Sticky Fingers: Animal Collective discuss Strawberry Jam
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Although obviously a ridiculous title, Strawberry Jam somehow suits Animal Collective: for all the sickly sweet associations there is a reluctantly bitter taste to it all. The title also goes some way to distancing fears that signing to Domino would dull their skewed stylings. Instead, they take off on another tangent, furthering themselves from preconceived notions of their psych-folk thread. After the retiring noise of Feels, the new territory they have chartered focuses around more electronic experimentation. Peculiar, then, that it also sounds so in keeping with previous ground covered. DiS spoke to David Portner (Avey Tare) and Noah Lennox (Panda Bear).
Given the relatively low-key affair releases have previously had with the label change is there a new sense of pressure attributed to this release?
Avey: There's always a pressure to do a record that is sweet to us, one that'll be special to us. I think we have pretty high standards as well, both with regards to the music we are making and also in terms of wanting to do something that is different from what we've done before. I think it was important for us to do something that Domino and Animal Collective were pleased to associate with. The change has helped and the recording is more organised now. The recording budget for (earlier LP) Here Comes The Indian was a far cry from what we were presented with for this record. It is all a lot more stress-free whereas it used to be, "How are we going to record this record? How we going to mix it?" Now we seem able to plan things out. Otherwise I think we still approach things in a similar way.
With each record there seems an increasing incorporation of electronic tape loops and samples, with a distinct nod to the techniques J Dilla employed. Was that a deliberate direction you have taken or just an organic process?
Panda: It is definitely where we are right now just in terms of sound and quality. There are still a lot of guitars on Strawberry Jam which we worked really hard at to sound a little bit different, and Dilla is definitely someone we like a lot. And Madlib. His use of samples and loops are so organic; there is a messiness to it. I think it has a lot to with the way those guys sequence their beats just by playing them live and don't quantise it or set it into numerically perfect timings. It just leaves them with a lot more natural feel to them.
Avey: But I think we have always liked to put ourselves in unknown territory and not get too comfortable. As a result we feel we're not getting too dry or repetitive. It's nice to challenge ourselves.
How has being based so far apart from each other (Washington, New York and Lisbon) effected the recording dynamic?
Panda: I think it just means a little more preparation individually before we get together, but it really hasn't changed the way we work so much. Usually we get together for two-week periods of time and work on songs, and we'll all have done work before so we don't just show up and ask each other what we're doing. We turn up with sounds and songs to work around. I think the fact that we have played music together for such a long time means that we know each other pretty well and have strong personal relationships as well as strong musical ones so we can get work reasonably fast.
So you all bring individual aspects to the table...
Panda: Definitely, for sure. We're all fairly different kinds of people so an Animal Collective song isn't really an Animal Collective song until we've all put our combined personality and character into a song.
How have your relationships altered over time?
Avey: They've changed a lot. They've had their high moments, their low moments.
Panda: Like any intimate relationship will, going through many phases and changes constantly.
Panda: Haven't quite had divorce yet.
Each member of the band is thoroughly involved with various extra-curricular activities and projects. Earlier this year both Lennox and Portner released solo material within a month of each other. Whilst Panda Bear's Person Pitch basked in critical acclaim, Avey Tare and wife Kría Brekkan released Pullhair Rubeye to blank expressions. It was a record that tried the patience as it rolled backwards through the motions. In spite of this there seems little tension around the issue and further illustrates the network the act feel they work around, regardless how distinctive a direction anyone is dragging ideas.
Person Pitch attracted a huge critical reception whereas with Pullhair... people were far more negative: does this disrupt or cause tensions within the group?
Avey: I think it's only coincidental that the records were put out around the same time, and that was the thing that brought up for comparison. It's normal for us to put out records like those both at any given time over our history.
Panda: Young Prayer and Dead Drunk were released around the same time and people didn't care so much.
But as an act are you all seem comfortable around each other's material? A lot of other bands are more eager to mark everything in to certain territories…
Panda: …Though I don’t want to say it is all Animal Collective stuff, because I think that's selling people short. But it all kind of eats into each other as far as I am concerned.
Avey: And maybe if it hadn't always been this way then it would be weird. If Noah, out of the blue, decided to record a solo record and it became a huge thing and there was a sense of betrayal… but we've all been trading tapes like that since we were 14 or 15, so it's the same thing but just with more people paying attention.
Do you think you have more fixed roles now than when you started?
Panda: Not really, it's still pretty loose, for some of us more than others. For example with Josh (Dibb - Deakin), guitar really is his thing and what he does, and that never really has changed. But for me I started off in the band pretty much just drumming, and then went to guitar and singing, and now I find myself doing electronics and singing.
Avey: It depends on the song and the style of what we are doing and what it requires. Like for Sung Tongs and Feels - and even Strawberry Jam - there was more singing and guitar, whereas with new stuff there's a bit more rhythm plus other more melodic elements of song writing. So it changes quite a lot depending on what the songs need.
Video: 'Who Could Win A Rabbit'
As a result of the group's makeshift composition and ambiguous nature, many myths surround them. Improvisation is regularly one of these, when the act's sets are actually strictly choreographed. This is largely down to the difficulty with which to pin down the band. Though one they continue to affiliate with, the 'folk' tag is far from the usual fanfare. But despite a departure from the rustic recordings of their early recordings, they maintain that they still feel the same state of independence despite the advances.
How do you think your current train of thought has altered old material?
Panda: Playing old stuff for us is a bit of a weird thing for us in that when we are touring out of habit or for whatever reason we are most excited about playing the new songs, or using the new set-up to whatever we have got. But we also realise that there are people out there who want to hear a particular song, old songs or songs that they know, and that's perfectly legitimate. We try to put new songs here and there. As a result what we usually do is try to update the old song into a new state or frame of mind we are in musically, so that's why we perform tracks like '…Rabbit' (‘You Could Win A Rabbit’) more in the current style.
Avey: When you go up there and play a lot of material people do not know we appreciate that it can be difficult for somebody. Given we don't stop particularly often it can be this wash.
Especially when compared to the minimal noise of Hollindagain, would you say that Strawberry Jam took a more conventional route than previously?
Avey: It's not something we strive for really, but to us each song is a very specific entity and very different from anything we’ve done before. I can see what people are saying with the pop element. We didn't expect that at all.
Panda: It's pretty heavily rhythmic all the way through, so it makes it easier to grasp on to. Things are clear and high in the mix, minimally arranged and not crammed in. But we all thought people would have only heard Sung Tongs and Feels and hate this record because it was not poppy like that, but the reaction here has been the total opposite.
How does Paw Tracks now operate since your move to Domino? Is it more of an A&R tool?
Panda: More active than ever.
Avey: It was started with the idea in mind that we had all these projects beside Animal Collective. So Todd was just up for us just doing all these different things, thinking we could put out a lot, but then there were times when we’d get wrapped up in Animal Collective and we were starting to tour. But then we started finding music that we wanted to put out. Ariel Pink was the first thing we really stumbled upon that we thought we should try and see if Todd is up for putting out, and then we've just rolled with it and Todd has just been up for it. We're doing all this new stuff. We've got this new First Nation record which just got finished; we've got an Eric Copeland record next month; the new Black Dice record. There is a lot going on.
It is difficult to pick out much from the lyrics. Would it be fair to say that lyrics are more a tool to develop imagery, in the same way as Brian Wilson, rather than portray some potent message?
Avey: I would say that sometimes it's more the sounds of the words or the way they fit together more than the meaning behind it. We like to play up and add surreal qualities. The songs that I write I don't want to be so concrete; I don’t want to talk about ordinary things, but instead another world. The music is visual to us and we talk about it in visual ways and in colours, and I think using words like I use adds to this visual element, and acts as cues to brings up images within songs.
Particularly with the release of a video for 'Fireworks' recently as something of a teaser for the record, do you see yourself as a band that suits the digital age – as a vehicle to distribute your music.
Avey: It’s easier to get people psyched. We are still record people though; we like the record as a whole. It’d be hard for us not to be that way and just put a song out. Never really thought about anything like that.
Panda: I think for the live side of our band it's cool to have the internet with everyone trading tapes, so we have an open taping policy for our shows.
Conversation curtails off. "The biggest problem he faces is that he is not a regular goal scorer". Lennox starts waxing lyrical about David Beckham's recent trials and tribulations stateside. "It doesn't make much sense to American sports fans. People want to know why he isn't scoring the goals". It serves to illustrate that, as with their musical focus which saw recent performances shunning material from Strawberry Jam in favour of an even newer branch of interest, flirting with one idea and then pursuing another. After eight records in as many years Animal Collective continue to have too much jam for their jam jar.
Strawberry Jam is released on September 10 through Domino Records. Check out their MySpace here for music and tour dates. Strawberry Jam will be reviewed on DiS next week.
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