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The members of Animal Collective impress critics, incite haters and remain friends

Animal Collective may be one of the most critically hailed bands of the moment, yet also one of the most derided. While generally respectable sources like The New York Times and Pitchfork have fallen over themselves praising Feels, the band's seventh and most recent release, others like Slant Magazine disagree, arguing, "Maybe I'm just a Philistine, or maybe it's because I'm not from New York ... but I just don't get how a bunch of grunting and howling is supposed to turn basic folk-rock into some kind of transcendental listening experience."

If you are wondering how a seemingly harmless band like Animal Collective, often painted as freak-folk hippies obsessed with weird noises and pastoral spaces, can elicit such passionate praise and also mean-spirited reprisal, perhaps it's best to trace the group's origins first. Whereas most indie bands dream--from those first practices in dingy basements and hallowed garages--of the kind of success that has befallen Animal Collective, it was not really on the radar of the four high-school friends who shared a common bond for music, strange noises and made-up aliases. Naturally, such haphazard success is bound to make enemies.

The Cliffs Notes version goes like this: Noah Lennox (Panda Bear; drums/vocals) and Josh Dibb (Deakin; guitar/vocals) met and became friends in grade school. After going their separate ways for high school, Dibb befriended David Portner (Avey Tare; guitar/vocals) and Brian Weitz (Geologist; sound/electronic manipulator) and the four, with Lennox connected through Dibb, gradually became good friends and started a Pavement cover band. In an interview with Baltimore City Paper (whose quotes appear in this article), Portner claims they were always musically driven, if differently inspired, saying, "Magic and childhood and music-making are three things that just have a way of coming together, at least for us. ... Our taste in music, so early on, went beyond simple rock 'n' roll."

As the group's shared love of a musical world beyond Pavement blossomed, Animal Collective was born. The group began as a true collective with the members scattered between New York and Baltimore; some in college (Weitz even getting his master's degree in environmental policy in Arizona), some not. Technically, the band's first "album," Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished (2000), consists only of Portner and Lennox, which Portner notes makes it and subsequent early releases strange entries in the group's catalogue, saying, "People associate those early records as Animal Collective records. ... But at the time it was like, we don't really have a 'band.'"

It wasn't until the psychedelic and sprawling Here Comes the Indian (2003) that all four members recorded together, yet, strangely, the group's first critical breakthrough, Sung Tongs (2004), was another Portner/Lennox effort. However, with Feels (2005), the four-member incarnation of Animal Collective has finally found joint success. The album is packed with warped, blissful and oddly accessible melodies, making it a pop-folk-psychedelic-rock masterpiece. Dibb suggests that the current musical climate allows a band like Animal Collective, riding the strength of an album like Feels, to gain notoriety, saying, "I'm adamantly not a musical historian. ... 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."

Meanwhile, Lennox noted how Feels--the first album the band recorded outside of Baltimore or New York (in this instance, Seattle)--was a radical shift in many ways, saying, "The themes on the new record are way more adult. ... The themes of love ... its complications and joys, the good and the bad." Yet, because previous Animal Collective releases had garnered fans for their dark-edged noise collages and sinister, acid-bender jams, Lennox learned firsthand about the kind of backlash involved in releasing an album so unabashedly jovial, saying, "My friend Nelson, I was talking to him a couple of weeks ago about the new record ... 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.'"

Backlash aside, the group is now a certifiable underground sensation and the group is seemingly content. Most members have steady girlfriends and live in New York or D.C., except Lennox, who lives in Lisbon, Portugal, with his wife and their child. Onstage and on Feels, the sights and sounds of palpable joy burst from the group. Weitz relishes the band's jubilant chemistry, saying, "I think the way we relate to music always makes people think of children ... because we get so excited, and because we don't get to see each other very often." Lennox agrees, saying, "Live, we get kinda crazy ... 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."

Although Animal Collective's tranquil upbringing, easygoing attitude, and mutual excitement translate to the ebullient, viscous sounds of Feels, that does not mean their path was always so smooth or certain. According to Lennox, the group's friendships occasionally overwhelm the music and vice versa: "I can never really track where we're going. ... 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."

The band has not only managed to stay alive, but currently it's thriving. Weitz claims his girlfriend best summed up their modus operandi, saying, "'If you're gonna go off the beaten path, you might as well find your own way.' ... If you're going to present yourself as a weird band, you might as well find your own brand of personal weirdness."

Thanks to Animal Collective's own brand of weirdness and Feels' success, the group is currently on a jetsetting tour across America--with a few stops in Japan--before playing the hallowed Coachella festival. When performing live, the group tries to replicate the sounds and songs of their albums without coming off as contrived or rehearsed. Lennox, however, believes such looseness is a double-edged sword, and says, "A lot of people talk to me after shows and say, 'Oh wow, that's really great. Is the whole thing improvised?' ... 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."

In the end, success or not, Animal Collective is a closely linked group of buddies who value their friendship over adoration or fame. As long as that stays intact, as Weitz suggested, it would not be hard walking away from the music, saying, "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." And that has to be the best Feel-ing in the world.

More by Michael Petitti

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