Animal Collective have been an unconventional and idiosyncratic band since the late '90s, when a collaboration between Dave "Avey Tare" Portner and Noah "Panda Bear" Lennox evolved into a larger group including Brian "Geologist" Weitz and Josh "Deakin" Dibb. The band's membership is in a state of permanent flux, with the core four members working in various permutations depending on the project. Painting With, the group's 10th studio album, was made by Portner, Lennox, and Weitz — the same lineup that created their widely acclaimed 2009 breakthrough album, Merriweather Post Pavilion. In this interview conducted in December of 2015, the group explains how they reinvented their distinct sound all over again by setting aside guitars, singing unusual syncopated harmonies, and deciding to only write short, snappy songs.
The impression I've had from you guys is that you always start with a set of constraints when you go into a new record. How did you arrive at the elements to focus on with this new album?
Dave Portner: It's a little bit of constraints, but it's also guidelines too. It's the best of both worlds. I think with this album in particular we wanted to have more constraints than we ever really had before, so we set limits. We wanted it to be more minimal than anything we'd done. Whenever we make a record, or at least the past couple, we talk a lot about whose responsibility it is to do certain things, like cover the low end.
Going into writing the songs I wrote, I just wrote everything over one bass line or melodic line and left the space open for these guys to do the parts that weren't there.
Noah Lennox: We wanted something really crude, rhythmically speaking. That was a target which sorta dictated some of the rules.
There's no guitar on this?
DP: Yeah, this is the first record we've done that has no guitar on it.
Brian Weitz: Not even sampled guitar.
DP: There's some santur on it; that's the closest thing. It's like a Persian dulcimer.
Is that part of why Josh Dibb isn't on the record, since he mainly plays guitar?
BW: No, that wasn't really one of our guidelines. Maybe at some point we realized that it was guitar-less and that was cool, but it wasn't because of him.
NL: It was not a reaction to him not being on the record.
BW: The lineup was kinda set before we started working on material.
DP: Noah hasn't really used guitar for a song in a long time.
NL: Well, there was the Tomboy stuff.
DP: Oh, yeah. For me it was just like, I had just done a pretty heavy guitar record with the Slasher Flicks thing and there was enough of it on Centipede Hz that I was ready for a change. You just do something for a while and need a break from it. This time we didn't really decide to be more electronic, it was just the most practical way of achieving these types of songs.
NL: A lot of these songs seem more rock to me.
Did you want to make a more minimalist record as a reaction to Centipede Hz, since that record has a very thick sound?
DP: Yeah. I think even with Centipede Hz we wanted it to be this live-sounding thing, but then it just became something else when we went in the studio. So this time it was like, let's make sure it's what we originally wanted.
BW: We actually wanted Centipede Hz to be minimal, where Noah is just gonna play drums, Dave will play keyboards, Josh will play guitar, and I'll play samples. Going in, we thought it'd be that minimal, like a garage band. But we all love effects and playing so much that it didn't turn out that way. The overdub process is very seductive for us.
And you intentionally wanted the songs to be shorter, right. What guided you toward that?
DP: I think it was easier to do because we didn't do the songs live, and when we start with it as a live thing, it's a little bit looser.
BW: Because we jam into it, and jam out of it until it feels good. If we're doing it onstage, we're writing it for the stage. Writing outside of that, it's more like we know this is where the song begins, this is where the song ends.
NL: Before we start writing anything it's typical for us to have conversations about stuff that's exciting to us, and last summer playing short songs was part of that.
Do you feel like it's easier to be concise now that you have so much experience in songwriting?
NL: I would say no, because we tried in the past a little bit.
DP: I remember in the beginning when the tracks were exchanged, it was like, how the fuck does someone write a three-minute song? You write three minutes of a song, and you're like, that's a good part of a song.
NL: That's usually how it is. From where I come from, songwriting is always: Start at one point, and end in another place. So when is it ever done? Sometimes I feel like I've gone overboard, or other times it's not enough.
DP: I think we got into it out of being big fans of that kind of [concise] songwriting, and over the past couple years getting into Tin Pan Alley stuff. That crazy precise songwriting of that era, and '60s pop.
There's a bounciness about the new songs that's a bit like that.
DP: We kinda wanted the lighthearted brevity of that vibe, like early Beatles without the sadness or sappiness that sometimes gets thrown in there.
Did anything about this record surprise you?
BW: Kinda the whole thing. It happened so fast, from not hearing anything. These guys wrote separately; Dave wrote eight songs and Noah wrote eight songs, with very little back and forth, so there was a question of whether it would all work together.
DP: A goal was getting it to feel like you couldn't tell who wrote what. The lead vocals are broken apart.
BW: Sometimes I forget who is singing. We flip-flopped a lot.
So you've never played any of these songs onstage. Do you have a sense of how it's going to work when you go on tour?
DP: We're getting there.
BW: That's the next thing on our checklist.
NL: We wrote the demos, and it's the first time we ever wrote singing parts for each other. It was really kinda scripted; the singing was clearly defined. We got together in Asheville, North Carolina, in May and we had the demos, and we each tried to figure out something to do to play it live — that's going to be the basis for it...it'll be something like that.
BW: That practice session we put together, it was finding what version of those songs the three of us could sit down in a room and play.
DP: We're also taking our process and putting it in reverse, so if the songs are short now, they'll stretch out.
BW: The X factor is the singing, because when we were in Asheville we weren't really singing. The syncopated singing is beyond anything my brain can comprehend, at the start, then doing that and also playing instruments.
I was glad that you put out that live album a few months ago, to have a document of that version of the band.
BW: My family actually really likes the Centipede Hz record a lot, so I heard it a lot in the car. The carpool scheme changed this school year, so I haven't heard it in a while. My wife would sometimes see me tapping along to songs like "Applesauce" or "Moonjock" when they come on in the car, and she'd ask me if I missed playing them live. Yeah, I really miss playing them! For me, personally, it was one of the more fun and physical eras of the band. The touring was a little stressful, but actually playing those songs live was fun.