Experiments with Animal Collective
Stephen Taylor / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
A drowned rat sat across from Animal Collective's
Josh Dibb in the Colabo cafe in the Shibuya area of Tokyo as Typhoon No. 9
began to make its hit on the capital. Thanks to a lucky break in the clouds,
Dibb had arrived dry as I sat dripping.
"I'm kind of looking forward to experiencing
a typhoon," revealed Dibb, whose band nickname is Deacon, on a visit to
Japan to promote the group's latest album, Strawberry Jam.
As I set up my minidisc recorder with my drenched
shirt clinging to my back, I remembered that the Animal Collective have more
than a passing interest in these compact little devices.
"It [an MD recorder] just has this certain
quality, the way it captures what's happening in a room...we just kinda got
addicted to it I guess," Dibb said.
So hooked that they decided to record their fourth
album on MD.
"When we started talking about doing Campfire
Songs it seemed a really obvious means to do it with. We used three and started
them all approximately the same time. We knew that what would happen is that
we'd end up mixing it together in this way where everything is slightly offset,
so it would add this spreading effect to it," he said.
This was not the only time the Animal Collective
had used such unorthodox methods of recording. Indeed, the music that Avey Tare
(Dave Portner), Geologist (Brian Weitz), Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) and Deacon,
four high school friends from Maryland, have created since the turn of the
century has frequently been labeled experimental.
Yet their inspiration at the time of Campfire
Songs came from a more mainstream source. "We were mixing [the album] in
Brooklyn with our friend Nicholas, and he had just gotten the Abbey Road
Beatles book that's an exhaustive history of every recording session the
Beatles did. We'd be sitting there mixing and I'd be constantly flipping
through it. They talked about the whole process and how they started to work a
lot with tape speeds and vary speed and mix multiple tapes together at the same
time... It's pretty amazing stuff to realize how minimal what they were working
And this preoccupation with creating a sound
rather than aiming for perfect recording quality is a feature of not only the
Animal Collective but also the groups who influenced the band.
"There was a lot of stuff, like Pavement,
some of those records were recorded on a Dictaphone...It wasn't lo-fi for the
sake of being sloppy, it was this way of representing something in a very
certain way," he said.
And when Avey Tare started experimenting with
multitrack recording speeds the rest of the band were amazed at what they
heard. "The sound quality was not the best ever but it had this very
particular feeling to it and you realize that there are ways to represent
what's happening and it's not bad [just] because it's low quality or a lo-fi
recording," he added.
Strawberry Jam, the group's seventh album, nods at
a myriad of musical sources. The Animal Collective aren't afraid to explore new
sounds, yet there is very little of the dreaded self-indulgence that is
sometimes synonymous with "experimental" music, something that Dibb
is conscious of.
"I feel like we're treading that line, we
love experimenting and we love that world of exploring sound and what you can
do with it, but at the same time we love making pop music, we love making
songs," he said.
And Strawberry Jam has its fair share of pop
songs, though Dibb's favorite track, "Cuckoo Cuckoo," combines a
simple melody with an emotional barrage of sound.
"It makes me tingle every time I hear it, it
still hits me like an emotional sort of catharsis that happens to the song. I
think the peak of the song is blissfully ecstatic and incredibly
heart-wrenchingly painful simultaneously...It's a diamond among gems for
me," he said.
The group's quirky lyrics and vocals remind me of
Devo yet the layered structure of the group's songs have more often than not
prompted comparisons with Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, an observation that Dibb
finds rather tiresome.
"I love the Beach Boys for sure and we all
do. I don't know if I see it as this really obvious connection but at the same
time I feel a lot of what he [Brian Wilson] was discovering was this attempt to
meld this incredibly intense pop perspective, which I know we definitely all
"There's definitely a crossover, but I don't
feel like Brian Wilson represents this one touchstone for us in that way, but
it comes up constantly," he said.
Another group from the same decade had quite an
effect on the group, though. The albums recorded by Pink Floyd before Syd
Barrett left the group have certainly left their mark on the band.
"Early Pink Floyd, especially for Dave and
Brian, was a really, really huge early influence. I think that was an
eye-opening moment for them, and then for me. I came to it through them,
hearing A Saucerful of Secrets and Piper [at the Gates of Dawn] or the early
singles. It's incredible stuff, with unique ways in what a song could be and
how it could grab your ear and make you feel," he said.
At one of Animal Collective's live shows, don't
expect to get bombarded by a string of old favorites.
"If anything it's the opposite. We write
music in preparation for going and playing live. We spend a certain amount of
time writing and practicing and working on new material and then we tour with
that music...until we get to a point where we have 15 songs and we've played
them to the point where live, at least, we've achieved everything we want to
achieve...Then we'll go into the studio and record the songs," he
Not that Japanese audiences seem too bothered by
this approach, as Dibb recalls from the band's tour of Japan last year.
"We were in the middle of a U.S. tour and playing to a lot of pretty rabid
kids, really screaming and dancing around and jumping. Then we showed up here
and played a show and nobody was moving. I think it took us a couple of shows
to realize...they were listening intently and being really respectful and they
were actually stoked," he said.
With no plans to tour until next year, the Animal
Collective's Japanese fans will have to wait a while to get stoked up again and
make do with the bread and butter of their recorded output--with a bit of
Strawberry Jam on top.
(21 Sept. 2007)