ANIMAL COLLECTIVE: THE ASTEROID COMES DOWN
illustration by abraham jay torres
Animal Collective’s new album Painting With is weird—weird and wonderful—and it should fill us all with gratitude that something so strange can be popular. For fourteen years, Geologist, Avey Tare, and Panda Bear (Deakin didn’t particpate in making Painting With) have paved their own frontier, finding ways to challenge themselves in making music that can at times be inscrutable, with rhythms and vocal arrangements that mimic staring into a strobelight or listening to Swedish people speak. But once you “get it,” you experience the satisfaction of realizing you suddenly understand a foreign language. In this interview, Panda Bear speaks to us from his home in Portugal, and shares his thoughts on dinosaurs, meanings, surrealism, and Beastie Boys. Animal Collective performs Tues., Mar. 8, and Wed., Mar. 9, at the Fonda. This interview by Daiana Feuer.
I really hope that ‘Floridada’ gets in the hands of a Florida high school marching band.
Panda Bear: That’d be sick. We really wanna get down there to play Florida, but it hasn’t worked out in terms of the touring plans. But we’re working on it.
You premiered your album at the Baltimore airport. Did you play it or perform it?
Panda Bear: It was played on a loop for like ten hours or something.
Airports are so many crossroads of people—of every mental and cultural standpoint. To hear something like this for the first time without being initiated into Animal Collective, it must’ve been like … what the heck is going on? A bit of a seizure experience.
Panda Bear: I hope not! But I gather it wasn’t super loud. They weren’t cranking it. Hopefully it didn’t bother too many people. Not just the airport—I’m sure anywhere it plays, I’m sure not everybody’s really getting down with it. But that’s OK too.
One interesting thing about this album and maybe you guys in a general way is that the first listen does kind of alter your mind a little bit. You have to listen in a different way than you normally listen to music because of all the rhythms and vocal back-and-forth. When I first listened to it, I thought that my mind was a little bit going to explode, but in a good way! Almost like staring into a strobe light when everything’s flickering.
Panda Bear: Well, that’s cool—I like that.
But then on the second listen, I was kind of initiated into it and I could hear the songs.
Panda Bear: Sort of like a Magic Eye?
Oh yeah! Like a Magic Eye. So is that an intention in your songwriting? To alter the way people can understand music? Or to teach them a new way of listening?
Panda Bear: It’s more about wanting to take ourselves to that—to experience that for ourselves first, and then you hope someone else has that experience. I feel weird about making something where it has these demands on people. I don’t really have any intention … I don’t wanna force-feed something to someone, you know? But it is about trying to explore something new for ourselves—trying to push ourselves into this new place or uncharted territory. That’s the goal, I feel like. Hopefully that comes across. Hopefully people experience the stuff in the same way we do.
There’s a balance. The first track is more accessible—more poppy or whatever—and then there’s weirder ones. It’s not unaccessible but there is a different listening that you enter into.
Panda Bear: Sequencing is super-important with music like this—I guess I’d argue with all music. You try to arrange the stuff in a way that the experience from top to bottom not only is pleasing but also sort of guides you? Or tells a story?
What kind of story are you trying to tell?
Panda Bear: Lyrically, it’s pretty all over the place. I don’t know if there’s a common thread to the thing. I couldn’t say it’s a concept record. There isn’t an overarching narrative. Perhaps it’s more stylistic, in that I feel like the stuff we talked about—there’s a couple things that I can trace from the beginning of making the songs through to the end. Which is pretty typical for us, I’d say. Going into a group of songs, it seems that we just throw a whole bunch of stuff at the wall—everybody’s like, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to do this?’ ‘I wanna make songs that make me think about ballet!’ or whatever. And you get to the end of the process and you notice that 90% of that has been left in the dust, but there’s this chunk of stuff that’s remained. And that becomes the spirit of the music. For this one, I’d say wanting to do short songs—short blasts where you try to pack a whole lot into just a couple minutes, which has always been a typical thing for us to do—that was one of the goals. Wanting to make music that felt sort of primitive or crude, in a way—that played out in the rhythms more than anywhere else. Although there are some thudding cranky sounds on there. And lastly we wanted to do something with the vocals—specifically wanting to write music for two singers where it didn’t feel so much like two people singing. The two people sorta seemed to merge—the two voices would create this individual vocal part. Dave (Avey Tare) and I went about that in pretty different ways that I’d say complement each other a little bit.
Did you sing at the same time? Or did you sing separately and chop it up together?
Panda Bear: They were sung separately—they were performed that way. It wasn’t chopped up into bits and arranged in a really precise way. That’d be very labor intensive! But no less labor intensive than I feel like a lot of records these days are. People get pretty surgical with stuff. I guess because you can? The singing parts were done separately, but were full performances for the most part.
Is there a challenge to performing this live?
Panda Bear: For me personally there certainly is. It’s the first time there were parts that I wrote on a keyboard that I play in the songs, and then I wrote singing parts—I’ve never really had to do both at the same time. This is the first time Dave and I wrote vocal parts for the other person. They kinda had to be—the way the fit together had like a precision to it. It would’ve been tough for someone to work their way in there when you already had one of them. And because we had this idea of wanting to create the singular voice with two people making it happen. If you take one of the voices out, the song doesn’t really work in the same way. So I suppose we had to write for the other person. That’s new for us. And recording the songs before touring them was an entirely new experience for us.
Is there any of it where you’re like, ‘How are we gonna do this live?!’
Panda Bear: There was. We spent the past couple weeks getting it all together. All of us had varying degrees of anxiety about how we were gonna do it. Having to play and sing at the same time … Dave’s songs are pretty wordy, so just memorizing all that stuff kept me up at night a little. But we got there in the end.
If you’re not gonna challenge yourself, what’s the point of doing new things?
Panda Bear: I agree completely. It’s not always the easy way. Sometimes you fall on your face. But that’s the way to go.
If you’re gonna do a band for fourteen years, you gotta keep pushing something.
Panda Bear: Yeah—well, I don’t know that you have to. But that’s the fun way to do it.
You’re not like Tom Petty or Bruce Springsteen–I don’t think he uses his synthesizer.
Panda Bear: You mean just playing the hits?
Not just playing the hits but challenging what you can do musically. Some bands will just be a guitar band. Some bands will change the things they play or even the style. You’re more in that category than ‘we are THIS band and we do THIS.’
Panda Bear: We got into making stuff that way, and felt like that was the funnest way to do it.
Talking about two voices becoming one voice—would you agree that’s a traditional song trope you’re bringing into a more futuristic context?
Panda Bear: Yeah—for sure. That’s what makes it exciting. Trying to write a song in a different way or use a different piece of equipment to make something and see where that takes you—that’s what it’s all about. That keeps you moving forward.
Does your interest in the collage aspects of music come from an interest in surrealism?
Panda Bear: A little bit. It comes up here and there. There were times a while ago when we had more of a grasp of the technical side of music and we were able to speak that language, you could say. In terms of reading music—being kind of ‘learned’ in an instrument. Having studied. I’m pretty sure we’ve forgotten most of that. We’re often forced to talk about things or try to explain ideas in more symbolic terms—with imagery. We’ll have to translate ideas in non-musical ways. So sometimes talking about collage or surrealism or dada in this case—although I wasn’t very well-versed in the whole dada thing before this—that comes up. It’s weird to say. It’s not like we wrote this manifesto and have this really detailed plan about making stuff. It’s more you take these steps and the song or the music leads you along a path, and you notice on the way that it’s mirroring this other stuff. It’s not like we said, ‘Let’s make this music and we want it to sound like paint!’ As if we’re painting with sound or something. But as we were putting the stuff together, we found ourselves using that language to talk.
That’s interesting. You don’t necessarily have to know … like if someone said, ‘You’re using surrealist paint-chucking technique!’ ‘Well, I wasn’t … but I am …’ and that’s just because those things are natural to anyone who opens themselves to a creative process. You might be doing some very particular thing, but you don’t know cuz it’s not in your lexicon.
Panda Bear: You have an idea and you start the ball rolling, but you don’t always end up where you thought you were gonna go. As long as you have an open perspective about what the thing is or what it can be, sometimes the thing leads you to places you weren’t expecting. Which is cool about it!
That’s why music is cool! Would you say music is a language or would you call it something else?