Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion was called the best record of 2009 even back in 2008, and as usual the band penetrated that sort of cloudiness to shine light down on everyone who was looking for it. They speak now over free french fries (and later via email) after their last Los Angeles show. Deakin (Josh Dibb) was not present on this tour. This interview by Chris Ziegler. And read our first interview with Animal Collective—they were in Sweden and we were at Togo’s—here.
People have said Strawberry Jam was your breakthrough, Merriweather was your breakthrough, Feels—everything is a breakthrough. What do they think you’re trying to break through?
Noah Lennox (Panda Bear, effects/vocals): That’s a good question.
Brian Weitz (Geologist, effects/vocals): I don’t know.
Dave Portner (Avey Tare, guitar/vocals): The progression has definitely allowed us to be able to do stuff more practically—hire someone like [producer] Ben Allen, go to a place like Sweet Tea, be able to rent a house to stay in and also be able to maintain our own set-up on tour and take our friends on tour with us. And be in a bus if we choose to be in a bus.
N: Even once we really kind of got in gear as musicians and began playing and recording and touring a lot, the idea of it being a money thing was very far from my mind. I suppose I just assumed that by design we’d never be able to be commercially successful. I have no problem with success and I would have no problem with being a popular band, but I’d say were pretty stubborn about it. And we’d rather what’s popular come towards us rather than the other way around, if you know what I mean. At the same time I feel like I’m wary of thinking about things on these terms—what’s most important to me is to feel excited about what we’re doing in the moment when we’re doing it. What happens with it after that isn’t in my hands really so much, I don’t think. I do feel like there’s an entirely separate part of being a band and it has nothing at all to do with music. A band can choose not to do interviews or tour or do photo shoots or have a website or make videos or anything like this, and I think that’s just fine. But I feel like that’s erasing—barring special circumstances—any possibility for greater success or having your music heard and—hopefully—enjoyed by larger amounts of people. I don’t mean to pass judgment on those who aren’t interested at all in this kind of thing. But I feel like we work very hard on the musical side of things and it’s my job and it’s what I do. So even though I have no interest in chasing success to the point of tailoring things on the musical side, I feel justified in working hard to ensure that I’ve kept the lights on.
I notice some writers making cracks about glowsticks and jam bands—what do you think makes people use that for cheap jokes?
N: I’d say that the music just isn’t those people’s thing and I think that’s fine and as it should be. They’re just putting it down because they aren’t into it and they think it’s lame. If you want to be a creative person and you want to share your things with other people then you better be prepared to be told you suck.
The New York Times said Merriweather is your least obfuscated record.
N: What’s that mean?
B: SAT word. I don’t think—it’s weird to say deliberately confusing.
N: Personally I like music that confuses me. Something I can’t wrap my head around.
B: We often have sections in songs where we leave certain boundaries—a part where we start here and come back here after a length of time, and A-to-B isn’t totally scripted. It’s like ‘Interstellar Overdrive,’ but not as cyclical. Our music is pretty structured.
Do you ever feel you go too far? Are you confusing the press and the fans?
D: With all our records—one thing comes up constantly when I talk to promoters or people that have maybe gotten into us more recently. I talked to a girl in Brazil who was a promoter and took us around—‘I work for this label and this girl got Strawberry Jam and was like “Listen to this!” I put it on and I was like, “What? I don’t get it.” I put it on my shelf and saw it one day and that girl was STILL talking about that record—and I was still like, “What?” And then just recently—it must’ve been the right time. I get this now.’ I think that happens now. I remember one journalist friend——when we put out Here Comes The Indian, he didn’t get it. And he finally sent me an email—‘Hey, man, this is the day I finally got the Indian.’ It’s all time and place. And it’s definitely weird to me to think about critically listening to music. Putting it on in the office?
How do you feel the things you sing about translate to the press? And to your fans?
N: I think the messages and meanings get mistranslated and subverted and get tweaked by a given person to suit their experiences. I’d say this happens to an extent with any band—and I like it, I should say. I don’t mean to say that the meanings always get mutated in this way, and I’d hope that despite it being difficult sometimes to fully understand what we’re singing that through the music and the sounds and the attitude the true intent somehow comes across. Even though it’s a lofty idea I’d like to think that we’re channeling the feelings of the songs with our performances—I’d like to think that the emotional souls of the songs translate on that level.
How do you talk about your own songs? The story about the song supposed to feel like a guy on a beach by a lagoon—is that how it works?
D: What you were saying about the guy in the lagoon—a lot of it’s like that. We’d talk about the new record and the new sound—throw around words or moods.
N: Colors. Basic language—nothing too lofty.
B: There are musical things. We were discussing things in frequency ranges. On Merriweather—‘Let’s try not to make our parts be in the same frequency ranges. If someone is one place, when it’s on your part, go somewhere else.’ Make the song a bit taller. More space in the middle. Our past records, especially with a lot of guitars—they were kind of fogged up.
Why do you try to make the source of your sounds unrecognizable? There’s nothing that sounds like ‘bass’ or ‘guitar’ on the records now.
D: To me what those sounds bring to mind—if I hear a bass, I immediately think of a certain time period. A certain sound—‘That’s so ‘90s.’ ‘That drum sound is so Steve Albini.’
N: ‘So Jamaica.’
D: ‘So ‘60s.’ We try our best to get away from that.
B: It’s kind of decontextualizing. A spring reverb or a space echo are things used on all dub records—stuff we like. We’re not using that sound—just in the way it puts your mind with dub music.
N: The excitement is taking something familiar and trying to go to an unfamiliar place.
What environment do you need to do that?
N: You always gotta be comfortable—first and foremost.
How did that work for Merriweather? Why did you record at Sweet Tea?
N: Because the mood in pictures was really nice. And we could record and track in the same room as the control room. We set up the speakers so we could hear exactly what we put to tape better in the live room. I feel that informed the way the record sounds.
What did you learn from your producer Ben?
N: He was really detailed about the way we laid things down. We’d never done that before. Really intense separation.
B: How he dealt with the low end was really eye-opening. We had really sub frequencies that unless your speaker can reproduce them, you don’t hear the bass. He said the bass should be full, even if the focus is sub bass—put high end on it so it works no matter what system it’s on. The high end puts a ghost note. Melodically it won’t change the song—it changes it sonically.
N: The goal is to get it to sound as similar as it can on different system.
Jonathan Richman said best thing about the Velvet Underground wasn’t that they made music but that they made atmosphere—does Animal Collective make atmosphere? What does Animal Collective make besides music?
N: I think I can speak for all of us when I say the transportive qualities of music get us psyched. And I’d say we try and inject our music with those qualities if we can. I suppose it’s a little difficult for me to separate atmosphere from what might be considered more traditional elements of music in that my favorite music—and the music I feel is most powerful and most affecting kidnaps me into its world. There are certainly lots of field recordings and doctored field recordings and tweaked sources in the songs. I feel like the non-melodic sounds tend to provide the atmosphere and to glue certain qualities of other instruments together sonically. Hopefully the sounds and more abstract elements of the songs help to support whatever the atmosphere and mood of the original song is. It sounds technical and lame to say it like that, and I should say we almost never talk about the songs on these terms.
When we talked in 2005, you mentioned that you’d been feeling more responsibility to your audience as you grew—more pressure to deliver and not be self-indulgent.
D: It’s just kind of like—recontexualize my definition of self-indulgent. In the past, anything goes—I never even think—this is totally for ourselves. I’d take criticism from people and be like, ‘Oh, whatever.’ But it definitely made me look back—‘Ok, alright, I can see what people have meant.’ I feel we always wanted people to be into what we were doing. We never wanted to antagonize and we never thought we were self-indulgent. We always tried to offer people the kind of music we’d wanna listen to and they’d wanna listen to. Having a larger audience now that’s very familiar with our music kind of changes it a little—just what people wanna get out of the performance. It definitely doesn’t change the way I feel when we’re making a record. It might be we decide to do a record and the label would be like, ‘We’re not putting this record out—it’s not something we feel would be good for the label.’ Then we’d just put it out somewhere. It doesn’t change our decisions. I speak mostly in terms of live sets, which have changed the most in a short span of time. But for a lot of reasons. We play for a lot longer now than we ever had, especially when we started—when we got really enthusiastic about always doing something new live. It’s different to play twenty minutes for friends and play for an hour and a half to two thousand people, some of which are completely new fans who might not know what to expect at all. I’m into giving everyone a whole run of what we’re into. We are into some sense playing old songs—I can relate to going to see a band and wanting them to play specific songs. It woulda been better if they’d done that song!’ But you’re still getting something out of it. But I appreciate the band. I’ve seen amazing shows where the band has done something totally unexpected.
B: We’ve done both. Now is a time when we’re playing already released stuff. I used to think I was so against it, but we started adding old stuff in the set. It’s almost like if you’ve already seen a movie and you think your friends are gonna like it—‘Yeah, I’ll go with you again.’
What sort of positive things have you taken from criticism of the band?
N: I feel like I’ve learned lots about people and the way people interact, and I’ve learned a lot about what people care about and what drives people from reading reviews or having discussions with people about what we do or what we’ve done. I can’t say that I feel like I’ve learned a whole lot or discovered a whole lot about our own music from reading things about our band or our music. And I don’t mean to put anyone down—I guess I just feel like I’m so close to the thing. I find it revealing sometimes to be forced to talk in a sort of analytical or purely objective way about what we’re doing in interviews. To be honest, though, I’d prefer to leave the things as unanalyzed and virgin—in a way—as possible. I’m trying these days to completely stay away from reviews of shows or recordings of ours just because I feel like its gotten to the point where I can tell the comments and opinions are affecting me in negative ways. It’s not that I don’t value them and I think it’s totally right that someone be able to say this or that or whatever—I just feel like maybe it’s best for me to stay away.
B: I can’t think of anything specific. We care a lot about music being pretty individually from us—to make it a personal thing. Fans used to ask—‘We’re your biggest fans! Would you ever consider letting us have input in your record?’ Like playing it for fans while we’re working—that’s almost the same as playing it for the label. Which we don’t do either. It’s not like rejecting ideas.
D: We wanna be confident for ourselves. We wanna make the record we wanna make.
N: For the self-indulgent thing—what’s most important to me is making sure we’re psyched about what we’re doing. If we’re not doing that, why would anyone else get excited?
D: Sometimes we make a certain style of music because that’s the kind of mood we’re in—going back lately, we’re reissuing some of our records on vinyl. We’re doing the box set with a lotta live material and practice stuff—up through Sung Tongs. I listened to the test pressings and sometimes I’ll be like, ‘It’s so weird that Noah back then was part of this kind of music—it’s not something he’d listen to at all!’
B: I think we said that even back then!
D: But we felt like—crazy, in a way. There were elements we all liked. But ultimately it was just expression.
B: Usually our craziness is triggered by surroundings or events.
D: That’s negative craziness. In our personal lives. But right now we’re kind of beyond that. But I think positive craziness is still involved.
What do you think of your suddenly higher profile?
D: An idea that’s come up a lot—there’s been a lot of writing and talk on the Internet now about the cultural importance of the band.
B: It’s not for us to decide. They do it with every band, not just us. The Internet is so immediate—so many voices rushed to decide what’s classic the minute it’s released. Whether something has staying power is a big topic of conversation, but I don’t think you can make those decisions when the record comes out. There are records I listened to once a week between 1994 and 1998—‘This record is so amazing!’—and now I don’t really need to hear it again.
Did it affect you when people were calling Merriweather the best album of 2009 before it even came out?
D: I don’t think so. But at a certain point it is intense. We are psyched—so psyched—on the record. It makes us feel good people are into it. If you’re a music person and somebody into music, there’s something music offers that nothing else does. I can’t put it into words but nothing else can do it.
B: My friend talks about going on tour or being a stage actor—the only art forms where you have to create or perform on command.
What has music given you that you’d never have had otherwise?
B: Friends—we wouldn’t see each other. I really like our music—I like it a lot.
N: I don’t like our music.
B: I don’t listen to it so much after we finish, but when we’re working it becomes my favorite thing to listen to.
Is there any kind of coherent ‘philosophy’ of the band?
D: Have a good time.
B: Eat well.
Sometimes your songs make me want to cook.
B: Burn calories! It takes effort to listen to our records.
With regards to the idea of the ‘philosophy’ of the band—how have you most clearly discovered who you are and what you need to do? What kind of experiences helped? What kinds were distracting? How did both affect your music?
N: We most certainly have never discussed any philosophy as far as the band goes—at least not in any way thats really worth discussing or relating. I’d like to stay as far away from that kind of academic zone of music and sound as I can. Perhaps it’s best to say our philosophy is not only to not have a philosophy but to not even entertain the idea that a band has a philosophy, if you know what I mean. As far as discovering who we are and what we need to do, I feel that’s something we are figuring out on a daily basis—I’m sure that process wont end until we’re dead and perhaps not even then. And I should say that process has very very little to do with music. The music is really only some kind of reflection of that process. Even though I find the process of interviews and the whole non-musical side of my profession interesting and revealing most of the time, I do feel like it’s the most distractive force as far as feeling like I’m on a direct and pure path creatively. Again that’s part of the reason I’m trying to distance myself from reviews and that sort of thing.
The last time we talked, you wanted to work with Madlib and RZA—think that could happen now?
B: We still can’t get Madlib to respond to our emails! But Dam Funk is hard at work on a remix for us. Just in the last 48 hours—I got the rough mix.
D: It was interesting to hear Noah and I sing in the context of this kind of song. Pretty danceable funk!
And last—after the tour and all the press cycle fade out, what do you do together before you each split up back to your homes? What is the last day of Animal Collective being together like?
N: We’re usually kind of broken mentally and physically by the end of tour and are really just ready to be at home again. For me though I should say the whole thing just kind of keeps rolling like a ball down the hill. After the tour it’s on to preparing for the next tour or getting a studio space ready for the next recording or something like that. I would hope someday perhaps we’ll just hang out for a bit and think back on old times—but we’ll probably be old guys like seventy or something. And that’s OK.
ANIMAL COLLECTIVE WITH GROUPER ON FRI., MAy 29, AT THE WILTERN, 3790 WILSHIRE BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 9 PM / SOLD OUT / ALL AGES. LIVENATION.COM. ANIMAL COLLECTIVE’S MERRIWEATHER POST PAVILION IS OUT NOW ON DOMINO. VISIT ANIMAL COLLECTIVE AT MYANIMALHOME.NET OR MYSPACE.COM/ANIMALCOLLECTIVETHEBAND.