The forest as a conduit for spiritual introspection has been a metaphor throughout the history of art and literature. Perhaps this is brought on by some kind of evolutionary dÈj‡ vu - a tacit remembrance of our animal origins that gets the old wheels turning. Or maybe it's the teeming complexity of the wild that reminds us how insignificant we are. I don't know. But there has been a palpable back-to-the-woods movement among many young artists today. Photographers like Ryan McGinley and Justine Kurland are shooting nudes in the forest, visual artists Marcel Dzama and Ernesto Caivano have constructed their own imaginary worlds steeped in animal imagery, and even hip Lower East Side boutiques seem to have a deer fetish right now.
Although too idiosyncratic and visionary to be a part of a particular movement, the Animal Collective could be considered the premier practitioners of this tree-climbing trend. Operating from an ever-changing arsenal that includes found sound, electronic squiggles, manipulated vocal harmonies, tribal chanting, and Brazilian rhythms, the music of the Animal Collective is distinctly organic. But whereas past albums like Danse Manatee and Here Comes the Indian seemed to revel in the loose, chaotic aspects of nature, the new Sung Tongs manages to find the path through the forest. The first two songs are the catchiest, most accessible work the band has produced to date. While the other tracks lack this immediacy, the album shows the band fusing its disparate influences into a unique, whimsical hybrid that is more complex, more knowing, and ultimately more satisfying than the band's fledgling releases.
After emailing back and forth with the Animal Collective's publicist, I procured one ticket to their sold out show at the Anthology Film Archives benefit and the chance to interview the band. I had just sat down in the lobby of the AFA when shuffling footsteps interrupted my thinking. A ragtag troupe of merry pranksters was flopping down the stairs with guitars in tow. It was the band. Dave (aka Avey Tare; the band don't dabble in last names) had a big smile on his face and a flannel hunting cap that both mocked and celebrated his band's rural roots. And although a few girls had tabbed Noah (Panda Bear) as the looker of the bunch, Dave seemed to be the charmer, the one most at ease with himself. But Noah is the perfect contrast: quiet, introspective, stone-faced. Perhaps it is this natural chemistry that has kept the two together since they were fourteen-year-old hippie outsiders in Northern Baltimore County. To this day, these two form the core of the Animal Collective, appearing on all the group's releases and writing the majority of the songs, although bandmates Brian (aka The Geologist) and Josh are also childhood friends.
I introduce myself to Josh (aka Deakin), who I'd talked to briefly on the phone. The only member taller than 5'9", he is lanky, with messy hair and clear, plastic glasses. His blue hoodie is heavily stained and it looks like he hasn't shaved in a while. These boys are so obviously on tour it hurts. Josh seems distracted and indecisive as to what we should do about the interview. Meanwhile, a young Japanese couple is talking to Dave, also trying to secure an interview. We eventually decide to split up into two camps, and I get Josh and Noah.
We walk around the East Village looking for somewhere quiet. "How about this place?" I say, pointing to an empty cafÈ. "It looks good."
"Yeah, but they might try to make us buy food though," Noah says. After walking way too far, we somehow end up at a loud sports bar, the antithesis of what we'd originally wanted.
As we sit down, a waitress quickly comes over to take our order but neither Noah or Josh want anything, so I get a beer. The two of them began discussing their show at Bard College the night before, amazed at the delirious enthusiasm of the students there whose reputation for odd behavior is legendary. (I witnessed this first hand at a Bard art show once, where I ended up in a car with a girl who introduced herself as Amelia Earheart. Holding a huge bag of paper airplanes, she gave me a piece of construction paper and said, "Will you make me a plane so I can fly back home?")
"[Bard] is a rural college and the place where they have shows is this old gym," Josh says. "There was, literally, graffiti everywhere. The security office was at the front entrance of the show and they were watching students walk in drinking 40s and smoking joints. People were going nuts and running all over the place. Two kids were launching people out of garbage cans."
Noah meanwhile has still not taken off his green jacket, and is staring at the TV screen in the bar watching a college basketball game. Josh, in contrast, has stripped down to just a t-shirt and is much more animated and energetic.
"Those kind of shows are fun for us. We've always thrived off energy," Josh continues. "I was talking to people afterwards and they seemed to be walking away with a really good feeling, like they feel better about life."
The band hasn't always been welcomed with such open arms. On their first tour, a 2001 jaunt with Black Dice, the bands took turns playing first because so many people walked out. "The shows on the coast were good, but when you're playing in Mobile, Alabama it's just a bunch of angry punk kids that don't understand what you're doing," Josh says.
"It's humiliating sometimes, but that's a good thing," Noah says, looking up. "I'd rather have an extreme negative reaction rather than no reaction at all."
And though fans did slowly begin to warm up to the group, they still faced another obstacle: the band had no name. Early projects were simply given a title or were credited to individual band members who appeared on the record (under pseudonyms no less). The level of fanaticism needed to find their releases was daunting, and hardly something one could expect given such willful obscurism.
"The whole idea of the Animal Collective was not to be bound by this idea that we're a band," Josh says.
"We always thought of all those Danse Manatee songs as just Danse Manatee songs," Noah says. "But people want you to sell lots of records and to do that you need to keep a name, so Animal Collective was the name that was chosen for us by the record label."
Although still nameless in 2003, the band picked up a slew of critical raves for the simultaneous release of two contrasting CDs that year: the intimate, acoustic Campfire Songs and the sprawling, chaotic Here Comes the Indian. But just as the band finally seemed poised to break out, interpersonal relations within the band were unraveling.
"When we did [Here Comes The Indian], we were all in a pretty bad place in terms of our relationships with each other and how we were feeling at the time, so the album wound up being pretty dark and fucked up," Noah recalls. After taking a much-needed break, Noah got together with Dave to record Sung Tongs, the first officially released under the catch-all moniker Animal Collective.
"There isn't a whole lot of thought put into it, it's just how we're feeling at the time, what kind of sounds we're into. At the time it was just two of us, me and Dave, so it's stripped down," Noah says.
"It's just natural for us to react to our current situation," Josh says. "When we did Danse Manatee, I had recently moved to New York at that point and the effect of the chaos was really intense and that affected how that record came out. But lately, I think we've been bringing the poppier elements of our music closer to the front."
The band's ever-changing palette is showcased later that night at their sold out show at Anthology Film Archives. Psychedelic, abstract films explode on the screen in bursts of color and motion while Avey Tare conjures up dark spirits with his heavily delayed guitar. Panda Bear hides behind the drums making animal noises, the Geologist lords over myriad tape loops and samples like a mad scientist, and the Deakin adds ghostly textures with his slippery, haunting guitar leads. Eschewing the fractured folk-pop of Sung Tongs, the group's new set of material favors long, atmospheric compositions punctuated by bursts of chanting and fevered, tribal drumming. I'm reminded of the Ewoks' dance party in Endor. Wait, that's another forest reference.
"We all grew up in a semi-rural environment around a lot of trees," Josh says. "We also grew up with a hyper awareness of what it is to be in imaginary, spiritual states. It seems to me like there is a movement subconsciously to try to understand things at a spiritual level again, not necessarily like finding a guru or going to Christianity or Judaism, but I think in life you need to have a connection that goes beyond the realm of the physical." Indeed, the show seems to be a near-religious experience for the band, and indeed for many in the audience. The band's set is long, and all clapping is withheld until the last note of feedback dies. Songs don't begin and end, but instead slowly mutate into one another in a barely perceptible haze. To the untrained ear, it might sound like improvisation, but as Josh had informed me earlier, that is never the case.
"The improvisation thing is a big misconception. We're informed a lot by improvisation and the way we play is improvised in terms of how we're feeling and that can dictate how the songs can happen. But everything is written. The only aspect of actual improvisation is between songs."
When asked about the future, the band would only say that they plan to take a break for the summer to concentrate on side projects and their label, Paw Tracks. Then they'll reconvene in the fall for a west coast tour with Black Dice. First up on the new label will be a Panda Bear side project. "It's more on the techno, house side of things," Noah explains. "My friend Scott spins records and I sing over it, so it's kind of like toasting, like they did in Jamaica."
The interview has already been going on for an hour, and the bar is getting so noisy that I fear the tape will be unusable. "Before we go, let me just ask you this: what are you guys doing when you're not playing music?" I ask. "These days there isn't a whole lot of time where music isn't going on," Noah says, with a tinge of remorse. "I don't really listen to music that often and if I do it's what most people would probably consider schlocky, lite music."
"Like Steely Dan?" I ask.
"I like Steely Dan," Noah says defensively. "I listened to them the other day."
"I'm a carpenter," Josh says. "Right now I don't have time to do it, but that's how I make money. Brian actually works in environmental policy. He works full time in DC for congress. We're in awe of him."
"I spend a lot of time by myself," Noah says, nodding.
"I can vouch for that," Josh agrees. The two share an apartment in Brooklyn Heights.
"But I do make my living from music right now," Noah says, perking up a bit. "I'm not living well or anything, but I do make a living."
With that, I let them go, although not before snapping an uncharacteristically candid picture of the two outside the bar. Like animals set free, they scurry back into the forest to look for food, shelter, and their lost delay pedal.
May 10, 2004