Animal Collective: The Theory Of Evolution

The members of Animal Collective have always been a mischievous, shape-shifting medium for primal psychedelic pop and weird-science sonics. Can they survive growing up, playing straight and turning pro? By Stuart Berman

When you talk to Animal Collective, certain words keep coming up: “natural,” “energy,” “feel” and the band’s preferred term of endearment, “dude.” The words are consistent with the image Dave Portner, Noah Lennox, Brian Weitz and Josh Dibb put across in their publicity photos: lots of trees, lots of greenery and, when the mood strikes them, bunny suits.

But these days, a conversation with Animal Collective is just as likely to include words such as “balance,” “focus” and “professionalism.”

“I must apologize,” says a genuinely remorseful Lennox from New York City at the onset of an interview that begins two hours late. “My phone ran out of batteries, which was really stupid and unprofessional.”

You don’t expect a great degree of punctuality from a musician who calls himself Panda Bear. However, there are several justifiable reasons as to why Lennox’s phone is low on juice. For one, there are frequent calls back home to his wife and child in Lisbon, Portugal, where the Maryland native has lived since 2004. Then there’s the fact he’s been on the phone promoting one album (Animal Collective’s Domino Records debut, Strawberry Jam) while touring in support of another (his highly acclaimed solo release, Person Pitch).

“I feel like I spread myself a little thin,” says Lennox. “[Animal Collective] played a show in New York last year, and the next morning I got on a plane, flew all night long and went right to sound check at a Panda Bear show. I was like, ‘What am I doing?’”

By his own admission, it’s probably too soon to be talking up Strawberry Jam, which, at the time of our conversation, is still three months from release. But with band members spread out over different cities (Lennox in Lisbon, Portner and Dibb in New York, Weitz in Washington, D.C.), musical projects and day jobs, long lead times are not a journalistic courtesy so much as a logistical necessity.

“Right now, we’re practicing in Lisbon so Noah doesn’t have to leave his daughter any more than he has to,” says Weitz a few weeks later, on the eve of a summer European tour. “Strawberry Jam is going to require a lot of time away from home, more than the lady and the cats and I are OK with. But one of the reasons we signed with Domino is that when we explained our family situations, they looked us in the eye and said, ‘OK.’”

While it’s unlikely that a band as willfully odd as Animal Collective will join the chart-topping ranks of Domino’s biggest sellers (Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand), the signing nonetheless represents another step up in a seven-year, six-album career that’s seen the group’s audience expand with each release. But anyone expecting Strawberry Jam to extend the easygoing vibes of 2005’s Feels will be taken aback by the album’s abrasive electronic frequencies, jarring structural shifts and frayed-nerve tension. If Strawberry Jam feels less immediately accessible than its predecessor, it’s all part of a process in which to repeat is to admit defeat.

“We’ve always tried to do whatever was most exciting at the time,” says Lennox. “We’ve been lucky to have a slow, natural ascent. At first, we were forcing our music on people, and a lot of people just hated it … People still do.”

UPON ITS FORMATION INTHE POST PAVEMENT/PRE-Strokes void of 2000, Animal Collective looked less like an indie-rock band than a group of hyperactive kids electrocuting themselves at a science-fair display. Onstage, the group took to wearing pagan-cult masks and nerdlinger head lamps, while randomly swapping instrument amid a messy tangle of wires, effects pedals and deconstructed drum sets.

“How we act onstage gets interpreted in a lot of different ways,” says Portner. “It goes from a childhood-regression thing to people calling us shamans to the point where some people think, ‘Oh, they’re being weird because they can.’ I wish people would realize we’re just being genuine onstage. When we started playing in New York, we were inspired by bands like Lightning Bolt and Black Dice. We just wanted to put that kind of energy into our live show but to interpret it our way and not feel like we were ripping those bands off.”

While its peers approached noise from a post-hardcore/metal perspective, Animal Collective was more enamored with the music’s non-aggressive qualities, namely its liberating, transcendental power. Where so much transgressive music is born out of rebellion, the members of Animal Collective didn’t really have much to rebel against: They were all raised in the peaceful, bucolic suburbs of Baltimore by loving parents who enrolled them in alternative high schools.

Lennox and Dibb attended the Waldorf School of Baltimore, spending time on the weekend or after school making up songs and recording them together. Weitz and Portner were enrolled at the Park School of Baltimore, where Dibb eventually transferred and befriended the pair of former Deadheads, bringing Lennox into the fold.

Says Dibb, “When I met Dave, he really opened me up to a side of music that I had seen in glimpses before but had never really looked at as intensely as he had: the texture, the otherworldly quality.”

After finishing high school in 1997, the four friends went their separate ways. Portner and Weitz went to college in New York (NYU and Columbia, respectively); Lennox enrolled at Boston University, while Dibb attended Brandeis University in nearby Waltham, Mass. But by 2000, all were living in New York, with only Weitz making it to graduation.

“Our parents didn’t really get [our music],” says Portner. “They were like, ‘It’s just a phase. They’re going to college and will get careers.’ But music just became an obsessive thing. I was like, ‘Why am I even in college? I’m not getting anything out of this. People are cheating on their tests, and I’m passing exams without even having to study.’ It took a while to get trust from my family that music was the right thing to do.”

To be fair, you could sympathize with the elder Portners. For one, their son’s fledgling band didn’t even have a real name, its members instead playing under an assemblage of weird aliases: Portner’s “Avey Tare” was derived from his first name, after a “tear” removed the letter D; Lennox dubbed himself “Panda Bear” after putting a drawing of one on the cover of his first cassette release; Weitz was labeled “Geologist” after a friend mistook his college major; Dibb took “Deakin” from an e-mail pseudonym.

Their first two efforts—2000’s Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished and 2001’s Danse Manatee—were simply credited to the members who appeared on them: the former is an Avey Tare/Panda Bear collaboration, the latter a trio effort with Geologist. (Dibb’s initial involvement with the group was as its distributor, releasing Spirit through his Soccer Star label.) The records’ merging of skewed psychedelic pop and piercing electronic drones initially posited them as heirs to Mercury Rev’s cracked kaleidoscope. But onstage, the nascent group was a different beast entirely, performing all-new material or presenting old songs in radically different, more abrasive forms.

“They weren’t really playing many traditionally structured songs at the time,” says Carpark label head Todd Hyman, who met Lennox and Portner in 2000 when they were stocking the racks at NYC record store Other Music. “You’d have two guys onstage with just a guitar and drum, wearing masks and costumes, screaming and giving it their all. That kind of extreme emotion made a lot of people uncomfortable and confused.”

Under Hyman’s auspices, the group founded the Paw Tracks label to release its music, both in collaborative and solo formations. In 2003, Paw Tracks issued Here Comes The Indian, the first album to feature Portner, Lennox, Weitz and Dibb together. (It was also the first to bear the name Animal Collective.) True to the group’s amorphous nature, Indian was even more abstract and cerebral than its earlier efforts, but that was to be expected: With Dibb and Weitz playing a greater role in providing (as the latter puts it) “weird sounds and loops,” it was inevitable that Portner’s and Lennox’s voices would recede into the textures.

“Dave describes our collaborative process the best when he speaks of each of us as producers,” says Dibb. “It’s about looking for the essence of the song, then fleshing it out in whatever way seems most positive.”

“The whole band puts their personality and their sensibility into everything we do together,” says Lennox. “Without one person there, it’s a pretty different thing.”

Animal Collective’s next release would strongly emphasize this point. Amid a period of upheaval—Weitz moved to Arizona to finish a master’s degree in environmental policy, while Dibb temporarily left the band to work as a carpenter—Portner and Lennox recorded Sung Tongs, released on FatCat Records in 2004.

Emerging at a time when Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart were becoming dorm-room favorites, Sung Tongs turned Animal Collective into unwitting spokesmen for the New Weird America, a tag reinforced by its subsequent Prospect Hummer EP, which was recorded with British psych/folk siren Vashti Bunyan. But the stripped-down arrangements on Sung Tongs were less a product of freak-folk fashion than a simple circumstance of pared-down membership.

“We weren’t having a lot of fun playing with each other, so I decided to move away and go back to school,” says Weitz. “When I came back, Noah and Dave had written Sung Tongs, and you can’t really jump into an album in the middle.”

So did Weitz and Dibb feel left out when the album they didn’t appear on became Animal Collective’s international breakthrough?

Says Weitz, “After playing with those dudes since the mid-’90s and having heard virtually everything they’ve ever done musically, I found it so refreshing that they could still amaze me.”

“I had gone through about a year and a half of working very hard as a carpenter,” says Dibb. “Though I loved it, I really missed the energy of playing with those guys. It just seemed really natural. In no way did the success of Sung Tongs factor into anything.”

By the time Dibb and Weitz returned for Sung Tongs’ tour, Animal Collective had abandoned acoustic idyll for the electric psych/rock stomps that would define 2005’s Feels. The LP was its most immediate work, capturing the momentary group-hug excitement of friends who didn’t get to see that much of each other: Lennox had relocated to Lisbon with his Portuguese wife, while Weitz moved to D.C. for work.

Spurred by uniformly enthusiastic critical notices, the album’s momentum climaxed with a rapturous, capacity-crowd South By Southwest showcase last year that effectively confirmed Animal Collective’s arrival on the indie-rock A-list. Reminiscing about this pinnacle, all Lennox can say is, “Pretty weird.”

WHILE ANIMAL COLLECTIVE’S STORY UP TO THIS POINT reads as a triumph, by the time the Feels tour ended in summer 2006, the band was in broken spirits: Dibb’s father had passed away unexpectedly, and the completion of the band’s two-album deal with FatCat cast some doubt over its future.

“The period after Feels was a turbulent limbo in a lot of ways,” says Weitz. “Our record contract expired, we all lived in different parts of the world, we had to travel a lot just to practice with each other … There was a lot of stress and uncertainty.”

With considerable regret, the band decided not to negotiate a new deal with FatCat. However, the upgrade to Domino was motivated not by fame, but family.

“I won’t lie,” says Lennox. “Part of it was financial. I’ve got a kid to worry about. That’s made me way more aware of what I’m doing musically. I don’t really have any leeway to screw up. Before, if I fucked up, the only person who was really going to suffer was me. But now, I have two other people who will be bummed out if I don’t do a good job, and that makes me way more intense about it.”

That said, Strawberry Jam—recorded in Tucson, Ariz., with Feels producer Scott Colburn (Arcade Fire, Sun City Girls)—is hardly the sound of a band desperate for a hit. On one hand, the gauzy glow of Feels has been displaced by a deliberately dry presentation that puts Portner and Lennox’s slanted sing-alongs up front in the mix, while providing, as Lennox puts it, a “chiseled” separation between the tremoloed guitars, carnival-like sound effects and relentless bouncing-ball drum beats that form the songs’ wobbly foundations.

“For me, it’s the darker side of the [Feels] coin,” says Portner. “It’s about trying to find an individuality amongst a lot of things going on in life, like playing music and trying to make money and live with everything going on in the world right now. I started writing a lot in Paris right after we recorded Feels, and I was in a really lost, confused place, wondering what I wanted to do in terms of being involved in music professionally.”

While Portner was off soul-searching in France, Lennox was chilling in Lisbon, pondering the mundane machinations of his domesticated lifestyle. Like the extended psych/pop reveries heard on his solo Person Pitch, Lennox’s Strawberry Jam contributions suggest a considerable debt to Brian Wilson, an artist Lennox claims to admire if not idolize. However, the real similarity is not in their voices, but in their celebration of the simplistic, with Lennox’s “Chores” making household duties seem as fantastical an act as the Beach Boy did with eating vegetables.

“A Portuguese style of life definitely makes sense to me,” says Lennox. “Lisbon is like vacation time—I’m not on tour or working—so it’s nice to be in a place where I don’t know anybody, it’s really slow-moving and the coffee is really good. A lot of the stuff I sing about now has to do with having a kid and all the responsibilities that come with it. Pretty simple, boring stuff.”

While they’re emboldened by Domino’s support and enthusiasm, both Portner and Lennox say they have no idea how Strawberry Jam will be received, whether they’ve gone too pop or too weird. And then there’s that matter of balance: of maintaining their free approach to making music while the infrastructure around them becomes more regimented; of supporting the wife and kids without spending too much time away from them; of trying to make a living from their music when more and more people want it for free via the Internet.

“Touring is not the easiest thing for us,” says Portner. “We’re all homebodies. Noah’s married and has a baby, I’m married (to Kristín Anna Valtysdóttir, formerly of Icelandic post-rockers múm), and Brian’s had a long-time girlfriend since high school, so there are other aspects of life that are important for us to devote time to.”

In lieu of touring and traditional promotion, Portner sees potential in film/video projects. But Lennox, ever the pragmatist, is more willing to navigate the slippery slope of commercial licensing. Earlier this year, the group lost little sleep when Sung Tongs track “Sweet Road” appeared in a Crayola commercial.

“I had a couple of kids say, ‘I was really upset by that, I never expected you to do something like that,’” says Lennox. “But the aesthetic seemed to fit, and we liked the fact our music would be heard by kids … I guess it’s fair to say I care more about providing for my family than having artistic integrity with a certain group of people.”

While such admissions won’t win Lennox points with indie-rock ideologues, like any once-feral organism, Animal Collective is simply learning to adapt to an increasingly treacherous cultural environment. The only certainty is uncertainty. Upon Strawberry Jam’s completion, Dibb once again took leave of the band.

“As a clarification, it isn’t a matter of quitting,” says Dibb. “It was a difficult decision, but I think it’s essential for all of us to take care of our lives as a whole, whether that means balancing touring and home life or taking a break entirely, as I am doing.”

But for Animal Collective, such changes are opportunities for reinvention.

“We’ve already written the post-Strawberry Jam album as a trio,” says Weitz. “Animal Collective is structured as such that anyone can jump in or out for an album if they want. Even if people go their separate ways for a while, we’re still best friends. We’ll always enjoy jamming with one another, even if it’s over e-mail.”