It’s only February, but critics are hailing Animal Collective’s ninth full-length LP, “Merriweather Post Pavillion” (Domino Records), as one of the year’s best. Returning with blissful melodies, progressive beats and lush harmonies, the Baltimore-based trio has long shined in the indie/underground spotlight. Frontman Panda Bear (a.k.a. Noah Lennox) spoke with Variety from his home in Lisbon, Portugal about the new record, basketball, and his love for Emily Dickinson.
Animal Collective has always been critical darlings; with this album, you guys are receiving mega-buzz. Is the attention more pressing for you as a group?
Yeah, absolutely. I kind of feel like it’s over now. There’s an area of music journalism that has gotten more interested in this one. I don’t think ‘mainstream’ is the right word for it, but maybe an older journalistic world?
Does that make you want to do something more obscure the next time around?
Kind of. Yeah. I am interested in doing something more confusing, a little more esoteric. Having said that, I’m still super happy with the way ‘Merriweather’ turned out.
Have you read any of the reviews? Online or in print?
Sure, I’ve read some of them. I’ve seen some good, some bad. It seems like it’s pretty extreme one way or the other.
Extremely negative? I haven’t seen too many any of those.
Yeah, I’ve seen ’em. If I would read 100 super-positive reviews and then one negative item, the only one I’d really remember is the negative. I’m sort of intense about that kind of thing. But with this record as a whole, I’m more happy with it than any album that we’ve done because the quality of the sound is more in my zone than other stuff we’ve recorded in the past. Don’t get me wrong; I’m proud of our other records, but this one seems more up my alley. So I kind of feel overly protective with ‘Merriweather.’
Speaking of protection, one of the biggest struggles musicians face today is the online leak. It’s almost the norm. ‘Merriweather’ appeared online back in November, two months before its official release and Domino Records issued a letter in defense of you guys, warning against illegal file sharing. What are your thoughts on what happened and where do you think digital distribution is heading in general?
Well, as you say, one has to deal with and accept, to a point, leaks and that sort of thing. It’s a very complicated issue and the debate involves far more parties or groups of people than just the artist and the audience or the label and the audience. It’s very difficult to concretely define the problem or the solution. Sooner or later a new and more successful method of releasing and sharing music will be introduced and will become the norm. I could see a general attitude change towards downloading music as well, but that seems a little less likely. Having said all this, I feel like things got crazy and unnecessarily dramatic with the pre-‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ stuff and I started to feel pretty stupid about it. I’m just happy that people can get excited about what we’re doing.
What was the recording process like for this album?
When we did ‘Strawberry Jam,’ because of the lengthy recording process, we almost lost touch with the material in a way. With this one we were like, ‘Let’s write the songs in a really concentrated period, tour with the songs for like a year and then we’ll go and record and mix everything really fast.’ Overall, the experience was about a year shorter than any other album. So it was great.
This record feels a lot more optimistic. Would you say that’s a reflection of your guys own mental state these days?
Yeah. I think we wanted to make something that was more of a celebratory, blissful experience. I don’t really know where that came from. I guess that must be some sort of reflection as to where we are in our lives. But with the lyrics of our songs, there’s always some sort of struggle or sadness to it. No matter how positive the song sounds, there’s always a weight to it. And that comes from the two major themes on ‘Merriweather Post Pavillion.’ It’s always about family and the way our working lives are and the relationship between those two things. That’s pretty much every song on the album, strangely. How one sort of detracts from the other or one makes the other difficult is where the sadness or struggle comes from, and ultimately, is where the weight of the album lies.
Lyrically, there’s a couple of tracks that stand out. ‘My Girls,’ for instance.
Principally, that song is just about wanting to own a house or a space, something that’s a safeguard. It wasn’t really a reaction to the difficult financial times. But it makes the song more pertinent for me now being in this sort of recession. It’s really that I want to provide a safety zone for my family.
If you read the ‘My Girls’ lyrics and take the music out, it’s almost poetic, the simplicity and the structure. Do you write the lyrics outside the music beforehand?
My process of writing songs, the music always comes first. In Animal Collective, I’m kind of the drumming element of the band for the most part. So when I’m writing the lyrics, I always try to use words that retain that rhythm. I remember a moment in a high school English class where we were reading a lot of Emily Dickinson. And I’m not a very well-read person, but I felt like her style really stuck with me. How she lays it on the table on where and what her emotions are. There weren’t any tricks to it, ya know, and I really, really responded to that. So in some form or another, those little poems have influenced pretty much everything I’ve done on the lyrical side. I’ve always had this drive to be as bluntly truthful about things. Whether I regret it later or not, there’s some sort of power to do that method.
Everyone likes to make the ‘modern-day Beach Boys’ comparison. How do you feel about that?
I can empathize. The quality of the chord changes becomes a touchstone for the Beach Boys, so perhaps that’s another staple. We like all kinds of singing groups from the Zombies and the Beatles, to the Mommas and the Poppas and the Everly Brothers, but I guess the Beach Boys have become the poster child for multi-part harmony pop groups. It’s certainly flattering to be likened to a band like that; I’m just curious why it’s always them!
Many critics have characterized Animal Collective music as the ‘sound of the future.’ What would you say to those people?
As far as sound of the future goes, nobody can honestly say that. You can only say that in retrospect.
I think they’re trying to say you guys have a progressive sound.
I know, but it’s pretty arrogant for someone to say that they’re doing something terrifically new because almost everything you hear has already been done before. Something always comes from somewhere. I feel like the combination of things is something that’s new and we get really excited about doing that. It makes the process more fun to write songs in new ways that we haven’t heard before.
Do you guys take pride in the fact that no one can really pinpoint Animal Collective’s music? You hear ‘psychedelic folk,’ ‘electropop,’ etc.
Sure. I know a lot of music I’ve gotten excited about over the years is something that’s confounded me. I don’t know how it was made or how these people came up with these sounds. I mean, changing around what you do and the style of music you play is challenging. Some people like our older ‘Tsung Tongs’ acoustic-guitar sound. I can imagine a lot of people getting turned off by our new album, so it’s not always good times when you change. But again, it just keeps things sort of exciting for us and that’s more important than anything.
You play samplers and the drums onstage, mainly. Do you have a favorite instrument?
I do really like playing drums. There’s something about the physicality of that process, especially if you play one rhythm for a half an hour or so. It becomes sort of a trance, a meditation, and I really like that. I really like playing sports, too. In high school, I played basketball constantly. And then volleyball was really big in my school. My brother played pretty much every sport, so I was always trying to match him even though I never could. (laughs) That desire to do the physical stuff has been transformed into music somehow.
You mentioned your brother. The last song on the album, ‘Brothersport,’ is about your relationship with him (since the passing of your father). Is that accurate?
Yeah. It sounds a little cheesy but it’s kind of a cheerleading song, a shout of encouragement to him. At the time I was writing it, he was having a tough time.
It’s a very touching song.
Yeah, he kind of broke down a little bit when I told him about it. I kept it from him for a long time because I was nervous. It’s funny; my family was visiting me in Portugal and I played the album for everyone and my sister was like, ‘What was that last song about?’ She was being sort of tricky and caught on to it.
You guys seem like the antithesis of rock stars.
Yeah. That has its negative side, too.
A large section of the world really wants those types of figures in their lives. To be those uninteresting, in-the-shadows-guys doesn’t really do it for a lot of people.
Early on, Animal Collective was known for wearing masks both onstage and in the press.
Initially, it was really trying to have the show to be a fun thing both for us and the audience. It was a way for me to deal with my nerves because I used to get really, really nervous. I still do. It’s like if you go up onstage, it wasn’t you in a way and so subconsciously it doesn’t have the same thrust. After a year of touring that way, we took them off and people were like, ‘Where are the masks?’
Your guys’ music is quite cinematic. Have you thought of scoring a movie?
I’ve thought about it. I should say my experiences working with other people have always been kind of difficult. With Animal Collective, we’ve known each other and played together for so long that we have a pretty positive collaboration process. I don’t really have the urge to go beyond that at the moment.
Have you seen any films in your life where you were like, ‘I wish I could score that.’?
Any Terrence Malick movie, probably. It’s always very pure in terms of the emotions he displays on screen. I love that.
Are you currently working on Panda Bear (solo) material?
I’ve got a bunch of songs and beginnings of songs but it’s about how I introduce those and develop them. I should say the bulk of the work I’ve done on it is mostly mental work and how I want it to sound, etc, but the whole ‘Merriweather’ thing has taken over and that’s where my priorities are musically at the moment.
What new artists are you listening to?
From last year, the Erykah Badu record. Oh, and the Grouper record. Love them both.
You mention Erykah Badu. You guys are playing Bonnaroo this year, as is she.
Yeah, I’m super psyched. We’ve never played Bonnaroo, so I’m interested to see what it’s like. To play in front of a new, different audience is always refreshing. But festivals in general are a different realm. Some are great, but some feel like a musical vacuum and those festivals always tend to bum me out. You know, where you can’t soundcheck properly and festival technicians and roadies who haven’t slept in 48 hours are yelling, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ as you walk into the venue. That environment fucking sucks.
Animal Collective plays at the Henry Fonda Theater and Troubador February 26 and 27 in Los Angeles.