A pride of lions. A parliament of owls. A school of fish. A flock of seagulls. Each of these collective nouns implies an assemblage of animals (or, in the case of flock of seagulls, an assemblage of righteously bad hair). But study the quartet Animal Collective and you will discover four contrarians that feel no need to always run as a pack, though they are prone to indulge a wild hair or 10.
Living, jamming and recording in various configurations since 1996 (and under the Animal Collective umbrella since 1999), Noah "Panda Bear" Lennox, Dave "Avey Tare" Portner, Josh "Deakin" Dibb and Brian "Geologist" Weitz have charted topography from frenzied psychedelia (2003's tumultuously recorded Here Comes the Indian) to fevered electro-acoustics (2001's congested, challenging Danse Manatee). While those albums were valleys of knotty, loose-ended sounds, Animal Collective hit a critical peak with last year's Sung Tongs, a more rustic than ritualistic album recorded solely by Panda Bear and Avey Tare.
With Animal Collective's new album, Feels (Fat Cat), however, the entire humble, heady foursome has convened for a powwow of the now, moving beyond lysergically-laced campfire ballads into a more condensed, giddily generated album of "love songs."
"A bunch of us have been in serious relationships these last few years, but we didn't necessarily get there easily, so we wanted to record songs about the different feelings of being in relationships," says Geologist over a French dip sandwich one evening near southeast Washington, D.C. where, when not donning his indie rock guise, he has worked in environmental policy.
Wearing baggy clothes, sporting a beard and carrying a shoulder pouch, Geologist looks like the kind of person who would be happy to roam the world engaging in musical anthropology. Scope the rest of Animal Collective and you'll see similarly lived-in attire and relaxed attitudes-a far cry from the feral creatures or hyper-saturated shamans their early albums and videos made them out to be.
By Geologist's account, the members of Animal Collective are equal parts pragmatists and pleasers exploring Kodachrome dichotomies: they enjoy a good fart joke as well as fielding philosophical questions, they balance musical frivolity with professional careers and they temper their communal, at times hippie-like ethos with allowing each other plenty of space to breathe and grow. While members no longer cohabitate together-they've followed musical whimsy to spheric locales including backwoods Maryland, Brooklyn, an Arizona biodome and Portugal-you can hardly tell it from their collective "banshee beat."
"All Animal Collective albums have been about where different relationships are at, whatever immediate frustrations or elation whoever is recording feels," continues Geologist. "It's been this way since we were 14 or 15-we agreed to leave Animal Collective an open-ended thing in order to allow each other the freedom to experience other people and things filtering these attitudes and aesthetics into the music."
Introduced in a Northern Baltimore County high school, the members of Animal Collective found common ground in the musique concrète of vintage horror movie soundtracks, Can and the Grateful Dead's improvisational segues, the oblique, shambolic imagery of Pavement and Syd Barrett and laughing until it was hard to breathe. A blue collar-tough town full of warehouses, church basements and union halls available for $50 rent, Baltimore provided a congruent DIY scene for ambitious kids. But it was following college and a convergence to Brooklyn that Animal Collective's quirky sprawl really began to coalesce.
"People were looking for something to break out of '90s indie rock," says Geologist. "Bands like Tortoise weren't my thing. It was polite, academic, reserved. We wanted music to be more emotional and physical, not as cerebral. Us, Black Dice, Gang Gang Dance, The Rapture-we all shared practice spaces and I think we all brought energy to what we did that people in other parts of the country responded to. We tried to make our shows as joyous and hyper as possible."
Indeed, catch an Animal Collective show and you'll wonder if you walked into a helium-filled revival tent full of fresh scrubbed teens doing a rousing rendition of "If you're happy and you know it clap your hands." This is especially evident during the semi-regular set closer "Purple Bottle" (a song recorded for Feels but performed live for some time). Animal Collective's instrumentation is chimeric, expanding and contracting, and hands and voices remain constant totems. Anything the band can get its hands on is fair game for its contorted chorales and darting yelps, which recall Mercury Rev and cLOUDDEAD informed by the Incredible String Band and Roky Erickson. For Feels, however, Animal Collective turned to producer Scott Colburn (of Sun City Girls) to help them further widen their vocabulary and move them away from being mislabeled "prophets of rural nature boy music," says Geologist.
Sequestered in Seattle during a harmonious March, the foursome lived and worked with Colburn, participating in what could almost be described as breathing exercises for sound. Often recordings were channeled through computer back into a room and recorded with ceiling mics to tightly mesh the overall recording. Feels is less autumnal, devoid of bristly squalls save for the calliope huffs of "Turn Into Something," but it loses nothing by often opting for a jaunty aesthetic rather than a jumbled one. Warbling guitars, dulcimers, bucolic found sounds hand-manipulated from Mini-disc and piano played by Múm's Kristín Anna Valtysdóttir are just some hues of Animal Collective's emulsion.
The most immediate deviation from previous Animal Collective material, however, is in the toning down of acoustic guitar. "I think we're going to get a lot of people saying we're intentionally not using acoustic guitars just to break away from the 'freak folk' thing, but it really wasn't the case," says Geologist. "We decided not to use acoustic guitars simply because Sung Tongs, which we finished in 2003, was an acoustic record and even before the 'freak folk' label we were already ready to come back to the table with something more electric, rock-based or whatever. Noah wanted to play drums, the others wanted to play electric guitar. We didn't try to separate ourselves from that 'movement.' It's not like we're all friends or have acoustic orgies. The only 'movement' we've ever been interested in anyway is our own."