Raccoo-oo-oon have such a hectic schedule that it's difficult to closely trail these four friends from Iowa. They release multiple records a year, play nearly as many concerts as a month has days -- they performed in virtually every city in the U.S. this summer, and they have just made some lucky Europeans convulse to their rhythm this fall -- and they even have enough time to paint t-shirts, film movies, make new friends, and more.
The very first time you listen to Raccoo-oo-oon's old releases, you're reminded of your first experience with Animal Collective. They have a similar taste for "tribal" music, percussion-like drills, unlimited vocal resources with no need for clarity, and a demolishing personality. But while Avey Tare and his colleagues are veering toward a more pop-oriented track lately, our heroes in Raccoo-oo-oon are instead becoming increasingly aggressive with every new record.
Undoubtedly, Raccoo-oo-oon are one of the most vibratingly addictive bands out there, and with their music, website, merchandise, artwork, and of course their coo-oo-ool name, you'll find much to love about these guys.
All of you are involved in a variety of artistic projects (making films, pictures, clothing...), and these sides of your work are reflected in the band itself. How do these disciplines affect Raccoo-oo-oon? Do you conceive of Raccoo-oo-oon more as a concept, not only as a musical project?
Shawn: This is sort of a tricky question, we all have our own creative endeavors outside the band, but it definitely all meets up together in interesting ways. We all spend a lot of time together, and we all influence each a lot creatively. Raccoo-oo-oon is the collective aspect; it's where we come together. In the collective of Raccoo-oo-oon, we all have different rolls, different tasks or specialties, and I think that sort of spirals outside of the band into our more individually labeled persuades. Even in those individual projects etc. there is still a support structure. Night-People our collective label also functions this way, but it spirals out to involve other friends and musicians we want to work with.
You've been playing together for a few years. In spite of this, the length of your career hasn't been that long -- you have recorded a lot of songs in two years or so. When you release a new album, do you start with a concept, or are the songs just grouped together because of the time they've been written or recorded?
Andy: This is not necessarily one way or the other. Usually the songwriting process definitively starts over, and once it does, songs are written with a mind for how they relate to each other in the context of an album. One or two songs begin to shape the record as we write for similarity or contrast. Often a basic idea seeps in. Behold Secret Kingdom, for instance, we feel was very influenced conceptually by an experience we had on our first tour, breaking down in upstate New York and being stranded, camping out for a number of days. It was a pretty bleak, but oddly memorable time, and when we got back, we started writing a lot more dark, dense songs.
"I find it really surprising anyone would think Behold Secret Kingdom sounds like Animal Collective."
Why did you start recording cassettes? And why did you decide to release now your records (both old and new) on CD or vinyl?
A: Cassettes have the advantage of being the object itself, not an inferior copy of an object. It's like, vinyl and CDs are expensive, and tapes and CD-Rs are cheap, but really CD-Rs are just inferior versions of CDs, while tapes are their own inexpensive, complete package. They also lend themselves to good artwork and have a nostalgic attachment to growing up with tapes and also to acknowledging tapes as the first liberating home-made music medium. But on the other hand, it isn't very practical to dub a thousand copies of anything, so formats like CD and vinyl make much more sense in large-batch contexts.
Why did you decide to release Mythos Folkways as a series?
S: We decided to do it as a series to sort of highlight those recordings as something different than our rehearsed studio efforts, because they are created from improvisational sessions. They are usually a lot more limited in quantity and distribution and usually involve silk-screened artwork by the band. We like them just as much as the studio efforts, but they just seemed like they should be presented differently because they highlight how we are evolving musically in that all our songs come out of improvisation -- the Mythos songs being the most immediate or raw example of how we are evolving. Mythos as a series is also inspired by the Folkways record series and things like the Nonesuch Explorer Series records, archival recording series that have inspired us musically. So in a way, the series is a tribute to those sort of classic ethnographic music archives.
Your songs start as improvisational pieces, but when do you realize they're finished? Do your songs undergo any change over the time? Is it the reason why you've released some of them in different versions? When you play live, do you transform your songs into something new?
A: This varies greatly from song to song. One song in particular, “The Canyon's Long and Winding Words,” off Is Night People, was recorded very soon after we wrote it and later evolved into a much more epic, interesting song, but then was never re-recorded and has long since been retired. Other songs stay the same for their entire existence. The re-recording of “Visage of a Fox” was due mainly to wanting to use it on Behold Secret Kingdom, because it was conceptually pert of those songs and needing the track to sound as part of the same session as the rest. So really, certain songs have evolved greatly as we've played them, but we've never documented multiple versions.
You have spent your summer on a long, long tour around the States. When I listen to your albums, I think they encapsulate the way I suppose your live sound may be. But is there any difference to you between records and shows? How do you plan your shows on a tour so long? How important is the improvisational aspect?
S: Improvisation is always there despite playing rehearsed songs live; there is always this flexibility in parts of the songs. I think live we have a physicality to our band that is interesting; on a personal level, I'm all about the live show and the challenge of interacting with the audience without being blatantly confrontational. I think transitions are a big part of our live show, trying to move past the audiences expectations of what's going to happen next musically. We've been booking the tours ourselves, which is a lot of work, but fun because you get to meet and get to know so many great people. It's been a challenge though, and tours always have their ups and downs. We play mostly small venue, house, and gallery shows to small crowds. This last West Coast tour was really special for us I think, just a lot of positivity, a lot of good bands playing with us, lots of great people, a lot of camping and walking around in very epic wonderful landscapes and nature areas.
"I think transitions are a big part of our live show, trying to move past the audiences expectations of what's going to happen next musically."
Behold Secret Kingdom is even more aggressive than the other records. When you've finished a record, do you plan your next one in any direction?
S: We don't really think of a specific direction, but we are always looking to do something different, but also something that remains an extension of everything we have done. I think the aggression of the last record came from a collective sort of feeling, maybe some sense of frustration in that we started writing and thinking about a lot of those songs after a rather bleak and destructive East Coast tour. I think we were also playing with aggressive bands around the time those songs were written and maybe listening to more aggressive or darker music than we were, say, when we created Cave of Spirits.
In Behold Secret Kingdom, the voice plays a more prominent role than on previous records. But even though it sounds louder, your words are now really hard to understand. Is it because you try to use the voice to act as another instrument in your music?
Daren: I can't speak for the other members, but I approach the voice as a way to manipulate the breath. Certain sounds coming out of my mouth may form sounding like words, but what actually is spoken are feelings that have universal linguistic tones. Growing up as a Chinese-American listening to Canto-pop, Vietnamese pop, and singing mostly European choral music in a children's choir, I've picked up some universal characteristics in the spoken languages that display certain types of emotion.
S: I like to use my voice as something that has reference to music that has words or messages, but maybe borders between that and a sort of more primordial way of using the voice, something that is more just about tone, flow, and body, like chanting. I like the moments where vocal wordless improvisation meet up with more structured or even appropriated song or vocal forms. Like mixing chanting with more lyrically driven melodies.
What do you think is the most important piece of your sound?
D: I don't know if I understand what you're asking. I believe that all sound is important when we choose to play our parts in the group.
S: I think its all important, too, but I think Ryan's percussion and how it's kind of funky in a way sometimes really makes our sound less typical then maybe it could be otherwise.
You're frequently compared to Animal Collective. What do you think about this? Do you feel your music sounds similar to theirs? Who do you feel as the closest artists to you? Do you feel part of a "music scene"?
D: Being compared to Animal Collective doesn't feel relevant anymore. We had those certain tendencies with our album Is Night People, but those songs were written in 2004. We started to depart from that particular feel-good pop sound beginning with Cave of Spirits Forever. These days I feel a close relation with many of the more well known groups of the PSF label, like High Rise or Keiji Haino. Aesthetically, they are much darker than what we do, but they have a certain freedom in their music I enjoy. Luckily coming from an extensive tour in the States and in Europe this year have created a strong bond between artists and us that we don't share too much in common in our musical sound. I'm pretty happy if we play a show at a house that has noise, folk, punk, improv, psych, hip-hop, comedy... whatever.
"I'm pretty happy if we play a show at a house that has noise, folk, punk, improv, psych, hip-hop, comedy... whatever."
S: I like Animal Collective, if people need to compare something to something else to understand it etc. thats fine, but like Daren said, I find it really surprising anyone would think Behold Secret Kingdom sounds like Animal Collective. We for sure have never tried to sound like Animal Collective at all.
Why and how did you start working with Peter Swanson (Yellow Swans)?
S: We just know Pete from Yellow Swans, him touring a lot, us touring, just becoming pals through that network and environment. He gives us a really good deal on mastering, and we trust what he does because he's involved in the same community of people and artists that we are. Plus he's just a really positive, hard-working, fun dude. It's nice to keep things in the family sort of, if that makes sense. We don't need some big name mastering person to be involved on something of ours, same with recording -- we work with our friends.
Who are some of your main influences (musical or not)?
D: Let's start with musical ones: Les Rallizes Denudes may be the only psychedelic band I truly look up to. Their general obscurity they shroud themselves with alongside their extreme political agenda. Stevie Wonder is a favorite of mine. He has a way of expressing himself physically that isn't bounded by anything besides what he hears and plays. There's a great video of him playing a drum solo floating around on the internet from the late ‘60s that is quite amazing. The Sublime Frequencies label does a great job exposing cultures the regular Westerner doesn't run into very often. I always find something in their releases that I manage to incorporate in songs. Lately I've been reading a lot of Philip K Dick and books in the cyberpunk genre. Technology gone awry or abandoned always interested me.
S: It's always changing and growing, been listening to a lot of Yoko Ono-Plastic Ono Band; Ryan turned me on to that and I really love it. Sonny and Linda Sharrocks playing on their record Black Women influenced a lot of my playing and vocals on Behold Secret Kingdom. I'm always collecting Ethic Folkways and Explorer Series records, and many of those records are standouts in my collection as far as their influence. Other bigs ones have been Sun City Girls, Captain Beefheart, Can, Faust, Velvet Underground, Hawkwind, Boredoms, groups that really merged between a more lowbrow rock club aesthetic and then more highbrow artsy avenues have always interested me. Lots of free jazz and fusion too, Miles and Sun Ra are big for us for sure, especially the late ‘60s early ‘70s; I think I can say that for everyone in the band. Always our friends too, great bands we play with on tour.
You use a lot of words that evoke mysticism (spirits, mythos, death...), and the way you repeat some patterns makes me think about mantras. Are you interested in mysticism? Do you try to create an intriguing universe around Raccoo-oo-oon?
S: There is no specific group attitude toward this in Raccoo-oo-oon, we all have our own views. I'm interested in mythology and religion, and a lot of what I do focuses around being interested in those things in some way. I think in Raccoo-oo-oon we try to create a situation live and with ourselves playing that hopefully will include the audience that's about some sort of collective feeling or experience. We try to be immersive in some way and try to constantly shift expectations -- maybe we try to be overwhelming too? Physical but not specifically confrontational in our live presence.
What could you tell us about Prospect Peak? And what about your relationship with it?
D: Prospect Peak is located in Lake George, New York. It symbolizes the dilemma of capitalist forces encroaching and exploiting a natural environment. Our first tour prematurely ended with our van breaking down in Lake George where everything there reeked of tourism: bad, expensive food, miniature golfing, anti-busking laws, and para sailing. The only redeeming qualities to this town are Prospect Peak and, oddly enough, the cute French women working at the grocery store. Our song “Tail at Prospect Peak" is our tribute to the Peak, which we hiked while being stuck in Lake George.