“There is no one to show me how, meow.”
Here is a band who uses the frequencies other bands throw away. Every one of their songs eats away at you and eats away at you until finally, you find yourself on your knees somewhere, in the middle of the night, looking for your ears.
The truth: If you don’t enjoy flirting with madness, you will probably find this band somewhat rude. Otherwise, their music will make your day.
Animal Collective’s newest release, Prospect Hummer, is a collaboration with recluse ’70s folk singer Vashti Bunyan, which sounds like a bizarre connection, and it sort of is. Many people have tried to describe the album by lumping it into the avant-garde folk movement, which includes artists like Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and Six Organs of Admittance; but I would only be able to compare it to Sung Tongs, their previous album, which I can’t compare to anything. I could say that there is a lot of acoustic guitar and voice, which is true, but I would be painting a very flawed, very incomplete picture.
In addition to these albums, Animal Collective has released four previous experiments, including Spirit They’ve Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished, Danse Manatee, Here Comes the Indian and Campfire Songs. Each one sounds radically different than the previous one and deconstructs pop/rock music from a completely different angle. It’s also worth mentioning that two of the members, Panda Bear and Avey Tare, have released separate projects (Young Prayer, Jane and Terrestrial Tones), and that the whole band loosely runs the label Paw Tracks, which has recently put out the newest Ariel Pink album.
As far as I know, the band is scattered around the world, so I can’t be entirely sure where the responses were coming from, but the interview took place via email, over two months in the spring. At one point, they even quoted Yeats.
“We like liquidy sounds.”
ROSS SIMONINI: What is your general approach to songwriting? Is it recording-based? And what I mean by that is: do you write the material as you record it, in the studio? Do you go for mood first, then song? Or is it more like the typical singer-songwriter, in-a-room-with-a-guitar method? Because your new material definitely sounds like it came from both methods simultaneously.
GEOLOGIST: We use all approaches. A lot of songs start with the singer-songwriter approach, where someone comes in with a song and then we all filter it through our own minds and come up with parts and it usually ends up being a lot different from where it started. And sometimes we pick a mood and jam and then work on turning it into a structured song (i.e. “Two Sails on a Sound”). And sometimes we start with some kind of atmospheric sound loop and use that as the base and create a song around it (i.e.“Wastered”).
It’s rare that a song will start with computer composition because we do very little of it, almost none at all. But it has happened, once or twice. Mostly though, we write material and then play it live for a long period of time before recording it, and what happens to the songs over the course of a tour plays a big part in the recorded versions, which aren’t necessarily the final versions, because then if we continue to play a song live (a rare occurrence) we will try and change it even more. “Kids on Holiday” is a good example of that.
RS: I’ve heard some reviewers talk about the “improvisational” quality of your music. But it sounds pretty compositional to me. All of your songs — including the longer, ambient pieces like “Visiting Friends” — seem more like structured compositions than improvisations.
GEOLOGIST: It’s a big misconception that most of our live sets are improvised. Almost everything we’ve done has been composed. The only things we improvise are the transitions between songs, because we like to play continuous sets. Even songs like “Visiting Friends,” “Infant Dressing Table” and “Two Sails...” have loose rules and boundaries to follow. They do have a compositional structure. In some of those ambient songs there is also room to improvise the mood of the song; so two versions can be very different. But it doesn’t really matter to me how it comes across. I mean, it’s nice for people to know that we work hard, know what we’re doing, and that there is intent behind it, but ultimately I just want people to be stoked on what they hear. I don’t think knowing the process behind it should be that important to the listener.
RS: Some of the songs (like “College”) have sounds that seem, maybe deceptively, like water or footsteps or “music concrete,” but I’m not entirely sure. Do you use many found sounds or field recordings? What is your general approach to creating the Animal Collective vocabulary of sounds?
GEOLOGIST: Yes, we use lots of them — found sounds, field recordings, electronics, feedback. You are right that a lot of times they sound like something they are not. We like liquidy sounds, but it’s often something different than just a stream or a faucet. But I won’t really go too deep into our approach on a technical level — I’m not trying to be secretive or anything, I just can’t think of an ordered process. It’s more like having fun and thinking about how a sound fits with the mood and color and feel of a song. We just use our bunch of effects and play around. Again, very little computer manipulation. We like turning knobs and faders and such. We’ve been doing it since high school, way before the laptop explosion, and we just stayed old school for the most part.
RS: At this point in the history of music, what do you think the boundaries are? What contemporary musicians do you think are pushing them?
GEOLOGIST: Well, our friends are mostly the ones who are inspiring me. Black Dice, Gang Gang Dance, Orthrelm, etc. People usually link us with the freak folk people, but we’re not really a part of all that. We don’t know any of them too well and have never really played together, nor do we listen to them that often. None of us are “folk” fans in the traditional sense. Joanna Newsom is really fantastic though.
As far as the boundaries and the future of avant-garde, I have no idea. I don’t think the people who reach that next step are thinking about it either. That process of searching out new boundaries to push in order to be the next avant-garde seems too academic for me. People should just do what they want to do, and if it happens to be something that pushes the boundaries, then that’s sweet. If you are just trying to do something to be different, but feel no personal attachment to what you are creating, then that’s a shame. If it’s not something you would respond to on a deeper level, why would anyone else respond to it?
RS: What about your own boundaries? As musicians who create new sounds, what are the limitations you find yourself fighting against? What are your musical crutches?
GEOLOGIST: I would say the only boundaries we fight against are ourselves and our past. But it’s not too hard. We consciously try and move beyond what we’ve done before. Well not necessarily beyond, but away from. There are certain instruments we like, but I’m not sure they are crutches so to speak. We obviously like vocals, guitars, pianos, electronics, and percussion. But we try and change the dynamic between those things from record to record in order to explore more musical possibilities. If we create something that reminds us too much of something we’ve done before, or that we think could easily fit onto a past album of ours, we abandon it. We’ve covered that ground already, and it’s time to look forward. I think we used to have a little too much tendency to rely on synthesizers, but we haven’t used them prominently in years now. And I rely far too much on minidiscs to create my loops and samples. I don’t know how to use a sampler or a computer for music, but maybe I should soon. I went to buy blank minidiscs the other day at an audio store and the guy laughed at me. Then I went to Guitar Center and bought the last five they had in stock. I think they will disappear soon, which is sad because they rule.
“That’s basically what playing music is about for me, being alive.”
RS: To what degree do you want your lyrics to be understood? Obviously, there are certain songs where the lyrics seem to be obscured by vocal techniques or effects or mixing. Do you like using the voice as more of an instrument, with words being secondary to tones? Do you think words can ever distract a listener from the music? Do you think language and music are even suited or unsuited for each other?
AVEY TARE: In my perfect musical world a person could understand the lyrics or not understand the lyrics as they wanted. Initially, with writing music that included vocals, it was primarily the goal (and still is) to have the voice be seen as another instrument, as having a very integrated role in the overall scheme of a song. Though our song writing has become a little more focused on vocals than it had been in the past, it would still feel awkward to only focus on hearing the lyrics. Just as we like sounds to fit in with the color and feel of a song, I’d say we approach vocals in a very similar manner. Since “Sung Tongs” was a lot less effected and more minimal, it was the first time we could really use the lyrics as a guide to the color and the feeling of the tunes. It’s fun to think of characters taking you through these environments we are creating and speaking to you about what’s going on and have the lyrics hint at the sounds and maybe even mess with your mind a little. For our new record I think it’s the first time where the lyrics are basically from my point of view. I guess I just feel like I wanted to say something and that’s the way it came out.
But the music and the vocals will always be very attached and I think, most of the time, the lyrics get lost in the sound anyway, which is fine cause I don’t necessarily think lyrics are that important to getting into a song, as long as the feeling stays intact and the emotion doesn’t get lost — though it’s nice to think that people could know them if they wanted. Bands like My Bloody Valentine or Lightning Bolt or Wolf Eyes, even Nirvana are examples of bands that have gotten away with mastering the full effect of a song without necessarily having the vocals be heard perfectly. And yet you still know they are there and they convey a certain feeling that fits with the song. I think language blends itself perfectly to making music that’s primarily sound-based, because you can manipulate words and phrases just like you can manipulate sounds. Lyrics don’t even have to make sense so much as words and letters sound good with the way I write a song.
RS: Do have any specific themes you focus on? I know you said that you are more concerned with the phonetics of words, but are there any reoccurring ideas? There are quite a few animal references — kitties, tigers, bats, rabbits, penguins, manatees, etc. But is there anything else?
AVEY TARE: Mostly, I focus on what’s in my head and in my heart at the moment. I guess these things are affected by a combination of my dealings and feelings with my friends. What I read and a lot of what I just see around me. “Kids on Holiday,” for instance, is basically just about Noah (Panda Bear) and I getting used to traveling around and playing music and what it’s like to be traveling so much and feeling tired and all the kinds of people you see around you moving. Moving for work, moving for pleasure, moving for nothing.
But I read a lot of mystical literature, and surrealist literature and I watch a lot of twisted films, so I think my viewpoint is kind of skewed by these things and the words come out like they do. But in a nutshell, it’s about being alive, you know? That’s basically what playing music is about for me, being alive. It makes me feel alive and it gives me a chance to talk about how I feel about being alive. I think it’s a shame cause most singers today just turn themselves into a cliché and that’s what they think a singer is supposed to sing about. I don’t really care at this point and I don’t really care if people like or hate my lyrics. I want to write something that sounds good with the music we make and that makes me feel good to sing about. I do hope others can relate to what I say, if they can hear it, but really I’m just talking about what’s in my head and trying to say what life is like to me.
The animal references are just sort of arbitrary and happen to come up here and there. “We Tigers” is not about tigers. “Who Could Win a Rabbit” doesn’t have anything to do with rabbits. And so on. Most of the time these are just catchy song titles. A good song title is important to me and I like to give the tunes the best possible name. Noah actually thought we had too many animal references on Sung Tongs and didn’t want to be those “animal guys.” So we are trying hard to stray away from that, I guess, but usually it’s not that difficult.
RS: You mentioned surrealist literature, mystical literature and film as some non-musical arts that have influenced you. Can you talk a little more specifically about some of your other non-musical influences? Are there any writers or filmmakers that create moods you are attracted to?
AVEY TARE: “I have always sought to bring my mind close to the mind of Indian and Japanese poets, old women in Connacht, mediums in Soho, lay brothers who I imagine dreaming in some medieval monastery the dreams of their village, learned authors who refer all to antiquity; to immerse it in the general mind where that mind is scarce separable from what we have begun to call the subconscious; to liberate it from all that comes from councils and committees, from the world as it’s seen from universities or from populous towns.....” (Yeats)
-sweet writers... Laxness, Walser, Breton, Lowry, Nabokov…
-sweet books... The Untammables, We, Indian Tales, Hopscotch…
-sweet directors… Jorodowsky, Tarkofsky, Ferrera…
-sweet films... Color of Pomegranates, Shadow of our Ancestors, any Russian fairytale from the 1960s, Spirit of the Beehive, Eyes without a Face, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Come and See, Valerie and her World of Wonders, Dazed and Confused, House (Japan, 1977), Woman in the Dunes, Onibaba, The Shinning, Possession (1980s), Deranged, Ganja and Hess....
“Hello here I am, I’m the first track.”
RS: The ordering of the songs on Sung Tongs creates a very distinct narrative throughout the album. Using “Leaf House” and “Who Could Win a Rabbit” as the first tracks, creates an impression that is completely obliterated by the final tracks. Both of those first tracks are probably the most concise, song-formatted tracks on the album. What was your intention with the flow of the album?
AVEY TARE: Some album orders just fit like a glove, you know? I know it’s kind of cliché to say, but it’s hard to put it any other way. Usually the first track kind of just stands out there and says: “Hello here I am, I’m the first track.” And we’re all like: “Yes, indeed you are.” We sort of just knew that “Leaf House” would be the first track as soon as it was done cause of the way it just takes off. We were lucky in that after that the flow just sort of put itself into place. I think we chose those first two tracks to start it off cause they gave the record a sort of joyful momentum that none of our other records had surfed on till that point — and that’s primarily what we wanted the record to stand for: “good times.” It kind of just starts rolling you know? After a few more songs we felt more comfortable taking it into darker territory with “Visiting Friends” and playing around a little more with the weirder songs. Then “Whaddit I done” kind of just closes everything really nicely. There really isn’t a verbal plan though, you know? It’s all about hearing what’s right and sometimes that’s easy and sometimes it’s not so easy. It’s hard when you want to keep certain feelings distant from each other you know. It’s hard to know when it’s best to bring things down and then pick it up again. A lot of it has to do with how we play live and I think, because of the way we think about our live sets and the way they flow so much, it can make things easy and difficult. Easy because sometimes you know that certain songs are just meant to be together. Difficult because sometimes we have to tell ourselves that the album is a different beast then playing the songs live, and we shouldn’t approach it that way.
RS: The difference between Sung Tongs and Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished and Here Comes the Indian is so significant, that I would imagine some general parameters were set before recording/writing. When you begin recordings, do you make any conscious attempt toward certain overall sounds? Obviously, every record from every band changes slightly, but with your records, it seems as though a specific, thought-out experimentation was put into effect.
GEOLOGIST: I think it’s more accurate that we make a conscious effort to move away from a sound that we have already explored on previous albums. We do not like to repeat ourselves and spend time and energy on something we have already explored. However, we have also made conscious efforts to move towards certain ideas and sounds. For example, Campfire Songs was a conscious effort to explore acoustic guitars and outside recording. Danse Manatee was a conscious effort to see how noise and pop could be combined and how frequencies occupy space. It is not often that we set rules or parameters before we play, though it does happen sometimes.
RS: What do you think about hate? Do you think it’s possible to hate a human being?
GEOLOGIST: Sure, I guess it’s possible to hate a person. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced true hate. Every time I have felt hate it has been the result of my own feelings of jealousy or insecurity. I may not have been aware of that at the time, but looking back I think that was the case. Maybe if I knew someone like Hitler, I could experience it. But in general, I think hating is a waste of time. Especially when it comes to art. I obviously have lots of opinions about art and tend to rant sometimes. My girlfriend can tell you how often it happens and how annoying it can be. But I’m aware of it, and usually keep it to myself or to people like her, who know me best. I never criticize anyone’s taste, even if I disagree with it or think it’s worthless. I try and use the phrase: “It’s just not my thing” as often as possible. I hate things more than people or art. Like I hate moving and I hate break-up, and I really hate words that have the letters L and M next to each other - almond, palm, calm, psalm.
RS: Can you talk a little about the current state of Animal/Paw Tracks records? How is the label connected to Animal Collective?
GEOLOGIST: It is a misconception that we sit in an office all day running Paw Tracks. Our friend Todd, who also runs Acute and Carpark, offered to help us run a label where we can do whatever we want. He deserves all the credit for running it day to day and getting the records distributed and reviewed. We don’t do shit except decide what is released and, as you can see, we don’t release much. We have pretty high standards. We want it to be a place where we can do our own projects, aside from AC-stuff, but we also want to put out other people’s music. That’s the hard part. There are tons of great bands out there but they usually already work with labels, or there are labels that already help out the style of music that a band plays. We’ve tried to put out people like Ariel Pink and the Peppermints who, as far as we’re concerned, don’t get the attention they deserve. Hopefully, we’ll find more worthwhile projects. Right now we don’t get out much to see other shows and stuff.
RS: Finally, I’m curious how the Prospect Hummer recordings worked, in terms of songwriting?
AVEY TARE: I think Prospect Hummer happened at a time when Vashti was still very unsure of herself and of stepping back into the recording/public domain side of the music world. Though we all think she has the most beautiful voice ever and created one of the most beautiful records ever, her confidence had been shot a little at that point because of unfortunate experiences with the music industry. I think it took some time to regain that confidence but we tried our best to stand behind her the whole way. It was our original intent to have the project be fully collaborative though we had written three of the songs — the first two were basically Sung Tongs outtakes — on our own. So we sent Vahsti the music and the lyrics and told her she could contribute whatever she wanted. But she was still a little shy in terms of her guitar playing, so she basically just sang. But ohhhhh what a beautiful job she did.
Image of Animal Collective courtesy Robin Laananen