Animal Collective will likely go down as one the decade’s most critically acclaimed and influential bands. Formed by a group of Baltimore high school friends, the loose collection of separate identities have been releasing albums since 2000. However they started building wider popularity with 2003’s Here Comes the Indian, and each subsequent album – Sung Tongs (2004), Feels (2005), Strawberry Jam (2007), and Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009) have arrived with increasingly deafening acclaim. Their latest, Merriweather in particular was called the album of the year upon its release in January. Their unclassifiable music changes with each album too – the freak folk of Here Comes the Indian to the minimalism of Sung Tongs, the flowing melodies of Feels, the unpredictability of Strawberry Jam to the dense pop songs of Merriweather. Their live shows are incendiary too, which those who witnessed their rigorous shows when they toured here last in 2006 will attest. The band are playing one show in Auckland, and I have a chat to Avey Tare (aka David Portner) in the lead up.
I thought I’d start off by asking about your musical background and how you got into being in Animal Collective. What got you into music in the first place.
I think probably just listening to music. My brother, when I was growing up, was a top 40 radio DJ and he would always make these mixes for me, stuff he’d be playing on the radio in the ‘80s. My family took a lot of car trips and I listened to a lot of mixtapes. I remember really getting into music that way. I don’t know, there’s something about music, it was always like a world of itself to me, and just early exposure to it took me to a place where it was always really important. When I was in high school, I started hearing bands and music where I started thinking ‘oh that’s interesting, it’d be cool to make music like that – it doesn’t seem that far off, it’s something maybe I could do, or we could do.’ It pushed me and certain friends of mine to start writing songs and covering songs of bands we liked.
We were really young, thirteen, fourteen, and it was the same people in Animal Collective – like Brian [Weitz AKA Geologist] and I, he’s the first person I played music with or decided to write songs with. We both played guitar, he played guitar much better than I did – I just taught myself. I took classical piano for a really long time, until I was eighteen. I don’t know if that really influenced why I started writing songs, I always liked playing the piano. It’s a really interesting instrument. I like playing classical music, it feels like a different side of music to me.
The fact you guys have been friends for so long, and played music and worked together for so long, has that helped with being together for so long, and dealing with all the hype?
For sure. I think beyond playing music, I think just having the experiences we’ve had together, and being so at ease with each other in that kind of situation. Being able to be creative with each other has a lot to do with going through so much when we were younger, knowing the ins and outs of each other. And, being really comfortable with each other and being able to feel like we could do whatever we want to do, knowing this person is going to go along with that, or these guys will just follow me, or I’ll follow them.
For a band with so many distinct musical personalities, has it been an easy process in terms of merging the identities?
It definitely takes a lot of work. I don’t think it’s something we’ve tried for a long time to organise or anything like that. It was just this is the way it has to be. Everybody has to put their own personality or stamp into the music. It’s not like one person is ‘oh this is what you’re playing, and this is what you’re playing’ – it is a little like that when it really comes down to polishing the songs, or mixing the songs. But I think we’ve always just fit into each other, and we always add something that’s so drastically different from the other which is really important.
Critics have often talked about your music ‘progressing’, is that annoying or limiting?
Not really. I think in a way, you can’t avoid that happening. It’s like a growth, it’s like a process, and part of the process is moving forward. I don’t think we look at it as ‘oh this is a linear thing’ or ‘the next record is a step in the next direction’ – it’s always like ‘what can we do that we haven’t done’. We want the next record to sound completely different and inhabit a different world to us. We don’t talk a lot about it.
It’s interesting that each album seems to have a totally different personality, like Sung Tongs is really stripped back and spare, compared to obviously something like Merriweather.
Yeah I think a lot of it has to do with time and place too. We purposefully, Noah [Lennox AKA Panda Bear] and I, stepped away to do Sung Tongs because the tour before, and the record before, Here Comes the Indian for all of us was a really hard time. It was really annoying to go on tour and have all of this equipment, and rely on all of this equipment with everything breaking and not having a lot of money. It really bummed Noah out a lot. There was a time when we thought we would do something really simple, and not that complicated, for the sake of wanting to play music with each other. Once that got to a comfortable place, it was like ‘let’s all four of us play again and see how that works out’. It seems like certain things happen because of where we are. I feel like the same thing could be said for Merriweather, it happened because Noah, Brian and I were in a place where it was really easy to play music together. All the songs came together really, really easily, and fast.
You guys seem to renounce your previous work in this process of writing/touring. When you played here last time, for example, you mostly played Strawberry Jam and Feels songs, and not Sung Tongs or Here Comes the Indian.
It doesn’t really interest us that much. It doesn’t seem that relevant to us to hold onto things as they were, and just play things for the sake of having them on record. I think especially with having to go out on tour and play live, playing something live for us is having something current happen. When we’re playing music for people, it’s this new experience for us and for the people watching, and not really having to do with a record that we’ve put out.
I read in other interviews that you guys see yourselves primarily as a live band?
Not really, I think that’s just two separate things for us. We are a live band in the sense that touring and playing live is really informative to the records, because we usually write everything to go on tour, so we’ll have a new set, and new songs. After we’ve toured the songs for a year or so, then we’ll record them, and then get rid of the songs as we write newer ones. But I think if, in the past, we had a bit more money and we could have just stayed in one place and just recorded a record for a while, we probably would have done that. Bands can’t really do that anymore. Touring is so important to making money, that recording has very little to do with that side of it which is unfortunate. But we don’t do it just to make money. We haven’t in the past. We do now, it’s our job. But we’ve always found something really enjoyable about playing live, and having to get exposure through playing live made us view it in a different way: ‘let’s just do this kind of new thing live and then focus on the record’.
Is your live show strictly planned, or is there much room for accidents?
think in general, the songs are set up to be studio songs. It comes across more as a studio record, than live. We wrote it all first to be played live, and there’s a very stripped down version that we do live, but we always envision them being recorded. Because we’re more electronic, it’s very hard for a lot of jamming, but we wrote a lot of them that way not to have any jam moments. But there are some we could definitely jam on for a while, or have these interludes. That’s just part of the side of keeping it progressive and having something new, so we’re not just relying on samples or electronics to govern the structures of the song. You can really feel like it’s organic and we’re still interacting with the machines. Playing a sampler or a pre-recorded track, and treating it like a guitar or something like that, or approaching it in a different way.
You’ve had a lot of hype this year with Merriweather – has this been something that’s been easy to deal with?
It was definitely difficult at first, around the release of the record. A lot of stuff happened where people were pulling the finger at us for ‘trying’ to draw a lot of hype towards it. A lot of the stuff that happened, we didn’t have anything to do with. A lot of stuff, the way we wanted to present the record, or let people know about it, or have listening parties, we just wanted to because it was the way we wanted our fans to hear the record. I think beyond that, we don’t really pay too much attention to it. It’s cool that a lot of people are into it, and it makes us feel really good, because we were really into it when we were done and really excited about it. But I don’t think we let it affect the way we go about things, or let it get us down. It’s just a record, it’s just music. I hope people just enjoy it for what it is, and don’t really pick it apart too much.
That seems to happen with your music though, given the distinct personalities of each album, critics do tend to pick it apart.
There has definitely been certain things that have come up over the year. People have written certain things. It’s very interesting in a way, but to us it’s so weird and it’s just not something I want to look into very much.
How do old fans view this kind of success, is this something you’re conscious of? You’ve picked up more and more fans with each album.
I think we’ve always been aware of the fact that we would gain new fans when we put out a new record and lose some old ones, just because we were wanting it to sound a bit different from the other. I think it started with Here Comes the Indian, when we were going on tour, we were going on tour with Sung Tong songs which was just Noah and I playing. We were going around cities seeing that we got written up for putting out Here Comes the Indian, and thinking ‘woah people are writing about this record’. More people – not like tonnes of people, but more people than we’d ever had – were coming to see us play, and going ‘why are these guys doing this acoustic stuff, where are the other two guys and that kind of thing’. We just realised that even though we feel really strongly about a certain piece of music or a record, we’re always ‘are people going to like this?’ When we recorded Merriweather, we really liked this record a lot, but compared to Strawberry Jam which divided a lot of people to us, we were ‘I don’t know if people are going to respond to this’. Now it seems like people say it feels so accessible, and more poppy, but when we were done with it, we were ‘it’s still really weird, I don’t know if people are going to like it’.
Your music doesn’t seem to be tied to specific time and place – it’s hard to pin down. Have you guys always intended to ‘decontextualise’ your sound?
We’ve always been really conscious of how we want to sound, and how we don’t want to sound. We have a lot of, when something isn’t working, we’re quick to go ‘this sounds a little too much like this’. There’s always a point where something feels really natural to play, and feels like it’s really coming from us. It’s something we’re always striving for. I think it’s just the fact that all of our personalities get a chance to come through the music, which gives it our own thing, our own sound.