Somehow over the last decade, Animal Collective have morphed from a somewhat abrasive and mysterious cult group into the world's biggest indie band this side of Arcade Fire—and all the while they've maintained a "marriage of psychedelia and fairy-tale imagery" that Pitchfork first used to describe their sound. Coming off their synth-inflected breakthrough, Merriweather Post Pavilion, the band has released the dense Centipede Hz. The band are playing Williamsburg Park tonight [UPDATE: tonight's show has been canceled, due to band illness]—we spoke to guitarist/singer Deakin (aka Josh Dibb) about the genesis of the group, their "difficult" new record, the very sweaty new tour, and surpassing their high school expectations.
You've all known each other since you were teens. When you guys first met, did you immediately have a musical connection? Did you form a high school band? Yeah, for Dave [Portner, aka Avey Tare], Brian [Weitz, aka Geologist] and I that was mainly the connection, and kind of for Noah [Lennox, aka Panda Bear] too. Noah and I had known each other since we were nine—but things were really solidified in the year before high school, when we both started playing guitar. Noah's dad got psyched on getting an eight track recorder, so it kind of became the way Noah and I hung out. I would go over to his house and record songs on the eight track, and it became this really fun thing for us.
I knew the other guys, but not really well until high school. Dave and I both did a lot of theater, we were in a couple plays together and stuff. But I think it was in my junior year that Dave and Brian had a band called Automine with some friends of ours at the time, and they sensed that we had some musical taste overlaps—they had turned me on to stuff like Pavement. Dave and I went to a few shows, and then they asked me to start playing keyboards in that band. So yeah, a lot of my early hanging out with Dave and Brian was going over for band practice, but it really became a friendship. And for Noah, I think I introduced him to those guys, really just based around music. Noah and I had our own band at the time, and we played a few battle of the bands type things around then.
What did you guys sound like? Automine—the band I played in with where I just played keyboards—definitely was really influenced by Pavement, the darker more psych sound of Pavement, and some weird early Pink Floyd. And my band with Noah was more kind of bedroom cassette pop, very lyrical...pretty straight forward strummy guitar.
Was there a moment when you realized you guys had a unique sound? I think there were a couple stages of it. Post-high school, Noah and I took a year off, stayed in Baltimore, got jobs and bought recording equipment, we were getting more serious about it then. That year the four of us, or some configuration of the four of us, would get together and jam pretty regularly. During that time, there was a lot of experimenting with a lot of different styles, coming up with concepts of how we would write songs that month. We were having a lot of fun doing that and finding that we could experiment with playing music—that was the first days of feeling like there was something special.
Technically, I think we would consider the genesis of the band was really that first record, Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished, which was recorded in 1999 and released in 2000. I basically dropped out of college [at Brandeis University] at the beginning of 2000, so that kind of overlapped. I would almost say that was one of the things that led to me not finishing school. I just felt like the things I was interested in, the things I was studying there, I was excited about, but I didn't feel like I was doing them for anything other than my own interests. I didn't feel like they were leading me towards something and I just sort of looked at what we were doing as a band, and it felt like it started at that moment. Noah was considering leaving Boston University and going down to New York, and David and Brian were already there, going to school. We all just dropped out of college at the same time, so it seemed like a good time to start focusing on music and be in that environment.
So the second stage was the first year when everyone was together in New York. Although I hadn't gotten to NY during the summer of 2000, and that was when Dave, Brian, and Noah spent a lot of time together improvising in Dave's apartment on Prince Street, which was a holdover from his time at NYU. I think that was a really strong moment for the group, even though I wasn't there—what we were doing, and what felt like our thing sonically, started to solidify in a way that felt really special to us, and that lead to us feeling more psyched about playing shows.
Where in NY were you living? Dave and Noah and I got an apartment in Brooklyn Heights, basically at the very end of Atlantic Avenue, under the BQE. It was a very loud and dirty apartment at the time we were there.
How long were you in NY for? I was in NYC till 2009 basically, Dave was there roughly about the same time. Noah moved to Portugal in 2004 or early 2005, and Brian wasnt really living in NY at all after he graduated from Columbia. He had a job on Capital Hill so he was living down there, and in the early years of the band, he would commute up on weekends to practice.
What sort of jobs did you have when you were starting out? Dave and Noah both worked at Other Music, so they just became record store guys. I was working as a stage carpenter and electrician, so I did a lot of Lower East Side, underground theater sets, electrical lighting and stuff. I was really developing my carpentry skills, and after I got out of doing theater stuff I started working at a cabinet shop, doing kitchens and bathrooms and shelving.
When you guys reconvened to record Centipede Hz, was that the first time you guys were living in the same place [in Baltimore] since that period? For a long period of time, sure. We always get together to work on stuff, but it's always been more concentrated doses than that three month thing in 2011. Living in the same city and seeing each other pretty much every day for three months, yeah, that was the only time. You know, every record we've recorded we've been together recording for a month, so we've had a lot of time over the years.
But your writing process has slightly changed over the years? Well, it shifts, with whatever the focus of that record or that songwriting style. I know a lot of attention is given to the idea that Merriweather was mostly done by sending stuff online to each other. That record more than others was one person writing a song and sharing, and everyone adding ideas it it. This record started from a really stripped down place, and everyone just jamming together and seeing where it led. But both of those ways of working have been true, going back to Feels. I would say that the Feels and Strawberry Jam writing processes were pretty similar to this one. Merriweather is the one that seems to stand out, just in the way those guys were working on that, and the instrumentation of it, made it more possible to make it sending around files, and adding samples.
You took a break from the band around the Merriweather Post Pavilion period, right? Yeah, after Strawberry Jam, I didn't feel like going on tour. But they started writing stuff right after Strawberry Jam and that ended up being the Merriweather stuff.
How do you feel about the record, did you listen to it much? Oh yeah, I loved it! I listened to it a lot. That wasn't the first time I hadn't been on a record. That wasn't a new experience to me. That is actually one of the benefits of the way that we work, that we're not always involved in everything that we do. It gives me the guiltless pleasure of just being a fan, without feeling like I'm arrogant. I can just listen to them and say, "Wow this is really good." Whereas with the records I'm on, I can be really psyched about them, but also more critical.
One of the things that came up, before Centipede Hz came out, was that you said that it was a more "difficult" record. Now after it's come out, have the critics proven you right? I think if I could have gone back, I would have used a different word than that. I would say there is so much going on, it takes a minute to pick up what's going on in the record, and I feel like that is the prevailing opinion. The reaction from people I respect, that I listen to, is that it is good, but like, on the fourth time. They had to listen to it a few times and then it came together. Someone told me that they had listened to it over and over but had been listening in the wrong way, and that it wasn't until they listened to it differently, got out of their headphones or laid down in the grass or whatever, that it was the kind of record that they needed to step away from in order to really enjoy, and I think we all kind of felt that way. Being "difficult" isn't really a good way to frame it. I think a lot of really great records are like that.
Well, it certainly is a very dense record, with a lot of sounds to unpack. Exactly. And I think for some people, that is not a good thing, and I was aware of that when I made that statement. There are moments when people make music when there's an "instant-ness" to it, and that makes it a little more difficult for some people to accept it. So maybe that's more what I was getting at. For some people, that's really not what they're looking for, and for some people it is. I think coming across records that take you a while to get into, to process all the layers, that gives you something different every time you listen to it.
Something that demands time. Do you worry about people not being patient enough with music these days, and that they'll miss out on what you guys are doing? That's just the way it is. I think I worry more, and this is not in relation to our record but—and I am only an armchair sociologist—it seems to me that the way media moves right now, the attention span we have to give things is much, much shorter. I think this is about myself as well. And I've talked to people about being nostalgic for those days when you'd go into a record store and you'd buy something maybe because someone recommended it to you, or you heard one song on the radio, or you thought the cover looked cool, and you buy it, and maybe you buy four records, and you take it home, and then with two of them, immediately you think, "Oh, this is great!" and the third one you're like, "I don't know..."
But now you own this thing, you bought it, and it's sitting on your shelf and you kind of feel this obligation over the course of many months to go back to it, and go back to it again. I can't think of one right now, but that's happened to me so many times, where it took me a year or a year and a half to really get into a record. It takes more effort to have that process because it's so much easier to have someone say, "Hey have you heard this thing yet," and you go on YouTube and some tracks maybe you only listen to 20 seconds before you go, "Eh, its not really my thing," and you move on. You don't have that same direct physical connection to you, you know—I bought this thing, I have this obligation to it—I sort of worry about that, or observe that.
Was your song, "Wide Eyed," specifically written for the band, or was that just a song that you had and you threw it out there? I didn't write it for the band, but after I wrote it I knew it would be good for the band. I knew we were getting together in a month, and we had talked about the kind of vibe we wanted, and there was something about it that felt like it fit. A lot of the other songs I was working on at that time I wouldn't have even tried [to present], they just didn't feel like they fit the kind of the world we were talking about it. Something about that one felt appropriate. Even when I played it at that show, I knew it was something I wanted to work on and put together with those guys.
You know, it was a collaborative thing, and we would start jamming on it from a pretty barebones place, but every one of those songs were essential written by one of those guys. Like "Today's Supernatural," Dave wrote that song. And I think it shifted because he hadn't written the lyrics yet. But most of our songs are pretty traditional in the way we start them—someone comes and says, "I wrote this song, what do you guys think?" And then we just hash it out. And then someone changes a chord, and it changes the whole sonic landscape. A song like "Crimson," which we haven't actually released yet but we played a lot in the last year, went through at least three, or four, or five different versions that you might not recognize as the same song, but the same basic melody and structure has remained consistent.
What was that initial vibe that you guys discussed for this album? Even though we didn't know at the time it would become the actual album title, the word "Centipede" came up, I think Dave brought it up. This multi-segmented, quick-moving thing making abrupt turns and twists; we wanted songs to move like that. Really short pieces that would keep changing directions. We wanted really basic stuff, we wanted it to be more raw, sweaty, more visceral, and in that sense, kind of human. Though once we were into the writing process, there was a lot of talk of making it more "alien," but I think that there was something initially really "human" about it.
Single vocals was a big thing too. We really didn't want to do a lot of harmonizing. We wanted to just have a single, raw vocal. For me, for example, for my song, there was something about that energy that I was thinking of, what was behind it, it felt like it had that particular quality. And we wanted the orchestration to come out of a lot of live instrumentation. With Merriweather, even though a lot of it was initially live instrumentation, they would record a live part and then use the sample, and play the sample every night because they wanted it to sound exactly like that. This was different.
And we got into conversations when we were jamming and wanted to invoke this idea of radio waves when they leave our planet and just go off—imagining what alien bands would put together from these fragments that reach them, what that would inspire them to make. And that fit into the "Centipede" thing, these fragments of things.
On the new tour, are you guys still using those samples, or have you switched to using mostly live instruments? A mixture of both. It depends on the song. I play the guitar. Dave's playing a couple keyboards. Noah's playing a strange drumkit, but a drumkit nonetheless.
Do you feel like you brought some of that sweatiness to this new tour? Yeah definitely. I wasn't on the Merriweather tour, so I don't have that to compare to, but I really like playing shows that are very physical, and I remember Noah kind of saying how it started to feel by the end of that tour: a lot of venues, because of the lights and the masses of people, they just crank the air conditioning, and because of the nature of the way they were playing with samples, you'd finish an hour and a half long show and you wouldn't have sweated at all. This has definitely been the opposite. Most of these shows have been very sweaty shows, I mean that in a good way.
So this tour has been fun for you so far? Yeah, they've been really really fun. We toured a lot last year, and those were really fun, but somehow, these shows have been even more fun, I'm not sure what it is. One thing, is that we have this really awesome set design that we're carrying with us, a sort of stage production. But yeah, its been super fun, we're having a really good time playing, and there have been crowds of pretty sweaty people down on the floor, jumping up and down a lot, lots of crowd surfing, tossing balls around and balloons around. It's been really exciting and inspiring being in that sort of environment, connecting with people on that level.
One of the things I've found really fascinating about you guys is that you work on the material for a really long time, you present it live, and you seem to adapt it based on the reactions, and how it feels playing it night after night. You always seem to be a step ahead in the process. Do you have any idea where you are going in the future? Have you started working on any new material? No, I think right now, that's the shift—we really wanted to approach this touring cycle in a way that we're focusing on getting this stuff together, and then sitting in that for a minute. And I could imagine people starting to come up with new ideas early next year, but I can also see us working with these jams some more and maybe pulling from older songs, seeing where things end up in a year or so. Right now, we're just having so much fun playing these songs and the old songs we've put together for this tour, that that's where our heads are at. And in general, it's usually pretty hard for us to predict where we're going to be in the future, I think we are always kind of focused on the immediate two or three months. It's hard for us to think about the future.
Are there any old songs you are going to be pulling out for this tour, any pre-Strawberry Jam stuff? No, the oldest song we're playing right now is from "Peacebone", which has been really fun, and a song we put out on the Water Curses EP, "Cobwebs," which is probably one of our more obscure tracks. Those have been the farthest we've gone back. And we've been doing a few Merriweather jams. I would assume that that will probably carry us through this tour, and then we're going to Europe in about a month, and I can imagine that when we come back from that we'd think about new ideas, or adding to that.
You guys did an acoustic session with KEXP, performing "Wide Eyed" and "Pulleys," and it was absolutely gorgeous. Are you going to be doing any more of those acoustic, pared-down things? It's hard to say. Those things sort of come up when they do and we sort of just make the call when they do. I really love doing them. Yeah, I would hope there would be more opportunities.
One last question—when you were in high school with these guys, did you ever imagine that you could make your living off music, that you'd still be doing this now? Yes and no. On some level, Noah and I always joked about this over the years. We would think about bands that we looked up to, like Modest Mouse or early Stereolab, and knew that they sort of travelled around in a van, and we'd say "God, can you imagine how cool that would be?!" We kind of hit that point and surpassed it a long time ago. That was the high school dream: can you imagine getting in a van and touring the country and playing music, that sounds great!
So, I feel that everything that's come after that has surpassed what dreams we had in that regard. I don't think anyone suspected—at least I never expected—to be in the position on some level. But at the same time, if I was being 100% honest, I think I've always thought really highly of the kind of music that Noah and Dave write, and even in high school I sense that it was really fucking good. I felt a lot of confidence that the way that it was good and the way we were being creative was sustainable. It was really evident to me that Dave was capable of really special things, so I think that aspect of it, just in terms of being creative people, was a pretty deep well.
I've had a lot of confidence in that, but the part about it turning into something where we're playing to crowds of people every night, or getting to go on the road in a bus, or having a bunch of people in our crew to keep things running, seems like a really big heap of frosting on the cake that we made a long time ago.