The guys from Animal Collective are, first and foremost, old friends from high school. Hearing Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear), Dave Portner (aka Avey Tare), and Brian Weitz (aka Geologist) talk now, 15 years into a career that’s arguably made them the defining experimental pop band of their era, feels a bit like butting in on your college roommate’s hometown crew’s reminiscences.
“There were some other punk kids in Baltimore that were friends of ours, and I remember one time you brought over a Red Krayola record to people hanging out at Brendan’s house,” says Weitz to his pals. “Juliana’s boyfriend Scott was there, remember? He was there with Guy? We put on this Red Krayola record, and we were like, ‘You like it? What do you think?’ And he was like, ‘I don’t like Phish,’ and left the room. It was like, ‘Whoa. That’s why we don’t hang out with the emo kids.’”
Instead, Lennox, Portner, and Weitz stuck with each other. (Fourth band member Josh Dibb, aka Deakin, who has floated in and out of the lineup in recent years, is currently out.) “We all just wanted to discover all the time,” says Portner. “We liked hanging out and being like, ‘Listen to this.’”
They played music together in high school, and reconvened on college breaks over the next few years. In both song-listening and writing they defined themselves as the sort of kids who didn’t neatly affiliate with any particular genre, ones who stood outside of any existing scene. The Internet-weaned generation that followed them has been more widely credited with finally blowing apart a narrow appreciation of music for a more catholic—or maybe just scattered—appreciation, but the guys of Animal Collective were of that mind all throughout the 1990s. “I think that’s safe to say that’s why we enjoyed each other’s company,” says Lennox. The obvious comfort level between them, the safe space they created to try stuff that might otherwise be ridiculous or even embarrassing, would become a vital source of their strength.
Listening to Animal Collective now, its often-difficult early records seem a truly bizarre starting point for what would develop into one of the most influential and consequential discographies in modern rock music (if “modern rock” is even what to call it). Long burbling electronic passages, ambient drones, outsider folk strums, and psychotic cartoon shouts are not typical early indicators for a future in headlining festivals. (Those tribal rhythms? Maybe more so.)
“The early Animal Collective was super experimental,” says Weitz. “But if you listened to what Noah was writing a few years prior, right before college, there was an electronica focus to it. A lot of the songs Dave wrote in high school always had the pop stuff to it. There are many zones, and we went into a weird zone. In a timeline someone might draw a line and say, this is where Animal Collective started. It depends on where you put the brackets.”
Compared against other decade-defining artists, like LCD Soundsystem, Animal Collective’s shifting set of influences seem stranger, more varied, and less obviously hip—think: Vashti Bunyan and the Holy Modal Rounders, Beach Boys melodies, and J Dilla loops. In the mid-2000s, the Grateful Dead were still a riskier flag to fly than Bowie or New Order were. Even the breadth of shade they’ve drawn is impressive; at various points in its existence, and even sometimes concurrently, Animal Collective has had detractors that have pegged the band as pretentious downtown artistes, crunchy nature hippies, or high-fivin’ ultimate frisbee bros.
Still, as clearly as their sound has evolved, it’s never felt like they were trying on different sounds or personas in a calculated way. From the sugar-high campfire version of the band heard on Sung Tongs, to the rock club feel of Feels, through the arena-sized synth-pop of Merriweather Post Pavilion, right up to the purposeful mess of 2012’s expectation-dodging Centipede Hz, there’s a throughline of open-hearted exuberance that’s carried listeners through their strangest passages to their big, cathartic payoffs. Pinning those stylistic shifts to something as reductive as “this record has Deakin playing on it and this one doesn’t” isn’t particularly helpful.
“Even the dynamic with us three playing together has shifted over the years, and it’s hard to define that,” says Portner. “But I think there are things now that are distinctly Animal Collective that don’t get left behind.”
“I’m not even sure exactly what those things are,” says Weitz.
“Shitty things?” Portner suggests, laughing. “That no one else wants to combine?”
The band debuted their 10th studio album, Painting With, via loudspeaker at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport this fall, a pretty unobtrusive stunt that only seemed like an aggressive promotional experiment when amplified through coordinated social media mentions. (“Apparently,” says Weitz, “you could only hear it in the bathroom.”) The songs weren’t conceived as Eno-ish music for airports, specifically, and they’d tossed around other ideas for a sly public space premier. A mall, say, could have done the trick too. But deep Baltimore roots made BWI one that was not only achievable, but also personal.
“We just thought about how we would have liked to experience something like that when we were younger. It would be kind of like a dreamlike way of experiencing a record,” says Portner. “‘Is that…?’”
“‘It sounds like this band I know, but I don’t know this song,’” finishes Lennox.
The three active members had recorded Painting With in a month-long session at East/West Studios in LA last summer, utilizing a borrowed percussion collection that once belonged to Planet of the Apes and Poltergeist soundtrack musician Emil Richards. Notable contributors to the album include avant-saxophonist Colin Stetson and Velvet Underground legend John Cale. But there’s still no mistaking its primary authors. While Animal Collective will probably never make an album that’s straightforward by most people’s definition, these short, upbeat songs have a concision and a directness that stands out in its catalog. It sounds, at times, almost like children’s music, and not in the way stuff on Sung Tongs might have sounded like the shrieks of an actual unruly school kid, but in the bright and silly way that music made specifically for young people by seasoned music biz pros often does. When they call it their “Ramones record,” you can almost see what they mean.
Lyrically, the band has gotten great mileage from getting personal in the past, depicting intimate domestic detail through a kaleidoscope view. This time, they zoomed out. “I think we wanted to step away from our personal lives for a moment, or at least not write about that,” says Portner. “But I think the positive aspect of the record reflects a positive place, at least for me.” That’s not to say they’ve removed themselves from the new material entirely. Album standout “Bagels in Kiev” projects back to the immigrant experience of Portner’s grandfather, for example. “I feel like if you are making something it’s impossible to remove yourself and where you’re at,” says Lennox. “You can hide it, but it’s got to come out somehow.”
With such an established brand and so much history between them, it stands to reason that the same sort of open-eared searching quality that defined their early relationship to music, and each other, might be a challenge to maintain. How do you hold on to that wild, yearning quality of young discovery as an adult? It’s something they’ve become a bit wary about.
“[My taste] is calcifying in a way that’s upsetting to me,” says Weitz. “I don’t know if it’s actually my taste or my energy level to go find new stuff.” He cites up the too-real Onion headline, “Lifelong Love Affair With Music Ends at Age 35,” and Portner shakes his head, having seen a scientific study that backs that joke up. He says he’s always had has more energy to dig through old record store crates for sounds than to sift through YouTube links, anyway. But they all cite Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly as a new record they rallied around, listening on Portner’s car stereo on trips to the studio, marvelling at its eclectic sensibility, with its use of collage techniques that lined up with ideas they were forming for the occasionally Dadaist Painting With. “I kind of feel the same as always,” says Lennox. “The way I interact with music has always been, not choosy, but sporadic. I have the same enthusiasm for searching for stuff that I’ve ever had. There are other ways I feel like a real old dude, but not that way.”
Near the end of my time, I bring up an interview I’d done with Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus in 2014. He was an artist whose influence over 90s indie-rock parallels Animal Collective’s long shadow in the 2000s, one who had triggered a similar wave of pale imitators. He’s also a guy who’s gained extensive perspective over the course of the last two decades on plugging away as a towering figure who’s still doing the work, long after his status as a bright new thing has gracefully, yet undeniably dimmed. “It’s just a realistic thing about media, where your place is already decided no matter what you do. You’re kind of yelling into a vacuum,” Malkmus had said then. “There’s only so much time that you can hog everyone’s attention. Your signifiers are worn by 10 years in.”
At this point in their careers, did Portner, Lennox, and Weitz agree with the idea that there’s only a decade-long window at best in which to truly, deeply impact music culture?
“We grew up as huge Pavement fans,” says Weitz. “We were along for the ride for that ten years with him as fans, and then have seen him settle into the thing he does now in the second or third decade of his career. Sometimes I wonder if now we’re at that point. Do our fans see us like I started seeing Malkmus and Pavement?”
“But as you brought up recently,” adds Portner, “we’ve been a band longer than Pavement was a band. Their window was even a shorter amount of time. When I think about things in that way, I’m like, ‘Oh, we’re lucky.’”
Of the three friends, Lennox seems least resigned to the band’s settled place. “I agree with it and I don’t,” he says. “I feel like you definitely only get one chance to make a first impression, but you can open and close the window a couple times.”
All photos by Luis Ruiz.