Never By Numbers: Animal Collective learn to play like the Ramones

When Animal Collective premiered their new album at Baltimore Airport, it made sense: the local band have always been in transition.

Members shift, locations change, no album sounds the same — even the songs on those albums can shift with a wild unpredictability. What better place to debut their latest creative travelogue than at an international airport on one of the biggest travel days of the year? It was a surprise, but what isn’t surprising is that even after 15 years, Animal Collective still are finding new places to go.

Their latest album, Painting With, finds the current trio (as on Merriweather Post Pavilion, Josh “Deakin” Dibb is sitting this album out) challenging themselves with sounds and ideas they’ve intentionally avoided on previous albums. Avey Tare had a distaste for saxophones in rock music, so the band forced themselves to find a way to make it work. The result is a contribution from experimental musician and saxophone juggernaut Colin Stetson. John Cale also appears later on the album with his distorted viola. As a response of sorts to their previous album, 2013’s dense Centipede Hz, the band aimed for immediacy — short, direct songs that channeled the simple rush of the Ramones and early techno.

Perhaps the biggest change is that none of these songs has been played live yet. Resisting the band’s usual tradition of developing songs on tour before heading into the studio, Painting With was made in reverse, with a world tour to begin next year. I sat down with Animal Collective last month to talk about the self-prescribed challenges of Painting With, the excitement of releasing an album no one has heard, and what it’s like to have long-time fans now playing their albums for their own kids.

“We used early Ramones as a touchstone – really direct, succinct songs”

I revisited the whole discography while listening to this album and I was always struck how you guys are able let go of whatever came previously — which can be a really difficult thing to do for bands. Is that as easy as you make it look?

Dave Portner (Avey Tare): No, I think having some separation in between the releases, and just the writing process and the fact that it’s been three years since we worked on the record, that definitely helps to clear the air a little bit. But it’s definitely a conscious decision to work as hard as we can to move in a different direction. It takes a lot of planning and talking and having ideas and talking about how we can do it and hoping the ideas work.

There’s a momentum this album keeps up that makes it really easy to get swept up in the energy. Some of your albums have tracks that allow you to catch your breath a little, but this one is like a pure shot of adrenaline. Did you go in with that idea or did it turn out that way in the process?

Brian Weitz (Geologist): I think we went in with that idea, and like you said, not having an ambient or ethereal downer, kinda ballad song on the record. That’s why we used early Ramones as a touchstone. I think that confused some friends of ours when we said that because they were expecting kind of a dirty punk record — but what we really meant was a record that just starts and has these really direct, succinct songs, bursts of energy that just keep it moving and before you know it you’re onto the next song, onto the next song to the end. And we wanted to do something shorter – 40 minutes is short for us, three-to-four minute songs, tops. Just keep it going, as you said.

Noah Lennox (Panda Bear): It’s good to hear you got swept away with the energy though, that was the hope.

Noah, in an interview back in 2007 you explained that whoever writes the words usually sings the main melody. Considering both of your voices are so blended and symbiotic on this album, did that come from a change in writing?

Lennox: Well, it was actually quite a bit different this time. It kinda marks the first time that Dave and I both wrote vocal parts for the other person to sing. So for Dave’s songs he wrote all the vocal stuff and for my songs I wrote all the vocal stuff, so it was kind of a change of pace this time around.

What was that experience like?

Lennox: I can’t speak for Dave, but it was tricky. It had to be super specific how the two voices worked together so it was sometimes a little tricky to get the right rhythm or combination to make them dance in a way that suited the song. It wasn’t always easy. Actually, once we’d written the parts it was a lot easier to nail the takes then I thought it was going to be, but the writing took a bit of doing here and there.

Portner: I think it was about finding the rhythm of the vocal part first and deciding on how the melodic element was going to flow through the rhythm in a way that the two vocals went to make that one vocal part. So it was like separating the rhythm into two parts that would make the melodic element of the vocal line.

Lennox: And choosing the right words that had a really specific rhythm to them, in terms of where the consonants hit and what not, that was real tricky as well.

This album includes John Cale and Colin Stetson. How did they come into the fold? You guys have such an essential chemistry, did you find things to be different when other people came in?

Weitz: Normally before we make a record the earliest part of the process is texting and emailing each other with thoughts, ideas, YouTube clips. Dave had this idea of taking something you have an aversion to and challenging yourself to work it into a song in a way that you like. We’re all a little sensitive to saxophone in rock music, so one of them was “maybe we could find saxophone”. So when we talked about the bridge [in ‘FloriDada’], we talked about taking out the keyboard and using saxophone to replace the drone that would hold down the notes for the chords.

We’re all big fans of Colin’s stuff, I think it was during Centipede Hz we first heard some of his solo stuff. His style is so unique and it doesn’t necessarily sound like traditional saxophone and he can achieve trancier stuff that we like, similar to Terry Riley. We thought that would be a good entry point, to bring someone who makes a style of music that none of us can do into the song.

Why are horns like that so intimidating?

Portner: I think it’s just the sound, specifically for me, the sound of the saxophone in traditional rock and roll has never been something that’s very pleasing. I think it’s just the texture of it and the way it’s been used before. In older rock I can get into it, like Phil Spector where it’s just this little rhythmic add-on to songs here and there.

Lennox: Like a stab.

Portner: Yeah, while something as elaborate as ‘Baker Street’ [laughs], I mean, it’s a good song, but I find the sax part hard to deal with.

Weitz: You know the Saturday Night Live skit Sergio? It sorta feels like that.

Portner: I really like it in jazz music. It was just finding a good balance.

Lennox: It felt like sort of a fun challenge to incorporate it into the music in a way that felt real or genuine instead of just a tacked-on artifice.

Animal Collective
Photography by: Hisham Akira Bharoocha & Abby Portner

“When it came down to wanting more organic percussive sounds we’d use chairs, we’d use the floor, stomping and clapping”

You guys have such a specific chemistry with each other. What happens to that dynamic when a new person is introduced?

Portner: [It’s] definitely really intimidating. We communicate in a way that’s very specific to us and how we approach music, and it doesn’t always translate to another musician’s style or the way they’ve come to their instrument or how they write songs. So it’s always a little scary and uncomfortable. And especially ’cause when we’re in the studio it’s this time we have that’s very personal to us – we haven’t really hung out in other realms and we just kind of let loose and get really weird and joke around a lot. It’s weird to have an outsider come into that. But after an hour or so of getting into the groove of things, in all examples of how we’ve done it it’s always worked out for the best.

When I was reading about the album, I got curious about the baby pool that was in the studio. That ended up becoming a musical element on the record?

Weitz: We’re attracted to a studio by its instrument collection. It pushes us to use sounds we haven’t really used before, but this studio really only had a piano in the room, it didn’t really have any instruments we could use aside from what we brought — which was a lot of stuff, a lot of electronic stuff. So when it came to wanting to put down some more organic sounds to make it feel a little more grounded, the only thing we really had was the piano. So for more organic, percussive sounds we’d use chairs, we’d use the floor, stomping, clapping, and because the pool was a hard plastic kiddie pool it turned out through experimentation that it sounded good recorded. It wasn’t the water aspect of it, more the side of it that we used mostly.

What’s it been like recording before playing these live?

Weitz: It’s definitely been different and interesting. On one hand, I was a little nervous because I would use the live process to tell me if a part was boring or I could do better, so having to commit to a decision really early in the process was intimidating. But in the end, I liked it because I also wasn’t precious about anything. There was no set order or set way the song had to be in my mind because of a way it sounded to me on stage. When we play live we all have different monitor mixes [and] different ideas of how a song is supposed to sound — like whose parts you hear and what you follow in a song — and you can become attached to that and feel precious about it. So not having any of those attachments was really freeing.

I also think, we’ve talked about wanting to have more restraint in records where you don’t play, let others take the focus. When you write for the stage there’s an energy you want to be a part of and because people are looking at you, you don’t want to step back and take a break. You feel inspired to keep going. Writing for the studio you don’t have any of that, it’s more, “how does this part sound, regardless of whether I’m playing or not?” And it’s like, “yep it’s done, I don’t need to add anything here”, or you do, but those decisions are influenced purely by what you’re hearing in playback as opposed to what’s happening live on stage.

Lennox: There was another intent to doing it that way. At least in the past bunch of years, it seems like it’s common for people to come to the shows and record them and pass around the recordings on the internet. Which is a great thing, and I think we like that a lot. But it also means that people’s first impression of the song is that live version or live recording, and then when the studio version comes out one can get attached to that first impression so I think it was exciting for us to present a version where the studio version is the first impression. The jury is still out on that, but we’ll see how it works.

Weitz: Yeah, we talked about that in the studio. Noah mentioned it earlier, it’s something similar to what bands can have in the studio called “demoitis”, which is when you make a demo of a song and practice to it and listen to it a lot before you go into the studio so you’re familiar. But eventually you stop thinking of it as a demo and then you go in to track it and you’re like, “ah, it’s not as cool as the demo,” and you have to learn to let that go or choose to put out the demo. I feel like what Noah’s describing is that our fans get demoitis, we get demoitis, from the live versions of the songs. So freeing ourselves, and maybe the audience, from that this time might be an interesting experiment.

Feels turned 10 last month, and last night I was actually listening to the concert you shared recently from Chapel Hill in 2004, just before the album’s release. Did you have a chance to reflect on that amount of time passing?

Portner: It kind of just creeps up, for me at least, realizing [about] Sung Tongs first, and then the Feels 10 year [anniversary] coming shortly after that. Noah and I recorded Sung Tongs at my parents’ place, and just visiting with them a lot and talking to them about what was happening forced me to think about that time. It just creeps up.

Weitz: I think we had some text message conversations around that Feels concert. Dave thought about releasing a show and asked who had one on hard drive. But it was more factual things, like, what was happening this night? Do we need ask anyone for permission to release this? And a little bit of “wow, I forgot that part of that song existed” – parts we cut out that I hadn’t thought about in 10 years. I don’t think it really resulted in, “wow, getting old guys!” Though we do say that to each other sometimes.

It made me think less about you and more about the fans who you reached then. To my generation that was still in high school or just starting college in the late oughts, you guys were like big brothers we watched grow up. Painting With is the first album a lot of those fans might now be playing for their own kids. Has that occurred to you?

Portner: Yeah, it started happening at shows where kids would come up and be like, “I just want to say you guys have meant a lot to me in the last few years, I first heard you when my parents were listening to you,” and doing a double take like, “What? We’ve been around that long?” It’s possible for a kid to be raised and listened to something as far back as Spirit They’ve Gone from their parents hearing it back then when it came out. It’s pretty wild.

Weitz: My wife’s best friend actually married someone who listened to us in high school, he’s a little bit younger than us, and just hearing him talk about being at our shows and listening to us and being fans of Black Dice — that’s like sometimes when I say I feel a little old, you can’t escape that. Thinking about these times that we have very specific memories of from inside the band and having someone relate to them from a completely different age – when you maybe just process music different at the age of 18 than 28 or something – I guess we don’t have too many conversations with people about that, so it’s definitely weird.



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