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At the beginning there were two of them - Avey Tare and Panda Bear - banging drums and tweaking synths in their bedrooms, singing strange and sometimes heartbreaking songs about imaginary friends and childhood pets. Carried along by washes of squalling feedback, the music was noisy, and it was weird, but it was, at heart, pop music. This was the start of Animal Collective. For fifteen years Dave Porter (Tare), Noah Lennox (Bear), Brian “Geologist” Weitz and Josh “Deakin” Dibb have been rewriting the musical map, their line-up and aesthetic shifting with each astonishing release as they continue their pursuit of a new psychedelia. Their wild path has taken them from cramped concrete basement shows and forest floor singalongs to immersive installations at the Guggenheim and performances to millions on national television. So where now from here?
“Caveman circles”, says Lennox, discussing the vision for their eleventh full-length album, Painting With; “Caveman circles, the first Ramones record, early Beatles and electronically produced. I think that was kind of our starting point”. Dizzyingly upbeat and gloriously realised, their latest LP bounces and pops with an urgent, ecstatic energy, propelled by polyrhythmic beats and gurgling modular synth, with Lennox and Portner’s vocals gleefully falling in and out of syncopation and off-kilter harmony. The songs are as experimental and deeply textured as anything that has come before but sound as sharp and snappy as chart hits, finding the band at both their most minimal and most ambitious: “The idea with cavemen was about being more primitive - the way we sounded when we were first playing together in New York” says Portner. “I feel like what we were doing with the last record [2012’s Centipede Hz] was something a little more complicated. This time we wanted to strip it down and simplify it, like techno and punk… And then put the Animal Collective filter on it all.”
Working as a trio, Portner, Lennox and Weitz began trading demos in early 2015, pursuing a goal of what Portner calls “really short pop songs: no B.S, get in, get out material…” The three met up in Ashville during that Spring and began exploring the songs together. “I feel like lyrically there’s some really tough stuff” says Lennox, “but the intention was for the songs to have the spirit of trying to work things out. To make things better.” The group made a conscious decision not to tour the songs first in an attempt to keep them fresh, something Weitz found to be “a freeing process. That shift in perspective contributed to how much space is on the record.”
Recording took place in the legendary EastWest Studios in Hollywood, home to sessions by The Beach Boys and Marvin Gaye. Making the space feel like home was essential: they lit candles on lily pads and projected a two-hour reel of dinosaur movies - spliced together by Dave’s sister Abby - on a constant loop. A baby pool was set up to help add to the vibe of the room, but the group soon discovered it sounded amazing when thudded and treated with effects. “Everything sounded good in that room” says Weitz.
You can hear it. Everything about Painting With feels crisp and direct as though delivered in super high-definition Technicolor; the pitter-pattering handclaps of Lying In The Grass, the delirious arcade-hall rave of Burglars, the galloping bass and piano of the radiant On Delay - even Bea Arthur’s introduction to Golden Gal seems to shimmer. The interplay between Avey Tare and Panda Bear’s vocals (recorded while sat on high pedestals to lend the singing an “airy” quality) is brought front and centre with an uncharacteristic clarity: “With the vocals, it’s not like a typical call and response or harmony.” says Lennox, “It’s like two voices become one. Without one singer it doesn’t really work the same way. They dance with each other.” Portner interrupts: “Both vocals are meant to complete one thought”. The band put much of this down to their close collaboration with engineer Sonny Diperri: “He played a big part in how the vocals sounded. We didn’t put a lot of effects on the voices like in the past… We tried to be really careful about reverb, to not make everything washed out. When there is echo on the album almost everything is acoustic reverb. It attests to the greatness of those old studios - it’s cool you can record in your apartment, plenty of great music has been recorded that way, but there is something to say about the time that went into crafting these rooms. It feels like a lost art form.”
In their search for more organic sounds, the trio challenged themselves to incorporate elements they usually find off-putting, either structurally or sonically “I remember specifically we brought up saxophone and brass instruments” recalls Portner. They enlisted the services of multireedist Colin Stetson - whose resumé includes collaborations with Arcade Fire, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Bon Iver and Tom Waits - to appear on the album’s rapturous, swirling opener, FloriDaDa, an ode to breaking boundaries and not seeing any separation in people or places: “We were huge fans of Colin’s and the sound that he has is super unique. We don’t notate a score for somebody, so it was cool to have him come in and lay down a bunch of ideas while the song was playing”. After discovering John Cale was a fan of their music, the group invited him down to the studio to record drones for Hocus Pocus - a slow-burning collage of stroboscopic vocals and bleeping, squelching modular synth that gives way to delirious release. Discovering the song wasn’t in a key the viola could be tuned for came as “a happy surprise” as they found themselves working with Cale’s material in new and exciting ways, his bowed tones and electronic manipulations forming a hypnotic transition into the beautifully sun-warped Vertical.
It’s just that that kind openness to playing with expectation and experimenting with form that lies at the heart of this personal and human album. “When we were doing (2007’s) Strawberry Jam, I thought it would be cool to literally rename ourselves The Painters.” recalls Portner, “Everyone kind of rolled their eyes at that one. But Noah brought the idea back [this time]. We talked about painting - cubism, Dada, these distorted ways of looking at things…” It’s all there in Painting With: the sound of artists finding vivid new ways to shape their ideas and challenge their own conventions, creating music that is at once startlingly fresh and still recognisably, uniquely Animal Collective.
Once touring for Merriweather Post Pavilion was concluded at the end of 2009, Animal Collective released their visual album Oddsac on DVD. The film was also screened internationally at theatres and film festivals. The band created Transverse Temporal Gyrus, an installation for the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and subsequently released a 12” single of the performance and launched a website to distribute music from the event. The period between Merriweather Post Pavilion and Centipede Hz also saw the release of two solo albums: Avey Tare’s Down There (2010) and Panda Bear’s Tomboy (2011).
Regrouping as a four piece with original member Deakin once more in the band, Animal Collective reconvened in their native Baltimore in January-March 2011 to write material for Centipede Hz with a further session later in the year. Rather than swapping ideas over the internet and file-sharing Animal Collective were, for the first time in many years, exchanging ideas in the same room by playing live instruments. As a result Panda Bear returned to playing a sit-down drum kit for the first time since Here Comes The Indian (2003) and Geologist began playing live keyboards again. Along with using some of the samplers and sequencers with which they had previously been writing, the sound of Centipede Hz draws on the dynamics and energy of Animal Collective playing together as a band. The return of Deakin is at its most marked in ‘Wide Eyed’, a song that he wrote, featuring his first ever lead-vocal performance and whose title captures the mood of Centipede Hz perfectly.
Part of the inspiration for Centipede Hz included the band’s memories of growing up listening to station announcements and commercials on the radio and imagining the after life of radio signals from the past, forgotten transmissions that are now lost in space and broadcasting music from other planets for other life forms. This is reflected in the sound of Centipede Hz, which features the white noise of radio interference and buried frequencies overlaid with the band’s peerless melodic sensibilities and compositional methods. The result is a panoramic set of songs that shimmer with the confidence and wonder of Animal Collective’s unique inner logic and the luminous warmth of their sound world.
(Photo credit: Frank Hamilton)
I never felt American until I left the United States. In 2007 I went to Europe for the first time to tour in support of Spiderman of the Rings. At the time I, like many other young Americans, didn’t identify as “American.” The United States was an evil, Earth-destroying monster of war, corporate greed and bigotry. I had been touring for years in the DIY scene, trying to live apart from consumer culture, feeling detached from what I thought of as the American lifestyle. But when I left for Europe, I was slammed into reality. Never before had I felt so much like an outsider. I was alone in foreign lands with no friends. While it was a beautiful experience and a great tour, I realized that no matter which subculture I chose to identify or what kind of lifestyle I led I would always be American. Nothing could ever change that. As simple as that idea seems, it was a massive shift in consciousness for me.
When I was writing Bromst, I wanted a title with no pre-existing meaning, something free of any prior associations. For this album, I wanted the exact opposite. America is a word with an infinite range of connotations, both positive and negative. Even its literal definition is open to discussion. In using it as the title of the album, in a small way, I‘m contributing to the discussion. To me, the underground DIY and wilderness are just as American as their evil brethren, corporatism and environmental destruction. It‘s that juxtaposition of fundamentally opposed ideologies that makes up the American landscape.
Compositionally, America is layering of dichotomies: light and dark, acoustic and synthetic, celebration and contemplation. The result can be heard as simple or complex depending on how one listens to it. The music is rooted in triadic harmony set to a fixed pulse while the individual lines are complex, phasing layers of sound. The outcomes are dense asymmetrically rhythmic phrases of textured patterns framed as pop songs.
The inspiration for the music was my love of cross-country travel, seeing the landscapes of the United States, going from east to west and back again over the course of seasons. The lyrics are inspired by my frustration, fear and anger towards the country and world I live in and am a part of. As I came closer to finishing the album these themes began to show themselves more frequently and greater clarity. There seemed no better world to encapsulate both inspirations than the simple beauty found in the word America.