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.