Animal Collective are on a short European tour to promote their (count them) ninth album Merriweather Post Pavilion, a record which is already attracting ‘album of the year’ predictions from terribly eager quarters.
With such hyperbole gushing in their direction, the three-to-four-piece have suddenly found themselves in an unaccustomed spotlight, and it’s made them rather busy. So when we let it be known that we fancied a chat, we were told we’d get somebody to talk to, but nobody could quite say who.
We were given a wrong number. Then we got to speaking on cross-purposes with an Italian man. There was half an expectation that a joke was being played on us. Then, with the correct number, we got an ‘engaged’ tone for 20 minutes. Was somebody trying to tell us something?
But when Dave Portner, aka Avey Tare, answered the call, we were put at ease. His mood was upbeat, and he seemed open and approachable. Being down a phone line, of course he might have been making faces. But we like to think he wasn’t.
It seems that the amount of interest in the band has slightly surprised and frightened Portner in a way, not least the steps taken to prevent a leak by their label Domino, employing Web Sheriff. “We weren’t really involved with it all,” he explains. “Some people think we might have leaked our record at Christmas or done all this weird stuff, but we have tried to stay on the outskirts.” Weird stuff? “We felt that the more we talk about it and present ideas about it to the public, it continues and continues and people argue… We just wanted it to end, at least the talk about it. It just became intense and bizarre that it was so newsworthy.”
Portner accepts that people want to get their hands on records before their release date, and knows it isn’t all bad. “It’s awesome that people want to hear it. We don’t want to do anybody wrong… It was messed up that Ed from Grizzly Bear was the one that got yelled at and that was a big deal, when other people leaked that track.”
So he’d rather the album wasn’t so closely guarded ahead of release date? “Once things are leaked, to us, the band, it’s kind of like that’s the way it is,” he reasons. “Nobody should really get yelled at or anything like that, but I feel that Domino feels a little bit differently. But having the music on the internet has helped us more than hurt us in terms of popularity and people hearing our music.”
In which ways has it helped? “The web helps us out in (the live context) too. We encourage people to record our sets if they want, and certain songs become favourites with our fans and they get passed around. I think that’s how people get into it. I think it builds up this really good, positive feeling around the record.”
“It’s hard for us because we are so insular. We are these really private guys, it’s hard for us to work with anybody that we don’t really know very well.” – Avey Tare
This mood seems in distinct contrast with when Merriweather’s predecessor, Strawberry Jam, was recorded. “That was a very transitional time in our lives. We were kind of all over the place and the record was written in a lot of different places. So it doesn’t have the cohesive feel that this record has. I just feel because of where we were at the time and how we were all feeling it was a darker record, but we kind of wanted it to be that way.”
Why does Merriweather have such a different feel? “This one, in the first couple of weeks we wrote nine songs. It went really, really well and our spirits were high. There was a lot of joking around and it just felt really good.”
“The emotions that are put in the record are real and true to us,” he continues. “Because of the amount of touring we did up to recording these songs, having to be away from home so much, thinking a lot about working as musicians… All this stuff went into writing and creating these songs.”
On the subject of the difficult passages which have peppered Animal Collective’s back catalogue, he says “It was just the mood. We have done plenty of records that have the more in-your-face, maybe abrasive (side). With Strawberry Jam, we wanted it to be that way, we wanted it to feel kind of rude. (So) just to do something different, because we were feeling mellower all around, that’s just how this one turned out.”
However they’re feeling, their audience continues to grow. How do they maintain the momentum and the intrigue behind each new project? “People respond more live to our more enthusiastic, upbeat songs, but our tastes are all over the place. Music for us has always been a more positive outlet. Even if we were angry or we were sad. I think that there are even a lot of songs on Merriweather that have a kind of sadness, but we have wanted to use the music as seeing a positive light.”
Portner is brimming with this new found positivity and reflects the in-band harmony. “With the last few records, we’ve all been in different places with Noah (Lennox, aka Panda Bear) living in Lisbon, Brian (Weitz, aka Geologist) lives in (Washington) DC and I live in New York, so when we get together to play, the playing is special time for us. It’s the only time we really hang out together. I think that’s why it has become so fun.”
This is not to say that the band do not have their disagreements. On the positioning of the upbeat Brother Sport, one of the undoubted highlights of the record, as album closer he admits, “it was actually a big argument… Well not really an argument. There was a lot of debate.”
Why so? “A tracklisting is really important to us, especially Brian and I. We put a lot of thought into it – it’s defining the perfect flow. We often end our sets with Brother Sport before the encore, and got used to it becoming a close off. It seemed to work live for us. Originally, I didn’t think it was going to work because it gets you ready, people are going to want more, the party is just beginning.”
Alternatives were considered. “We thought (of using) No More Running, but it was too obvious for us to have a mellow song. It was something we had done before. So it seemed like something different, in a really positive way to end the record with Brother Sport.”
After Merriweather comes Animal Collective’s next project, a visuals DVD featuring completely new music. “It’s been slow coming together, because it’s such a new process for us and with everything else going on” he says. “But everything is more or less written now, we just need to record when we go in the studio in February. I imagine it will be done by the middle of the year.”
When asked whether we might expect to hear some of the new material live, Portner is not so sure. “We really want the music to go hand-in-hand with the visuals. Some of it wouldn’t make sense or be as interesting without the visuals there.”
Our time up, it’s plain that Dave Portner and his bandmates are on top of their game and happy with the hand they’ve been dealt. But if there is one thing about Animal Collective, it’s that they always keep their fans on their toes. So your guess is as good as ours what their next move will be.