like, ‘This is our Raw Power.’ And they’re right: it’s two giant balls on fire! C: [looking at sleeve photo of mixing board] Notice that everything’s recorded at level Infinity. [calculating] The singer must be like 40 years old. Perhaps he is a schoolteacher too… D: “Flipping You Off With Every Finger That I Have” is song title of the decade. C: A good ol’ American fistfight. Those don’t happen too much anymore. What if fighting was in? I don’t mean Fight Club. But you know, hipsters going to other areas of town to get drunk and fight in public. D: [repeating lyrics] “The moon in the sky/Kicks the ass/of the stars/they all fade.” This is true. Every song has a certain drunk-at-midnight, howling-at-the-moon-in-the-bar-parking-lot anthemic quality. C: Their label has the best name in recent memory: Criminal IQ. D: [confiding] It is said that there is a certain IQ where anyone who has it will eventually commit a crime. It’s like 116 or 115 or something. C: Interesting. [listening to “Girl Inhale”] Anyway, this is an homage to the Beatles tune “Girl” that is so obvious it’s great. And is so great because it’s so obvious. It’s the folk tradition: this is how songs used to change over generations. The keyboard solo is a rip of “In My Life.” I wonder if every song is like that and we only are catching the most obvious ones. D: I am saluting the mighty M.O.T.O. with every finger of my hand.
Cult Cargo: Belize City Boil Up (Numero Group) C: Another start-to-finish classic from one of America’s very finest record labels, the Numero Group out of Chicago. D: They are number one! C: This one is a collection of singles recorded between 1960 and 1980 in Belize. Amazing stuff, lots of covers of American soul hits, some reggae stuff too, all infused with this special feel. There’s a warmth—an ease—that’s absolutely seductive. You can just get glimpses of their accent. D: [repeating lyric] “You can’t go half way, you got to go all the way/to have all my love.” Song of the third date. C: Numero Group specialize in upending every notion you have that there is, or has ever been, a meritocracy in pop. They prove that human achievement on this planet is continuous and happens wherever people have time on their hands. It does not take place in the easily circumscribed times and places and sequences that VH1 or self-appointed music experts like ourselves— D: [Snorts, beer comes out of nose] C: —like to place it in. The energy is always-there-everywhere, it’s just a matter of whether you’ve found out about it yet. Remember M.O.T.O.? They’ve been going since 1988, they’re in our own country, and we only just found out about them. Think what’s been going on in other countries for decades! We don’t know anything! Admitting ignorance is the first step towards enlightenment. D: [definitively] Numero Group are international cargo crate diggers of the first order. They should be awarded United Nations medals of honors for service to mankind. C: Okay, time for a snack. [Offering a jar of tiny pickles from Gelson’s] Tiny pickle? D: That’s what she said. Wait a second! That’s not what I meant.
Choubi Choubi! Folk & Pop Sounds From Iraq (Sublime Frequencies) C: Songs from our musically oriented friends in Iraq, much of it recorded in the Sadaam Hussein era. D: I like this! You know, maybe we wouldn’t bomb them if we listened to their music. C: Sublime Frequencies, who were spotlighted last issue in Arthur, also deserve special recognition and financial reward for service to humanity. D: [looking at sleeve] It says here that this song, “They Taught Me,” is in the style of “1970’s Socialist Folk-Rock.” C: Very helpful, D. Now, please pass the shisha. D: [listening] This one sounds groovy… I am at a loss for words— C: But not at a loss for beer— D: [glares] Silence in the lower ranks! C: It turns out that my favorite is the “Choubi” style, which sounds very Indian movie soundtrack to my untrained ears: odd rhythm, acoustic string instruments, orchestral strings, a woman ululating with a choir. [listening to track 5] Is this one called “bee attack”? C: No. Although there is an instrument being used called, which is Arabic for “wasp.” By the way, it says here on the sleeve that music was regarded as very important by Sadaam Hussein: he apparently called musicians the “seventh division” of his forces. But musicians themselves are not really highly regarded in Iraq. They aren’t really stars. Professional musicians are usually outsiders and outcasts, who play weddings and parties and illicit nightclubs, a recording is made to keep the artist going between gigs… gigs as income, recordings as low priority… songs are immediately public domained and any popular, locally pressed recordings are pirated… Is the music better or worse for existing in this way? I dunno. If you were to judge American music solely on the basis of each year’s 20 best selling albums, you wouldn’t say our system is outputting much to speak of. Could it be that music is worse in a corporation-ruled market system than in a dictatorship with zero intellectual property laws? If you were a musician and you’re being pirated and you’re not getting songwriting royalties and nobody is getting rich off your labor—stall merchants were just getting by, selling tapes, and in the process getting your name out there—would you care about piracy? You might be pissed off a little, but then again, chances are you built on what was there before you too. And anyways, you’re doing fine. D: I would like to drink to this and swivel my hips. Generally just do that thing. C: I don’t think you could get in a bar fight to this. D: Or a war.
Radio Pyonggyang: Commie Funk and Agit Pop from the Hermit Kingdom (Sublime Frequencies) C: Paging Mike Patton, please come to the Lost & Found. We have your Mr. Bungle demo. But seriously: this is a whole record of North Korean stuff: “field recordings, television/radio intercepts and live performances” from 1995-1998. Album two in Sublime Frequencies’ Axis of Evil collection. I guess Iran will be next. D: There is something special here but I think it takes a certain mind to appreciate it. [smiling] Which I have. C: I dunno, this is a bit too schmaltzy for me. Where’s the funk? Sounds like that shitty Thai pop you hear sometimes. In the interest of peace between nations, I want to get to this but I can’t. D: [musing] How can we hate them when they’re so awesome?
Residual Echoes Phoenician Flu and Ancient Ocean (Holy Mountain) D: [explodes] Whoa! WHOA!!!! What have you let into this place? C: This band almost caused a riot at Arthurfest when they played the first day downstairs in the theater. Socks were blown off. Heads were on their cel phones telling people to get over here NOW. D: I can hear why. WHOA. Fuck me, this is some full-on majestic streetwalking cheetah thruster guitar rock in Satty-like collage. Man! C: Year they’re like cousins to the Comets on Fire bros, spiritually speaking. D: Another strike force from Santa Cruz!?! C: It’s a question that needs an answer: What exactly is going on up there in the banana slug republic to generate this kind of Hawkwind power gazer goner stuff? I can hear some Dead Meadow blisswork bursts in there too—and Crazy Horse search-soling as well. And Acid Mothers Temple yawning-sound journeying, heavy Bonzo drumming. Amazing.
Lightning Bolt Hyper Magic Mountain (Load) C: New riff-blat super-attack from the Providence, Rhode Island artcore guitar-drums power duo. D: The cover art matches at least the first eight seconds. C: [reading sleeve] “Humans chill out! There is no back-up planet!” D: Cathartic art attack. They must be a ball to see live. C: They have some definite hits here., like track 2, “Captain Caveman.” Reminds me of Unsane, Big Black, Helmet, Killdozer, Slayer: everything on that label Amphetamine Reptile used to sound like this. I guess that sound went pretty mainstream with more ink and noserings but there was always some infant-mind tantrum rapping on top of it. But this is more like the original stuff to me, more imaginative and nature-loving, and, as they say, “mastered for metal loudness.” You gotta dig the lyrics: “Health is all the wealth I need/birds and squirrels and bees and trees/all the things that ride the breeze/money makes the world go round/drags it down and burns it out/I am the caveman/I am the timebomb…” D: Time for another beer. I’ll be in the fistfight in the other room.
We Are Wolves Non-Stop Je Te Plie En Deux (Fat Possum) C: Another band with a wolf-related name. From Canada. They are Canadian wolves: hear them howl. D: [Returning with two newly opened beers in hand, enthusiastic] I like this! It sounds like what doing really good coke feels like. C: Um. I was gonna say these guys sound like it what I had hoped ARE Weapons or that second Faint album would sound like but that’s damning with pretty faint praise. D: It’s almost like the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.” Or Devo, even. C: An agitated, slightly angry Devo. Or Fat Possum’s own gonzoid Bob Log III: churning stuff, guitar and vocals set to high-distort. D: Canadians freaking out with a drum machine.
BULL TONGUE Exploring the Voids of All Known Undergrounds by Byron Coley and Thurston Moore
Boston’s Sunburned Hand of the Man have been devilishly busy this time out, blessing our ears and asses with a shelf-filling pile of audio goodness. The Complexion LP (Records) highlights their percussion-and-swoop angle more than some of their others. It’s a nice thing to listen to on a rooftop, while ambulances skedaddle around the corners. Bursts of internal static and much less jam-cuss-aktion than some might dig, but we are not they. The Wedlock 2LP (Eclipse) is a document of a trek the band made to Alaska three or so years back to play a wedding. Some of it is Wedding Album audio collaging of the haps, but there are also huge patches of the band in a weirdly Hendrixy mode with heavy jam flashes and rhythm underpine. Great looking package, too. And there are at least a couple of new CDRs. Live in Shit (Manhand) is an utterly spaced-out live show from some damn time and place, one of our favorites of theirs overall. And Knifelife (Manhand) is like eating an electric waffle and grunting about its pleasures or something. There’re plenty of analog crosshatches and rich hints of both butter and maple, but that’s only part of it, naturally. Bite it hard to discover more.
Seems like Jessica Rylan can’t do wrong (get it?). Yeah, anyway, she has out a boss new booklet of drawings called something you entered into or headed towards (WFOT). We guess the format is color Xerox, and they look totally great. Some are like Adolph Wolffi doing his versions of Patchen’s poem-paintings, others are just disturbed (or calm) and beautiful. Rylan mixes word and image with a really bodaciously intellectual primitivism. Worth many peeks, both fast and slow. And, as Can’t, Jessica has released a super stark-o clipclopped-note-beat-disaster 7” through the supremely jake Ultra Eczema label outta Belgium. The label is run by an illustrator named Dennis Tyfus and his sluice-and-gangrene color creations are HOT and WEIRD. His illo of Can’t on the oversized sleeve is insanely lovely. All the releases, mostly CDRs by the such outfits as Guam River (a John Olson zap-zone), are wild on the iris and his site is a fuuking trip to knock around.
The MVEE Medicine Show rolls yet again with a stunning new LP, Moon Jook (Records), which is the most devilishly musical-qua-musical move they’ve made in a bit. Matt Valentine’s guitar playing is really exceptional here, and Erika Elder’s grasp of all “little instrument” dynamics is a breath of pure meditative smoke. It’s true the pair (and their extended family) have recorded a daunting pantload of stuff over the past few years, but this one’s particularly CHOICE. Matt’s old bandmate (from Tower Recordings), PG Six, has a great new LP too, The Well of Memory (Perhaps Transparent; CD on Amish). Pat has been playing especially superb shows this past year and this album collects a few live favorites, all of which bristle with his mastery of many strings—guitar, harp, banjo, piano and on and on. There is a sweet melancholia that seeps through every note here. It will ebb and flow through synapses like burning honey. And the word is that his next album may be harp improvs, which would be hipper than shit.
Anyone who has wanted to sample the work of the great American poet, Charles Potts, but has been mind-dicked by either the abundance or lack-of-abundance of available titles, has just had a lucky day. The Portable Potts (West End Press) is a goddamn glorious paperback compendium of his work throughout a vast array of decades, styles, foci and haircuts. And this book may lack the visual oomph of seeing Charles get blown across the stage at the Arthurfest by Sunn 0))), but it’s a book that will satisfy in many other ways. It represents a real slice of Potts’ work from the wild ‘60s poems to the insane prose to the cowboy stuff to the Chinese stuff, to the sociology and all points in between. Be a sport and stuff it in someone’s stocking this Christmas, it would be a vital gesture in support of true culture.
Our knowledge of the Portugese underground is not what it should be, we admit it. But it just got a little better, with the arrival of two records by the Loosers. Not that there’s much findable info at hand, but the sounds themselves are sweet. A trio, the Loosers do a surprising number of things at once. Their basic focus is art-damaged power-pus, but they do it in a variety of ways, recalling everyone from Sonic Youth to Jackie O Motherfucker at various times. Their first LP is For All the Round Suns (Ruby Red) and it is a pretty wonderful blend of several generations of underground nonsense —from the Birthday Party to NNCK to My Cat Is An Alien—and could easily be the best new CDR from Brooklyn this week, if you know what we mean. But it’s a dandy looking LP and that ain’t hay. Nor is their second LP, Slugs (Ruby Red), although it is not quite as overloaded with sheer idea-wattage, taking more the form of debased prog-grope excursions onto the ramp of the ringed percussive o-mind. It’s a nice trip, with flutes and toots up the old wazoot. Why they only pressed 100 is anyone’s guess.
Best tape label so far this year has been Fag Tapes out of Ypsilanti, Michigan. The proprietor dude is Heath Moerland who either works or owns the record store that Mike “Hair Police/Wolf Eyes/The Haunting” Connelly works at. Which means, just by that association alone, this label is el sickosonik. He’s released awesome noise death jammers by the nefarious doom-improv unit Death Kcomm as well as straight-up bloodfeasts from both Hair Police and Dead Machines. Sad to say Fag Tapes only issues these animals in editions of 50 or so. But you can, at least by today’s date, still grab the best dealio from the label. That be the Street Freaks 2 and Super Street 3 “diamonds in th’ ruff” compilations with skrewed out trax by Pengo, Sick Llama, The Haunting, Tape Deck, Wolf Eyes, Sightings, Aaron Dilloway, Connelly and Death Komm. Again, these babies are in hand numbered editions of 50 and 75 respectively so you may wanna act FAST. (Update alert: since this writing Fag Tapes has released vols. 3 and 4 of the Super Street series so stop sleepin’). The two distributors who have this shit-fry are Volcanic Tongue in the UK and Fusetron in USA.
ONE MORE TRICKSTER GONE Late-Night Thoughts on R.L. BURNSIDE & the Indestructible Beat of the Blues By Eddie Dean
You have to meet your heroes whenever you can, so I accosted Shelby Foote a decade ago as he was leaving the men’s room at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.
The 80-year-old author of The Civil War: A Narrative, rightfully called our American Iliad, was minutes from delivering a lecture to a packed auditorium, and he was in hurry to get to the podium. I wanted to give him a story I’d written about an obscure country-music rebel named Jimmy Arnold.
Hailing from southwest Virginia, Arnold had transformed himself from a shy skinny mountain kid into a bluegrass-biker outlaw of Orson Wellesian proportions. He tattooed himself from head to foot like a Celt warrior of old (including a panther on his cheek, a lion on his forehead, and Christ on his throat) and recorded a sui generis concept album about the Lost Cause, Southern Soul, before dying at age 41 of heart failure. I figured Foote would be interested to know that Civil War buffs came in all shapes and sizes.
I didn’t want to battle the post-lecture autograph crowd, so I figured now was the time for the hand-off. He took the package graciously, and I never expected to hear from him again.
Several months later, though, came his reply, in the same dip-pen cursive scrawl that he’d written 500 words a day for more than 20 years to finish his masterpiece. He thanked me for the story and the cassette of Southern Soul I’d included, “both of which made me deeply regret not having seen him [perform] live while he was still with us. Pretty soon, I fear, we’re going to run out of people like him & we’ll be much poorer for the loss.”
His words came to my mind when I heard that R.L Burnside had died in September.
R.L. was another hero of mine, and we’re running out of people like him. He was a trickster figure right out of Southern folklore, full of mischief and uncommon mettle. His signature, “Well, well, well,” was at once bemused and menacing, an open declaration of war against easy sentimentality and crap romanticism.
R.L was a realist, and as such took it as his beholden duty to tell the truth as he saw it. The witness to disaster—his own and those around him—must do something more than simply mourn. He’s got to testify. And must not only endure, as Faulkner put it, he must prevail. R.L. had his own way of saying it: “Hanging in like a dirty shirt.” It was an art that arose out of sheer stubbornness as much as anything else. He took the shit that life threw at him and tossed it right back, again and again and again.
When I got word of R.L’s death, it hit extra hard, because Shelby Foote had died only a few weeks before. I recalled our second, (and final, exchange. I’d written a brief reply of gratitude to his thank-you note, telling him that I rated Skip James higher than Robert Johnson as the ultimate bluesman. I knew he was a Johnson fan all the way, which his post-card reply confirmed. I also threw in a mention that John Keats was my favorite poet, and he agreed, adding, “Keats is my man too, I only wish he’d lived to be nearly 80 like Robert Browning.”
Thinking of these two old lions now gone, these two neighbors (they lived just 40 miles apart, Shelby in south Memphis, and R.L in north Mississippi hill country) of a South long dead and gone, it hit me that R.L. was the Browning of the blues, a late bloomer who gained more power and force with time, that rare musician who burns brighter as the years go on.
The late writer and record producer Robert Palmer “rediscovered” R.L. in the early ‘90s and his liner notes to the Fat Possum classic, Too Bad Jim, bears repeating for its insight into R.L’s love of chaos as a philosophy of life:
“One of the most productive album sessions began on a rainy Sunday afternoon with a rapid-fire sequence of disasters. A bass literally fell apart, a drum kit broke into pieces and finally a heavy glass door fell out of its frame for no good reason and was prevented from smashing the recording board only through the timely intervention of the producer’s skull. Far from being deterred, R.L. was positively beaming. He seemed to enjoy these incidents immensely, and by the time we’d cleared away all the damage he was in an inspired mood, ready to rock.”
As good as Too Bad Jim is, A Ass Pocket of Whiskey is better. Recorded two years later with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in a rented hunting lodge, it is, among other things, the hardest-rocking album ever made by a 70-year-old. It has been described as a party record, which it is, in the same way that the Stooges’ Funhouse is a party record. Even here, instead of grandstanding and showboating like every other elderly bluesman has done at one time or another (and you can’t blame a single one), R.L. will have none of it. He is a conduit, a cosmic joker talking trash and invoking the chaos of the universe. The band doesn’t let him down.
A few years after Ass Pocket of Whiskey made R.L. a sensation on the underground rock circuit, I went to see him at his home in the hill country near Holly Springs, MS. It was early January, in between tours, and he was nursing a cold. Even so, he was cordial and full of good cheer, as he must have been with a hundred other journalists who tracked him down in his final glory years.
Inside his small brick house, a dozen or so family members and hangers-on were crowded around the TV set, watching the western Tombstone starring Kurt Russell on cable. Nobody paid any attention to either myself or R.L. as he ambled back to the kitchen to make me a drink. They had seen this interview scenario many times before, whereas movies like Tombstone held up to repeated showings.
R.L, sank into a couch in ante room off the kitchen, and I took a seat opposite. He was tired, he needed the rest.
After a while, a party of young musicians came through the front door. It was the North Mississippi All-Stars, here to pick up R.L.’s son Garry in their van. Garry was playing with them that night at a show in nearby Oxford. The bandleader, Luther Dickinson, ended up into the back room where we sat talking. He’s a young dude with long hair and a quick smile, and, when he saw R.L., his smile got bigger and he went over to say hello.
Luther seemed to sense R.L.’s fatigue, and he knelt down so he could listen better to what he was saying. All I could hear of their conversation was a lot of ‘Yes sir’s” on the part of Luther and a lot of chuckling from R.L. I am no stranger to Southern ways, and I could understand that Luther was a well-brought up young man, but this was something much more than mere respect for your elders.
It was a beautiful scene, the young acolyte at the feet of the sage, paying tribute and also gleaning the kind of sustenance that can’t be found in guitar instruction manuals. I will always remember the glow that came over R.L’s haggard face as he bantered with another of his sons, this one adopted, who will carry on his ways, to not merely endure, but to prevail: Hanging in like a dirty shirt.
Dizzying Heights 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.
“Nor is it to be thought that man is either the oldest or the last of earth’s masters, or that the common bulk of life and substances walks alone. The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be… They walk serene and primal… They walk unseen and foul in lonely places where the Words have been spoken and the Rites howled through at their Seasons. The wind gibbers with Their voices, and the earth mutters with Their consciousness. They bend the forest and crush the city, yet may not forest or city behold the hand that smites…. Man rules now where They ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now. After summer is winter, and after winter summer. They wait patient and potent, for here shall They reign again.” — from “The Dunwich Horror” by H.P. Lovecraft
It begins in an ancient temple, or a temple that certainly looks antediluvian, deserted except for a young man who lays upon the floor, insensate. He wakes slowly. Dressed in raggedy homespun, he looks like an androgynous gutterpunk, circa 960 A.D. The temple is wide and long, bounded on both sides by columns hewn from rock. At one end of the temple, on a stone bier at the top of a short flight of steps, lays a young woman, sleeping a deathless fairy-tale sleep. Or dead, perhaps, awaiting burial. Indistinct voices speaking no known language can be heard, faintly when you (as the young man) approach her, and though nothing is clear, your purpose seems obvious and instinctual: wake the girl, somehow. Her resting place is at the end of the temple open to the vast countryside, and the light that comes from the outside is hazy and autumnal, golden.
You are, inevitably, armed. Your arsenal includes, and will only ever include, a plain sword and bow and arrow. The sword is, of course, magic: when you hold it aloft in the sunlight, it seems to collect the light, grabbing sunbeams from the air and focusing them into a bright beacon. You discover that if you experiment with turning in certain directions, the formerly disparate and scattered beams tend to form into a focused, single beam. The only other living thing in the temple is a horse, which allows you to mount it. Being no dummy in the ways of video games’ enchanted objects, you decide to aim your horse in the direction the beams collect. Your trip is untroubled. The verdant but quietly desolate and melancholy countryside seems to number only you and your horse as living inhabitants. The scent carried on the wind would be, if you could smell anything, narcotic and mournful, an opiate of burning, fallen leaves and other dying things.
The beams of light lead you to a cliff face that, if it could, would drop to its knees and beg you to climb it, so you do after a bit of trial and error experimentation, driven by a strange sense of purpose and obligation to the sleeping girl, feeling that at the top of this cliff, something awaits. This is important, you think. And then you are there at the top of the cliff, and it is there that you finally see it: standing at least one hundred feet tall, the minotaur-thing strides back forth across the length of a small valley. It doesn’t drip blood from its fangs, snatch cows from a fleeing herd and toss them into its mouth like popcorn, or even open its mouth to spray great gouts of fire at an unfortunately located village. It simply walks back and forth carrying a great club, looking as if it was born equally of stone, metal and flesh, possessing the ground it strides as befitting a godlike force of nature, and you know, with a heavy heart, that your task is to use your basic tools of war to achieve the impossible: the destruction of this beautiful behemoth before you. The first part of the destruction is an academic puzzle: how do you scale such a thing and find its weaknesses? And once you find its weaknesses, how do you humble it and then slay it? And once you do this impossible thing, you know that you cannot rest, and that the girl sleeping in the temple cannot wake, until you find the other towering creatures, Colossi, titans, Old Ones, whatever they are, and destroy their terrible beauty as well.
And that’s it. There’s no expository dialogue explaining the plot in the comically serious jargon as common as air in the videogame world. There’s no attempt to set your Quixote-esque pursuit of the ever-larger and ever more fancifully rendered Colossi in the rigid frame of good versus evil or right versus wrong, as the conventional wisdom of storytelling demands. You simply are, and your quest simply is. It is, quite simply, an extraordinarily exhilarating and confoundingly beautiful experience. And this is a videogame, for pete’s sake: a heavy, heavy videogame full of weird wonder, atavistic dread and thrillingly bizarre, avant-garde leanings.
In fact, at times Shadow of the Colossus feels more like an epic-length stoner rock record than a videogame.