Animal Collective are one of the most influential and acclaimed acts in indie music. Born in Baltimore, reared in New York, and now based around the world, the quartet —Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Geologist, and Deakin— first broke out on the back of 2004's Sung Tongs, before achieving huge crossover with 2009's album-of-the-year, Merriweather Post Pavilion. The ninth Animal Collective LP, Merriweather Post Pavilion became an instant landmark album for the 21st century, and stood out as one of the best records of the 2000s. After the Fall Be Kind and Transverse Temporal Gyrus EPs, and the experimental feature film Oddsac, Animal Collective returned in 2012 with their much-anticipated 10th album, Centipede Hz.
Interview: 9 July 2012
Do you spend much time discussing your hopes for an album before you set out work on it?
"There's always a round of emails that go back-and-forth, talking about what we did last time, what we want to do differently this time, what we've been listening to in terms of records, or even non-musical influences —films we've seen— as well; sonic textures, the vibe of the songs, what we want them to feel like when we're playing them live. We try and talk about that stuff as much as we can before we start out."
So what ideas were there, specifically, this time around; what things did you want to do differently, what had been inspiring you?
"The first one that we talked about was, as opposed to Merriweather Post Pavilion, was wanting to do everything with this record as live as possible. When we performed that album live, we used a lot of samplers and backing tracks. That was fun for a while, even adventurous, because you never knew exactly how everything would sync together; we tried to perform it more like the samplers were keyboards. But, after a while, it got very easy for us. We toured with those songs for about two-and-a-half years. And I think it was on our Australian tour where we were talking about what it had grown to be like playing those songs. 'Well, if there's air-conditioning on in the club, we don't even break a sweat.' We were doing too well with those songs. There was no element of uncertainty or danger to keep us on our toes. So we talked a lot about how with the next batch of songs —that became the new record— we wanted to keep it way more live, have a lot more live instruments, not really rely on any backing tracks at all when we were performing on stage. We knew that would push us into more, like, 'rock' territory. Noah is a really great drummer, but he hadn't actually played at a sit down drumkit for almost ten years, so he wanted to do that again. We like a lot of rock music, but we've never felt comfortable, ourselves, being a rock'n'roll band; that doesn't really suit our personalities. We talked a lot about how we wanted this record to be rocking, but not to sound at all like straight-up rock music. That was the starting point."
So, have you made a rocking record, to your ears?
"I think so, yeah. I mean, it's pretty upbeat. There's a lot of textures or things that are part of a more traditional rock vocabulary; things like distortion. But we still found our own way into it, and it still sounds like an Animal Collective record."
Does it feel as different as you expected playing these songs live? Does it carry the danger that you desired?
"Yeah, definitely. We still wanted electronic elements in the songs, so I still am playing a sampler. But there's certainly way more live stuff for all of us, including me; and it's definitely different. You hit a wrong note, or something slightly out of time, or when you're not quite ready when someone else starts a song, those were things we hadn't really had happen. When you have loops going endlessly that you can manipulate by twiddling a knob, it's a completely different experience."
What was it like trying to manage outside expectations after Merriweather Post Pavilion?
"This is our tenth full-length record, in addition to all the other stuff we've done. And it's almost never happened that the next project that has followed has been similar to the last one. At this point, we're just used to how it's going to go. The first record that we did that got popular was Sung Tongs, about eight years ago, and that had a lot of harmonies and acoustic guitars on it, and then the next record we put out, Feels, was more electronic, with electric guitars and live drums. And, at the time, the people that had come on board with Sung Tongs were like 'where's the pretty folk music?' So, going all the way back to then, we've always had that feeling that 'well, that was what we did last time'. From the beginning, we never wanted to repeat ourselves, and always wanted to try something new, and just because people have come along and loved something doesn't mean that's ever changed. And when you go into the studio with that kind of attitude, it liberates you from living up to people's expectations, because they know you're not going to. People know that we're going to give them something new, and whether they like it and choose to embrace it, that's up to them. The kind of people who are looking for you to just recreate what you did last time, they're never going to be satisfied even if you do try to do that; so it's pretty easy to just let that go and not worry about that."
But wasn't the pressure more, this time, not about doing the same thing, but just having to follow something so widely —and wildly— acclaimed?
"There is a certain level of pressure from doing a record like Merriweather, but I think it's good. We knew when we were making that, from the beginning of the writing stages all through recording it, that we were making something that felt very special to us. We knew we were playing with each other at a really high level, and we were writing really great stuff. Before anyone had ever heard it, we felt really, really good about it. So you hold yourself to that standard. Not trying to recreate it, but recreate that feeling. You want to try and create something that, when you're writing and recording and listening back to it, you feel just as good about. And you don't always do it. There are definitely moments on every record —and this one was no exception— when you can tell something just isn't working, because you don't have that feeling. And you know that you've had that feeling before, so you can get there; like the work's not done, you have to keep going, because the song's not done yet. Those past successes aren't a burden; on both a personal and creative level, they can be a really good, really inspiring thing."
Is that ever-changing nature —a band who never repeats themselves from record to record— a quality that you admire in other artists?
"Definitely. I've had a lot of arguments about this, especially with this old roommate of mine. He'd get so frustrated when I'd say something like 'yeah, this is good I guess, but it sounds like their last two records, and I just don't need another record that sounds like this'. He believed the opposite, he thought if you liked the way a band sounds, then you should always like it if they maintain that sound; and then you judge an album by whether the songs are good. I can see that side of it, too, but the bands I liked the most growing up were bands like Pavement or Sun City Girls or Can, or even a huge classic rock band like Pink Floyd; these bands who every single one of their records sounded different, and gave you a different experience. Depending on what your mood was that day or what the weather was like, you would choose to listen to different things; these were bands whose albums were not interchangeable. I really responded to that."
Given you summoned your teenage listening experience, I've often wondered: how different does it feel being in the band, now, versus back then? The obvious answer would be completely different, but is there also quality that is exactly the same; like when you're in the same room together playing nothing has really changed?
"There's always going to be that. We've been playing together since we were really young; it started, in its very first ways, when we were 13, 14 years old; and definitely by the time we were 15 years old we'd all played together in some form or another. That continuum is still there. If there wasn't this constant foundation, if the music that we were making didn't feel like it came from the four of us and this relationship we founded together 20 years ago —our inside jokes, our shared experiences, the records that we've listened to together— then it wouldn't be right. It has to feel like us, the four of us, and when the four of us get together it encompasses all that history. But, in the same way, this doesn't feel like the same band at all, and in a good way. We've all grown, we're better at what we do than we were 10, 15 years ago."
How has growing, as human beings, changed how the music actually sounds?
"When we solidified into Animal Collective, when we were all living in New York, the landscape of what we were all into was very different. We were listening to more noise records. We were always into melodies, but we always wanted to obscure them under lots of noise and textures. Now I feel it's a bit more balanced; and on Merriweather that was one of our goals: 'let's not obscure these melodies with noise and beats at all.' The first half of our discography was done in a very condensed time period; the noisier section of those first three or four records were done in the period of two years living in New York. They were all very chaotic, hectic, hard times for everybody; so the music we were making then started to reflect our lives and our mental states at the time. Those days just felt noisier. But around Sung Tongs things opened up, both in our lives and with our music; and it seemed like we didn't feel the need to be so aggressive, and the melodies have been pretty up front since then."
How does it feel with [Centipede Hz] finished, but still a couple of months away from coming out?
"There's so much stuff with the record coming out. Because we're self-managed and we do all our own production stuff, it feels anything but over to us. Like, the music's done, but we're working on the artwork still, we're doing this bonus DVD of live footage that we're putting together, we're trying to work on a stageshow that we can take on tour next year, we're thinking about our rehearsal schedule. I know that some people have this feeling where they're sitting around waiting for an album to be released, but that's now how we feel at the moment at all. I actually really haven't had time to even think about how people are going to perceive this record. But my favorite time with a record is now; between the time we finish an album and when we release it. It's this one window where I can listen to this finished record of ours as if it wasn't even really my band. That it's just a record by a band that I'm a fan of, and I can just enjoy it. But once it comes out, I can never really listen to it again. I can't really explain why, but I've been like that with all our records. Once it comes out, it doesn't feel like it's mine anymore, it feels foreign to me; that somehow ends my relationship with it. The fact that other people are now listening to it is somehow this moment of detachment for me; but i haven't really figured out exactly why that matters."
What's the bonus DVD you're doing?
"We wanted to do a high-definition version of the audio for the record, which can only fit on a DVD. So, because we were going to be doing a DVD, we thought we should do something else. We'd filmed a live performance last year with a lot of these songs on it, and there was a section of that that we really liked and wanted to use for something. At one point we were thinking of just putting it on YouTube or something, but we thought given we were going to do a DVD companion with the record anyway, that we might as well put that on there, too. So, it'll be those two components: a high-definition audio that people can play back, and about half-an-hour of live footage."
Where do you see Oddsac as fitting in the Animal Collective lineage? Does it feel like an album to you, or is it something else, this weird other?
"It definitely feels intensely singular, like it's totally its own thing. But I've always thought of it like one of our records, too. I was a little surprised, I think, that it didn't get as much play as I expected. I remember talking to a website like Pitchfork, and they said 'we're not going to review this, because we don't review DVDs.' And we were like 'but it's like a new full-length, there's a whole album's worth of new music on it; like, here's an hour of new Animal Collective music'; and they were just like 'we're not going to review it, that's just our policy'. I use Pitchfork not to demonize them, but just as an example; it felt like so many places had this policy, or just didn't think it was worth their time because it wasn't a CD. But to us it was a whole new album; sure, it was a different kind of a record. At the same time, it doesn't feel like Merriweather or Centipede Hz. It took four years to make; we started working on it before we begun recording Strawberry Jam, and it came out long after we'd released Merriweather. So it was almost like this split reality. The four of us rarely played on it together; we'd all be in the studio together, but it was editing these pieces in and out, and overdubbing on top of things. There wasn't much live playing, so it didn't feel like one of our other records. So it is a part of our discography, to me, but it's hard to know exactly how and where it fits in; I just think of it as a different side to what we do. It's like that soundtrack to that Guggenheim exhibition that we did: they're not supposed to fit in linearly, in this album-to-album progression. It's just another way to say 'there's a lot of music that we like out there'. We like pop music, we like psychedelic music, we like noise, we like all these things; they're all things we want to play around with, and have fun with. People can take bands way too seriously: so much of what we do is about us having fun, moving around in whatever direction we feel like."