Animal Collective is secret languages and psychic messages, the sound of strange jam sessions lasting late into the night, the echoing of laughter over ancient stories, the wonder of sunrises watched together around the world. It's hundreds of textures layering over each other to create nuances of feeling: the fuzz of a distortion trail suggesting a wisp of campfire smoke, vocal whorls spiraling 'round and 'round like a carnival carousel.
Another band might make this seem like a giant in-joke, but each Animal Collective album is an invite to enter the universe that longtime friends Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Deakin, and Geologist have been slowly crafting since they were in high school in Maryland.
Indeed, their current sound–and the creative process behind it–is just an evolution of the way they were doing things back then. "We would get into, like, horror-movie soundtracks but we didn't know how people made [them]," recalls Geologist of his first sonic experiments with Avey Tare. "So it was like, 'What could we find around the house that we could then effect to make it sound like this?' I think our early experiments really stuck with me, just the idea that you can make up your own rules. Just find the sound that you're looking for; don't think about the process that other people have gone through. It's more fun if you just figure it out for yourself."
Avey Tare initially took clues from lo-fi indie-rock bands of the early '90s, many of whom recorded to hand-held tape players or answering machines. "Guided by Voices or early Silver Jews recordings or early Pavement stuff was psychedelic to me, not in a cliché way, but as far as the sound quality and the echoes and stuff," he recalls. "When I first started recording my own stuff, it seemed like, 'Wow, [recording to tape] should sound crappier but it almost sounds better. The music just takes on its own personal quality."
Tape is a prominent theme in Animal Collective's history. The crew are all deeply fascinated by acts doing avant things with minimal means; Panda Bear name-checks White Noise's 1968 tape-spliced pop album An Electric Storm as an eye-opener, while Deakin had his melon twisted by early Can, Residents, and Captain Beefheart records. No surprise that the four laid down their first material on four-tracks and eight-tracks, recordings that eventually spawned Panda Bear's solo debut on Soccer Star and 2000's Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished (Fat Cat), the collective's first official album.
"When we were young, we didn't really go out and party that much," explains Avey Tare. "It was always just like, 'Why don't you come over and make music?' That's kind of just how we would hang out, and that's why we do it the way we do it now."
Members have dispersed to New York, Lisbon, and points beyond, but they recreate the jam-session vibes in tour rehearsals, writing songs that will get tested and fine-tuned while they're on the road. These songs get practiced, but not endlessly, says Avey Tare. "We like to keep it a little bit looser–not loose like it doesn't matter what we do, but just loose so it feels like there can be some openness, so the energy still feels real. There's something about approaching a song for the first time, that's a lot nicer for the stage than just beating a dead horse and playing the same song over and over again."
On earlier albums, Animal Collective's songwriting method occasionally produced a disorienting dinghy ride through unpredictable seas, with haphazard tempo changes and waves of squall pounding the sides of the boat. But Strawberry Jam, their most recent record, is a palms-outstretched collection of leftfield pop; recorded under the desert skies of Tucson, Arizona, it's got more vocal meat and discernable choruses than previous efforts. It's fantastical–not like elves and unicorns, but in the way that a few mushrooms on your morning toast could make you see the wonder in everything from terra firma to the teapot. It celebrates the magical in the real world, from the otherworldly samples of whales and walruses that Geologist contributes, to lyrics about food and fun and friends.
"[Our music] has to do with seeing the magic in life, but not in a fanciful way," says Deakin. "All the things that make up your daily existence end up being pretty powerful."
"Music, in general, is just a magical thing," concurs Avey Tare. "Any time we're making a record or making music together it kind of becomes this other fantasy world in itself. It's kind of escapism. We want to take people away from reality."