Animal Collective – Exponential Experimental
Written by Marc Zanotti on 21st November, 2012
Given the experimentation of their music, it seems only fitting that the dynamics of Animal Collective goes against the conventional thinking of what constitutes a band. Unlike most groups that work based on a set roster of members, Animal Collective wilfully release records under the band’s handle without its full cast intact.
Although 2012's Centipede Hz is considered the ninth (audio) studio album from Animal Collective, it is only the fourth to feature all four members. The last LP written and recorded by David Portner (Avey Tare), Noah Lennox (Panda Bear), Brian Weitz (Geologist) and Josh Dibb (Deakin) was Strawberry Jam in 2007.
You Gotta’ Know When To Fold Them…
Following the completion of Strawberry Jam, Animal Collective co-founder Deakin took a sabbatical from the group he helped build. As the avant-garde musician explains, his decision to leave was not so much a matter of want as it was a matter of need.
“The break just came, some of it’s just very personal to be honest, but it was just basically a time when I felt like I wasn’t really able to keep, I guess, thriving in the environment,” Deakin reflects.
“My father had passed away while we were actually on tour in 2006, which was a pretty hard blow to take at the time … I just had been moving around so much and had a lot of stuff that I needed to sort through on my own.”
“I felt like it was important … to work on my own music and I felt like I couldn’t really do that with … the quantity of touring and recording and stuff that I knew would come if I stayed fully engaged with the group and that time.”
“We’ve always had an understanding whenever there’s been sort of an era of music, you know, whatever record has come out has generally been an era of music. We let that take its natural course and when it ends that’s when [we make] a consideration of relooking at who’s playing and who’s going to be involved in the next thing.”
If It Ain’t Broke, Fix It Anyway…
That next thing was Merriweather Post Pavilion, an album hailed as being the most accessible release of Animal Collective’s career and crowned as ‘Album Of The Year‘ by Pitchfork in 2009. Recorded by the remaining three members during Deakin’s absence, Merriweather… is Animal Collective’s most successful album to date.
With Merriweather…, Animal Collective had concocted a formula that could have been replicated to further acclimate themselves with a wider audience. For an act that historically has not been chart-friendly, setting aside experimentation in favour of a proven theorem would certainly have been tempting.
Instead Animal Collective were predictably unpredictable and challenged their existing fan base and new-found audience to delve deep into Centipede Hz for understanding.
To understand the band’s shift from perhaps a more profitable sound is to learn of the original intention behind Animal Collective and driving force behind their music.
“Our original idea for sort of what we were going to be … this is going back over 10 years now at this point … we wanted to start our own record label, which we did, actually. It was called ‘Animal’,” Deakin explains.
“The four us had so many different combinations of what we did and how we did it and … we wanted to think of a way that we could make records where each record would just be its own thing … it wouldn’t necessarily feel like this ongoing band thing.”
“For various reasons I think that ended up not being fully realized but I think that sort of initial drive to have it have that sort of feeling is maintained.”
“We really want each record that we do to really feel like it’s a new experience and a new kind of journey. We generally try to find ways to strip away some pretty significant aspect of what we’ve been doing previous to that … whether that’s the instruments we’re using or the ways that we’re thinking about writing songs or whatever it is, to just create really, really new environments for ourselves.”
“Really the fun thing for us with music is just sort of discovery and I feel like … the more that we can make it feel like it’s almost a brand new process the better that is.”
Rising To The Challenge…
It’s not a stretch to assume that Centipede Hz played like a ‘brand-new process’ for those who flocked towards Animal Collective because of Merriweather…. Described as a ‘challenging’ record by band and media alike, Centipede Hz adjusts expectations and urges the listener to consider the various, perhaps even conflicting, elements at work.
Although initially unappealing to some, challenging albums such as Centipede Hz have a history of improving with age. Even though Deakin is unwilling to predict what time will make of Centipede Hz, the modest musician does acknowledge that records which ask more of their audience tend to have the greatest longevity.
“The kind of aggressiveness of it and the assaultiveness of it [Centipede Hz] and the gritty chaos in it, I think we kind of knew that would not be something that would not necessarily be for everyone,” Deakin discloses.
“It’s not for everyone and that’s fine but the people that initially maybe reacted sort just like, “Man this is just sort of overwhelming and chaotic and it’s hard to listen to” and you know, four listens later or ten listens later will be like, ‘I totally suddenly hear this in a way I never really heard it before.’”
“Its led to conversations just about the way… we listen to music now as a culture … the media landscape has just changed so much.”
“The way I grew up … I didn’t really have access to a ton of music all the time. I usually got a new record because someone recorded me something onto a tape or they told me that I should go buy a record by this band or I heard a single off the radio and just took chance on buying their whole record … I was lucky to have three new things to listen to every 6 month.”
“There’s a lot of records I feel like I had when I was growing up that I’d listen to once and not really get it and not really like it and put it away. But because it was this thing that somebody had given to me or that I had bought or whatever it was it stayed there and I sought of felt this obligation to stick with it and revisit it now and again and a lot of those records ended up being some of my favourite records.”
Worth The Risk?
The increased accessibility of music that Deakin refers to has also led to songs being treated as disposable. Albums are less likely to be absorbed in order, or in their entirety, and fickle fans with fragmented attention spans need not persist with a confronting piece of music that doesn’t hold immediate appeal.
From this perspective does Centipede Hz, a record which takes its listener to task, run the risk of being initially dismissed and never typed into a search bar again?
“I mean that’s something I almost feel I can’t really speak to or I guess I don’t really want to think about that. For better or for worse I don’t think … we really want to think about that in terms of how we write music at least,” deflects Deakin.
“I think the way we approach it is very personal and it really has very much to do with our own interests at that time and what we’re excited by.”
“That stuff to me … it sort of seems potentially like creative death to think about it too much. And if the culture changed so much that what we’re doing doesn’t really fit into it … then so be it but I’m happy to be making it and I’m happy to put it out there. I always feel like there’s somebody out there that’s going to get it.”
Nature or Nurture?
‘Experimentation’ is a label readily attached to Animal Collective. It’s a term that can invoke connotations of manipulation and tampering with the natural order of things; a form of meddling that can easily be overindulged for its own sake as opposed to what better serves the music.
Although Deakin is comfortable with the tag, he feels any experimentation within Animal Collective is closer to an involuntary reflex as opposed to a deliberate subterfuge.
“I think experimentation to us is something that is part of the natural process,” attests Deakin.
“We’re really into giving ourselves new terrain that’s really unfamiliar, that we have to sort of find our way through and stumble our way through musically or creatively. I think to us that’s one of the things that’s really exciting and I think to us that’s why we think it’s experimental for us.”
“We all grew up with that sort of mentality and I think our ways of coming to get to know each [other] musically was based around that way of relating to music.”
“There was period of time in late high school and early college where it’s like every time we get together to work on stuff we’d almost like create new bands each time, you know? “Here’s like an idea – like, what if we had a band that like this and this was like the idea of how we wrote songs?” … I think that’s just fun for us is to sort of mix things up a lot and just try new ways of looking at stuff.”
A Collective Conscious…
Whereas most bands have a definitive frontman who handles principal songwriting, Animal Collective is an amalgamation of styles from all involved on any given record. In the case of Centipede Hz, that meant combining all four members’ individual flair into one melting pot.
Deakin believes the level playing field maintained within Animal Collective comes not just from a mutual admiration for each other’s musicianship but also the aspiration to uphold and respect the bonds of friendship that exit away from creating music.
“I think really just through years of knowing each other and just a commitment to the foundation of our friendship.”
“I’ve known Noah (Lennox) since I was 8 or 9. The four of us have all sort of known each other since we were about 17 or 18 years old and I just think that we’ve been through so much together.”
“The more that we really made sure that everybody kind of had their voice in what was going on, the better off we were. And I think at the same time there are also a lot of moments where … you do let one person kind of be a little bit of a dictator for that song or for whatever the process is that we’re going through. I think that is sort of like a flexible dictatorship in some ways, if that makes sense.”
“It just comes from how long we’ve known each other and how much we trust each other … we’ve of course had our strenuous moments as friends over the years and have kind of seen what the recipe for that was and knowing how to avoid that I think that’s where a lot of democracy comes out of that.”