Selling records is not nearly as fun as running around and having a good time with each other.
story by Cliff Berru
photo by Do Lee
August 19, 2004: Can’t remember what I did, what I wore, or what I was on that day, but everything made sense as I hustled through the doors of Chicago’s Empty Bottle. As my friend Tommy dragged behind with a basket full of circuit-bent toys he wanted to show the band, I swam through the crowd almost stumbling backstage to finally meet this mysterious band known as Animal Collective.
For the previous two months I had been relaxing in the glory of 2004’s Sung Tongs (Fat Cat), the most universally accepted Animal Collective release to date. Although only recorded by Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) and Avey Tare (Dave Portner), it still exists as the creation of remaining band members Conrad Deakin (Josh Dibb) and Geologist (Brian Weitz) – who have mixed and matched with each other as Animal Collective beyond the past decade.
For two months I tried every possible approach for listening to this record. I tried sleeping to it, which just brought forth an unusual amount of pleasant dreams. I tried cooking to it and ended up losing my appetite. Then I drove to it just before getting pulled over. Finally I tried understanding it, and just ended up back where I started.
The record almost completely inhabited my mind. This is not to say that I was a huge fan of the music at that point, I was more trying to distinguish what the purpose was behind these sounds. What’s going on with all this chanting and hollering, and how is it all in perfect harmony? These sounds suggest chaos, with tribal pounding and salient melodies, yet they somehow hypnotize you into enjoying yourself.
It’s not just something new, but something real…something simplistic and yet completely psychedelic. Eventually, everything just becomes natural, as if the music whispers into your ear. It’s a secret, but you can’t help but share it with all of yourself. You are, in a sense, revolving around the new world that was created by letting the music into your mind.
Backstage at the Bottle, Geologist, being the electronic wizard he is, finally fixed the problem I was having with the mini-disc recorder so we could get the interview into full swing. Of course prying into the creation of the band was necessary, but Deakin quickly responded by telling Chicago Innerview, “It is all part of a really long story. There is no date to point out or way to sum things up. It just happened to be that the first collaborative release was between Dave and Noah,” and the very first, according to Panda during a recent telephone follow-up was, “on a label we started called Soccer Star – just to put that one out. Soccer Star sort of became Animal, and that ultimately transformed into Paw Tracks.” Thus Animal Collective is not concerned with a historical date, but recognizes the lifelong friendships they all established as adolescents in Maryland.
Animal Collective proper has been around for five years as far as releases are concerned, their first being the lush yet deviously charming Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished (2000) – released originally on the Animal imprint, but reissued on Fat Cat Records recently along with Danse Manatee. It was also around this time that, “people in New York were very supportive,” mentions Panda. “They were really psyched and into what we were doing. It got to the point where people would put the record in their displays with a nice review under it.” Quite impressive for a band that ran everything themselves.
“Here Comes the Indian [Paw Tracks] was the first record that was handled properly,” expressed Conrad about the 2003 release that actually featured all four members. “We had been pushing pretty hard in our own way [prior]. We were excited to make music so we fucking did it, we wanted to tour so that’s what we did…no matter how hard it was. We got started running our own labels and booking our own tours so we could achieve what we wanted. I feel people really connected with that energy.”
To which Avey adds: “Selling records is not nearly as fun as running around and having a good time with each other.”
Sung Tongs seemed to grab the independent music world by its reigns and smooth it over into tranquility. It’s the majestically harmonic chanting that invades the cranium. It seems to be a symphony of native ritual chanting, but in the end it is as simple as the vocal talent of Avey and Panda. “The chanting is sort of the way we like to play together,” says Avey, “like this free form, celebratory behavior. The guitars and vocals are kept to how they could have been done live.” No samples here folks – just an element of Animal Collective’s behavior, where they rehearse intensely but pound out entire takes in the studio. Here Comes the Indian being a major example where, as Geologist mentions, “we recorded it into two pieces, for both the purpose of thinking of it as two sides of an LP and also to represent the way we played those segments live with two different parts strung together. Live, we would do two sets back to back.”
An Animal Collective live show is beyond explanation. This Empty Bottle performance in particular featured a firing squad of speakers, two guitars, Geologist using every sound on his mini-disc recorder, and Panda beating the hell out of a 3-piece drum set – all the while unleashing a fury of melodic chanting. Seeing Animal Collective that night was like dropping acid but without the guilt and minus the paranoia, with no commitment and double the bliss. The notes actually felt as if they were re-creating my perception of reality. Eight months later and I am still smiling.
“I certainly didn’t feel like when we were recording [Sung Tongs] people were going to like this more than the other stuff,” says Panda by phone. “It’s sort of a surprise, but I understand considering the shorter and sometimes tighter nature of the songs.” Yet one can almost never expect to witness their favorite Animal Collective song live, at least the way it is pressed on a record.
“As soon as we record a record we start working on new songs,” said Avey. “It’s really important that the music we make comes from what’s happening in our lives at that particular time. Even though we love all the songs, it’s sort of like rehashing old feelings we don’t really connect to anymore and recreating those sounds just isn’t relevant.” Like a painter who leaves his painting in a museum, Animal Collective recognizes the intrinsic value of their music, but always strives for more beauty and depth. “In a way,” says Avey, “having reservations and a repertoire for your music is almost like a commercial for yourself, where you are just showing off the record. We like to be excited about what we are playing at one particular time.”
2005 is already shaping up well for these young lads – with a hearty tour around the corner, a May 31 release of the Prospect Hummer EP (Fat Cat) and an album in the process of being recorded in Seattle from where I contacted Panda. “[Prospect Hummer] is almost like a companion to Sung Tongs in that it was written during that period of time,” expressed Panda. “We didn’t feel like it fit the album or the way it was coming about, but then again time was also an issue where we only had a month to do all of Sung Tongs.”
One month and my entire perception of reality was blown to pieces. I can’t imagine what they’ll do with a whole year, and I’m a little afraid to find out.
Animal Collective :: with Ariel Pink :: at Empty Bottle on April 27 (two shows) :: and at University of Chicago’s Hutch Commons on April 29.