I’m lucky enough to have seen US freak-folk four-piece Animal Collective in concert twice: first in Leuven in 2009 and then in Stockholm in 2012.
I’ve therefore been writing this post in my head for around five years. Even now I’m not sure I’m ready to publish it. There’s very little here on the subject of Animal Collective that’s current.
But I also suspect that not having written this post is actually holding me back from writing a stack of other posts. Posts that might possess some currency and/or truth. So, here goes.
My Animal Collective journey
The thing is, I really got into Animal Collective at a quite difficult time in my life, just after I’d sold virtually all of my possessions and moved from inner-city Melbourne to the Netherlands.
That I would experience some form of culture shock was inevitable, despite my valiant attempts to be cheerful (at least for the first two weeks).
That I would end up becoming addicted to Animal Collective’s music while riding a dilapidated bike around Den Haag was something I could not possibly have predicted the first time I heard their Simon & Garfunkel-meets-the-Muppets track ‘Who Could Win a Rabbit’ on MySpace.
Then again, I guess the current owner of MySpace could never have predicted the demise of that seemingly excellent music service either. But enough about vampiric robber barons.
Back then (humour me for a moment, kidz), accessing music was difficult if you were short of cash. Before the advent of subscription-based music streaming services, I used to visit sites like MySpace, where you could stream music for free.
I also frequented music blogs featuring embedded or downloadable mp3s, aggregated on sites such as HypeMachine. Or else I accessed torrent sites whenever I managed to connect to our neighbour’s open wi-fi network.
I’ve never owned an iPhone or iPod, and so iTunes was out of the question. And as my entire CD collection had been stolen (more than once, I might add), I wasn’t into purchasing discs that I would just stick into a computer and convert to mp3s anyway.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that my experience of the Animal Collective back catalogue was randomized and characterized by large gaps.
I didn’t listen to Here Comes the Indian or any of the pre-Sung Tongs releases until two or three years ago (and in retrospect, I’m glad). I only managed to track down mp3 versions of the singles from Feels and Strawberry Jam (‘Peacebone’, ‘Grass’, ‘Fireworks’).
But, I had Sung Tongs on rotation my (sadly discontinued) Zen Stone as I rode my bike around the streets of Laakhaven, Javabuurt and the Schilderswijk, and I was totally pumped when I learnt that Animal Collective would be coming to Leuven, in Belgium, on 17 January 2009.
Animal Collective leg it to Leuven
By the time the gig in Leuven came around (almost exactly five years ago, gah!), Merriweather Post Pavilion — surely AnCo’s most coherent, accessible and organic collection of songs (actually, I’d only make such a bold claim about the first ‘side’ of the album) — had just been released. So, this was a time when not many people had heard the record.
The band had embarked on a lightning-quick European tour just after the album dropped, and returned to the United States (two days after I saw them in Leuven!) to rapturous acclaim. But right then, in January 2009, most people I knew knew nothing about the album, and I myself had not even listened to any of it.
Leuven is a beautiful city in the Flemish-speaking north of Belgium, with a large university and a very visible student population.
Animal Collective played at STUK, an arts centre connected to the university, and at around €10 per ticket, it was a relatively inexpensive night out. If you don’t include the cost of the train tickets, accommodation and vanilla jenevers.
I couldn’t remember the setlist until, wouldn’t you know it, I found it online. So I don’t need to go on about which songs were played, or in what order, or for how long.
What I will go on about, for just a moment, is this: the joy of seeing a band (here come the clichés) at the height of their powers, on the cusp of making it, playing like they’ve got nothing left to lose, giving it their all.
The three young men (this was during Deacon’s sabbatical) bobbed and weaved around the stage, switching instruments, creating silhouettes and shadows in front of strobe-light towers, and triggering samples, voice effects and loops seemingly at will.
The songs morphed in and out of recognition, one never knew or cared when exactly they started or ended. This was the kind of music that R2-D2 would play, if only it had a soul, the kind of songs that C-3PO would sing, if only it had been programmed to speak Sun Ra.
Avey Tare’s rendition of ‘Fireworks’ was, well, incendiary. The band stomped through ‘Summertime Clothes’ as gleefully as liberated daleks nailing Depeche Mode.
Panda Bear stretched out the ghostly vocals on ‘Daily Routine’ to devastating effect, and I recall feeling a slight sense of dread standing there, momentarily still in the semi-dark, as air-conditioned vapours slid across my face.
It was one of those moments when you feel you have made a real discovery, when everything seems new, and almost anything is possible.
I say ‘almost’ because it was just not possible for my girlfriend to make it through the whole gig. Did I mention vanilla jenever? Yep.
We left just before the encore, which of course would feature ‘My Girls’ — a song that could be compared to Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ or Beck’s ‘Loser’, if only because without it, there is no way that anything like an estimated 200 000 copies of Merriweather Post Pavilion could ever have been sold — and which I did not get a chance to hear live until three years later, in Stockholm.
Intermission: Centipede Hz
This is where the story becomes a little more complex.
Three years is a long time in the career of any band, let alone a fan of a band. Things change. I get that. Heck, in that time I switched jobs three times and ended up moving to Amsterdam, then to Karlskrona in southern Sweden and finally to Stockholm.
Animal Collective obviously moved on, too. The only problem, of course, was the hype surrounding the follow-up to Merriweather Post Pavilion, not to mention the new fans who wanted another ‘My Girls’ (hell, the old fans who wanted another ‘My Girls’!) and just a little bit of backlash for good measure.
No band could ever deliver on hype like that.
None of which mattered to me: when I read that Animal Collective were releasing a new album, I was just happy to have a chance to listen to it before seeing them live for a second time, thanks to the band’s decision to release Centipede Hz as a series of YouTube videos one week before its actual release.
While the whole album’s worth of videos, produced by Avey Tare’s sister, Abby Portner, can no longer be viewed online at their original location, let’s be frank — they made for a far more satisfying and original audiovisual experience than ‘watching’ the new My Bloody Valentine album one track at a time.
Yes, I was there for that ‘event’, too.
Centipede Hz turned out to be a bizarre, fractured, convoluted album crammed with guitars (hello, Deakin), samples from radio station carts and songs that seemed to have been spliced together from fragments of other songs.
Gone was the effortless, organic flow of a song like ‘No More Runnin’, replaced on tracks like album opener ‘Moonjock’ by militaristic drumming and a mid-song change of pace that left me, for one, almost as baffled as I was the first time I heard the daft double-take pan pipes on the Fall Be Kind EP opener, ‘Graze’.
Tom Ewing, a music writer whose work I generally admire, wrote in the Guardian that ‘every track is full of incident, and most incidents are mixed to a similar level, so at first the songs hit you as unresolved slabs of babble’.
That’s a pretty accurate description of my own first impressions of the album, too. Ewing’s clearly not a ‘fan’ of Animal Collective, though. Which is where our opinions part ways, in this instance: Centipede Hz is a puzzle I’m yet to figure out.
One of the gentlest and perhaps most straightforward tracks on the album is ‘Rosie Oh’, which is sung by Panda Bear. I found a video (sadly no longer on Vimeo) in which the band performed ‘Rosie, Oh’ on late-night television in the USA just weeks before heading back to Europe.
In the clip, you can clearly see that Avey Tare, who usually sings harmony, is not singing a bar, apparently due to some kind of throat infection. It’s a slightly surreal performance and the band, to quote the lone commenter on the video, ‘look exhausted’.
This did not bode well for the tour that would see them play at Debaser Medis in Stockholm on 14 November 2012.
Animal Collective smash it in Stockholm
By the time Animal Collective made it to Stockholm, however, things had changed. On the night of the gig I met some friends for a beer, one of whom worked in a drum shop, and who said the band had been in that day, and had purchased some percussion gear.
I was super pumped. No more synths and drum patterns, then! I grinned to myself with the satisfaction of a sentimental shoegazer fan who had also seen U2 on their Achtung Baby tour.
Come to think of it, Centipede Hz really is a kind of modern-day Achtung Baby: just think of The Joshua Tree, its astonishing run of singles on Side A, and the agonizing period of regrowth the band undertook before arriving at ‘Zoo Station’.
But perhaps it’s unwise to follow this analogy too far: I mean, is ODDSAC really Animal Collective’s Rattle and Hum?
Of course I was wrong about the synths, but only a little bit wrong. The band opened with ‘Rosie Oh’, which at first seemed like a surprising choice, as the song is so low-key.
But then right at the bit where Avey Tare didn’t kick in with his harmonies in the late-night Fallon performance above, there it was: a beautiful back-up melody that brought the song alive.
From that point onwards the gig gathered momentum, and it quickly became apparent that after 10 albums, countless tours and festival gigs these guys really are a tight musical unit.
Which is as it should be, I guess.
However, I couldn’t help thinking that a little of the Animal Collective I had seen in Leuven was M.I.A.
A blue-haired Avey Tare sat down for most of the set behind a piano. Panda Bear slouched behind his seemingly randomly assembled drumkit like a yawping, singing Animal. Geologist bobbed and tweaked as he always does behind his assortment of knobs and consoles.
The only new addition to the outfit I had seen three years previously was guitarist Deakin, dressed in a white boiler suit and playing the guitar.
Like the commenter on the video said, they all looked a little exhausted, but to be fair they did put in a very tight, often aggressive and at times jubilant set. Nevertheless it was telling that the audience’s biggest responses on the night were for the songs that they knew (as opposed to the situation in Leuven, where no one knew what was going on at all).
Two other striking additions to the band’s travelling show in Stockholm were a psychedelic set of teeth hung from the top of the light rig, and a blow-up, multi-coloured tentacle thingo curled across the back of the stage. Ehm, like this:
As the gig reached its conclusion, I realized there was only one way for Animal Collective to sign off, and then they dropped it, the song everyone had been waiting for: ‘My Girls’.
For a song that’s become the band’s signature tune, it’s certainly an odd one: unlike the afore-mentioned ‘Creep’ or ‘Loser’ there’s nothing in particular about ‘My Girls’ that’s immediately recognisable as Animal Collective, except perhaps the waves of synth that open the track.
I mean to say, there’s no real thread connecting it to early songs like ‘Visiting Friends’ — but then again, why should there be? Doesn’t every band deserve their breakout song? Their ‘indie-dance crossover’ hit?
That’s what ‘My Girls’ has become for a whole generation of people who’ve never heard Danse Manatee.
So Animal Collective nailed ‘My Girls’ and then left the stage. I stumbled out to the foyer for another beer and saw Deakin standing there, still wearing the white boiler suit. Then I did something unspeakable: I became one of the fan boys I’ve always despised.
I walked up to Deakin and said (yep): ‘Great gig man!’ He had to the good grace to acknowledge the compliment but said nothing, then walked off. At that moment, my love affair with Animal Collective kind of came to an end.
Sure, I’ll always be able to listen to their entire back catalogue thanks to new-fangled streaming services but to be honest, I’ll always prefer the fractured playlists of my early fascination with the band. Nothing will ever bring that back.
Was it worth writing over 2000 words just to make that point? Perhaps I’ll never know. But at least now I’ll hopefully be able to move onto something else.