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A Rational Conversation Between Two Adults: Is Animal Collective The Great Band Of Our Time? (Part One)

January 13, 2009

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 Will Welch, a former FADER editor and a current associate editor at GQ, about if Animal Collective are indeed the great band of your time. And now you can read part two of this discussion, this time with Matthew Perpetua of Fluxblog, who has some very different opinions about Animal Collective's development.

Eric Ducker: Should we start listening to Merriweather at the same time? To coordinate our cycles?

Will Welch: Sure. I have to use headphones though, and thinking while that shit is jamming directly into my ears is tough.

ED: That's fair. I heard they designed the album to be heard through headphones that aren't actually in the listener's ears

WW: I am their ideal listener then! Gimme the countdown and we'll get it crackin.

ED: OK, go!

WW: *crunch*crunch*crunch*shimmer. Should we spend the whole time trying to write the sounds on the album?

ED: I'd prefer not. So let's start with the big question: is Animal Collective the great band of our time?

WW: Sure. It is a very uncomfortable question. I think the best I can do is: I probably listen to their records more times each than any other band, especially all the way through. And I go back to them all the time. God only knows how often I listened to Feels recently. But are they the band of our time? The Killers, Coldplay, My Morning Jacket, The Foo Fighters...they all played Madison Square Garden last time they came to New York. They are very big bands of our time that people love. Me, I'll take Animal Collective. Even if just because of number of listens to albums. Animal Collective by a zillion.

ED: Have you liked each Animal Collective album more than the last?

WW: Feels was a major shift, the beginning of something new for them, and they've been both expanding it and refining it each time with Strawberry Jam and the new one. Strawberry Jam is Feels expanded and refined. But ten years from now, listening back, which I will be, I might like more songs on Feels. Do you think they're the great band of our time?

ED: Well, I don't even know if such a thing really exists. I read someone call them that and thought it was an interesting concept. I guess I can't think of many other contemporary and relatively popular groups that have as many new ideas about making new sounds as they do, or that have developed and are as committed to a way of doing things that I think is pretty exciting. I think they're going to influence tons of artists as well as influence a ton of artists who don't realize they've been influenced by them. Also, some of their songs are just really beautiful to me.

WW: Right. The thing about "Is Animal Collective the great band of our time?" is that it's not a dumb question to ask, but it's a dumb one to answer. That said, we could do it hypothetically. Assuming they are, why are they? For me, there are musical reasons, and there are perception reasons. By perception reasons I mean the way they have handled their career, their marketing, their press, how many albums they're putting out, what their T-shirts look like, the places they play, what they play when they play... There is mystery at the heart of their music and their life as a band, and on both levels it's an incredible project, a blinding success. but I think mystery is the ticket with them, and I don't even need to say that there are not a lot of mysterious bands left. On a musical level, you can start here: what is even happening in those songs? What on god's green earth do they do in that studio? What do they do on stage to produce those sounds? I know pretty much about music, and have played it before, and I have no idea. Unless Panda Bear is hitting a floor tom I really have a tough time telling what they're doing, how it's all happening. I can't remember the last time Avey Tare had a guitar around his neck. It is very mysterious, very enticing, very much their own. When they were in the studio, I think I remember someone who would know telling me there were no guitars there. But sometimes I think I hear them. Who knows? I care and don't care at the same time.

ED: And if even in that mystery of how they are making music, their music isn't entirely foreign. There are some people that still find them too weird and unlistenable even as they have become a little more traditional sounding in terms of song structure, and then there are people who are really angry that they've gone "pop." But they aren't necessarily a hard listen, even if they don't sound like much else out there.

WW: Yeah, I think that's a question of context. There are zillions of people who would take Merriweather and hit play and hear *crunch*crunch*crunch*shimmer and already be so turned off. But if you are used to crunches and shimmers and drips and whaps of uncertain origin, then when he gets to the part that goes Smile and say... I like this song!!!!!! then your head might just implode due to the release of untold gallons of endorphins. What is the unit of measurement with endorphins? I say "gallons" assuming it's milliliters or microliters. Anyway, the notion of it as pop or not pop is definitions, semantics. If someone calls it non-pop, they're right. If that same person says the band can't sing or doesn't know anything about melody, she's an asshole.

ED: I also like that for such outré music, their subject matter is real normal. Not just in terms of like songs about love or whatever, but they seem to be into really normal feelings and situations. Avey Tare is so awesome at making mundane life details sound so weird.

WW: Yes. Someone at the bar the other night was saying he was disappointed in the lyrics. On one hand, okay, that's fair. Maybe they could be better? And if you write down the lyrics, sure you might think, "Dudes capable of sounds this weird are just writing about their girls?" It can definitely be a shock: wild, otherworldly sounds expressing everyday, often super heteronormative feelings. But that's the lyrics on a page. Those lyrics are so not on a page. Also, one time I was in a cab and Strawberry Jam had been out for a week and I was singing "Fireworks" as loud as I could and the person riding in the cab with me knew all the actual lyrics and she said I didn't have a single one right. That was so totally fine. That was great. I still probably have them wrong, and it's not great because it's somehow rad that I had them wrong, it's great because that was my jam at the time and not being right about it in no way interfered with the overwhelming feeling that song gave me, or that I got from it. I usually just don't know what they're saying, and usually don't bother to wonder. Having to know every lyric is a little like needing to know exactly what notes make up the crazy loop textures or something. If "Reverend Green" wasn't called that, I never ever would've known that's what he was saying. I still think he might be saying, "rubbing me," especially towards the end.

ED: I thought he was saying "forever in green" and I thought they called the song "Reverend Green" because one of them misheard the words as "Reverend Green."

WW: I would definitely believe that story. Have you heard that to be true?

ED: No. I later learned Reverend Green is their tour manager.

WW: Maybe he starts saying “Reverend Green,” then says “forever in green,” and finally “rubbing me.”

ED: Or the whole "bonefish!" vs. "boneface!" debate about the sample at the start of "Peacebone." The sample probably is "bonefish!" but I can't hear it as anything except "boneface!" Maybe that's what makes them a great band. You can interpret them as you want, you can take them as you want.

WW: Mystery! Can we talk about the drums? I almost called it a theory, but it's not a theory, it's more of a creeping terror, but I suspect that there are no great drummers anymore. Animal Collective doesn't have a great drummer, but Animal Collective has great drums. On Merriweather it's 808s, floor toms, drips, drops, shakes, weird samples, rim shots, bass, probably some actual kick drums maybe(?), some drum machine cymbals, some real cymbals... Yet again, I can't parse it. But they have great drums because they have no drummer. I don't know what to make of that. But can you think of a more dynamic band? One with higher highs, lower lows? Sometimes a mouse, sometimes a lion. Sometimes a lion, sometimes a lion in a coma. Maybe they're onto something: to be the great rock band of our time, start by getting rid of the guitars entirely, disassemble the drum set. I don't think they have ever had any use for a bass under any circumstances, although there's certainly no lack of low end. This goes back to what you said about them being really influential. I don't know if all the bands borrowing from them can quite hack this yet. Nobody's dad gave them a weird knobby machine and a headlamp for their eleventh birthday! We all got drum sets! How can we compete?

ED: I don't know if I've just never read about it or if they don't like to talk about it, but I don’t know anything about their process of making music. I don't know if I want to. I like the idea that magic in somehow involved. Some people would call them drug music, but I think it's magic music.

WW: I agree. Equal parts of me want to know and don't want to know, and both of those 100%. Not 50% and 50%. Also, do you want to know the dudes in Animal Collective? I want to know Fab Moretti. I do not feel compelled to try to know Avey Tare. That goes back to the way they've handled themselves outside of the music, I think.

ED: I guess I'd like to talk to Panda Bear about raising kids because I think we might have similar philosophies and outlooks. Also, his kid is a couple years older than mine, so he might have some advice. Other than that, not really.

WW: I might be wrong on this point. There are a zillion kids on the AC messageboard who I think would be very psyched to meet those guys. And I hope it's obvious that I don't mean they're not awesome dudes, I just mean that, for me, they have made their music cool, not themselves cool. Will Oldham has played with this too through the press, but whether it means he failed or succeeded, he made himself cool. When I read the New Yorker profile on him, I was hoping it would never end. I was hoping the writer spent thirteen thousand days with Will Oldham and wrote about every second of every day. With AC, I just don't feel that same compulsion. When they are doing photo shoots, and they just stand there blankly, I think they know that is not gonna look cool, and make that choice. But yet again, I could be wrong. Sidenote: my favorite song from Merriweather has changed like seventeen times already.

ED: What is it currently?

WW: Today it is "In The Flowers." If I still had the headphones on though, that might've changed it. What's your favorite?

ED: It shifts a lot too, but I have a feeling that when everything shakes out, it will always be "My Girls." Singles are singles for a reason and Animal Collective always seem to pick the right "single.”

WW: Yeah, I was stuck on that song for a very long time, still am intermittently. In general, I think conversations about "favorites" are so much stronger than conversations about "bests." So please holler when you are stuck on "In the Flowers" and I'll let you know where I'm at then too.

Posted: January 13, 2009
A Rational Conversation Between Two Adults: Is Animal Collective The Great Band Of Our Time? (Part One)