Where the wild things are: Taming Animal Collective
WHEN I can’t be in the same room as a rock star – say, because of there being 3,400 miles between us – I like to know what they can see from the nearest window, but the responses are almost always disappointing.
Maybe the view is genuinely hotel-car-park-dreary, maybe the star is on a tour bus, exotic places drifting into view, but amid the monotony of all that schlepping he’s stopped noticing – or maybe he just finds my question boring. So Josh Dibb of Animal Collective effortlessly wins the prize for best answer.
“I’m in Maryland about 30 miles north of the county, on some land at the back of my mom’s property, and I’m in a yurt,” says the musician who records under the name Deakin. “It’s my big round tent, white canvas walls, lots of wood, big skylight – a beautiful space. And when I look out the window there’s just trees and green, lots of awesome insects, some deer, the occasional fox, and this groundhog which keeps dropping by.”
Animal Collective, the four friends from Baltimore who became the greatest band you’d never heard of, couldn’t be confused with groundhogs which keep dropping by, creatures of habit caught in a time loop of repeating themselves ad nauseam. For eight albums they were an underground group – an insanely hip one, for sure, but their little avant-garde snouts never burrowed anywhere near even the bottom of the charts. Endlessly questing sonic adventurers, they liked to yelp and bash things and be psychedelic, not unlike our own Beta Band, and seemed to possess the same thrawn attitude to commercial success.
But with Merriweather Post Pavilion they went overground. The magic-mushroom madness was toned down, the electronics were lovely and warm, the harmonies gloriously surfy, and you could hear what they were singing about (providing for their daughters, on standout track My Girls). Their most accessible record brought them a bigger audience without any corresponding drop-off in critical drooling. But the follow-up isn’t Merriweather 2. Well, how could it be?
Centipede Hz is squawky and punky, claustrophobic and chaotic. They’ve gone back to the garage at the same time as decamping to the barn. “My mom runs a spiritual consciousness school from here, where there was this 19th-entury barn which was falling apart, so I built it back up and every day for three months we would plug in, turn on and improvise some ideas,” explains Dibb.
For every previous album since band mamber Noah Lennox’s move to Portugal in 2004, these ideas would be passed round via email and studio-time was brief. For Merriweather, the blissed-out sound was mainly created by samples and loops, so on the new record the foursome were able to feel like a group again. “Noah was back on drums, Dave [Portner] was relying on keyboards and there was a lot more guitar for me. It was organic and fun and, yeah, a bit like being in a garage band. But this album was never going to sound like Merriweather. That wouldn’t have been fruitful for us, it would have felt stagnant. We can’t do anything but move forward. You have to just accept that there’s something unknown beyond a certain point and continue to head towards it. That’s the only way.”
Maybe they should have called themselves One Direction. It’s too late to change names, of course, and that handle’s been taken, but you can’t imagine the boy band, or any band for that matter, reacting to increased popularity the way Animal Collective have done. Strictly speaking, the Merriweather follow-up was a video album called Oddsac, the forest freak-out film they’d probably been longing to make, complete with exploding marshmallows. And there must have been a few newly won fans just as confused by their show at the Guggenheim.
The New York museum was the setting for a 1960s-style “happening”, and since they’re often dubbed neo-hippies, you can bet this was high on the band’s “to do” list. But the sight of them in white-horned masks and black robes while snippets of sound bounced up and down the 36 speakers installed on the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed staircase was too weird for some. “Most people really hated it,” admits Dibb. “They threw drinks and shouted: ‘Why the f*** are you doing this to us? Just play a song!’ ”
You might wonder if Animal Collective got a bit scared by success. Maybe the film and the happening, and to a lesser extent Centipede Hz, are the band laying false trails while they scurry back into the undergrowth. Dibb says not. “Our first album sold maybe a couple of hundred copies from my bedroom. We’re not anti-success but there are certain things we’re reluctant to do. We’re not going to over-expose ourselves, either by selling our songs to the movies or the jingle industry or by gigging relentlessly. Of the shows we do, we like it that almost every year we can look out and see more people at them. We like making them feel good, feel psyched, so we hate it when they get pissed off, but we also like challenging them, bending perceptions.”
There are two great Animal Collective myths: that they must listen to the Beach Boys on a loop and that they must sprinkle LSD on their Shreddies every morning. “Both are less of an influence than you might think,” laughs Dibb. “Speaking personally, psychedelic drugs have had a role and probably will do again in the future, but if it doesn’t sound too cheesy I’ve always got as much of a high from just playing the music.”
Sometimes, though, he ducks out. Dibb missed the Merriweather breakthrough while on his second sabbatical from band life, the death of his father hastening the decision to take a break. “I had to step off the train, otherwise a whole year was going to disappear.” Not the slightest bit envious of missing out on the acclaim, he says he was cheering for his pals from the sidelines, usually up a ladder. A carpenter before he became a musician, he was learning about straw-bale construction. “Now my dream is to build my own house,” he says. Watch out for those wolves, then. They do like to huff and puff.
Centipede Hz (Domino) is out tomorrow. Animal Collective play Glasgow’s O2 ABC on 7 November
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 20 June 2013
Temperature: 12 C to 21 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: South east
Temperature: 11 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 12 mph
Wind direction: West