"Merriweather… was a great experience for us, even just creatively, writing the songs, recording the songs, and it was something that to us was really kind of special."
When Animal Collective released Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2009, the game changed irreversibly for the experimental/psychedelic outfit from Baltimore. They had been plugging along contentedly since 1999, noticed but not especially notable, and then suddenly everyone was all over their balls about their indisputable genius and otherworldly brilliance. So it stands to reason they'd want to replicate that success with their follow-up album, the recently released Centipede Hz. Except, multi-instrumentalist Brian Weitz says, that wasn't their goal at all. Primarily, their goal was just to see each other.
You see, in recent years, Animal Collective has become a less “in-the-flesh” kind of band, at least in terms of how they work when not on tour together. The members all live in different areas; some have families of their own. So although the process that fuelled Merriweather...'s conception was a successful one, it wasn't the path Animal Collective wished to follow for Centipede Hz, the group's ninth full-length album. After all, these days the rockstar life is less wild nights and hazy days, and more making sure the kids are good to get to school before hitting the studio.
“Especially for this record, we wanted to write the songs together,” Weitz says. “I feel like we'd gotten in a pretty good groove over the years, especially on a record like Merriweather Post Pavilion, with actually communicating musically by email, sending each other ideas and demos, but I think that process had gotten a little stale for us. So being in the same place this time took a lot of planning because some of us have families, so if we're gonna uproot ourselves for a few months, we need to bring them with us, we need to think about schools for the kids, day care, where we're going to live… Yeah, it takes a lot of work.”
The creation of Centipede Hz was subject to shake-ups not only of the residential variety: long-time member Deakin (Joshua Dibb) returned to the fold following an absence that saw him miss the recording of Merriweather; Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) made his return to sit-down drums; and Weitz himself dabbles with live keys. “It was pretty good,” Weitz says with slight hesitation when asked how the modified studio set-up impacted on proceedings. “I mean, every record feels different just because we're in different places in our lives. It was probably, like, the hardest I've ever worked on a record. Not in a bad way; in a good way. But just since we sort of had this window of time to get together and write in person with each other was very much like this workshop vibe going where we could get together for six hours or so every day and improvise, or people would go off into different rooms and work on their parts. It was good. It was great. Good times all around.
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“I think we didn't want to make… Merriweather had sort of an ambient quality; more of like a heady, mellow quality that I think can come from when you write using headphones a lot,” he continues. “So people are emailing ideas back and forth a lot and people are working on headphones… You tend to make something that doesn't really interact with the air. And we wanted to make something a bit more visceral this time, a bit more energetic, and a bit more live-sounding. And to do that you need to be in the same room, and you need the volume of amplifiers and drums right next to you. That influences that parts that you're writing. So we thought it would work closely with the kind of sound that we wanted to go for.”
With all these changes, it must have been hard to put out of their minds the highly praised Merriweather…'s lingering shadow. In doing so much differently, the sense of risk – that maybe this could all backfire – must have been felt. Apparently not, according to Weitz. “I don't think the praise for it was hanging in the back of our minds,” he says. “I mean, you can't really ignore it – we knew we were going to get asked the question in interviews, and I'm sure every interviewer's going to mention what we did before – but I think for us Merriweather… was a great experience for us, even just creatively, writing the songs, recording the songs, and it was something that to us was really kind of special. So in a good way, that was kind of hanging in the back of our minds.“
Even if their previous release hadn't been so well received, Weitz says, its shadow would still have been cast over the studio for better or worse. “When you're making music, you're always trying to do better than last time,” he says. “So just in terms of how we felt about our own music, or for me personally, I wanted to make sure I did a better job than I did on the last one, and that I grew a little bit. In that way, in a positive way, it is in the back of your mind.”
With the record now released and the fruits of Animal Collective's centralised labour starting to show in Centipede…'s largely positive reception, Australian fans will still have to wait until early next year, when the quartet are in the country for Big Day Out and associated side shows, to engage with it and the band in the flesh. It's a complex record, and a challenging listen, and one can only imagine how its layers and densely woven soundscapes will play out in the live arena. But, while you wait for that chance and have to make do with the album alone, you can sit back and take solace in the fact that, even in failure, there can still be great success, as Weitz admits.
“Initially when we started writing, we set out to make a record that was really heavy but also really minimal, records like Silver Apples',” he explains. “Like, there isn't much going on on those records, but there's enough to keep you interested and it's propulsive, it's heavy. So it was kind of an epic goal, initially, to make a live-sounding, more minimal record. But I think we're just incapable of that. If there's a space somewhere in the song, somewhere in the rhythm, especially when the four of us all play together, somebody's gonna take it up, y'know?”
Animal Collective will be playing the following shows:
Wednesday 16 January - Enmore Theatre, Sydney NSW
Friday 18 January - Big Day Out, Sydney NSW
Sunday 20 January - Big Day Out, Gold Coast QLD
Wednesday 23 January - Palace Theatre, Melbourne VIC
Friday 25 January - Big Day Out, Adelaide SA
Saturday 26 January - Big Day Out, Melbourne VIC
Monday 28 January - Big Day Out, Perth WA