All Creatures Great and Small:
Animal Collective Answers the Call of the Wild
The human inhabitants of Oxford, Mississippi paid little mind when Animal Collective pulled into town to record Merriweather Post Pavilion. But what about the other denizens – the purple martins, the white-tailed deer and the cottonmouth moccasins? Surely they must have wondered what the fascinating racket was about. The fauna most assuredly clapped its paws, flippers, fins, wings and claws in approval right alongside the rest of us. The wild beckoned, Animal Collective responded, and the colossal results were beyond what anyone, least of all the band, anticipated.
“Usually when we release a record, there’s always a little bit of a step up for us in popularity or exposure,” says Brian Weitz, better known as The Geologist. “But we definitely didn’t expect the jump that happened from Merriweather.”
That jump catapulted Weitz, Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) and Avey Tare (David Portner) to The Late Show with David Letterman, Primavera, Coachella, Sasquatch, Bonnaroo, Pitchfork – even the Guggenheim Museum. More recently, they curated All Tomorrow’s Parties, an honor reserved exclusively for the most awesome people in the universe. Beach House, Kurt Vile and the Violators, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti and Lee “Scratch” Perry were all recruited to join the fun. On July 9th, the beautiful Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD is welcoming them as a band for the first time, an occasion years in the making.
There’s nothing ordinary about the transfixing riot of color, texture, movement, light and noise Weitz conjures with Animal Collective, but the life he leads outside the band is just that: ordinary. No hysterical mobs of hipsters in skinny jeans and terrible hair chase him through the streets of his Capitol Hill neighborhood when he’s hustling his son off to daycare. Then again, he’s difficult to pinpoint when he isn’t bopping around behind his console onstage, his array of samplers and effects processors illuminated by the caving lamp he straps to his forehead.
“Maybe once or twice in the last few years I’ve been recognized on the street,” Weitz ponders. “In general, I’m the weird guy that walks around in flip-flops all day while everybody else is in suits walking to the Capitol building.”
On this particular morning D.C. has escaped the oppressive weather depicted to such perfection on “Summertime Clothes,” where the bed is a pool and the walls afire. Like the rest of its Merriweather Post Pavilion brethren, it was and is a dizzying sensory experience, a five-alarm blowout for the synapses. “When we record records, it’s hard for us to be satisfied,” sighs Weitz. “There’s not enough bass or the vocals don’t sit well. It’s been a struggle and taken a while for us to get it right. Whereas with Merriweather, from the first day of tracking we realized we were hitting all the right notes, and it was coming together exactly as we had planned.”
Weitz and Lennox operate similar lives. Lennox resides in Lisbon, Portugal with his fashion-designer wife, Fernanda Pereira, and their young son and daughter. Portner and co-founding guitarist/keyboardist Deakin (Josh Dibb) both make their home in Baltimore. Aside from their daily routine of maintaining the obligatory four walls and adobe slabs for their girls (and boys), Animal Collective has enjoyed a flurry of post-Merriweather activity. They secured the very first legally acquired Grateful Dead sample for the dreamy “What Would I Want (Sky),” which appeared on the Fall Be Kind EP. Last year, the band teamed up with director Danny Perez for the bizarre and occasionally frightening visual album ODDSAC, which premiered at Sundance. (Multiple viewings and you’re all but guaranteed to fail your next drug test.) Weitz sometimes DJs under the handle Obrian System, but to date has released no solo work of his own. Lennox collaborated with Spaceman 3’s Pete Kember on Tomboy, which arrived in April. Portner gusted on Atlas Sound’s Logos LP and issued his first solo album, Down There, last year. Its cover featured his favorite creature, the alligator. Weitz, however, prefers monsters of the deep.
“I saw Jaws at a very early age,” he explains. “Unlike most kids who got scared or something, I got super into it and always rooted for the shark. My parents bought me a rubber shark that I always took to the pool or the bath. I’d always have him eat my G.I. Joe guys.”
While critters and beasties continually haunt Animal Collective, they don’t dominate the band’s songs as insistently as they did on past offerings. Weitz personally put the kibosh on that. “I tried to get away from that, especially on this record and especially for Merriweather,” he asserts. “I’ve grown really, really tired of that, having insects and frogs and everything on the record. It was a rule I set for myself: No animals, no nature. It was too easy, you know?”
Animal Collective has generated 10 new songs that may or may not appear on a future album. Like most everything with the group, much is left up to chance, hence their habit of road-testing new songs before recording them. “In the beginning you’re really focused on playing the songs the way you practiced them,” Weitz explains. “Once you do it enough times, it becomes second nature. You have muscle memory. It just disconnects your mind from the physical act of playing the song. You actually start to listen to the song as it’s being played.”
The group’s current road trip isn’t the Merriweather retrospect one might expect; emerging material occupies the majority of their present set lists. Their creations are treated as living, breathing organisms with their own environments in which to grow and evolve. “We even think of that for songs that have been released on records,” reveals Weitz. “We don’t necessarily think that the recorded version is the version of a song. So we often change old songs into new versions that fit more with the new batch of songs.”
The latest batch of newcomers, all mesmerizing in their own way, have come out to play at recent gigs but still await official titles. Such is customary: “My Girls” was originally called “House,” and “Bearhug” was ultimately rechristened “Summertime Clothes.” Weitz discovered that strategy has a surprising tendency to piss people off.
“People get used to these fake titles that we have,” Weitz says. “They’ll get posted on the Internet, and then we change them when the record’s released. So for this one, we decided to name all the songs after people that we went to high school with. We thought it’d be funny if someone took the set list, and then these random people from our memory that we don’t know what happened to and haven’t spoken to since high school – their name will be all over the Internet or on YouTube.”
The new sounds emerging from Animal Collective are phantasmagoric blends of indigenous beats and the titillating samples Weitz finds online. Lennox is back behind the drums and Dibbs has returned to the band, restoring its former four-piece structure. And with three-fourths of its lineup within reasonable traveling distance, the band has re-discovered the pleasures and possibilities of the jam. “The last two records have been written by e-mail,” reflects Weitz. “It’s been ten years since we’ve all sat down in a practice space and written together.”
Few hindrances impact Animal Collective at this point in time, and there’s no doubt that indie rock’s most prodigious poindexters have arrived in a unique and auspicious point in their careers. “When I’m not working I spend my time with my wife and kid, and when I am working I spend my time with my best friends. I’m surrounded by family all the time. We’re not really looking back,’ Weitz summarizes. “We’re looking forward.” And endlessly awaiting the call of the wild.
Photo by Adriano Fagundes.