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Out Of The Woods

Animal Collective Beats A Path From Baltimore County To Indie Fame

Illustrations by Daniel Krall
Daniel Krall

By Jess Harvell | Posted 10/19/2005

Animals, or aliens, or insects?

Listen to Animal Collective’s music for the first time and you’ll come away with no firm answer. To go by the band’s copious press, it consists of woodland nymphs making lysergic folk, the Smurfs with a clutch of early Pink Floyd records. And yet a journey to find out what Animal Collective is all about will take you into the heart of pleasant Baltimore County suburbia, with all the picket fence and gas-guzzling SUV trimmings. But the journey does set the mood—and rearrange perceptions—for these domesticated wilds are at the center of Animal Collective’s accumulated mythology.

The journey takes you out I-270 to Owings Mills, where, rather than magic mushroom forests, you exit to find an exceptionally well-manicured townhouse community. A man walking his dog offers the Zen advice, “Well, this street is weird because it kind of goes all the way to the end.” So a hunch takes you up a winding dirt path between bunched-together townhouses, into an open, wooded area with a comfortable-looking house, a charmingly dilapidated tennis court, and a few people seated around a picnic table with a lazy cat sprawled on top. Get out of your car and a friendly dog rushes up to greet you. Oh. Of course.

Josh Dibb, aka Deakin, whose mother bought the property toward the end of his high-school years, says the surrounding townhouses are “actually part of the reason we were able to live here, I think.” Construction had already begun when his mother found the property, and the lure of the shiny new development with its postage-stamp lawns kept anyone else from looking at a sprawling high-maintenance property. “So maybe we got lucky.”

Dibb is lanky, with a few days beard growth, and the air of a studious hippie. David Portner, aka Avey Tare, has a frizz of dark hair and a near-constant expression of gentle bemusement. Dibb inspects the lunch Portner has returned with. “There’s no tomato,” Dibb grumbles about his sandwich. “Sorry,” Portner sighs, frowning. “I knew she’d mess something up.” When Brian Weitz, aka Geologist, arrives, he is bearded and slightly more serious than the other two, though he’s dressed more for a game of Hacky Sack on the quad.

It’s always a bit of a disconnect to meet musicians, especially those who don’t toss out autobiographical clues in their work. Animal Collective’s music stretches from bubbling folk-pop, to sprawling drone pieces, to mutant barbershop quartet, to the ever-popular “indescribable,” often riddled with electronics—little sparkler bursts of static and noise, tape edits, and hall-of-mirrors effects. Animal Collective is a bunch of scruffy buddies seated around Mom’s picnic table. (Fourth member Noah Lennox, aka Panda Bear, was interviewed by phone from his current home in Lisbon, Portugal.)

And yet the band is probably the most prominent (and popular) example yet of a 21st-century rock trend toward abandoning the guitar-based four-piece format entirely. At perhaps its most conservative, the trend encompasses the neo-folk of Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, who pair somewhat unconventional vocals and instrumentation with spare, traditional song forms. (It’s a scene that AC repeatedly claims to have no kinship with.) At its most extreme, you have the creeping noise of Wolf Eyes or the particle acceleration of Baltimore’s own Nautical Almanac. Somewhere in between, there’s Animal Collective. A streak of ragged humanism runs through its work, along with a tweaked sense of melody.

So that’s the reality of Animal Collective: They’re human. Though they have returned home for some increasingly rare time together to rehearse for a European and U.S. tour in support of their new album, Feels (Fat Cat), it’s clear the ease they share around each other—finishing sentences, laughing at private jokes—is the product of years spent in close quarters, a friendship that has traveled from their school days to adulthood. In fact, though they’re all pushing 30, they’re more often likened to children.

“I think the way we relate to music always makes people think of children,” Weitz says. “Because we get so excited, and because we don’t get to see each other very often.”

“Live, we get kinda crazy,” Lennox echoes, “like kids who have had too much sugar. Kids who don’t care what other people think of them, who aren’t thinking about how they look. They just want to go crazy.”

Several times during the interview, as one or another is staring off into the sunshine, it’s hard not to feel like you’re barging in on someone’s private retreat. But Dibb makes it clear that they chose to meet their interviewer here, rather than somewhere in Baltimore City, to get across a little of the environment that shaped their music.

 

To say nature figures prominently in Animal Collective’s public image is a bit of an understatement. Rural atmospheres—sometimes actual field recordings—saturate their records, as do song titles such as “Good Lovin Outside,” “Grass,” and “Leaf House.” And then there are the animal costumes the members have occasionally donned for photo shoots. The bucolic vibe they’ve cultivated in the last few years has its roots (no pun intended) in their school days. “Our parents always encouraged us to do things outside,” Portner says.

Lennox and Dibb met as children at the Waldorf School of Baltimore, a private school in the city. “Bringing together the realm of thinking with the expressiveness of the arts, music, and movement,” the school’s mission statement reads, “we foster the child’s natural curiosity and sense of wonder while stimulating intellectual awareness.” Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian teacher, founded the Waldorf School system in Germany, in 1919. The philosophy slowly spread to America and beyond; there are now Waldorf schools in more than 40 countries. As the mission statement notes, Waldorf schools “[integrate] the arts into every subject, using movement, music, storytelling, and rhythm to bring the material to life and help students develop a lifelong sense of wonder and joy of learning.”

The Waldorf School “offered a kind of alternative education,” Lennox says. “There was a lot of music, a lot of art.”

The Waldorf School of Baltimore goes from preschool to eighth grade. Rather than attend high school in the Baltimore area, the adolescent Lennox chose to attend a Waldorf school in Pennsylvania, he says, “in order to continue the kind of education I was getting.” Dibb, meanwhile, began attending Baltimore County’s private Park School, another institution with a creative and less regimented approach, where Portner had been since grade school. Weitz moved to Baltimore County from Pennsylvania in 1993, attending Park, and quickly becoming friends with Portner. But it wasn’t until later in high school that they became close with Dibb and, by extension Lennox, discovering their shared obsession with music.

“I just felt like it was really special,” Portner says of Park. “It was a classroom structure, but you weren’t just thrown into this general [educational] environment. I knew everyone. . . . There wasn’t this weird feeling that gets stereotyped where there’s the jocks and the dorks.”

Or, as Weitz puts it, “When I showed up there I couldn’t figure out who gets picked on.”

The school’s relaxed attitude spilled outside its walls as well. “There was a lot of woods,” Portner says of the school’s grounds in Northwest Baltimore’s Cold Spring neighborhood. “A lot of the science classes would go out into the woods. A lot of the teachers would take their classes out, just to be outside on a nice day.”

“I grew up mostly in Towson,” Dibb says, picking up the woodsy theme. “I was a 15-minute walk from the mall, but I was also in a pocket where if you snuck behind someone’s house you were suddenly in a huge wooded area. It was a pretty weird combination of suburban and rural.”

It’s that intersection that’s likely won them much of their fan base, which includes a lot of young men and women who grew up in similar environments. The band now resides in major cities—Dibb and Portner in New York, Weitz in Washington, D.C., Lennox in Lisbon—and no doubt many of their fans do as well. But their work does evoke a kind of exurban fantasia, frolicking in the woods and yet fully aware of the modern world.

“Magic and childhood and music-making are three things that just have a way of coming together, at least for us,” Portner says. “The idea of magic to me is similar to how a child relates to the world, and what a child is capable of, using its imagination. I think anyone is capable of it, all through their life, mostly they just forget how to do it.”

“The first thing we did this morning was take a walk through the woods to where the salamanders are,” Weitz says, gesturing to a cluster of trees behind the tennis court.

“I think it’s a shame because I don’t think most people do it consciously,” Portner says. “They let the repetition of their daily lives get in the way.”

“Josh and I both like to scuba dive,” Weitz says. “It doesn’t matter what age you are. You see people who are 60 years old who still look so excited when they’re scuba diving.”

 

This kind of talk—nature hikes, scuba diving, and salamander expeditions not being very “rock ’n’ roll”—makes some listeners suspicious. “Okay, we get it,” one disgruntled consumer complained on the I Love Music message board, “you got stoned in the woods once.” For people used to hellbent-for-leather rock music, Animal Collective’s gentle, youthful hippieness can be off-putting. Even though they got started playing rock . . . of a sort.

“The theater teacher at our high school [put on] this kind of coffeehouse thing,” Portner says. “Students could sign up and play, and parents [could watch] if they wanted.”

“It was mostly girls singing show
tunes,” Weitz adds. “And then us playing Pavement songs.”

As far as Weitz, Portner, and Dibb were concerned, at that point, they were the local music scene. “We were the only people we really knew who wrote songs or played music,” Portner says. “We [once] set up a show with four bands—bands that were different formations of us.”

“Baltimore had a really strong DIY teenage punk and indie community, a warehouse and house-party thing, in the ’90s,” Weitz acknowledges. “But we were kind of on the outside of it.”

“We just didn’t know about it,” Portner says. “The city didn’t really have any influence on us. It was more about the back porch.”

Most kids who form bands do so divorced from any sort of scene, jamming at someone’s house, giving up when college or boredom looms. The future members of Animal Collective were obviously passionate about music—Portner and Weitz’s high-school band Auto Mine recorded a seven-inch single—but being divorced from showing off for their peers and sharing a common interest in the esoteric led them further down the rabbit hole away from rock than most kids their ages. “Our taste in music, so early on, went beyond simple rock ’n’ roll,” Portner says.

“We thought we had, like, invented noise in a musical context because we had never heard it before,” Weitz laughs.

For all the intellectual rhetoric often tied to noisemaking, a lot of it is just, well, banging on stuff or squealing or playing with radio static. You can still hear that sense of play in Animal Collective’s music, right down to the rubbery noises they make with their mouths just cause they can.

“I think our parents just often wondered what we were doing,” Portner says of their early experiments. “Because a lot of it consisted of screaming into microphones and turning on a strobe light, and them walking in and being like, ‘You guys should really make soundtracks to horror films.’”

Horror films—with their conflation of domesticity and dread, parents who just don’t understand, and biology run amok—appeal to isolated teenagers more than anyone. In particular, The Shining seems to have struck a nerve with the friends. “We had a really sweet night where we watched it, like, two times in a row,” Portner enthuses. “For us, it was just like, ‘What’s on that Shining soundtrack?’ Because it’s all these high pitched sounds, and then you find out it was some academic composer.”

The soundtrack for The Shining contains excerpts from pieces by 20th-century composers Bartók, Ligeti, and Penderecki, but it is perhaps best remembered for the queasy synthesizer stylings of Wendy (nee Walter) Carlos.

“We had no idea how they were doing any of it,” Weitz says. “One day Dave called me and, through his delay pedal, said ‘I’ve figured out The Shining . . . digital delay-ay-ay-ay-ay.’”

A lot of recent musical activity can be attributed to a generation for whom everything from film scores to video-game music to the creepy, intimate soundtracks of nature documentaries were as immediate as rock music. Far removed from any kind of club context, the repetitive eight-bit sonics of video games provided many kids their first exposure to electronic music in the ’80s and ’90s. From the trilling bleeps of the Nintendo, it was only a short hop to music that took those basic materials into club, pop, and experimental contexts. Lennox, for one, describes his encounter with the Orb’s U.F.Orb and other electronic dance records in high school as an epiphany.

“I’m adamantly not a musical historian,” Dibb says. “And I feel like I can very easily put my foot in my mouth. But from my personal perspective there seems to be a much bigger audience [now] of people who are willing to listen to stuff that’s kind of . . . not normal.”

“Or maybe we’re just more normal now,” Portner laughs.

“This is a quote from my girlfriend, because she often says things better than I do,” Weitz says. “‘If you’re gonna go off the beaten path, you might as well find your own way.’ It doesn’t bother me when the Black Crowes sound like Zeppelin or whatever. That’s fine, because they’re not choosing to present themselves as off the beaten path. If you’re going to present yourself as a weird band, you might as well find your own brand of personal weirdness.”

 

As idyllic as the foursome’s teenage years sound, they were ready to explore come graduation time; Portner and Weitz set off for college in Manhattan in 1997. “I was just excited about going to New York,” Portner says. “Coming from such a small school environment, I just wanted to get lost, be around tons and tons of different kinds of people.” But his learning experience at New York University quickly turned into a three-year sentence.

“It was the wrong decision,” Portner laments. “It turned very sour for me. When you’re in college you feel like you’re on this escalator with similar goals to everyone else’s. Which is fine if you’re passionate about something, but if you’re just doing it because you think you can get a high-paying job . . . that’s what I was seeing a lot of, and I didn’t relate to that at all. And just really having no friends . . . for the first year Brian was like my only friend.”

“And vice versa,” says Weitz, who was attending Columbia University.

“We just spent like every weekend in my dorm room listening to music and just carrying over what we were doing [in Maryland],” Portner says.

On the minute-long “College,” from Animal Collective’s 2004 album Sung Tongs, the lyrics consist solely of the drawn-out single line “You don’t have to go to college,” delivered in ’60s-style pop vocal harmony over what sounds suspiciously like an amplified bong hit. Still, Weitz is quick to add that, at least academically, he had a much better time than Portner.

“I took really challenging courses, graduate-level courses as an undergrad, because those were the only courses that were teaching what I wanted to know—like the evolution of snakes,” he says. “And I went on to get a master’s degree in environmental policy.”

Meanwhile, Dibb and Lennox stewed away close to home. “I went through the whole process of applying to college,” Dibb says. “But I deferred. [Noah Lennox and I] both stayed in Baltimore—Noah got an apartment down in Charles Village.”

Agonizing at NYU, Portner began recording a solo record in 1999, a collection of song sketches, some of which the band remembers dating back to their high-school years, given added urgency by his New York experiences. The self-released Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished is now generally considered the first Animal Collective recording, but it was originally credited to the duo of Avey Tare and Panda Bear.

For the foursome’s high-school bands, “the name and pseudonyms kind of dictated the music those kind of bands would be making,” Weitz says. “It was almost like role playing. And so a band who got really drunk and made up acoustic songs would be called one thing.”

“I took a job gardening one summer and spent the whole time just thinking about music,” Portner recalls. “And one time I was like, Avey Tare . . . that’s a weird name. It was just my name, like ‘Davey’ without the ‘D,’ and like ‘tear,’ like I would tear my name apart.”

“I used to draw little panda bears on my cassettes that I would make,” Lennox says.

“Josh and I used to do e-mails back and forth in school,” Portner chimes in. “And he would write these weird, long-winded, Romantic-style letters/fictional stories and sign each one of them ‘Conrad Deacon.’ So it was just jokes . . . we’ve kind of always been nickname people.”

Since the friends’ private nicknames were becoming part of their music, it only makes sense that, even though Spirit They’re Gone was a “solo” project, Lennox got equal credit.

“[Portner] asked me to play drums on a bunch of the songs he was writing that ended up becoming Spirit,” Lennox recalls. “He said that your part in this record is enough to be part of the band name, your name should be on the cover, too.”

Whoever played on Spirit, the guiding intelligence is Portner’s. His whipped-puppy voice is the main instrument, and he wrote the lyrics, which capture the kind of terror that accompanies being a small child in a very big world.

Asked if the anxiety reverberating throughout Spirit was intentional, his eyes go wide and he nods. “Yeah,” he says. “It was just a dark time. I used to call Josh on the phone, like, ‘Oh my god, what is going on?’ I was just miserable.

Spirit was really about leaving behind a lot of stuff in my life that I felt was changing,” Portner continues. “I had such a strong connection with Maryland growing up. My parents moved to Colorado, but first they moved out of the house I grew up in, that I had lived in since I was like 1 year old.” The record ends with a loop of a child exclaiming “my singing voice is gone!”

 

Portner and Lennox both dropped out of college in the summer of 2000, Lennox moving to NYC, and the duo started playing Portner’s songs live. “For a long time the only people coming to our shows [in New York] were our friends,” Portner says. “We still worked really hard. And then, maybe after about half a year, suddenly—I think it was just because we started playing with bigger bands—more of an outside audience started seeing us.”

“I’ve been going to their shows since 2000-2001 when they were just starting out, when most shows were Avey Tare and Panda Bear,” says Todd Hyman, head of New York-based Carpark Records. “They just played with incredible energy—I thought they were the best band in the city.” Hyman offered to distribute a label for the band—dubbed Paw Tracks—through Carpark, giving focus and direction to what had previously been a hobby.

All this attention was a definite change from their secluded back-porch days. And not all of the attention was necessarily a good thing. “Especially on our first tour,” Portner recalls, referring to a swing through the South with fellow uncategorizable NYC ensemble Black Dice. “We took a lot of flack. We were going to places like Mobile [Ala.], playing for kids who still wanted to hear the Sex Pistols, kids with mohawks. Sometimes—not even because we wanted to—we’d just play a lot of feedback.”

It’s odd that, for a band with such a reputation for childlike cutesy affections, the bulk of Animal Collective’s work is dense, dark, and occasionally forbidding. Danse Manatee (2001)—recorded by Weitz, Portner, and Lennox—is generally viewed as the band’s most abstract record. It trades the skewed indie-pop that tethered Spirit for subterranean noise scrabbling and circular jams. “People say that the second record is very ‘New York,’ lots of high frequencies and harsh noise, more difficult feelings,” Lennox says. Here Comes the Indian (2003), the first release on Paw Tracks, plays like a more fully realized version of the same ideas. Tracks like “Slippi” and “Two Sails on a Sound” are riots of voice and noise, swirls of psychedelic sound trails, an overload of Technicolor texture akin to the album cover’s neon scrawls overlaid on a woodland photograph.

Recorded after a break following the tour with Black Dice, when Weitz moved to Europe and eventually back to Maryland for a time, Here Comes the Indian was the first time all four Animal Collective members collaborated on one recording. It also inadvertently documents the peak of the internal stresses endemic to almost any band, especially one made up of people who are so close—personally, and often physically. Weitz describes the time around Here Comes the Indian as “when we were crammed into a practice space.” Portner and Lennox not only made music together, they also worked together at Manhattan CD and vinyl mecca Other Music. “I think we kind of forgot how to relate to each other as friends,” Portner says now. “But at the same time we just really wanted to play music together.” Following an even more grueling tour of the Here Comes the Indian material, the band took another break.

“Even when none of us is speaking to each other and we have to play a show, sometimes when we get onstage it actually helps,” Portner says.

“We’re much healthier now,” Weitz agrees.

Compared to the angst of their college and postcollegiate years, happiness is definitely the prime motivator for Animal Collective these days. “It’s a feeling that’s been really present in our lives in the past year,” Lennox says. “My friend Nelson, I was talking to him a couple of weeks ago about the new record, Feels—and I knew this conversation was coming—but he was talking about how he didn’t like it because it was too happy. I think these days the joy is just coming out in our music. We jokingly referred to it as our ‘love record.’”

“I came from a group of friends who were like the teen hippies,” Portner says. “I liked a lot of hip-hop, but I was never even really subjected to hardcore until after the fact. I guess it was never really my thing.”

“We weren’t very angry,” Weitz says.

“We didn’t have a desire to be angst-ridden,” Portner adds.

“There wasn’t a lot in my upbringing to make me angst-ridden,” Weitz says. “’Cause like I said, nobody really got picked on or beat up. Our teachers never tried to force values on [us]. And my parents are fairly strait-laced but still pretty open.”

The band’s reconnection with its playful side culminated in 2004’s Sung Tongs (Fat Cat), which brought Animal Collective to its largest audience yet; it was even praised by staid old Rolling Stone. While still a sprawling mess—which is not meant as an insult—the album was also the most song-based since Spirit. Tracks like “Who Could Win a Rabbit” and “We Tigers” are tumbling jumbles of twee harmonies, with the duo of Portner and Lennox meowing like kittens. Unsurprisingly, it’s some fans’ least favorite Animal Collective record.

“I just think it may not be what they like,” Lennox says. “Sung Tongs definitely feels like the most playing around, just having a good time kind of record.”

 

Sung Tongs not only introduced the larger world to Animal Collective, it cemented the Animal Collective name, even though only Portner and Lennox played on the album. The branding as AC was a consolidation move, and the first inkling that the band was aware it was moving from a cult to a wider following.

“We all kinda wanted to maintain that individuality [of the nicknames],” Lennox says. “But eventually it just kinda got weird to be touring and have to put on every poster ‘Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Deakin, and Geologist.’”

The “Animal Collective” name was born out of Dibb’s first record label, which he started back in 1998 to release Lennox’s formative first solo album, Panda Bear. Originally called Soccer Star, it changed to Animal when Portner and Weitz became involved around the time of Spirit.

“People associate those early records as Animal Collective records,” Portner says. “But at the time it was like, we don’t really have a ‘band.’”

“We wanted a looser structure,” Dibb says.

That “looser structure” stretches all the way back to their high-school days at Park School. Portner says “very rarely all four of us” played on their high-school experiments. Indeed, with Lennox at school in Pennsylvania, just getting all four people in the same room was difficult; during college, the foursome was even more spread out. The band has already been “on hiatus” several times, including an entire year when Weitz attended grad school in Arizona. (Only Here Comes the Indian, the recent Project Hummer EP with Vashti Bunyan, and the new Feels can accurately be called “Animal Collective” recordings, where all four members contributed.)

“I can never really track where we’re going,” Lennox says. “Sometimes I have trouble tracking where we’ve been. We always say friendship is more important than the band. And it has come up at various points where it’s been like, ‘OK, the band is over.’ Or for a couple weeks anyway. But it’s stayed alive somehow.”

Animal Collective’s music often seems to be made simply by whoever’s available to play—it’s no wonder the band’s record label insisted on a recognizable trademark. Portner, Weitz, Dibb, and Lennox themselves seem to view the band more like a floating ideology, united by their friendship. A recording made by one member anywhere, even thousands of miles from the others, is an “Animal Collective record.”

Recorded in 2001 but not released until 2003, Campfire Songs is both the slightest and most enduring of the band’s recorded works to date. “That’s my favorite record of ours, no question,” Lennox says. It was recorded “in Monkton, in northern Maryland, at my Aunt’s house,” Portner says, and it comprises five strummed meditations for acoustic guitar and vocal. There’s something magical about its simplicity, something lunar and calming that goes beyond words. (Indeed, the singing style almost defies you to make out what they’re saying.)

“One of us—Brian [Weitz], I think—discovered this really sweet microphone that Sony makes that works with portable minidisc players,” Portner says. “Brian and I had an apartment for a while, [and] every time we jammed, we’d set up the minidisc player and record it. We would start with an idea and just go with it. You’d never know where one song started and one finished. After our first tour, we had no money to go into a studio, so we just took this idea to Maryland.”

“Totally in the middle of the woods with nothing nearby,” Lennox says. “We had an idea for a long time for an album that gave the feeling of the campfire . . . just warm, inviting. We went out there, on this screened back porch, and had a bunch of minidisc players with these little Sony microphones that were so amazing. And we put one or two in the room and one way outside. We wanted to record the atmosphere and have that transport the listener to where we were.”

In 2003, Lennox’s father was diagnosed with brain cancer. His response was a solo album, eventually released in 2004 as Young Prayer, maybe the most powerful disc in the Animal Collective catalog. The album is deceptively airy on first listen, as if it was recorded on rice paper. As with Campfire Songs, you can almost feel the space it was recorded in—in this case the same room where his father died. “I didn’t want to spend a lot of time producing it or thinking about how I wanted to get it to sound,” Lennox says. “I just wanted to get it out quickly.”

Lennox is a natural singer; he was in choir in high school but says he’s never had any formal training. His singing on Young Prayer often sounds like he’s simply breathing or sighing, his dust-mote diction collapsing the distance between secular and religious singing. But Lennox says it bothers him when people assume the album is wordless, especially because of how personal the lyrics are.

“The words were what I started with,” Lennox says. “The album was about what he had taught me, and trying to tell him that he had done a really good job. That I would be OK, because of these things that he had taught me, instilling these values. He got to read the lyrics, which was the most important thing to me.”

 

It’s hard to imagine the full band approaching the spontaneity of Campfire Songs ever again, to say nothing of the spare purity of Young Prayer. But now that all four are more or less committed to Animal Collective, more cooks means (hopefully) a richer, headier brew, although distance means their time together now is more scripted, their practices more, well, practice-like. Still, Animal Collective at its most regimented still sounds more loose and free than most “rock” bands ever allow themselves to get.

“A lot of people talk to me after shows and say, ‘Oh wow, that’s really great. Is the whole thing improvised?’” Lennox says. “Well, no. It took a couple weeks, or a couple months, or six months to sculpt. We worked really hard on that—we didn’t just wing it.”

Feels was recorded in Seattle, the band assembling there to make their first full album since Lennox moved to Portugal. He is married to a Portuguese woman and they have a child together; he says he has no plans to return to the United States unless finances force him to. Perhaps aptly, “the themes on the new record are way more adult,” Lennox says. “The themes of love . . . its complications and joys, the good and the bad.”

The joys, in particular, leap from the speakers, especially on “Grass,” in big gulps of glad-to-be-alive vocals. Structurally, it’s the band’s most song-oriented album since Spirit, with the loopiness of Sung Tongs tempered by a seriousness that suggests ambition for the first time. Don’t mistake that word for the dead hand of maturity, however; they still get giddy, pulling silly voices and mugging for the microphone, when collected in a recording studio.

After all, as Weitz notes, part of Animal Collective’s appeal lies in the contagious spirit that arises in their music “because we get so excited and because we don’t get to see each other very often. People really respond to that, especially live.” It’s nearly impossible for four grown men to stay intimate friends as their early 20s evaporate into adulthood and their personal paths diverge. The fact that their friendship still allows them to make music as ecstatic as Feels’ “Did You See the Words” probably seems like nothing short of a miracle for listeners who call their college buddies once every six months.

At the end of the interview, Weitz retrieves a photo he’s brought of their Baltimore County days. It’s from one of their first live performances doing ramshackle Pavement covers at school as young teens. “Oh, I’ve got to see this,” Dibb exclaims. Everyone crowds around. “That’s just me and Dave,” Weitz says of the two kids in the center of the photo. “But,” he says, pointing at their friend stage left, “it’d be great if you could get him in, too.”

It’s hard not to be charmed by his concern for a friend who never came along for the Animal Collective adventure. As Weitz says when asked about the eventual end of the band, “I’ve definitely thought about quitting, especially because I’m so deep into the environmental stuff. But I would still have ideas, and I’ve thought, Would I be happy ignoring that urge? And I don’t think I would be.

“But it doesn’t mean I have to be in the band or play the shows. I can see myself just sending them minidiscs and saying, ‘Here you go, you can use this if you want.’ Our friendship is already so good at dealing with distance issues. It always comes first.”

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