Animal Collective: The Scientists

animal-collective-spin.jpg
PHOTOGRAPHS BY CASS BIRD
WRITTEN BY
Andy Battaglia

Dave Portner is freaking out. Better known by his cryptic sobriquet Avey Tare, he's lying flat on the floor, eyes open wide, startled by something invisible and evidently very strange in the air above. Bandmate Brian Weitz, or Geologist, is splayed out beside him, swaying his head from side to side extreeeemely sloooowly. Noah Lennox, or Panda Bear, sits like a statue nearby, completely zoned out.

We're at Dream House, an instructive place to convene with the phantasmagoric art rock outfit Animal Collective. Hidden in a walk-up loft, Dream House is an escapist refuge in lower Manhattan -- a spacious room empty except for scattered pillows and four huge stacks of speakers. A light installation gives the room an ambient purple glow, but the story is the roaring drone. Devised by the minimalist composer La Monte Young, the noise cycles through continuous loops that sound static at first but then start to change, or seem to change, with the slightest shift of the listener's perspective; it's hard to tell the difference between what you're hearing and what you're imagining -- not to mention whether you're awake or asleep.

"I actually had a couple of crazy dreams," says Portner, 29, sipping mango juice a half hour later at Tokyo Bar, a hideout down the street with oversize comic-book art on the walls and Japanese funk on the stereo. "I got close to dozing off a couple times and had these rhythmic starts. I'd wake up and be like...wow. It was insect-y at times, too -- a lot of insect sounds."

Lennox, 30, can't remember if he's been to Dream House before. It's hard to imagine forgetting an experience so bizarre and all-consuming, but anyone who calls himself Panda Bear seems just ethereal enough to rise to the task. Lennox is the most stoic and shy member in Animal Collective, but also the most mercurial. Portner is smiley and excitable by comparison, and Weitz, 29, whose beard makes him look like an actual geologist, speaks with an easygoing, earthy clarity about matters both conceptual and concrete. "I was thinking," Lennox says, comparing the Dream House din to an elusive conversation that took place on the way there, "that was a really good example of the magical sound I was talking about."

Animal Collective talk a lot about magical sound. They traffic in buzzes and moans for a livelihood, and they're more than happy to be perplexed by these noises' mystifying effects. They're perfectly at home at a place like Dream House, which -- like the weird world fashioned by Animal Collective at mesmerizing live happenings and on albums like their new Merriweather Post Pavilion -- serves as a sanctuary for sound that skews as arty and abstract, electronic yet somehow ancient, beguiling, bedeviling, soothing, scary, and serene.

When they started playing in New York City around 2000, Animal Collective weren't exactly a band. Their first CDs were paper-cased curios that showed up on the shelves of select East Village record stores, and early gigs were mysterious gatherings where the guys might preside over a one-chord jam in a theater with films of themselves rolling around in the desert. All that was known about them, before music blogs existed, was that they grew up together in Baltimore.

It wasn't much to go on. But at a time when New York was buzzing around the showy rock scene embodied by the Strokes and forthright, flashing dance-punk bands such as the Rapture, Animal Collective started to simmer as a sort of shadow phenomenon. As their name began to circulate, the band hid behind demented masks and seemed to vanish for long stretches at a time. Still, none of that stopped a wave of inquisitive whispers and rising suspicions, however hyperbolic at the start, that Animal Collective might be the best thing going.

Now Animal Collective headline festivals in front of 20,000 people and are regarded as arguably the most influential art-rock group working on any scale. "I consider them to be the most important band of our time," says fellow abstract-pop purveyor Bradford Cox of Deerhunter and Atlas Sound. "I seriously think they're the best band on the planet."

Charting their influence is a complicated ordeal, in part because it expands beyond sound to include certain fashions (deranged nativist chic) and philosophies (earnest unstudied experimentalism) that now count as common in the underground. But it's safe to say that without Animal Collective, underground music would have a lot less yawping, gnawing, and writhing -- not to mention dreamy patches of modern-psychedelic splatter and quasi-calypso chimes.

The story of Animal Collective's sound -- which they started making with guitars and drums, but now relies more on samplers and various console gear they tweak and twiddle -- begins with horror movies. Portner and Weitz, who became friends in ninth grade, grew up transfixed by the soundtracks to The Shining and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. "To me it was interesting in a fantastical way," says Portner. "The way you would listen was the way you'd read a choose-your-own-adventure novel." But it wasn't until their experiments migrated from Portner's cluttered suburban home to the stage that Animal Collective's cult began to form.

"The first time we played with them, it wasn't really musical; it was more like a performance," says Eric Copeland of the Brooklyn noise band Black Dice. "Brian was playing in a tent, so you couldn't see him, and Dave was doing this sort of mind-reading skit with either a fake or real dead bat on a string. He called this woman out of the audience and poured a gallon of milk on her head."

Rob Carmichael, who put out the group's disorienting second album, Danse Manatee, on his Catsup Plate label in 2001 and continues to work with them designing artwork, remembers a show during which Lennox played drums in and out of time. "I couldn't figure out if it was a Shaggs sort of thing where he didn't know how to drum," Carmichael says, "but I was amazed when it turned out to be intentional. I definitely had the feeling that they were all scholars of music who didn't just happen upon their sound. They wanted that air of mystery, which was why veiling their identities was important to them. Although when that became an expectation and then a gimmick, they just dropped all of it."

Abby Portner, Dave's sister and herself a musician in the New York band Rings, remembers ramshackle shows from the very beginning ("They were all in underwear with blood and feathers, very feedback-y"), but also a mix of focus and drive that undergirded Animal Collective's slow, methodical rise. "They were pretty ambitious," she says. "They always thought, 'If we play once in a while and have it be insane, that would be more memorable than just playing every weekend.' They really wanted to make stuff and be heard. It's the same way now as it was then."

Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective's ninth album, marks the latest development for a band that has changed radically by the record, each one simultaneously weirder and more approachable than the one before. Nobody would mistake anything on the new one for sounding the least bit conventional, but it's easy to hear certain parts -- Portner delivering love notes in "In the Flowers" or Lennox leading the ecstatic sing-along in "Brothersport" -- as newly engaged and engaging variations on classic pop.

Or at least a kind of pop that makes sense at a s&eactue;ance. Animal Collective's sound has always played like something drawn from the ages-old tradition of gnostic rituals, with euphoric hooks jabbing into noisy spells -- most notably on their crypto-folk album Sung Tongs, the frayed rock meditation Feels, and the cubist electronic-pop thingamajig Strawberry Jam. And it proves all the more prevalent now, as Animal Collective move toward increasingly aspirational, accessible songs.

For all the ambition that seems to imply, Animal Collective are too mild-mannered to drift anywhere near grandiloquence. "What we're going for is supposed to be more fun," says Lennox, sipping miso soup at Tokyo Bar, "like a celebration, rather than just making noise." None of the group does drugs in ways that might seem logical for a band so notoriously trippy. ("I'm not really a psychedelic warrior, if you know what I mean," Lennox says.) And for an outfit that puts on thundering stage shows adorned with glow-in-the-dark skeletons in tutus and hallucinogenic strobes, none of them appears any more interested in attention now than they were when first concealed behind masks.

Instead, Animal Collective come off as old friends who started making music as a searching enterprise and continue to for the same reasons, now with lots of other bands listening in for cues (MGMT, Grizzly Bear, Yeasayer, Gang Gang Dance, and the Dodos are among those in debt). It's not always easy: Portner remains in New York, but Weitz moved to Washington, D.C., and Lennox to Lisbon, Portugal, where he lives with his wife and three-year-old daughter. And their impulses don't always turn to conventional channels. Their next project, planned for release on theater screens or DVD later this year, is a "visual record," with short filmic vignettes and all new music conceived to interact with the images. "We see it as the next Animal Collective record," Weitz says, "but we don't know if it will be received like that, because a lot of it is pretty weird and abstract."

As the sound in Tokyo Bar turns to a mishmash of hip-hop and chatter, Weitz, drinking a Japanese grain alcohol called shochu, equates Animal Collective's philosophy with his other beloved pursuit, which he learned when he was 12 and which his bandmates have no interest in taking up themselves: scuba diving.

"You're so vulnerable and out of your element," he says. "You look at something as big as your fingernail and think, 'That thing is better suited to survive down here than I am.' To have that stuff be three-dimensional around you totally strips away your ego, as any psychedelic experience does. You just become nothing."

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