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Animal Collective: The Alchemy of Our Energies

Published in Relix Magazine, February 22, 2022 The Animal Collective universe is deep and winding. And, if you’re willing to crawl inside the wormholes, then there are curiosities at every turn. Time loses meaning. Sound and colors melt together. Keep your eyes open and, of course, your ears alert.

The four friends from Baltimore with funny names—Deakin (Josh Dibb), Geologist (Brian Weitz), Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) and Avey Tare (Dave Portner)— are all in their 40s now. They’ve been making music and art together since they were freakishly creative teens, meaning there are now decades of full records, EPs, solo projects, film scores, visual albums, one-off concert pieces and other uncategorizable experiments—each with some unique creation story. They are full of stories that have gradually transformed into myths and, for Animal Collective’s playfully obsessed fanbase, from myths into legends.

There have been numerous combinations of band members and unorthodox sources of inspiration—ideas that go against every sensible, time-tested and practical notion of “what works in the music business.” Yet, it all, somehow, pushed Animal Collective to become one of the biggest, most beloved names in independent music.

Pick a wormhole and turn left: See the young friends huddled together on a cold November night in 2001, recording rambling, ethereal folk songs live on a screened-in porch in Maryland against the backdrop of the crackling, ambient night noise. Then, listen to the ultra-lo-fi, stargazing Campfire Songs.

Look up: See neon oranges and yellows, projections of a tropical reef in a 2017 Miami art exhibition called “Coral Orgy,” and watch the Animal Collective members playing a one-time performance of amorphous, somersaulting sounds to match nature’s underwater psychedelia in bloom. Then, listen to the ambient rainbow of Tangerine Reef.

Now float straight ahead, and you’ll approach Animal Collective’s newest adventure. It’s a creative journey that spans more than three years and culminates with Time Skiffs, the group’s latest album. It’s also their first official LP since 2016’s Painting With and the first music created by all four members of Animal Collective in nearly a decade—a would-be return to form, if Animal Collective had ever solidified into one shape.

Time Skiffs wraps up more than two decades of Animal Collective’s endless creative pursuits, presenting some of the most traditional music they’ve ever made. The drums are live. The melodies are hummable. There are choruses. Some of the songs even rock. But there’s no sense in rationalizing—this isn’t Animal Collective’s “mature” album. It’s simply where Animal Collective were at the time of recording, held in time as if in amber.

“It’s what everyone was bringing in that moment. The alchemy of our energies,” Josh “Deakin” Dibb says the day before Thanksgiving, while at home in Baltimore. “We’ve gotten into a habit of working on an album together, then everyone spreads out and works on other projects. And when we come back together, we have absorbed a new energy and we’ve come back as different people. We always find something new to bring back.”

*** Brian “Geologist” Weitz makes time to discuss Time Skiffs in the hours before he’s due to pick up his kids from school in Washington, D.C. Considering just how avant-garde his musical creations are, it’s jarring to hear him talk about the ennui of parenting during the pandemic. His wife is a teacher and, for the past 18 months, he’s been Mr. Mom—handling the carpooling, chores and groceries while she teaches on Zoom and the kids sit in front of their own screens.

“To be honest, I don’t miss hosting sleepovers for the kids,” he says with a laugh.

Calling later the same night, Dibb is quick to note that the earlier nightfall is messing with his vibe.

“I’m trying to embrace it,” he says. “I mean, there’s beauty and poetry in cycles, and I appreciate dark times for what they are, but also: Fuck that.”

Whether they tried to or not, the men of Animal Collective have existed in parallel dimensions for years: To fans, they’ve reached near mythological status, capable of creating music simultaneously so weird and satisfying that they must be tapping into something extraterrestrial. But, to their friends, family and especially to each other, they are just four old pals— worried about seasonal depression and Zoom classrooms and a million other little things that wouldn’t suit psychedelic superheroes with names like Panda Bear or Geologist.

It wasn’t always this way. The four Animals became fast friends when they met in middle and high school in the mid ‘90s. They went to separate colleges in New York and Boston but still reconvened in the summers to experiment with lo-fi recordings and highly out-there performances—everyone throwing ideas at a wall and seeing what stuck. They started playing with masks and makeup onstage. In short, they staged their very own acid tests.

The name Animal Collective wasn’t just a name—it was a mandate. They were a community, not a band. There were no rules about styles and sounds.

“Our initial idea was just to start a label and put music out, different projects all the time,” Dibb says. “We imagined there’d be all these different facets of who we were. Sometimes it’d be solo projects. Sometimes just two of us, sometimes everyone together. Sometimes poppier, sometimes more ambient. There’d be a main trunk of the Animal Collective tree, with all these little offshoot branches.”

In their main trunk and branch projects, they respected each other’s tastes and found magic where those tastes intersected.

“We’ve theorized how the Animal Collective sound works,” Weitz adds. “It isn’t because we all like the same things. As teens, I wasn’t listening to techno, Noah was. And he wasn’t listening to weird synth records, I was. And Josh was the only one listening to Dylan. But we allowed space for all of them. We never set out a road map and said, ‘Let’s combine Daft Punk and Pavement and Sun City Girls and Madlib and Syd Barrett and CAN.’ Eventually, all those things were combined. But it’s because we all got to express ourselves. We never censored each other.”

That said, an early Animal Collective aesthetic did emerge—densely layered and distorted samples, high-pitched group harmonies and just enough guitar strumming that people inevitably lumped them in with the emerging freak-folk movement. But early releases like 2001’s Danse Manatee and 2003’s Ark aren’t easy listens. They were as noisy and messy as they were mesmerizing. The records came at a rapid clip: six albums in five years between 2000 and 2005. Strawberry Jam arrived in 2007 and cracked the Billboard 200. They toured and recorded and toured and recorded relentlessly.

Then came Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2009, and Animal Collective exploded like a firecracker. The album was a left[1]field hit—their catchiest, most accessible effort yet—but still weirder than anything else on that year’s best-of lists (many of which the album topped). The album’s single “My Girls” was on every hipster’s summer barbecue playlist. Fans and critics spent months immersed in the album’s technicolor, synthesizer-heavy psychedelia and gorgeous harmonies, asking the big questions in thousand-word thought pieces: Is this ground zero of a new musical movement?

The answer: Yes. However, Animal Collective wouldn’t be the flag-bearers. Merriweather brought psych-pop mainstream but, by the end of their touring cycle, it was already time to move on.

“I recently asked Brian if they made a choice not to play ‘My Girls’ every night past a certain point,’” says Dibb, who was not present for the album’s recording or support tour. “We could’ve made Merriweather 2. But if we made music because we wanted you to feel good, we’d lose track of what makes this interesting for us. We resist the storm around us. We observe it, and notice it, and sometimes it’s funny and touching. But it can be suffocating.”

That same year, Animal Collective became the first band to successfully license a Grateful Dead sample—the band’s Deadhead members lifted a line from “Unbroken Chain,” looped it and built the mind-melting, sunshine epic “What Would I Want? Sky.”

“It still blows my mind,” Dibb says with a laugh. “Like, is that true? Did we really get to do that? It’s totally incredible.”

The Collective has never, ever sounded like the Dead—but their unpredictability and joy of exploration has forged a bridge that’s hard to deny. The four Animals see it and hallow it.

“It’s exciting to know that every time I think I don’t understand something about the Dead, there’ll be some golden opportunity,” Dibb says. “I’ll hear a song at the right time, and I’ll think, ‘How have I been missing this?’”

Merriweather was a pivot point for Animal Collective—following their first certified hit record, they slowed down and spread out.

“It felt like a natural break,” Weitz says. “Like, ‘Let’s not tour next year. Everybody chill out, work on solo stuff. Have kids. Do whatever.’ That was a moment of pause for us.”

“In our first decade, we got swept along with the tide. We were always touring and recording,” Dibb says. “But our original vision of Animal Collective is actually closer to the last decade than our first 10 years.”

Their next album, Centipede Hz, didn’t arrive for three years, and sounded nothing like Merriweather or the onslaught of chillwave and indie-pop acts that it inspired.

“Dave and Noah put so much energy into the harmonies on Merriweather, we made a rule: No harmonies on the next album,” Dibb says. “Maybe that was weird because that’s what people loved on that record. But we pulled a 180 to focus on something else.”

***** While Time Skiffs is only Animal Collective’s third full album since they broke with Merriweather in 2009, the musicians have all kept busy. Lennox lives in Lisbon, Portugal, and his experiments as Panda Bear have made him the group’s biggest solo star. Most members perform DJ sets. Most have also started families. Some have taken to film scoring. They say yes to more opportunities to experiment than most musicians would dream of.

However, the actual moment of conception for Time Skiffs is sometime in 2017, in New Orleans. The band was invited to play at The Music Box Village, an interactive art and music space run by artist-led nonprofit New Orleans Airlift. On paper, it was a perfect fit: The Village is filled with art that you can play. “Anything from a porch with guitar strings on the railing, to steps that trigger bells and windchimes,” Dibb says.

Lennox remained in Portugal, but Dibb, Weitz and Portner accepted—and decided to write all new songs for their two-night stint of “site-specific music.” New Animal Collective music always makes headlines, but the New Orleans shows were a blip. Still, the trio loved their new material, and they sensed the seeds of something great.

It took over a year for all four members to find an open month but, in the summer of 2019, Avey Tare, Geologist, Deakin and Panda Bear rented a house in Leipers Fork, Tenn., to make music as a quartet for the first time since 2013. They brought their own equipment, said bye to their kids and spouses, and set up a makeshift studio. For nearly a month, Animal Collective did what they do best— jam and see what grows.

There were a few stated desires that would shape the music: Lennox wanted to play a drum kit. Dibb, historically on guitar, wanted to play piano. Weitz had been dabbling in esoteric string instruments like the medieval hurdy-gurdy.

In Leipers Fork, they played music all day, cooked dinner in the evenings and sunk back into their old groove— their teenage humor returned, a shared language of best friends or siblings. By the end of the month, they’d hashed out nearly 20 songs, and it was time book to some studio sessions and lay them down live.

The four musicians’ busy schedules had them eyeing time to record in early 2020. Then—well, you know what happened next.

“We were about to really dig into this album, then everything just imploded,” Dibb says.

They pushed back their studio sessions a month, then two. The virus was now a pandemic and no one was going anywhere. And none of the members lived near each other.

“By the middle of June, it became clear that this was going to last a long time,” Dibb says. “We were really crestfallen. This being such a stripped-down sound— drums, bass, keys—we were excited to record live and to let the music breathe. But we knew if we sat on this stuff, the energy would just go away.”

“We realized we might not see each other again for a year,” Weitz admits. “We knew we’d go crazy if we didn’t work on this music.”

So while hunkered down in Lisbon, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Portner’s home in Asheville, N.C., the members of Animal Collective began individually recording their “live” album remotely— one sound at a time. Most days, spanning August 2020 through the fall, each member would pick a track, download the masterfile, add to or tweak it, re-upload it and wait for feedback. They worked in silos but kept in constant contact. The resulting ideas were intimate but spacious, possessing enough room for the musicians to experiment atop the stripped-down bones of each song.

There are a lot of sounds on Time Skiffs, including six different types of synthesizers, some steel guitar, a bit of autoharp, the stray xylophone, a gong and Weitz’s latest adopted instruments— the before mentioned hurdy-gurdy and a Japanese harp called a taishōgoto. And tons of “field recordings,” voice memos of everyday life, distorted until they’re unrecognizable.

“These recordings don’t sound like my kids, but they are,” Weitz says with a laugh.

Somewhere buried in these songs is a recording that Weitz made in Joshua Tree, Calif., of a friend shooting an old refrigerator with a gun he uses to kill rattlesnakes.

“Yeah, that’s on three songs on the record,” he says. “Not just the gunshots, but us talking, reloading. And nowhere will you hear an actual gunshot—I turn these sounds into very abstract things.”

The remote recording process crawled on for months—and decisions that would’ve taken 30 seconds in a studio lasted weeks over emails and texts. They were busy, making music but also coping with the new realities of COVID-19.

“It was a game of chicken,” Dibb says. “You can see no one worked on a song for two days; is it done? It was a happy process, but it was less ‘We fucking did it!’ and more ‘Did we do it? I think so. I think it’s done.’”

Recording Time Skiffs was a long and isolated process. And yet, somehow, the four friends created one of the warmest, most vibrant and enjoyable records of their long careers. With a focus on live drums and bass, Time Skiff ’s nine tracks have a stronger rhythmic backbone than much of Animal Collective’s more warbling, ambient music—and some of these tunes, like the endlessly catchy single “Prester John” have deep grooves that bury themselves inside your head. If a friend wanted an easy entryway to the band, then Time Skiffs might be the best place to start.

“People keep saying this sounds like the most live thing we’ve ever done,” Dibb says with a smile. “And, well, it’s not.”

And, just like that, Geologist, Avey Tare, Deakin and Panda Bear were able to pull off another magic trick, another left turn, another successful experiment—sprung from the collective imagination of four extremely weird and perfectly normal childhood buddies.

“They’re family—my best friends, sometimes my best enemies. There are underlying threads between us— humor, connection, musical dialogue. We understand each other’s stories and histories. It’s all interwoven and feels essential,” Dibb says. “We’ve bled for this group for a long, long time. And we’re still having conversations about the future.”


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