Animal Collective “I like to write songs that are like hearty soups with all these different ingredients and tastes floating around in them.”

Avey Tare painting by Brian DeGraw

Since their formation in 1999, Animal Collective have represented a conflation of psychedelic rock, acid folk, electronic, pop, classical, noise, and world influences, expanding the tastes of their fans. With nine studio releases (every album a breadth of newly developed creativity), there has been an expectation of straying from the norm and surprising new and old listeners. With their last album, 2012’s Centipede Hz, some critics and fans felt the album was a greatest hits of past ideas, wondering if the group had lost that polarizing traction.

However, their latest album, Painting With, sees the band capturing the free-natured spirit of older releases while showing a sense of discovery by embracing challenges in craft, such as rapid-fire vocal exchanges and collaborations with Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale and saxophonist Colin Stetson. The band reverted back to the lineup present in their most commercial release, Merriweather Post Pavilion, consisting of Dave Portner (Avey Tare), Noah Lennox (Panda Bear), and Brian Weitz (Geologist). (Josh “Deakin” Dibb sat this one out to focus on his solo effort.)

Avey Tare answered questions revolving around the conception of the album, touring the songs from Painting With, and thoughts on a generation-and-a-half of making music.

Animal Collective are known for pushing creative boundaries and, in a sense, changing the overall sound along with the themes of each new release. With Painting With, the vibe feels loose and fun, with even kitsch elements added. Did you guys have any expectations on what the album would sound like?

We usually talk a lot about what each record will sound like before we start making sounds or writing songs. I think the kitsch elements you are talking about just came about along the way or as we were writing the songs. We talked a lot about collage, and I think that’s how those elements started to fit in. I think the vocal arrangements and rhythms are what we talked about the most. It’s funny, because I think topically the songs are all very serious. But I think the “fun” element just comes from where we are in our lives right now. It was a very fun record to make. We didn’t really want to make a somber introspective record. We wanted something very outward.

The first single, “FloriDada,” takes the Dadaism art movement into a modern escapist point-of-view. How did the idea of “FloriDada” being the everywhere place come to fruition?

I think a lot of people think the song is about Florida. Which is fine. I love Florida, but some people really hate on Florida. So it’s really more about all the hating. But it’s also about looking at ourselves in the mirror, and realizing we are all cut from the same mold. And ideas or boundaries like Florida or Maryland and, “I’m from here you’re from there,” really just inhibit us more than anything. They create more boundaries than solve any problems. Which (in my humble opinion) is more of what the world needs; that is more of us solving problems together and less boundaries or divisions between us. So the idea of collaging a place together made of every place became a fun way of writing the lyrics for the song.

What ideas and elements from Cubism and Dadaism influenced this album, and did your own synesthesia play a role in mixing into the world of visual art?

We’re a very visual band. And by that I mean, we communicate in visual terms and references probably 70-80% of the time. It’s easier and more productive for us usually to write a song that sounds like a “cubist police station” rather than a song that changes from B flat to a 7th… etc., etc. There’s nothing wrong with the latter method, we just didn’t come into our relationship under those terms or circumstances. To us, this record plays a lot with perspectives. Be it perspective on vocals, or song structure or pop music in general. So it made a lot of sense to us and helped us a long to start drawing links between these art forms and the way they both play with everyday things. That’s really what we were trying to do. It’s important sometimes to set guidelines or create a philosophy and work around that.

What was the collaboration process for the new album, this time working as a trio? Was it any different than the last time the three of you (Avey, Panda, Geo) worked on Merriweather Post Pavilion?

In a way, it was very similar in terms of how the songs were written separately and shared. It was different in that I think there was much more of a conscious attempt to keep things as minimal as possible and for each of us to always play a very specific role. Meaning, in one song Noah will play the bass, while I’ll be doing more of the high frequency stuff and so on. This is also the first time Noah and I have written vocal parts for each other for every song. For Merriweather, we wrote all of our own harmonies but most of the vocal arrangements were composed prior to going into the studio for Painting With. Brian also plays a big part in the melodic side of Painting With. I think, with the absence of Josh, his sounds had to be used more in this way.

The lyrics throughout appear to have some cohesive themes, like in “Recycling” the album closes with, “While you’re huffing / you figure / why not soak up all the craze / instead of cope.” Were there any specific themes you were trying to impart with the album?

I think a little bit of it was serendipitous. As we started to record the songs we started seeing things pop up more than once, and we’d be like, “Hey, it’s starting to feel like there’s some definite themes going on here.” Maybe it’s a sign of the times. I think there are themes and ideas that everyone around the world is syncing up to. I’m a firm believer in synchronicity. I think something is in the air, and it starts to infiltrate people’s minds. We are all very tapped into the universe in that way. For Noah and I these songs deal with topics and ideas that are important to us and touch our lives right now, but they are also ideas which we feel are very universal. They are ideas that are floating about everywhere. They aren’t songs that are about stuff in our personal lives. They’re songs about the world.

In the past the band would communicate more directly with fans, like on forums; as time has passed, the band seems to have reemerged with more of an internet presence on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc. What kind of role does social media play in how you think about or present your work to your fans?

I liked the initial idea of Instagram as social media. I like the idea of just communicating through images to fans because I think it adds to the imaginative “world” of the whole body of work. It’s hard for me to be in constant contact with our fans ‘cause all of us are very private people, and really for me there’s a lot about my personal life I choose not to associate with AC. I can go days without speaking to friends and family, so it’s weird these days to feel like you have to have established contact and continuous communication with fans. Not that we “have” to do any of it actually. But sometimes it’s nice to give out little tidbits of info from the past or about what we are up to. Because it’s an honor to know people actually care. I don’t like to bum anyone out. I’ve never had a Facebook account personally, and honestly I can probably count the number of times I’ve looked at the AC one on one hand. Usually it’s to figure out where Noah’s next show is or something (ha). But I like infiltrating people’s minds with social media. I like that you can create alternative worlds if you choose to do so, and people are open to it.

For this record I really didn’t want to do much extra “stuff” to promote it. Like for Centipede Hz, we did the radio thing. I come from a place where we would just sit in a room, close our eyes, and listen to a song. You didn’t expect it to be accompanied by some lame meme or video. Now it’s almost like you have to do that. Ultimately, I’d rather not have people stare at their computers while listening to our music. Use your imagination. Or even better, go outside.

It was a distinct choice to focus on short songs and challenge new ideas. Can you elaborate on how this process helped to create more of a dichotomy or harmony between initial concepts and the finished product?

It’s sort of a foundation stone that just gets the rest of the building and structural elements working together. It also gets the builders working together. In the end it worked in that we were able to be very satisfied with the short songs we came up with. It’s just an experiment like any other record. It’s also a challenge, and challenges are what keeps us making music together.

Though this is the band’s shortest album ever, it also feels packed with the most words and thoughts. What was the process of writing the lyrics, and how has the role of lyrics changed since your early albums?

Lyrics still come after the melodies for both Noah and I. But for this group of songs we really wanted most of the songs to be structured in such a way that two voices make one. In doing this, a lot of the word choices were very specific in terms of the rhythmic delivery so that became a guiding factor. We also didn’t want the vocals to be muddied by a lot of effects. In the past we’ve had a different ear for where the vocals should sit in the mix. Over the years, as the music has changed, the vocals have just been used differently. I’ve always enjoyed writing lyrics and have always felt that they play a big part in the emotions conveyed in the song. But there have been times where other elements in certain songs were just as crucial to us as the vocals, and in those cases, maybe the vocals were just mixed lower so as not to over shadow other elements. The vocals are probably the guiding melodic element in Painting With, so they are a lot louder to my ears, and the lyrics are pleasantly audible. However, I’ve played it for friends who say, “I still can’t ever understand what you’re saying though.”

Touring post-Centipede Hz seemed to take a toll on your vocals. Since this is an album with material that has not been previously performed live, was the thought of how the songs will sound live always in mind?

Yeah, a lot of our initial conversations about the songs circled around playing them live, though we knew we’d record them first. I definitely purposefully wrote my songs to be easier on my voice, meaning no screaming. But usually that’s just an effect of how I’m feeling. The songs on Centipede Hz were very angry now that I can look back on them. Maybe they weren’t topically, but I was working through some things. The same goes for a lot of my songs with Slasher Flicks. I don’t feel that way right now, so people should not expect much screaming on this tour from me. We do want it to be high energy though, and for people to move and shake and freak out if they’re so inclined. Hopefully the sounds will lead the way.

In the last tour, it seemed like there was careful consideration on how to incorporate your backlog of songs that please both new and old fans. With such a diverse and divisive catalog, what has been the band’s thoughts on the new tour set?

No “Brother Sport.” No “My Girls.” No “Fireworks.” There’s some songs (the ones just mentioned) that we’ve played so many times that they just don’t feel open to new possibilities anymore. And that’s the heart of the live show for us. Even if we are playing some old songs (which hopefully we will), we want the set to feel open and expansive and new each night for us and for our fans. That’s why we started doing this, and that’s what we like. Since we haven’t played any of the new record live that will make up most of the set but there will be some surprises in there. We also plan on touring for a while and have a history of adding more onto the set as we go. It’ll be a fun year.

“Golden Gal” is a track that stands out as being both personal and honest. The lyrics, “You’d think the gals should feel so comfortable these days / But sexy genders bring some troubles to the fray,” playfully comments on current gender and feminine issues. Could you elaborate more on the thought process behind this track?

I guess lyrically the song was a long time coming. I have wanted to write a song about gender and gender roles for a long time. It’s so deeply embedded in our lifestyles and our consciousness and something that everyone has to deal with every day. I didn’t really know how to write it for some time, and then I was talking to a friend. She started talking about how the television show The Golden Girls was real inspirational for her in her youth, and that she had never really seen anything like that. It made me think about a lot of things. It brings up the continual flux/opinions/debates about how sexuality is used in pop culture and to empower gender. I like to write songs that are like hearty soups with all these different ingredients and tastes floating around in them. And so “Golden Gal” is a soup that hints at my connection to females that have been very important to me throughout my life while mixing in the golden gals and the feminine ideal in pop culture. It’s basically a girl power song written by a guy who has so often heard a woman say, “Yes, but you’re a guy, you’d never understand.” I get that fact, but maybe somehow in my imagination I do understand. Either way it’s also a melodic way of saying, “I got your back.”

I was particularly drawn to the lyrics and sentiment shared in “The Burglars.” Do you mind discussing some of the thoughts on the meaning of this song?

The idea of burglary and theft and possession is just something that has come up a lot over the years, and one of the things I think a lot about. To me a burglar spans the spectrum of specific humans, to natural disasters, such as the hurricanes that have devastated certain parts of the U.S. the last few years (and the world), to simpler things like a snake taking a bird’s eggs. Burglary is everywhere, and I find it interesting that as humans we take it so seriously when it seems like such a natural thing. I think at least in the West it says something about how materialistic we are, and how we define ourselves by what we “own.” So the burglars just move through this stream of thoughts on burglary, and does it in a fast frantic way in hopes that you get the feeling that the singers are running from something.

Animal Collective has been a group for over 15 years — thinking back on the band’s trajectory, is there any specific highlight or memory from recording or touring that you feel sums up the essence of the group’s singularity?

I think it’s those moments on stage when something goes wrong, and you go with the flow. A song might get out of sync or someone’s gear craps out, and you just go with it. You realize it’s not the end of the world, and it can be a special moment in itself if you allow it to be. I think getting to know the other guys has really taught me a lot about letting go of things and myself, and just going with a more natural flow. I think it’s this idea or philosophy that has allowed us to keep going and changing as a band.

Panda Bear painting by Brian DeGraw
Geologist painting by Brian DeGraw

Most Read