Animal Collective’s 2010 album Merriweather Post Pavilion was a colossal moment for the band. Filled with lush, electronic waves; droning beats; intimate lyrics; and infectious vocal melodies - it was valued by many as an instant classic, introducing mainstream audiences to the group’s experimental, neo-psychedelic noise-pop. Lauded critically and commercially, it was quickly elevated to a position higher than simply being a great record, as it came to be revered as one of the defining moments in music at the end of the first decade of the 21st century - the ultimate indication of which was the legions of young indie bands that began adding samplers and floor toms to their line-up of instruments in an attempt to emulate their new idols.
'My Girls' from Merriweather Post Pavilion
Merriweather, also represented a unique period personally for the band’s members. Up until that record, AC had solidly consisted of four members – David Portner (Avey Tare), Noah Lennox (Panda Bear), Brian Weitz (Geologist) and Josh Dibb (Deakin) – who aside from being creative partners had also essentially grown up together. But during the period of Merriweather’s release and the group's peak in popularity, one member was missing – Deakin. Unhappy with his life as a musician, he remained absent from the group for the entire Merriweather period.
Centipede Hz, Animal Collective’s first full-length album since Merriweather (set for release August 31), saw Deakin (after a period of self-discovery) rejoin the line-up for a recording process that also saw the entire group return to their hometown of Baltimore to record the album together, rather than share music files via the net like they had on Merriweather. Added to that, the record also saw the group pick up and play traditional instruments, rather than electronic samplers. Essentially, the making of Centipede Hz was the complete opposite of what defined Merriweather Post Pavilion, as the band searched for new avenues of creativity both on tape and on stage.
We talked to Geologist about how all these things combined to influence Centipede Hz, an album that is undeniably Animal Collective in sound, but takes the group in a very different sonic direction.
V: The two obvious questions I wanted to ask you about the story for Centipede Hz are about the return of Deakin and the return of the entire band to the same space to record in your former hometown of Baltimore. I’ll start with Deakin – what impact has his return had on the group and the recording of this new album?
G: His guitar playing is unmistakably great. It always adds another line of melody in the instrumentation, where the vocal melody is the main melody of the song and he always adds a secondary melody, which is always great. I feel like for Merriweather the vocal melody was the main melody and everything was sort of more “chordal” or harmonious or rhythmic, as opposed to secondary, melodic lines.
The other big thing is any of the records that the four of us have played on also become sonically a bit more challenging – just because all of us, no matter which formation we’re playing in, if we hear empty space we tend to fill it even when we try to do things more minimally - it never seems to work out. So when you have all four of us indulging that habit, those records tend to be the densest ones. I feel him returning has resulted in a very dense sounding record, which we’re all still really psyched about but our intention is to be more minimal – we just can’t bring ourselves to do it.
'Today's Surpernatural' from Centipede Hz
V: What initiated the return to Baltimore and the return to playing live in a band setting, rather than file-sharing over the net like you’d done previously on Merriweather?
G: When Dave and Noah and I were doing the Merriweather stuff, that era lasted two-and-a-half years or so - almost three years - between beginning to write that material and recording it and touring it. And in the beginning it was very exciting because we were using samplers more as live instruments and we tried to figure out a way where we could interact with electronics, backing tracks and samplers in a way that would still allow some room for improvisation and some freedom. But then after a few years of it we got to know the songs and the new equipment so well that it became really easy – almost too easy I’d say. And it was actually on our Australian tour that we were coming off stage and the club was really air-conditioned and we were like, “Wow, we’re not even sweating out.” We were still having a great time and a lot of fun but it felt like we’re so practiced at this at this point that it was easy.
We decided we were going to take a year off from touring and playing live and when we’d get back together we wanted to feel like every time we go on stage we want it to be a physical challenge. We want to feel really alive. So we thought that in order to get that experience we would have to write songs that necessitated that kind of performance in their execution and the only way to do that was to all get in a room with each other, writing together with all our amps turned up to however high they’ll go and competing with the drums for volume and if we write our songs that way then they’ll come out feeling much more like a visceral experience for us. So that was the impetus for us wanting to do it together again.
Going back to Baltimore was purely for convenience sake. Noah and I both have kids and both our mothers live in Baltimore so it was like, alright they can help with babysitting. Dave and Josh both grew up there so they’re familiar with it and they knew they could move back in with their families or find an easy place to rent and not have to worry about learning the ropes in a new city. It took away a lot of concerns so that we could just focus on playing music.
V: Deakin also takes his first ever lead vocal role on ‘Wide Eyed.’ Why did it take him till now to get behind the mike?
G: I don’t know. He wrote songs when we were in high school and then he just kind of stopped. I’m not sure if it was insecurity or what - he just stopped writing songs and stopped singing after we were teenagers. And after some time and Strawberry Jam he was having a rough time with things and we all talked about why he needed a break and that he really needed to figure out why he was interested in playing music.
It was a fairly long break, three years or so, it took him to finally work out stuff and to be wanting to be playing music. [At the time] the other three of us were wrapped up in Merriweather and he just started doing his own solo stuff and I feel like through that process he gained the confidence and the desire to start doing that again.
V: That return to physical instruments rather than samplers – you went back to playing keyboards and Noah went back to playing the floor drums - what impact did that have on the recording process? It definitely seems to have added, not what I’d call a rock element, but there definitely seems to be a lot of chaotic energy in the songs.
G: The reason we called it Centipede Hz is we talked about songs feeling like centipedes, some things that sort of weave their way with lots of sections and lots of detailed appendages coming off them and I feel like Noah’s drums provide a lot of that sonic imagery.
I think your point saying, “not quite rock” - we said to each other a lot when we were trying to figure out what kind of sound we wanted to go for in the rehearsal space was we wanted something that feels rocking but isn’t rock music. That was our big challenge – how do you rock with out just playing straight forward rock.
V: Another one of the influences you guys have cited are radio transmissions and your memories of growing up listening to station announcements and radio commercials. How did that concept come into existence? Was it just through conversation or was it one member’s specific idea that you all helped develop?
G: It came up after we had toured Merriweather – we’d been touring for a couple of years with the Merriweather songs and I think it was when we were recording them we were talking about what we could do improvisationally in between the songs the next time we go on tour. And Dave’s brother had been a mainstream, Top 40 DJ in the 80s and 90s in America and he had given Dave this CD of his old sound effects and radio ID’s. Dave was like, “Maybe we should just sample those things, they sound really cool and futuristic.” We thought we could use them in the sense that we’ll finish a song and then we’ll sample this radio collage and then we’ll break right into the next song. We got really excited about the idea and, I don’t know why, but we couldn’t find the CD and we still can’t find it [laughs] but we just never got around to executing that idea.
Then when we came back to the songs for Centipede Hz we were writing them, again, for a live performance – writing them for our Coachella set [in 2011] and we talked about how we can transition from one song to another without stopping and having the audience applaud – just keep the sound continuous. And we were like, “Let’s go back to that radio idea.” It sort of sits with our idea of what a rock band would sound like if some alien rock band heard music but it was all distorted by the time it reached them. So it just seemed like the right time to use that idea and we just searched for our own old cassettes and videos and things on Youtube with old radio shows to try and sound like the CD that Dave’s brother had given us.
V: Did those also then inspire the Animal Collective Radio you’ve launched through your website to coincide with the new album?
G: Because there’s a strong radio theme on the record we talked about that we like expanding the record to something larger. When Dave released his solo record he made his own electronic press kit and he did a release party where he had the room decorated like the fictional world that the album takes place in. Those were ideas that we’ve always wanted to do, something more thematic and professional in a way to celebrate the release of the record. And since there was this alien transmission radio thing we thought that would be a cool idea. We’re always making mixes for each other anyway, emailing great songs we find on Youtube, so we enjoy that culture of sharing.
We also recognised how much our favourite bands gave to us by talking about their favourite bands and their records that came before them and we’re always trying in interviews, when we’re asked to recommend playlists or records, to expose our fans [to new music], particularly the younger ones who don’t have a large context for the things that influence us. It’s fun to pass those things along and create a new generation of fans for other bands and classic records.
V: Was there much pressure amongst the band to follow up Merriweather during the recording process for Centipede Hz in terms of continuing to push each other creatively? You’ve clearly gone to a lot of effort to craft music that doesn’t reproduce what you did on Merriweather.
G: Mmmhmm, yeah definitely. But that’s nothing new to us. We try that every time. Even Merriweather was a creative challenge to make something a lot different to [2007 album] Strawberry Jam and it’s been that way for every single record. Those challenges are some of the things that we relish – that we look forward to.
The pay off is when you discover a new direction and when we’re like, “This sounds like an Animal Collective record, it doesn’t sound like anyone else would make it except for us. And at the same time it doesn’t sound like any other previous Animal Collective record.”
Once we’ve arrived at that point of satisfaction it’s one of the big payoffs of our creative process.
'Fireworks' from Strawberry Jam
Words: Nathan Wood
Centipede Hz is set for release August 31 and Animal Collective will tour Australia as part of the Big Day Out in 2013.