Animal Collective’s 9th full length album Merriweather Post Pavilion is about to drop, and it’s another joyfully skewed experimental post pop burst of youthful exuberance. The title name checks a Maryland venue where the Grateful Dead once played, and their lyrics which have become much more of a focal point in recent years take in the joys of domestic duties as well as issues of loss, the rigors of touring and of being separated from your loved ones. The music sounds fuller with a more defined bottom end than ever before, less soupy yet still quite scattered, with the vocals out in front.
Bob Baker Fish first spoke to Animal Collective for Cyclic Defrost about five years ago, just following the release of the raucous Here Comes the Indian and on the phone with Brian ‘Geologist’s Weitz he discovers that quite a bit has changed since that time. (Emmy Hennings also interviewed Panda Bear in 2007).
Bob – Some of your earlier material was pretty abrasive and extreme, though more recently it’s been less noisy and more melodic, though still very skewed. I’m just wondering if during the time of Here Comes the Indian you could have ever have conceived that your music would develop in this poppier direction?
Brian – It’s hard for a lot of people besides us to hear it in the music, a lot of the songs on Here Comes the Indian or Danse Matinee, our more abrasive records if you had heard when they were first started, when it was just Dave playing the melody on the guitar or keyboard, they all sounded like really perfect pop songs. There are pop songs buried beneath the noise in there. We thought it would come through more to the listeners, but I guess were were not thinking correctly. All of us were into pop music and we were aware at the time that we were producing it in a more abrasive harsh style with the frequencies and time signatures. I think our lives were more abrasive, it’s a good word for it. Back then we were all really poor, kind’ve lost. I’d left New York just before 9/11, but was coming back all the time because I didn’t have money and had to move in with my parents in Baltimore. All the other guys were living in these dive apartments. We were probably doing a little more drugs than people should. Life was just rough back then, It bent our minds a little just around trying to live day to day life and I think that’s reflected in our music.
Around the time of sung tongs and feels was when we all settled into moving into more of a relaxed adult life. We didn’t feel the need to bury the pop songs which we had always been doing. We’ve always made music that’s reflected how our lives feel at the time, and at that moment, around 2004 all of our lives seemed to open up and calm down a little bit. We were all a lot more comfortable as friends as human beings and were all in serious relationships. I think it was a natural feeling progression for us that our music is a little sweeter or something.
Bob – When you are making sweeter music is it actually more confronting for you because you can’t hide behind the noise and extreme sounds so much?
Brian – I think both things are confronting in different ways. A lot of people see those earlier records as really confrontational. They were never intended to be confrontational to the listener, but our lives and relationships with each other were a little confrontational. We all felt a little tweaked and insane back then and that’s really put out there on the records for sure. Maybe it’s not as easy to interpret from an outsiders perspective and now with the sweeter stuff its easier to identify with what we’re putting on the records because it’s not as hidden. I hadn’t really thought about that consciously.
Bob – I’m sorry to keep going back to this but at the time of Here Comes The Indian I couldn’t conceive of you on Fat Cat and as popular as you have become.
Brian – Fat Cat actually tried to sign us before Here Comes the Indian. We were in the middle of making it when they got in touch with us and we didn’t have the money to finish it. We actually recorded part of it and didn’t have money to complete it and it took 5 months to save up the money to go back to finish it. In the middle they got in touch with us about Avey Tare doing a split with David Grubbs and they wanted to reissue our first record Spirit They’re Gone in Europe, and we sent them the unfinished Here Comes the Indian and said would they like to help us finish this. If you sign us for those two things do you want this as well? I don’t fault them for this at all, half finished Here Comes the Indian with no vocals or anything, I probably wouldn’t have. I didn’t think it was very good yet either. We probably shouldn’t have sent it to them but we did and they didn’t like it. But they still agreed to do future stuff with us. That’s why Sung Tongs came out on Fat Cat, that was agreed to earlier. When Here Comes the Indian did come out they really liked it and said ‘maybe we should have taken you up on this, but we really didn’t know what you guys were thinking about from the half finished versions.’ I totally agreed with them. Fat Cat’s really interested in experimental music.
Bob – Sure, but I guess that success seems to have come with your change in sound. It’s still pretty crazy but much less abrasive.
Brian – That makes sense guess. As our lives became easier our music became easier and playing together became easier too. Trying to practice 3 times a week when everyone’s in a bad mood, Here Comes the Indian is what you get.
Bob – So how’s life been lately and how has this fed into your latest album?
Brian – Noah has been living in Lisbon and had a wife and a daughter, I’ve been with the same girl for a long time and getting married, and Dave’s married and this record is just the 3 of us, Josh (Deakin) wanted to take a break from the touring aspect. As we’ve got more successful we’ve also been away from home more often than not which puts a strain on everyone’s personal life in a different way and he needed to stop touring for a while and we decided to keep working on new material. Life is really good for all of us, the one thing real negative that is expressed on the record a lot is about being away from home because all of us really enjoy our home and personal lives and touring and press and what not. Not that we’re really complaining about it, we feel lucky to be in the position we’re in, but there’s no denying that when you spend between 4-6 months away from your wife or girlfriend or kid it can put a strain on things. That’s probably the most difficult thing in our lives these days that we agree at least its expressed on the record,
Bob – So how is it expressed?
Brian – It’s mostly expressed in the lyrics. Since we all live in different places these days a lot of our musical ideas happen individually when we’re at home. We all work on things at home when we’re surrounded by the home life that we find very comfortable, and then we send each other stuff in the mail or over the internet and then we come together for very short periods of practice. I think Dave and Noah and I each worked individually for a month on various ideas for this new record and then came together and put 90 percent of it together in 12 days. Then we toured with it for a year and made little changes here there but not many. The majority of the record was made really quickly. The inspiration all came from when we were home. The lyrics are the main things that expressed the negative side of our lives these days which is constant travel.
Bob – It sounds stressful knowing you have a short period of time to get your shit together.
Brian – It can be but Dave and I have been making music together for almost 15 years at this point and we’ve been playing with Noah for 12 years we work really fast and really intuitively in terms of playing together. As long as everyones done their homework like we’ll show up with 50 ideas of loops or samples or melodies or something. It’s stressful but it’s a positive thing too.
Bob – It sounds exhilarating too?
Brian – Yeah. 12 days of morning to night song-writing with no idea of what you’re going to come out with. After 12 days we have the next record. We started it literally the day after we finished mastering Strawberry Jam and turned it into Domino. And then we started 12 days of song-writing and by the end of it we had a new record. It was pretty exciting.
Bob – So the process stays pretty much the same? Take the new songs out on the road and then at some point you go out and record it and then do the same thing?
Brian – Pretty much, we keep a lot of old songs in the set these days. As a headliner we play 90 mins -2 hours and we don’t have that much new material. We like to play for a long time, we keep older songs in the set these days but we re do them or change them around a bit so they sound more like a part of the new songs we’re working on. A lot of the songs we’re going to play at the time of the album release are probably very similar to what we’re doing now. The new material we’re working on now since we finished the record is non live project, it’s a visual album with a friend of ours but it’s only intended to be heard with the visuals, it’s not intended to be performed live without the visuals. It’s going to be a DVD release and we’re going to do screenings of it which will be a change for us.
Bob – Have you felt there’s been much of a departure with the new album from your previous work?
Brian – To us it’s much more of an electronic record. It’s really sample based but it’s misleading when i say that. It’s not sample based in that we sampled other peoples music, we sampled ourselves in the practice space and used snippets of ourselves playing and making sounds turned them into loops and samples. The songs are performed mainly with samples but its us playing acoustic instruments. So I’m not sure if it’ll sound more electronic to people but to us it is due to the process. And a lot of the songs were constructed without the guitar or piano being the main song-writing instrument or featured as the main featured instrument in the song. For us for the last few records, Sung Tongs, Feels, and even Strawberry Jam, the guitar was like the leader of the pack. And Strawberry Jam may have sounded more electronic to people but that’s because we treated the guitar pretty heavily with effects, but it was still guitar as the origin of the song and we wanted to get away from the guitar dominating the song-writing process. So for us that’s a big departure. I’m not sure how it will sound to listeners, since we still sampled ourselves playing guitar sometimes.
Bob – Up until you said that it was sounding like the Panda Bear record.
Brian – The Panda Bear record is exclusively samples from other peoples music, so its different in that way. It’s not as loopy as Noah’s record. The genius of that record is that he crafted these perfect loops from these sources of things that you would never thought you could loop. A song by like Erik Satie and mix it with a King Tubby loop, that was the genius of that record, the loops in themselves and the melodies on the top of that. Whereas with this one things don’t loop in the same way, there’s loops, but they don’t dominate the song structure. They’re composed more like Animal Collective songs in a way. They sound more like part to part to part than playing live. There’s no doubt that Noah’s record was a big influence on the process of this record, he showed in the same way that Madlib has done, or Beastie Boys on Paul’s Boutique he opened up a new way of using the sampler as a song-writing tool, I think to everyone in the world, that’s my opinion. But especially for Dave and I, to see him do that record from start to finish, we were with him every step of the way hearing each song or sketch of a song as it was being made. Even for Strawberry Jam we were thinking in those terms. I don’t mean to make it seem like Person Pitch wasn’t an influence on the record because it certainly was.
Bob – I’ve been wondering why you wanted to move away from the guitars in the first place and then decided that using samples was the best way to go.
Brian – Avey Tare is the primary songwriter when we do Animal Collective material. I think he felt when he was trying to write things on the guitar or piano he had got to know them so well. He was experimenting with alternative tunings which he did on every record. He would just change the tuning of his guitar so he could find surprises in chord structures. But even that wasn’t exciting to him anymore. He was just finding that everything that he was coming up with sounded like something that he had already done or could have done on a previous record and he didn’t find it surprising or challenging in any way. That’s why he wanted to leave the guitar behind for a little bit.
Bob – Is that one of the beauties of being part of Animal Collective? If using a certain instrument doesn’t work you can just move on. It’s a lot harder to get stale.
Brian – That’s the point. we don’t like ever feeling like we’re stale. There’s certainly been moments where we’ve put something together and said that sounded too much like something else that has come out of Animal Collective before. Even some of the songs that Noah did bring to the record, I think Noah has 4 songs on this record, in the initial demo stage they sounded a lot like Person Pitch. Again Dave and I love that record, we had nothing against it, but he specifically brought them to Animal Collective. He said that he wanted to see what would happen if Animal Collective puts their hands on it and changes it and makes it into something different that sounds like us. Instead of using them as b-sides for Person Pitch singles or whatever he just decided to bring them to us, so it goes both ways.
Bob – Either that or he’d been doing no homework and had nothing to bring you so he just brought the stuff he had lying around.
Brian – (Laughs) I’ll have to ask him about that.
Bob – Is it true you used a producer for this album?
Brian – The media always calls everyone we work with a producer. We produce our own records we just hire engineers. The people we work with have been producers for other people. Scott Coburn’s produced people, Rusty Santos has produced people. Ben Allen is the most well known producer, he’s produced a lot of mainstream stuff like Christina Aguilera, he was Puff Daddy’s engineer for a while and he’s worked with Danger Mouse on the Gnarls Barkley record. We were very explicit when we hired him that we just wanted him as an engineer and he was pretty cool with that. We ended up crediting him as a co producer because after the songs were already recorded and we had done all the pre production when it came time to mix the record there were certain things that we weren’t happy with. He was really good. He had about 5 or 6 really crucial moments on the record where we were not happy with a certain part of a song and he said that he thought he could do something mixing wise to really help it out. Normally when someone does that we would say absolutely not, we produce our own records just as a principal every idea on the record has to be ours. But this time just because he came from such a different background from us, this hip hop thing we were really curious as to what his ideas were. so we would say ‘why don’t you do what you have in your head,’ and he would do it and it would be fucking awesome. So it felt like we were co producing with him.
Bob – What’s the oddest place you’ve been reviewed in?
Brian – I just did an interview the other day with National Geographic which was mind blowing to me because I’m a big environmentalist and an outdoors person. They were doing a feature on bands who’s music is connected with the outdoors and they picked us. And to think of all of the people who read National Geographic that would never stumble upon the name Animal Collective anywhere, that’s pretty amazing to think about.
Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavillion is out now on Domino.