Saturday, 6 October 2007

INTERVIEW: Animal Collective

It was never meant to be this way. The sequence-spangled sound of pop music should now be extinct; consigned to a long forgotten graveyard bulging with fallen soap stars, loin burning hot pants and the three most bile-invoking surnames in the English language: Stock, Aitken and Waterman. If the grunge stained, pill-popping, Kappa clad dawn of the 90s taught us anything it was that pop would eventually eat itself whole and, oh, how we would jig on its reeking worm-ridden carcass.

But here we are, almost a decade later, deep in the belly of the noughties with our ears consumed by a never ending ream of childish rhythm patterns and limb-slinking melodies. Y'see pop music never died, instead it did the one thing nobody expected – it evolved. Suddenly every hollow cheeked indie urchin was churning out music for ladies to dance to; gun-totting gangstas lured pretty-pink songstresses into the Benjamin-spinning sound of 'The Ghetto'; and Girls Aloud became, well, the most dazzling ensemble of sugar-coated chanteuses this side of Bananarama. Rather than consuming itself, pop music's become a ravenous polymorphous beast, chomping its way through every impediment that has the audacity to confront it.

Well, almost.

Because at the turn of the millennium, across the Atlantic in the seaport city of Baltimore, a group of four childhood friends were preparing to release a debut LP that would prove the antithesis to pop's relentless surge. Built around a splatter of feedback, rhythmic beatboxing and demonic yelps, it was an astonishing lug-ringing masterpiece that would catapult Avey Tare, Deakin, Geologist and Panda Bear into the spotlight; and one which would lay the foundations for two of the most spellbinding records of the past ten years - Sung Tongs and Feels. This stunning debut was Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished and the band? The mighty Animal Collective.

Seven years later and eight albums down, the unassuming quartet have just launched their latest instalment of unhinged musical mastery to a myriad of delirious whoops and cheers. Strawberry Jam is unmistakably Animal Collective; swishing vividly to the sort of heel-spinning sonic shivers that escalated their previous efforts into euphoric cranium warping triumphs. But amidst the enraptured critical mêlée has risen whispers of disillusionment, gently blowing murmurings of over-production and commercialism in to this sphere of contentment. Could the unthinkable be true - has Animal Collective finally succumbed to the trappings of pop gentrification?

Relaxing in his New York apartment, one of the band's founding members Dave Portner [aka Avey Tare] ponders the question as he speaks to Spins and Needles: "We still can't really figure out why people have been saying [Strawberry Jam's] predominantly a pop record," he says slightly bemused. "I guess the way the songs are a lot simpler makes it stand out as a little poppier but, if anything, this record is a bit less commercial because we took out the harmonies and left in a lot of the overdubs and flourishes. So really, we didn't think it was poppy or melodic – but it seems we were wrong."

Much of the hubbub over this newly supposed pop direction revolves around the group's deflection from independent label Fat Cat Records to Domino – home of multi-million selling indie pinup boys Franz Ferdinand – after the release of 2005's globally lauded Feels.
But Portner is determined to assuage fears of any record company meddling during Strawberry Jam's production: "[Domino] wanted to record us for who we are and what we have going on. They just wanted to help us progress in what were doing and that was pretty sweet. I mean, every band wants to deliver something that everybody is psyched with but it's not like they put any extra pressure on us. The only pressure we had was to do something we thought was interesting but then that's always been the way with us. We're always trying to create something that's definitely different from everything else."

It's an unarguable point – Animal Collective are certainly different. From the babbling psychedelia of Here Comes The Indian, to Sung Tongs' majestic freakoid folk, and onward through the gauzy guitar trickles of Feels; each record seems to relinquish it's grip on reality, letting unchecked, untainted emotions infect every glorious spiral of sound. Given the group's nomadic predilection to composing records, it's perhaps unsurprising their latest release is an attempt at aurally capturing the texture of its sticky sweet title.

"To be honest I think it all has to do with the fact that strawberry jam is widely available," Portner jokes. "Noah [Lennox, aka Panda Bear] saw the jam packet on a flight and we decided that's exactly what we wanted the record to sound like. The image came through working on the songs and it just seemed to make sense as it had a futuristic quality to it and at the time we wanted to make forward-thinking songs. It's very much a post-Feels record - it's a little more inward, where we were almost reassessing what was going on in our lives. This record is about finding positivity and knowing that every thing we do together is special."

Strawberry Jam is every inch the sound of a band that's wriggled its ways through a mire of good times and bad and it's in this world-weary bond where Portner believes the group's perpetual push for innovation lies, even though each member now lives in a different city or, in Panda Bear's case, continent (he relocated to Lisbon in 2004). This constant urge to progress has predictably led to the exploration of ventures outside the safe-haven of Animal Collective - with the most notable being Panda Bear's mesmerising solo LP Person Pitch - but does this constant fleeting between projects affect the group's focus?

"No, not at all. Having the freedom to record music on our own and hanging out together is what Animal Collective's all about," Portner exclaims. "It's a lot different now from how it used to be because we're all living in different places, but it makes playing music together a lot more meaningful. Now when we get together it's a really special moment for us but the space we have helps us to collect our own sounds and write our own material. It's just an extension of how we grew up, passing our own songs on to one another. I guess, for one of us to take issue with someone else's music now would be weird - we've been friends since high-school so it's always been, and probably always will be, this way."

With the virtue of friendship at the root of Animal Collective's creative ethos, Portner can never foresee a time when the group decides to make an assault on the mainstream: "We have no inclination to be a huge band," he confesses. "The joy of playing music is what matters to us over anything else – it brings out our most innovative and basic qualities. We lose ourselves in it and become really un-human - kind of like aliens."

While the all-plundering pop behemoth shows no sign of relenting its trawl through our fertile musical pastures, it may just be the genius sounds of these unaffected aliens that finally saves us all from the clutches of the manufactured machine.

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