The pack is back, armed with their most sonically daring work to date
Baltimore’s original electric warriors Animal Collective have returned; full throttle, full house and full of those mind altering jams that Crack adores. We had a chat with Avey Tare, the closest thing this collective has to a frontman, to talk new album and having the pack back.
It hardly seems possible that this is album nine, but Animal Collective are one of those bands; the ones that sneak up on the world and turn it upside down. Their synth fuelled 21st century psychedelia was first unleashed over ten years ago, and they have legions of diehard fans who do go that far back. But it was their last studio album, 2007’s Merriweather Post Pavillion that brought them to a wider public consciousness. This gradual growth and perpetual experimentation has only gone to serve Animal Collective well, as we are now confronted with a band at their peak. Centipede Hz is their densest, most chaotic and ultimately finest album yet.
To begin at the beginning. Two school friends, Dave Portner (aka Avey Tare – Avey was easier to say than Davey as a child and the nickname stuck) and Brian Weitz (known as Geologist due to the mining lights he’d have strapped to his head throughout live performances) had been playing music together through their teens. One of their early incarnations, if you’d believe it, was a Pavement covers band. The pair found two other high school friends, lifelong pals and musical collaborators Noah Lennox (known as Panda Bear after some years of adopting the panda as his logo in self-drawn album artwork) and Joshua Dibb (aka Deakin – originally spelt Deacon to jokingly reference a religious figure within the band. The spelling was changed so as not to step on musician Dan Deacon’s toes). The two forces collaborated, jamming together as early as 20 years ago.
By nature a collective is not a fixed entity, members come and go – but members they shall always be. True to the way of the collective, the four parted ways to attend different colleges. It was dropping out, getting high and moving to New York that brought them back together. The first Animal Collective release is widely considered to be 2001’s Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished, an album composed by Avey Tare and Panda Bear, although some would argue that Deakin assisting on Panda Bear’s 1998 release is where the games truly began. Either way, 11 years later all four were reunited, after something of a recording studio sabbatical from Deakin, gathering in their hometown to write Centipede Hz. Dave Portner will be the first to admit that this is not the most digestible of releases “When all four of us get together to make music there can be a lot going on at the same time. I think you should expect a record that takes a few listens to really sink in.” Once it does take hold however, Centipede Hz has us hooked and reeled in like a prize-winning carp. Never once allowing you to settle into a comfortable rhythm, the twists and turns make each individual track unpredictable but joyously rewarding. Portner would agree. “Every song stands on its own on this one. They kind of all have their own special galaxy.”
Animal Collective grew up in Baltimore, Maryland – a city that has become synonymous with the electronic renaissance in today’s independent music. A petri dish overflowing with artists such as Future Islands, Dan Deacon, the Wham City collective and, of course, Animal Collective themselves, who consistently produce an output of disconnected beats and challenging harmonies, pushing sound to its limits before pulling it back again. So when you learn that composer Philip Glass also originates from Baltimore, you can’t help but wonder whether there’s something in the water. We asked Portner if we’re on the money with our romantic idea of Baltimore being like a playground of analogue sounds. Just how instrumental was Baltimore to the Animal Collective releases? “Growing up in Maryland was very exploratory in more ways than you can imagine. I’m very thankful for that time. When it came to playing music, it really was like going to the playground. But the landscape, the friends, the malls were all just as instrumental in influencing our sound.”
All four members of the collective now live in far reaching corners of the northern hemisphere: Portner himself is based in LA; Weitz in Washington, DC; Dibb back in Baltimore and Lennox is as far flung as Lisbon) But all four members traveled back home to Baltimore to pen the new record, deciding to spend time writing together in the same room rather than continue with the online file sharing and digital idea transferring that had come to be their way of composition.
“We wanted this album to feel a bit looser and more indicative of our live performances. I think a lot of this record’s studio process was about figuring out what not to add.” With Lennox playing a sit-down drum kit for the first time since Here Comes The Indian (2003) and Weitz playing live keyboards again, you can certainly hear that live energy transmitting from their studio through your speakers. But was their recording of the album really the homecoming we imagine? “Well we wrote the record in Baltimore for the most part, but we recorded in El Paso, Texas.”, states Portner. “But it was very haunting in the sense of the past suddenly flooding back into your life. It was perfect in that our playing and working situation there is pretty idyllic. The Maryland countryside has always been a big influence. On the other hand some things were too similar to the past for comfort, if you know what I mean?”
Written in Dibb’s family home, or more specifically his mother’s barn, it’s small wonder that Centipede Hz is inspired by childhood memories. The band cite adolescent sessions of listening to the radio being key, so we asked Portner to share one. He kindly obliged, expounding a wonderfully detailed recollection. “I had these tapes that my brother would make me when I was really young. They were taped from 80s radio because he worked for local Baltimore radio stations at that time. So that’s really how I got into music. I had this one tape that had The Beatles’ Get Back on it, and I can remember listening to it while driving on vacation with my family. The batteries on my walkman were dying and so the song is stuck in my mind slowing down. When Paul says “go home” it’s always pitched way down in my head. There were all these station IDs and crazy radio voices in between the songs. I always thought that stuff was so cool.”
Leaving Baltimore behind and moving to their respective colleges, it was some time before the band regrouped in New York around the turn of the millennium. Originally performing and releasing under their individual stage names, depending on who was taking part in the recording, it was Here Comes the Indian that first featured all four members. With them finally deciding the moniker Avey Tare, Deacon, Geologist and Panda Bear was far too much of a mouthful, Animal Collective it was then. “I think we were all just trying to find our way and get into a groove ten years ago” says Portner of his band’s formative years. “I don’t know if we ever really had this planned trajectory. We just wanted to keep making music and making cool records. I think very fondly of those early New York days. There definitely was a special vibe going on.” But they surely must find audiences and journalists more accepting and understanding of their electronic soundsphere these days?. “Now I think we’ve won certain fans and journalists over with certain records we’ve made. But it can still be difficult to have other ideas and things we do as equally accepted.”
If you don’t want to play by the mainstream rules, it’s universally accepted that the best plan is to start your own label. Release your music yourself. Animal Collective got wise to this early on, launching their label Paw Tracks officially in 2003. Initially releasing their own collective and solo projects, the label later springboarded other artists such as Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti (who later signed to 4AD) and supporting old favourites of the band, like Black Dice – an act who Animal Collective cite as a huge influence on their ethos and sound. since their early days in New York. This autumn Paw Tracks will put out a new Prince Rama record which Portner is “really psyched about”, and in time more solo projects from the collective will follow. Both Avey Tare and Panda Bear have solid and fruitful solo projects, so what keeps bringing the collective back together? “In a way it’s harder to record solo because you have to make so many decisions by yourself.”, Portner deliberates. “And without other ears around that can be hard. I think there’s a time and place for both solo projects and the collective. After a while I just get sick of only having my own ideas to play around with. It starts to feel too self-involved to work solo for very long, and so it’s nice to work with the other guys; to get a different perspective.”
It might be album nine but Centipede Hz has an Animal Collective first, with Wide Eyed featuring Deakin’s debut swing at singing lead vocal. After a four year hiatus, Dibb rejoined the collective late last year. Portner explains: “In a way he never left. I mean, he’s been working on projects like the Guggenheim thing we did and Oddsac (the band’s visual album) since taking a break from touring. I think we just had to wait for the Merriweather Post Pavilion cycle to be done with to get him back into the touring fold. He needed a break, but we were all ready for him to get back into it.”
Missing the Merriweather Post Pavilion years could well have been a blessing for Dibb. The album, their last as a collective, saw a rather meteoric rise to pop stardom that the band weren’t entirely comfortable with and have refused to adhere to. Never drawn in to the fame and money game, Animal Collective have always maintained an artistic integrity (much to the horror of some attendees of their experimental performance at NYC’s Guggenheim Museum, who, hoping for the hits, were met with drones) and an absolute zero adverts policy. Was there much pressure when writing the new album? Portner says not. “We always want to make a different record. We would never have wanted to make Merriweather Part 2. On the other hand, I’m not even sure what that means,” he laughs. “You can’t really predict how people will react a lot of the time. You do something that sounds the same and they say, ‘Oh that’s just more of the same’ and you do something different and they say ‘these guys should just stick to doing what they did best’. So it’s better to just do what you think you do best and focus on making something you feel really strongly about. I think we are all really excited and proud about this record.”
And proud they should be. It’s a mighty fine album, clearly influenced by 60s psych, creating the same sonic chaos only using very different instrumentation. He elaborates that “it’s all really wild sounding. We didn’t want to sound retro, but we wanted that wild psych sound, sort of off the rails. I think that a lot of early electronic music influenced us too. Like Raymond Scott and a lot of the other early pioneers in that field.” Does he have any favourite tracks on Centipede Hz? “I’m psyched on how Father Time turned out, and New Town Burnout. It’s always sweet to hear the songs recorded for the first time after playing them live. I’m really glad we were able to capture the live energy of the songs.” And how does the band plan to perform the new record live? “Very carefully,” comes the light-hearted reply.
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Centipede Hz is out now on Domino Records
Catch Animal Collective at the following dates:
London | Roundhouse | November 4th
Dublin | Vicar Street | November 6th
Glasgow | ABC1 | November 7th
Manchester | Warehouse Project | November 8th
Words: Lucie Grace