Animal Collective Are Making Dance Music That Isn't Dance Music
We speak with Panda Bear about connecting the dots to Baltimore House, sampling 'Golden Girls', and more.
Throughout their decade-plus in existence, Animal Collective have maintained a dedication to busted electronics and genre-defying experimentation. Panda Bear (Noah Lennox), Avey Tare (Dave Portner), Geologist (Brian Weitz), and Deakin (Josh Dibb) have built a career out of following their most gnarled impulses, but recent years have found them in the limelight more than most absurdists. Their 2009 album Merriweather Post Pavilion even netted them something resembling mainstream success—tracks such as "My Girls" and "Brother Sport" resonated with a broader audience while still generating critical acclaim. 2012's Centipede Hz feels like a statement resembling a Max Headroom pirate broadcast, especially when bookended by the new LP Painting With—an album anchored to a central dynamic between primary vocalists Lennox and Portner, streamlining a tonal palette away from the more live-band-based approach of Centipede Hz. There's a playfulness on Painting With. It's silly in parts. It's easy to forget, amidst their artfulness, that Animal Collective are a fun band, built on the deep-seated joy of longtime friendship.
Over the phone from Lisbon, Portugal—his base of the past 11 years— Lennox is humble and self-effacing, inclusive when it comes to talking about the band (he refers to Dibb as part of Animal Collective, despite, as with Merriweather Post Pavilion, his absence on Painting With). His voice softly spoken in comparison to his records, a far cry from the ecstasy of his band's music. Read below for a measured discussion of their dizzy new record and the dancefloor roots of his band's digitalist euphoria.
THUMP: "FloriDada" introduced us to Painting With, Animal Collective's 11th studio LP. Has Dadaism always been an influence for Animal Collective?
Noah Lennox: I certainly couldn't say it was for me personally. To be perfectly honest, I didn't really know too much about the whole Dada thing before this record. Then of course Dave had the song title, so I had to figure out a little bit about it. The truth is, I'm kind of an idiot when it comes to the visual side of it. Maybe in some other ways too.The general aesthetic of the album is a dramatic shift from the abrasiveness of Centipede Hz, was it difficult to make that transition into something with more of an aural sheen?
Time obviously makes the transition easier. The thing with this one is that there are three of us, and with the last one it was four. When the amount of people making sounds changes, that's the toughest thing about it. Trying to figure out how you're going to fill out the sounds with various people, how the sounds are delegated. That takes a bit of work. These songs were the most defined than any songs we've done before, in terms of the demos. With the vocals, they kind of had to be, because there was precision with how the vocals had to work on a lot of the songs. In the past, it was a case of, "Here's what I'm doing, here's what I'm gonna sing, it would be cool if you could sing something here," but that person was left to their own devices on how to put themselves into a song. This time around, just because of how we wanted the vocals to be, it kind of had to be clearly set out from the outset. This is the first time we've written vocal parts for each other. That was tricky.
Let's talk about that vocal delegation. There are tracks like "Summing the Wretch" and "Line in the Grass" where there's this separated, stuttered harmony between you and Dave where the same syllables are divided, or multiplied, between the two of you. How did you construct that dynamic?
The idea of trying to write music for two singers where it felt like one vocal part, but if you take one of the things away the song doesn't work in the same way. I feel like Dave and I ultimately took that idea in slightly different ways. Ways I hope complement each other. I feel like his are a bit more of one person doing it one way and the other person doing it that way, bouncing back and forth. The two songs you mention there are two of the ones I supplied. I should rewind a little bit. The first time I tried to figure out my way of doing it was on a Panda Bear song called "Boys Latin" around two years ago. That was just a lucky thing I stumbled upon I guess. I liked the way it sounded. I wanted to see if I could take that idea a little bit further, to see how far I could push it, how malleable it was. I wanted it to sound almost like a delay effect. Or almost taking a straight harmony and shifting it forwards or backwards in time. It doesn't sound just like a delay effect because the notes are different in the voice. That was the target.
It has a real hyped up atmosphere, I can connect the dots a little bit to Baltimore House.
You make danceable electronic music, but it bears little resemblance to dance music. Is dance music still an influence?
I feel like I can speak for all of us when I say it's been massively influential for us, particularly Chicago and Detroit strains of dance music. I don't know if any of us are super interested in doing our own version of that music, but for me, I would like to try to make something like that, but I don't know if it would come across as if I have something to add to that conversation. I do feel we have elements of that type of music, but it's not an overt nod. But I hope the spirit of that music comes through.
You mention Chicago and Detroit, but there's a more recent movement with Baltimore Club. Are you attuned to what's happening on the dancefloors in your hometown?
I'm not out there in the club, unfortunately for me. There's no conscious reference, but now that you mention it, I can trace parallels between qualities of that kind of music and our music. It has a real hyped up atmosphere, I can connect the dots a little bit to Baltimore House.
I don't want to make the claim that you're the first band to sample Golden Girls on record, but it's a goofy, literal opening to "Golden Gal". Are you having more fun with samples this time around?
Having done music that was based on samples in the past, I don't think any of us were super interested in retracing our steps. I can't remember who it was, I think Dave is mostly the catalyst for that kind of sample stuff on this one, so I'm guessing it's him—but my memory is real fuzzy. I remember talking about if we were using samples we wanted them to take over the song or have their own specific unique moment in the song, right in front. Doing something like that, it has it's own narrative in a way. With "Golden Gal", there's the TV show and the "Wipe Out" sample on "FloriDada", it's this tiny little space that colours the song with so much that would be impossible to bring in any other way. I feel like that was the impetus to use the samples in that way.
You've always had these great pop sensibilities, but they've always eschewed pop trend. Are you listening to what's happening in the mainstream?
All of us do, but I feel like out of the four of us, I'm the most psyched to hear what's out there at the moment. Or to put it another way: I'm the least crate-digging kinda guy. I'm a musical dunce in a way. I find it most interesting to see what's out there now, spending time on the internet seeing what people are doing. Whether that plays out in the music, that's hard for me to say. Whenever there is something with an obvious musical influence, our instinct is to trash it completely, or manipulate that influence in a way so that it becomes invisible. I hope that there's no obvious theft, but sometimes you can't help it, I suppose. Things don't come from nowhere, is what I'm trying to say.
You mentioned earlier how a vocal technique you discovered with your solo work as Panda Bear made its way onto Painting With. How much inter-pollination is there between each of your solo projects and Animal Collective?
I think the other guys would say the same thing—none of us would want to do it too much, just doing the same thing over again. But in terms of gear setup, that carries over quite a bit. My station is going to be a modified version of what I do for Panda Bear, maybe with less sample gear. You can't help but have one thing bleed into the next. Hopefully what you learn on the last thing helps you make better decisions on the next thing.
There's a certain rhythm in your releases, alternating between LPs and a follow-up EP. Is there an EP epilogue to Painting With?
We got some extra songs, yeah. I'm not totally sure how we're gonna get them out. I don't think it will be on an EP style thing. But there will be definitely extra songs coming out.
Painting With is out Friday February 19 through Domino.
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