Animal Collective release their ninth album on September 2 and honestly, it's everything you could hope for from a follow-up to the imposingly perfect Merriweather Post Pavilion. Centipede Hz drops some of the studio sheen they adopted for that album and finds reunited quartet (Josh Dibb was absent from the last LP) as reliably unpredictable as ever, exploring new sonic territory while still retaining some of the inviting melodicism of Merriweather.
Earlier this summer, I sat down with all four members of Animal Collective in a cute but balmy apartment in Manhattan's Bowery neighborhood. We discussed what they were driving at on Centipede Hz, why they've had to turn down directors asking them for music and whether Animal Collective would ever call it quits.
You came into this project, Josh, without having played on Merriweather. Did you feel at all disconnected with the group's evolved sound?
Josh Dibb (Deakin): No, I feel we’ve removed most of the markers of that sound intentionally. We went into this thinking, "We’re not going to rely too much on sample-based or sequence-based stuff." They did a lot of backing track for Merriweather and we wanted this to be more of a live thing. It was a different world.
David Portner (Avey Tare): Sometimes we made a decision where we felt like, 'Well, we did a lot of harmonies on Merriweather and so we don’t want to do more.' But Josh would be like, "Oh, well, why not?" And it's like, 'Eh'…. But it’s never a huge issue. Nothing that’s come up has ever caused a huge fight.
Josh: [laughing] Just quiet brooding. No shouting.
This album features Josh's first solo vocal on an Animal Collective record. What came first—the song itself or the decision to have a Deakin solo vocal?
Josh: It was a combination of both. I took a break from the last record to give myself space to push myself to work on my [own] music again, which I’ve kind of put on hold since the end of high school. Which was a long time ago. By the time we got together and started jamming again I was in a much more natural place for writing songs. That one ["Wide Eyed"] I had written right before we got together and I thought the vibe fit some of the ideas we were talking about. I took a break to get myself re-excited about doing my own music, so it felt like a natural thing. It was exciting for me be like, "I’m doing this song, what do you guys think?"
What about that solo album you've been talking about releasing? Any definite plans to start recording it?
Josh: It’s becoming one of those things where you get yourself in trouble by telling people certain [release] times. It’s been a process for me. For a lot of different reasons, it’s taking time. I go in and out of zones where it feels I have all the energy to put into it and my headspace is there. But because it’s the first thing that I will have done solo, for better or worse, I feel really precious about it. The only thing I can say definitely is that it’s something I am going to do. When... it’s hard to say. Things have been a lot busier with getting this record done, so I look at little pockets coming up in my life. I’ve changed from wanting to do it completely by myself, to playing with other people, to doing a more sample-based and cut-up thing, or even a really straight live thing. It changes a lot and I’m okay with that process. It has its drawbacks, but it is what it is.
When you listened to Merriweather for the first time, were you surprised at the sound?
Josh: Yeah, but in a good way. One of the positive elements—at least for Brian and me—of not being involved in every [Animal Collective] record is that you get to have records where you can just be a fan. On Merriweather I was just like, 'This is awesome.' It definitely wasn’t what we had been doing sonically. There were things that were familiar about it but it felt really new, so I was able to be stoked to listen to it.
Do you guys ever listen to Animal Collective recreationally, like while driving or exercising?
David: When we’re mixing there’s a time period of playing the record for certain people and getting some enjoyment about being there when people here it. So I’ll listen to it then. But beyond that, not usually.
Brian Weitz (Geologist): I listened to Merriweather for the first time during the mastering process [of Centipede Hz] just to reference it. It was weird. It’s so poppy and this next record is going to be so weird—there are five minutes without a drum beat in the middle of Merriweather.
After the pop excursions on Merriweather, did you make a conscious choice to move back into more experimental territory?
David: There was no intention of moving away from pop... It’s just the nature of the songs that are written and how we’re feeling... Part of it is definitely the sound we get when we’re playing together.
Josh: We talked about not doing things that were as reliant on repetitive, trance-styled long parts, but it wasn’t an effort to be less poppy.
I'm sure you've heard of the rather unsavory film Human Centipede. Were you aware of that connection in the public mind when naming the album Centipede Hz?
Brian: My wife brought that up, actually. I’ve never even seen it. My wife didn’t think we had been inspired by it, because she knew I hadn’t seen it, but she was like, 'It’s just unfortunate that the centipede in culture right now is always associated with this really obscene thing.'
David: I know the younger generation won’t think of the arcade thing, but when I hear "centipede" in my mind it makes me think of being in an arcade.
Did the old school Centipede video game have anything to do with the album's cover art?
David: It had to do with the image on the side of the arcade game and the cover of the Atari game. The cover is a mixture of different weird watercolors I made, drawings my sister did, and then found sci-fi art.
So Noah, you mostly live in Lisbon now. Do you enjoy returning to America or do you feel more comfortable back at home?
Noah Lennox (Panda Bear): I’m definitely most comfortable at home, that’s just the kind of person I am. But it’s definitely a treat to hang out with these guys [in New York]. But going back to Baltimore was neither here nor there.
Is Animal Collective an on-and-off project for life? Or would you ever have a reason to stop? Like, "We've accomplished it all, we're done."
Josh: I don’t think it’s so much that we would accomplish what we set out to do, because we’re always open for something new to inspire us. But we’ve always said if there was a point where we all tried to get together and work on music and it just wasn't feeling like a new level, then there’s really no point. But I don’t think I see it as a "life thing" or "not a life thing."
Noah: I see it as a life project. I can see there being a time when somebody would be like, 'I don’t want to do this anymore,' but it would never be like, 'This is never going to happen again.'
Brian: I would be surprised if someone was like, 'I never want to do this again.'
Josh: We could do the farewell tour and then not break up.
David: [laughs] If we need the money.
Brian: We could do it Phil Collins style, 10 years of farewell tours. Or Jay-Z.
Or like Billy Joel, you could retire but still make classical music. Would you ever consider going the "let's write an orchestra" route?
Brian: Well, we really enjoyed ODDSAC [their visual album], and I could see film scoring. We’ve talked to a few directors about it, but ultimately we look at their vision or what they want out of us for their film and we haven’t found the right situation yet.
David: If it was a project we really felt personal about and put some time into, that would be the next thing we’d work on for a while.
Who has contacted you about working on their films?
Brian: I don’t want to say [now] after I just passed judgment. Not to put their work down, [but] it just wasn’t right.
David: It’s mostly timing for us, too. In that world, things have to move a lot quicker than what we’re used to. We’d be in a situation where someone would say, "We really like 'Fireworks' or we really like 'Summertime Clothes,' can you write those kinds of songs and put them in our movie?" And we’re just like, "It took us a year to write those songs." Well, maybe not that long.
Josh: What gets us more excited is the sound design and the atmosphere of what the movie is. That’s not an obvious thing for a director to ask. [It's more] like, "I heard that record Merriweather and now I want to ask Animal Collective to make all their crazy sounds in the background." As opposed to asking, "Would you make some jams?"
Brian: Or it's, "In this scene where these guys are running, I want 'Summertime Clothes' or something [that sounds] like it."
Was Centipede Hz easier or harder to record than your other albums?
David: A lot of them are difficult. Some [albums] we just haven’t had the amount of time [we'd like]. Something like Danse Manatee, we did in spurts on our own. It was what it was. And something like Here Comes the Indian we did in three days because that was all the time we had to do it. But this one was a little more difficult in terms of perfecting it and being content.
How much time did you spend recording Centipede Hz? Did particular songs take longer than others?
David: It depends on the song. "Today's Supernatural"—from playing it all together in Baltimore—was pretty much done by the time we got in the studio. So no more than three months to do it. But something else like "Applesauce" took a little longer to piece together because it was harder to do in the live setting.
Josh: January, March 2011 was when we wrote most of the songs. Then we played a lot of those live, so it became pretty clear what worked and what didn’t. But there were four songs that just we hadn’t... we needed practice space to play them live until it felt good, because we hadn’t had that moment of knowing what it feels like to play them live.
David: Just in terms of knowing what it felt to play that live, having that energy onstage and feeling like we were interacting with the instruments and the complexities and keeping the energy going. That’s why [the energy of our live music] translated over to the record.
Do you ever get nervous road testing new material?
Brian: That happens.
Josh: The song "Honeycomb" we played all last year and people had mixed responses, from "this is good" to being a little glassed over when we’re playing it. We just played a show in Japan and when Brian played the intro to that song, everyone knew it. The recognition factor influences whether people are going to be fully engaged.
David: It’s also who you’re playing for. We might be in the mood to play certain songs like “Visiting Friends” or “Daffy Duck"—songs that last 10 minutes of just drone—and to some people they’re not songs at all. Although of course to us they are. But then other people are like, "Why don’t you do the spaced-out, slow moments anymore?" So it’s hard to know.
Brian: You could also say there’s pressure to do so many different things that there’s pressure to do nothing. There’s no pressure at all.