Interview: Pop goes aquaticReleased last January, Merryweather Post Pavilion reafirmed Animal Collective as one of the most enduringly creative outfits of the avant-rock scene, now spanning almost one decade since the debut Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished. Even though some quarters critisized the Collective for the progressive blandness of their sound, MPP showed in fact the ability of the band (now reduced to a trio, after the departure of Deakin) to create melodic, engaging postmodern stuff starting from cartoon-like noisy material –actually, a procedure not very much unlike that of their overtly experimental early albums.
By Jorge Luis Fernandez
The winds of change were first announced on the 2004 album Sung Tongs, where the group started to jettison their electronic pulp, veering instead towards charming, eerie acoustic songs moulded in The Beach Boys' canon. The downside of that album was that both ends were slightly unconnected, making up for a difficult realisation of the entire work. In this sense, though not coming from the AC catalogue, a trademark production was Panda Bear's second solo album, Person Pitch. Released in 2007, after the musician settled with his family in Lisbon, Portugal, Person Pitch is basically an electronic album, hugely (and admitedly) influenced by the mid-to-late nineties ‘aquatic' techno of Drexcyia and the German Basic Channel label, complete with Surfs-Up melodies on top of it. Quite aquatic, indeed.
A couple of years along the way, this cohesive and wonderful album was to have an impact on Merryweather Post Pavilion, the band's forthcoming release. Avey Tare's "In The Flowers," the hallucinogenic opening track, at once treacherous and celebrating, continues with the fractured electro-psichedelia of Strawberry Jam, AC's previous effort. But the festive elements are foregrounded in the following track, Panda Bear's "My Girls," which sounds at once meditative and danceable, like a bridge between Brazilian samba and AR Kane.
Both this song and others, such as "Also Frightened," "Taste," "Guys Eyes" and "Daily Routine," owe a considerable debt to Person Pitch, marking the extent to which Noah Lennox (a.k.a. Panda Bear) has contributed to an album which, finally, seems the definitive statement of the Collective's elaborate pop bent.
PSF: The music you have been making in last years seems to have had an influence in Animal Collective's last album. How do you feel about it?
So far, the new record was probably the most fun and carefree to make of any of the records I've been a part of. I'm very happy with it and I should say it's among my favorites. It's a pretty strictly electronic album.
PSF: A good deal of the songs were already known for many people worldwide, since you've been presenting them in your international tour of last year. Did that help when it's about time to make the record?
On the contrary, we'd played the songs live so much that when it came time to record we'd lost some perspective on the songs. We'd done that with the past two records, so we were certainly wary of spending too much time touring with the songs before recording. We also wrote and arranged the vast majority of the material within a very concentrated period of time, and I think that helped give the record some cohesion.
We recorded it at Sweet Tea Studios in Oxford, Mississippi. While being there, there was a tornado that blew through town, only about 15 miles away from the studio, and we all went outside to have a look.
PSF: Going back in time, how was the transition from the initial recordings, being so intense and experimental, to the laid-back feeling of Sung Tongs? I mean, why did you change?
I don't know if there's a concrete answer, really. I'm pretty sure we change things because we get tired of doing things just one way, and because it feels lame to stick with just one way of doing things. I've found that constantly changing equipment and setups and styles helps to keep things fun and interesting. We're all pretty open minded as far as music listening goes, and I just mean to say we all can get into lots of different kinds of music.
PSF: Did you have the same spirit when, after Sung Tongs and your solo album Young Prayer, which was even more acoustic and intimate, you came up with Person Pitch, which is heavily submerged in electronics? Furthermore, I think that that's reflected in the group's live shows, where you noticiably added a good deal of electronics to your usual percussion kit.
Well, the biggest movivation was that it was easier for me to take my sampler rather than my guitar when I moved from NYC to Lisbon. I had really gotten into making rhythms on the sampler, and then playing live drums and percussion with those rhythms for Animal Collective shows. So, I felt I was already developing a bit of a process with it. But once it became the only thing to make songs with, I really got into the way it sort of dictated the process and I got into the limitations of that process, too. I should say I'm kind of tired of that way now, though.
PSF: Until recently, I didn't know you've lost your father while recording Young Prayer, back in 2002. Then, I listened again to the album and I perceived the sorrow in certain tracks. It certainly is a wonderfully intimate album, suitably permeated by a painful experience, though it left me wondering how difficult would it have been for you to produce that recording.
Well, yes, it was a very diffcult album to work on. I don't know if it was the emotional heaviness or not, but I went in and out of working on it. The initial recording went pretty fast, but once I had finished that sort of first wave, I had a lot of trouble returning to it to do the rest. The Animal Collective guys and my friend Rusty Santos stepped in and sort of took over the project; they helped me finish and mix it, and I'm really thankful for that. I wouldn't have finished it properly if it wasn't for them.
I played a bunch of shows just before I began recording Young Prayer, and pretty much I played the album all the way through, although the final mix and sequence is different than the original. I still remember sitting on the subway, going through all the little parts in my head, trying to memorize them all. I haven't played any of those songs live since then, though.
PSF: And a couple of years after that you came up with Person Pitch. And the effect, I can remember, was surprising. What still makes Person Pitch so alluring is that both the electronics and the pop song melodies overlap very nicely, never overshadowing one another. How did you reach this achievement, where both the electronics and the songs compliment so well so as to became an indivisible musical entity?
Thanks so much for saying that. I suppose I worked a lot on getting the mixes just right. I spent a lot of time just getting the groupings of sample repetitions to work well together, and to seem like one mass or chunk of sound. I feel like those repetitions ultimately got hardwired into my brain, in a way so writing the melodies became a kind of unconscious or instinctual activity.
PSF: The songs on Person Pitch, as well as the ones which made its way into Pavilion, are very moving, even spiritual, which is amazing since samples usually lend a dettached quality to the music. How did you achieve this warm sound? Had the circumstances of your fatherhood influenced such uplifting overtones?
I'm glad the music has that character. I try to make sure the things I'm singing about are very important to me in some way, and that they're valuable to relate to someone else too. It sounds cheesy and superficially altruistic, but I still believe in the process.
On the other hand, I'm sure my recent fatherhood and the feelings and emotions it inspired somehow made their way into the music, but I really can't say how. For instance, my daughter was born while I was making the "Bros" song. I felt a massive weight of responsibility, and since that time, my priorities have greatly shifted. I've become fully obsessed with owning a house, for example –for better or worse.
PSF: About Pitch, I've read an interview where you said you tried to avoid recording the vocals too low so they could be perceived by the average listener. I would say that, compared with the sampled sounds, your vocals still sound too low anyway, and that's what makes them so appealing.
Looking back a little, I can tell that our perspectives or tastes, as far as mixing goes, has changed quite a bit. Perhaps we've become more comfortable with our singing and more comfortable all over, and that means our mixes are a little less obtuse or a little less esoteric. To be honest though, these days I'm most interested in mixing the familiar and the unfamiliar –the terrestrial and the alien. Sometimes I feel like if you go fully foreign there's no common ground with whoever's listening, if you know what I mean. But providing something familiar in some ways allows for a kind of expansion and extension.
PSF: Last time I saw you onstage, I enjoyed the performance, which was kind of mantric, to the point where you were kind of lifting from the stage because of these, let's say, concentrated energies –it was absolutely clean, honest. Seeing you vocalize with eyes closed was like a spiritual experience. Do you have something in mind while singing?
As long as things are going right and sounding pretty good, I'm fully engaged in the song, trying to look for little clues and hints from the other players to work off of. I find looking out at the crowd or anywhere else really breaks my concentration and takes me out of the song, and I don't like that –I feel like the performance suffers for it.
Animal Collective used to be a lot more hectic and almost psycho in a way. But, just like the masks and costumes or any kind of physical alteration, doing that started to feel like a gimmick. It started to feel too easy. So with Merryweather Post Pavilion, I personally got really excited about the idea of trying to somehow sublimate that hectic and aggressive energy. I hoped to find a way to still make music with power, but music that didn't rely on extreme aggression or some kind of affront for its power, if you know what I mean.
PSF: By the time you made Pitch, you were already living in Lisbon. Do you think the environment has somehow influenced the new compositions?
It's hard to trace the influence, but Lisbon made its way into my music for sure. It's hard to say how I've been influenced by those things: the things you experience and the people you talk to, the thoughts you think, the dreams you have and so on. It's hard to say how all of this represents itself when you're creating. I'm sure it all gets in there somehow, but by the time it's on its way out, it's unrecognizable and morphed and mixed up with so much other stuff that it's lost its original character.
I fully intend to make new music and I started in on some songs, only to feel like I was repeating specific techniques or processes. I felt like I was taking the easy way out, if you know what I mean, and I wasn't into it. I want to wait until I've got something really new for myself, so as to make sure I'm fully invested in it.
My plan is, firstly, to find a proper space to practice and to write in –then I'll make a song or two at a time, and release them as 7" singles. I want to do very short songs because it seems like a challenge. I think I'm predisposed to longer more meandering pieces of sound, so I'm assuming doing little nuggets of sounds that I'll be psyched on will be difficult. And I like that.
Also see our article on Animal Collective's signature closing tracks
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