Animal Collective’s Unsolved Mysteries
By: Dennis Cook
Just then, my 50-something neighbor comes up the stairs and inquires, “What the hell are you listening to?” His tone and shriveled prune expression make it clear he’s not digging AC’s mutant pop – a shining hybrid culled from the same silver mine that gave us Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s score to Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, ’70s Brian Eno, High Llamas, Tiny Tim and Joe Meek, though beaten into sharply unique shapes by Avey Tare (Dave Portner), Panda Bear (Noah Lennox), Geologist (Brian Weitz) and Deakin (Josh Dibb). Formed in Baltimore County, Maryland, this freak-rock quartet has a tendency to split folks down the middle. Love it or hate it, there’s always a reaction, and that’s to their credit. Since 2000 they’ve made deliciously singular albums, both collectively and on their own, making a splash in the music press and alternative listener circles with strange delights like 2004’s Sung Tongs and recent solo efforts like Panda Bear’s fab Person Pitch and Avey Tare and Kria Brekkan’s Pullhair Rubeye.
Strawberry Jam is their most forthrightly engaging set yet – the ideal soundtrack to a summer full of drugs and water pistol fights, sloppy kisses and Slip ‘n Slides. We were lucky enough to snag one of the Collective for a few minutes of brain picking just before they set out on their national tour.
Instruments Played: guitar, voice, electronics
Favorite sandwich: avocado, cheese, tomato, sprouts, lettuce and fresh ground pepper
Astrological sign: Capricorn
Spirit animal: I’ve never thought of myself as an animal spirit kind of dude, but I had a really heavy dream once with a white owl that I turned into a white wolf. And I know those are both really “typical” spirit animals but it really was heavy and significant and sort of happened at a very crux point in my life.
JamBase: That’s easily the most disturbing picture of strawberry jam I’ve ever seen on the cover of your new album. There’s something vaguely genital or H.R. Giger about it. I wouldn’t put it on my toast! So, how’d you come to this picture and title for the record?
Josh Dibb: The title came about while we were on tour in the summer of 2006. We were on a flight from Moscow to Athens and Noah [Panda Bear] was eating his breakfast. He opened up a package of strawberry jam and looked at it and said that the way that it looked was how he wanted the record to sound – simultaneously synthetic, futuristic but from an organic natural place. We talk about sound in visual terms a lot, so this made a lot of sense to all of us. Dave [Avey Tare] was the one that made the artwork that is on the packaging. In many ways it differs a lot from the clean synthetic image that Noah originally was inspired by, but that makes a lot of sense to me. The art represents a lot of artistic ideas that Dave has been working with for awhile in terms of colors and light. In certain ways that and the artwork for the “Peacebone” single [also by Dave] are some of my favorite AC album art to date.
JamBase: Animal Collective is endlessly compared to the Beach Boys, Brian Eno and other ’60s & ’70s rock pioneers. That’s a lot of weight to throw on any band. What’s the group’s reaction to these touchstones? Do you find the comparisons accurate? Who do you guys think you sound like?
One of the pleasures as a listener with Animal Collective is your sense of never ending sonic mischievousness. One senses a restless itch when it comes to making unique or compelling noises not just music proper. Am I hearing this right? What’s the atmosphere in the studio when you’re all there creating these sounds?
That is very true. We each get bored pretty easily by repetition of ideas or forms. So, to some degree, we are always trying something new. We never felt comfortable with idea of getting stuck in any particular niche or pattern just for the sake of it or because it is easy. The studio though is usually less of a time for experimentation as much as it is a time for perfecting things. By the time we get to the studio we have usually written and arranged the songs pretty completely and are really just looking for the best way to capture what we already know that we want.
To my ears, Animal Collective makes pop music [read: Todd Rundgren or Squeeze not Britney or Beyonce]. Mutant, sometimes delightfully wrong pop music but pop just the same. Whatcha think of them apples?
We certainly think of it that way. I don’t think people have always seen it that way, especially on some of our earlier albums like Danse Manatee. To us, all of our music has always been rooted in our mutual love and appreciation for melody and structure, even if it has been in a way that has been difficult for a lot of people to hear.
Increasingly in much independent rock, vocals are an afterthought or a barely tolerable affectation. By contrast, vocals seem more and more important in Animal Collective. There’s some trippy layers to the singing on Strawberry Jam. What’s the band’s thinking on vocals? Is there a goal in mind? How much thought and planning go into them, especially these days?
Vocals have always been really important but I guess they have been moving to the front a lot on the last two records or so. I think that for the guys that write the lyrics right now the voice and its many textures have become even more key. We have always seen the voice as kind of the greatest instrument that one can use. The way to use it though has shifted and I think for the sake of trying new things and not “getting bored” like I talked about before. It was cool this time around to really single the voice out and see what it could do – if it really took up a separate place in the mix as opposed to some of the other records, where it has been a lot about blending them into the textures of everything else. We also grew really attached to the live energy of these songs in the touring that led up to the recording and I think that we all felt that we wanted to really hold on to a lot of that live energy through keeping the vocals as minimal as possible in terms of layering. So, I think that really pushed Dave and Noah to work their voices really hard and get them as specific as possible without effects or layering.
One thing that sets Animal Collective apart from a lot of contemporaries is just how bloody fun this music is. I find a lot of what’s out there to be pretty humorless. Animal Collective seems dead set on having a good time AND imparting it to others.
What are the challenges of bringing these studio creations into the live setting? How much gear do you drag around? Are there songs you’ve found impossible to recreate in concert?
Well, it’s actually quite the opposite. With a few small exceptions, we work the other way around. We make music to tour with and play live. Only after we have played a certain set of songs live for a while – really figured out for ourselves what they are about and what their potential is and what their limitations are – then we go into the studio and record what we ideally want to hear. And in a lot of cases that is actually very different from what we were doing live. To us, in many ways, live and studio are very different things and thus are approached with very different goals in mind. But, for the most part, once a song is recorded to tape, that is sort of the end of it for us, at least in that form. We work on something live and in practice for a while and by the time we record it we are ready to move on to something new. Can’t get bored!
A few cuts on Strawberry Jam, notably “#1,” have peculiar operatic elements. Is there a growing interest in classical music or maybe a multi-disc concept album brewing? Queen’s A Day At The Races and A Night At The Opera for the new millennium? Most likely, I’m reading too much into things.
I’ve been involved with a few co-ops in my time. Experience has shown me that human nature often scuttles our best intentions. How’s life in an animal based collective? Different one hopes.
It feels pretty blessed. We have always really respected, as much as possible, each other’s space and growth and needs and opinions. We think of each other as brothers and family, and like all families there are moments of stress and disagreement and hurt feelings. Community of any sort, I guess, has these elements. We have really all been committed to our friendships and lives above anything else, and as a result have weathered some pretty stormy terrain. Anytime there has been any serious conflict it usually leads us to a place where we try and understand where each other is coming from and why we feel a certain way – learning what someone’s true character is and why they are the way that they are, all of their wonderfulness and all of their limitations. One thing that we learned very early on was that we actually do not thrive living together. We each need our individual space [away] from each other. That makes our times together that much more special and important and sacred. It’s complicated, but like I said, I feel pretty blessed. My friendships with these dudes go much farther back than the history of the band, almost 20 years in the case of Noah. To me, that is the guiding force – not the idea of a collective or a band – but I’m glad we found this way to be nonetheless.
Check out the video for Animal Collective’s “Peacebone”
JamBase | Zoological Paradise
Go See Live Music!