Animal, Mineral, Vegetable

Why New York’s Animal Collective are a hard act to classify.

Venture down the rabbit-hole of indie pop and you might find yourself in the weird wonderland of Animal Collective. Made up of Panda Bear, Avey Tare, Geologist and Deakin, the band was formed in 2000 in New York. They quickly formed a following with their Mad Hatter manner of mixing songs from oddball sounds and their penchant for rabbit masks and costumes. But as soon as the media picked up on it, the band dropped the dress-ups (with one exception: multi-instrumentalist Geologist still wears a hard hat with a light attached so he can see what he’s doing onstage). But their hyperactive antics remain, as Australian audiences will soon discover when Animal Collective tour here for the first time.

From his home in Lisbon, Panda Bear (aka drummer/vocalist Noah Lennox) is happy to discuss the band’s upcoming visit, but in line with their unpredictable sound, he “doesn’t want to make any kind of guarantees” about the nature of the show. In the past though, he’s said they’re like children on a sugar-rush onstage: “kids who don’t care what other people think of them.” Nevertheless, many people do care about Animal Collective. Not only has their seventh and latest album
Feels been championed by the trend-obsessed musical press, who tend to love strange bands (particularly if they specialise in songs about bees, grass and ‘flesh canoes’), but it’s also scored rave reviews from less impressionable mainstream newspapers such as the New York Times and the Guardian.

So how did Animal Collective cultivate such an original sound? Perhaps Lennox’s early years provide a clue. A founding member of the band, he played piano, cello and was in the high school choir, but his soundtrack at home was more eclectic. “My mum was really into ballet so I heard a lot of musical scores for ballet,” he says. “My father was more of a rocker dude. He was down with AC/DC. I remember hearing a lot of 80s radio in the car with him.” (Lennox’s 2004 solo album Young Prayer is dedicated to his father, who died of cancer several years ago).

On record, Animal Collective slides seamlessly between manic yelling and innocent pastel melodies, which might reflect the band’s differing interests. Horror movie buffs Avey Tare and Geologist have decorated their studio walls with graphic images of monsters and severed heads. “I just try not to look at it while we’re playing,” says Lennox, whose own studio flaunts tour posters, psychedelic vinyl covers and “pictures of panda bears that a kid in the audience gave me once.” (Lennox used to draw pandas on cassette tapes as a kid, hence the pseudonym.)

The band’s eclectic nature is epitomised by the track ‘The Purple Bottle’ (a seven-minute love song full of jerky percussion, raw cries, unexpected harmonies and references to fruity nuts, horses and Chinese ballet). Considering their deranged arrangements, many interviewers have predictably asked Animal Collective about their drug intake – much to the band’s frustration. “Personally, I don’t give a crap,” says Lennox. “I have nothing to hide from anybody. But (other band members) don’t really want to be confronted with it, I guess. Music is a large part of their lives, but having a reputation for being a druggie would hurt their efforts in life after music. But I’m willing to talk about it.”

Still, it seems unoriginal to ask a musician about drugs...

“Well, anybody can do drugs,” he says. And it’s wrong to assume that you need drugs to make challenging, interesting music. “Totally. I know plenty of people who do tons of drugs and make really shitty music.”

Feels is far from ‘shitty.’ It’s the most unconventional tribute to cupid’s arrow that you’ll probably ever hear. Lennox’s own love-struck life influenced the album’s direction: he relocated to the Portuguese capital after meeting a clothes designer there at the end of the band’s last album tour. Now married, the couple recently had a baby (who he tries to put to sleep during our interview).

“It’s hard to leave home,” Lennox says of his new life. “It’s hard to leave my family but it’s been beneficial for us (the band) to not be around each other for every second, because that certainly took its toll in certain ways.” In the past, they’ve broken up several times and endured rehearsals without exchanging words. Geologist even took time off to earn a degree in environmental policy. For now though, the collective is solid. “Now when we get together, we’re more excited about it, and are able to focus a little better on it,” he says.

For their Australian tour, Animal Collective will play songs they’ve recorded for their upcoming album. And though Lennox is working on a song about the responsibilities of getting older, his method of finding samples for the album still has a childlike wonder to it. Lately he’s been scouring the internet for recorded snippets of New York subway warning bells and assorted machinery. It’s heavy metal, “but not heavy metal the music,” he says with a laugh.

Lee Tran Lam

The Big Issue, October 23, 2006