It's strange that Animal Collective are so popular. The quartet's music may be pop at heart, but it's riven with enough drug culture allusions and avant-gardism to make for a pretty gritty listen. The fact that the band is signed to the largest of major labels feels like a minor coup. In the same way that Revolution 9 exposed thousands of Beatles fans to musique concréte in the late '60s, it feels like a step forward for pop music in general that EMI’s marketing budget is now pushing their bristling psychedelia to the fore.
The term ‘collective’ might seem appropriate on the surface – the dense arrangements suggest a communal approach that gives equal credence to each idea – but it’s pretty clear that there’s one person, in particular, calling the shots. Although Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) and Josh Dibb (Deakin) have both contributed songs, the vast majority of each album is given to the fidgety avant-pop futurism of David Portner (Avey Tare). The fact that his snarling voice is the most prominent might not be enough to support this hypothesis. But given that Lennox felt compelled to go solo to fully nurture his extraordinary songs, and that Dibb's first and sole contribution came only recently after returning from a hiatus, you do have to wonder.
If there is internal conflict in Animal Collective, then it certainly doesn't get in the way of the music. Creatively resilient bands often have a current of social tension stoking their coals, and the bristling clutter of work like 2007’s meticulously gristly Strawberry Jam would not have been nearly as compelling if a single person had been pushing all the buttons. The group’s forthcoming record, Centpiede Hz, marks a return to the ‘band’ approach of earlier records. Over the past five years, their immersive arrangements have leant heavily on computers and samplers, but here, guitars and drums are the base materials. Still, most of the songs appear to have been penned by Portner.
Although a number of interviews are set up with him, each falls through at his discretion. Eventually, a time is arranged with Noah Lennox, instead. When we speak, Lennox is at home in Lisbon. It’s an intensely hot day, but the oppressive weather doesn’t appear to have dimmed his excitement for the band’s new material.
“We knew that we wanted to do something more performance-based, or rooted in performance. With the last group of songs, we had six sequencers of samples, and you'd be kind of manipulating the sound as it goes, but it was a real mental, more than a physical, thing,” he says. “I knew I wanted to play drums sitting down, which is something I haven't done in eight years, or so. The room that we started writing the songs and practicing in was pretty small. We were packed in there pretty tight, with the drums and everything, I feel like the impulse was to kind of just crank it up, which lent a lot of the songs a way more driving and propulsive feel.”
Of the first tracks assembled, Lennox claims Today’s Supernatural most excited the band, partially because of its energy, but also because it was such a challenge to play.
“It had a real intense energy to it, way more than anything on the last album. It was kind of difficult to play, for me. We had it in sections. We could play each section in the beginning, but we couldn't put them all together. It took a while before we could get all the way through it. I think, again, having something that's really performance based, that's really difficult like that, appealed to us. The last group of songs were kind of set in stone – we would just play around with the thing that was there already. Having something that was so, like, you never knew if you were going to make it – I think was kind of fun.”
The energy Lennox talks about is plain to hear. Centipede Hz’s hooks are infectiously melodic, etching themselves into your memory after even a single listen. It’s also strangely great to hear Animal Collective actually riffing – Today’s Supernatural and Moonjock particularly, have some undeniably stadium-sized guitar rock moments that are surprising and cathartic. Throughout, pieces are laced with snatches of faux-radio announcements and warped ad stings. These almost feel like a nod to retro revivalists like Ariel Pink or Neon Indian, whose songs evoke fuzzy facsimiles of tinny AM-broadcasts from decades past. On Centipede Hz, these surreal snippets lend the impression of some sumptuous alien transmission rather than a Top 40 flashback.
“The idea of an alien sound or an alien music is really exciting to us,” says Lennox. “We threw around this idea of an ‘alien band’ a lot, or talked a lot about it, and joked about it, from the beginning, before these songs. That was a touchstone: we were always like, ‘This doesn’t really sound alien-band enough’. So we would always try to crank it up to that zone where it didn’t feel like something familiar to us.”
Lennox responds cautiously to questions about Dibb’s return to the band. It’s no surprise that he’s reluctant to address exactly why the group was trimmed to a three-piece for their breakthrough 2009 album Merriweather Post Pavilion, but he speaks freely about the benefits and challenges of working as a four-piece again.
“It’s a relief in that I’m seeing a lot of one of my best buddies again. Since I live sort of far away from the other guys, the only times I really get to see him and hang out with him is when we're on tour or working on music,” says Lennox. “I really didn't see too much of Josh the last couple of years, so, that way, I'm really excited that we're all doing this thing again.
“At the same time, it's a challenge, in that, whether it's two, or three, or four of us, it's a different set of personalities and a different set of characters, and you have to figure out a way to manage that,” he continues. “There's frustrating times, always. Even if it's just me working on stuff, there're times where I'm throwing around headphones. I feel like if you're not getting frustrated, you probably don't really care so much. But it's just all part of the deal, you know? It's par for the course, you could say.”
One of the most admirable things about this band is how consistently singular they sound from album to album, irrespective of lineup changes. There are many things that distinguish them from their contemporaries, but two in particular stand out for most. The first is an open and full embrace of the notion of psychedelia – of stepping away from your preconceptions and endeavouring to perceive things differently. This commitment to seeing and hearing in new ways was once closely aligned with pop music, but now, most psych bands revel in the associated substances for their own sake, and choose to re-arrange their predecessor’s music rather than reinventing it, thereby sabotaging the original goal. Not so with Animal Collective.
“I think [psychedelia] has lost its meaning because there's been so many different interpretations of it, or so many different perspectives on it,” says Lennox. “On the drugs side of it, I'm not super-experienced. To me it's just a blurring of boundaries, a kind of meshing of things. There's something sort of magical about it. By that, I just mean there's something out of the ordinary world, or the stuff that you see every day. There's something different about it.”
The second aspect that many immediately associate with Animal Collective is a kind of deference to childhood. In a review of Tomboy, Lennox’s last album as Panda Bear, Simon Reynolds criticised the emphasis on boyhood and adolescence as irresponsible musical touch-points. Similar comments are often made regarding the wide-eyed optimism and boundless energy of Animal Collective’s songs, and such flourishes are all over Centipede Hz. At times, it plays out like a collection of themes for cartoon serials. Lennox sounds crestfallen talking about Reynolds’ review, but he rises to put comments about childhood in their place. It turns out that the childish undercurrent harks back to his perspective on psychedelia – it’s about seeing and hearing the world anew.
“I don't know that it's a childhood thing so much that it is hopefully an openness to stuff,” he says. “When you're young, you don't feel like you've got it all figured out. When you approach something, you approach it with a blank-slate-mind, you know what I mean? As musicians, we're always trying, like in Star Wars, to unlearn the stuff that we've learned. To be in a situation or be playing an instrument that you don't feel like you totally know, and you haven't really figured out a system of working with it and making songs with it. When you're in that danger zone, I feel that's when the most interesting stuff comes out.”
BY LUKE TELFORD
Centipede Hz is out this Friday August 31 through Domino/EMI. ANIMAL COLLECTIVE play the Big Day Out, alongside Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Vampire Weekend, Sleigh Bells, Foals, Alabama Shakes and heaps more, taking place at Flemington Racecourse on Saturday January 26.