Humans are blessed and cursed by memories. Good ones-a kite, a bucket of chicken, a minus sign on a pregnancy test-we take out and fondle when needed. The bad memories-a funeral, a bad date, films starring The Rock-we tend to tuck away and ignore. This is why Bob Dylan will play songs from Blood on the Tracks but very little from his 1973 album that's too horrible to mention by name.
It's odd, then, to come across a band like Animal Collective. For the first few years, they buried a song by recording it. They would write a tune, hone it at their live shows, put it on an album and then rarely, if ever, play it again.
The usual idea of "touring to support a new record" is to reinforce songs in a live setting. It breeds loyalty, blurs the line between someone's sense of identity and that of their favorite band. It moves units. To involuntarily hum a melody to a song is the greatest achievement of music marketing.
It's not that Animal Collective's songs are bad-their 2005 record, Sung Tongs, ended up in multiple top-10 year-end lists, including The New York Times. It's just that Animal Collective prefers to pull out and fondle the new. It gets them excited. Makes 'em feel alive. And they use that energy, instead of familiarity, as a way to connect with whomever's in front of them at the time.
"It had a lot to do with how we started... just playing for our friends," says Avey Tare, aka David Portner, one of four multi-instrumentalists in the Collective. "That was a really nice environment to learn how to play live. Our friends encouraged us to do whatever we wanted and liked us for that. We wanted to do something new for them each time. Now, we want to always write new stuff, because we want the music to feel really current and important to what's going on in our lives."
Sometimes it works. In early 2002, musician David Grubbs brought CDRs of Animal Collective's first two albums to Dave Howell, who had recently started working at London's Fat Cat Records. The music was odd-a mix of electronic washes and noise and pop music, with elfin voices popping up here and there to sing, mumble, occasionally howl in joy. They weren't songs as much as they were manic little environments, as if prepubescent Beach Boys were trying to imitate the instrumental epics of German rockers Can. But Fat Cat was used to recognizing real talent in strange things. After all, they were the ones who heard the charms of Sigur Rós, a bunch of Icelandic dudes who make gibberish sound like alt-culture Pavarotti.
"We were listening to them loads, and they really got inside my head and sounded totally fresh and exciting and explosive," recalls Howell, who then went to New York in 2003 to see the band live. "They were so tight and so ecstatic and manic and gentle and gorgeous. You could see how much it meant to them, and I just felt they were putting out such incredible energy, as well as moments where they were putting themselves totally, nakedly on the line. I just came out [of the show] with the biggest grin, a huge feeling of warmth and excitement, and I just knew I'd seen something incredible. We had to sign them."
Fat Cat did sign Animal Collective. They even saved their first two albums from distribution no-man's land, issuing Danse Manatee and Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished as one double-disc package. Yet sometimes their live performance-which has been described as everything from a summer-camp talent show by mentally deranged children to a futuristic faith-healing ritual-doesn't work so well. The band admits that on a tour with Black Dice, they repeatedly cleared the room.
Howell thought the same was about to happen during Animal Collective's first U.K. tour at a show in Portsmouth, a city mostly known as the place the Royal Navy stores its pretty boats.
"Portsmouth [is] a pretty nasty city for trying anything left-field or weird," Howell says. "No one there really knew them. For the first few songs they were getting heckled and mocked, and I just felt this pretty bad atmosphere. But they kinda just fed on this, turned it back on itself and it got more tribal, more manic, and by the end... people were whooping and hollering. That was again a real revelation for me. Most bands would've just died."
The songs that floored Portsmouth were the same songs that would floor a large portion of the music industry on Sung Tongs two years later. That record was primarily just two members, Tare and Panda Bear (Brian Lennox). There are four members total. Tare is the only one still living in New York, where the Collective really came together six years ago. Panda Bear lives in Lisbon, Portugal. The Geologist (Brian Weltz) lives in D.C. The Deakin (Josh Dibb) just moves around a lot.
"We have always worked in such a way where it's us just collaborating together," says Tare. "We've never felt, Oh, it's got to be the whole band sitting around in a room somewhere. Even if someone wants to sit a record out or work on something else-that's fine."
As such, none of their albums sound alike. Sure, there are basic similarities. The songs jitter like a barista who's been mainlining the moneymaker. They usually include delicate moments of pop music mixed with strange, child-like wailing. It's psychedelic. Folk. Rock. Sometimes they're in tune. It feels like a fever dream.
But whereas Coldplay has found success by making various strains of "Yellow," Animal Collective is known to throw out a song if they think it sounds like past work. Coldplay's method is fine, working within a widely accepted form of beauty. Animal Collective's music seems to be elsewhere-from a place where music isn't as reassuring as it is exciting.
"I feel like you never really know how taste is going to work," Tare says. "From record to record, we change so drastically that we're always like, "Oh, no one is going to like this one.' Sometimes you'll lose some fans; sometimes you'll gain others. I think it's better that way. Our favorite bands sound different record to record, whether it's Pavement or The Beatles."
A quick survey of the user ratings on Amazon.com of their new album, Feels, sums up the band's effect on listeners. There are dangerously passionate fans ("one of the weirdest, most distinctive sounds of the last decade"). And there are nearly as many detractors ("This is what you call brilliance? Have you really stooped so low?"). The fans agree that it takes a few listens to really discover the "wow" factor. The detractors claim it's pretentious tripe no matter how many spins. Both seem to agree it sounds like the band members are on drugs.
And they both might be right. What some people consider another sloppy painting of a stupid flower vase, others call Van Gogh's "Irises." But making a breakthrough-whether in music or in farm equipment-usually entails drastically alienating two groups of people.
Fat Cat knows both sides well, since they're in the position of having to sell the band to the music-buying public. Howell says the biggest commercial asset is the sheer quality, but he's biased. He also admits the "masks and names thing is a cool selling point."
As for disadvantages: "Well, I guess it would be a lot easier, though less interesting, if they were a more stable band. If their sound didn't shift radically from album to album [and] they came out and played shows where everyone knew the songs they're playing.
"There's an awful lot of ways they don't play by the rules, which makes things harder for us or for press or radio people. It's nothing new to us, though-I mean, we did have Sigur Rós for five years playing eight-minute songs and singing in a language no one could understand."
Animal Collective plays with BARR at The Epicentre on March 14. Doors open at 7 p.m. All-ages. $13-$15. 858-271-4000.