Coffee with Animal Collective

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David Portner, more popularly known as Avey Tare, sat next to me at a counter inside a coffee house on Union Street in Brooklyn. He is one of four members of a loosely structured music group called Animal Collective. I had him run through a general history of this group of friends who he’s been playing music with since high school. Once the facts regarding the founding members and various associations with labels were finally straightened out, I was able to make my first real inquiry regarding the group’s newest album, Sung Tongs.

“It’s very beautiful,” I complimented, “but at the same time there’s this element sort of lurking there that makes it haunting or disturbing.”

“Yeah,” he replied, “I think there are a couple of things to be said about that.”

“I guess there is no real concrete beginning,” Dave clarified for me, “just because we’ve known each other for so long.” Friends since high school, Animal Collective consist of Portner, Noah (Panda Bear), Brian (The Geologist) and Josh (Deaken). Sung Tongs is a collaboration between Noah and Dave, who have released albums together previously and for a short while were known by many fans as Avey Tare and Panda Bear.

The structure of Animal Collective is a loose one, but the four members still seem to get a lot done. Aside from the various albums and compilations released over the last few years, they started their own label, Soccer Star, in 1998. In 1999 the name of the label was changed to Animal and they used it to release Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished, the first official album between Avey Tare and Panda Bear. For several years, the group played live and recorded together in various formations.

I think to have something that’s totally pretty and beautiful, you also need to have something that can be really dark. And it makes the impact of both a little bit stronger.

Modern-day 2005 Animal Collective sees the four of them scattered, with only Dave still living in New York, although the four friends still run a label together. Partnering up with Car Park Records, Paw Tracks is their newest endeavor, through which they can release some of their own music as well as the music of other bands they like. Sung Tongs meanwhile, was released in 2004 on Fat Cat, the label that will also be releasing their next album in late spring of this year.

Animal Collective’s music is just as chaotic and elaborate as their history. “We’ve always been into sounds that are gonna affect the ears and gonna affect the room a little bit differently,” Dave told me, “like higher frequencies or just different sounds.” I myself was becoming increasingly more aware of the sounds we were surrounded by at that moment—dozens of babies, mothers and nannies filled the room along with all the accompanying coffee house chatter. Dave likened the scene to a process he and Noah went through for some of the songs on their new album. “With Sung Tongs it was cool to take even just the most boring thing in the world, like 'Kids on Holiday,' it’s just about waiting in an airport and just taking everything that you see around you and turning it into something interesting rather than just thinking everything’s lame and getting annoyed or dealing with how stressful a situation like that can be.”

I discovered that it only takes a short time to feel at home with Sung Tongs. If you’re not familiar with Animal Collective, you might want to know that the voice is their instrument of choice. The soft harmonies and drumbeats, the yelps and the cackles, all become something else entirely. Also, tucked into their palette of sounds is something we find in everything: each song holds within it a tiny splinter of dread. Whatever word you use to describe this, ultimately it is a finger that points to the unknown.

“I grew up watching horror films since I was like five or six years old,” he admits. “I used to watch them with my best friend when we were really young. I guess a lot of it maybe had to do with the visual aspect of it—there was a contrast of colors and the way everything looked seemed kind of vague, you know what I mean? Not always as it should be or as it seemed. It was kind of off-putting, but at the same time it made it look like something special.”

Dave and Noah bring this visual element to Sung Tongs by allowing that hint of surprise and all the secret “what if’s” to peek in on their songs from time to time. “I think The Shining is a good example,” Dave decided, “like where a guy completely switches from being completely sort of normal, he looks like a normal guy and then by the end he looks like absolutely insane, it’s this crazy metamorphosis.”

Certainly Animal Collective will be boiled down to something different by everyone, but perhaps that's it's power, and what makes it unusual and truly good music.

Dave was a little more to the point. “I think to have something that’s totally pretty and beautiful, you also need to have something that can be really dark. And it makes the impact of both a little bit stronger.”