Noah Lennox isn't sure if he'd agree with a categorization widely affixed to his group's new album. The experimental maestro, better known to listeners as Panda Bear, wouldn't go as far as to call Animal Collective's effort, February's Painting With, a "pop" record, although many have deemed it as such. Though he emphasizes he doesn't "take it as an insult or... a pejorative" if someone believes Painting With to be in that vein, he's reluctant to accept the descriptor.
"I'd assume that people who say that, what they mean is that the vocals are really loud... and that it kind of shares qualities with music that's really popular at that time," Lennox says over Skype. "But there are elements to the Painting With songs that I feel are... intensely not pop. I guess I'm talking about the way the vocals work together feels sort of confusing and sort of... uncomfortable, maybe, on first listen?"
For what it's worth, it's this discomfort and tension between pop sensibilities — however you want to define the genre nowadays — and experimentation that has lent Animal Collective staying power over the course of its multidecade career.
Born from childhood friendships in Baltimore County, Animal Collective — composed of Lennox, David Portner (also known as Avey Tare), Brian Weitz (Geologist), and occasionally Josh Dibb (Deakin, who is sitting out of the current tour, having not participated in the Painting With sessions) — has transcended its avant-garde origins to become a bona fide indie darling. Although passingly familiar to wider audiences (it's quite possible your younger sister heard their celebrated 2009 single, "My Girls," in the opening moments of MTV's ill-fated remake of Skins), Animal Collective is a beloved institution in the many musical fields the group occupies. A casual glance at their Wikipedia page lists nonsense genres such as "experimental pop," "neo-psychedelia," "freak folk," "electronic," and "noise pop."
None of these mixtures ought to work. Yet they do.
Having played within a varied array of textures and styles across their canon, Animal Collective have cultivated a large, devoted, and diverse following. Not into the electronic psychedelia of 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion? Perhaps the weird yet emotionally resonant folk of 2004’s Sung Tongs is a better fit. Asking an assemblage of Animal Collective devotees to agree on the band’s single definitive release would be an arduous task. Such is the power and appeal of Animal Collective.
Painting With presents a more immediately digestible rendition of Animal Collective's latter-day output. Described by Weitz as "an electronic drum circle," the album takes the electricity that characterized previous efforts Merriweather Post Pavilion and Centipede Hz, stakes it into the ground, and — with hands still attached — runs around it until both the band and the listener have no choice but to fall to the ground, sound and vision irrevocably blurred.
That is to say, it's dizzying and playful to a fault.
Lennox says the record's more structured, immediate — and, yes, perhaps more poppy — sound was a natural progression from the freewheeling, sprawling nature of the band's most recent albums.
"I've noticed as we go that the newest thing is typically a reaction... to the couple of things we've done just before that," Lennox says. "We hope the new thing kind of stands on its own and isn't really a retread of something. If it does sound like that, I'd say we kind of failed at it. [Painting With] is one of my favorites at the moment. It's one of three or four albums I think I'll look back on and be most psyched about."
Miami audiences will have the opportunity to be psyched right alongside the band during its show Thursday at the Fillmore. Between touring with Animal Collective and in support of his own releases, Lennox has performed in Miami on several occasions, most recently solo at last year's III Points.
"I've always loved Miami since the first times we would go there," he says. "I'm really excited to go back. I think after III Points... we went to the beach after the show and hung out... That was a really cool night."
By the time of Thursday's show, Animal Collective will have been living with Painting With in a live context for the better part of nine months. Unlike the band’s previous records, which were known to have been tested and quality-approved in live settings prior to official release, Painting With is a distinctly “studio” effort, with this year’s tour marking the album's live debut. According to Lennox, that hasn’t stopped the band from playing
“I feel like the songs, particularly a couple of them, have really sort of taken on their own new kind of character a little bit on the road," he says. “Typically, we’ll play four or five songs back-to-back without really stopping... Sometimes we’ll kind of run across stuff that sounds good in a way that we’ll continue doing that night after night, and then eventually it almost becomes a written part of the set.”
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Regardless of how audiences respond to Painting With and its accompanying live shows, Lennox confidently asserts that for him and the band, it represents a creative touchstone.
"I felt like — kind of early on in the process — that it was like entering a new room in our house. It felt like we were stepping into a place that we hadn't really stepped into. In your life, whenever you do that, it's always a powerful, memorable moment, so I think this one will stay with me for a while."