Every Tuesday, FADER deputy editor Eric Ducker gets on instant messenger and “discusses” a subject that’s been on his mind with another member of our staff or a special guest. Late last year, someone from the group HEALTH called Animal Collective “the great band of our time,” and with the overwhelming positive response their new album Merriweather Post Pavilion is getting, many other people may feel the same. After the jump, read the condensed conversation between Ducker and Matthew Perpetua of Fluxblog, who recently posted about his mixed history with Animal Collective. And if you haven’t done so already, check out the conversation with Will Welch on this subject from earlier today.
Eric Ducker: It’s pretty obvious you have a conflicted relationship with Animal Collective, and this new album has seemed to further complicate it. Let’s start from the beginning and you can tell me how and when you first heard them, and what you thought of them.
Matthew Perpetua: The first thing I ever heard from them was their first record as Avey Tare and Panda Bear, Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished, which I bought on a whim at Other Music circa 2001. I would often go into that shop and buy local-looking stuff they had on display. Around the same time I bought the first Yeah Yeah Yeahs EP, for example. I really liked a lot of that record, particularly “Penny Dreadfuls” and “Chocolate Girl.” I put “Penny Dreadfuls” on a lot of mixes. Not long after that, I got the Danse Manatee record. “Essplode” went on a lot of mixes too, and those songs were all featured on my site back in the earliest days. They didn’t sound much like anything else. Except maybe a severely warped version of the Flaming Lips maybe? A little Sun City Girls? I tried to see them live a few times but it didn’t work out. The thing that I think happened was basically, I started moving in a very, very pop-centric direction around 2003, and at the same time, they were getting more and more out there, really diving deep into this urban campfire vibe on Here Comes the Indian and Campfire Songs. So I kept tabs on them, but wasn’t really into it. Sung Tongs came along, and I really liked a couple songs from that, like “Who Could Win A Rabbit?” At that point, people were catching on to them, but I was very much somewhere else. I kept waiting for them to do an album full of songs like “Rabbit” and “Penny Dreadfuls,” but it wasn’t happening.
ED: It’s funny that you say you lost interest in them around the time you starting getting more into pop, because it seems like they were also getting more into ideas of pop (in their own murky way), which I think many people weren’t into.
MP: Well, in 2003, definitely not. Campfire Songs and Here Comes the Indian and that Hollinndagain thing, those are not at all pop. But yeah, Sung Tongs was a step up for them, but it happened at a time when I was a lot less interested, and they were still playing around with folky sounds. They were on this kinda urban-hipster-hippie vibe that put me off a lot, and still does to a certain extent. But obviously, that vibe really connected with a lot of people, particularly people just a bit younger than me. And they had a genuinely new aesthetic, this sound you can’t really nail down except to say it sounds like Animal Collective—the way they were using electronic instrumentation in this way that was in line with this really vague notion of “jam bands.” Not even jam bands, per se, but like drum circles and campfire jamborees. They were somehow smuggling in all these things that had always been seen as deeply uncool into indie circles, and making it cool and acceptable and even a bit “avant garde.” I mean, if you fast forward to now, when they are a very big band, it’s sorta astonishing how they’re arguably the, indie rock band of this decade, the one group who legitimately brought in a new aesthetic for what we know as indie rock, and they do not rock at all, and they rarely play guitars. If you go back to the late ’90s, people were really angsty about guitars, and how they were inevitably at the center of indie music. And now we’re ten years later, and that audience is now totally in thrall of an album that is almost entirely keyboards, samples, drum machines and harmonized vocals. The acclaim for Merriweather is refreshing to me because you can’t really point to another record like it, at least outside the Animal Collective catalog. It’s a legit breakthrough for a band that came up with their own sound in a time when most artists seem to operate under the notion that “it’s all been done.” It makes me happy that people are excited about something that feels new.
ED: So it would seem that you think that Animal Collective, in their approach, have become the (indie) rock band of our time, though probably not the great rock band of our time.
MP: Yes. Exactly. I think Merriweather Post Pavilion is the first really great record they’ve made, and certainly the most disciplined and focused. At the same time, I think we have a lot of better bands. But those aren’t the bands that introduced a new aesthetic for “indie music,” such as it is. Maybe the thing I should be saying is actually “music for artsy (mostly white) people in their late teens to early 30s, educated and at least relatively affluent.” When I was a teen, that band was Pavement. In the late ’90s/turn of the century, it was Radiohead. In the late ’00s, it’s undoubtedly Animal Collective. I think there were other bands who introduced what you could call new aesthetics for indie rock, but they either didn’t connect, or they were too singular in their vision. When music is so specific to an artist, or technically difficult, you can’t really just start your own band with that influence. It’d be hard to be a brand new band and ape The Fiery Furnaces’ Blueberry Boat—not just in that you kinda need chops to do it, but you’d be called on it. The Animal Collective, on the other hand, had a more vague general feeling, a lot of it came out of their equipment, and up until recently, they had no cult of personality. You couldn’t go, “Oh dude, you’re singing just like Avey Tare.” So I think they ended up being more influential, and gave people more of a blueprint for what they can do, which I think Pavement did too back in the ’90s. At the same time, none of these people playing in their shadow are particularly good, or even popular. Telepathe gets some love here and there, but they are basically like a horrendous, talent-free version of Animal Collective. Watching them play live will give anyone a greater appreciation of Avey and Panda’s craft, even when they’re being sloppy or not particularly melodic.
ED: Do you think it’s just a matter of time before other bands figure it how to incorporate what Animal Collective do in a way that’s not annoying, or do you think it will always be annoying to you?
MP: It just sorta depends on how talented and creative the artists are. There’s certainly a lot of room and potential for someone to take their basic template and do something better with it. It took the Animal Collective nine years to get to Merriweather Post Pavilion. Someone with more natural gifts for pop songwriting could run with elements of their style and make something more appealing. It happens all the time. Better singers, better musicians. Less reverb! I think that one of the frustration that you get with some young musicians who wear their influences on their sleeves is that they often only have the level of skill to emulate the most superficial elements of the music that they enjoy, but then a lot of listeners and critics will just be so happy to hear a faint whisper of something they recognize that they’ll accept it as is. There’s a lot more to My Bloody Valentine than just burying the vocals under loud guitars, and a bit more to Jesus and Mary Chain than the “Be My Baby” drumbeat and an incredible amount of reverb. But both of those things are fairly easy to do when you’re just starting out as a band.
ED: You’ve described Animal Collective’s music as “indulgent” and I’m curious what you mean by that? And if you think Merriweather isn’t indulgent?
MP: Well, you know, sorta formless jamboree stuff, that really turns me off. I think a lot of people like when Avey Tare gets more unhinged when he sings, like those spastic shouts or whatever, but I only like that in extreme moderation. When it comes down to it, all of the songs on Merriweather are good. Sung Tongs, Feels, Person Pitch and Strawberry Jam all have some good songs on them, but ultimately, I think they get tripped up by underwritten compositions or more droning pieces that just seem like failed experiments, if I’m going to be charitable. Person Pitch is mostly good, I should say. It’s certainly the record in the catalog most like Merriweather. Merriweather isn’t perfect. It’s maybe ten minutes too long. It drags a little in the middle. The opening track sets the mood nicely, but it’s not as strong as a lot of the other songs. I think if they had sequenced the record with more conventional wisdom, it would’ve started with “Brothersport” and ended with “In The Flowers.” That said, I enjoy “Brothersport” as a finale, and get what they wanted there. I was looking up their recent setlists, out of curiosity, and found that they were actually putting their best foot forward in terms of song selection, which I didn’t expect. I didn’t think they’d be the sort of band that would play most of their hits, or best songs, in concert. They seem to be making an effort to give people the songs they want to hear, which I think is admirable.
ED: Were you surprised you liked Meriweather Post Pavilion?
MP: I really didn’t like Strawberry Jam at all, and had given up on them to a certain extent. I figured they may have a good song or two on the record, which is why I listened to it. I just did not anticipate it being their best record by a huge margin, or that I would actually connect with it in a way that went beyond, “Oh, this is good.” I’ve definitely bonded with songs like “Also Frightened,” “Summertime Clothes,” “No More Runnin’.” I kinda favor the Avey songs, I guess.
ED: Do people distinguish themselves as “Avey Tare people” or “Panda Bear people,” like people do as “John people” or “Paul people”? (For the record: I’m making an analogy, not a comparison.)
MP: I think maybe in the near future people might make that Avey vs. Panda distinction. They complement each other really well, but they have different charms as they develop as musicians. Panda Bear leans hard on that quasi-Beach Boy harmony thing, and his songs tend to drone more, while somehow feeling sorta bouncy. It’s weird how that happens with “My Girls” and “Brothersport.” Avey Tare’s new songs are more classic pop songs, at least in terms of structure. Verses, choruses, bridges. He also seems much, much more interested in giving his songs a moment of catharsis, and that goes back to the very first record. I do think that Panda Bear having more involvement in the songwriting and the singing has made them a better band. Not just in that there is now these contrasting voices, but in that I think his clear taste for harmonizing has given them something to play around with that isn’t just this shapeless quasi-pastoral soundscape. Earlier this week, I put up this video of a college a cappella group singing one of their songs, and I think they actually get to the heart of what people increasingly admire about the band: the harmonies, the singing. They’re nostalgic, they evoke the Beach Boys and doo-wop, but it’s skewed in a way that feels new. If you look at that YouTube clip, there are some comments from people outraged that a glee club would sing an Animal Collective song. A cappella groups are still a really dorky thing, but that’s something they’re drawing on, and it’s no less dorky than the drum circle, campfire stuff they’ve been playing with for ages.
ED: I’m excited this new album is not only good, but that I think it will allow Animal Collective to start doing things on a level that I think really suits them. The last time I saw them play LA, they did a show at the Henry Fonda Theater, which holds a few hundred people. They’re playing LA next week, and the show is again at the Henry Fonda. Admittedly that show was probably booked months ago, but because of the reception this album is getting (both critically and on a straight up fan level), and it’s potential to bring in those who had been either totally dismissive of them or people who had given up on them, I could see them playing somewhere like the Greek Theatre, a beautiful outdoor space in the middle of Griffith Park, this summer or having the hugest show at Central Park’s Summerstage. I would think that’s exciting to both someone like me who thinks they’ve been improving and building to this point and someone like you who thinks they’re finally reaching their potential after some detours.
MP: I think they should go play Bonnaroo. Once they nail down that audience, they can play anywhere they want. Including the Merriweather Post Pavilion.