Animal Collective: A Left Turn at Weird Town - The Stool Pigeon
Indie stars on their wild success, obsessive fans, and how their primal instinct is to never look back.
Moving back home was an uneasy experience for Animal Collective. Reconnecting with their roots or rekindling enthusiasm was not on the agenda. The idea of writing the most anticipated album of their career in suburban Baltimore felt practical, even fun, but facing up to the past was an unavoidable drawback.
Since the critical and commercial breakthrough of 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, an album of cleverly crafted dream pop that established Animal Collective as one of the most influential bands of recent times, the quartet has focused on solo albums and side-projects, gradually settling in separate cities. Dave Portner (Avey Tare) now lives in Los Angeles, Noah Lennox (Panda Bear) in Lisbon, Brian Weitz (Geologist) in Washington DC and Josh Dibb (Deakin) in New York.
Early last year, the four childhood friends (now in their thirties) revisited the lush woodlands and picket-fenced townhouses where they grew up, assembling on the same property where they practised music as teenagers. It was the first time they’d swapped ideas in the same room for years. But between all the things that had changed, and all the things that had stayed the same, memories of what they’d left behind began to stir.
That familiarity wasn’t comfortable for everybody, explains a jetlagged Dibb, face worn with stubble, his eyes sagging into dark circles. Having recently returned to the band after a three-year sabbatical, he’s slumped in Domino’s London offices on a rainy summer day, politely refuting the idea of a sentimental rediscovery to one journalist after another.
Sitting beside him is Lennox, who explains that moving back in with your mother and dropping your daughter off at your old school, as he did every day during those writing sessions, felt like the kind of dark and unsettling déjà vu that would mess with anyone’s head.
Looking back, it turns out, is something the band try to avoid. It’s the reason their live shows are loaded with unrecorded songs and why their nine albums in 12 years have followed a progressive but unpredictable trajectory: mutating folk, hypnotic droning, sample-based pop and abrasive experimentalism.
New album Centipede Hz shifts the balance once more, splattering the listener with a deluge of cacophonous textures while somehow keeping the songs rooted with hummable melodies.
That they fear repetition may be hard for their devotional following to accept. Among the many fans impatient for the new album, one online commenter claimed she didn’t know what to do with herself besides eating and listening to the band’s old material, adding, “This shit is just PAIN.”
Despite the expectations, Animal Collective don’t take themselves too seriously. Lennox is shy, preferring to relay his answers to Dibb, but both are affable and self-deprecating, even admitting that the childlike sense of adventure behind their music does nothing for their own children (Weitz has a son, Lennox a daughter), who find it unlistenable and “Bor-ing!”
How important is avoiding repetition?
Josh Dibb: I think if you were to combine the psychology of the four of us, we’re a real anti-nostalgic group of people who find more comfort in changing things and moving forward. Anytime we’re sitting in a place that’s too familiar, someone in the band thinks, ‘We shouldn’t be here. We’ve made songs like this before, let’s do something else.’ The first time we can’t break away from that will probably be the last time we make music. I think we’ll be like, ‘We’ve clearly reached a point where we can’t change enough.’
Noah Lennox: That’s not to say you can’t do that. Certain bands, like The Strokes, didn’t have huge stylistic shifts and I never got tired of them. But, for whatever reason, our constant is changing. Maybe it’s because when somebody is bored with something, it’s not as interesting. Maybe it’s the way our characters are: restless.
How do you think the trajectory of your career has panned out?
JD: If it had worked out differently, I wonder whether it would have worked for us at all. I feel like each Animal Collective record has been a really slow progression up. There’s definitely arguments to be made that there were bigger leaps, like Merriweather and Sung Tongs , but it’s never been a situation where suddenly [snaps fingers] everything’s riding on this one thing.
NL: We’ve been lucky it never just exploded. It was always like we got comfortable with things going up and down.
JD: There’s a certain amount of trust in our own process that comes out of that, whereas I wonder whether that would be there if we put out Merriweather as our first record when we were 22 years old. How would you deal with that as an individual and as a band? And what would that make you think about in terms of what you do next?
In my late teens and most of my twenties, I was really resistant to go see musicians or bands who’d been around for a long time because I didn’t want to see them over the hill. But when I got to see Neil Young in concert for the first time last year, it was amazing to see somebody doing what they’re doing for 30 or 40 years and still have certain things be so clear and consistent in who they are. His personality is what it is, but there was no aspect of what I saw that was nostalgic in that it felt dead.
Do you think there are certain periods in life that are more conducive to creativity?
NL: [Deep exhale] It’s kind of a scary question and I’ve thought about it a lot. I think I’ve gone back and forth on that. There are times when there’s a best time, when you’re younger, but now I’m not so sure it’s [to do with] age because getting older — especially having families, in my experience — tends to shift your focus. I don’t think getting older necessarily means you can’t make good or powerful things. I might say that it gets more difficult.
JD: But, see, I think it gets more difficult in ways that positively balance it out. There’s definitely a lot of energy when you’re 20 that some people might not have as they get older. I think that shifts on some level but the appreciation of what goes into it — not that we didn’t work hard when we were younger — I think you see more of the process and understand more of what it takes to be good at it. The circumstances of our lives are changing, so we have to work hard to get together to play music. But that brings with it a next level of commitment to the idea; it gets that more serious.
NL: That’s the key: the older you get, the more difficult it becomes to make that commitment.
JD: I just think, as an individual, it’s that classic, ‘If I knew then what I know now.’ If I could go back and talk to the 22-year-old me I’d be like, ‘Your sense of focus could shift in so many ways and you could get so much more out of this time…’
What do you know now that you didn’t then?
JD: [Long pause] My brain’s shutting down a little bit. I think for me it’s a closer appreciation of what’s in my life and understanding that what’s possible for me is limited. When I was younger, that sense of possibility was so vast that, personally… it was too much, in some ways. Now there’s this awareness that by doing what we’re doing now I’m passing up other opportunities for certain things I once thought I’d be able to do. The responsibility of knowing that totally changes the way I think about the choices I make, whereas when I was younger I was so much more carefree… Well, maybe not carefree because I tend to be a generally intense person.
It’s also the difference between [believing] all creativity comes from spontaneous inspiration and that there’s no point in putting a lot of work into it until it happens… versus thinking about it in terms of being a professional athlete. You can be naturally gifted but the difference between someone who’s going to be a great athlete on a team is someone who puts in a lot of hours to get their body in shape and understand the game.
I’ve come to appreciate and strive towards that, because I know that the inspiration part is always going to be somewhat uncertain. There’s really no way to predict when that moment is going to come. You’re either called upon to do something or you just get a flash of inspiration. It’s almost a cliché, trying to capture lightning in a bottle. You can’t do it.
Where do you think those flashes of inspiration come from?
NL: I’ve no idea but I know there’s no way to force it to happen. You can maybe create the atmosphere where you think those things often happen but it seems so random. I think that’s why it’s important to make sure you’re ready by staying in practice, like playing the guitar a lot. If it’s not happening in the studio I might go do something else, but I feel like all these little pieces will add up to something in the end. In a way it’s almost just like biding my time until one of those things happen.
JD: I can’t tell you how many times in my life I’ve had an idea come through and I can’t bring it out because I haven’t laid the groundwork for myself to realise it, so it ends up fizzling and dying. It’s the worst feeling. I’d suddenly hit all these stumbling blocks. Like, ‘Wait, how does this machine work?’ Or, ‘Wait, what tuning am I meant to be in? I can’t quite find this chord.’ That can kill it.
That’s the thing I would have gone back and told the 18-year-old [me]: ‘If you do this for the next 10 years, you’ll be in this place by then.’ Even though I’m 34, part of me is 19 again and I’m really looking forward to where I’ll be in four or five years if I work as hard as I’m learning to now… because I don’t feel like those light bulb moments are really age-specific. I feel like they’re always there. It’s more a matter of your openness to letting in change.
NL: It’s common to think that every album has to be this light bulb moment but it can still have some value in it if it’s not… Well, there’s two ways you can go about it. One is to just spit things out. You’ll have light bulb moments. You’ll have other moments that may not be so powerful or immediate but there’s something there. It’s more like when you take the whole, it tells a story. Or you can be a band where you just wait until you have those light bulb moments and that’s when you put out something. Some bands just wait more.
Well, if you’re contractually obliged to deliver an album by a deadline, you don’t have that luxury.
NL: That’s true.
But it’s an important point in terms of making a follow-up album to something that was not just a success, critically and commercially, but in terms of being meaningful to a lot of people. You’ve had to do it with this new album and, similarly, with [Panda Bear’s 2011 solo album] Tomboy. Many people would consider [its 2007 predecessor] Person Pitch a perfect record that’s almost impossible to follow up. So how do you approach it?
NL: Well, my two choices were what I just mentioned: wait and not do anything, or think of it the other way and block that whole side of it out. It was difficult but… [pauses] I mean, it worked out. It almost felt like putting the thing out released me from having to think about that stuff. I think the music sort of reflects that in that there’s a heaviness to it. With what I’m making now it’s kind of back to, ‘Nobody cares, I’m just havin’ a good time doing this stuff’ …which is where I want to be.
So what does it feel like when there’s this fevered anticipation for a new album?
JD: It was really clear to me by the time we finished the first writing session after three months. I remember saying, ‘This is going to be harder for people to swallow.’ There’s no doubt about it: people are going to react to this. It wasn’t being bummed about it or a critical comment of the music or anything — I’m really stoked and I think the record’s amazing, personally. But there was an instant melodic gratification to Merriweather and I think we intentionally made a record this time that is a lot more…um… [laughs] We took a left turn at weird town.
NL: We took a left turn at weird town.
JD: For the most part, every song — in terms of the way the record is laid out and the choices we made sonically — is way more challenging. And that’s been verified by every person I’ve played it for so far. People have said they love the record. Friends of ours have said it took them two or three times to even understand it. Merriweather is not that. From the first note of Merriweather you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I just wanna dance,’ or, ‘My heart’s exploding.’
This is more like, ‘This is amazing but I’m confused and I don’t quite know what’s going on and I think I need to listen to it again and maybe I should turn it off.’ That’s just an awareness of our relationship with the record, too. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh God, this record isn’t going to do as well,’ or, ‘People aren’t going to like it as much.’ It was just an understanding…
NL: There’s two different kinds of success. One is in terms of popularity but the other is success in terms of us working really hard on something and feeling really good about it. And we totally did that. For me personally, that takes some of the pressure off — just knowing how much we put into it and how it feels once we’ve finished. Tomboy and this album are the same thing for me. It took a lot of…
JD: I’d say Sung Tongs was the first record where we had fans and, back then, we were playing to clubs with like 50 people who really, really loved the Danse Manatee-era stuff. There was a craziness to it they were super stoked about. Then Dave and Noah did Sung Tongs, which is pretty, and it’s like, ‘What is this?’
NL: [whispers] ‘Crap!’
JD: All these contemporaries of ours who were seeing us do these crazy, wild noise shows were now suddenly like, ‘Wait a minute. This is weird pop.’ Then we did Feels  and that felt like a bit of a change, too. Every time we do it, the bigger the shows get or the more records we sell, there’s always been fans that are like, [aggressively] ‘Why aren’t you playing this song?! Why are you doing this?!’ We’ve experienced this negative reaction to each step as much as a positive reaction. We certainly don’t enjoy people saying, ‘You suck! Why aren’t you playing this?’ It is what it is at this point. We’ve already dealt with it. It’s not easy, for sure, but it’s just how we’ve done things for a long time.
NL: There are so many variables that you can’t control. For me, it always comes back to what can we control? We make something that works and that we’re excited about. After that, you don’t have control over anything.
I know you’ve participated on Animal Collective forums. What’s it like peeking in there?
JD: It’s brutal. [laughs] I stopped. I used to go online and encourage people to talk to us and there was a period of time where it was cool, actually. But then it definitely got a little weird and we were all like, ‘We can’t do this anymore.’ I still have the disease where any time I or we do something new, I scour the web. It’s the worst thing a person can do. It’s horrible. I talk to a lot of other bands about it and I feel like I’m getting better.
Everybody has an opinion; some are super positive and some are super negative. Some of them are just misinformed. I almost see my engagement with it as a weird psychological disease on my part. I’ll go through fits of it. When I played my first solo shows, I couldn’t resist. I just needed to know what people thought about it. It was compulsive — hours of scouring what people are saying. YouTube comments, people on boards… It passes like a fever. But there’s very little of that stuff I’ve walked away from and thought it meant anything.
How do you maintain a healthy dynamic as friends when you’re not only working together but based in faraway places?
JD: We’ve just known each other for so long that there’s a lot of appreciation for what those relationships mean to us. There have been tonnes of opportunities where any one of us could have just dropped out — like the interest in trying to maintain friendships, aside from the music. In fact, I would even say there have even been moments…
NL: It gets difficult sometimes.
JD: It’s like we’ve actively made decisions that seem to go against the idea of staying together as a band or as friends. That’s almost the strength of what’s made it easy, because there have been any number of times, like you [Noah] going to Portugal or Brian going to college in Arizona or Dave moving to LA right now…
NL: It could have fallen apart, and the fact that it hasn’t is a testament to the strength of the bond.
JD: In some ways, it’s not different from what we were doing when we were 18 or 19. I remember being a teenager and being into bands like Pavement and Modest Mouse, thinking, ‘Can you imagine getting a van and driving around the country? That’d be so rad.’ Then we hit that point. That was as far as we ever expected to make it. But it just kept on going. We’ve built a career out of doing the things that get us psyched. For the most part, even though it’s changed somewhat, we’ve stayed true to how we conceived the whole thing over a decade ago, which was a loose conglomeration of four people.
We never wanted it to be like a band. We wanted it to be so that whenever someone wanted to do a project, whether it was one person or four people, we could do it — and we’ve kinda done that. For sure, Animal Collective as a band is what makes that possible, but at this point we all do stuff on our own and do different styles of projects, like [2010 film] ODDSAC with Danny [Perez], and just continue to grow. On top of that, it’s just super fun to hang out.