Back To Nature
For the first time in years, Animal Collective returns home to Maryland
Published: July 6, 2011
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In the final third of “Alvin Row,” the last song on what is considered the very first Animal Collective release, Dave Portner sings a particular line wistfully, as if he’s daydreaming aloud to no one in particular: “Take a drive to the Jacksonville Pharmacy and pretend.”
The Jacksonville Pharmacy was an actual brick-and-mortar drugstore in the one-stoplight town of Jacksonville, situated a few miles north of Loch Raven Reservoir. For Portner, the store and the local 7-11 were late-night stop-off points for meeting up with friends and his cousins, who lived in nearby Monkton.
In the context of the song, written at a time when Portner was struggling to adapt to college life at New York University, it is a device for going back, for returning to that particular time and place.
“A lot of the songs I wrote were in transition of leaving Maryland and moving to New York,” Portner says now of that song, released in 2000, in a telephone interview. “And I think I was kind of just looking back on—kind of like, going back there sometimes and pretending that all that stuff was still happening, and I was around everybody I was around back then.”
You know the rest by now. Portner got his old friend Noah Lennox to play drums on that first album, Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished. It was a collaboration born of years spent experimenting with noise and music in the Baltimore suburbs with their friends Josh Dibb and Brian Weitz. Eventually, all four would become what we now know as Animal Collective and, over the span of eight albums, what has become one of the most celebrated and fussed about independent bands of the 2000s. The band named its last and most successful album Merriweather Post Pavilion, where Animal Collective plays for the first time this week.
As tends to happen over such a length of time, things changed. College didn’t work out for Portner, but New York became his home base, where he would eventually be joined by Dibb and Lennox, and where their music would gain the buzz and notoriety that launched their band to such heights. Lennox got married and eventually moved to Lisbon, Portugal, where he has two kids. Weitz, who has always lived in Washington, D.C., is also married and recently became a father. Portner also got married but recently separated from his wife.
Now, after all the accolades and the success, after having members start families and having one see his fall apart, after being somewhere other than Maryland for so long, they came back. Earlier this year, for the first time in some six years, all of the members of Animal Collective relocated to the Baltimore area—with the exception of Weitz, who commutes from Washington—to work on new material. It marked the first time since 2005, when they were writing material for Feels, that all four were able to get into a room together to work through song ideas from scratch.
For Portner, it was “awesome and strange at the same time.”
“You come back to somewhere that you’ve grown up, and you’ve changed, or a lot about you has changed, and a lot of the places haven’t,” he says. “Some of the roads are the same, some of the restaurants are still there and haven’t really changed at all. It’s pretty wild.”
Yet, returning wasn’t inspired by some great desire to find new inspiration in these same places so much as it was done for convenience; Weitz and Lennox have kids, and nearby parents can help with babysitting.
From January through March, they would gather to write five days a week, sometimes seven, for the length of a workday in a converted barn on Dibb’s mom’s property in Owings Mills.
That was an easier pace compared to the sessions for their past two albums Strawberry Jam and Merriweather Post Pavilion, when ideas would be exchanged over e-mails and the members would get together for short periods of time to work through the material around the clock. Having more time allowed the songs to grow and develop more organically, and for new ideas to take shape.
“For this one, it was a bit more like, someone came in with a chord progression or a vocal melody and they hadn’t really grown attached to what it should sound like yet,” Weitz says. “Some of [the songs] we knew right away what we were going for, but there are a handful of songs that we have demos for that don’t sound anything like the versions that made it out of the sessions.”
By March’s end, they had penned 10 tracks under the guiding vision, Weitz says, of an alien band from another planet sampling certain sounds from Earth, a reversal on the many human bands who have toyed around with the sounds associated with outer space. They used old recordings from top-40 radio—radio waves beamed into space—and added snippets of song introductions and the reading of call signals from stations like the old B104.3.
Even in this way, despite its usage as something almost extraterrestrial, Animal Collective is weaving direct and indirect references to the band’s time here into the fabric of its music. Though it has never been overt or overdone, it’s something the group has managed to do throughout its body of work: song names, album titles, lyrical references, sounds.
Those name drops, Portner insists, have more to do with how the names of local roads and places sound rather than any sort of special meaning or subtext. Still, what set them on this course is forever rooted in those formative years.
“I feel like the way I perceive music—in terms of thinking about how I wanted to make music or how I wanted us to play music when we were younger—came from just driving around Maryland a lot,” Portner says, “and experiencing the music in kind of like an outdoor or, you know, nature kind of setting. When thinking about music as an environment, I like to have environments that music goes along with well—what’s best to listen to at night, what’s best to listen to during the daytime or when it’s raining. And I feel like all that kind of stuff I really thought about when I lived here.”
In that sense, the path from there to now almost feels like things are coming around full circle.
“I think I recall some conversations with Noah on the way to practice every day,” Portner says. “I think he might have even used those words, ‘coming around full circle’—you know, we’re back here, at Josh’s, or at Josh’s mom’s, a place where we’ve worked a lot at . . . ” He trails off. “But it also feels like starting something new, in a way.”
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