Strawberry Jam is that kind of album: a rock record for the digital generation, where gleaming insights from expensive imports are only a download away and the entire world can be tapped for ideas. In a sound-file era, where most music is consumed through iPods and most bands readily fit into sub-sub-genres, few bands offer up albums as technically meticulous, as speaker pilfering, and as far-reaching as this anymore.
Part of it is career ambition, sure. But part of it is something else entirely. As Dave Portner (aka Avey Tare) puts it, the band has "never been that worried about trying to make money of music. Mostly it was because we worked so hard at it, that it just makes sense that something came of it. It's a pastime that took up most of my time."
This year, that pastime is paying off. Panda Bear's Person Pitch album is already widely regarded among the strongest outings of 2007. They own a record label, Paw Tracks, which releases their mountain of solo projects, as well as other acts like Ariel Pink and Black Dice. Eight albums in, the Animal Collective have international critics in their pockets and draw sizeable cult fan-bases in almost every major city in the Western world.And yet back in 2000 when they first started playing shows around New York City, few would have banked on four kids from Baltimore getting this far. Those early Animal Collective recordings that came out between 2000 and 2003 — Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished (2000), Danse Manatee (2001) and Here Comes The Indian (2003) — too often sounded amused by their own overt weirdo status. The same has been levelled at the collective's solo projects: Avey Tare's collaborations with Black Dice's Eric Copeland (as Terrestrial Tones) or his 2007 Pullhair Rubeye album with Mum's Kria Brekkan; Panda Bear's collaborations with Scott Mou (as Jane) or his first two solo albums. This is a band with a consistent track record that leans toward the kind of off-the-cuff experimentation most other people confine to their basements as fun to create but ultimately half-baked.
Nevertheless, for the members of Animal Collective the spirit of experimentation is in the risk, and the risk is in trusting your intuition. They've never deviated from that ethos. "There's never been a push to have it be a certain type of music, or to have it reach a certain amount of people, or even to be accessible," Dave Portner concedes about the band's development over the last ten years. "It's the same reasons behind why we started Animal Collective: to make music that makes us excited."And excitement it has been, all the way. No matter what the final verdict ever was on the output, fans and critics alike could never fault the collective for their enthusiasm or their openness to trying things differently.
When Animal Collective first began to make serious waves in 2003, they found themselves in the middle of a New York City being reborn as a rock music capital after a decade's slumber. The previous decade may have belonged to Seattle and Chicago, but by 2003, two years after the Strokes had re-inaugurated the city for a new generation of rock fans, Animal Collective found themselves rising to attention with a whole slew of bands — LCD Soundsystem, Black Dice, the Rapture, TV on the Radio — that were reinventing the boundaries of American rock by reinventing the musical canon that fed into it.
It was the kind of notoriety that both propelled and dogged that year's release of Here Comes the Indian, and prompted the reissues of Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished and Danse Manatee. Animal Collective received a lot of ink, but it was sometimes difficult to consider the band's accomplishments outside their connections to the larger movement underway.
Similarly their sixth album, Sung Tongs, got stuck with comparisons to 2004's crop of freak-folk that trapped Animal Collective between the quiet melodies of Devendra Banhart and acid-jam collectives such as Sunburned Hand of the Man and No Neck Blues Band.
For their seventh album, 2005's Feels, there was talk of this once-untamable band maturing. To many ears, that album sounded like the kind of roundabout arrival that courted two other bands — Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev — who had built intentionally "weirdo" reputations before delivering the acidic-bubblegum masterpieces The Soft Bulletin and Deserter's Songs. The underside of that association implied that neither of those bands had managed to touch those creative peaks again since.
The truth is Animal Collective has always been a difficult band to situate. In the decade after they first put a neighbourhood band on hold to go to college, Animal Collective have developed an uncanny ability to reinvent themselves. It's an accomplishment that doesn't work for too many other bands. Then again, not that many bands pushing 30 have been playing together since their teens. As Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) sums it up, being in Animal Collective is basically "being able to hang out with three of my best friends all the time and getting to work with them."
Because they're childhood friends, they prefer to keep things loose and democratic, opting for the open-relationship "collective" as opposed to the more chaste design of a bona fide "group." Dave Portner (aka Avey Tare), Noah Lennox (Panda Bear), Brian Weitz (the Geologist), and Josh Dibb (Deakin) are all free to come and go as they please. "If you don't feel like taking part at any given point, then you don't have to play," Lennox says. That happened for the collective's first major critical breakthrough, 2004's Sung Tongs, which featured only Avey Tare and Panda Bear. Since then, the stakes have gotten higher and everybody's been on board. For the guys, that album was the stepping-stone that turned the group into a serious concern.
Before Sung Tongs, Lennox says, "everything came together one show at a time. Why don't we go on tour? Why don't we record a record? We all ended up in New York around 2001 for various reasons, and the prospect of being a musical group and doing it as a kind of job started to happen then. It happened slowly. The band came together very naturally."But the critical reception to Sung Tongs, which ranked as one of the top albums of 2004, created opportunities the band hadn't previously considered possible. "When Sung Tongs came out," Portner recalls, "we started playing clubs in every town we went to, and it seemed like every place we played there were a lot of people there who were sticking around, and even really going with what we were doing. We could be playing songs they'd never heard before, and it just felt like there was a support for doing that from almost every city we were playing in, as opposed to before where it felt like we were venturing into unknown territory when touring. We never really knew if people were going to like us. Before that, maybe two or three people would like us at our shows, but it began to seem a lot more consistent from there.
"So [Sung Tongs] was the first tour where we were actually able to take someone out on the road with us to help us out selling merch. That was when everything seemed to be a little more organised, and we started thinking, 'Wow, maybe we can keep this a little more organised, and it can be a little more easygoing.' Because it hadn't really felt easygoing up until that point. It was a big struggle to go on tour and rent equipment, the van, and that kind of thing. But at that point something switched, and it just began to feel a little more carefree in a way."
These days, carefree and easygoing seems to suit the members of Animal Collective just fine. For a band of their stature, there's surprisingly little talk of dominant members or doing things a certain way. For the past three years, Noah Lennox hasn't even lived on the same continent as the rest of the band. A move from New York to Lisbon came in 2004, before the band recorded Feels, which would go one to become their most commercially and critically successful album so far. What's more, he moved from New York to Lisbon, "mostly because I met a girl there, and I wanted to be with her as much as I could."
It's the kind of stint that would have torn apart many other bands. But for this band, it only means that they find a way to work around the obstacle. Portner travels out to Lisbon after every tour to work on new songs. He readily admits that, "practicing in Lisbon for the first time was a little weird. We were out of our element."
Lennox agrees that, "it makes it a little tough. I think we were all definitely a little bit nervous about it at first, but it just takes a little more organisation, a little more planning. But I think the fact that we've played together for so many years makes it easier for us to get together for a short period of time and actually work on a lot of stuff. It's actually turned out to be totally fine."Living on different continents is not the only thing this band does differently. Animal Collective have also picked up the habit of writing their new songs right after they finish recording an album. They write the bulk of their new material before the last record hits the streets, and then hone it live as part of the previous album's tour. By tour's end, they take all those different variations of trying out songs into the studio and record them."Every album so far has felt like it was the end of a creative process," Lennox says. "The album and all the touring around them seems to last for about two years these days. It really feels like a cycle where we'll start to write songs, do things a certain way, and then once we've finished we drop that and move on to something totally different."
True to form, Strawberry Jam is "something totally different" for the band. As Lennox puts it, "After Feels, which was such a guitar-y kind of album, we were psyched to try something more electronics-based, rather than do a guitar album again. We were very wary of not doing a Feels part two."
Like Lennox, Portner was interested in moving away from the Feels material they had just recorded. "I started writing melodies, and maybe Noah did too, right after Feels," he says. "Mostly that's because we like to write a lot of new material for tour. We had a big tour planned, a European tour with a U.S. tour to follow. We started off a little bit looser than Feels, just trying to mess around with samples and play over top of them. We were trying to not use guitars as much. I was singing and Noah was doing a lot more sample work."
According to Lennox, the move toward a more sample-driven album emerged more out of accidental necessity than creative impulse. One of the side effects of the move, it turned out, included a prolonged separation from the equipment he was used to having around him.
"I had a lot of trouble getting my guitar in there," he explains. "I didn't have a whole lot of money to ship a bunch of stuff over equipment-wise. But what I did have was this little SP-303 sampler. Eventually I got another one, so I could mix songs, or parts of songs, together. I just developed a way of writing songs on these things, because they were all I had."
Panda Bear's flood of loops is the biggest difference separating Strawberry Jam from Feels. Their eighth album was as much assembled as it was played: countless hours of mixing those loops against each other during post-production has made Strawberry Jam an album of saturated sonic contrasts, what makes it so utterly compelling on repeat listens.
When Portner arrived in Lisbon to work on the new album and realised that Lennox had undertaken a whole new way of doing things, rather than fight it, he was keen to work around the innovations. "Part of the allure of playing music for me is being challenged and working with stuff that I'm not too familiar with," he explains. "I write better under those circumstances. With the guitar I started feeling like I was getting the same kinds of sounds and writing the same kinds of songs. We wanted initially to have a lot of the songs based on loops. But it was just too hard for us, as a four-piece, to play along using that kind of equipment. So we ended up using the guitars anyways for the songs.
"I think it's an approach that, as a band, we've been working on more now, as we write new material, just completely putting down the guitars. But for Strawberry Jam it was more a matter of trying to blend the best of the both worlds. We were trying to just find all of our strengths and go somewhere new with that, other than completely jumping into that area."Given the timing of these interviews, it came as no surprise that both Lennox and Portner were most excited discussing the new post-Strawberry songs they're getting ready to take on tour.
"We just spent a whole two weeks writing a new set of material, and that's what we played on this little tour," Lennox says. "It's the set that we'll pretty much be doing through November at this point. Hopefully we'll record that stuff sometime early next year. To me, the new stuff is more different than Strawberry Jam is to Feels or than Feels is to Sung Tongs. It's quite a bit different sounding to me. Who knows what it'll really end up being like, but out of the get-go it's got a more R&B tinge to it."
Few bands these days contemplate singing in as complex a manner as Panda Bear and Avey Tare working together. "Dave and I talk about how we've done a lot of the vocal harmonising stuff," says Lennox, "and we were interested in trying to do two vocal lines that worked together but that weren't necessarily direct harmonies of each other. More like two narratives going on. Sort of like a duet, but more in the sense that the two vocal lines are doing counterpoint, rhythmically speaking."
Their attention to harmonisation, to call-and-response and to counterpoint, harkens back to another era, to the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, yes, but also to old doo-wop 45s and Roy Orbison records.
On top of that, more than any other Animal Collective album, Strawberry Jam is a catalogue of songwriting left turns; it abides by insistently angular compositions, bringing to mind Brian Eno's mid-'70s art-rock, especially Here Come The Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). Both Portner and Lennox seem keen to move away from the traditional guitar set-up, toward a band that works more heavily with vocal experimentation and samples.
According to Lennox, they haven't yet hit upon where they're going to end up just yet. "I have a feeling that the next album after Strawberry Jam will be even more electronic and dance/R&B. It's really rhythmic-heavy and sample-based. We'll be more of a samples band than we ever have been before. Strawberry Jam was sort of going in that direction, but I feel like we'll be even more there in another year."All of which means that, when the Animal Collective go on tour this fall, they'll be presenting a portrait of a collective that has adapted to always being in flux.
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