INTERVIEW: Animal Collective
, August 17th, 2012 04:59
We talk to Panda Bear and Deakin about their new album Centipede Hz; have a listen to new track 'Today's Supernatural' and the Animal Collective radio shows below
Animal Collective are set to release their new album, Centipede Hz, on September 3 via Domino.
The album’s the latest in a steady trickle of material coming from the band. Their last straight studio album was 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, a commercial breakthrough for the band and an LP which had a huge influence on the indie scene on both sides of the Atlantic. Since then, we’ve had the music/video meshes of the ODDSAC album from 2010 and this year’s ‘Transverse Temporal Gyrus’ EP. The band have even been helming their own radio show ahead of the album’s release, dropping previews of what we can expect; most recently, we’ve had a taster in the form of lead-off single ‘Today’s Supernatural’.
Centipede Hz is the product of the band reconvening in a barn in their hometown of Baltimore to record something more direct, eschewing the almost wholesale sample-based construction of Merriweather... in favour of more live instrumentation and a desire to rock a little harder.
The album melds their familiar juddering rhythms and squawks of electronic noise with scatterings of old broadcast sounds, often half-heard and seeping out from a haze of digital distortion. The rocky thump of opener ‘Moonjock’ gives way to the electronic glitches that skitter around on the peripheries of ‘Rosie Oh’ and ‘Applesauce’, the album’s poppiest, most Merriweather...-esque moment. The LP is more varied than the 2009 LP, too; rather than a constant, seasick rhythmic lurch, Animal Collective shift into an almost bossa nova-like groove for ‘Father Time’, washed in a rinse of static and undertowed by distant guitar harmonics. The band also take a more song-based approach: ‘Monkey Riches’ keeps some of their characteristic busyness at bay, pivoting instead on Dave Portner (Avey Tare)’s melodic vocal line. The album reaffirms that the band have a grasp of colliding, at times mind-boggling, polyphonic and polyrhythmic psychedelia, constructed with a deftness that many of their admirers miss.
We talked to a jetlag-frazzled Noah Lennox (Panda Bear) and Josh Dibb (Deakin) - back in the band having taken a break for Merriweather... - ahead of the album’s release about the new album’s heavier sonics, recording on a pecan farm and why nostalgia is a dirty word.
Brian Weitz (Geologist) said that Centipede Hz is moving away from Merriweather...’s sound and “back to our roots” - why the shift?
Deakin: I feel like every time we make a record the biggest change is usually we make some pretty drastic changes in how we’re playing music, what instruments we’re using, what sounds we’re using or how we’re doing it. The whole purpose of doing that is to discover how to do something new for us.
Panda Bear: It gets us in a place that maybe we’re not comfortable, which I feel creatively is always a good place to be. I feel like we’re just restless creative characters, so it’s kind of a necessary thing.
He also said you wrote it more as a rock band in a room and recorded it that way as well - is that indicative of a more rock-based inspiration?
D: There’s stuff we’ve been into for a long time and influenced this record just as much as any we’ve done, a lot of psych-music from Africa and Turkey and south-east Asia from the 60s and 70s. Dave especially has been listening to a lot more, not prog, but kind of jazzy... Dave and I went to see Steely Dan, which was pretty awesome.
PB: I wouldn’t really describe that music as aggressive or noisy.
D: No, but there’s something about it...
PB: ...that’s like tech about it.
D: It’s sort of the complexity level of that stuff.
PB: I think also the space that we wrote the songs in was about the size of this room [5m x 5m interview booth] and we’re all packed in there really close to each other, and there’s amps lining all the walls. I was playing the drums and it was really loud.
D: I feel like Noah plays the drums especially hard and you really have to match that - everyone’s turned up, and inevitably the sounds are much harder.
PB: Also, the last album we did was kind of just standing, doing this [motions controlling a sampler] and it was a kind of cerebral experience. Having done that for a couple of years, we were just ready to let loose and do something more physical and get the blood boiling a little bit.
D: I had to watch all of those Merriweather... shows and was like “I think you guys are really boring on stage, you need to sweat more!” I kind of crack the whip!
So simply being in the same room together had a significant effect on the songs?
PB: Totally. I feel like it's the difference between having three or four disparate parts and then just shoving them together, as opposed to something that's created as a unified piece and winds up sounding like different elements, but it's all coming from the same source.
D: We talked about the difference between music that's created on headphones and music that's created out of speakers: it's like different sounds and the way you would approach sound is inherently different.
In terms of instrumentation, were you using more live kit?
PB: I was psyched on Latin percussion - I'd never used stuff like that before. There's this Cumbia compilation that somebody had that I was really into, so I got bongo drums that I put up on a small stand so I could hit them with sticks. Then a kick drum, and instead of a high-hat this weird shaker thing with a bunch of beads on it which you could just stamp. That was the foundation for a lot of the rhythms.
D: It was kind of like the junkyard kit!
How do you build a song like ‘Applesauce’, for example? Do you base things around the electronic glitches or are they final additions?
D: ‘Applesauce’ is actually an interesting one, because it's the only song on the record that we'd never played live before. The version on the record was come up with in the studio, we recorded and tracked and then actually in the studio, we had to go through a number of iterations, where we really stripped everything away that we'd done and re-built it and recorded new stuff. So that's almost the most studio-y song on the whole record, everything else pretty much sounds like it did live, maybe with some bells and whistles.
PB: Typically speaking, there's normally a blueprint of the song, brought in by whoever sings the song and everything gets added on top of that. I'm thinking of ‘Today's Supernatural’ - for the longest time, we could only play 'part A' and then we'd have to stop and play 'part B' and then 'part C'. It took us a little while before we could go start to finish, and now we just kind of race through it.
D: "Today's Supernatural' is probably my favourite track on the album, because I just feel like it's a totem for the album. When it came in the development of the music, it kind of was one of the early ones that came together. It was one of the first ones that sounded how we wanted the album to sound and encapsulated the energy of the time.
PB: It was fast and pretty complicated...
D: And emotional in a pretty specific way, and it just gets me psyched whenever we play it live.
PB: I think 'Pulleys' is probably my favourite one. I really like the rhythm of it and the laidback groove of it. It came together really quickly and easily - some of the songs we went through a bunch of different versions before we hit on the way of playing it that we all liked.
Have the songs changed significantly over the recording process?
PB: I feel like they're more faithful to [the live versions]. And that was kind of intentional - before we ever played a live show we wanted to have the things really super nailed-down, which is why we spent so much time before the shows making 'em this tough.
D: There's some little things here and there. Definitely compared to other records, where we'll come in with a basic live version and we'll go in the studio and just pile on all this new stuff. With this one, it was more like really choice moments. It might be cool to have this one little keyboard line there to kind of accent this or maybe do a little background vocal in one place.
PB: Before I felt there was a live version and we did it this way and there was this kind of aesthetic to it and the studio version was entirely different feel to it, but this time I think we want to keep them the same.
You all moved back to Baltimore to record the album, which makes heavy use of theme tunes and old broadcast sounds - is there a sense of nostalgia informing the new LP?
D: I don't know if it's so much nostalgia, but yeah, there was stuff we talked about, more like radio than TV that we listened to especially when we were younger. I feel like sonically that definitely made it's way into the landscape for the record, especially from Brian's point of view with the samples that he uses.
PB: There was a top 40 radio station in Baltimore that we were all into. The way they would do idents with like a weird voice and a bunch of sounds, really rapid-fire all against each other - they still do that. I mean there's some transitions [on the record] that are literally like reflections of that vibe; definite source of inspiration.
I feel like there's a kind of sadness with nostalgia, that I don't think was there so much... It's more like remembering in an excited way - I don't know if there's a word for that.
D: For some reason, the word 'nostalgia' is a word that for a really long time, any time anybody says that word in any of our company, we're all like “eurgh! We're not about nostalgia!”
PB: For some reason, it's like a dirty word!
What was the recording process - was it all done in Josh’s mum’s barn?
PB: The writing all took place in the barn. The recording was about a year later in El Paso. It was a studio called Sonic Ranch on the biggest pecan farm in America. This like Mexican-style __ and then outside there's these kind of stately-looking trees, just row upon row of these lines of almost identical trees. It was really crazy.
D: The way they get the pecans off, they have these tractors that have these huge arms with giant buzz saws on them that just shave the sides and tops of the trees. So all the trees, it's like they've all gotten haircuts in exactly the same way.
PB: But then they have to collect all the twigs and stuff that falls in huge piles, and then light them all on fire so you come out in the morning with your coffee and there's been this massive fire. Pretty gnarly environment to be in, but at the same time it was really pleasant.
How do you end up choosing what studio to go to?
PB: This time it was about the gear that they had, particularly two-inch tape machines that we could sync together, because we wanted to capture the basic live tracks on the tape to get them to sound like really juicy and good. Ben [Allen, producer] was psyched on the outboard gear there and we were psyched on the location and how it was kind of remote, usually we like to be sort of no distractions.
Did you consider producing it yourself?
D: We did actually, and - who knows what'll happen next - but we talked about it for this one and we're definitely gonna talk about it for the next one. It's always helpful to have, at the bare minimum, an engineer who knows what they're doing, especially if we're doing something live, if we're trying to track that way, you kind of really have to someone looking at it while you're doing it.
PB: It's not really in demand like it used to be - someone who knows mic placement... that side of engineering I feel is, not a lost art, but back in the day it was really necessary.
Merriweather had a massive fallout influentially, particularly in the whole chillwave sound - was the change in sound on Centipede Hz a deliberate move to go away from that?
PB: I don't think so. I guess, personally I felt like doing Person Pitch and Merriweather..., one was step one and one was step two as far as what I was doing in the band. They were kind of the same process, but one was an evolution of the other. Having done two albums with that mindset, I was just kind of ready to do something else, but it wasn't like "there's all this stuff that sounds like this, so let's do something different", it was more just trying to do something different for ourselves.
Was the idea of the video trailer for Centipede Hz to try and get across some of those radio ID ideas you were talking about?
D: We had themes for the record that we talked about that had to with alien communication, alien frequencies, transmissions. I think that was a theme in general for the record in the type of language we used and so when we got to that point, we already had so much of the sonic landscape - there was so much of the stuff, especially Brian [Weitz], that all of us made for the record to have those types of sounds and that type of imagery, it just was a pretty simple thing. That stuff [the video] was Dave and his sister Abby collaborating on that, she did all the animation. Brian took all the sounds, and made them fit everything she was doing, and fit into a world that we want to paint for this one.
You've experimented a lot with video, like with ODDSAC and ‘Transverse...’, and there's a very strong sense of sensory experience with your albums - what do you think is the best way to listen to the new record?
PB: In my opinion, it's like a morning album. I think of it like a cup of coffee, just because it sort of starts up like an engine and stays at full speed pretty much the whole time, and that's what I want in the morning.
D: I was really surprised to realise, and I didn't realise until it was done and we were approving masters, that it's actually like a daytime driving record. When we were working on it, I thought it was more of a darker sound. I played it in the car one day, middle of the day, really bright sunshine, wearing sunglasses - I left Atlanta and drove down to Miami, and it was not the world I would expect that to feel right in, but it was almost like the most right.
Do you get that a lot, where you'll record something, give it a little bit of time, then come back to it and hear something completely different thematically?
PB: This one a lot more than the other ones. It's so dense and there's so much more information to process in there. It took me a while, even having worked on all the songs, to think of the thing as a whole, it took me a while to be able to stand back and have an opinion about it.
D: Yeah, it's a weird thing, like with any record but with this one specifically, I think you work on it for so long and you're looking at with such micro detail that you get a “can’t see the forest for the trees” kind of thing, just being like this, this, this, this, it's hard to get outside and get to the point where you can put it on and be just like over there and listen to it...
With ODDSAC, that's always referred to as a 'visual album' as opposed to an album proper; why is that, and do you think that the link between music and video is something that needs to be explored more?
D: We were actually pretty frustrated by that - even in some interviews, like today, it's like "this is the first thing you've done since Merriweather" and part of me wants to be like "that's not true". That was a thing where I felt like we had a really simple idea and part of the problem was that Pitchfork wouldn't review it as a record, 'cos it wasn't a record, and literally I think that's what kept it from being...
PB: Do you think it was just that?
D: No, I'm using that as one example, I'm not blaming it on you Pitchfork! I'm just saying look, I think in general, our press people had a really hard time getting outlets that generally talk about records to review or talk about it, because to them it was like a DVD and that was a different department.
PB: It's hardly a common thing. Well, we often think of our music in visual terms anyway.
D: It's not like I feel that every record should be a visual record or something like that, I think it was a very unique process and something that I wouldn't be opposed to doing again, but also took a lot of work. It was like having a fifth band member - I wouldn't even describe it as Danny [Perez, director/editor]. I mean, Danny was it, but it was more like the fifth band member was whatever he created. You were playing against that and having to think, “what do I have to do to make that feel right?”
In terms of solo work, Noah, have you started working on a follow-up to Tomboy?
PB: Yeah, I've started working on some stuff, I don't really have a timeframe. I've sort of just got a bunch of pieces. It's gonna be pretty different - I'll just leave it at that!
And Josh, your album is due to drop this year?
D: To be determined! I take my time with things like this... I ended on finishing stuff almost two years ago now, and it's just definitely taken time, for me, just being the first batch of songs that I've ever put out, it's sort of taken its time, but I'm working on it.
What kind of sounds?
D: I don't totally know yet. I sort of see it in two different ways, maybe potentially two different releases... I'm digging a hole for myself just by saying this, because someone's gonna read that and call me on it! There's one side of it that's almost like putting together a document of what I did do around that time, especially in relation to going to Africa [EXPLAIN]. I think it's going to be one compilation of those two things or melding into one singular thing, where I'm somehow able to pull the stuff from before into what I'm doing now.