Animal Collective Talk About Making Centipede Hz
By now, pretty much everyone has had a chance to listen to and weigh in on Animal Collective’s new long-player, Centipede Hz. At the time of my interview with the band I’d only heard the record a couple of times — via a time-sensitive watermarked computer stream provided to critics — and was still in the process of trying to figure out exactly what I thought about it (to be honest, I’m still not entirely sure, though the record has grown on me considerably). Even though the band has a reputation for being guarded and not necessarily the easiest bunch of dudes to talk to, they were, in the end, actually a really easy bunch of dudes to talk to. While early word on Centipede Hz seems to posit the record as a much more sonically dense, less obviously melodic, and somewhat more difficult record than 2009’s beloved Merriweather Post Pavilion (an assessment the band seems to agree with), it will undoubtedly go down as one of this year’s most widely discussed releases, which made talking to the band about it a total pleasure.
Stereogum: I know that for the recording of this album, you guys were all working in the same space at the same time, which is kind of a return to the way you used to work … and no small feat for a band with four members who all live in different places.
David Portner (Avey Tare): Around 2010 we took some time off from touring and had time to just play around with some new song ideas. Everyone had been working on other projects, too — Josh had been working on new stuff, and Noah had been touring with his own stuff — and we all talked over email about some ideas we had regarding what to do next. I’d been thinking about playing drums a little more, and I think we all had in mind doing something a little more ecstatic and aggressive than what we’d been doing previously. Things got a little mellow for us toward the end of touring for Merriweather — all of us stuck behind the samplers and stuff. Not that it was bad, but we were feeling like we wanted to exert a little more energy on stage. So we decided to get together in Baltimore to just jam a little and see how things felt, see what would happen.
Noah Lennox (Panda Bear): It was very workmanlike, actually.
Portner: Yeah, we’d get up every day and just go play for about six or seven hours, then go home. Then the next day we’d do it again. It was like a workshop. The first week or so was just free-form jamming, trying to see what kind of sounds we could conjure up. Then it was clear that we needed more actual songs, so we started to break up the work a little bit — Noah and I might go off and work on some melodies while Josh and Brian might work on some drum sounds. Then we’d come back together and try to combine what we’d been doing. We recorded everything. We all had handheld recorders with us. Then we’d go through the stuff and pick out things that seemed promising, like we might pick out one interesting rhythm and then try to build a melody around it. We might take a section of one jam and try to build a song around it. Everything was labeled — all the recordings — and I think there were 13 or 14 hours of just stuff like that from the first week or so. Much of it wasn’t worth keeping, but out of that material, the new stuff was kind of born.
Stereogum: It must be kind of laborious going back and sifting through all that material.
Brian Weitz (Geologist): It didn’t feel too laborious. It was a lot of work, but a day spent wearing headphones and working on new stuff is never a bad day. We were also working in a pretty ideal spot, working in a place where we had done a lot of our early recording and playing together. We tended to be kind of on top of each other in the studio, but if you needed a breath of fresh air you could just walk outside and suddenly be out in a meadow wandering around. It was nice in that way.
Stereogum: So how much time did you spend working in that way?
Weitz: About three months.
Stereogum: And how long into that process was it before the songs started to really take shape? Or until you could see the parts of the album start to finally reveal themselves?
Portner: For me it wasn’t until the last couple of weeks. A song like “Today’s Supernatural” took a long time to figure out. We’d keep playing it — and we had all the parts — but we’d run through the song and every time it would be like, maybe this time it will come together. And eventually it did. But it really wasn’t until that last month that everything kind of started to make sense.
Weitz: Yeah, I think it was during that last month that it started to happen. We’d also booked some shows we had to play, so we had to spend some time figuring out which old songs we could play and how they would fit together with the new material we wanted to try out. We didn’t want to just play all new songs at the shows. You know, we wanted to put together a fun set that would really connect with everyone, but it took time trying to merge the new material with some of the older stuff. We spent a couple of weeks just figuring that out. I remember that we had a Super Bowl party at Dave’s house, and I’d spent that entire day at the studio. I remember getting so much work done that day — going through each of the songs and seeing that each one had some really cool parts happening — and that I went to the Super Bowl party feeling really psyched. I remember thinking, finally this thing is really coming together.
Portner: A big part of our process has always had to do with figuring out a live set that includes the material. Like, we can’t really master the material until we can play it with the other songs. I feel like I don’t really have a good grasp on the songs until I can play them live, and go from one song to the next, and really master all the settings and controls and play them all the way through. In the beginning we would come up with songs and it was like, OK, these sound cool, but it’s really about the entire set and getting these things to work together. The album is kind of the same thing: It’s about getting the songs to work together. We never really feel comfortable until we get to a place where we can go from point A to point B pretty seamlessly in a way that makes sense.
Josh Dibb (Deakin): I feel like in the lifetime of one of our songs — and I’m sure this is different for all of us — but there are these little tweaks that you store in your memory that naturally just come out when you play them. So even if you haven’t played them for a long time, you just automatically know that the EQ has to be at this level at this point in the song, and that you have to crank up the volume at this point or hit the drum at this exact moment to get the desired effect. And you really have to play the song a bunch of times for those things to become hardwired into your brain.
Stereogum: The sequencing of this album must have been difficult. How do you work that out?
Lennox: We knew the sequence fairly early on, I think. But we did have the idea at one point that maybe we’d record this record the way we did Campfire Songs, which was to record the songs from start to finish — or in sections, the way we do our live set. We thought maybe we’d just do it ourselves, since Josh had done such a great job on Dave’s solo record. Then Ben Allen got in touch with us. He’d seen us play some of the new songs at a show in Atlanta and then wrote us an email about how he had this idea to record a band in a studio environment but to record them as if they were playing a show. We’d rehearse it a lot beforehand and everyone would know what they needed to do — both us, performance-wise, and him in the control room. We’d had the same idea, so it seemed logical for us to try and work together. To do that we needed to have the sequence figured out, which basically had done by … last November? When we play live we sort of do the songs in sections — like three or four songs together — so we thought maybe we could approach the recording that way.
Stereogum: So was the record actually recorded that way?
Portner: No. “New Town Burnout” and “Monkey Riches” were probably the closest, because those involve a transition that we actually do live, which made it fairly easy to reproduce in the studio. From an engineering standpoint — because our settings change so drastically between songs, it was just impossible.
Dibb: It didn’t totally work, but it did make us really figure out how the songs would fit together and how we could maneuver from one song into the next.
Weitz: We did record a lot of the first side of the record that way — with only a few overdubs and other things added in later — but when we tried to do the second side that way, it just didn’t work. Ben finally had to say, look, we can’t make a good record this way. There were too many things that needed to be switched during the songs, even when we had assistance in the room. We were switching amps and unplugging things and replugging things while trying to transition between songs as he recorded us … it just got too complicated.
Dibb: He was recording us through a traditional soundboard, which wasn’t automated or anything. Given the gear that we were using, and the amount of settings that would need to be reset each time we did a take, it was just too problematic.
Weitz: We were recording to tape as well, which is very expensive.
Dibb: Two machines synced up, which was awesome, but the amount of time it would take to just fast-forward or rewind and then get the machines synced up again was just really … it ate up a lot of time. It added hours and hours to our process, which ultimately just didn’t work. We had to find a more efficient way of recording.
Weitz: I’m glad we tried it, though; I think it still added something to the material.
Dibb: Yeah, I think the heart of what we were attempting is still very much present on the record. The intention is still there.
Stereogum: When it comes to mixing your records, is it all hands on deck? With four members so prone to tinkering with the sonic qualities of music, I’d expect those to be pretty difficult decisions to make.
Lennox: Working with Ben has made it easier. We have a lot of trust in him.
Weitz: With the four of us in a room trying to mix a record, we could mix and remix the same song for days and days. More of this, less of this, oh no, but more of this sound …. Now we can feel OK to just leave for a while and let Ben do his thing, then we can all give input and kind of come up with this communal vision of what we want the overall sound to be.
Lennox: We got used to that on Merriweather. We’d just sit down and, like, only work on the kick-drum sound. Everyone would weigh in, but there were other people there engineering and kind of steering the ship. It was hardest for Josh, I think.
Dibb: Yeah. On every previous Animal Collective record I would sit in the studio from the moment we walked in and turned on the lights until the moment we were done, I was involved in every part of it. Then these guys did Merriweather without me, which I guess was a little different. So when we first went in to do the mixing, it was a little jarring for me that we weren’t all gonna sit there and listen through the entire process. So when we would listen back to Ben’s mixes — even if the mix was really good — I’d find myself focusing on some little part of it and wanting to know how he got to that point, what compression was being used, what settings …. That process of knowing exactly how everything was done was hard for me to give up. I didn’t want to give generalized comments like “This just doesn’t feel right,” but be able to say what, exactly, needed to be tweaked.
Weitz: On Merriweather I remember that it would feel so weird to be able to leave the room while Ben was working on the mixes. Luckily, there was a ping-pong table nearby. We’d come back after a couple of hours and he’d play the mixes for us and most of the time we were really happy with it.
Portner: But there would always be little things we’d change.
Weitz: Well, Ben always tends to gravitate toward a “straighter” kind of production — meaning, given his background as a producer, he’s always very protective of the melody and the vocals.
Dibb: He provides a good balance, though. We have a tendency sometimes to pull too hard in the other direction. So there will be times when we’ve worked on something and the song seems very clear and very focused to us, but then we’ll play it for Ben — or for friends or whatever — and they will respond by saying, “I don’t even know what this is.” Ben is great for saying things to us like, “If you make this choice, which is yours to make, a lot of people are not going to get it. But if you make this choice, which might seem a little uncomfortable, you are much more likely to connect with people.” There is always a push and pull.
Weitz: A lot of the weirder aspects, particularly with my sounds, I know can be hard to deal with. We had a talk before the mixing where I was basically like, “You gotta respect me, dude. Sometimes the sounds can be louder than the vocals.” It’s not just gratuitous sound; there is a reason for it.
Lennox: It also takes a long time to properly mix a song — sometimes a couple of days per song — and I feel like if we were in there the entire time going “Aw, do this!” it would just take so much longer.
Portner: You start to lose your perspective when you hear it too much for too long.
Weitz: There were a few disagreements. There were certain songs — like “New Town Burnout” — where we had to say that the song as he was hearing it was not the same song we were hearing. We had to work through it.
Stereogum: Now that the record is done and a few people have had the chance to hear it, are you surprised by the response?
Portner: It’s not too surprising. I feel like it’s kind of what we expected.
Weitz: There’s always a period after you finish a record when you get really psyched to finally play it for your friends. Particularly for people that know you really well and have followed your music for years. It’s cool to play it for people like that. We expected people to be like “Whoa!” when they heard it.
Portner: The word “dense” seems to be getting used a lot. This seems to be a record that takes a few more listens to finally find your way into it.
Stereogum: That seems right. I was listening to it — very loudly — at home yesterday and my boyfriend finally came upstairs and said, “Whatever this is, it’s making me feel crazy.” It seemed an appropriate response.
Stereogum: How does the dynamic of the band change with Josh back for this record?
Weitz: It’s hard to put into words, but I think it definitely changes the dynamic. Sonically, it changes things. I was thinking about this yesterday, but less than half of what are considered Animal Collective records actually feature all four of us. Only four of them, actually. You can actually view those records as a group, all of which are very dense. I think when the four of us get together, our inclination is to fill up lots of the frequency range and panoramic space when we make music. It’s a much more delicate process when mixing, making sure that everyone’s contributions are properly represented. We don’t always know exactly what the other ones are doing when everyone is off working on their own parts and creating sounds.
Portner: I think the records that the four of us make together are the most visceral music-making experiences. The other ones are more delicate — piecing together these instrumental parts of electronic things — whereas when the four of us are together in a room it’s more about creating a wall of sound. I think our dynamic, when it’s the four of us, really comes across in the records as well.
Stereogum: How will the live permutation of the band change for your upcoming tour? Or will it?
Weitz: We’ve played a lot of them already, but we definitely want to create a live set that makes sense. We don’t like playing old songs and having it sound like some kind of sonic departure from the other material. Like, we wouldn’t want to have our old Merriweather stations up on stage and then step over to them like, “Here’s an old one!” So we have to figure out what old songs we’d like to play and then make them fit into this current world we’re working in.
Stereogum: its funny thinking about how much things have changed for your band since, say, the release of Strawberry Jam in 2007. The size of your audience and the scope of what you do has grown monumentally since then. I suspect that the typical Animal Collective fan doesn’t come to shows expecting you to play the hits, but still ….
Dibb: Oh, we get a lot of that actually.
Stereogum: How do you deal with that?
Weitz: It’s a work in progress. I don’t think we would try to placate people in a way that didn’t also feel good to us, you know? Recently we’ve been playing a set that is heavy on the Centipede songs, but we also played “Summertime Clothes” and “Brothersport,” since there was a way to do them that felt like the energy and the sonics of those songs fit in nicely, but also allowed us to deliver the songs in a version that people know and love. A song like “My Girls” might be a little more challenging to fit in, but if we can do it in a way that feels good for us … that connection that you have with an audience when they love a song is really powerful; it’s not just us throwing the audience a bone or something.
Lennox: It’s also understanding your relationship as the entertainer in regard to what the audience wants. I try to think about what I would be psyched on to see at a show, or what it was like to be young and go to see a band you really liked. I think for us, seeing the kinds of bands that we all liked — a band that would do something kind of weird or might throw in some unexpected B-side or something — that would be exciting. In a way, it’s that kind of stuff that inspired all of us to be in a band in the first place. At the same time, it’s a bummer to go and see a band you really like and for them to not play a song that you really love, so it’s about trying to find a good middle ground there. You have to try to find a way to make it a good experience for everyone involved.
Weitz: I saw the Sun City Girls play once in Arizona. Everyone there was really into it — they were clearly preaching to the converted — and the crowd just wanted to see the wildest, craziest show possible. They came out and did a cover of “Me And Mrs. Jones,” which was a popular old song that they did, and everyone went nuts. Even at a show like that, the audience still wanted to hear an old classic that everyone knew.
Stereogum: You guys have a very well-considered approach to everything you do, from the live visuals to the packaging of your records to your videos. As the band continues to draw a wider and wider audience, is it harder to keep control over all those things?
Portner: It’s not harder to keep creating, and it doesn’t diminish the desire to keep making things, but the only thing that makes it harder is the Internet: the idea of free music and leaks and the expectations people have of you — which, because of the way you tend to interact with fans on the Internet, you can’t help but be aware of. We’ve generally been pretty good about shutting ourselves off from all that and just working alone in our own bubble. That’s the way we’ve always worked since we started this thing, before Facebook and things like that. While some people have that tendency to share everything — “We’ve just finished our new record cover, better post it online immediately” — we tend to hold back and not share anything until we can present this larger package. The visuals are about creating this larger world that the music can kind of live inside of, but it’s still about the music first and foremost. If we were just sitting around now waiting for the tour to start and the record to come out, we’d be really bored. It’s always about creating new stuff and moving things forward and hoping that people will still want to roll with us, you know?
Stereogum: To your credit, I’ve never had to jump through so many hoops to hear an advance of a record before. It says something about the voraciousness of Animal Collective fans that you have to go to such great lengths to keep things from leaking.
Lennox: I think we’ve always gone about things in our own weird way — whether it was making music and recording to making videos or whatever — and that same thing kind of applies to our approach to releasing music and stuff. We do the same when it comes to touring. We always want to have some crazy set and crazy visuals — and we’re going through this right now — and at some point, we always stop and wonder, “Are we really going to be able to pull this off?” and it feels really stressful. But then I remind myself that it’s always been that way. Every time we tour, every time we make a record. There’s always that fear and stress about how to push things forward.
Stereogum: It’s usually when you don’t feel that way when there’s a problem. If you don’t feel a certain amount of stress or an element of risk, you probably aren’t moving things forward.
Weitz: I think that’s how we felt at the end of touring for Merriweather. We could rip through those songs and play all the weird transitions and not really break a sweat. I think that’s where a lot of Centipede comes from.
Portner: We are working with my sister Abby on the visuals and videos for the record, which will carry over into the visual for the live show. We’re still figuring out how all of it will work and everything will tie together.
Dibb: We did a pretty visual tour with a set she built for us in July of last year, which kind of set a precedent for how we’ll tour in the future.
Stereogum: Will you tour as aggressively for this record as you did for Merriweather?
Portner: It will probably be a little more spaced out than the last time, but in the long run it will probably be just as many shows. We’ll probably divide it up a little more so we’ll each have more time to be with our families and stuff. People might have to wait a little longer for us to get to their town, but in the long run we’ll be playing lots and lots of places, and hopefully a few places we’ve never been before.
Stereogum: Given that you all live in places very far away from each other, just getting together to rehearse must involve a lot of planning and effort.
Portner: We’ve been talking about how much easier it would be if we all lived in the same place again. We had to record a radio thing recently, and we set up all of our gear at a friend’s gallery space to rehearse. I kept thinking about how nice it would be if that were just our practice space.
Dibb: As much as I do wish we all lived in the same city — and I do wish that — there is something to be said for that motivating pressure that comes with only having a limited amount of time to get things done. Even three months isn’t much time when it comes to writing and recording a record. You have to move quickly.
Stereogum: I’m excited to see your new live setup for the fall tour.
Weitz: I hope your boyfriend learns to enjoy the record.
Stereogum: He’ll come around. I just shouldn’t put it on at peak volume whenever he is stressed and trying to focus on some work thing.
Lennox: It’s not exactly music for unwinding, or to put on while you’re doing something else. It is music that kind of requires you to focus on it for a while, which is probably the case for almost all of the music we make.
Animal Collective’s Centipede Hz is out 9/4 via Domino.