The SPIN Interview: Animal Collective
Just before the unveiling of their new album 'Painting With,' indie rock's preeminent shape-shifters look back
Animal Collective have taken many different forms over the past 15 or so years. Across nine studio albums, the Baltimore-bred band has toyed with star-charting folk songs, wallowed in viscous reverb and synths, and toughed through red-faced shout experiments; they’ve embodied childlike wonder and settled into middle-aged domesticity, grown from a bunch of mask-wearing, alias-adopting noise-makers into psych-pop statesmen, all with a free-form lineup that changes depending upon the four members’ availability.
On February 19, AnCo will release their tenth album, Painting With, a (fittingly) colorful 12-track excursion that prizes immediacy (the ambient segues of the past have been side-stepped) and playfulness (spot the “Wipeout” rip that surfaces in lead single “FloriDada” and the Golden Girls sample that opens “Golden Gal”). It’s a welcome successor to 2012’s manic Centipede Hz, the touring of which was fraught with illness and show postponements.
The new record — which was recorded at Los Angeles’ EastWest Studios and features contributions from Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale and avant-saxophonist Colin Stetson — comes from a much more grounded version of the band, and the same roster that crafted the Collective’s 2009 crossover, Merriweather Post Pavilion: Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox, 37; Brian “Geologist” Weitz, 36; and Dave “Avey Tare” Portner, 36. (Fourth member Josh “Deakin” Dibb wasn’t involved with this LP, instead choosing to focus on a solo project.)
In early December, the trio met with SPIN in Brooklyn for a lengthy talk about their early days, their upcoming album, and the decision-making behind their restlessly morphing sound. Read that conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, below.
Let’s start at the beginning: When did Animal Collective come together as a proper unit?
Lennox: It’s hard to define exactly.
Portner: Noah, you started using “Panda Bear” really early on, right?
Lennox: Mm-hmm. From early high school, so like ’93, ’94, maybe?
Portner: We always wanted to put out music. We thought we could get on a label, so we sent stuff around, but we never really had much luck with response. So Josh was like, “We should just start our own label to put out Noah’s stuff.” And just after that was when we kind of parted ways. [Brian and I] went to New York, [Noah and Josh] went to Boston [for school]. We didn’t really do a lot after that. Then I started thinking that if Noah had an individual identity, maybe the way to go was to have [my own] individual identity, because we weren’t really a band.
Weitz: It depended on who felt like jamming. It changed all the time.
Portner: I was like, “I want to put together a full album [2000’s Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished] of material, not just these random four-track recordings I did. Something that feels like a cohesive, whole thing for me.” And I asked Noah to play drums on it. And because I needed to come up with a title for it, I was like, “Oh, I should just stick with a name. And he could be a name on it, and we would just be these two individuals and we could all be these people that collaborated with each other.” That was pretty much the start of Animal Collective, really.
[And 2001’s] Danse Manatee kicked off our whole playing-in-New-York phase, which was 2000 to 2004, basically. When we signed with FatCat they were like, “You’re doing all of this stuff, but it’s going to be a little confusing, don’t you think, for fans to locate your stuff if you’re always using a different name. Isn’t there one umbrella thing you can put everything under?” And we were like, “All right, well, ‘Animal Collective,’ that’s the only thing we can really come up with.”
What was your particular scene in New York like around the turn of the century?
Portner: We lived in Manhattan but not that many people really lived over here [in Williamsburg] compared to how it is now. Our friends in Black Dice, a couple of them, had a warehouse that they lived in so we would come over and they would have parties all the time. Those people being in touring bands — Black Dice, the Rapture, !!! — they all knew each other from touring, but we all ended up here together, so we met all of those people through Black Dice.
Did you feel like you were in a bubble separate from the garage-rock stuff that was getting a lot of attention then?
Weitz: I think we weren’t interested in being part of a retro rock’n’roll thing at the time. I don’t remember there being, like, battle lines, or animosity. A few years later, things kind of bled a little bit more. People could talk about the Liars and Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the same sentence, or the Liars and the Strokes in the same sentence. I felt like we were always more firmly in the left-field place with Black Dice and Gang Gang Dance and, later on, Excepter.
Portner: And then we did [2004’s] Sung Tongs and that created a whole different placement for us for a little while. We talked about it, when we were in Europe — the “New Weird America” phenomenon or whatever that was.
Lennox: It feels like we’ve been lumped in with a couple of different movements over the course of the last 15 years.
Did Sung Tongs mark the moment when you guys thought you could make careers out of Animal Collective?
Portner: It was more just being fed up with working day jobs around New York — all these random record-store jobs. I worked at American Fine Art, the art gallery, and at a certain point, just was like, “Let’s just tour and try and make our money that way, ‘cause we want to tour anyway.” The object was just to make rent, basically.
But after [2003’s] Here Comes the Indian, we had a little bit of an implosion of sorts. We decided that we just needed a break from each other. And at that point, I thought, “Maybe we are done. Maybe we won’t put out another thing as Animal Collective.” Noah started doing stuff on his own, and it just seemed like we needed to just chill out for a minute.
What was the problem? Was it just being on the road and in such close quarters?
Weitz: The van broke down a lot. We were just tired of each other and under stressful conditions. But then it was probably, like, a year-and-a-half later, at the start of 2004, and [Noah and Dave] had recorded Sung Tongs. Back in those days, the way we worked was you play something live and then you record it, then you’re done and you start jamming on new stuff. And that happened to coincide with exactly when I came back to the East Coast [from grad school in Arizona]. Even though I was living in D.C., I was close enough that I could jam on a Friday night after work ended. I started doing that, just to be like, “Let’s just jam again, and play a few shows with some new songs.”
So how exactly did you all manage to keep it together after Here Comes the Indian?
Portner: I think it was just giving each other space.
Weitz: Noah moved to Portugal.
Lennox: It’s important to say that Dave and I lived together, worked at a record store together, played in a band together, so we were around each other pretty much ever waking moment of every single day.
Portner: We basically just stopped talking to each other. You know, when you’re around somebody, in the same room as them all the time, you forget to have a normal relationship.
We kind of left Here Comes the Indian unfinished and then eventually we were like, “Well, maybe we should add vocals to that and do something different.” Once we started doing that, I remember we just started talking about how we should simplify things and travel around with a couple of acoustic guitars and try to write stuff like that and do stuff that still feels fresh, approaching it in a different way so we don’t have the stress anymore of equipment breaking.
Lennox: We also had tried to play the Sung Tong songs electronically first. They were such a disaster, though.
Portner: Yeah, we were like, “This is annoying. We don’t want it to be stressful anymore. Let’s just play ‘em with acoustic guitars and see how it goes.” Then we did that and we were kind of over it, in terms of that era of the sound, and just wanted to explore the electric guitar again. We just took it into [2005’s] Feels territory from there and Josh had taken a lengthy break from playing and really wanted to get back into playing again.
Jumping ahead a little to 2007’s Strawberry Jam, do you feel like that album gets undersold in comparison to some of your more lauded records?
Portner: That’s weird because I see that some Animal Collective fans will say, “That’s my favorite record.” I feel like a lot of people who still listen to us got into us from Strawberry Jam, from that time.
Weitz: Every record was sort of a step up. Merriweather, I hear some people will be like, it might have been a little too accessible for them. Strawberry Jam was the last one where felt like a lot of people got into it and could maybe claim it as something more experimental and underground… well, actually a fair amount of people do that with Merriweather, too. But maybe there was more a little bit more debate about that one, just because the hype around it was so crazy.
Do you ever listen to your older records?
Portner: Yeah, I don’t really do it for pleasure, but I revisit [them] just to remember what it felt like.
What do you hear in yourselves when you listen to them?
Portner: Danse Manatee will take me back to where my parents used to live and us working there or us working in Brian’s dorm room. And same thing with Sung Tongs — it’ll take me back to sitting on my apartment floor with just a guitar, writing those songs or going to Colorado to record them, touring with them.
Weitz: You can sort of feel the air in a weird way.
Portner: Yeah, and smell the smells. The cigarette smell…
Weitz: There used to be a lot of cigarette smoke around this band. Mainly coming from me. It’s been a while.
Getting closer to the present: What was the band’s mindset when the Centipede Hz tour came to an end?
Weitz: Sometimes I don’t like to say this stuff because I feel like the fans at the shows might be bummed, but you feel when it’s the end. You get off stage, and you know this is going to be the last show before a long hiatus and you’re wondering if you’re going to feel sentimental and then the show just doesn’t go very well and you’re just like, “Yeah, we’re done with this stuff. It’s run its course.” And it’s kind of nice when the last show isn’t even this nice, celebratory hurrah. At that point, my wife and I were two months away from our daughter being born and I didn’t have much of a mindset, other than like, “I’m going to be a dad.”
Portner: And I had started doing the Slasher Flicks stuff, which wasn’t supposed to start until after we were done, but because I got sick so much, the tour kept getting longer and longer because we had to keep making up shows. I remember at the time just being like, “Ugh, I can’t believe this, can I handle this, emotionally?” It was just really hard for me for a lot of reasons. I wasn’t having the time to deal with other emotions that I needed to deal with and yeah, it was just taking on a lot of pressure from all over the place, which made me get sick more and more. So it was nice to have the break.
I feel like the more positive attitude of the new record comes from — at least from my point of view — feeling a little bit more grounded and being able to take the time to write some songs.
How did the pressure of following Centipede compare to any kind of pressure you felt following Merriweather?
Portner: I think we try to do the best we can and not think about it too much. Usually, our drive to do something is based purely on our enthusiasm for what we’re doing. We try and not be like, “Well, what is this going to be compared to?”
I think [2010’s visual album] ODDSAC was a weird experience, especially because we went around with it and did Q&As. We had been working on it for a really long time, before even Merriweather, it was this project we were enthusiastic about. So, to go in front of people and have them be like, “Why did you release this after Merriweather, are you trying to be like, ‘F**k you?’”
Weitz: Or, like, “Do you judge fans of yours that maybe only like the ‘My Girls’ side of you? Are you trying to push us away and get rid of us?”
Portner: For us, they weren’t related at all.
Weitz: Like, every screening, somebody asked us, “Are you angry at us?” It didn’t occur to us.
But Centipede is a much rougher record than Merriweather.
Portner: We wanted it to be. It was a reaction to ourselves.
Weitz: Merriweather was super positive, one of my favorite experiences ever — writing that record, quickly recording it, and then touring it. But like I said, you sort of know [when] it’s the end and [performing] it was so easy by the end of it. Even the long, extended, improvised things we do, like in songs like “Fireworks” and “Brothersport,” we had done it in so many different ways and kind of settled into, like, “I know when he does this, he’ll do this.”
Lennox: It was was easy because you knew the game plan, nothing was up in the air, there were no question marks about what was gonna happen.
Weitz: You didn’t sweat doing it. So, with Centipede Hz, we wanted something abrasive and physical because if we’re going to be touring these songs a lot, every night it should be challenging, and it should be physical. It can never be easy or boring, ideally.
[The album] got mixed reviews, but in ways that made sense to me. My wife and son really like Centipede and they listened to it a lot in the car. But sometimes we would go on tour and I would get used to how the songs sounded live and then it’d be a couple of months and I’d turn on the car and it would be a day where earlier that morning my wife or son had been playing it in the car and it would come on and I’d just be like, “Whoa. We made that decision?”
There are just so many different angles to look at those songs, depending on how they’re mixed. For the studio versions, it really was about trying to make everything as audible as possible, which, if you didn’t really know what you were listening to — to, like, the uninitiated listener — it probably came across as a really dense wall or soup of squiggles.
You collaborated with John Cale on the new album. Was it bizarre to be in the studio with someone of his stature?
Weitz: I mean, it takes a little while to warm up to any stranger in a studio for us because we —
Lennox: We’re a pretty insular group.
Weitz: It relaxed when he did something that, I think, everyone in the room knew didn’t work. But we didn’t really know each other well enough to know how to communicate. And he actually was like, “Does that sound fine to you guys?” And we were like, “Sorta.” And he was like, “I personally think it sounds too busy. Don’t you think it sounds too busy?” At that moment it was, like, “OK, cool.” And then he really got into some of the gear we had, some of the odder synthesizers, so we let him jam and we processed [it]. By the end of the day, it was super-comfortable and relaxed. There had to be a little moment where everyone could sort of exhale.
How did a Golden Girls sample end up on the record?
Portner: I wanted to write a song about gender roles. But I was having a hard time finding like a way in from my point of view. Then I had a conversation with a friend and she told me that growing up, Golden Girls was a huge influence on her, like, really changed her way of being a young girl. And I thought that was really cool. Then because we talked about collage so much with the records, I threw it into the demo just to give an example, like, “Oh, we could do something with this.” I just picked it at random from a montage that I got on YouTube and —
So you weren’t like, “This is the episode we have to sample.”
Portner: No, no. There’s a reel of all of Bea Arthur’s sarcastic moments and I found it hilarious, but Brian was like, “What’s that sample, man? That’s great, that’s staying on the record.” [Laughs.]
It feels like it’d be very hard for a band getting their start now to have the kind of career that you’ve had, where you really build an audience from record to record over a full decade.
Portner: It’s hard, too, having musician friends that are successful as well, but [we’re] still the older peers, in a way. They’ll be on similar labels that we’ve been on, and they’ll be like, “How did you get the label to do this?” Or, “We always say, ‘Well, Animal Collective did this.’” I feel like we’re just lucky. We had an idea, hoped everybody would back us for it, but we’re pretty pushy, persistent people and want a lot of things to go our way.
Weitz: Our record label’s insinuated that it’s a little annoying, actually, to deal with younger musicians that are like, “But you let Animal Collective do it.” And they’re just like, “We didn’t really let them do it, they just kind of did it.” [Laughs.]
How far away does stuff like Feels and Sung Tongs feel now?
Portner: It’s crazy to think that it happened a decade ago now.
Lennox: Creatively, it feels really far, but professionally it doesn’t feel far away.
Weitz: The rate of change as you get older slows and the perception of time passing becomes very relative. When I think back to my early twenties, it’s very much like, “This girlfriend and then this girlfriend, then this house and this apartment.” Everything lasted for a year, or like nine months, and those experiences were so radically different that two or three years could feel like, “Jeez, I’m not even the same person.” But now it’s like a decade passed and I’m like, “I still come home to the same household.”