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In Conversation

Vashti Bunyan And Animal Collective In Conversation
Charlie Frame , April 17th, 2015 10:20

Cult folk singer Vashti Bunyan and Josh Dibb (Deakin) from post-hippy experimentalists Animal Collective met up recently to talk about the EP they recorded together, Prospect Hummer. Charlie Frame was on hand to take notes

In 2005, the four members of Animal Collective - Dave Portner (Avey Tare), Noah Lennox (Panda Bear), Josh Dibb (Deakin) and Brian Weitz (Geologist) - teamed up with the British singer-songwriter Vashti Bunyan for a four-track collaborative EP titled Prospect Hummer. A crucial moment in the careers of both acts, for Animal Collective it would mark the end of a brief but fertile dalliance with acoustic instrumentation and a fractured harmonic approach to singing reminiscent of the Beach Boys. The band would go on to try a number of new tacks, as evidenced on their commercial breakthrough, the electronic dance influenced Merriweather Post Pavillion (2009). More importantly for the band, Prospect Hummer was an opportunity to meet and collaborate with a genuine idol.

For Vashti Bunyan however, Prospect Hummer meant a return to recording after a protracted 35 years away from the studio. Having left music behind in the early seventies, she recorded just one album, 1970's Just Another Diamond Day, with no intention of returning to music making after the fact. The collaboration with Animal Collective would however prove to usher in a new period of activity for Vashti Bunyan, who went on to record two more LPs - Lookaftering (2005) and Heartleap (2014).

Vashti was introduced to Animal Collective by Four Tet's Kieran Hebden while the band were on tour in Edinburgh. She explains: "Kieran said to me, these guys all have your record, and I just said 'WHY?!' Which is really, really bad mannered! But I didn't mean that - I meant, how could some people from Brooklyn (because that's where I thought they were from) ever have heard of my album? And then it turned out they wanted to ask me to sing on some songs for them. And so I've always felt really bad about that 'Why?'"

Vashti performs lead vocals on three of the four tracks on Prospect Hummer. It's clear from the recordings that a symbiosis is at work between the burgeoning creativity of the band and the veteran artist's influence on them. Her voice - warm and golden as it ever was - is the perfect accompaniment to AC's shimmering psychedelic backdrops.

It might then be surprising to learn that initially Vashti hadn't been so sure about taking her voice back out its box, and it was only through the enthusiasm and encouragement of the band that she was able to rediscover her talents.

Now, ten years after its first appearance, the Prospect Hummer EP is to be reissued on vinyl as a Record Store Day release. In a transatlantic Skype conversation, I had the opportunity to speak with with Vashti at her home in Scotland along with Animal Collective's Josh Dibb at his studio in the States. Despite not having spoken in some time, the mutual air of friendship and reverence between the pair was strongly felt.

What was it like meeting and working together for the first time?

Vashti Bunyan: Well it was Kieran Hebden - Four Tet - who saw the cover of an Animal Collective album on a record store wall and thought that was rather good. Then he listened to it and loved what he heard and asked them to support him on his tour, which brought them to Edinburgh. And I met them for dinner and it was a great night… How do you remember it?

Josh Dibb: I remember it kind of as being magic. The impact that record [Just Another Diamond Day] had on me. There've been many records in my life which have had a huge impact but yours is definitely in a very, very elite few. I mean, I was such a young kid back then in comparison to how I feel now. I think we'd come across your record through the fact Dave and Noah had been working on other music in New York and at the time it was such a hub of people unearthing new stuff. Literally today I was texting with Brian… We both realised we'd started listening to your records again more recently having given it a break, and it was like being stunned again for the first time… And at the time being told that there was an opportunity to be able to meet you? You seemed like a myth. It was one of the first times I'd gotten to meet someone that had made something in my life. To meet you, and have you be so real and so down-to-earth and at the same time still have this incredible voice and this incredible sensibility with music; that continues to be very meaningful for me.

VB: That's so great. Thank you, thank you! I didn't know I had a voice really, until you all just pushed me… I thought that I was going to be doing backing vocals. But actually it was a bit more than that. 'You do this bit!' [laughs] 'Okay, okay I'll have a go'. I didn't know if I was going to sing at all, but you all made me sing like I didn't know I could. You made me really enjoy singing again which I hadn't done for many many years.

JD: But at the same time, wasn't Devendra (Banhart) in touch with you? Or was Prospect Hummer literally the first time you were like, 'I'm going to go record and have someone else hear it'?

VB: I had done one recording a couple of years before for Glenn Johnson and Piano Magic. He'd asked me to sing on one of his songs and that was the first time I'd been in a studio for thirty years. Yours was the next one, but this was different because it was a collaboration. It was as if I was able to put something in it. You allowed me to actually help you build the songs and that was just great. That was the most amazing thing to me. And I realised that I'd actually wanted to do it for years. I wanted to do some more of this. It was three days - we did one song a day. They were magical days; they were fabulous, apart from the studio being freezing cold.

JD: I don't even remember that. Honestly if you were to ask me what it was like I'd probably remember the opposite. I dunno it was just like this warm, golden [glow]. I don't remember it being cold, although I don't know if you remember Rusty, our engineer? I do remember him being wrapped up in his coat the whole time while he was mixing, so I guess it must have been cold.

VB: The live room was really, really cold. The rest of the studio was okay. But, oh boy, it was [cold]. But it was also brilliant, so whatever. And yes I do remember Rusty very well.

JD: Well that's amazing to hear. I guess you'd told us at the time, but to be reminded of it and to hear the recordings you've done in the last few years, your voice, Vashti, it's fucking incredible. It's really amazing. I remember at the time all of us being, 'Oh my God.' We weren't even sure, because we knew you hadn't sung in a long time and we didn't know what it was going to sound like, but we wanted to do it. So to imagine that it was this revelation, I'm beyond honoured and humbled that that was the moment. We were such kids, you know?

VB: You didn't seem to be. You seemed to have absolutely sure ideas of what you wanted to do. You were so certain, all of you. It felt as if you had rehearsed those songs for weeks and yet you hadn't at all, you had just come up with them.

JD: Well those songs had been written previously and been performed in different states but the three of us - me, Noah and Dave - had not played them together in the form that we ended up recording them, until we got to the studio. So the songs were there and the movements were there, but the record was a new thing. But that was 2004. I mean, the four of us - as friends and also on our own - started recording music on multi-track when we were 14 years old so we'd already been ten years into the process. We hadn't been putting records out to the world until more recently: 2000 was the beginning of it, but we'd already spent ten years being devoted to the craft of recording with four or eight tracks. So I think that's probably where a lot of that very clear, specific idea comes from.

VB: Oh boy, yes, Noah and his drumming - that was unforgettable. And also Dave enjoying the echoey sound of the bathroom down the hall. He had the engineer take a microphone and a lead all the way down to the bathroom because he wanted to make yelpy sounds down there.

Vashti, how did you take to the material? Animal Collective can be fairly avant-garde for, well, "folk" music. How did you approach it?

VB: Well, I don't know if you know how much I hate being called a folk singer. I never think of myself as a folk singer or my songs as folk songs. When they sent me the songs, they were songs. Wonderful songs. So it was no problem to me to try to sing them. The only problem for me was not knowing what was going to happen when I opened my mouth. So it was risk-taking all round. Everybody took risks and Dave at Fatcat took the risk as well. All of us: it was a big, big risk. But it worked out really well, I think. It was a wonderful thing to do and it was no hardship for me, no fear for me. I can't ever remember thinking about how I was going to do it. We just did it, didn't we?

JD: The lyrics about the cat and his food bowl, you know? I remember going through those and we all started laughing because it's funny; and were we really going to sing this song about a cat being best friends with his food bowl with all this lovely acoustic shimmering… We were really clear about what we wanted to try and once it was clear that you could sing, it felt really focused and easy and light.

VB: It didn't take long to understand what was, not so much expected of me, but how much I could put in for myself.

I tend to play the title track, 'Prospect Hummer', to people to introduce them to Animal Collective. It seems to throw up a lot of specific imagery despite me not really knowing the words. I can make out the bit about the food bowl of course but not much else. Looking at lyric sites online it seems others run into the same difficulties.

JD: It's surprising to hear someone say they can't hear the words, and I'm not saying you're wrong, but I listen to it and the words are just so very apparent. But absolutely, there's something nice about seeing vocals as being part of the fabric of what the song is. As a band there's something about wanting to feel it was part of the mesh, especially for Dave's lyrics. I think Noah's lyrics are generally more direct and straightforward. His song that he wrote on that record was 'I Remember How To Dive'. It's the most straightforward story: you step up on the board, you walk to the end, etcetera... Dave definitely writes in a way that he's very, very good at pulling up images from a lot of different places and weaving them into something that has a feeling. Sometimes it's just this world that you're welcome in to. In some ways I'm kind of upset that after fifteen years of putting out records I rarely see anyone give attention to the lyrics that Dave's written and it's both our fault that we choose to mix things in a way that makes it difficult for people to hear it in the same way as traditional mixing. To me, I listen to the lyrics of that song and I hear a lot of very specific meaning and intention in them.

VB: I loved singing them. I loved singing those lyrics, and they made me laugh. At the end, my daughter says she can hear me laughing on those last lines. But I wonder - do you ever include the lyrics with your artwork?

JD: We have at times, not all the time. My sensibility as an individual in the band, I always want the lyrics to be a little bit more heard. I would often choose to have the lyric sheets. There have been a lot of songs I've loved that other people have made, and that we've made, where I've gone through long periods where the lyrics I've heard are one thing and have incredible meaning for me, and then I'll ask Dave what he's singing and it won't be what I think he's actually singing. I think it's beautiful to think about making music that lets someone have their own experience of it and leave it open to them.

VB: Especially with 'Prospect Hummer' because I've seen a few people write what they think the words are and it's not at all anywhere near!

JD: I'm not throwing anyone under the bus here, but I'd probably put lyric sheets on all of our records for sure. As I say, the lyrics that Dave and Noah write are really powerful and deserve acknowledgement. I'm always the guy who says, "We should just put the lyrics in."

Prospect Hummer is often considered a companion piece to the Avey Tare / Panda Bear Sung Tongs album from 2004. But to me it feels much more like a piece of work in itself - probably thanks to the collaboration. What were the differences and what was your involvement?

JD: Of the four songs, 'Prospect Hummer' and 'It's You' were songs that Noah and Dave had written and worked on during the Sung Tongs era. They had definitely played 'Prospect Hummer' live and probably 'Still You' live at least a few times. So those songs had previously been played in a way where they'd been done on their own. And then the fourth song, 'I Remember Learning How To Dive', was something that Noah wrote, before him and I worked on it together in 2004. It was the only time it happened really because Noah and I went to Japan and played three shows and we had to write a bunch of songs quickly for that. Animal Collective as a whole is four different people and I think we try to respect that and honour all the different connections you can make. I think the record really chose that. Brian wasn't in the studio for this record but he is on the 'Baleen Sample' track with no vocals. He had a bunch of samples that he'd been working on for a long time that we ended up using and weaving in and out of that one you see. So it has a way of showing all these different ways that all our different energies can interlock and change. Each one of us is going to affect it significantly and it's fun to consider how we can all claim ownership of a song on one level, but also to step back if that makes sense?

Prospect Hummer marked the end of what certain people considered to be a scene called freak folk that was big back in the mid-2000s…

JD: Similar to Vashti's strong reaction to the word 'folk', I think we had that same strong reaction to that freak folk thing. We were very indignant to being lumped in with that Brooklyn, freak folk thing.

VB: You absolutely weren't. And you were completely right to distance yourselves from that. It was the wrong place to put you and it was infuriating.

JD: But at the same time that was the association that was being made. In terms of there being acoustic guitars and idiosyncratic songwriting I guess I can acknowledge some of that.

You changed style quite significantly after that. From Feels and then especially from Strawberry Jam onwards, you seemed to settle for a more electronic, maybe a slightly more cohesive style compared to the experiments in noise music on Here Comes The Indian, the acoustic stuff on Prospect Hummer and Campfire Songs. No doubt you tend to work on several projects at a time, but from a fan point of view albums like Strawberry Jam and Merriweather Post Pavillion sound more like a composite of a lot of things you'd been experimenting with before.

JD: I see what you're saying. We have always been, since we were kids, just lovers of songwriting and that was always at the core of what we do. Whether it's the soundtrack of a horror movie or listening to Just Another Diamond Day or being at a Black Dice show and being sonically blown away or even just walking to the woods and listening to birds, there's so many ways that sound can connect us. If we just stayed in one sonic palette we would get bored because we have a lot of different places that we feel inspired from and we want to continue to find new ones. To me the cohesion you're talking about almost comes from the degree of success, just the difference in what it means to start putting out records and touring for six or seven months as opposed to making a record in your bedroom and doing two-three week tours and going home and back to your job. I know definitely post Campfire Songs, Sung Tongs, Prospect Hummer, I think we all felt at the time we'd gotten everything out of the acoustic guitar thing. Merriweather Post Pavillion, which I was not part of, was a very sample-based album. It was all about using 4/4s and pre-recorded tracks and really getting into that sample-based production value. So when we started working on the last record, Centipede Hz, we used some sampling but very, very clearly we wanted to approach it from a completely different perspective - not just from the conceit of not wanting other people to see us repeating ourselves, it's our own experience of what it means to make the music that way.

VB: You've never repeated yourselves!

JD: I'm sure there's moments in there.

VB: That's what's so amazing about what you've done, it's that there is no repeating.

JD: Thank you. I'm blushing.

Vashti, you released Heartleap last year…

VB: Yes, I did. After seven years of not releasing it… Well, it was nine years between releases but I didn't start working on this one until two years after Lookaftering. I didn't work on it for seven full years, it was every now and then but that's how long it took to actually finish it. There were lots of false starts and different paths that I came back from but, yeah, the last year before it was done I spent every moment on it. So I don't know if I'll ever do that again. It's completely absorbing. It's like being a tyrant isn't it, making a collection of songs?

JD: But maybe Vashti you don't know… You might just have to do it again - and just grab on! Or maybe not. I can't tell you enough how many times I've felt like I might have written my last good song. Like, I might be done, you know?

VB: That's how I felt at the end of it. I thought, how am I going to find anything else anywhere? And it was a very strong feeling. But you're right, who knows what can change?

JD: I think we have these energies and they come through us at different times. For some it happens rapidly and for others it's slower. You stand empty for a while and at some point it may very well come back when you weren't expecting. Just like with Prospect Hummer.

VB: [Laughs] Yes, well we'll see. But for now I'll say that Prospect Hummer was one of the big highlights and without that I would not have gone on and made Lookaftering because it was while we were recording at Fatcat for Dave Howell, he asked me what I was doing and I said I was writing a few songs and I had a few demos and he said let me hear them. And when he heard them he offered me a deal with Fatcat. So without Prospect Hummer there would have been no more.

Prospect Hummer is being reissued on vinyl for RSD15