How Animal Collective Harnessed Its Primal Instincts for ‘Painting With’

(L-R) Dave Portner (Avey Tare), Noah Lennox (Panda Bear), and Brian Weitz (Geologist) are the current lineup of Animal Collective

(Left to right) Dave Portner (Avey Tare), Noah Lennox (Panda Bear), and Brian Weitz (Geologist) are the current incarnation of Animal Collective. (Tom Andrew)

Fifteen years and 10 albums add up to a whole lot of history for a band. But Dave Portner, Noah Lennox, Josh Dibb and Brian Weitz are no band. Thinking about the Animal Collective as a shape-shifting creative consortium instead of a fixed number of members functioning in pre-set roles is more than just a semantic choice of words. This trippy, mythical pop collective is every bit the tribe they appear to be, creating together since high school and sonically bound ever since.

To make music for such a sustained period inevitably means looking back and smelling the flowers, a ritual that Animal Collective’s new album Painting With performs with respect and admiration for their prior work. The sparse, drum-circle percussion of 2004’s acoustic Sung Tongs has been recaptured, albeit with the electronic harmonies that they molded from noise on 2005’s textural masterpiece Feels, further refined on 2007’s Strawberry Jam, and evolved into full-blown electronica on 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavillon.

‘We don’t want to be preachy, we’re always a little wary of being U2.’—Geologist

Painting With hits you with one succinct blast of tuneful jubilation after another; tracks like “Natural Selection” and “The Burglars” conjure melodies that are immediately affecting yet slow to reveal their larger concerns. Part of this comes from Animal Collective’s seeming desire to write lyrics that speak outward to the weird world at large, positioning them as shamanistic cultural seers, a role for which they’re perfectly suited.

Guitarist Josh Dibb, who goes by Deakin in the group, sat this one out to put the finishing touches on his long-gestating debut solo album. Dave Portner, who goes by Avey Tare, has also released one solo album and one album with his band, Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks. Noah Lennox, who goes by  Panda Bear, similarly wrapped up touring the world in support of his fantastic fifth solo LP, Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper, just last fall. This collective mentality allows all members to live and create all over the globe without drama, often working on their own projects and collaborating remotely across vast distances.

Brian Weitz, who goes by Geologist and is the only member of Animal Collective who doesn’t sing, is also the only member without a solo musical project. Named for his signature miner’s light he affixes to his head in order to see his gear in the dark, Geologist always spends an Animal Collective show enveloped by synths and samplers. The Observer spoke with Geologist about space and time, the ebb and flow of a communally creative process, and the life’s work of a mystic ethnobotanist who believed that mankind’s advent of speech was sparked by one neanderthal’s run-in with hallucinogenic mushrooms. Geologist spoke thoughtfully and measured during our conversation, ready to get back on the road and pleased with this newest incarnation of the collective that has emerged from the primordial ooze.

Hey man, how’s the press tip going?

I haven’t had an interview in a little while. We’ve been rehearsing for a tour up until last week, then we’ve been snowed in with the blizzard here.

Tell me a bit about rehearsing. This was a reverse process to how you guys typically play live, feel it out and then record. Is it weird stitching everything back together now?

It was weird initially, because we were practicing at home by ourselves and needed to figure out who was doing what part while playing along to the record. It’s not hard to play along because everything is there and you don’t hear any holes, but when you get together in the room you hear that this or that is missing. Your brain has to get used to two singers and not multi-tracked vocals and harmonies. It took us a few days to wrap our heads around the idea that these are not gonna sound like the studio songs. In some senses they will, I mean we’re using the same synthesizers and beats and stuff. But we’ve got a live drummer with us, because we wanted the sounds to sound more organic and human, as opposed to touring for Merriweather where the beats were all on backing tracks and whatnot.

It sounds like you have all those electronics but still keep the warmth and immediacy of the earlier albums, that drum circle vibe of Sung Tongs. I also hear some Devo on that song “Natural Selection,” obviously the big hit single. What were you all listening to that informed this one?

(Laughs) I don’t know if we were all listening to one thing. When we got together to work on the writing and arrangements, we hadn’t seen much of each other for a year. Dave and I saw each other maybe once a month when we would do this DJ tour in 2015. They weren’t big money makers, we’re not the kind of DJs that can demand a lot of money or anything, so they were basically financed hang-out sessions. They would always be on a weekend, so we’d all meet in Philly and get on the train or rent a car then go to Baltimore or New York or D.C. on a weekend.

‘Every time it was a reunion of really good vibes. We’re very close friends, but even close friends can’t live on top of each other. It’s asking a lot of a relationship.’

I saw you guys do the DJ thing at Brooklyn Bowl, it was a lot of fun.

Yeah, some of our fans weren’t psyched on Brooklyn Bowl but our manager knows the owner because they’re big Deadheads, that guy was putting together the Dead reunion shows and we love the Dead, so it was fun. They’re always giving us huge fries and a pitcher of beer. We would get an Airbnb in the neighborhood and see a lot of friends in New York. So that’s all they were, they were social events, but it really got Dave and I in the mindset. In the beginning we weren’t great DJs, I think we sort of got better as the year went on. We learned how to beat match better, it was about keeping the energy going.

We were in that headspace when Dave and Noah were talking about what they were interested in from more of a songwriter perspective. Normally we try to do these long, five- or six-minute stream-of-consciousness songs that are really repetitive and trancy. But recently Noah had been listening to the first Ramones record, and he was really into the urgency of punk records. Short, concise, energetic songs—no ambient or sad, slow songs. Dave was feeling that too, and it kind of worked with the mindset we were in anyway.

It was our responsibility to keep people dancing for two hours, so that’s where it all came together. But I don’t know if there was one particular group of records. In the past we could say we were all [into] Burial or something, I don’t know if there was one thing we were taken with. Other than the Kendrick record, but even that was something we listened to while we were recording. Because we were in L.A. and we had to drive every day.

(L-R) Brian Weitz (Geologist), Dave Portner (Avey Tare), and Noah Lennox (Panda Bear) are the current lineup of Animal Collective

(L-R) Brian Weitz (Geologist), Dave Portner (Avey Tare), and Noah Lennox (Panda Bear) are the current lineup of Animal Collective. (Tom Andrew)

It’s a great L.A. record.

Yeah, great L.A. record.

Traveling has always been part of the Animal Collective MO; I remember reading years ago how you guys would send each other demos online and start structuring songs when you weren’t all in the same place. You guys premiered “Floridada” in the Baltimore airport where you’re all from, and that got me thinking about how long you’ve known each other. What’s changed and stayed the same knowing these dudes for so long, and how does travel affect the relationship?

I think we’ve figured out that time and space work for us. We’ve felt that way for a few years, and we finished Feels in that way. During the Feels era we split apart the most, I think. Noah went to Portugal and I went to D.C. for a job, halfway through writing that record. Finishing that record and touring it was always super-fun, and that continued for the most part through Merriweather. We’d be separated from each other and only see each other when we were working on new music or touring.

Every time it was a reunion of really good vibes. We’re very close friends, but even close friends can’t live on top of each other. It’s asking a lot of a relationship. And for Centipede Hz we actually went back to a communal thing. We all had families and children, wives or live-in girlfriends, [but] we were like, “let’s all live in the same city again for a cycle, go to practice every day like showing up at the office.”

‘We don’t really want to be like one of those bands you have to be on drugs to get, because we’ve always liked to think we have more to offer.’

There were good things about it, but we all realized when we all have more meditative physical and mental space, it’s always better. This record started with us sending demos to each other, sending demos in Garageband or Protools for someone to put a layer on top of it. We worked on about half of the songs that way and finished the arrangements together. But working together in the studio and practice space when all of us were in the same room was just better.

Everyone was really calm going into it because they had their own time to digest songs and think about their own parts in their own way. It’s not like we can’t stand each other, and for the studio time we all lived with each other for six weeks, and then mixing…we spent two months this summer living together, sharing a house. Going to work with each other every day, not seeing our wives and children.

That kind of closeness seems helpful to the process itself, you just need time after to ebb and flow.

Exactly. I think that closeness was necessary to the process, but it only can be that intense if it’s buffered by a before and after, if the majority of my time is regular life.

Let’s talk about you being a dad a little bit. Has it changed your mental state when you get together with the dudes, be it creatively or maybe a sense of diplomacy and how you approach songwriting?

I don’t know if it really influences us creatively so much, but weirdly I think the kids will like this one. Kids respond to this record, at least my kids do. Noah’s kids don’t like Animal Collective much, but my kids like it.

Geologist in his trademark set-up.

Geologist in his trademark set-up. (Photo: Courtesy of Animal Collective.)

I remember reading a feature with Noah where he said his kids don’t like any of his music.

Noah sings, so I think his daughter gets embarrassed because you can hear him singing outside his apartment building, out the windows and stuff. His daughter’s older than mine, she’s at the age I think where you’re embarrassed by your parents. My kids aren’t yet.

How old are your kids?

My daughter’s about to be 2, my son’s 5. They’re still at the age where they don’t get it. They see my synthesizers around the room, and I make sure they don’t hit the save button. But other than that, they’re allowed to play with it, so to them what I do is really fun in the band. They’re like, “Oh, daddy makes weird noises and they sound like spaceships!”

When we’re kids we’re generally trippy little people, we like weird things. I was thinking a lot about Terrence Mckenna and language when listening to this record, his theory that our human speech and language derived from coming into contact with psychedelic mushrooms. If you had one trademark sound on all these records it’s the gurgly speak. Is that something you guys think about? Language seems important to the group, and I’m not sure most people think about how trippy it is that we make these sounds with our mouths that come out into words we’ve all agreed on have a collective meaning.

This is one of those subjects where I think it’s convenient to connect the dots, but not always what’s actually going on. It’s unconscious. We all know Terrence McKenna, well, I don’t know if Noah knows. He’s kind of the least into psychedelic culture. He’s more into pop music and video games and techno. I don’t know if he’s as into the Terrence McKenna, mushrooms and extraterrestrial tip. But the rest of us definitely know it. We’re interested in all of these things. Dave and I did a lot of psychedelic drugs when we were younger.

‘We try to make our music psychedelic, [though] we’re still not even really sure what that word means.’

At the first studio we ever rented with our high school band, when we were barely 16 years old and did our first seven-inch, I remember the guy told us what Ayahuasca was and started talking to us about alien languages and DMT. It seemed crazy to us at that point. We were doing acid and mushrooms, and that was fine for eight to 12 hours, many years later, of course. But we’d never heard of that before. We thought, “Man I don’t know if I could handle that.” Then we started getting into experimental records.

Is that a stigma that dogs the band now, the “trippy” label?

I’m comfortable with it. We don’t really want to be like one of those bands you have to be on drugs to get, because we’ve always liked to think we have more to offer. And Noah’s only done acid like once. That’s it. But whatever…I mean, we try to make our music psychedelic, [though] we’re still not even really sure what that word means.

When Merriweather came out there was this publicized incident where some mom drives her kid to an Animal Collective concert and was so freaked out, saying you were speaking in tongues and playing the devil’s music. To me that sounds like the peak point of saturation and subversion. The people who get what you’re doing are going to get it, but the people who don’t are always gonna be confused.

Yeah, and to go back to the garbled language stuff, when we were attracted to that in high school we were getting into experimental music, and things like Automatic Writing by Robert Ashley a little later, and I Am Sitting In A Room by Alvin Lucier. I think about where the language became garbled, and it was very psychedelic to us, not being able to understand speech. But I don’t think in our conscious minds we connected it to Terrence McKenna, maybe it came later once we learned about McKenna and thought, “Hmm, maybe there are other reasons!” But I couldn’t say for sure.

Avery Tare.

Avery Tare. (Photo: Courtesy of Animal Collective.)

Well the reason I’m thinking back to him and prehistoric times and the origin of speech is that there’s this dinosaur motif on the record, that sample about dinosaurs at the beginning of “Hocus Pocus.” When you told Pitchfork about having a primordial kiddie pool in the studio, was that just about you all bonding together over a nice image? Was there more of an artistic metaphor there, or just something you thought was kitschy and fun?

A little bit of both. As soon as we started writing we knew the three of us were maybe gonna do this record without Josh, and so we talked about it. Every incarnation of Animal Collective relates to itself in a very specific way, and primitive rhythms have always been a thing that comes out when the three of us play together. We talked about how we want the rhythms to feel primitive and caveman-y, not like the other electronic rhythms that are more popular now with EDM or IDM. We wanted this to feel more pounding and chuggy, chugging along and propulsive. We talked about this idea of an electronic drum circle.

Maybe that’s why it makes me think of Sung Tongs. Makes me feel like I’m 18 again.

Thanks, I’m glad man. It’s the rare band that can make someone feel like a teenager again when they’re not.

‘We’ve figured out that time and space work for us.’

Not in a stupid or naïve way. Just with regard to that thrill of discovering something for the first time. There’s so many of these moments on the album that first seem cryptic to me but make a lot of sense. There’s that Gregorian cadence in “Burglars.” “What you think you own you don’t.” Did Dave discuss these lyrics with you at all?

Yeah. I mean, “Burglars” takes what’s happened with the financial system recently. A lot of what Dave and Noah did with this record lyrically was, they didn’t wanna write about themselves. A lot of the lyrics are often, “I’m feeling this because this is what’s going on with my life,” but with the last few records it’s almost a little bit more like we’re older, the world’s a bigger place and we’re bringing kids up in it.

And we don’t want to be preachy, we’re always a little wary of being U2. But things like violence or taxation, is there a way to discuss them with our own personal spin? “Burglars” is a lot about theft or burglary as something that’s present in all forms of life, you know? It happens with the banks, it happens with the government, it happened with the debt systems…but it also happens with a snake that steals eggs out of a bird’s nest. It happens on all levels. The impulse is something very primal.

How Animal Collective Harnessed Its Primal Instincts for ‘Painting With’