In-depth: So You Think You Know… Animal Collective

So You Think You Know… Animal Collective

From lesser-known side-projects to jellyfish documentaries: we delve deep into the adventureland of Animal Collective.

Once upon a time, four kids met at High School in Baltimore. It turned out they all shared a love for psychedelic music. Fast forward to the year 2000, and Animal Collective was born in a flurry of head torches, furry bamboo eating alter-egos, and lashings of strawberry jam.

These days we know Animal Collective as just that; a collective. It’s no overstatement to call ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ one of the most influential records of the noughties, just as  ‘Campfire Songs’ - recorded in the freezing cold outside on a porch in November - equally holds up as a wildly inventive album, created by the most formidable psychedelic band of the century. Animal Collective have a huge back-catalogue of releases stretching right back to the millennium, but that’s only the beginning. Panda Bear, Avey Tare, Deakin and Geologist have dabbled in everything from vegan shoes to pirate radio and American Congress. 

With Panda Bear’s fifth solo record ‘Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper’ out today (12th January), we delve deep into the adventure-land of Animal Collective, visiting previous bands, lesser-known side-projects, even and a token jellyfish documentary along the way.

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They’re Radio Ga-Ga

Half of Animal Collective first met as kids in Baltimore, way back in second grade. They’ve been more or less inseparable ever since. Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) first became pals with Deakin (Josh Dibb) at Waldorf School. Waldorf is fairly similar to Europe’s Steiner system, and it’s an alternative education model that encourages creativity.  Panda Bear and Deakin’s Waldorf schooling could’ve been a factor behind the no-bounds craziness of Animal Collective, but pirate radio was undoubtedly the biggest influence of all. Come eighth grade, Noah and Josh were living in separate states. At Baltimore High School, Deakin made two more like-minded friends; Brian Weitz (Geologist) and Dave Portner (Avey Tare).

Deakin soon introduced them to Panda Bear, and the four pals kept in touch by trading late-night radio rips and demo tapes. “We loved what radio was like back then, which doesn’t really exist in the same way anymore,” Panda Bear told DIY in 2012. Radio is a format Animal Collective are still fond of, and they still stick by it. The band’s last record, ‘Centipede Hz.’ went out on a dedicated radio station of the same name and Panda Bear has been previewing cuts from his new solo record ‘Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper’ - out today (12th Jan) - across radio stations worldwide.

Avey Tare used to sing in a band that sounded a bit like Pavement

Delving deeper into static-covered psychedelic mixes on late-night radio became an obsession. “From there we started taking acid,”said Avey Tare, looking back casually on Animal Collective’s beginnings in an archived Q&A with fans. Amid their brain-based experimentation, Panda Bear and Deakin formed a band called The Cartels. Avey Tare and Geologist, meanwhile, played in a mysterious duo called Wendy Darling, inspired by slasher movie soundtracks and The Shining. “We had never heard so-called experimental music at the time, we didn’t know that people made music with textures and pure sound,” recalled Avey Tare, speaking to The Wire’s Simon Reynolds. “So we started doing that ourselves in high school, walls of drones with guitars and delay pedals and us screaming into mics.”

Actual recordings for their earliest bands are harder to come by than a beach at the North Pole, but the band that followed is less elusive. Auto Mine contained every member of Animal Collective except Panda Bear. Less krautrock and more indie, it’s strange, but very novel, to hear Avey singing like he’s auditioning for Pavement.

Animal Collective started out as a summer holiday hobby

Come the end of High School, and the friends went off their separate ways. Panda Bear and Deakin went off to study in Boston, while Geologist and Avey Tare were New York-bound. Incidentally, Geologist got his nickname because he was mistaken for a geology student at Columbia. He actually studied environmental biology

They carried on exchanging radio mixes, and soon, uniting in the summer holidays to jam together became a bit of a tradition.  Then, Dave Portner asked Noah Lennox to drum on his album ‘Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished’. Originally intended as a solo album, Portner eventually decided to credit Lennox equally, and it was put out under the name Avey Tare and Panda Bear. It’s widely regarded as the first Animal Collective album; though the band didn’t officially adopt that name until they released ‘Here Comes the Indian’ in 2003.

Panda Bear has a side-project called Jane

Maroon 5’s ‘Songs About Jane’ - a tearjerker and emotional rollercoaster though it is - isn’t the best album of 2002 to feature the name “Jane” somewhere in the title. While working in New York record store Other Music, Panda Bear formed a side-project with DJ and fellow staff member Scott Mou. The project was called Jane. 

“We would drink brews and talk about all kinds of things and then play,” said Panda Bear, looking back over the project. “I would usually sing about stuff I was thinking about that day and Scotty would move with it, playing jams and it would all kind of pour out. We liked all the mechanical robo-dance jams from Detroit and Chicago and Germany but we wanted to do something with less 0’s and 1’s and more soul.”

Jane released three albums together - ‘Paradise’ and ‘COcOnuts’ in 2002, and ‘Berserker’ three years later. With Lennox flexing his ambient electronic chops long before Animal Collective made ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’, Jane is compulsory listening.

Geologist used to work for congress’ ocean department

Back in 2004 Animal Collective were starting to make big waves with ‘Sung Tongs’, but they still needed their day jobs. While the rest of the band worked as record store clerks and art handlers, Geologist went into the Senate. He worked lobbying policies for oceans, fisheries and the Coast Guard, and his boss was Democrat John F Kerry, who just so happened to be running for the US presidency that year.

Understandably Brian Weitz was a little cautious about his other job; after all, taking LSD and playing wacked-out psychadelia while wearing a head-torch isn’t an image that instantly gels with government work. “There were already articles in the New York Times about us dropping acid and stuff like that,” Geologist told The Washington Post in 2012. “I didn’t really want anybody Googling me. I was really, really paranoid about it, actually.” 

So You Think You Know… Animal Collective

There are more Animal Collective side projects than you can shake a stick at

Noah Lennox’s side-project Jane isn’t the only Animal Collective spin-off, by any means. Avey Tare and his ex-wife Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir (formerly of experimental Icelandic band múm) made one flawlesly restrained album together in 2007, ‘Pullhair Rubeye’. Deakin and Geologist have made music as a duo, too, and paired off to record a song called ‘Seeing Twinkles’ for the ‘Music For Plants’ compilation, which also featured their close friends Black Dice and Arto Lindsay. And, speaking of experimental composer Arto Lindsey, Animal Collective collaborated with him in 2002, too. ‘In the City That Reads’ is allegedly the first example of all four band members credited together on one track.

That’s without mentioning Avey Tare’s oft overlooked project Terrestrial Tones - the 2004 band that he formed with roomate Eric Copeland (of Black Dice) during Animal Collective’s brief hiatus - or Deakin’s extensive live-only solo material. Meanwhile, Panda Bear has collaborated with the likes of Pantha Du Prince, Atlas Sounds, Teengirl Fantasy and, most prolifically, he guested on Daft Punk’s ‘Doin It Right’ from ‘Random Access Memories’.

They beat Thom Yorke to BitTorrent

Smug ol’ Thom Yorke must’ve felt pretty pleased with himself when he came up with the idea of releasing his last solo record ‘Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes’ on file-sharing platform BitTorrent. Thing is, though, Animal Collective were four years ahead of him. After collaborating with video artist Danny Perez on audiovisual project Transverse Temporal Gyrus for a three hour performance piece at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2010, the band made the whole experience available as an all-immersive computer program. Available to download on - you guessed it - BitTorrent.

Animal Collective’s installation is named after the brain’s transverse temporal gyrus; the first port of call for sounds entering grey matter. It’s where fragmented sound stems get processed into proper recognisable audio. The computer program, which the band put together with developer Stephan Moore, does the exact same thing electronically. Clever, huh?

Animal Collective all make music solo, too

It might’ve been two-and-a-bit years since ‘Centipede Hz.’ - Animal Collective’s last album - but the individual members haven’t been quiet at all, not on your nelly. Noah Lennox releases his fifth solo record ‘Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper’ today (12th Jan), and Avey Tare also released his second album, ‘Enter The Slasher House’ last April. Geologist and Deakin tend to stick to live DJ sets, and solo recordings are fairly rare occurrences. The two did appear on Animal Collective’s cassette ‘Keep’, though - a release which, rather weirdly, came along with AC-endorsed crystal-dyed t-shirts and vegan shoes. Stranger still, Geologist also wrote the suitably jelly-like soundtrack for a natural history documentary called ‘Man O’ War’, a film all about the highly poisonous lil’ Portuguese critters.

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