Chatting with Noah Lennox, aka Panda Bear, from his home in Lisbon, Portugal, about bringing the band’s killer 2009 album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, to life onstage:
Describe the live show for folks who’ve never seen Animal Collective, or haven’t seen the band lately.
Most of the set will be Merriweather Post Pavilion songs—slightly different versions, a little more stripped down, probably a little less easy to grasp on to, less obvious in a way, for better or worse. I feel like the live show relies more on the passage of energy than these really kind of perfect little performances. I hope we play a good one for our first time in Vegas.
You guys were infamous for mostly playing unrecorded material in the live show, but that seems to have changed recently. Why?
When we were first really revving things up … it was pretty much always the same group of people who would show up, so we always felt like we should play something new. We got in this habit of being a little bit ahead of ourselves. Then, as the years progressed, we’d talk to people after shows, and sometimes they’d be upset that we didn’t play a particular song or any songs that they were familiar with. So the solution became us performing old songs, but reworking them, almost remixing them in a way, to fit with the newer songs we were working with. That kept it exciting and fresh and new for us, and also getting people psyched in the crowd.
When we first did the Merriweather Post Pavilion songs we were really excited about them. After [2007 album] Strawberry Jam, we were really ready to move on to something new, because we’d spent more than two years working with those songs before recording them. So the first two tours we went on with the Merriweather Post Pavilion songs, we played almost two hours straight of all new songs. And after the first couple of dates of the second tour, I remember us talking to our tour manager and also the guy who does front-of-house sound for us, about the new songs. And they were both kinda like, “Well, even for us, who are really familiar with your music, it’s a little intense to sit through two hours of totally unfamiliar stuff.” So that was a bit of a wake-up call for us.
Even changing them up the way you do, does it get tough playing songs night after night now, considering that’s not something the band really set it out to do when it first formed?
It puts a lot of pressure and sort of a challenge on us, to figure out new ways to make the songs grow, to be invested in the song rather than just play the song 500 times and put this effect on here and play this sound here and sing these words here or whatever. Even on this past tour that we did in Europe for a month, I was starting to feel a little wary. But actually, I was pleasantly surprised—we’ve started taking a bunch of the songs in different directions. We’ll usually string a whole group of songs together, just try to go from the end of one into the beginning of another, and I feel like we were doing new transitional things. It definitely felt like we went some new ways, and in a sweet way with some of the songs.
So how has the new approach to live performing—not road-testing your music as much as you used to—changed the way you guys write and record?
Before we started writing these songs, I was definitely interested in the idea of changing the live energy. When we first started touring and we would wear masks and do sort of weird visual things, it started to feel kind of lame after a while, sort of like a gimmick. You’d show up in a town, and people would be like, “Show me the masks.” Then there were a couple of years where we were working with a really hectic, frantic energy. I was really interested in seeing if we could do a show that had some real focus and power to it, but not really rely on going into hysterics to pull that off. I feel like a lot of these songs are more trancey in a really kind of peaceful way than a really energetic, pounding-on-drums sort of way. And I think that’s carried through the recording process. The record doesn’t sound very abrasive to me like a lot of our older songs.
Will we hear any new material at the Vegas show?
There’s one totally new song. I mean, it wouldn’t be new if you’re the kind of person who listens to bootleg live shows or something like that, but there’s one totally non-studio track that was part of a group of songs that we had intended to record but just didn’t get around to. We’ve gotten really into playing that one live, so we’ll definitely be playing it on tour. We’ve also re-worked three older songs for this group of touring; I’m not sure how recognizable they are, ’cause they’re quite different from the original versions, but they are old songs. One’s from [2004’s] Sung Tongs, one’s from [2005’s] Feels and the third … I can’t remember which album it’s on. We’ve done some [even] earlier songs, but maybe only one or two the past couple of years.
I’ve played the single, “My Girls,” for several friends who thought they didn’t like Animal Collective, and they’ve suddenly become interested in hearing more of your music. Did you feel like that song could have a major impact when you wrote and recorded it?
I remember after the first practice session where we really got the arrangements of the songs together and were finally all in the same room working—the other two guys mentioned that one as one of their favorites of that time period. But I also remember I was really nervous about it, because we spent a couple days recording the track and it just didn’t really feel … you know, certain songs you’ll think are really great going into the recording process and for whatever reason, it just doesn’t really pan out. And on the other hand, you’ll have songs that you don’t really think are some of the strongest but, again, for whatever reason, something really comes together in the recording process and they turn out to some of the strongest tracks. And I remember, “My Girls” in the first round, didn’t seem like it was really that good, and we totally redid the whole thing. We scrapped the whole first version of it and redid it in a pretty different way. And I remember thinking after that day, when we had the second round with it, it was really one of my favorites of the group. It was just sort of a lucky thing that it came together really well, I guess.
Considering you’re living in Lisbon and the rest of the band lives on the East Coast of the U.S., how do you guys write and record? Take “My Girls,” for example.
The way that song worked is pretty typical of most of the songs that we work on these days. The first step in the process is usually done by me or Dave [Portner, aka Avey Tare]—in the case of “My Girls” it was me, in my little home studio room, just kinda jamming and coming up with some words and putting sort of a basic skeletal structure together. Then I sent that to the guys—just me singing and playing these samples—and then when we all got together for two weeks before the first tour, I played my part of the song, and the other guys tried different things out.
How did you work out the harmonies for Merriweather Post Pavilion?
We knew, going into writing the songs for this one, that we wanted to stay as far away from doing straight-up vocal harmonies as we could. We felt like we’d done a bunch of that sort of thing in the past, and we didn’t want to go to old tricks, do stuff that we’d done before. So the idea for this one became this idea of two main vocal parts—not having a backup singer and a main singer [but] trying to do two distinct but also somehow congruous vocal lines, both lyrically and melodically. So when I would send the other guys songs and Dave would send his songs, I think both of us were always trying to think of vocal parts that we could fit, somehow, into the other person’s. Sometimes it takes a bit more effort than others. One or two of the songs went through multiple phases before the final version.
So what’s up next for Animal Collective?
The future is a little bit fuzzy. I guess it always is at this point. I think we’re gonna tour with these songs through the summer, and that’ll probably be the end of it. The songs will die at that point, and then we’ll start thinking about something else. I feel like we’re all thinking about something else already, but it’s kinda hard to jump fully into something new when you haven’t really closed the book. You know what I mean?
More Badass Summer Concerts: Put ’em on your calendar
Allen Toussaint at Jazz in the Park, May 9: Your free opportunity to see a New Orleans R&B legend, for free, on the green grass of the County’s Government Center Amphitheater. Did we mention it’s free?
Scout Niblett at Beauty Bar, May 13: The British Cat Power brings her bedazzling voice to Downtown Las Vegas. We assume it’s because her latest album includes a song called “Nevada.”
No Doubt at Mandalay Bay Events Center, May 16: We always like stumping for Tiger Jam, since, you know, it’s for a good cause. But it certainly helps when the annual event taps an act like No Doubt, back together touring for the first time since 2004. Little bit more exciting than Glenn Frey and friends.
Jane’s Addiction, Nine Inch Nails at the Pearl, May 18: Who’s the headliner? Who cares. There’s going to be a ton of ’90s heavy alt-rock action a-happening, no matter who goes on first.
Flight of the Conchords at the Joint, May 23: Aussies Bret and Jemaine—New Zealanders are Aussies, aren’t they?—christen the Joint with comedic folk while fans word on a possible third HBO season.
The Allman Brothers Band at Red Rock Backyard, May 24: The Duane Allman/Berry Oakley/Dickey Betts years undeniably kicked ass, but the Allmans’ current lineup (guitarists: Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks) ain’t bad neither. Wear comfy shoes—these guys jam long.
Santana at the Joint, May 27: Don’t worry if you can’t score tickets; Vegas’ newest “residents” will be back in the Joint 71 more times before the end of next year. And by the way, does anyone else think the show should be titled “Carlos in Charge”? Guess not.
Aretha Franklin at Primm’s Star of the Desert Arena, June 19, and Loretta Lynn at Texas Station, June 20: The Queen of Soul turned 67 in March, the Coal Miner’s Daughter 74 in April. We hope both legends live forever, but there’s no time like the present to see ’em if you haven’t.
Also of note: Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood at MGM Grand Garden Arena, June 27; The Crystal Method at House of Blues, May 22; Depeche Mode at the Pearl, August 22; Fleetwood Mac at MGM Grand Garden Arena, May 30; Ben Folds at House of Blues, May 19; Jennifer Hudson, Robin Thicke at the Pearl, May 1; Joey + Rory at Santa Fe Station, May 15; Jonas Brothers at Mandalay Bay Events Center, August 1; Judas Priest at Thomas & Mack Center, August 8; B.B. King at House of Blues, May 16; Diana Krall at the Pearl, August 8; Leopold and His Fiction at Beauty Bar, May 15; Ky-Mani Marley, Yellowman, Gregory Isaacs, Third World at Reggae in the Desert, June 13; Dave Matthews Band at MGM Grand Garden Arena, May 8 & 9; Mötley Crüe at the Joint, August 1; Ozomatli at Hard Rock pool, May 22; Polar Bear Club at Box Office, May 7; Rise Against, Rancid at the Joint, July 13; Shiny Toy Guns at Wasted Space, May 14; Sugarland at Primm’s Star of the Desert Arena, July 24; Taylor Swift at Mandalay Bay Events Center, May 23; Testament, Unearth at House of Blues, June 9; Keith Urban at Mandalay Bay Events Center, July 18; The Virgins at Beauty Bar, May 23.