Animal Collective. Photo: Abita Photo
For over a decade now, Animal Collective have consistently delivered to their fans high-energy, intensely weird music, with occasional, equally weird visuals to accompany their sounds. Their experimentation includes a vast array of influences, from pop music, horror films, strange literature and classical music. The band will be playing in Salt Lake City at The Depot on March 23, which is sure to be a mind-altering experience. Preliminary to their presence in our city, SLUG spoke with Brian Weitz, aka "Geologist," about their new album and what life is like outside of the band.
SLUG: Can you explain how the band mixes and works together during the songwriting process?
Geologist: It's different for different records. Primarily Dave Portner (Avey Tare) writes most of the songs, in terms of writing the melody. Noah Lennox (Panda Bear) does a little bit too. They usually present the melody to the band and the chord progression, and together we decide how we want to produce it. Everybody else writes their own parts for it, and it's usually a group decision for the tempo or the rhythm. For the most recent record, that was the goal, the process we wanted to go in with.
SLUG: What is your equipment setup like?
Geologist: I have three samplers, a multi-effects pedal that I use for reverb delay. I have two synthesizers: a Moog Little Phatty that I play with one hand, and a Moog Taurus, which is like a foot pedal synthesizer that you can put on the floor and play with your feet, and I do the bass line with that.
SLUG: How did the creation of Centipede Hz differ from the creation of your previous albums?
Geologist: It was more like going back to how it was when we all lived in New York, where someone would come in with a vocal melody and then we would just jam on it until we figured out how we wanted to produce the song. Strawberry Jam and Merriweather Post Pavilion were a little different because we were all spread out, so we would email demos to each other, or people would come in with a lot of work that they had done on their own, and then we would play for each other and figure out what parts fit together. Merriweather, for example, was very sample based and we used a lot of backing tracks. Dave, Noah and I spent a couple months working by ourselves as individuals, and when we got together, everyone showed up with all these samples, and we would fit them together into songs by matching the pitches or tempos and things like that. We wanted Centipede Hz to be more like a band writing a rock record, even though we were going to continue to use electronics and samples. We wanted to be in the room together and write it more by jamming, more on the spot, without showing up with anything pre-prepared so it would be more of a group thing.
SLUG: With the elements of radio transmissions throughout the album, was that something that was premeditated on, or was that something you came up with along the way?
Geologist: It was an idea we had not for Merriweather, but for the tours that we went on after that album was done. We don't stop in between every song—we'll jam from one song into the other, and the way it happened is we would play a song, and, usually, it would go into ambience or drone and from that we would build another song. We were trying to think of ways to do those transitions a little faster with more cut up samples in there, and Dave's brother in the ’90s had been a Top 40 modern rock radio DJ, and he gave Dave a CD of some of his radio shows with the sound effects of FM radio and the little advertisements. We thought it would be cool and kind of humorous to use those, and cut out the CD, but we never actually did that. Before going into the songwriting , Dave and I talked about how that was a fun idea, and maybe we should see if that would work with whatever we came up with. After a couple of weeks or so of playing, things started to take shape with this idea of how could we reinterpret rock music and still sound like Animal Collective, and this idea came up: What if we lived on another planet and somehow we heard rock music from Earth, but it was kind of scrambled and fucked up when it got to us? That reminded us of this idea that we had in our back pockets of the radio transmissions, and that fit in a conceptual way (even though we don't really like to think of ourselves as a “conceptual” band, and don't really go into things trying to make them conceptual). It seemed serendipitous that we already had this idea and were looking for the right place to fit it in, and it fit with the story that we were telling ourselves to guide us.
SLUG: Where did the name Centipede Hz come from?
Geologist: We wanted a name that sounded like a radio broadcast, or a radio station that would exist somewhere. Usually, before we start writing any songs, the four of us or three of us will get a little email group going, or we'll have conference calls, or just hang out, and we'll talk a lot about what we're inspired by and what we're thinking about for the next group of songs. In one of those early discussions a couple months before we started playing, Dave brought up being more into progressive rock from the ’70s, and it had a lot of parts that went in all these crazy directions, and he talked about wanting to write songs that were a bit more progressive. So there would be different sections instead of verse-chorus-verse, not necessarily a pop structure, and the songs would be fast, a bit more intricate and, in terms of musicianship, [we wanted to] push ourselves to do more technical things with how we played, with a lot of sonic details. He brought up the image of a centipede, and the image of this insect that moves in a slithery way and has all these sections and little legs, and those would be the sonic details. So we had this idea of a centipede as a guiding image to keep in our heads. Also, they look pretty alien. Popular depictions of aliens are usually very insectoid. We also thought about how Merriweather was aquatic and atmospheric, and we didn't want this record to be that as much. We felt like we had exhausted that. We wanted this record to feel a bit more earthy and rocky, with rocky landscapes like Mars or some other planet might be, and centipedes feel very much of the dirt. The “Hz” is a reference to the radio.
SLUG: Do you have a favorite song from Centipede Hz that you worked on, or a favorite song to play live?
Geologist: I'd probably say “Applesauce” is my favorite one to perform live. It's kind of the most physical one, that one or “Moonjock.” I usually have to play everything in my setup, use both hands and my foot, so it's the most fun to play, and I think, melodically, it might be my favorite one on the record.
SLUG: You have a wife and kid—how do you balance being in Animal Collective with your family life?
Geologist: Luckily, Noah also has a wife and children, and one of the other guys has been married before. Noah had his first kid in 2005, so it took a little time learning for us, but he was kind of the guinea pig. He sort of figured out the acceptable amount of time to be away. Through trial and error of almost pushing his family to the point of exhaustion, by the time I got married and had a family, we already knew what the limits should be. Generally how we do it is we keep a calendar and plan things a few months in advance, so we can really make plans in terms of day care and all that stuff, and we try to make it so we're just gone for a few weeks. Skype helps—these days you can talk to your kids every day and actually look them in the eye. I usually stay home for a month, and try and make up for the time gone, so I do a lot of the cooking and I basically become the housewife when I’m off tour.
SLUG: What are you listening to a lot of lately, or feeling inspired by?
Geologist: Dave and I have been reading a lot of HP Lovecraft. When we were recording Centipede Hz, two short stories in particular were really inspiring: One was called “Color Out of Space,” and “The Whisperer in Darkness” was the other. They both have a lot of imagery and a lot of sounds that are on the record. The new Burial 12-inch, Truant/Rough Leaper, has been a big favorite in the band, and R.I.P. by Actress was a big one last year. I'm also really into the THEESatisfaction record, Au Naturale.
SLUG: Where do you see the band going next?
Geologist: Usually after a traditional record we try to find a non-traditional project to work on, something a bit more, for lack of a better word, "arty." For example, after Merriweather, we spent a lot of time finishing up our ODDSAC movie and doing a tour with that, and we did a sound installation at The Guggenheim, so hopefully opportunities like that will present themselves. We've always wanted to do a film score or something, but there's nothing really planned right now. We’re just hoping that we'll still get to be creative without having to go back into the studio and tour routine again. It's good to do something unique in between those experiences.
Along with Dan Deacon, Animal Collective will be playing at The Depot on March 23. Tickets are available at Smiths Tix or myanimalhome.net/tickets.