Animal Collective are wearing what appears to be war paint and gazing at We Love the 80’s on a five-foot-tall television. The four—Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Deakin, and Geologist, not their real names—have converged in Manhattan for a press day to promote their extraordinary new album Feels, out this week. In an East Village loft they’ve applied their own Lord of the Flies–style makeup and are sitting for a photographer while VH1 looms, larger and snarkier than life, on a wall to their left. A fake deer head enters the picture, and later the guys are convinced, not without some giggling, to lose their shirts. Some would have it that these young men, whose music owes more to drum circles, field recordings, and playground sounds than to, let’s say, Pavement, are the primitivists of today’s indie rock. One Pitchfork reviewer even described their music, noting its childlike, rapturous ardor, as “pants-crapping juvenalia [sic].” But in a town looking beyond past-punk struts, where Gang of Four imitations have pretty much run their course, the radically sincere Animal Collective now hold the conch shell. Quite possibly, they’ve even played it on one of their albums.
“For a while, there were a lot of bands that seemed purposefully antagonistic,” says Dave Portner, a/k/a Avey Tare, the band’s sometimes effusive frontman-by-default. “We’re like, ‘No, come in!’ ” He then adds: “Well, maybe for the first two years it was, ‘No, come back! And don’t throw ice at us!’ ” The collective’s latest set wasn’t made for the choir—fans tend to pick favorites from the band’s one-of-a-kind discs and measure others against them. (See sidebar.) Nevertheless their audience has snowballed with each subsequent release. Their 2004 album, Sung Tongs, placed 21st in the Voice‘s Pazz & Jop poll. For the unconverted, there’s no better place to start than with the new CD, where the band’s intrinsic appeal radiates more unselfconsciously than it ever has. Difficult though it may be to pin down their sound—you might hear Beat Happening, shout gospel, the Shaggs, Syd Barrett, or John Cage—here the essential elements seem uncomplicated. Warped melodic echoes are extrapolated from simple strums, beats peeled off into pounding tom and drumstick clicks. And then there are the (mostly unintelligible) vocals: layers, accents, rhythms, pure sound, and contorted harmony, contributed by the entire group. And from all this materializes songs, with hooks. Hooks seemingly wielded by a sotted pirate, but still, hooks.
None of this is what first strikes you, though. Imagine dropping acid before you go to a pool party. In fourth grade. Burbling in the incipient drone of “Did You See the Words,” the new disc’s opener, are the sounds of kids laughing, some massaged upward into bird-like noises. As a bright, wavery groove begins percolating, a giddy monotone whisper breaks in, and one imagines a child rushing to tell his mother about hallucinations he’s having: “Have you seen the bird cut open . . . inky periods drip from your mailbox.” And then it all bursts open with a riot of yelping voices, cut and arranged like flowers.
Some have unimaginatively characterized AC as freak-folkers. If anything, the band has joined a tradition of indie eccentrics attempting “outsider music”—what WFMU DJ Irwin Chusid defines as “sonic exotica . . . the product of supernatural possession, damaged DNA, drug fry, psychosis—or none of the above.” (The disc’s cover art evokes the work of that most famous of outies, Henry Darger, author of The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.) The merely earnest and hardly amateur Animal Collective would fall under none of the above, but one suspects they know something of being baked, if not fried.
In sum: You won’t mistake any of these guys for Wesley Willis or Devendra Banhart. Back in the loft, at the photo shoot, Animal Collective instead seem very much like the old Baltimore high school friends they are, quietly alluding to in-jokes, sipping beers, and posing with a bemused, workmanlike patience. What follow are snap judgments of them; roles are fluid in terms of who actually plays what. Brian Weitz, a/k/a Geologist—so named, according to the press release he wrote, because he “studied biology in college but a friend mistakenly thought he studied geology and nicknamed him geologist”—lives in Washington, D.C., where he works on environmental policy. Brian is probably the brain, and he wears clam-digger-style pants. Dave (again, called Avey Tare: as in “Davey but the D is torn away from the rest of his name,” the press release says, “hence ‘tare,’ like he is ripping his name apart”), who lives in Williamsburg and handles most of the lead vocals, is the quintessentially quiet-at-first music geek who articulates the band’s image and context. Cute and reticent, Noah Lennox (a/k/a Panda Bear: “In high school he would make little homemade tapes and on the first one he drew a panda bear”) gives little away. He lives, one gathers quite contentedly, in Portugal with his wife, whom he met while on tour there, and their new baby. Josh Dibb (Deakin: “In e-mails with Avey, he would sometimes write letters in character. He signed one ‘Conrad Deacon’ “), currently couch-surfing New York, introduces the conceptual angles.
To Josh, the essence of Animal Collective is hearing: “Listening to music on a boombox on a porch, I’m also aware of these insects I hear over there, and that Noah is talking to me over here. That’s where the pastoral element comes in.” The result is sharp, contoured, almost narrative ambient music, with the sexy parts—big beats, spiraling melodies, footloose band racket—still dominant. Sonic exotica though it may be, the sound is carefully considered. Says Dave: “The worst comment anyone has said about us in the past is, ‘These guys made this record and they obviously didn’t even care what they were doing.’ ”
The band’s process is peculiar, and painstaking. Someone will record a riff, melody, or found sound; share and maybe manipulate it with someone else; and bring it to the group. Then the group will convert “those sounds into other sounds that don’t sound anything like those sounds” (according to Noah); noodle it all together, as a band, in an instrument-stuffed practice space, using invented tunings; tour with the songs; record them; then, finally, retire them. Or not. Maybe they’ll, as Josh says, “completely trash everything but the basic structure,” then play them some more. “Total improvisation can be really tough,” Dave reasons. “This is the best of both worlds, because we also like to write songs.”
If all this sounds strangely disjointed, consider the facts: The boys are always grinding, making music in combination with any given member or members, other random people, themselves. (The first official Animal Collective disc, Here Comes the Indian, was released in 2003, but various incarnations of the group, principally Dave and Noah, had already put out five albums.) And as of this past summer, none of them even lived in the same city—Dave was in Paris with his roommate, Black Dice’s Eric Copeland, playing music of their own. (Brooklyn’s Black Dice, it should be noted, began as one of those antagonistic bands, violently interacting with their audiences.) Although it would be cool if they were, Animal Collective aren’t actually holed up in some woodsy commune in the far reaches of East Williamsburg.
People understandably jump to such conclusions when they hear drums and see clam diggers. Animal Collective do exist on the fringe of a pattern—call it crunch, because that sort of sounds like crunk—principally composed of fringes. You can draw some crooked lines connecting them with jammy Toronto troupe Broken Social Scene, pseudo-gospel rubes-in-robes Polyphonic Spree, Martian pastoralists Black Dice, even that loathsome longhair Devendra Banhart. Crunch intends to coax indie out of its shell (no small thing, by the way, considering that Death Cab for Cutie model themselves after Coldplay). Animal Collective also mean to crack open that shell and look inside.
Feels, like other AC records, renders—and creates, with those sounds and words you must listen for—intimacy (as opposed to alienation and irony, VH1’s purview). “This record has taken on a special meaning for us,” Dave says, “just being able to get together and have the time that we do.” The album, recorded in Seattle following a year in which the band toured four times, manifests the fleet, perfectly weighted feel of a well-honed live show. Four dizzy, ebullient tracks (of the disc’s nine), including the aforementioned “Did You See the Words,” could be the looped palimpsests of random pop. “Grass,” the single (and not, the band avers, named for that grass), spins a cloud-parting chorus out of a coy backup coo, ax-hack war whoops, and tremendous cymbal smashes, then flips back into a breathless, sweetly sing-sung word spill and pillowy back-country bounce. Then there are the sizzurp-sipping songs. The taffy-like “Flesh Canoe” (didn’t ask) raises the shades on a bleary-eyed, late-morning bed scene in which there’s “more things to do than kiss and sleep,” while the recovered-memory “Bees” seems to examine—with wonder and an empathetic, dilatory tempo—smoked-out residents of a hive.
“Once, somebody wrote, ‘These are men who have never seen mirrors,’ ” Dave marvels, highlighting some negative press. As remarks go, it’s not the fairest of them all. They’re not slobs. And if, while so many are lost in the We Are the 00’s fun house, Animal Collective stroll off the grounds, who are we to warn them about finding their way back?