The Hunchback of Notre Dame gets a sudden musical craving: The Animal Collective
Danny Meltzer

How can you define something as subjective as intimacy? I'm talking about a precise triangulation of affect and affectation that arises from some sort of fragile closeness. Is such a description even remotely possible? Art often attempts to deal with romantic captivation by avoiding the topic or debasing it entirely: It's telling that Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, perhaps the most successful celluloid evocation of budding romance, sought endearment within the shadows of its physical absence. And "intimacy" in a musical setting usually indicates no more than another Jewel-like singer-songwriter mistaking cheesy heart-to-heart speak for songwriting skills.

I'd just about given up on finding truly intimate music until I caught a recent Animal Collective performance in Brooklyn. The group's primal, psychedelic, and near-shamanic performance transformed the public hipster space into some kind of enlarged communal sphere. Yeah, I'm skirting on new-age-isms, but only because I'm scrambling for ways to translate the experience into text.

Throughout a set that built from chanted invocations to tape-loop evocations and a frenzied freakout, the four musicians onstage clapped, whooped, and howled ecstatically. They hunched over a bewildering array of synthesizers, guitars, drums, and unidentifiable gadgets, all the while clad in strangely menacing animal masks. Even more remarkable, the Animal Collective left even the "coolest" of New Yorkers looking delightfully unselfconscious by the close of the show. (This was no mean feat, considering that the same sort of crowd had barely moved during a riotous Chicks on Speed show a few weeks earlier.)

On the eve of their upcoming tour, I talked with three of the four group members--who, in non-show mode, looked like regular indie rockers--in my apartment. Our conversation is shot through with the same joyous confusion that animates their live shows. Even deciphering who's who in the Animal Collective is a mind-boggler, given each member's peculiar stage name: Noah Lennox, the only absent member, is Panda Bear; Dave Portner is Avey Tare; Josh Dibb is Deaken; and Brian Weitz is the Geologist. The origin of these names seems just as confusing.

"They call me Geologist because that's what I studied in college," Weitz says. Then he laughs, "Well, I didn't, but people said I did as a joke."

But behind such playful antics lie some of the same serious progressive-rock ideals that fueled wacked-out predecessors like the avant-garde rock group Henry Cow and the near-psychotic Faust. The Collective's previous releases exhibit a wide eclecticism, each album emphasizing the role of the specific people within the group. The stunning bleeps, buzzes, and rock-outs on Danse Manatee (Catsup Plate), for instance, are credited to Avey Tare, Panda Bear, and the Geologist rather than the Animal Collective.

Yet individualism aside, there is a long history of connection between these four musicians. Portner notes that they've been playing acoustic jams together since they all attended high school in Baltimore. (Band members are now students at Columbia and NYU.) After attempting various pairings between musicians--like the early pop-inflected collaboration between Avey Tare and Panda Bear for their first album Spirit They've Gone, Spirit They've Vanished (released on their own Animal label)--the four cohered into their current formation. All the while, their surprising use of vocals was developing.

"When Dave and I shared an apartment, we would sit there and play for hours because we had nothing else to do," Weitz laughs. "Vocals sprung naturally, out of necessity, really, because at the time that's all we had to work with."

But minimal equipment can still produce a big performance. The synesthesia of ethereal sound, face masks, and theatrical body movement makes their shows seem like rituals. "We're definitely aiming for that tribal aspect, trying to get something--I hesitate to say the word--spiritual," says Dibb.

Unfashionable goals in a pomo world, perhaps. But that's what makes the Animal Collective deeply affecting: They're trying something in earnest, and so risking the possibility of looking stupid. With sounds this strange, of course, the risk occasionally doesn't pay off.

"We've definitely had audiences turn against us," says Weitz. "In Alabama, we got a lot of punks giving us the middle finger."

But, Dibb says, "Other times it's the opposite. We played in Nashville, and we almost drove away from the venue because we thought it was going to be like the scene where the Blues Brothers play at the redneck bar. But when we started playing everybody became really involved. There was an old hillbilly guy from the woods who was totally into it."

Maybe this scene sounds unlikely. But once you see the Animal Collective onstage you'll understand the strange effect they have on the audience. An old hillbilly man dancing around while masked men make celebratory noise? Now that's intimacy.

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