Interview: Animal Collective
The four members of Animal Collective have spent the past decade building a sprawling body of work comprised of solo releases, experimental works and collaborative albums. Centipede Hz, their ninth proper record as a band, finds the group working again as a quartet after writing, recording and touring for their landmark album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, as a trio. In this conversation with all four members of the group – David “Avey Tare” Portner, Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox, Josh “Deakin” Dibb and Brian “Geologist” Weitz – they discuss Dibb’s return to the fold, their desire to create new music that is “rockIng” but is not rock, and the philosophy behind their decision to significantly alter their sound on each new release and their penchant for favoring unreleased material in their live shows.
You use radio and radio signals as a musical motif through this new record. It’s also pretty explicit in the lyrics for “Moonjock.” What inspired all of that?
David “Avey Tare” Portner: As we start to write songs and piece everything together, we get a feeling of where everything is going. That was a lot of the process of writing this record – just jamming and trying to figure out a sound. “Moonjock” came later, but I definitely had the idea that it would be inspired by driving around with my family when I was growing up. My brother was a radio DJ, so I kind of got into music through him. He’d give me a lot of tapes. Sometimes he’d make these mixes, or just record stuff straight from his own airtime. I got into pop music from always hearing pop radio in the car, and there’s all these radio identifications and that kind of thing, which always seemed real weird and cool to me. Like, I couldn’t imagine something like “Into the Groove” by Madonna not having this other weird thing [a station ID] coming after it that would be on a tape my brother had. Or interference, or just driving on I-95 and going from one town to the next, and the radios crossing signals. I remember talking to Brian about it, and in Musique concrete, radio is a big sound source, so it’s maybe kind of overdone or overstated. But I kinda liked the idea of somehow using that vibe to make it more alien – like, alien radio signals, and how the crossing of songs works with our aesthetic to begin with.
How did you find the airchecks that you used on the record, like the “Johnny Walker” thing at the end of “Rosie Oh”?
Brian “Geologist” Weitz: You can find them online; it’s really easy. That one in particular was from a British pirate radio station where the DJ’s name is actually Johnny Walker. There’s a group of people that collect those aircheck tapes online, so I spent hours and hours listening to them. It was a little mind-bending. I tried to stick to stations that some of us might have heard, but eventually I had to stretch out to other markets.
What were you looking for when you went through all of those sounds?
Weitz: The sort of unintentional moments. I think DJs made them primarily to apply for future jobs, so there’s a lot of stop, pause, record, where they cut out the music. You’ll hear some ID, a commercial, and then a song fade up, then it cuts to the outro of another song. So if you listen, you find a lot of these moments where the DJ made his own splice and that created a cool moment. So I’d sample right around there.
The lyrics of “Applesauce” are pretty interesting. Can you talk a bit about that? It seems like you’re drawing a connection from agriculture to something more philosophical.
Portner: We wrote all the lyrics down and I gave them to my sister, because she’s designing all the lyrics in the album packaging, and she was like, “The one that was really weird to me was ‘Applesauce’ – it really is just about fruit, isn’t it?” I like fruit and vegetables a lot.
Weitz: One morning I got a text from Dave and he just said, “I’m gonna write a song about fruit.”
Portner: The simplistic nature of fruit was what I wanted the base the song off of – that fruit and vegetables are just something that you can just kinda eat, and they flavor themselves. It’s so satisfying for me to grill vegetables for my girlfriend, because it always ends up being so good. But then it ended up turning into me thinking about myself and writing a bit more personally. I think having all these experiences in the past couple years – I’ve gotten out of relationships and friends have passed away, that kind of thing – I just connected [those things] somehow to fruit going away, too.
It’s hard for me, with lyrics, because I just want to have people take what they want from it, and not be so much me trying to shove something down your throat. The textures and melodies are just as important, if not more important.
It seems like, between the three of you who write lyrics, that there’s this recurring theme of family and personal responsibility.
Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox: That’s probably more in my songs than anyone else’s.
Portner: I think one thing that ties us together is that we’re all talking about something very immediate and very now – what’s going on in our lives, and what we’re seeing around us. That translates into us dealing with relationships. I think personally, for Merriweather and the solo record I did, I was being so inward and talking about what’s going on in my life, and I kinda didn’t want to do that so much. I want to look outward, and talk more about my relationship to things.
Josh, how was it for you jumping in and being a third voice in the band with “Wide Eyed”?
Josh “Deakin” Dibb: It felt challenging. These guys were really psyched about it. When I brought it up to them, they were like, “Do it.” I was already working on the song. It was one of the first songs we actually worked on, and they were all psyched on it, so I felt really easy and safe just to try it. It’s definitely a new thing, in a good way. I’d always experienced, like, Dave having a song and Noah having a song. It was interesting to be the one who wrote the song, and have someone like Dave being like, “I think this sounds really good,” and me being like, “I know, but it’s not quite right.” It’s a good perspective.
This new album has a lot of live instrumentation, but there’s still a significant electronic element, and that’s been a thread through all of your records. Still, people rarely label you an “electronic” group. Do you identify as an electronic band at all?
Weitz: I think we all like electronic music. Everything from Musique concrete to, like old, early electronic stuff, BBC Workshop stuff influenced this record. And techno, and trance and house music – I think some of that stuff has always influenced what we’re doing. But with any music that influences us, we don’t think, “Let’s totally sound like this, or sound like that.” I think that, in terms of electronic music, Merriweather Post Pavilion shows that side of us the most. I think there are a lot of people who were into the electronic side of us who will hear [Centipede Hz] and wish there was more low end, or that particular style was pushed a little bit more.
We used to be a noise band, then we were a folk band, like freak-folk. And then people were like, “Now they’re these electro Beach Boys dudes.” It changes so much, and it seems like a lot of times, whatever we’re doing at the moment becomes this umbrella for everything we’ve done. I don’t pay too much attention to it anymore, because it’s like, if we can’t answer it, and [critics] can’t answer itâ€¦
Portner: I think if we talked about anything for this record, it was like, “Let’s do more of a rock kind of thing.” But I don’t know. It’s hard for me to get into a lot of modern rock, so I wouldn’t even want to do that, really.
Lennox: I think it was more that we wanted to do something rocking.
Portner: Yeah, rocking. We made a separation of rock ‘n’ roll, and something that rocks. We don’t want to make rock and roll, but we want to make something that rocks.
You recorded this album in Texas, right?
Portner: Yeah, El Paso. It was pretty isolating. Alienating, but in a good way. More so than any other record we did, we had very little contact with people outside of the studio. We went into El Paso once. The studio was 40 minutes outside of El Paso, on a pecan farm. The pecan trees were all barren, basically. It was just row upon row.
Dibb: It’s a massive farm.
Weitz: Yeah, like 2,000 acres.
Lennox: It was a homogenous view.
Portner: We were in this kind of Mexican-style hacienda type of thing, with rooms in a weird motel and a pool. There’s three studios there, so you’d be in the studio, or just go off on your own and get lost in this weird world. There were fires everywhere all the time, because they were constantly burning the leftover branches, when they take them down and prune.
Weitz: There was a lot of weird Mexican club music being produced there. There were other producers there, like Italian-slash-Mexican pop producers making Britney Spears or Katy Perry-like music. I remember they spent about eight hours on two measures of sound. It was interesting to observe the process of a “perfect” club or radio single is made, every day. Like, just two measures, to get it as precise as possible. The singer was there for three days.
Did you react against that?
Dibb: It was more a thing we saw in passing.
Weitz: My room was the wall that was shared with the mixing studio they were in, and going to bed, I’d be like, “I can’t understand how they can even focus.”
Lennox: I’m closer to that world, and I’d be like, “I don’t even know what they’re doing in there.”
Weitz: I just wanted to knock on the door and be like, “Can I just try to mix the track?”
You were playing most of the songs on this album on the road; I saw you play a few of them at Prospect Park in Brooklyn last year. What is it like playing these songs for an audience who has never heard them? Do you pay attention to how the audience responds?
Portner: Definitely. Part of the reason for us writing a full set of songs was to play a little tour and to play Coachella. It was definitely an interesting experience, playing the main stage of Coachella for 20,000 or 30,000 people and playing mostly stuff that people had never heard before.
Dibb: We played after Mumford & Sons and before Arcade Fire, two bands that 60,000 people could sing along to the whole time. And in between was us, where there were almost no songs where people could be like “I know that!”
Portner: It always puts us in the position of feeling that we’re the odd man out. But on the other side of it, it’s like “Yes, let’s do this!” It’s always what we wanted to do. We’re still pretty confident about it, it’s not like we’re having any regrets. It’s definitely changed a lot since when we were doing a show a month in New York and just feel like we were playing for our friends. Now we’re playing for people who really want to hear certain songs.
Do you feel pressure to play any of those? What is your philosophy about playing your hits?
Weitz: It’s different for all of us.
Lennox: It’s a work in progress.
Dibb: It’s not really a pressure, it’s more an awareness of what gets people psyched. I still meet fans who were at that Coachella show who were like, “I’d heard of you guys before, my friend knew you, and I came over to see the set, and I was really psyched to see someone do something that twisted me a little bit.” I think that’s how all of us relate to going to see music. I know I get psyched seeing something where I feel like, “Whoa, that really threw me for a loop, in a cool way.”
Lennox: But there’s also like, “I flew from Houston and you didn’t play the song I wanted to hear.”
Dibb: Parts of us will never be like, “I guess we have to play this song again tonight.” But at the same time, there’s 8,000, 10,000 people, or at Coachella, 60,000 people, and it’s awesome to have them feel psyched. We want to do what we’re doing, but also acknowledge that it’s cool for people to hear, like, “Brothersport,” which we were playing last year. We get psyched doing that one live, and we know people are going to connect to that. It’s fun to look out and see people lose themselves, and it’s harder for them to do that when they’re hearing a song like “Honeycomb” for the first time.
Portner: It’s also weird when you’re aware of critical response, and when you realize that opinions can vary so much. We can have a great show and think everything came together, and then you read reviews and all across the board, you get “These guys weren’t even playing songs, it was a mess.” And we’re like, “Really? It felt really together to us.”
Dibb: The Pitchfork festival was a great example, because I still feel that, to us, looking out, everyone seemed amped, but any review we saw, we were at the edge of this thing. But I was there, and everyone I could see was jumping while we were playing, so what’s the difference between what was actually happening and what I saw?
Are you concerned about the reaction to this record, since it’s significantly different from the last one?
Portner: No more so than any other record that we’ve done. I feel like as long as we’re psychedâ€¦But it’s not a self indulgent thing, like we’re just doing it for ourselves. We are all really aware that we’re trying to connect with people. But at the same time, we just want to do our best. In terms of Merriweather, Noah, Brian and I were psyched after we did the record. We didn’t really know how anybody would respond to it, but we felt like we did something really special. I think we just wanted to recreate that experience. Not recreate the music, but have a similar feeling – like we did our best work. In my experience, especially over the past few years, I don’t even know what people are going to like, or what’s going to be really popular.
Weitz: We almost left “My Girls” off of Merriweather. We recorded it twice, and the first version didn’t sound good. Until we started playing around with it in the mixing, we were not even sure whether it would fit with the rest of the songs. So it wasn’t like that was part of a grand plan where we knew that this song was going to make people psyched.