Interview: Animal Collective


With the dawn setting upon their new album, Stephen Connolly learns of Animal Collective’s humble beginnings and gets to grips with the concepts behind Centipede Hz

To some, they are one of modern music’s only innovators, combatants hacking through today’s hordes of banality to a 67/9 time signature. To others they are purveyors of shallow introspective noodling, fit only to accompany the organically-sourced patisserie experience. Irrespective as to what opinion you may have, one thing is certain: Animal Collective are popular, whether they care or not.

All your friends will insert the group’s name into conversation, often where appropriate, and what’s more, they hold the unwavering, twinkle-eyed approval of the influential Pitchfork Media. That omnipresent overseeing deity of modern alternative music, Pitchfork is a God that both giveth and taketh away, with an omnipotence, the malice of which has not been witnessed since the Old Testament. Three of their albums hold a 9.0 rating or higher on the site, the remaining six huddling around the prestigious 8.0 mark. What are they doing right?

Brian Weitz is the one with the opulent beard behind a teetering bank of keyboards, lit solely by the miner’s headlamp he has become famous for. Weitz, Josh Dibb and David Portner (better known as ‘Deakin’ and ‘Avey Tare’ to fans, respectively) attended the same Park School high school in Baltimore, later meeting Noah Lennox, or ‘Panda Bear’, to form Animal Collective.

Sales of AA batteries have never dipped since. Sales of Brian Weitz, or ‘Geologist’ to give his baffling title, one allegedly gained due to a misunderstanding during his college years, busies himself with being both acting manager and, more mysteriously, ‘electronics’ in Animal Collective, a job description on which he elaborated: “There are melodies there in our music, you know, traditional instrumentation and such… but we always like the songs to be a bit more environmental, more visual and textural, I guess. But not purely beats and synth. If you hear a weird sound on there, it might be me, stuff that I’ve probably done on my own, particularly in the interludes and kind of acts like a glue in the sonic world.’’ Despite his relative humility, you could say the eccentric ‘textures’ he colours the songs with are one of Animal Collective’s hallmark features.
Quite unlike the average denizen of a psychedelic electronic group, Weitz is in the decidedly stable position of holding a Bachelor of Arts degree in Environmental Science, along with a Masters degree in Public Administration in Environmental Policy from Columbia University, as well as being a husband and father. Despite this, the group tour relentlessly and have done so for over a decade. They are currently within a break in their busy tour schedule comprising dates in the United States and much of Europe, deigning even to pay our blighted island a visit this November.

The ensemble have in fact recently expressed a certain reluctance to trot out their hits onstage; the jittering, freeform set comprised almost exclusively of-then unreleased material at Californian music festival Coachella in 2011 evoked both fury and admiration. “We’re more comfortable now than we used to be, to acknowledge that we’ve a duty to include more of our older songs for the audience. Sometimes however with new material we’re eager to show off where our band is going next. We struggle to not feel as if we’re pandering to the audience, as that wouldn’t be fair to them either. I wouldn’t say it’s status abuse. With some songs like ‘Fireworks’, it took us forever to got tired of that song, four or five years at least, so it needs to be something that is a joy for us to play also. Some songs we don’t play simply because they don’t fit in with our new material. You want the entire set to be this cohesive thing.”

From listening to Weitz, it seemed obvious that keeping the audience as amused as the band requires a balancing act. “We travel now with a large crew you see, with numerous video screens and some stage furniture and while we realise we aren’t the most exciting people on stage and that we don’t really like stage banter, our set is still very high tech and as a consequence we generally can’t really move far from our places on the stage for too long. If we’re going to keep people amused there needs to be something there, perhaps visually stimulating, so we’re always trying to make it more fun. I guess that’s the most significant way in which our live act has evolved over the years.”

“On the other hand, we knew [this record] was a reaction to the live performance experience of Merriweather. In the end, while the songs were fresh and fun to play live, by the end of our third year playing them live we knew the songs and equipment very well. There was a massive amount of samplers and backing tracks and perhaps the performances weren’t that physical. Once we didn’t have anywhere to go and we had felt we had improvised over the songs and stretched [them] out as far as they could go, they weren’t as fun; we need to feel some kind of danger. We decided that if we were going to embark on a another record cycle where we write a record and tour the songs for a couple of years they ought to be fun, more challenging and high energy no matter how many times we play, written in such a way that would have an element of physicality to their execution that would always be challenging and high-energy, and that’s more evident with the latest album. To help that we got together right from the very beginning of the creative process with these songs, together in one room writing them, rather than sharing ideas by email correspondence.’’

‘Energy’ comes easier to some than others, however. The citadel of KAOSS pads, samplers, Moogs synthesisers, guitar pedals, sequencers, and vocal effects processors, required to reproduce the chaotic arrangements heard on Animal Collective’s records ensure that their set list becomes a rather static affair: “It’s always been a sort of struggle with us, always struggling to be more versatile live, but increasingly we’ve found our sets becoming more high tech; we used to be better at being able to switch about our set lists. We can’t really pick up a guitar and [spontaneously] launch into one of our songs, and if we don’t have a certain piece of equipment to hand we can’t play certain songs, which is certainly frustrating.’’

The collection of debutante songs aired at Coachella were in fact previews of the group’s latest release Centipede Hz, their first proper album since 2009’s breakthrough, Merriweather Post Pavillion, not counting 2010’s deranged soundscape Transverse Temporal Gyrus, which was, in Weitz’s words, “never really intended for a release, I mean it lasts six hours…”

When circulated by the media and group alike around its early September release Centipede Hz sported such cautionary taglines as “difficult”, “dense” and our favourite, “hard to swallow”, perhaps to be expected when members of your band outline the concept to be “an alien band from another planet sampling certain sounds from Earth.” Are such labels justified or just lazy?

“Well I don’t argue about difficulty, but it’s certainly dense. Hard to swallow is subjective, and I think that was Josh; he wasn’t around for Merriweather. I think he was conscious of it being a hit, and this isn’t as immediate as he was preparing himself for. It’s hard for us to realise this. You see when I listen to it, it all makes perfect sense; [it’s] not hard to follow at all. But I’ve listened to others and I guess I have to acknowledge now that it must be… But it’s dense, certainly. Everyone in the band has ideas, and we try and cram as many in as possible. When you know all of those ideas there, sometimes it’s easy to fool yourself that it’s very obvious and translatable to the listener. It’s always something that’s a part of Animal Collective. We always try to streamline and be a bit more minimal and it’s a constant battle with ourselves. Everyone would like their parts to be louder. Everyone’s part sounds loudest to them live, and when it comes to replicating what they hear on a record …it’s hard.”

Music is so readily obtained today, and so easily and freely encountered and shared. Surely when a stream of a new album can be as easily switched off as on, and entire songs skipped on the basis of an unwieldy initial seconds, music that in any way lacks in immediacy risks being overlooked in an age of demanding consumer habits? “Yes,” Weitz admits. “But it’s a worry you’d have with any record. I listen to records online for 30 seconds, and it could even be something very poppy and if it’s not what I’m in the mood for, I’ll skip ahead too, everyone does it. I think there are a lot of positives to the way music is distributed nowadays, mainly in the way it has affected listening habits, especially mine. To be honest, we never expected a lot of people to like our music anyway. It’s never been about this urge to gain people’s approval.”

As one attempts to follow the contorted time signatures and discern the myriad of garbled melodies intertwined on Animal Collective’s latest record, and indeed their entire catalogue, it’s difficult not to remark at the sheer complexity of the music they have composed. What drives them to make things so difficult? “Well we were in band that was traditional, when we started when we were 15 with you know, bass, drums and a singer. We covered Pavement songs and sounded like Pavement, listening to The Grateful Dead and early Pink Floyd, even Syd Barrett records, but even sometimes on Pavement’s records you had some sort of strange noise, you’d hear these distorted noise sections and we were also into movie soundtracks and movie sound design. I don’t know what drives someone to sound like that, but we were trying to find music that combined these elements, and we couldn’t find it anywhere. We decided to make it ourselves.”

As the conversation wore on, the brittle microwaves relaying it began to lose their way, disheartened by the inclement weather or perhaps just not fans of neo-psychadelia, and failed to carry Weitz’s placid musings on electronic sampling any longer. It became clear that adieu must be bid as the conversation began to bear a resemblance to the new album.

Where will we find Animal Collective after another three years however? The group’s principal songwriter, David Porter, remarked, rather eloquently, that Merriweather Post Pavilion, had the overall feel of passively gazing at the stars, whereas Centipede Hz, feels like hurtling towards the stars in a spaceship. Following this pattern of increasing astral proximity we look forward to the next record delivering a kaleidoscopic account of nuclear fusion at five thousand degrees Celsius. What’s obvious to us however is that Animal Collective intend to press on in their intrepid journey into the obscure for the foreseeable future, glancing only occasionally into the rear view mirror to see who’s following them.

Animal Collective play Vicar Street on November 6th. Centipede Hz is out now.