Great Unknown

"I'm not sure how much time I have to do an interview," writes David "Avey Tare" Porter, guitarist for the four-man Brooklyn crew critics are calling the coolest experimental musicians on the scene, in an e-mail. The unofficial guru of the group Animal Collective is sending his message from Iceland, where he is visiting friends before meeting up with the rest of his band in Paris for the start of a nineteen-city tour across Europe and the United States.

This band of twentysomethings does seem to be making good use of its time. Animal Collective issued two CDs last year, Here Comes the Indian and Campfire Songs. Their latest album on the UK imprint Fat Cat, this year's Sung Tongs, has got all of the major music magazines hailing them as boy wonders. The group's success lies in an ability to create experiences that the listener can almost see as well as hear. "Our goal," says Conrad Deaken via phone from a friend's brownstone in Brooklyn, "is to create sonic environments."

For example, explains Deaken, "in öTwo Sails on a Song' we decided we wanted a song that sounded like two sails in a storm banging together. So we thought about what that sounded like, but then thought about how to change it so it doesn't sound exactly like that, but a representation of that in one's mind."

"We record tons of stuff," says Brian "Geologist" Weitz while riding on a train from his home in Washington, D.C. to New York. The rattling of train tracks and snippets of a neighboring conversation seep through his cell phone. "We use minidisc recorders to capture street conversation, basketball games, anything," he says. "But the frequencies and field recordings we get are frequently put through a klutzy analog modulator until they don't sound like anything they once were."

Originally from Baltimore, the four met and started playing together while still in junior high, becoming fast friends and regulars on the local indie rock scene. Always outsiders, all four loved the outdoors, exploring fields and abandoned nursing homes, and sitting on their favorite back porch, talking about Syd Barrett, horror movies, and pretty girls.

The band's really wild ways, however, jumped off in the summer of 2000 after they moved to New York. "Dave and I were living in an apartment in Manhattan," reminisces Weitz. "Panda Bear and Deakin would come over and jam. We'd just set up a bunch of instruments, mikes, amps, plates, forks, magazines, and electric fans, whatever. It didn't matter if it was a conventional instrument or not.

"It was a pretty hazy time because we were living on top of a bar at the time and there was a lot of alcohol involved. But it was great to finally realize that there don't have to be any rules in music if you don't want there to be."

Animal Collective's "no rules, just mikes" approach in Sung Tongs enables them to lure their listeners into experiential skits. The opener "Leaf House" transports us to a Tibetan monastery full of kitties meowing. The 50-second "College," a humming four-part harmony bit, foregrounds what sounds like someone urinating on the floor of a dormitory shower. There's "The Softest Voice," which invites images of a large metal door creaking open, a tin plate dropping to the floor and turning like a top till it stops, and a dripping faucet. Finally, the faint static and word-gurgling backdrop sustained in "Kids on Holiday" gives you the sense that what you've been listening to all along is a transistor radio.

Innovative vocalization ultimately is what makes Sung Tongs (a play on the phrase "sung songs") a standout. "You can do anything with your voice: percussive stuff, melodic stuff. Vocals don't have to be singing and melodies and words," says Weitz.

Chanting, yelling, humming, yodeling, and whispering are utilized throughout Sung Tongs. But although the group often use their own voices, they don't articulate the words. For them, the lyric, the actual cognitive meaning of the song, is, by and large, irrelevant. It's the sound the words make that's important. Even "Sweet Road," a song that has a vocal line soaring above everything else, ends up making about as much sense as a poem by Gertrude Stein. Lines such as "I left my britches down the road/I'm running out of soda" contribute more to the rhythm of the song than the meaning of it.

The inside photo in the Danse Manatee CD booklet shows Porter with a black piece of cloth wrapped around his eyes and two leaves attached to the cloth like eye patches. He's playing his electric guitar as he bends over a mixer, his mouth on one of the knobs. The somewhat abstract image is appropriate, since it is Animal Collective's imaginative and oral approach to sound making that allows you to visualize their music.

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