If you were surveying the New York City music scene at the start of the 21st century, you’d quickly discover that Animal Collective sounded totally out of step with anything that was considered “cool.” If it was a high school, the four longtime friends that comprise the band would have been voted “least likely to succeed.” They weren’t enamored with the city’s rock mythology as embodied by the Strokes or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and they didn’t make tight dance grooves like the Rapture or TV on the Radio. Murky and meandering, childlike and dreamlike, the early music that Dave “Avey Tare” Portner, Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox, Brian “Geologist” Weitz, and Joshua “Deakin” Dibb hand-assembled and self-released slipped under most people’s radars. They performed in masks and face paint, and their live shows veered from ritualistic to shambolic. The name “Animal Collective” didn’t even come into being until the time of their third album, Ark.
Eventually, the messiness of those earliest shows matured into true song structures, which in turn allowed Animal Collective cultivate a larger, more fervent following. Most bands in their position would have made sure its members remained based in the same city, all the better to continue diligently plugging away; instead, Lennox moved to Portugal, while Weitz went off to finish grad school. Yet Animal Collective’s influence only continued to grow. The release of Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2009 cemented their status as the biggest indie act of that decade, landing spots on festival bills like Coachella and charting a winding trail through various permutations of rock and psych. Rather than rest on their laurels, the band continues to push and challenge themselves, always rejiggering their sound and approach, never settling into habit or routine.
To celebrate the band’s lengthy catalog we asked the members to share their memories of iconic albums as well as their solo releases, reminiscing on these four longtime friends and their long, strange musical journey.
Compact Disc (CD), 2 x Vinyl LP
Dave Portner: It’s hard to say that one album “changed everything” for a band that has accepted drastic change and sort of fed off it for the bulk of our existence. But you could say that MPP made us a ‘household name’ in music circles. It certainly did increase our fanbase quite a bit. I think we achieved an amazing balance between the three of us and balance seems to be the ultimate goal, not just within a band but in life as well. MPP is probably our most self-aware record.
I think it was a bittersweet time and that comes out in the music. My wife (at the time) Kristin and I were separately traveling for music a lot and that’s where songs like “In the Flowers” and “No More Runnin”’ come from. Simultaneously, I was feeling really good about things with A.C., but it was also bittersweet because of Josh’s absence at the time. Most bands in our position would have taken the popularity of a song like “My Girls” and really milked it for all it’s worth, but we’ve never really jived with the industry in that way. That said, it’s definitely up there with one of the best creative experiences I’ve had. Recording it felt like everything fell easily into place.
Brian Weitz: I was at grad school at the Biosphere in Arizona when they started writing Sung Tongs. I missed my friends but did not really miss the East Coast or NYC energy. Dave mentioned he and Noah had been getting together to work on a few new songs and they decided to book a seven-week tour playing as a duo, doing Sung Tongs. I didn’t know if I’d ever rejoin A.C. or get to tour again once my job started, so I figured one last road trip with my friends sounded good. I ended up tour managing and selling merch.
I can’t really describe what it was like hearing those songs for the first time live. Confusing? I often didn’t know where one ended and another began. I was any other A.C. fan coming to a show and not knowing any of the songs being played. I definitely remember the first time hearing “Winter’s Love” and “Kids on Holiday” and thinking how great it was.
When they did play me the record, it was like being given glasses after staring at something blurry for a long time. Everything came into such sharp focus and I realized that all these songs I had already thought were great were actually exponentially better than that. I thought it was easily the best thing either of them had ever done up to that point and I had heard pretty much everything they’d done going back to 10th grade. It definitely felt like a shift when that record came out. The crowds got bigger and people came with expectations of hearing those songs. I don’t think I thought far enough ahead to process its staying power with that generation. Seeing the 2018 shows was cool because it was a mixture of those fans plus a whole new group of teenagers. We’ve had younger fans tell us they remember the record because their parents listened to it. When you’re 25, it’s really impossible to ever imagine something like that happening.
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Portner: Noah’s style and his songs are always something I’ve valued being privy to. It was really his recordings that made me want to play music with him in the first place, and he has certainly kept me on my toes in terms of pushing myself to write powerful songs and strengthen my voice in its own unique way. We got so deep into A.C. for a time—from Sung Tongs to Strawberry Jam—that it felt like there was a big gap in Noah’s output. He had a long period figuring out Person Pitch, experimenting with different sounds, and it does seem like a leap, especially the singing style and presentation.
Person Pitch was the most referential thing he had done up to that point, and he was clearly wearing his influences on his sleeve. He’s directly using samples from music that he likes, but for me it was the first time I could really listen to one of his songs and think “I hear the ’60s pop influence” and, “that sounds like this techno kind of thing or something Dilla-influenced.”
Moving to Lisbon changed it all. If it wasn’t for that move, I think his creative output would be different. If you compare a song like “Leaf House,” which he wrote just before moving to Lisbon, versus a song like “Comfy in Nautica,” you can see that his outlook and mood are completely different. You have someone sad and lost feeling saying “there’s no one to show me how” and then a very confident, loud voice giving people advice like “coolness is having courage.” A lot of that had to do with him just being in a more confident and better place.
Prospect Hummer (with Vashti Bunyan)
Noah Lennox: Kieran Hebden (Four Tet) invited Vashti out to our show when we were supporting him in Edinburgh, and introduced us. We were playing Sung Tongs songs so I’d guess it was 2003 or thereabouts. It was probably Dave that turned me onto her album Just Another Diamond Day, but he’s a more exhaustive fan of music in general. We had a great time making the EP with her. The session was very relaxed and mellow, but it was also very brief. I don’t think we were in there more than a day.
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Portner: I think the best times of being in a band or creating music are where you feel limitless creatively, and kind of like you have the universe backing you up. Feels was a high crest. Taking the songs on the road and seeing how songs like “Purple Bottle” and “Did You See the Words” were connecting with people, you could feel everyone buzzing, us included and it really took us to a new level of confidence. We just felt locked in, all on the same page.
I was feeling really in love for the first time in my life, and there were times I felt like I might just explode or vomit, and I think that comes across in the music. “Banshee Beat” and “Purple Bottle” are definitely two songs I’m very proud of, but I think my favorite parts of the record are the more broken emotional songs like “Flesh Canoe” and “Daffy Duck.” As a songwriter, it’s difficult to write a song like that and play something that seems like it has no structure. We were able to marry chaos and emotion and melody and chord structure with those songs.
THE NEXT STEPS
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Joshua Dibb: Strawberry Jam was like the mold on the underside of the bowl of pristine ripe fruit that was Feels. And it was beautiful because of that, a decay into a new form. We’ve been recording ourselves since we were 14 years old, and Feels was our first time really diving into the idea of long-form studio recording and mixing session in a real studio with Scott Colburn. The strain that came up during Strawberry Jam was to push for something that didn’t feel like Feels II, even though we were keeping many similar ingredients. In some ways SJ was this turning point, a rapid new growth with harder contrasts and less blending. The songs in that era feel more jagged and chaotic.
I think my favorite song was the song that embraced that state the most, “Cuckoo Cuckoo.” Dave’s lyrics are stunning on that song, and I have often wondered why journalists rarely—if ever—focus on the lyrical content of the band. The flow on that song between loss and longing and beauty is a surrender to life that is both defeatist and anything but defeatist, dancing in the madness of impermanence. It still does the same thing to me that it did when he first introduced it, giving me deep body chills.
Lennox: The aim was to make something that felt unquestionably better than Person Pitch. I like trying new stuff, so it wasn’t hard to change direction, even though I figured some people would feel disappointed. I had used 303’s from Person Pitch through Merriweather and was pretty burnt on them. But I was having a good time writing songs on the guitar, so I just followed my nose.
Weitz: Viceland was just launching and they were developing a show called Earthworks where musicians would travel and record music in the natural environment. I was initially hesitant to go, because I did not like the idea of constantly being followed by cameras and wearing a lapel mic all day—especially because we were not going down with developed ideas, and would need time and space to go through our creative process. Dave literally sent me three demos of him playing songs on acoustic guitar the day before we left. The plan was we would collect field recordings and I would bring my modular synth and make my parts.
We would spend the day exploring the Amazon or visiting with the Tatuyo collecting sounds, and then at night after dinner, Dave and I would go back to my room and I would work out parts while he played a song on guitar. It all came together very organically, and the quality of the sounds we collected was so rich that they were not hard to incorporate, especially the underwater mic recordings. When I was in college I had a choice between an internship studying the river dolphin population in the Amazon, or whale shark behavior off of Belize. I chose the latter, and didn’t see a single shark during my internship, so I always regretted not choosing the dolphin one. To finally see them and to be able to drop in a microphone and capture the recording was an amazing feeling!
Keeping the modular synth working in the rainforest was the biggest technical challenge. Luckily, the Vice crew were prepared for similar issues with their cameras and audio recorders and had a huge supply of desiccant packets. We ended up having to put them inside my synthesizer and every half hour or so I would need to put them in there to get rid of the accumulated moisture. Insects were also a problem as they would get stuck in the knobs or crawl into small separations between the panels. I was pulling insects out of there over a year later.
Weitz: Dave started writing songs for us to work on together when we were still 15. I remember the first night he played me ideas and one of them was a song called “Crocodiles and Zebras.” He had a vague idea of certain chords he wanted to use in combination with each other, some of which were not the standard guitar lesson tab chords. It was slightly melancholic, slightly dark, so already he was thinking outside the box.
Down There was interesting because that was maybe the first time Dave worked on an album where he didn’t play me a single thing until it was all finished. “Cemeteries” is the one on there that always kills me, and sometimes I wonder if that’s because it’s the one that most reminds me of that high school moment when I realized how good a songwriter he was. You could imagine that song coming from the same mind.
Lennox: It’s embarrassing to say because I’ve been so lucky, but I was a bummed-out young dude. I was down in the dumps most of the time until 2004 or so. My perspective on how my brain worked kind of shifted around then and I began to appreciate everything a lot more. Spirit was the first time I felt like I was really “working” on music. Doing stuff on my own up ’til that point was more casual and loose. They were Dave’s songs, and we didn’t know each other very well yet, and there wasn’t a whole lot of talking. He’d play me the song and often say what kind of thing he was looking for, and then we’d just go for it. When it was finished, it definitely felt like it was on another level to anything I’d been a part of until then. I think I can say it set the tone for me as far as work ethic for everything that’s come after it.
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Lennox: Josh and I met in 2nd grade and began writing music together when we were around 13 or 14 years old. What sticks out to me about Sleep Cycle is feeling so glad for Josh that he’d finished the album and that it came out so well and people really dug it. I know it was a battle for him, so it felt really good to see him nail it. Sleep Cycle feels like a sibling to Merriweather to me. They both feel like they have a foot in the same sound world. On Sleep Cycle, you can hear Josh developing a mixing flavor that he brought to more recent AC stuff.
Dibb: Campfire Songs had a real delicate magic. We spent that fall of 2001 in our apartment next to the BQE with semis rolling by 24 hours a day, trying to find ways to blend these three acoustic guitars and their two voices into this sonic invocation of a campfire with this ever-shifting, gaseous sound. The idea was that—in order to enhance the campfire feeling—we would record the album as one take. So the recording was done outside on a porch in Maryland and it was cold. There was that tension that you feel when you want to get a perfect take of a 42-minute performance, but I honestly don’t remember how many takes we did. A song like “Queen in My Pictures” was jaw-droppingly lysergic and incredible.
Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks
Enter the Slasher House
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Portner: I tend to look at every record as some kind of new experiment. With Slasher Flicks, the idea became having other musicians that I really admire play my songs. It was a good lesson in communication skills. Both Angel and Jeremy have very strong musical personalities and a lot of the energy comes from that. L.A. is a really angular, spiky kind of place, all the cacti and palms, the architecture and weather, that all really shaped the sound as well.
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Weitz: After Merriweather Post Pavilion, we felt we had gone as far as we could with writing and performing songs that way. Our samplers were never synced, and a lot of the loops were created by ear, so the performance of it all was very reliant on us playing the samplers more like keyboards. There was a lot of room for error and improvisation. By the end of 2009, though, we felt we had reached the limit.
Centipede Hz was influenced by a DJ set we did in Belfast on tour. It was way more of a garage rock DJ set, but the entire club was super into it: intense dancing and super sweaty. We wanted to make a physically demanding record that relied much more on live performance and would always require us to be on our toes and be impossible to play without hitting a certain energy level. I think the density in the songs ended up being a result of the room we practiced in—the volume was overwhelming, and it felt like things were one unified sound.