Animal Collective: Painting with the Colours of Chaos
There are few bands who manage to render colour into lurid musical being as successfully as Animal Collective. Their albums are made from vivid pulps, gaudy streaks, and soupy palettes from which melodies and hooks emerge with euphoric clarity. They are a band that make pop music, only, you’ve got to find it first.
On their forthcoming album Painting With (to be released in February via Domino) the spectrum is conjured again – crystalline melodies appear fully formed from the psychedelic melee. Far from faded, the brushstrokes feel brighter and bolder than before. I find myself obsessing over this dynamic before I speak to Dave Portner (Avey Tare), one of the band’s vocalists, founding members and multi-instrumentalists.
“The way I got into it was making flyers for shows—somehow it fell on me to do the flyers when we first starting playing,” Portner says, responding generously to a question as simple as ‘do you paint?’ “I started pretty simply at first,” he explains. “I’d take these flyers and hang them up over New York, just as a way to do something organic and visually different, then that carried into doing some of the album artwork. I feel like it takes me away.”
Portner is one of four. There’s himself (Avey Tare), Noah Lennox (Panda Bear), Brian Weitz (Geologist), and Josh Dibb (Deakin). As with 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, it was the trio of Avery Tare, Panda Bear and Geologist who recorded Painting With, and it’s this incarnation of the group who arrived to our London photo shoot with masks.
Throughout our conversation Portner flits between referring to his bandmates either by their real first names or their adopted nicknames within the group, as if the titles themselves are subject to change with passing moods. The friendship between the four of them grew from high school. Yet where most high school bands move from friendship straight into pubescent dreams of rock shows, their sights were shifted further out, towards making music as an experience. “I think that was around the same time we start experimenting with psychedelics, so we would listen to music in a way that contorted images.”
"￼We want stuff to be more of a challenge. How can we distort things further?”
This fantastical tendency began to emerge on 2000’s Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished. The title track on that first record is a bewildered maze of song. It stings and fuzzes like a deteriorating machine, while poignant, tapped out vocals vaguely communicate some isolated lament from outer-space. “We were working with our imaginations. We would put on a record and talk about what it brought to mind and we’d all have these crazy experiences. It’s something we’ve worked at, and now it’s natural.”
The band have cited Dadaism as an influence on their latest record. The early-20th Century avant-garde art movement was a highly politicised movement in pre and post war Europe, yet from a contemporary perspective its artistic spirit perhaps serves the most obvious connection to a band like Animal Collective. With Duchamp’s Fountain – an autographed porcelain urinal – among the movement’s most cited works, Dadaism held the reckless abandonment of pre-agreed structures and rules in highest esteem. As Portner acknowledges, it’s this desire to push and test things that still resonates today. “I think throughout the history of art and music you have certain time periods and people who took a step out there. The next step in the field that they are in. Whether it’s Dadaists, or Cubists, or Picasso, or Warhol, or Stravinsky, or John Cage. These are the foundations that have come before me—now what can I do that’s different with these foundations?”
By adhering to this philosophy, Animal Collective have maintained a footing ahead of the pack. “I want stuff to be more of challenge,” he explains. “How can I distort things further?” Painting With’s opening track Floridada is a perfect articulation of this subversion of form in parallel with Dadaist method. “Floridada for me is actually quite a traditional pop song, but we take that thing that sounds so comfortable and distort it. Presenting an idea that might be familiar in a different way, so it feels Animal Collective, and feels personal.”
By their standards, this is an album of singles. Taut, lean tracks that pack the otherworldly into as compact a running time as possible. Portner admits that this is in part an effort to create music more rooting in a climate of singles, streaming, and immediate consumption. “We’ll always be album people, and I think making a full cohesive album will always mean a lot to us, but we are also aware of the context that we are putting out music in. The concise punch of an individual track matters so much now.”
It’s interesting to consider Animal Collective’s connection to the mainstream, since they’re the sort of band that have managed to occupy such bizarre imaginative space, they have largely escaped much definition by contemporary standards. Given the four years since the band’s last album and the constant skin-shedding of rolling music industry cycles, it’s conceivable that a band as meditative and wildly disconnected as Animal Collective would struggle to find a place in a such an ever-present, immediate climate – is there such a thing as millennial psychedelia?
Portner acknowledges the risk in taking the truly idiosyncratic to mainstream. “I was criticised when we were on the main stage of Coachella the last time we played there. I said something like “we’re here to bring the weird”, and a journalist writing about the show was like ‘What is that anymore? What is weird?’” Yet, personal reflection, much like his earliest creative sessions with his band mates, is the space within which the imagination can still find new avenues. “To me it’s a balance between chaos and structure,” Portner reflects. “An element of our music has always been the sense that any second it could fall apart, that jam-like quality. Within that, there’s a magic place where the balance is found. Where chaos and the traditional meet, and the psychedelic shines through.”
Painting With will be released 19 February 2016 via Domino