Longer cut of an interview organised for The Yorker. Conversation took place on Animal Collective’s tour bus outside TJ’s Woodhouse Club in Leeds, 25 March 2009.
“I’d say I feel more introverted than before. We certainly protect our private sides more than before. Sorry, that sounds gross. As Panda Bear’s (Noah Lennox) innocent observation gives way to the juvenile sniggering of his bandmates, Avey Tare (Dave Portner) and Geologist (Brian Weitz), the image of pure cool projected so often by their music gives way to a more realistic impression – that of a group of childhood friends whose band is finally garnering wider success.
At a time when their ‘private sides’ have seen them settling down variously in the US and Portugal, Animal Collective’s latest album Merriweather Post Pavilion has seen their stock rise way above previous successes. An underground staple since their emergence early this decade, Merriweather sees the band at their most musically confident, even reaching the mainstream when ‘My Girls’ was named Radio 1’s Single of the Week in March. The Yorker caught up with them on their tour bus…
This is your third time in Leeds in 18 months; would you say you feel an affinity with the place?
Geologist: We had a robbery in Leeds actually, someone stole a load of our equipment off the street, and the other time Dave was really sick.
Panda Bear: Yeah, that kinda sucked.
G: So, I guess we sorta have bad memories of this place. *laughs*
PB: …but the last show here was good.
How did you feel about the hype surrounding MPP’s release?
G: It felt good but people were crazy to go calling it album of the year before it had even leaked. There’s no need for it to be a competition, but people do like to make it into one.
PB: Grizzly Bear go through that sort of thing too.
G: But did anyone hack into their email account? It felt a little over the top.
What aspects of your music do you think enabled the shift towards wider recognition for your music?
PB: I can’t really explain it, but I guess part of it is that although our music is kind of weird, with the most recent record there are elements that are really in line with the mainstream; ‘My Girls’ has an R&B-type rhythmic set to it. There’s a celebratory sound to some of the songs, and less hectic energy than before. That said, there’s a weird combination: although the sound of the music is forcefully outward, with heavy rhythms and a pleasing sonic palette, the subject matter of the songs is often very inward stuff to me. I feel like I’m contradicting myself.
You had the Radio 1 Single of the Week last week [with ‘My Girls’].
G: We’re not that familiar with the BBC; to me, the BBC plays everything, so I don’t know what the difference between being played on BBC1 to BBC6 is. In America radio’s not that important anymore, I think you have better radio here.
PB: Yeah, you guys run it better, and it has more importance because of that. It’s less commercial so you get more variety. Does ‘My Girls’ play often?
G: I think it’s just this last week.
PB: I’m hyped on that, pumped.
What was the greatest influence on the writing of MPP?
PB: The way Jamaican dub music uses effects as a mode of performance certainly had a significant effect on what we were doing. Techno music is part of it too, both the early Detroit version and the German Kompakt version.
G: Without Josh [Dibb, the collective’s fourth member, Deakin, present on earlier recordings but taking time out for now] playing guitar, we lost a huge chunk of middle sound frequency and it got us thinking about how we’ve dealt with different frequencies in the past. We’ve always wanted to do something where the low end was the focus; rather than try to fill the big hole in the middle, we took the opportunity to experiment.
The album cover is one of the most memorable I’ve seen in a while…
How does the optical illusion on the cover reflect the music within?
PB: If you don’t focus on the image too much, it can just appear stagnant, but if you move your eyes around, the supernatural stuff starts to happen. I’d hope that our music makes magical things happen in your ears or your brain. It’s in the sound of the mixes: there’s a lot of layering, there are two vocal parts going on a lot of the time. On some songs it’s like there are little secrets in the sound, that you can only find by listening a certain way, by focusing on one vocal part or another.
Is the visual side – album covers, music videos – particularly important to you?
Avey Tare: Yeah, yeah, the whole thing’s like a world. Each group of songs have their own world and we like to think of everything that goes along with them as trying to stay within it.
How much input do you have on the visual side?
AT: On the album artwork, it’s pretty much all done by us. And stuff like posters…
G: …it’s either done by us or picked by us.
PB: We didn’t create that optical illusion, though, it was just organised by us.
AT: Some of the more recent music videos that we’ve done have been done by other people, but we’ve had some input here and there.
You’re based all over the world now; how do you maintain songwriting as a collaborative process?
PB: We all do a lot of individual work on our own, sometimes one of us sends a demo around of a skeletal version of a song before we get together. For the most part, the songs are done by one of us bringing in a melody, a lyric or a basic structure and then we’ll all work with that and go from there and find our own parts in the song.
When you get together, do you find yourselves pulling in separate directions on how you want a song to sound?
PB: Sometimes we’ll be trying something that doesn’t work so well, but for this record we were all on the same page about how it should sound.
G: That was the pretty thing about this record: it came easily.
AT: There’s always an embryonic stage before it becomes clear how a song’s gonna work. I think it happened quicker with these songs than some of ours in the past. Some songs from Feels and Strawberry Jam have taken a really long time to become something we all felt was, like: “that’s how the song should sound”. This one seemed to make itself fit into the mix a lot better really fast.
What attracted you to working with a mainstream engineer [Ben Allen, Grammy nominee for work with Gnarls Barkley and Christina Aguilera]?
PB: He’d worked on music that had featured a lot of bass, really heavy bass. It seemed like he knew how to work with that kind of sound, and that’s something we were interested in.
G: He’s used to thinking about the commercial side of things, so his mixing ideas, especially on the vocals, were radically different to ours: he was always pushing for them to be a lot louder, way louder than they ended up being on the record, but he had an effect.
Will there be an EP to accompany Merriweather Post Pavilion as there has been with each of the past few albums?
AT: When we did the Water Curses thing, we knew even in the studio that those songs kinda had a good feeling together. We don’t have anything like an EP’s-worth now, but we have three songs that we’re psyched on, so hopefully we’ll be able to do a single or something.
How’s your film working out?
AT: It’s been a really slow process but a good one. It just turned out to be a little more difficult… well, not difficult per se, just slower than we thought, to figure out just how everything would work. Almost all of the visuals were filmed two years ago. We write music to fit the video and the video gets edited to fit the music too. We want it to be as collaborative as possible, because neither of us had ever really done anything like before.
PB: It doesn’t really feel like a music video or a narrative film. It’s very abstract.
AT: There isn’t an intense structure to it, but there are similar themes and similar ideas that come in and out of it.
G: It’s kinda structured like a record.
PB: The visuals are definitely of the mind of our friend Danny. The cohesiveness of it is, to me, very much his doing.
How’s it going to be released?
AT: It’ll be on DVD, and we’ll probably try to get it shown around at festivals or wherever we can, I think we’d like to travel around with it and play it in places. [ODDSAC eventually debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2010.]
Any idea of a release date yet?
AT: No, but we’re looking to mix it maybe in the summer.
You’re known for touring material before releasing it; is that an essential part of your creative process?
AT: Mhm, in the most part, but because we’re working on stuff for the film right now, we’re not playing it live; we’re still mostly playing the older stuff live, the MPP stuff. It also seems like the world of MPP is not really totally complete yet; I feel like after these two tours, the Europe one and the US one it’ll feel more complete, but it seems like we didn’t do as much touring around with the songs, I guess, so the songs still felt really fresh to us and could go places.
What was the catalyst in the switch away from the more acoustic sound of previous albums to the more electronic sound of now?
AT: At the time, Sung Tongs was a much-needed breath of fresh air. I think everything had gotten a bit too crazy for us, so we needed to clear our heads by making music that was a bit simpler. We’re always thinking about where we can go next, and it just seemed that slowly moving towards more electronic stuff, and samples, just happened.
How do you decide which samples to use?
PB: We make a lot of the samples ourselves; a lot of the rhythms were just us playing drums and keyboards. All the way, we wanted to incorporate more organic or acoustic sounding things into the samples, but a lot of the acoustic sounds that we sampled have been treated to come across as more electronic. We didn’t only sample instruments though, we used all sorts: films…
G: …ping pong balls…
AT: …and fans, the outdoors, whatever’s around us. Ambient stuff.
Do you find that all the music you listen to influences you?
AT: I think everything.
PB: It all gets in there somehow…
AT: Unless it’s something for me personally that I don’t really like, then maybe it influences me in terms of what I don’t want to do *laughs*
G: But would that be music you would listen to though?
AT: I mean, y’know, just if you hear it.
Do you have quite similar tastes?
PB: Our paths cross here and there.
G: I think what we listen to at home day to day is different to what we enjoy listening to when we’re all together.
There are some places where you like polar opposite things?
G: Something like Royston Murphy, I’d avoid, but Noah’s into that kind of vibe. Certain stuff like that I might get into but I wouldn’t listen to at home.
PB: There’s a lot of old psych rock bands that these guys get into. These guys seem to like some weird stuff, I don’t know how you would describe it, the stuff that I don’t like. Grimy, beat oriented stuff. Baile funk, or whatever.
To finish, do you have any plans for more work with solo projects and other collaborations?
PB: No concrete plans, as of now.
AT: Just whatever happens, it seems like we’re pretty busy, especially in the next year, doing Animal Collective stuff, so we’ll just see…
Just touring and the film?
AT: Yeah, pretty much as it’s been for a while *laughs*
G: “Touring and the film.”