Back in 2009, Animal Collective released Merriweather Post Pavilion: a sparkling psych-pop opus that, seemingly overnight, cemented its status as a modern-day masterpiece. No one was prepared for it, even Animal Collective themselves.
The band’s previous albums, as excellent as they were, seemed to exist behind a veneer of hipster detachment, via freak-folk experimentation (2004’s Sung Tongs), ambient doodling (2005’s Feels) or spastic stylistic exhaustion (2007’s Strawberry Jam), yet Merriweather’s charms were effortless: instantly melodic and user-friendly, never pandering to its commercial sensibilities yet never running from them, either. Though the music was adventurous (reverb-drenched harmonies, bass-fueled beats, and crisp electronic textures), it was accessible in a way that felt all-encompassing rather than alienating—more wide-eyed hippie hug than hipster fist-bump. Avey Tare (singer-instrumentalist Dave Portner), Geologist (sampler/electronic manipulator Brian Weitz) and Panda Bear (percussionist/vocalist Noah Lennox)—they’d found a cosmic sweet-spot between the ethereal and the intimate, and the impact sent shockwaves throughout not only indie music, but even pop as a whole. Three years later, every other band’s still playing catch-up, unsuccessfully.
But it was all a coincidence. Animal Collective isn’t—and has never been—a static enterprise. Animal Collective grows and matures, ebbs and flows, expands and contracts, depending on how many of the band’s four members happen to be available during recording (the trio formation on Campfire Songs, the duo formation on Spirit They’ve Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished) and what instruments are hanging around (acoustic guitars on Sung Tongs, delay pedals and de-tuned pianos on Feels).
On their previous two albums, AC settled into a more traditional quartet mode, utilizing the impressionistic swirl of guitarist Deakin (Josh Dibb). Though they sound completely different, both Feels and Strawberry Jam feel like the product of a rock band playing together in a room—laced with spacey, epic drones and buzzing, caffeinated energy. Merriweather, on the other hand, was made by a trio, without the Dibb’s assistance, and the result was a more refined and spacious—a more immediate sound, but not an intentional one.
But the whole gang—Dibb included—came together for Centipede Hz, a wilder, riskier, more confrontational album, one that’s already confusing the hell out of the fans who jumped onboard after the band’s sudden bloom into the limelight. Upon first listen, its more alienating attack may seem intentional—proof that these guys are still as weird as they ever were. But, as always, these four psychedelic bros were guided only by their collective spirit.
“From Noah’s and Brian’s and my perspective, coming off Merriweather, we were inspired to do something that was a little intimate,” Portner says. “The style of music and the feeling of music that happens when the four of us come together is a lot more of a visceral experience than the more delicate nature of the three of us working together or two of us working together, where it becomes considerably more minimal. Just coming together the four of us and jamming in a room takes up so much space and fills up the room so much, and that’s the kind of quality initially that we wanted it to have on the record, too. Not as expansive and kind of outward-reaching as Merriweather, where the sounds just go forever. We wanted it to be more tight and feeling like it was locked into this smaller space.”
Listening to Portner describe his band’s music is like like listening to David Lynch describe his filmmaking process, or interpreting a vivid dream that has spiraled out of control: The words themselves are vivid, and there’s plenty of meaning behind the enthusiasm, but after awhile, you accept that “AC Speak” is a language only shared by four. Portner describes Centipede Hz as “tight” and “intimate,” yet he later emphasizes the album’s sprawling, progressive heartbeat. One thing’s for sure: Centipede Hz is a hard album to describe, even for one of the guys who created it.
“Early on, there’s minimal talk about certain things. But also, we throw around different words, and ‘Centipede’ was actually a word that I wrote to the guys early on. This is a word that somehow fits into the sound that I have in my head. And maybe it has to do with the fact that a centipede has a lot of arms and a lot parts, and it seems like all these sections joined together. And that’s how we wanted the music to be—a little more progressive and a little bit more challenging for us to play and complicated. Where it’s not as sort of repetitive and trancey, as something like Merriweather is.”
Merriweather coddled its listeners, wrapping their ears in pillowy reverb and spit-shined synths. Centipede Hz takes the opposite approach, blaring out of the gate with “Moonjock”’s static-y radio transmissions, crunching beats and raw, winding melodies—that is, before the song changes course completely, crawling into a electro-prog rave-up that ranks among the group’s most ferocious moments. “Applesauce” sounds like a whole album crammed into five-and-a-half minutes, changing tempos and time signatures and moods so rapidly, it’s easy to lose your breath as it plays. Those wild atmospheres were crafted as a band, together in a rehearsal space—where jamming and messiness were embraced with open arms.
“For this record,” Portner says, “it was kind of like we set up a workshop environment because we hadn’t really played live music together in a room for like four or five years. That’s kind of what we wanted to start doing, just kind of getting together. We did it for three months during the initial writing process. For the first week or so, it was just about getting together and improvising and playing, just to see how it felt. And thats kind of how, for any record, just coming up with the sound of the record, or trying out different instruments. I wanted to play keyboard a lot because I hadn’t done that in terms of any Animal Collective records. I’ve played keyboards before, but it’s never really been my sole instrument that I’ve written songs on. And Noah really wanted to get back behind the drums and pretty much play the full kit, which he hadn’t done in a really long time. I think just those elements involved a lot of the early days in the space, just trying to see what the dynamic of all that instrumentation would be.”
Through the band’s unique sonic osmosis, certain patterns emerged in those sessions—most of which involved letting go of their musical crutches. Bands who use lots of vocal harmonies are often filed in line behind The Beach Boys. After Merriweather, Animal Collective became the critical shorthand. But instead of embracing that idea and making it part of the AC brand, they pulled a 180, following an approach that Portner likens to soul music.
“I just wanted it to be more like soul music in the sense of older soul music where it’s just kind of one lead singer leading the way following the voice in that way, so we kept it more raw and up-close in that sense. We definitely talked about—as much as we like harmonies, and as much as people connect us to that sorta thing, it’s just a texture. It becomes a texture, and it becomes a little samey to us. And because we like to mess around with different things and different ways of presenting our songs, I think it was something we didn’t want to do as much on this record.”
“Merriweather was piecing all these parts of the puzzle together after we’d created all these parts individually,” Portner continues. “And this was like, ‘Let’s just get out and capture the ecstatic energy of the four of us all just coming up with this…’ I wrote ‘Today’s Supernatural,’ and it was one of the first songs I wrote before we went into the studio. It actually might have been one of the later ones we did in the first session. And it took us a while to really nail it and be able to play it, especially Noah. It was a little more complex for us to get through, but it was really satisfying. It was the second song we recorded when we went into the studio, but it was the first song we heard after we recorded where we were like, ‘Yes. This is how we want the record to sound. This is it. We have to base everything else on how good this song sounds to us.’”
Lyrically, Portner wanted to expand outward: “I wanted these songs to me to be about something very specific, or a specific feeling, or to be inspired by something that has a lot of meaning to me. Personally, after working on Merriweather and my solo record (2010’s Down There), which I felt were very inward records for me, like examining myself a lot, I wanted to be a lot more outward-looking and describe some things I was seeing around me and I’d been thinking about lately.”
In Portner’s universe, that equates to a song like “Applesauce,” which includes the lyric, “I eat a mango, and I’m feeling like a little honey can roll / Star fruit so simple, and I’m feeling like a little honey can roll.”
Merriweather’s lush rhythms and melodies provided an easy gateway for newbies, but so did the lyrics: Lennox, the more concrete lyricist of the two, wrote some downright heartwarming words on “My Girls,” a simple plea for the appreciation of one’s simple pleasures (“I don’t mean to seem like I care about material things, like social status,” the group harmonizes on the track’s rousing chorus). It seems that every reference to a “Lion in a Coma” was balanced out by a more reflective moment of nostalgic soul-searching.
With Lennox back in the drummer’s chair, Centipede Hz is dominated by Portner’s wacky, wide-eyed vision—even down to the radio transmissions that segue each track.
“I used to drive around,” Portner reflects. “My family vacations basically always consisted of either driving north or south on 95 when I was younger. And I took a lot of influence or getting really into music from my brother being a DJ when I was younger, on Top 40 radio. And I feel like my whole family connects to that time period of traveling around. And when I was younger, my brother used to give me all these tapes from him being on the radio or mixes he would make from Top 40, and he would always blend in—you know, on the radio, there’s always those call signals on whatever, radio identifications that were always a part of it. That kind of started flowing into the vibe of the record, all this radio stuff, I wanted this song to evoke the feeling of that.”
“Just listening to music on those trips,” Portner laughs, “I feel like a lot of my childhood was about driving around with my family, sitting in the back with my Walkman on, experiencing things through The Beatles or Madonna or Michael Jackson.”
Centipede Hz exists in a totally different universe than Michael Jackson—and, for the most part, even Merriweather Post Pavilion. There are no easy, concrete answers on Centipede Hz, and that’s exactly how Portner likes it.