A Conversation with Deakin of Animal Collective
UPDATE: Animal Collective has postponed their March tour due to an illness afflicting Avey Tare, a vocalist and founding member of the band.
Though they’ve long been critical darlings, Animal Collective have spent much of their existence on the outskirts of the music industry due to their highly eclectic sound. But in 2009, everything changed. The release of the band’s eighth studio album, “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” was met with ecstatic praise, landing the record on nearly every year-end “best of” list. A sublime blend of the band’s dense compositions with their newfound affinity for poppier melodies, “Merriweather” was also a commercial breakthrough for the band, peaking at thirteen on the Billboard 200. Multi-instrumentalist Josh Dibb (who uses the stage name Deakin) took a hiatus from Animal Collective during the recording and touring of “Merriweather,” focusing instead on his solo album and other, non-music related projects. Dibb returned to the band for last year’s “Centipede Hz,” and spoke with Student Life in anticipation of Animal Collective’s show at the Pageant on March 20.
Student Life: “Centipede Hz” is definitely a bit darker and more abrasive than “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” how did that sound come about?
Josh Dibb: “I don’t think we really thought of the word ‘harsh’ or ‘abrasive’. I think a lot of it had to do with the just the process of how we wanted to make the record. I think we really wanted to do something that felt really live to us and for us, a lot of those decisions that we made were things like Noah really wanting to play a live drum kit again. We wanted the writing process to be really built from the ground up, just in terms of the four of us being in a room together, and I think that led to the excitement of just being in a small room with a bunch of really loud amps and a drum kit and kind of really going for it. So I think that a lot of the writing energy was really hyped up and I guess was sort of aggressive in a rock kind of way, so I think a lot of the soundscapes came out of that. And I think we just started talking about certain concepts that we were interested in sonically, and we oftentimes think about music and records that we do in terms of sort of landscape, soundscape kind of environments more than we think about a lot of other things. And so for this one we started to talk a lot about the ideas of radio frequencies and how they scramble in the atmosphere, and essentially the idea of what happens to them as they pass into outer space.
SL: You’ve also mentioned how you guys wanted to give “Centipede Hz” a “human” quality. As a band that uses relatively abstract lyrics and dense structures, is it more difficult to make your records sound personal?
JD: “No, I think that our music has honestly always sounded really personal. I mean being more intimately related to the lyrics, even going all the way back to the first noisiest records we ever did, I always felt that even the most abstract lyrics to me are very personal and very emotional and very human. I think that for us we have always felt a really strong interest in trying to stay away from anything that felt like it wasn’t personal. So for us I think that means really looking for our own ways of creating language that really affects our own heads and our own experiences of life. In that sense I’ve always felt that we were a very human band in that regard and sometimes I wish that more people listening to our music heard it from that perspective. I know we make it difficult just in terms of the way we mix vocals and stuff, but I think that a lot of times that I really listen to a song that Dave [Portner] did or Noah [Lennox] did, and really realize what it is that they’re saying, I always end up feeling really touched by it because I think it is really personal.”
SL: What songs in particular (from “Centipede Hz”), have you felt a personal connection to?
JD: “One of my favorites was actually that song ‘Gotham’ that was the b-side to the 7-inch we put out before the album. That was one that always hit me on a really emotional level. But all the songs I think have a lot of aspects that to me have that in it. I don’t see any of them as just being abstractive nonsense. They’re all really personal and emotional songs to me.”
SL: You guys have talked about how being in the band has made you closer. Has it ever strained your friendships?
JD: “Absolutely, to me I just compare it to what I think anybody that’s been in a tight family has felt. I kind of get the sense from anybody I know that has—I’m an only child and have a relatively small family—but everyone I know that has a bigger family, it’s the same stuff. I’ve known Noah since I was nine years old, I mean he’s my brother, there’s just no way around it, and a lot of times that’s a really amazing and awesome and joyful and funny and incredible thing, and there’s times where I just don’t want to be around him. And I think when we were younger, there were moments where that felt really traumatic and scary, and I think now we’ve matured and just started to appreciate that as much as we all love each other and love spending time together—and we really, really do—-that it’s really important for us to each also have our own lives and our own individual spaces and I think it’s one of the reasons why we’ve really honored everybody’s need to have solo stuff. And agreeing how to schedule our time touring and recording has been an art we’ve gotten more skillful at over the years, and we want it so that when we are doing this we all really are in it 100% and no one feels like they’re being dragged into it just because it’s what we have to do. So if somebody’s like, ‘I just don’t really want to tour in the fall,’ then ok, cool, no problem. I’d rather not tour and be able to feel psyched about touring in the spring than be like, ‘We’ve got to do it,’ because this festival’s happening.”
SL: Do you have any regrets about your time off from the band?
JD: “No, I don’t. The first year and a half to two years was totally necessary, and it was really great. I was doing a lot of stuff both musically, and I’m also into a lot of other things that are not related to music at all—carpentry and building primarily. I also had a lot of opportunities to do some really awesome projects during that time. It was a really important time. I think by 2009, I was starting to be antsy, and I think that’s what kicked me into gear to go to Africa and start playing solo shows. So it was just like, I’ve been taking this time and I’ve been working on stuff, but I just missed that energy, and those dudes were still really in the thick of doing “Merriweather” touring, and I just needed to do something. So I think there was that point where I started to feel antsy about it, but I wouldn’t be doing this right now if I hadn’t taken that time. For reasons I don’t necessarily want to go into, I really needed to be doing other stuff and to just be living my life in a different way. I don’t think I was really approaching what we were doing, I mean even though I’m really proud of “Strawberry Jam” and the recording of what we did at that time, and I did it with a very psyched and positive frame of mind, that if I hadn’t had stopped for a little bit after that, in terms of touring all the time, and we did a lot of stuff even after that, continuing to work on “ODDSAC”, and we went back into the studio to do the “Water Curses” EP. It wasn’t like I wasn’t working on some stuff, and it still felt really good, but there was something about my overall approach to everything that I really needed to readjust the way I was thinking about and I couldn’t have done that without a break. So I don’t really regret it at all. It wasn’t easy all the time, there were definitely times where I’d go watch them play shows and be like, ‘What am I doing?’ But it was totally positive and really the right thing to do.”
SL: You guys tend to use very similar set lists for each show when you tour. What’s the thinking behind that? Does it eventually become boring?
JD: “Well that’s actually changed as of this tour. We’re now doing pretty diverse set lists. But yeah, I started to get bored. I mean not bored, it was fun, but we’ve been changing it up and it’s been really fun. The last two nights we’ve done pretty different set lists. It’s an interesting kind of moving into an era where I think we feel like there’s this both push and pull between what we want to do and knowing there’s certain expectations people have. And we don’t really, similar to how we feel about making records in the first place, we don’t want to do anything live that we’re just doing just because people expect it.
Leading into this tour, starting in Boston a couple of nights ago, we were like, “Let’s just start changing it every night, and if it means we don’t do ‘Applesauce’ one night, or we don’t do ‘My Girls’ one night, that’s how it’s going to be.’ We just want to put together a set every night that feels fun. So we have like twenty-five songs right now that we feel like we can pretty much do on any given night, and obviously we can only do about half of those every night, so every morning we put together a list of something we think would be cool. The tricky thing for us is both the improvised aspect, but also the planned aspect, and how to move from one song to the next. We do a lot of jamming that sort of bleeds one song into the next song and if we’re gonna do this song and then that song, how are we going to handle this? It is kind of fun, just putting together puzzles, and I feel like I can already feel the energy changing. I mean it’s changing in the crowds too. I think our fans seem to be getting the fact that we’re doing that after two days. As a fan of music, I think that’s an exciting thing about going to see a band is not knowing what they’re gonna play on any given night.”
SL: I know some of your fans would prefer if you played more of your older material. Would you ever consider doing a “greatest hits” type of show?
JD: “Probably not. I think there’s certain things that for us, for whatever reason, we’ll just get to a point where we’re burnt on it. A great example of that would be ‘Fireworks’. I think ‘Fireworks’ is a song during—I wasn’t part of it—but during the “Merriweather” touring years those guys literally played it every night for two or three years, and we’d been playing it leading up to recording “Strawberry Jam” for like a year. So they’d been playing it for four years, and I think they’re just like…maybe that’ll change. The next cycle we’ll be like, ‘Let’s bring back ‘Fireworks’ now,’ but I think for now it just wouldn’t be fun and that’s the place where we don’t have that onus to be like, ‘Well, we’ll do it because we’re supposed to,’ it’s just like, ‘No, it’s not fun, we’re not gonna do it.’
I think that we like to, for better or for worse, cultivate an audience that feels psyched on going on a journey as much they are just coming and hearing the hits. I think we’ve come to appreciate the fact that there’s a certain level of that where that is what people want, and kind of trying to find a way to put those things in there, that was definitely the thinking behind being like, ‘Alright, what can we put together? Let’s work out a version of ‘My Girls’ we’re psyched on and let’s work out a version of ‘Brothersport’ we’re psyched on,’ and we did that successfully. I mean ‘Brothersport’ is super fun to play every night. And I think changing up the set lists now and kind of creating these journeys but just moving all over the place in terms of energy and vibe and era of song and stuff. I think to me it’s, for better or for worse, it’s just wanting to cultivate fans that are into that experience and more into hearing what’s going to happen on any given night than necessarily coming just because they want to hear this string of hits. But we definitely appreciate the idea of building energy and getting people psyched and the energy that’s released when you click into certain songs. So it’s not like we’re not paying attention to that stuff, it’s just we want to do it in a way that feels personal to us.”
SL: You’ve mentioned how fans in bigger cities are sometimes a little more cynical and less involved than those in smaller areas, where does St. Louis fall on that spectrum?
JD: “For me personally, it’s actually been several years since I’ve been there. It’s hard to remember, the last shows I remember playing there were kind of the smaller shows. To me, the cities that I’m talking about when I say that are, and it’s sort one of those comments that’s probably dangerous to have said, and on some level, every city we’ve had great shows in and there’s a lot of awesome people. And I think it’s really just cities like New York, London, Paris sometimes. It’s cities where I think it’s just a matter of they’re so saturated with shows. There is so much music going through New York, everybody’s going to play there.
I think it’s a little bit easier to have that attitude in some of those cities where there’s literally just so much going through, and I think it just feels really different to play in cities that aren’t those kind of major cultural epicenters. And I’m really talking about the big ones. Pretty much, in general, playing all throughout the Midwest and most of the country, I feel like whenever we go to those cities people are just really stoked and awesome. A lot of shows we played in New York were really fun as well, it’s just a slightly different energy and sometimes you kind of get that sense of jadedness or something that I’ll generally not feel I can count on anywhere else. But even then, that statement might be more overblown than it really needs to be.”
SL: In the past couple of years with “ODDSAC” and “Transverse Temporal Gyrus”, you’ve experimented with new ways of presenting your music. Is that something you want to continue, or do you want to focus more on albums and EPs?
JD: “It’s absolutely something we want to continue. Doing something like “ODDSAC” and “Transverse Temporal Gyrus” I think feeds into a lot to the other stuff that we do. It’s also a way to break it up. Our creative interests and aesthetic interests are really varied, and I think it’s really easy for us to get burned out or bored on a certain thing. So that’s kind of back to that whole thing I was saying earlier about not having wanted to have just been a band that had this expectation that we do this thing and have this linear trajectory. We have interests in the most experimental experimental music up to the poppiest of poppiest music and everything in between, and I think for us to have opportunities to do that kind of stuff is really, really gratifying, really fun, really exciting, and usually feeds into the energy that we have for everything that we do. And it’s also stuff that we do kind of—especially now that some of the guys have families, kids and stuff—that’s another impact of touring and time spent away. Going into a studio, you’re in a studio for five or six weeks, and that’s a long time to be away from your kids. So all these decisions to do that stuff are kind of big things, and I think when we kind of go into a cycle, we know like, alright, for the next two years or two and a half years, we’re going to be on the road a fair amount and in studios a fair amount, and then we usually hit a point where it would be really cool to take a minute off.”