Animal Collective is a group of restless, kindred souls. David Portner (Avey Tare), Noah Lennox (Panda Bear), Brian Weitz (Geologist), and Josh Dibb (Deakin) all met in elementary and junior high school in Baltimore, bonding over bands like Pavement and The Cure. Though they only started referring to themselves as Animal Collective in 2003 (when their label pressured them to find a unifying moniker), they’ve been releasing music together since the late ‘90s; some of their earlier work has been retroactively given the AC stamp. The lineup is far from rigid, though. Over the years, most AC projects have come from different configurations of two or three members of the group, with the full four-piece only coming together occasionally.
Through radical experimentation with live performance and the pop form, Animal Collective has gathered a dedicated fanbase that mythologizes the group and generates its own lore surrounding the constantly shifting cast of characters. The members of AC fan the flames by limiting their public personalities and the information they attach to their releases. When they started playing live shows together, they wore tribal masks onstage, though they dropped these over time, fearing they’d become too gimmicky. But they’ve successfully maintained the mystique that helped them create intrigue in their early years.
Part of the pleasure of seeing an AC show is that it’s a different experience every time. The group is known for dropping brand new music on tour, when most bands would be peddling their most recent projects. This month, they’ll spend two consecutive nights at The Music Box Village, where they’ll play music composed specifically for the venue’s architecture, a series of impermanent structures that make noise in a myriad of unorthodox manners. The shows will differ from each other as well, even if the “setlist” stays the same. I caught up with AC’s Avey Tare to discuss the upcoming shows and how his band has managed to stay fresh as it forges on into its third decade.
I want to preface this conversation by saying I have a strange relationship with Animal Collective. You guys were the first live show I ever saw; like, without my parents.
Oh, wow. How old were you?
It was the summer before I went to high school so I would’ve been 14. It was at Celebrate Brooklyn at the Bandshell in Prospect Park.
Oh nice. That’s a good place. What year was that?
It would’ve been summer 2009.
Nice, so we would’ve had that weird shark thing going on. That was our first attempt at a grandiose visual spectacle.
I definitely remember the spectacle. And after that, the next concert I went to was blink-182 and Weezer a couple weeks later, and it all spiraled downward from there. So you guys were the best show I saw for a very long time. At least until I got to college.
That’s good to know.
The lineup was you guys, Black Dice, and Dâm-Funk. And Dâm-Funk pulled out a keytar at one point, and I remember thinking it was the coolest instrument I’d ever seen.
[Laughs] Yeah, that was wild.
Y’all are pretty notorious for playing new music at your live shows, which is an interesting tactic on a few different levels.
I mean it’s changed over the years. But yeah, I guess that is what we’re known for.
From a commercial standpoint, you’re basically previewing all the time rather than selling the album you’re currently touring for. But it seems to have worked out for you guys.
Well, it works out and it doesn’t work out on a night-to-night basis. We started doing it because that’s just what we knew—making new music and taking it out there and playing it live. For us, that is the live experience. There’s gotta be a side to it that’s not programmed. After you learn songs and play them for a while, they tend to become routine, which is why we’ll stop playing songs after they’re released, or after we tour them for a while. Some people are definitely bummed out by this because they get to know us through the records and they obviously attach themselves to certain songs, and they may not get to hear those songs live. So that’s definitely the downside of it from a fan perspective. But we’re into the live experience being something that we all experience together—something that’s new. Even if we’re playing old songs—especially if they’re old—we want them to feel fresh when we play them live. So if you want to look at it from a commercial standpoint, it’s not good in terms of selling the record as a product, but it’s definitely allowed us to set ourselves apart from other bands. Going out there, we just want people to be able to experience something special. And if you’re not into it, that’s understandable. But we feel very lucky that we’ve found a fanbase that gets us.
“We didn’t want there to be a band leader. We didn’t want all the ideas coming from one specific place.”
I know you guys aren’t all about marketing to specific parts of your fanbase, but now that you’re ten albums in, does it ever come up during the recording process?
I mean at this point, yeah. There’s more looking back, and I feel like the fans who’ve been with us for a while and know the bulk of our catalog can go, “Oh, this kind of reminds me of this, or this sounds like this.” There are certain traits and certain instruments we stick to. I feel like we’re known for switching it up from record to record, but we do know what types of songs will gear towards a more “mainstream” crowd, if you want to call it that. And we never make anything based on that, but we’re pretty aware of it, because we’ve been doing this for a while now.
From a creative standpoint, playing new music and improvising live isn’t typical for a pop or rock band. Do any of you come from a jazz background?
No, not at all. I had a hard time when I was younger getting into jazz, especially the freer aspects of it, more from an instrumentation point of view than a melodic or structural perspective. But I’ve always appreciated free music. None of us are trained in jazz, but in high school, Brian [Weitz (Geologist)] and I especially really got into freeform noise music, experimental music, avant garde music, whatever you want to call it. It’s hard to put a name on that stuff because it’s all so different. And the Grateful Dead, obviously. You’ve probably heard that we’re fans of the Dead. They’re a highly improvisation-oriented band. So tastewise, coming from those areas, we’ve grown into that. When we all started really focusing on Animal Collective, the way we would play with each other and the way we started writing was with a freer element, because we didn’t want there to be a band leader. We didn’t want all the ideas coming from one specific place. We wanted to be diverse and not easy to pinpoint. It started happening without us talking about it a lot, but it felt right. We started playing and just making it up as we went along. And we took that approach to playing together, sort of blurring the line between being free-from and actually writing music.
How does that change when you collaborate with other musicians outside the band? You guys have described yourselves as an “insular group,” but you’ve worked with a fair amount of outside artists through the years. What do you look for in the folks you choose to collaborate with?
It’s really just an easy-going attitude or a mood that gets set. The people I’ve collaborated with outside Animal Collective were already close friends. I always feel most comfortable collaborating when there’s already another type of relationship happening, whether it’s a friendship or a love relationship. Over the years, we’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with musicians we love and respect, and that’s had its challenges because it’s not something we’re totally used to. Like you said, we’re insular and we have our ways of communicating with each other, but luckily, we’ve been able to expand here and there and work with other people.
On your solo album, Eucalyptus (2017), you have your ex [Angel Deradoorian] singing on the last track, “When You Left Me,” which is essentially a breakup song. That’s an unusual collaborative choice, I’d say.
I mean the thing about that for me is that a song like that has so many feelings going into it. And Angel and I also played together in the [Avey Tare’s] Slasher Flicks project that I did, and that had some intense moments, because we were going through some intense times during that period as well. But especially for a song like “When You Left Me,” the meaning and the feelings behind it are so amorphous to me that at the time we were doing it and she was singing the parts, it wasn’t really like, “Oh, this is a breakup song. This is uncomfortable.” So again, the lines are blurred.
You’re coming to the Music Box. Have you ever been?
Yeah, when it was sort of a moveable affair. I saw Josh [Dibb (Deakin)] do his thing with Arto Lindsay down there. I think that was 2015? It was out in the park. I thought it was a really intriguing thing, and I got to know the [New Orleans] Airlift guys and have visited since then. So I’m really intrigued and looking forward to it.
Have you played around with it at all?
Yeah. I mean not extensively, but I’ve definitely had a little shot at it.
Which of the features are you most excited for?
I don’t really know the names, but there’s one with a lot of ropes that you pull on and it makes this sort of spinning wind effect. I really like that one. There’s one that’s based on these sliding windows and doors and it’s like a creaky house—very bendy and broken. I like stuff like that, so I think that one’s pretty cool. Hopefully, we’ll be able to utilize most of them.
The philosophy behind The Music Box seems to have a lot in common with the philosophy behind Animal Collective. If you were to reduce it you could call it “overproduced lo-fi;” or you could glorify it by calling it “the perfect balance between nature and music technology,” or something along those lines.
Yeah, it creates a great opportunity to have a specific environment that caters to a specific type of music performance. It’s sort of already there for you. You have to go in there and be open to where the environment takes you, which we try to do at any point when we’re on tour. We all enjoy going out to clubs and playing normal types of venues, but it’s awesome for us when we can find a different kind of space and a different kind of outlet that forces us to make a new kind of music.
The current configuration of the band is you, Josh [Deakin], and Brian [Geologist], right?
For the Music Box show, yeah. I don’t know if I’d call it the current lineup. I don’t know what’s current, really. It changes from day to day.
The recent recordings with you, Noah [Panda Bear], and Brian—specifically Painting With  and The Painters —have felt punchy and urgent, and the songs are very structured, whereas the music you’ve put out since then—both Meeting of the Waters [Avey Tare, Geologist] and Eucalyptus [Avey Tare, recorded by Josh Dibb (Deakin)]—are a lot quieter. It feels like you’re touching on the same sort of acoustic serenity as you were on Campfire Songs . Is the radical change in the sound a function of the lineup changes and what each member of the band brings to the table?
Not necessarily. In terms of the Painting With stuff, I think that was just something we were all on board for. Usually when we record a record, it starts with a conversation or just throwing sounds and ideas around that are all sort of moving in one direction. And at the time, that’s just what we wanted. What I was doing with Eucalyptus kind of just ran parallel to that, actually. It was something I started even before working on the Painting With stuff, and that sort of is joined to the Meeting of the Waters stuff because that opportunity came up in the middle of those two things: Painting With and Eucalyptus. Over the past couple years, Brian has gotten really into modular synthesis stuff. That’s where his focus has been recently: learning and messing around with that. And that’s easily transportable so that was one of the reasons why we just took that and an acoustic guitar down to Brazil [to record Meeting of the Waters] because we didn’t want to travel with a lot of gear. I think people hear our records from an outsider perspective and see our timeline or where we’re going, and go, “Oh, it’s because of this guy!” I think there are a lot of people out there who think that a lot of the looser stuff is based off Josh’s involvement, but it’s really got nothing to do with that. It’s just sort of where we’re at at a specific time.
It’s easy to create those timelines and mythologies around you guys, and I think that’s a tribute to this strange community you’ve fostered.
Yeah, we don’t offer a lot of information. We want people to take away what they want from the music.
As I was listening back through your catalog, I was reminded how difficult it is to get a feel for where each song is going from the first couple of minutes. That’s pretty unusual in pop. You can get a handle on the structure pretty quickly with most bands, but with you guys, it seems like almost every song—at least all the longer ones—have multiple dramatic structural changes.
Yeah, there are a lot of layers in many senses of the word, so it definitely takes some listens, I’ve found. I wouldn’t say it’s a goal. When we go in, we don’t say, “Let’s make something that people won’t get at first.” Ultimately, I think we’d love for people to understand it right away, but from the responses I’ve seen over time, there are a lot of people that say, “It took me twelve listens.” Even close friends will get in touch with me like a month after us putting out a record and say “Oh, I finally got it.”
But even in a single listen, I feel like you can understand the structure of most 5-minute pop songs within the first minute or two, whereas so many Animal Collective songs seem to have different episodes that could be songs in and of themselves.
I’ve always wanted to make music to create a place that somebody can go to and get lost in because that’s what music has done for me. It’s nice to have that place to escape to.
photo ATIBA JEFFERSON