Animal Collective’s Moment In Time

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By: Andrew Bruss

Animal Collective by Takahiro Imamura
The role of a music journalist often requires using language to describe the sounds of artists who don’t easily lend themselves to description, and few bands embody this challenge like Animal Collective. Oftentimes, they don’t even sound like Animal Collective. Their albums can dislodge our sense of time and context, often seeming completely independent of earlier works. And any attempt to categorize them carries with it the understanding that no matter how close you come, you’re still off the mark. Their fans’ pseudo-religious intensity is unrivaled outside of the jam scene and their status as cult rockers is firmly in place.

But it appears that AC’s cult status may be on the decline after their new release, Merriweather Post Pavilion (released January 20 on Domino Records, you can read our review here). Although critics called their last album, 2007’s Strawberry Jam, their “pop album,” it seems as though Merriweather has the fluidity, and more importantly, the accessibility to bring a whole new demographic of mainstream listeners into the Animal Collective universe.

While overseas, supporting Merriweather, Geologist, born Brian Weitz, got on the phone with JamBase to talk about their new release, their live show and what’s slated for the future.

Even though Merriweather was just weeks away from its release at the time of our conversation, the first topic of discussion was the highly anticipated “visual album” that Animal Collective has been working on since before they recorded Strawberry Jam.

“We sort of work on it during our breaks on supporting Merriweather,” says Weitz. “It’s just a really learn-as-you-go process for us. There’s no overseeing technical producer doing the technical work for us; we’re doing it ourselves. The director doing the visuals knows what he’s doing, but we’re the ones scoring it. We’re trying to work on the music and the visuals as simultaneously as possible. He also does stuff with the band Black Dice, so we try to work on it when we have time.”

As blown away as Collective fans may eventually be by this project, you can count on some being disappointed by the fact that they probably won’t have the opportunity to hear any of the music off the “visual album” in a live setting.

Animal Collective
“Now, we’re in a unique situation where it’s the first time we’re working on a batch of material that’s purely for a studio project and not intended to be performed live,” Weitz says. “We don’t see the visuals and music as being separate. A live performance of screening the film while we play live also wouldn’t work because every scene has different instrumentation.”

Weitz explained that they usually record an album and then when they perform live they start playing new material they’re working on for the next album. It’s an unconventional approach to developing material that has the potential to throw off fans expecting to find album tracks on a setlist. This production method underscores the band’s emphasis on progression. With Animal Collective, it often seems as though anything in the present might as well be a thing of the past, an attitude that justifies the impression by many diehard fans that if you blink you might miss something.

However, at the moment, Animal Collective seems to enjoy living in the present. “Right now we’re still playing a similar set, still enjoying playing the Merriweather songs and stuff like that. So, people won’t get a taste of the next project until this thing is officially released on DVD, or if we do a screening tour where we just show it at different theatres and places,” Weitz says.

As for the buzz about Animal Collective breaking into the mainstream, Weitz shrugs these suggestions off.

“Since Sung Tongs [2004], people have been saying, ‘This is the pop record,’ or whatever, and we totally understand why it comes across that way,” offers Weitz. “[Merriweather is] definitely easier to swallow. To us, it sort of feels like a natural progression. It’s hard for me to say how an outside listener would see them, but [the roots of today’s sound] go way back to the early stuff, in the early 2000s that was more chaotic and maybe challenging to the average listener. It still has pop songs and structure within it, it’s just buried beneath this production we were feeling at the time that was a lot more harsh and chaotic and maybe disjointed. It was a reflection of our lives and mental states at the time, and we always wanted our music to be really personal to that moment in time.”

Continue reading for more on Animal Collective…

 
Even though we listen to a lot of music from 40 years ago like psychedelic stuff, The Beatles and The Grateful Dead – and we’re very inspired by it – we’ve always been pretty conscious to not try and sound like a band that was looking backwards or being retro in any way. We’ve always wanted to sound very much like a moment [in time].

Geologist

 
Photo by: Takahiro Imamura

On Merriweather Post Pavilion, songs like “Also Frightened” utilize homemade samples layered over vocals reminiscent of Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, which build upon swelling rhythms that bring to mind The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life” AND tribal exorcism chants. But, for Animal Collective sounding like anything from the past is far from the objective.

Animal Collective
“Even though we listen to a lot of music from 40 years ago like psychedelic stuff, The Beatles and the Grateful Dead – and we’re very inspired by it – we’ve always been pretty conscious to not try and sound like a band that was looking backwards or being retro in any way,” Weitz says. “We’ve always wanted to sound very much like a moment [in time].”

When asked what contributes to the polarized response the band often receives, Weitz says, “I don’t know if I could name one thing. I often say something like, ‘Well, we’re not a rock band,’ but I don’t think that really explains it. Plus, I like rock music and I like us, so those things aren’t mutually exclusive. We even polarize our own fans because we change our styles so much. Some of our fans love some of our records and hate others. I think every record of ours is one Animal Collective fan’s favorite and another fan’s least favorite or most hated. It doesn’t bother me though. I think it’s cool to offer different things to different people as opposed to offering one thing to one steady group of people. It also doesn’t bother me to be polarizing on a large scale. It’s kind of like cilantro or something. That’s a really polarizing herb, and the people who love it can’t really say why anymore than the people who hate it. It’s just something in the taste. Personally, I love it, so I don’t mind being musical cilantro.”

During their performance at last summer’s All Points West Festival, Animal Collective fans were overheard saying that the group deserves to be appreciated like Phish, where every performance is bootlegged and listened to like the Zapruder footage. With this kind of fanbase, it could be easy to feel as though you’ve got a safety net that allows some wiggle room with experimentation. On the other hand, disappointing fans can carry a high price. However, Weitz feels that neither of these scenarios is accurate.

Animal Collective
“There is definitely no safety net,” Weitz says. “If anything, I think our hardcore fans are the most critical of us. But at the same time, we’re not concerned with blowing them away each time. We hope we do but we can’t anticipate it and would probably fail if we tried. It’s like that sports quote about the coach who listens to the fans will wind up sitting next to them. You have to trust your own instincts, and the only pressure we feel in terms of creating something mind-blowing is put on us by us.”

“Coming out of our early twenties, we were living in New York in dive apartments, not living the healthiest lifestyle [and] that’s reflected in that music,” recalls Weitz. “Now, we’re all hovering around 30, either just below 30, or just over 30. A few of us are married. I’m engaged; now I have a kid. We all have pretty stable, healthy lives that are a lot less cluttered, so it just feels more natural to produce the music in a way that’s less cluttered.”

The fact remains that on a national-scale Animal Collective remains yet-to-be discovered by the mainstream. With that in mind, Weitz offered some advice to anyone who might be thinking of investing energy into exploring the group: “These days, you don’t have to pay to listen to music. So why go in with ANY expectations?” As for the live show Weitz cautions, “If you’re going to stand near the front bring sunglasses.”

Animal Collective is on tour now; dates available here.

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