Animal Collective

Merriweather Post Pavilion

BY Brock ThiessenPublished Jan 6, 2009

In many ways, Merriweather Post Pavilion is the closest Animal Collective have gotten to making a genuine pop record, albeit a pop record that plays like no other. From the opening "Am I the dancer?" mantra of "In the Flowers" to the minimal techno closing of "Brother Sport," the AC simply defy typical pop rock categorization, a quality always present in the group's nine-year tenure but now fully capitalized on with Merriweather. And yet, as the band head further down their unique road of swirling electronic pop, they've never been as easily taken in as they are now, with any awkward spots of recent efforts thoroughly ironed out and left behind. The melodies are more welcoming and the hooks sharper and more effective, as Merriweather's big, beating samples weave in and out of the band's now-perfected blend of Afro-Brazilian rhythms and ambient electronics. It all shows Animal Collective no longer relying on feral outbursts and trance-like meditations but winning over audiences with genuinely great pop songs, which come bearing zero sign of trend-generated carbon dating or early sell-by dates. Quite simply, Merriweather Post Pavilion has all the makings of a landmark album, surpassing all expectations, ridiculously high or not.

With the record now in the bag, how do you feel about what you've come up with this time around?
David Portner (aka Avey Tare): Awesome. I mean, we were really excited about it as soon as the first night we started putting tracks down. The whole process seemed so positive to us - from writing the stuff to touring it - that when we started recording it, the results quickly became something we were really psyched about.

How long did it take you to put this one together?
A little less than a year.

Is that usual for you guys?
No, we wanted to do it a little faster this time just because we had nine songs right off the bat that stayed pretty close to how they came out on the record, in terms of the live tracks that we did of these songs. It took us a little longer to record Strawberry Jam, and after a while we started really losing perspective on the songs and we didn't really know at the time where we were at with them. It got a little confusing. So we wanted to go a little faster with Merriweather, while we felt we had the energy still going and the real enthusiasm for the songs.

How do you think Strawberry Jam and Merriweather Post Pavilion compare then?
It's really just two different time periods, that's what makes them so different. I feel Strawberry Jam was a lot longer and a little more confusing in terms of what was going on in our lives, and it just felt like a really transitional time. It was written all over the place and some our moods were a little bit intense or dark at times. But you know, it wasn't all bad and it was still fun. That record was just a more difficult process to get through. This new one, though, it just kind of had this breath-of-fresh-air feeling going for it.

So has the kind of over-the-top reaction Merriweather has received caught you off guard?
Yeah, it kind of has. It's been really intense. I try not to think about it too much, though, or get involved with it. It's a little intense when people say it's the best record of the year when it's only the first week of the year, or something like that. You have to take it with a grain of salt. I'm sure it's just the enthusiasm of having a new record out at the beginning of the year. But we just feel good that people right off the bat were really supportive of it.

You've been releasing records for a long time but does this one somehow feel different?
Again, it just feels positive all around. There's definitely a more intense reaction with this one but it kind of just feels like another link in the chain or another part of the process, if you know what I mean. I mean, we've already started talking about new stuff we're going to do and we were working on another project as we were doing this one. So it's kind of just a part of something that's continuously going.

What other project were you working on?
We're working on a film kind of thing. It's more of a visual record, or a visual film. It's not really a narrative thing that we're doing. We're doing it with our friend Danny Perez, who did one of our music videos ["Who Could Win a Rabbit?"] and does other kind of visual stuff for bands as they play live, like for Black Dice. We were asked to do a tour documentary maybe two years ago by this company Plexifilm, but it wasn't something that interested us so much, and we're not really into people following us around with cameras and stuff like that. So we proposed to them that we'd do a weirder, sort of psychedelic film, kind of like Space Is the Place or more along those lines. So yeah, we have just spent two years really working on the visuals with Danny, he has been doing it mostly all on his own while we came up with a lot of the ideas with him. We've also been working on the music for it for about a year now and it's meant to all link together. It's been a long time coming because we want it to feel like one, big cohesive thing, not just a long music video or some narrative film with just us doing the soundtrack to it.

What does the music sound like?
There are more song-y moments and more ambient-textures moments, but all kind of tied together.

So will that be something that will come out as a soundtrack as well?
No, I think we are just going to try to keep the music and visuals together.

To get back to Merriweather, people have called it everything from you pop album to your rave album to your most psychedelic, and probably a whole lot of other things as well. But, I mean, how do you see it?
I definitely think it has all those elements in there. To me, though, it's an Animal Collective record. We talked about certain things when we went in to make the record, like a dancier element was definitely talked about, like a bassier record or something that would look a little more on the ravier side of things. But I don't know if we were ever like, "This is our rave record" or "This is our pop record." I think pop music is something we really, really like a lot and informs us in the way we write music. It's been a big part of our music listening experience, but I think it's always an inspiration to us, you know? I think it's the textures and the way the record is all sort of spaced-out and produced that makes it a pop record a little bit more. But to us, there are still some very strange moments on the album, so it's always hard for us to gauge what it is exactly.

Maybe the rave thing really came from the record starting out with that "You can dance" loop thing?
Actually that's kind of a misquote. "Am I the dancer?" is really what it's saying. But yeah, dancing is definitely something we talked about, even ballets and really any sort of modern dance piece, which could be seen as being similar to club music too. We just wanted to touch into this really futuristic sort of dance thing.

Do you think you consciously tried to make this record stand apart more your other material?
Well, we were definitely trying to do a record that didn't have a lot of elements of stuff we've done in the past. We really just wanted to make a record we were excited about, to do something that's different and different than anything we've heard before.

With the vocals of this record being higher up in the mix than your older stuff, do you ever worry about losing that old sense of AC mystery?
It's just about finding the best mix of both worlds, where everything is still blending together with the sound and nothing is sitting too high up on the mix. But at the same time, in terms of the vocals and what they do for the songs, for us they guide the bulk of the melodic structure, so it is pretty important that they are up there in the mix and that they are audible. We were pretty psyched on the way the vocals interacted and what was happening vocally with a lot of these songs. They also just have a lot more space to be there, whereas in the past the sonics were overpowering to a certain degree. [Producer] Ben [Allen], who we recorded this record with, actually wanted the vocals even higher. But I personally think the vocals on Strawberry Jam sound even higher than on this record.

Do you ever feel self-conscious about the lyrics now?
No, I think it's pretty important for people to hear the lyrics. There are a couple of songs we wanted to mask a bit and not be so clear. But the way I think about lyrics is you shouldn't be told what the meaning of a song is. It's kind of just nice to come up with your own meaning. That's how I listen to music. Sometimes it's cool not to have to figure out what the lyrics mean, per se.

So over the years do you think you've lost certain things as a band and perhaps gained others?
With us always trying to do different stuff and move on, we definitely lose some fans but then at the same time we gain others. We look at it that way: by doing one kind of record we're reaching a certain audience but losing another. And I think we've always wanted to touch in to different kinds of sounds and different kinds of people. The past is just a different time. We were way different back then, and as much as I appreciate what happened, at least at this point, I wouldn't want to trade in who we are as a band now for who were then. As hard or fun as it's been, it's always been a new experience, and I'm glad for that.

Obviously for many people, your music is a lot more accessible now. How do you feel about that?
I think we're just doing what we're excited about. I mean, it's definitely not something we talk about, but I can see how the arrangements now compared to our older ones could be seen as more accessible. But then again, it has to do with who we are now and who we were then, with the past just having a lot more crazy stuff going on. I think we've just let ourselves be affected by the time we're in a lot, you know?

How do you think the fact that several of you guys are married and starting families has impacted the band?
We've definitely gotten way more organized and way more grounded in a sense. I think that's just with age, but it's not like I want to get older or become this calm, responsible adult or anything. It's come naturally and I think getting into a calmer way of dealing with the band has lent itself to certain kind of music, or even to be able to think more clearly about the kind of music we want to do. In the past, everything just happened so fast and there was so little time to do certain things. Now it just feels slower.

I heard you're playing some older stuff live?
Yeah, we always try to rework some older stuff. Usually when we go on tour, especially after we put out a record, we kind of start writing the new one. And because we've been doing this visual movie thing, which is just for the studio, we haven't had time at all to work on anything new for tours. Plus, because we recorded Merriweather so fast we feel like we're still in that world. We aren't really ready yet to move on, or to force writing new stuff when it's not really time yet. But yeah, we have been reworking some old stuff to make the sets feel a little more varied.

You've probably been asked this a bunch, but do you want to shed some light on the whole Satan fish thing that popped up on your website before Merriweather's official release announcement?
We think it's a cool idea to present a record in a creative or interesting way, or just have fun with it. A press release is going to go out for a record anyway, so why don't we just announce the record the way we want to and have people feel it's a little more fun? Somehow, things we do, though, they get blown out of proportion and people think, "What does that mean?" or "What's the message?" I mean, people reversed the message to try to figure out what's really being said. For us, it's just a cool-sounding video that our friend made, so let's just try to do something in kind of a surprising way. That was our only intention.

What about the Merriweather listening parties? Was that your idea or just Domino's?
We thought we should just have listening parties where people are allowed to come that aren't journalists, just normal people who would want to check out the record. That was kind of our intention: just to have our fans be able to come and hear our record in some place with an awesome PA or something. And I mean, some people have sent us letters saying we are trying to do some whole viral marketing thing, but we're just into people hearing the record all as a whole and not having this thing where one track leaks and then another track leaks, to set up environments where we could let people hear the record as we'd like them to hear it and not just have the first impression be some crappy leak you got on the internet.

And what about the whole thing about having the vinyl release date being before the one for the CD?
That was Domino's idea but it seemed like a good one to us. It was supposed be a secret in the beginning. The release date wasn't really "changed." We were always going to put the vinyl out at that advanced date from the beginning, months before any other release date was set. But we weren't going to tell anymore and just make an announcement on the Domino website right before, saying the vinyl was in stores now and you could get it. Then somehow somebody found out, I guess someone at a record store, and then the news just spread everywhere that the record was coming out early. It wasn't a reaction to leaking or anything like that. It just seemed like it would be nice surprise for people.

Could you shed some light on why you chose the optical illusion for Merriweather's album art?
It was the movement of that particular image. We are always looking for certain cover elements that really relate to the music and the record, and felt the movement had the kind of watery quality that we talked a lot about when we were going in to make the record, just that the image was kind of this magical thing and the music inside is kind of this magic that's making [the movement] happen.

Another thing I'm curious about is do you ever see Deakin returning to the band?
Well, he's actually been working on this movie thing a lot. He just didn't really want to tour for a while and that's when we wrote a lot of the new material. So he hasn't really been part of this Merriweather stuff and it's been hard for him to go on this kind of vibe. But it's not like we're breaking up or he's kicked out of the band. He just needed a break and it turned out to be a little longer than we all expected.

With most of your recent output, it's very become quite sample-based. Do you ever see yourselves returning to a more organic sound?
I guess that depends on what we are looking to do. On one hand, we're always looking to do things in an organic way, but on the other, we want to do things in a more electronic, futuristic sort of way. So it's like we are always striving for the best of both worlds. Even when we were doing Sung Tongs and using acoustic guitars we were always looking for very modern music to inspire us and new, different ways to arrange chords. Now we're doing more electronic stuff and trying to figure out how to do it in a more organic way. I think we're always always hovering in that territory, but as for what we'll do on our next record, I don't really know.

And what about that long-in-the-works Animal Collective live box set? Are you still planning to put that out?
Yeah, I was just listening to the test pressings earlier actually. It's just been hard because we've been away so much. There have been some sound quality issues we needed to deal with, too, but it should come out by the middle of the year, I'm hoping. All the artwork is done and it looks sweet.

When do you think the whole "visual record" will be released?
We're going back in the studio in February and hopefully finish recording. Maybe at the latest, in the summer, but I can't really say for sure.

Are you by chance planning more solo recordings?
I know Noah [Lennox, aka Panda Bear] is definitely thinking a lot about it, but he's still just in the thinking stage. He's definitely enthusiastic about doing more stuff when Animal Collective slows down. I kind of jam all the time but haven't thought so much about doing another record on my own.

So, ultimately, what do you hope people take away from Merriweather?
Well, I hope it takes people to a special place, or a place we thought about going to when we were making it. The songs are really special to us and really emotional, and I hope people take that away from it and maybe feel a bit of what we were feeling.

Latest Coverage