Natural Selection: The Strange World Of Animal Collective
, January 7th, 2016 10:19
Before they release their tenth album, the current AC line-up connect the dots between ice showers in Alabama, Bart Simpson belly-surfing and playing to Spanish conga lines as they look over their career to date
Photograph courtesy of Tom Andrew
Animal Collective have a pleasing tendency to finish each other's sentences. Be it discussing the finer points of tropical lizard safekeeping or dealing devastating blows to their former touring partners Black Dice by revealing the secrets behind their camping equipment-based early onstage activities, the members that feature on new album, Painting With, Dave Portner, aka Avey Tare, Noah Lennox (Panda Bear) and Brian Weitz (Geologist), frequently seem to speak as if from a hive mind. Lennox touches on this trait directly when discussing their songwriting. "We've developed a really specific, idiosyncratic language with each other," he says, "So when we try to play with other people, it takes some translating."
There are other people played with on the new record - John Cale and Colin Stetson (who went some way to getting Portner past his dislike for saxophones in rock music: "It's helped me get over the aversion a little bit; I mean, I like it on our song") to be precise - but it's very much the product of a band who've created a sound all of their own over an almost 17-year lifetime. Painting With follows the trajectory of leaving behind the spooked campfire atmospherics of their first records for teeming electronic textures, a set of primary-coloured shanties with lurching rhythms and the occasionally surfacing sample. On 'Lying In The Grass' Stetson lends airy burbles of saxophone while 'On Delay' is graced by fluttering piano, all the while Portner and Lennox trading lyrics in cascading rushes. Shaping influences on the album ranged from discussions about cave people to Cubist and Dadaist art, while the DJ sets that Portner, Weitz and Josh 'Deakin' Dibb, the collective's fourth member who doesn't appear on this record, played over the last year lend the album its sense of unceasing forward propulsion.
The ten prime points they've picked for their Strange World... are clustered around two pivotal moments. One is their formative improvised sessions and shows in New York in the early '00s - "It was really about making up songs on the spot, without any preconceived idea of what they would be," says Portner, talking over their selection in London last November - which followed Panda Bear's self-titled debut and his and Portner's Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished and would give rise to the frenetic and brilliantly scattershot Danse Manatee from 2001. The other is 2009's singular Merriweather Post Pavilion and the EP and the audiovisual projects that would come in its wake, the work of a distinctly different iteration of the group. What provides this capacity for evolution is another of their choices, the constantly shifting nature of the band's line-up, and their reflection on this point is tellingly characteristic. "I said that in that we're still here making records," explains Weitz, "and one thing that I think is responsible for that is…" "...flexibility," chimes in Lennox.
Geologist: Originally Danny [Perez, director] would film us playing live, and then, in between the live songs, instead of it being us and the van, just shots of the sun coming or us at gas stations, it was like, we'll go into these little vignettes. Then eventually these ideas become more exciting to us than having any concert footage and Danny didn't even really film us; we spent more time talking about these vignettes than actually shooting footage of us on stage.
Someone pointed out almost every segment in ODDSAC is someone doing a really meaningless and pointless task, like the girl trying to shove the ooze back in the wall or when I'm washing these eggs and trying to throw them at Noah or the family can't get the fire to work with the marshmallows and they get in a fight or at the end, Dave trying to do this cooking show with the girls... Everything is trying essentially to do this meaningless, bang-your-head-against-the-wall task that ends up in failure. They pointed that out and said, "Is that how you felt about making this movie? Was it just one big bang-your-head-against-the-wall, hoping it didn't end up in failure, and that there was no meaning in it, no point you were trying to say with any of these things?" I turned to Danny and said: "That's a really good observation - were you thinking of that?" And he wouldn't really admit it; I don't think he wanted to admit that maybe it wasn't about anything.
One of the reasons I'm proud of it, and I also feel it's why it gets ignored a lot of times, is that Beyoncé had her visual album, which - and not to be like, "She got the idea from us" - but we used that term three years before. For us, it wasn't like a music video for every song, it was like the visuals were a fifth musician. We didn't always just write songs and give them to Danny, and he didn't just give us a video to write a song to, a lot of times it was back and forth and tweaking and moulding both simultaneously to influence each other. I don't know of any process that's been done like that before, certainly not with us and our friends, and I thought it was an ambitious idea to have.
Primavera Sound at Parc del Fòrum, Barcelona on May 31, 2008
Panda Bear: It was maybe the first festival show we had that felt really, really good. I remember setting up on the stage and thinking, it's a huge field out there, but it'll probably be like a third full...
G: ...and it was the most people I'd ever seen. You couldn't see the ends of the people. What I liked about it, too, was that a small portion of the set was released music. We were already playing Merriweather songs, but Merriweather was maybe half a year from coming out. I don't even think we were finished recording it, but the crowd seemed to come along and be psyched on the energy of the new songs. I feel like, when you play new material, a festival's where it can go down the worst, but that one.... I don't even remember playing well, I just remember feeling really grateful that people didn't seem pissed off by the idea of a band going up there and playing unrecognisable music.
PB: I feel like there's so many elements involved in a good show happening way beyond how we perform, and that's to do with the space and the venue and how we get on with the people and the crew at the stage, what's going on with people in the audience, the kind of days they've had. I feel like it's a super complicated thing, so to have it really come off at the biggest show we played at that point, to have everything coalesce and go the right way, just made it feel like a really special thing.
Avey Tare: We were definitely nervous. I remember we were just trying to make jokes before going on stage to try and ease the nerves. There was a conga line when we were playing. Somebody else was saying, "It's kind of crazy that you guys play music that's like Captain Beefheart, and people are dancing to that music, like, what's the rhythm?"
Transverse Temporal Gyrus at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York on March 4, 2010
AT: It came about when we were at Sundance, which Danny got ODDSAC into. We got the offer - at that point, the Guggenheim had been having bands play shows and doing visual stuff. Since Danny was there, we were like, "What if we see if we can just do some weird installation kind of thing?" And they said okay, but the committee that was in charge weren't really in charge of curating the Guggenheim, they were just in charge of curating these shows that happened there. It turned out that it was really not kosher for anybody to do an installation at the Guggenheim, because they plan who does the art years in advance, so from the get-go, it was like, we're going to have to be really hush-hush about this and...
G: ...make the trustees think it was a concert. We had some ideas where we wanted to bring in like sand... That's when the trustees were like, "You want dirt or mulch?!" We were like, "I want to put dirt over the entire floor." There's a fountain in the lobby and at the time I was really into watching YouTube videos of homemade science things. You can mix certain kinds of seltzers together, hit it with a blacklight and it glows, so I was trying to ask permission to replace what was in the pipes that fed the fountain - "Can we do seltzer?" And they were like: "It's too sticky."
AT: We got a lot of those ideas shut down.
AT: Anything that would be too difficult to clean up, because we only had that night. Everything came down to that night. Danny was like, "We're going to dress you in outfits..." but we didn't know anything about it, so we just turned up, knowing that we were going to set up the sound installation, Danny's got these ideas that he's shown us drawings of, they looked good. We got there and it turned out that Danny wanted us to be on these apple boxes, they were like 2' by 2' pedestals, and these masks that barely fit our faces that were the most uncomfortable things, just plastic shoving in. But I remember it being one of the most satisfying rounds of applause we'd ever got, because no one really believed it was us, and then after the second one, while we were there, we took off our masks and everyone was like: "Yeah!"
'What Would I Want? Sky', from Fall Be Kind EP (2009), and being the first ever band to get clearance on and use a Grateful Dead sample
G: We told our manager or Domino: "This is going to be on the next EP, you're going to have to clear that sample." Someone at Domino called someone at Warner Bros. and Phil Lesh asked to hear it and luckily, since we'd done it on the BBC, they just sent him the recording from the Rob Da Bank show and he gave the thumbs up. So the first we heard they were even asking permission was when we got the email saying it was cool to do. I didn't know it was the first time they'd ever agreed to sample licence, but in the same email, they said they've never agreed to this before but Phil loves the song and they're going to give it to you. It was one of the few moments where somebody gives you like a thumbs up and you're like, "Jesus".
Jamming in the apartment on Prince Street, New York in 2000
AT: We played with acoustic guitars and we had a DX27 keyboard that we figured you just would create these walls of sound that we really started getting into. Brian and I both decided to stick around in New York for the summer after college and then Noah decided to move there for the first time. And when we didn't have to be at work, we just decided to get together; we didn't really have any goal in mind, we just felt like playing music.
G: We didn't have any other friends. Well we had a few. There was a lot of hash going around at the time. Dave and I both lived there that summer, so we each had our futons against the wall; in the daytime they were folded up as couches and then we'd flip 'em out in the night, and there probably wasn't more than a few feet between our feet. It was like a dorm room that we had.
AT: Brian had an iguana that Noah and I almost killed.
PB: He got out on the fire escape while Brian wasn't there. We were like, "Shit, how do we get him back in?" Didn't we coax him in with a lettuce leaf? "Come on back!" But I think, for a time, they were some of our most favourite recordings that we ever did.
AT: It kind of laid the groundwork for how we would play the acoustic guitars afterwards with Animal Collective, this weird combination of electronic music and acoustic music, or playing natural instruments as if they were supposed to be electronic.
Early New York shows and first tour with Black Dice in 2001
AT: We liked the Sun City Girls and music that would be really aggressive and make people uncomfortable in a performance art kind of way, so Brian and I would do these performance art-oriented shows.
G: My girlfriend and I went to a show pretending not to know each other. We poured milk on her head and she attacked Dave, pushed him into the tent; it was a set-up, but nobody at the show knew it. The Black Dice guys were really upset when they found out later. They were like: "That was the most badass thing I've ever seen a band do."
AT: I remember Bjorn [Copeland, Black Dice] being in the record store, Other Music, that Noah and I worked at, he'd come in and buy records every now and then, and he was like: "Oh, we go on tour pretty much once a year." We'd never even talked about anything like that, so I said, "Maybe can we join you and see what that's like?" The tour was great, it was a good time. It was more turning people off than turning people onto what we were doing. At that point, we'd played maybe not even a year's worth of shows in New York, but it was reaching a point where local club promoters were asking us to open up for bands. We played for full rooms at the Mercury Lounge and were like, "I don't know, we're getting popular?" And then we'd go out to the rest of the country and be lucky if people stayed in the room.
PB: There'd be three people and two people would leave.
G: We ended up switching who would go first every night, because it was supposed to be Black Dice's show and we'd play before them. But people would leave.
AT: When we played at New Orleans, the owner of the bar wrote, "Thank you, good night" on a piece of paper and put it up on stage while Black Dice were playing and then turned the power off.
G: Someone threw ice at us at Mobile. That was just the South; I remember getting to the coast and people came out to the shows in LA and San Francisco, because we were playing with local bands that were a little more like us. That felt really cool, being in California for the first time and feeling like, "Alright, not only New York..." I remember Hisham [Bharoocha], who was the drummer of Black Dice at the time, saying: "What is the point in touring? Just fly out here, borrow some gear and just stick to California and New York." It's hard to argue with him, based on our experience, but I'm glad we persevered.
Overall free-form structure of the band and how it functions
Photograph courtesy of Hisham Akira Bharoocha and Abby Portner
G: The idea that we're not territorial about solo projects or it always has to be all four of us on the record, I feel like that's helped us.
AT: That's how we were in high school, just making tapes of music on our four-tracks and sharing them with each other that were never really related to anything. Noah would do a 45-minute piece of different songs and Noah and Josh and I would do different stuff that we all enjoyed. We thought, let's do it this way. It wasn't really until we got with FatCat and they were like, "Ah, it's a little confusing."
PB: I'm still kind of opposed to the name to be honest, but I understand the logic behind it.
AT: It kind of makes sense to go on tour and be Animal Collective, rather than "Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Geologist and Deakin playing tonight". It's easier for the promoter. We didn't know what to put on the show posters.
G: But I'm glad the idealistic vision [still holds up] - this record is only the three of us and Josh wanted to finish up his solo stuff. Even as this has become our way of making a living and stresses and responsibilities are now attached to music in a way they weren't before, we haven't let that enter into this, we've stayed true to that ideal.
Prospect Park Bandshell, Brooklyn, August 14 & 15, 2009
AT: It was the end of that Merriweather era, a 'let's go out with a bang', the biggest shows we were going to play. They were both 6,000 apiece.
G: Dave's sister Abby made all these statues and even like a background with a moving shark.
AT: It almost felt like a high school play, you wheel on the shark.
PB: It clicked right. I think the first show is the only time, when we stopped, the applause almost became like a physical thing. It's kind of hard to explain, but they felt like big shows that felt like small shows. Like you were connected with everything that was happening.
G: There was something very New York about it, too. I feel like we used to be a New York band, then we were kind of a nowhere band for a little while, and then I felt like we were being treated as a New York band. I remember that night feeling right at home.
Music used in The Simpsons on 'A Totally Fun Thing That Bart Will Never Do Again' (2012)
PB: It's like being on Sesame Street or The Muppets or something. They cleared it with us way before it aired...
AT: ...it was a really happy song ['Winter's Love' from Sung Tongs] and a little bit older at the time. I'm always surprised that it would be able to translate to such a big show, with some bits of that record being so weird. I think they told us what the scene was going to be; we usually make it a stipulation that we know before we okay anything like that, that the content's in-line, and that we're not offended by anything or that it's going to be offensive.
PB: Being The Simpsons, we felt pretty safe. It does really feel emotional, kind of a type of emotion that's not really shown in that show. I mean, it can be an emotional show, but I felt struck by it, the first time I watched it.
The present time
AT: It's usually that the time we're working on a new record now is the time we're most proud of and getting the most excited about, maybe it's because it's the most current. I feel that the way everything came together for this record, and we worked efficiently, it's making us feel really good.
PB: It feels like a challenge, too, to come up with something that can get you pumped after 15 years.
AT: I think the collage-y, Dada-ish element we were talking about before we even started writing the songs, saying that we wanted the songs in general to have a collage-y element that wasn't so straightforward, so they felt like they were patched together somehow, say where you have the 'Wipe Out' sample cut into the middle of the song ['FloriDada']. This one was a little different [from previous records], where it's like things are cut out and inserted in a kind of data way.
G: Whatever we play when we DJ, we have to keep the energy going; even if we bring it down, it can't go into like a sad ambient song, which I feel is one thing we wanted to do on this record - keep energy going.
PB: The line, "Wander from the cynical, take a look at views atypical" in 'Hocus Pocus' is kind of a theme across the record in various ways, just trying to see things, trying not to accept the prejudiced narratives of things and trying to approach something from an objective point of view, really form your own perspective on something.
Painting With is out on February 19 via Domino. Animal Collective play Union Transfer in Philadelphia, PA on the day of release before heading to Shepherd's Bush Empire in London on April 11 and Manchester Academy on April 13; for full details and tickets, head here