It’s been nearly a decade since Animal Collective last played Columbus. Back then, the group’s popularity, outside of what felt like a secret cognoscenti, was just starting to peak. On that balmy May night at the Wexner Center I described the proceedings as “beautifully grotesque,” a happening that invited everyone including the psychedelic pop faithful, the Molly enthusiasts, new-age hippies, and heaps of curious co-eds to share in the spirit of musical freedom rather than just the music itself. Little did the crowd know the band were workshopping infamous songs that wouldn’t surface on record until years later—a practice in their live shows that lives on today—and experimenting with loops and patterns that might have only survived in that ephemeral moment. Dig deep enough and you can find a wobbly bootleg of the show in question and let the flashbacks begin.
It’s not just hyperbole to say that Animal Collective exist outside the boundaries of pop. Meshing junk-drawer reggae, cartoonish electronica, primal beat, and esoteric harmonies, theirs is a sonic playground where familial rock tropes mutate in vibrant, unheard, new directions.
This month brings Painting With…, yet another confounding listen from the laboratory of Animal Collective’s core members, Panda Bear, Avey Tare, and the Geologist. Though their stature couldn’t be any higher, it’s a record that refuses to bend for commercial pursuits. In fact, as euphoric and melodically rich as songs like “Floridada” and “Golden Gal” unravel, there’s a return to that freedom, that spirit, which birthed the band’s untamed beginnings.
I recently spoke with Tare about those intangibles that have made Animal Collective such an anomaly in modern music and how and where they gather the inspiration to continue to surprise their obsessive fans.
You guys have your hands in so many different things, live all over the world, for Painting With…, what was the impetus that prompted you to join forces? All the stuff that we do is just part of the greater picture that is our lives. Animal Collective is just one small piece of that puzzle, but it’s always hovering around and it’s something that’s on our minds a lot of the time. It’s pretty crucial that we all have our own things going on and have the freedom to do that but as long as we are friends and are inspired to make music then we plan on getting together to make records or some sort of project.
The album is decidedly poppy, bright, topical, but also loose and organic. Was there an intention at the start to return to how you created in the earliest days of the band? For me personally, this record just marks a more playful bright time in my life. I think the last couple records I was a part of and the songs I wrote were very deeply introspective and I was using that music to work out a lot of emotions. This makes for a very specific kind of song in a way which can be awesome but I don’t think either [Panda Bear] or I wanted to write those kind of songs for this record. Topically I think it’s pretty serious, actually, and even if some of the imagery is more playful—like in “Floridada”—the things we are singing about mean a lot to us and are even a little problematic. The record was also really fun to make and I think often that experience surfaces in the music.
In a recent interview you said there “was a heart in all Animal Collective records,” because the music of Animal Collective is so individual and unique. It would be interesting to know how you, no matter how esoteric, describe that sound? I wish I could. Free is the best way to describe it for me. And not “free-form” because we have a very definitive form. I think it’s free of expectation and free of being boxed into a specific genre even if that means some people are going to hate it. We are inspired by so much that it’s hard to pin it down and it changes. But I also think it’s the sound of our friendship, which is very deep. And we feel free and open with each other and so it naturally translates into the music.
I think your fans have that same expectation from the band on stage. Animal Collective is known as an “experience” live and that’s something that is rare for audiences these days. How do you evolve to keep that standard in top form when you start each tour? There’s always a little bit of a challenge. For the tour coming up it seemed like it might even be more difficult because we haven’t played any of the record on stage. But now that we are playing the songs together—at least in practice—it seems like everything is really flowing together. At the end of the day, I think it’s really something we just love doing. As much as I love individual songs from bands, when I go see them live I hope I take a bit more of a special experience from it. You can sit home and listen to our record anytime. Music and environment have always been very attached for us and so we love to work with how sounds and songs are going to translate at different venues. It has the possibility of always being different and so we just accept that and strive to have new experiences for ourselves each night.
There are certainly parallels with the Grateful Dead, given the improvisation of live shows and the community of tape traders. You were the first band to sample a Dead song. Do you think the parallel or comparison is apt? Well sonically it’s all a bit different. They have way more chops then we do and their improvisations are very indicative of that. But they have been one of my favorite bands since I was in fifth grade, so it’s definitely in there. The first time I saw them play live it was one of those life-changing moments where you experience music presented in a completely new way. It has a lot to do with the environment link I was talking about. I think similar to us, the Dead understood the variations and the sort of “benefits” that the live setting and any given venue can provide. I think we are probably all people that are just very open to letting things happen in the live realm.
Now that you’ve been a band through a cycle where you have a wave of artists influenced by Animal Collective, is there any new music that provides inspiration to the music you are making in the present? Kendrick Lamar.
Animal Collective will play Newport Music Hall on Friday, February 16. For music and more information visit myanimalhome.net