This interview appears in ALARM #40. Subscribe here to get your copy!
What would it sound like if a band from another planet somehow heard early ’50s and ’60s rock and roll and covered it? This half-serious anecdote is how Animal Collective keyboardist Brian Weitz, better known as his stage name Geologist, frames his band’s ninth studio album, Centipede Hz. For as amusing as it is to imagine extraterrestrials clattering to The Hollies, Weitz’s rhetorical scenario points to the band’s creative motors at work, and how they manage to obscure influences beyond recognition.
Over the course of more than a decade, Animal Collective — which, in addition to Weitz, includes David Portner (Avey Tare), Josh Dibb (Deakin), and Noah Lennox (Panda Bear) — has been all over the sound map. A listen to the band’s discography is an auditory experience that sounds like a big confusion of little details: overdubbed samples, glitchy feedback, ambient drones, bizarre harmonies, unpredictable vocal freak-outs, and genre-fusing weirdness are jarred, shaken, and spilled out on each record.
So in follow-up to critically acclaimed 2009 album Merriweather Post Pavilion, it’s expected that the collective would do something divergent from Merriweather’s accessible, ambient electronic pop. Centipede Hz is not only the first album to feature all four members since Strawberry Jam (2007), but it’s also the first album since Feels (2005) that has the band writing all together in the same space. “Soon after Merriweather, we knew we wanted to do something live and more visceral,” Weitz says. “And to do that, we had to be in the same room, not on headphones.”
Returning to their hometown of Baltimore for three months and jamming in an old barn house on Dibb’s mom’s property, the members describe the sessions as having a workshop air to them. “We started out with a lot of improvisation,” Weitz says, “and those functioned as exercises to explore what sonic palettes interested us.” A few months later, the tracking sessions took place at Sonic Ranch in Texas. “I can’t stress how isolating it was,” Weitz adds about the 2,300-acre pecan orchard, which houses the largest residential recording studio in the world. “There were brush fires everywhere that made everything glow orange. It really felt like an expansive, strange alien world.”
That mood translates to a sharp, metallic quality about the record, as if the electronic elements were run through frayed coil wiring soldered back together. Whereas Merriweather is digitally atmospheric and ambient, Centipede is raw and energetic with distortion and analogue synths. Album opener “Moonjock” assaults with a cacophony of static-drenched drums before moving into splatters of arpeggio melodies and Portner’s vocal runs. “Moonjock” is followed immediately by the even louder but inherently catchy “Today’s Supernatural.” Portner stutters his way into a seesaw of bright electronic textures and rhythmic bongos. His vocals are clear and defined, perpetually wired into the static discharge that energizes the musical landscape.
Every song on the album seems fixed in a state of hyper-drive, strung together by odd frequencies and radio broadcast clips. “There are these things called air checks that radio personalities record to showcase their voice to prospective employers,” Weitz says. “If you listen to enough of them, you’ll hear the DJs doing commercials, all the IDs, and sound effects. We grabbed a bunch of those and made our own landscape. Radio sound design was definitely an inspiration for the record. It’s almost its own musique concrete.”
As radio frequencies travel out of the Earth’s atmosphere and bounce and refract in space, one has to wonder whether Weitz’s figurative outer-space band isn’t far off. But it’s these peculiar sound choices that enlighten Animal Collective’s signature oddities. If anything, Centipede Hz demonstrates Animal Collective’s shape-shifting sound and staying power, while providing another opportunity to experience its ethereal, near-indefinable musical language in raw form.