Animal Collective is an art-pop band from Baltimore, Maryland. Since 2000, they’ve made nine albums, six EPs, and one very freaky movie (or “visual album”), ODDSAC. Their tenth album, Centipede Hz, comes out on September 4th. If you’re a fan of Animal Collective, you are probably one of the following. A) an alien, B) a child satanist, C) a hipster who writes indie rock reviews for online music blogs, or D) all of the above. It’s entirely possible that you’re none of those things, in which case you’ve just made a lot of parents and/or journalists very confused.
Animal Collective consists of four members, all of whom are friends from high school (some from much earlier) and all of whom have fake names that represent things that they’re not in real life. We talked to each of them individually.
Noah Lennox is one of the founding members of Animal Collective. He also goes by the moniker Panda Bear. He gave himself the name because he liked drawing pictures of panda bears as a kid. Yes, that is the real reason. He’s 34 years old and plays many instruments, including synthesizers and (occasionally) drums. Panda Bear is the one member of Animal Collective who, based entirely on first impressions, would be the most fun to have a beer with.
No offense to the other Animal Collective guys, but you have the best pseudonym.
Thank you. I’m a big fan of the name. And the animal.
As awesome as it is, do you ever feel trapped by it?
A professional pseudonym is like a tattoo. Once you have it, it’s difficult to get rid of. Are there some days when you don’t feel like being Panda Bear?
Oh, yeah. I get really intense about naming things. And really finicky. I’m always changing my mind, always wanting to change them. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a time when I thought about changing my name.
I don’t know. Probably just my normal name. But I’m a realist. At this point I’ve stuck with Panda Bear long enough that it’s not going away. Which is fine. I’m okay with it.
We haven’t heard you drum on an Animal Collective album for awhile.
It’s been eight years.
But you’re back behind the drum kit for Centipede Hz. Was that intentional, or was everybody else in the band like, “Screw that, I’m not drumming, you do it?”
It was more about the nature of the music. For the last group of songs we did, we would play shows and not really work up a sweat. There wasn’t a whole lot of physicality to it. It was all about working with longer samples of repetitive phrases and just manipulating those sounds with a mixer and things like that. It had a sort of intensity, but there wasn’t much of an interaction on an instrument level.
But now you’re back to kicking out the jams?
Yeah, we all wanted to do something where we brought that side of music to the forefront again. For me, doing something on the drums is like a jump start to doing something really active.
Settle a bet between me and my MTV Hive editor. If there was a drumming competition between you and Richard Parry, the ginger sometimes drummer in Arcade Fire, who would win?
What? No, no, no! You would destroy him! You’re supposed to say you would destroy him!
I don’t really think of myself as a very accomplished drummer. I’m mostly interested in the musical side of drums. I like the sounds and tonalities of things. I’m not technically a very good drummer. So yeah, he’d probably blow me out of the water.
I just lost $20.
I can live with that. Sorry. I’ll pay you back. Next time I see you.
You have two kids, right?
That’s right, yeah. A son and a daughter.
Are either of them musicians?
My son responds strongly to music. My daughter not so much. She’s more of a visual person. She draws all the time. I actually used to draw a lot when I was young too.
She doesn’t like music at all?
No, no, she likes music. But she only responds to specific types of music. Usually heavy rhythm stuff, like Beyoncé or Rihanna. She’s really down with any kind of music with a rapid-fire energy. She’s kind of a fire cracker that way. Anything languid doesn’t really do it for her.
So she’s not a big Bon Iver fan?
No, that’s not her thing. But my son, his ears perk up at pretty much anything. Any kind of sound at all, he’s interested in it.
If your son started a band, which Animal Collective song would they cover?
Wow, that’s a great question. He’s a pretty progressive little guy, so probably something off the Danse Manatee album. He could pull that off pretty well, I think. He likes to break things. And punch things and kick things. That’s what he’s really into.
And that’s the musical aesthetic of Danse Manatee?
It can be reproduced with baby punches and kicks?
And yelping. You need some baby yelping.
Oh yeah, especially “Another White Singer.” That’s almost all yelping.
I remember playing some shows where something would break after the first three minutes of the set. And we would just totally improvise the rest of the show because we couldn’t play what we planned to play anymore. Something like that, my son would really knock that out of the park.
There have been various Animal Collective solo albums over the years. You’ve done four. Avey’s done one and is talking about a second. Deakin’s got a solo record coming out soon. Are your intentions similar to why the guys in KISS put out solo albums in the late ’70s?
Um, I don’t know. What were their intentions?
From what I understand, Ace wanted to quit the band and go solo because Gene and Paul were being dicks. But Gene was like, “Dude, chill, we’ve got a good thing going here.” So they all agreed to make solo albums rather than break up the band. It was just a band time out.
Yeah, it definitely feels like that. Not that we need a time out. I mean, first of all, to me, everything I work on solo, it all feels like a band thing. One thing informs the other, and it all feels part of the same creative trajectory.
But you give each other space.
Exactly, yeah. Even though we have band stuff, we also like to work on our own. We’re excited to leave space for each other to be able to do those things. But doing the solo stuff, it never felt like there was any sort of serious danger that it would fracture the band.
You’ll always get the guys back together eventually and make your Dynasty disco record.
Well, maybe not exactly that. [Laughs.]
From Strawberry Jam to the new album, the one adjective that keeps getting used when describing your music is “alien.” As in, extraterritorial. Is that an accident, or is that your target demographic?
When we were working on the new record, we had this image of an alien band. It sounds silly, but we were always like “Let’s get into that alien band place.”
Meaning, you played like aliens?
Yeah. Like we’re these aliens that are hearing snippets of radio frequencies coming out from the earth, maybe never getting a full song. It’s just pieces of different music from all over the globe. Maybe they never get a full song. It’s just notes and short flashes of melodies. And then we create our own musical landscapes based on that. We were always pushing to get the songs to that foreign place.
So on this record, you’re playing as an alien?
More or less, yeah.
What’s the alien version of you look like?
Huh. I never thought about it that way.
Does he have gills? Is he mostly amoeba? What type of life form are you?
There’s a weird kind of blue keyboard player in the cantina band in Star Wars. I always thought that guy was super cool.
The one who looked like an elephant?
Yeah, that’s him!
You’re thinking of Return of the Jedi.
Right, right. That’s the one. He’s blue, he’s got big pudgy fingers. He’s a very weird looking thing.
[Laughs.] You know his name?
Dude, I’m a nerd.
You want a new pseudonym that isn’t Panda Bear, there’s your best bet right there. Go with Max Rebo.
I’ll think about it, sure.
Let’s assume for the purposes of this interview that extraterrestrials exist.
They’re out there somewhere, doing their alien thing. Do they have music?
I think so. I hope so.
Are you sure it sounds like Centipede Hz? Maybe it’s not all trippy and spacey. Maybe they’re like, “We’re really into acoustic singer-songwriters.” Maybe “spacey” music is like their hair metal. They could be like “Oh man, that was so ’80s for us.”
I would guess that alien music is something that I can’t even imagine. I would love to be able to say, “Oh yeah, alien music sounds just like our album.” But I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.
So what does it sound like?
I couldn’t begin to have any idea. I would hope it’s something that would blow my mind with how crazy it sounds. I’m sure it’s like nothing I could even imagine. I often think about what if some classical composers, like Beethoven or Tchaikovsky or whoever, what if they were hearing music that’s being made today, how would they feel about that?
Do you have any theories? Would they hate it? Would they be like Baby Boomers listening to hip-hop?
I really don’t know. They might be impressed by some of it. I don’t think they could even conceive of a sampler. It would blow their minds to even imagine something like that. You can record a sound and distort it and create a new sound from it. That’s what I think it’d be like hearing alien music. I’d be hearing techniques and technology that we can’t even imagine. I’d be like Mozart listening to dubstep.
David Portner (aka Avey Tare) is a founding member of Animal Collective, and like everybody in his band, he multitasks. He plays guitar, sings, creates sound samples, plays keyboards, and hits on things in a percussive kinda way. Don’t fence him in! The 33-year-old L.A. transplant has been called the “primary artistic force” of Animal Collective, which may or may not be true, depending on your personal relationships with and/or degree of intense fandom for the other three guys in Animal Collective.
Let’s talk about aliens.
Sure, yeah. [Laughs.] You mean relating to our music, or just aliens in general?
We could go anywhere with that topic, I suppose. But let’s start with your music. You’ve always made records with a certain extraterrestrial vibe. But Centipede Hz could be on the jukebox in the Cantina Bar in Tatooine.
I think it just happens. Something like (2009′s) Merriweather Post Pavilion, as much as it was an expansive, spacey, airy record, it was very earth-bound to me. You know what I mean? In terms of what it was about and what we were talking about, the feeling of it came from very earthly matters.
But Centipede Hz isn’t about earthly matters?
Not really as much. I think the music just kind of took us out there. It took us to places we haven’t gone before.
I was talking to Panda Bear.
Yeah, Noah. We were talking about the Max Rebo Band from Return of the Jedi, and how they were an influence on the new album. Was that really what you had in mind when you were coming up with songs?
Well yeah, definitely. I can’t really remember how it started coming up. I think it was Noah actually. He started using the term “alien band” in reference to the kind of music he wanted to make or we should all be making. I think that just became an easy reference.
Before this interview, I was flipping through the Star Wars encyclopedia, and they described the Max Rebo Band as “jizz-wailers.”
Jizz-wailers. Is that how you’d categorize the music on Centipede Hz?
Serious? [Nervous laugh.] Jizz-wailers? It says “jizz-wailers?”
It does. I assume George Lucas signed off on it.
I don’t know. It’s hard to say, really.
It’s hard to say if you’re jizz-wailing?
I’m not sure if I know what jizz-wailing is.
Well according to the book, and I’m reading directly from it here, “A jizz-wailer was a term for musicians who specialized in playing jizz songs.”
Jizz songs. Is Centipede Hz a collection of jizz songs?
I guess I’d say [long pause] … no?
No you’re not jizz-wailers?
So how would you classify the new record? Let’s say you’re working at a record store and you just received a shipment of Centipede Hz. If it doesn’t belong in the “Jizz-Wailing” section, where does it belong?
I think the best way to describe it is “Centipede Hz.”
With the title?
That’s the best way we could come up with to describe what it is.
But “Centipede Hz” doesn’t mean anything. It’s a nonsense phrase.
Well yeah. But so is jizz-wailing. [Laughs.]
I’ve heard stories that the Strawberry Jam album started with the title and the album cover. Panda Bear had breakfast on a plane to Greece and looked at some jam and told the rest of the band that the record should sound like jam.
Yeah, that was pretty much it.
And then you made the album cover and the band made music inspired by that cover.
With Centipede Hz, which came first, the music or the creepy Rocky Horror Picture Show mouth cover?
I think the music kind of came out of it, that image. I definitely think it came about in a similar way, with similar words. Or new words that were tossed around in a similar fashion. “Centipede,” and especially describing energy. Music has a lot of ecstatic energy, and it’s really good for us all to be playing and trying to capture that kind of thing. So yeah, I think it’s just throwing around words. And I think that’s just vocabulary that we used to describe music and to talk about music when we’re making it, when we’re writing it, you know, it becomes a fun way, a more exploratory way to explore music and get into it, talking about images. Because we all like film a lot, and we spend a lot of time watching movies together, especially when we’re working, that it’s become a pastime, and I think that effects it too. The way visuals come across and the way visuals are mixed with music and sound and soundtracks. I think it all comes together in this way, in the environments we like to create. We think of everything as this new environment. A sonic environment that we’re trying to create.
On a scale of one to ten, one being Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and ten being Roger Waters while he was recording Dark Side of the Moon, how stoned are you right now?
[Laughs.] What? No, not at all.
Okay, that’s cool. I was trying to follow what you just said, and it felt like I was staring at a blacklight poster in a college dorm room.
No, not even slightly.
I was reading this old USA Today story about Animal Collective, and it began with, “They’ve been called weirdoes, freaks and satanists.” Have you ever actually been called any of those things?
Yes, I think probably all of them.
Really? You’ve been called “weirdos”?
We have, yeah.
I thought my five year old nephew was the only person who still used the word “weirdo.”
I don’t know about weirdo, but we hear things like “That’s too weird” or “That’s just weird for weird’s sake.” People say stuff like that, for sure.
Yeah, we’ve been called satanists a couple times.
This is the first I’m hearing of it.
I can’t remember if it was a case of some kid’s parents picking them up from one of our shows and they came in and saw what was happening, or maybe it was a kid who came to our show and didn’t really know what to expect, maybe they just knew only one song and got really excited and had never seen us before and didn’t know what it was going to be like.
And then you guys come out in black robes, and you start chanting, “Regie satanas, ave satanas.”
[Laughs.] Right, yeah? It’s none of that. But I guess it’s just the nature of some of our fans getting super into it, feeling this really personal connection with us. People dress up, they let loose and do various … substances and things like that.
You are stoned right now, aren’t you?
No! [Laughs.] So whoever this young person was, he or she, I wasn’t really sure, they went to our show and then came home and ranted to their parents about it. Somebody wrote a letter to the promoter, which was like “What is this band you’re promoting? It sounds like a satanic cult experience!” So the second time it happened-
You’ve been called satanists twice?
Well then you’re clearly satanists. Fool me once, shame on you….
We were making (the 2010 film) ODDSAC, and the director hired all these children to be in this scene with me dressed as this really weird character.
You were in white-face makeup, right?
Yeah. And we were filming in Deakin’s mom’s house in Maryland, which is a really interesting place.
We were shooting in this room that’s kind of a hexagonal shape. It has like a spiritual vibe to it. You know what I mean? It’s actually used for that kind of thing in her line of work.
She’s a “spiritual consciousness therapist?”
Is that what it is?
I don’t know. That’s what I got from Google. I figured you would have a better idea than me.
I guess so, I don’t really know. So for the scene, we were all sitting in a circle on this purple carpet, and it’s not a very big room so all the kids’ parents had to be outside. Because it was a closed shoot in a way. There were a few parents that were able to look in but not everybody was. One of the parents freaked out that we wouldn’t let them come into the room and they saw me dressed like this weird space guru, with all these kids sitting around me like we were trying to pull off some sort of black mass ritual. I think it was one of the mothers who got angry and pulled their child out of the shoot immediately.
But otherwise, there’s been no pentagrams or goats having their throats cut during Animal Collective shows?
We’ve never really gotten into that kind of thing as a band.
But you personally?
Yeah, maybe. Here and there. You never know. You get bored on tour.
Do you read your reviews?
Definitely, yeah. It’s hard to avoid.
What’s your favorite adjective used to describe your music?
I have a least favorite. I don’t know about favorite.
What’s your least favorite?
“Pastoral” is up there as my least favorite. Or “child-like.” Those are two.
You don’t think Animal Collective is child-like?
I just think it’s a phrase that’s been over-used in describing music like ours, or just us specifically. I think it’s fine when it happens once or twice, but when it happens in every review or every time you read something, it’s like, “Oh, people can’t come up with a better way of talking about what we do.” Or maybe it’s just hard to write about us, I don’t know.
I personally love it when critics describe Animal Collective with the adjective “droney.”
Droney? Huh. That’s interesting.
Because it’s meant, I think, as a compliment.
Are you sure?
I’m pretty sure. When a journalist describes AC as “droney,” they’re usually saying something positive about the band. In almost any other context, if you said, “What is that droney sound?” it could only be interpreted as an insult. But in Animal Collective reviews, it’s almost always a compliment.
I like droney stuff. I wouldn’t describe all of our music as droney but some of it, for sure, yeah.
My other favorite is “sun-woozy.”
Yeah, woozy. That word makes me sleepy just reading it.
Sun-woozy? I like that.
Have you met your critics?
I’ve met writers from around New York, here and there. But otherwise, not really.
When you’re playing at the Pitchfork Festival, are you surrounded by dudes with beards and non-prescription glasses?
We have intense fans. Actually for us the bulk of our fan base is like younger kids.
Younger kids as in prepubescents?
No, like teenagers. Dressed up and tie-dyed and wearing crazy makeup and stuff like that.
So … satanists, basically? Totally. They’re all totally into Satan.
[Laughs.] No, they’re just cool young people who are really, really into the music. It can get intense sometimes, especially for us. When we’re not on tour, we’re pretty solitary individuals. We have wives and girlfriends and families and kids and we stay at home mostly. It’s only when we’re on the road that we have to be so outward and sociable and conversational with strangers. It takes some getting used to.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on MTVHive.com.)