After sell-out Belfast gig US psych-rockers talk about finding success, their diverse influences and the streets of Baltimore
2009 is barely a quarter old but already looks like being the year of Animal Collective. Back in January, Merriweather Post Pavilion debuted at 13 in the US Billboard Album 200, now ‘My Girls’ has given the Baltimore psych-rock outfit their first hit single, and former Creation head honcho Alan McGee has said they have the potential to be as big as, eh, Hall and Oates.
‘It has been a really surprising year so far,’ says David Portner or Avey Tare, who is not the only member of Animal Collective with a silly sobriquet. Ahead of tonight’s sold out Belfast gig, the last of their European tour, I am also joined by Geologist (AKA Brian Weitz), while in an adjacent room Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) sits tuning a ukulele. The quarter’s final constituent, Deakin (Josh Dibb), is at home in Maryland, taking a break from recording and touring.
Melodic, eclectic, ecstatic, challenging. No end of adjectives have been used to describe Animal Collective’s almost ineffable sound over the course of the last decade. While Merriweather Post Pavilion, their 8th studio album, retains the ambition and euphoria of predecessors like Sung Tongs and Strawberry Jam it adds something new to the mix - accessibility.
‘It is definitely mellower than our last couple of records,’ admits the affable Portner, who speaks with both passion and alacrity, in contrast to Weitz’s less frequent and more measured interjections. ‘We wanted a more even balance between all the frequency ranges on this record. I think that makes it more palettable, rather than having lots of heavy guitars in the mid-range.’
Ever since the sprawling soundscapes of their 2000 debut Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’re Vanished, Animal Collective have wilfully cultivated a reputation as sonic adventurers - a trend continued on Merriweather Post Pavilion when the band decided to work with Ben Allen, a hip-hop producer who engineered Gnarls Barkley's 'Crazy' and worked for P Diddy's Bad Boy Records.
‘We liked the way Ben captured Gnarls’ sound,’ explains Weitz. Though the group have always produced their own music they had no qualms about recording with Allen: ‘We didn’t know how to record things in that urban style. So we wanted an engineer who technically knew how to manage low-end.’
The result? Well, the guitars certainly have been toned down, and an omnipresent booming bass now augments the Beach Boys-esque harmonies that typified earlier Animal Collective albums, and Panda Bear’s sublime 2007 solo record Person Pitch. Songs like 'Summertime Clothes' and the infectiously catchy 'My Girls' also mark a shift away from overly dense, complicated song structures that characterised previous records, and alienated many would be listeners.
‘In the past maybe we had a bunch of things bleeding together in the mix, which didn’t give us a lot of freedom to get everything clear,’ Weitz admits, though he maintains that the records were never wilfully opaque.
‘We have always wanted everything to be heard. Maybe on (2005’s) Feels it was a bit more about having things blend in but on (2007’s) Strawberry Jam we wanted everything to be heard, really defined, and also to gel together.’
Smoother and more direct than previous efforts, during the recording it became apparent that Merriweather Post Pavilion would be the release that moved Animal Collective out of cult sections in music stores across the world. ‘We didn’t go in there expecting it to happen or planning it to happen but there was a moment of surprise when we just said to ourselves ‘this is good’,’ he says almost sheepishly. ‘It took us as much by surprise as it did other people.’
Success may have snuck up quietly on Animal Collective but the more they talk, the more they seem at ease with it, and themselves. ‘We have not changed,’ Portner maintains. ‘It (Merriweather Post Pavilion) still feels like us to us, still feels personal.’
Making music that is both personal and challenging has been Animal Collective’s raison d’être since their schooldays in Baltimore. ‘In high school pretty quickly we got into psychedelic music and movie soundtracks. From early on we were all about making music that could create environmental pictures,’ Weitz says.
Portner recalls fondly the playful experimentation of their early efforts. ‘Brian and I would set up strobe lights in our basement, use a lot of delay, and just make these crazy hour-long jams. Eventually we started incorporating different elements of these noisescapes and fusing it together to create something new.’
Animal Collective’s expansive, 60s influenced early efforts contrast sharply with the violence and decay of their locale, late 90s Baltimore. But the urban dystopia portrayed in TV show The Wire, which currently runs on BBC, seems to have had little impact on the group’s formative stirrings. ‘We all grew up in the county, well outside the city. It was woods, farmland and lots of countryside,’ says Portner.
‘There were little DIY clubs in bad neighbourhoods in the city. When we were in our late teens going to shows there the people organising them would be very protective, saying things like, ‘OK, everybody get inside, you can’t really hang out on the street.’ But for the most part we grew up in the suburbs.’
The urban element of Animal Collective’s music reflects the influence of New York more than Baltimore. After dropping out of NYU and Columbia respectively, Portner and Weitz were joined in Brooklyn by Dibb and Lennox, who both left Boston in 2000. It was only then that the group really moved beyond their basement, playing live shows in venues like the Mercury Lounge and releasing Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’re Vanished.
Although often compared to Radiohead, Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips, Portner argues that Animal Collective’s most influential contemporaries were those circulating through New York at the time. ‘We were always listening to stuff that was going on around us. People like (avant-garde Austrian electronic musician, Christian) Fennesz, (New York experimenters) Black Dice or even something as over the top as (uber abrasive noise-rock duo) Lightening Bolt.
‘One thing about older psycheldic music is that it was a melting pot of many different styles of music: world music, jazz, free jazz. That is something we try to be a part of. We try to let all of our influences infuse into what we are doing but for them to come out through a filter that is us.’
That Animal Collective manage to distil such diverse styles into a sound that is recognisably their own is all the more impressive given that each calls a different city home. With Portner in South Brooklyn, Weitz in Washington, Dibb in Baltimore and Lennox living with his wife and child ('My Girls') in Lisbon unscheduled practice sessions are a physical impossibility.
‘I don’t think living apart is a problem,’ remarks Weitz. ‘It’s not a common thing for us to play together, so when we do we are so excited it does not feel like work at all. We do not have to force ourselves to play, we want to. That has to be beneficial.’
For Portner this distance is integral to the band’s musical progression. ‘It allows us to be influenced by different things and to bring all that to the next record.’
What shape the follow-up to Merriweather Post Pavilion will take remains to be seen, but for now Animal Collective are busy getting used to success, and the attention that accompanies it.
‘We’re starting to get recognised a lot more,’ says Weitz. ‘But hey we’re not the Beatles.’ Nor are they Hall and Oats, but finally Animal Collective are getting the credit their music has long deserved.