In the Flowers with Animal Collective
Here's just what the Internet needs -- another Animal Collective article! But seriously, of all the insane hype cycles we've lived through recently, no album has been more deserving of all of the breathless, long-winded praise as "Merriweather Post Pavilion." Avey Tare (Dave Portner), Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) and Geologist (Brian Weitz) crafted an album of sublime, spine-tingling pop songs that can melt even the most stubborn of hearts.
I recently caught up with Geologist and he talked about how the band writes songs ("We always think of it as building a home for the vocal melody to live in"), trying (unsuccessfully) to turn fans onto new music and how "Merriweather" was inspired by ... Nate Dogg? The band kicks off its national tour Sunday night at the Ottobar in Baltimore before coming to the 9:30 club on Monday. Both shows are, of course, very sold out. Check back here on Monday for a review of that Baltimore show.
OK, here's a theory I've been working on. Please tell me how I wrong I am. Indie rock grew out of punk rock, and there was always sort of an "us against you" mentality. Just something generally confrontational. But now indie music seems to be going through a phase where it's more communal. There are bigger bands and people are just more welcoming in general. And I keep thinking of the Ramones, who kind of kickstarted American punk and they had a song "I Don't Wanna Walk Around With You" and the 180 of that is on "Summertime Clothes" there's a lyric "I want to walk around with you." What do you think?
Maybe. But the band did kind of start with a -- it wasn't an us against everybody approach because we definitely had a community in New York that we were happy to be a part of and it felt really inclusive at the time. But we were kind of reacting against some parts of independent music, like indie rock in the '90s, that we thought had gotten pretty stale and boring and unemotional. Or not unemotional, but there wasn't a lot of enthusiasm. Going to the shows felt very adult contemporary. Things had gotten very polite. The beginning definitely had that -- it wasn't trying to be confrontational as much as it was trying to rally people into some sort of energy. Especially being friends with a band like Black Dice, and them being a huge influence on us. Their approach was to be confrontational. "We're not going to just let you observe this or casually listen to our music. We're going to force you to think about what we're doing and listen to what we're doing." So maybe that was where the confrontational part came from.
Now this record -- thematically, lyrically -- what we've all been dealing with is people. It still feels very insular to me. It's about our very specific relationships with friends and girlfriends and wives and stuff. So to us it still sort of feels like a representation of our own private world. But the music that we chose to use as our main inspiration on this record is dance music, and we're performing it more in a club style, like a DJ style. And that music comes from communal listening experiences. I think that's probably where that influence comes from, or where that part of the sound comes from. But even a sentiment like, "I want to walk around with you" is not directed at every listener. That's Dave speaking about one specific person.
Can you talk about the genesis of the album? You guys do a lot of jumping around, stylistically, so did you actually sit down together and say, "OK, this one's going to be based in dance music."
I mean, dance music has always been an influence in our records. Noah's been into electronic and dance music since we were in high school. And then moving to New York we all really got into Kompakt stuff like German minimal techno and then Detroit techno. And that's always been in the music, but it's always been really obscured. Like "Danse Manatee" is one of our really early records and is probably considered one of our most difficult records. It's heavily influenced by Kompakt music, but I think it's difficult to tell. Whereas this one, we were just going to be direct about it.
I remember I was driving Noah to the airport a few months before we started writing "Merriweather." We were talking about ideas. There was this Nate Dogg song on the radio. I couldn't tell you the title. He doesn't even rap, he just sings the chorus. It's like: (sings) "Where I wanna be." It was like a new one, at the time. From around 2005 or 2006 or something. And we were just like, the new record should be little nuggets, like this. But repeated. For a long time. Like really good little nuggets of loops and stuff that we make. And repeat them and put melodies on top of them. So we knew early on that's where we were going to go.
And also, Josh (Dibbs, aka guitarist Deakin) not being part of the record. He's such a strong guitar player and guitar has dominated the majority of our records up to this point. Especially the last few. Well, with "Strawberry Jam" we had started to move away from the guitar being the centerpiece, even though it still was for most of the songs. We put it through pedals and effects that wouldn't really make that as obvious. We just felt like it was time to put the rock influence aside. Which made more elements of the dance stuff come out.
(Much more after the jump.)
Are you surprised with the rapturous reception? People really, really love the record? Do you think it's sort of a culmination of a great album coinciding with lots of hardcore fans who have been spreading the gospel for a little while?
I wasn't expecting it to be what it's been. It's been a steady progression since "Here Comes the Indian." Well, "Sung Tongs" was a jump. That was a jump that took us by surprise. There was a steady progression for the first three or four years. Every record brought a small amount of fans that felt like it was proportionate to what you expect. Then "Sung Tongs" was kind of a leap that took us by surprise. And then we did "Strawberry Jam" and felt the fans becoming more devoted and spreading the gospel but it still felt proportionate. It felt like it made sense.
And then I don't think we saw -- this is like the second jump. We didn't expect to have a hit single in England or make the Billboard charts. None of that stuff. It was a little crazy around the time of the album release in a way that we didn't feel so comfortable with. We're kind of private people. So the weird privacy issues were a little strange. But I'm psyched this many people are into the record, for sure.
What about the live shows? It seems like you guys are on your way to becoming sort of an "event band," you think that's safe to say?
I hope so. That's what we'd like it to be. I think I'm at a point now with this set where I'm starting to feel a little self-conscious because we've been playing it for almost two years. And for me, I've played it a couple hundred times so I have this weird doubt in the back of my mind like, "How could this be an event at this point for people?" Because I've heard these songs hundreds and hundreds of times and I'm almost thinking about moving on to the next project or something.
But the other guys in the band are better at reminding me that the cool thing about this record is we had been playing the songs for a year before it came out but there's so many new fans that have never seen us before. And you have to try and see it through their eyes. Whereas I tend to see things more through the eyes of a hardcore fan who's seen us 20 times. The way I used to feel about a band like Pavement or something, where I was like, "I hope they play all new songs tonight. I don't need to see them play the same songs they played last time."
Can you explain the process of the songwriting? I think most people can picture a guy with a guitar writing a song, or a band in a basement jamming, but you guys aren't like that. So what's it like?
For the last few records -- and this one definitely -- since we all live in different cities you have to do a lot of individual work outside of the context of writing a song with the band. So I have a room, a laundry room basically -- kitty litter boxes, laundry and then my music stuff. I just make sounds and loops and stuff. If we want to write a record or work on a bunch of songs we set it up where in a few months we'll get together in New York or sometimes in Lisbon, for two weeks at a time. And everyone just brings what they have.
Dave and Noah both write the vocal melodies of the songs. Which is usually what the songs are all built around, the vocal melody. Even back in the early records that were more improvised or more found things. Except for maybe "Here Comes the Indian" and "Danse Manatee." But other than those two records the majority of our songs are always built around the vocal melodies. Because we like pop music. We always think of it as building a home for the vocal melody to live in. So that's the most important element in terms of the starting point. They'll usually show up and be like, "I wrote this melody." And I figured out what my instrumental part would be to go along with it. And that's the skeleton that's presented in practice and then everybody starts jamming on it for a while. And we talk about the structure and play each other different bits of things that we've recorded at home that might fit into the song. Then it becomes a group production after putting together the pieces.
What about some of those weird sounds on the album? How do you make those?
It's kind of weird to point out specific things. I guess the beginning of the record are two things that Dave and I made at home. We didn't like the way the record started after we recorded it/ I had gone to Tobago with my girlfriend and I had made a recording of kids playing at the beach. It was a recording of someone sliding down a zipline. Dave did the bubble noises, I don't know where he got them. So it's those two things combined. On "No More Runnin'" there are some frogs that were recorded outside Josh's house.
Do you feel like you have a responsibility to turn your fans onto interesting stuff?
I enjoy doing that. It doesn't work so well, I have to say. We always try to bring these openers on the road that we think are really interesting and cool and will show a side of us to our fans that maybe they can get into. It doesn't always work. They usually just get booed and people want us to come on stage and play a song they know. We've tried to throw out these names from the '90s. Like, as many times as we've thrown out Thinking Fellers Union I would expect ATP should have asked them to reunite at this point, but they haven't. (Laughs.) I don't see anybody listening to them. Maybe I just don't see it.
But that's what the bands we liked from the '90s did for us. Like Pavement and Stereolab were the first ones to mention bands like Can or Silver Apples or Incredible String Band or Neu! All that Krautrock stuff that Stereolab listened to. They were the first ones to mention those bands and were like, "If you like this you should go back and check out those records." And those records, in a lot of ways, became more important to us than the things we were listening to at the time. And they said, "We're doing this because this is what R.E.M. did for us." Like R.E.M. mentioned the Velvet Underground. I like the idea of being part of that continuum. And some of our friends that listen to weirder music are like, "You can do this, you can turn on your fans to weirder stuff. Like, Terry Riley always comes up now whenever your record comes up, so maybe you can get kids listening to Terry Riley." I don't know.
Is it weird to look in the audience sometimes? And be like, "Wow, I can't believe these people like my band."
The reaction to our live show is definitely kind of split. Especially in places like England where people are coming because we have a single on the BBC. There's a lot of improvising between the songs and we get into letting things go on for a while. We like trancey music, there's that Terry Riley influence of a repetitive kind of thing that we like. But you can see it when you lose the audience doing stuff like that. Sometimes it can bum us out when our fans aren't as adventurous as you hope for them to be but we can't think that we know better than everyone else.
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