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Music

Far Out Meets: Deakin talks Animal Collective dynamics, 'Time Skiffs', and new music

@TylerGolsen

For a guy whose day job involves being in one of the most experimental rock bands in the world, Josh Dibb is a remarkably down-to-earth individual. When I caught up with Dibb for a Zoom chat last week, he was simply driving through the streets of Baltimore trying to get to his studio/practice facility, occasionally pausing to make sure he wasn’t losing focus on the road or falling too far down whatever conversational rabbit hole that has lured him in and missed a traffic light.

In fact, if you met him on the street or in a grocery store, you would have no idea that this was Deakin, the guitarist/keyboardist for psychedelic pop gods Animal Collective. For legions of listeners who connected with the zonked out hallucinogenic sounds that the group have been producing for two decades, it might seem quaint that Dibb and the rest of the guys in Animal Collective are just four normal people who only tap into something exotic and mind-bending when they plug in their instruments.

The best evidence for this comes in the fact that they’ve been doing it consistently for 20 years. From the freak-folk experimentations of Panda Bear and Avey Tare’s first collaboration, 2000’s Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished through the full-band explosion on Strawberry Jam and the critical acclaim of Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective have constantly challenged themselves to push beyond their established scope and into an expansive new future.

With that philosophy in mind, the new album Time Skiffs was largely conceived as an exercise in working out of the band’s established comfort zone, which originally came to life when Dibb decided to leave his main instrument at home. “I pretty much decided to almost exclusively not play guitar,” he tells me, adding: “Which is pretty unusual for me in the group, and I focused almost entirely on playing keyboards.” As a result, the other band members began to change their own methods, leading to what Dibb describes as “one of the most stripped-down things that we’ve done in a long time”.

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Deakin adds: “Noah [Lennox, AKA Panda Bear] just really wanted to focus on playing a kind of standard trap kit, which is sort of a new thing for him in a way. He really wanted to just focus on a very classic traditional approach to drums and really focused on his technique: playing a lot softer. Then Dave [Portner, AKA Avey Tare] just decided to only play electric bass, which he’s never done in that way before. And so his palette was really narrowed down to not adding anything in like the keyboard or guitar range at all. He was leaving a lot of those sections of the arrangements up to me and Brian [Weitz, AKA Geologitst]”.

If you haven’t noticed, Dibb doesn’t refer to his bandmates under their more well-known stage monikers. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any pretension or fancifulness at all in the world of Animal Collective. Despite creating music that pulls from the darker and more twisted sides of life, Dibb mostly describes the writing and recording process as calm, even exceedingly normal affairs. By the way that he talks about their interactions, it sounds like the members of the band are still mostly four friends from Baltimore playing music together for fun, just with some added logistical complications.

“I don’t think anybody had any sort of pressure vibe,” Dibb explains about Time Skiff‘s recording. “There was no kind of like, ‘Come on man, where’s your parts?’ It was just like everyone’s doing what they can do. And we could each be working on different songs at different times. It just had a calmness to it that I think we all really appreciated,” he continues. “Dave kind of keeps on referring to sort of telepathy and ESP that he kind of feels with us in general. I think that especially really had to come out during that time, and is really special and really magical. I’m really, really super grateful for it”.

Part of the secret to their success is the freedom that all four members are allowed inside, and outside, the band. “I think one of the tenants of our group – going all the way back to high school, honestly, and our realisation that this is something we wanted to try to do – was that we wanted to do it in a way, we kind of needed to do it in a way, that didn’t feel linear,” Dibb says.

(Credit: Press)

It would be tempting to try and dig into something a bit juicier here, maybe even strained, about this specific nature of the band. The most fascinating aspect of Animal Collective is their durability as a unit despite their unique ability to write and record in any configuration. Dibb knows this well: he’s been absent for five of the band’s 11 studio albums. But any notion that this is because of fractured relationships or disagreements is patently absurd. “I wonder sometimes when people think, ‘Well, it’s been 10 years since the four of you have been in the room,’ like, yeah, that’s true,” he continues. “But Noah is one of my best friends. We talk regularly and we have a regular relationship. Some combination of the four of us, myself included, always have our fingers in some sort of collaboration. I’ve done a lot of producing work with Dave over the last ten years. So I think there’s probably more continuity than maybe people realise from the outside. Because, you know, that narrative of, ‘This is the 11th record’ and I’m like, ‘OK, well it’s the 11th record, but there’s so much material that the four of us in some combination have been responsible for in the last six years”.

While the rest of the world might see the group as nebulous and constantly in flux, it’s a completely different story from the inside. “I know Brian was pointing out his experience of when we finally were able to get together as a group in person during August of 2020,” he adds. “At that point, it had been 18 months since we’d seen each other. Brian’s observation was that it almost felt remarkable – and maybe even slightly uncomfortable – like it wasn’t notable. It was just like we showed up, we set up our instruments, and within 24 hours it was like, ‘Yeah, right. This is what we do. This is us. This is like how we fielding and room together.’ And it felt natural and fun”.

The reason that the record had to be put on pause for such a long period of time should come as no surprise: the Covid pandemic left the band unsure of how to continue the recording process. “Pandemic lockdowns happened in January [of 2020],” Deakin explains. “So everybody was in separate places, and so we started building together this EP that became Bridge to Quiet“. Although the remote recordings worked for the EP, the band were hesitant to do the same for Time Skiffs.

“Our manager, who is really great, actually, was kind of pushing us. And at first, I think we were really resistant, but she was like, ‘I really think if you guys want to do a record, you might have to consider doing it remotely.’ And at first, we were just like, ‘There’s no way we’re not doing that. That’s a horrible idea’. And she kind of just kept on gently but repeatedly suggesting it. Then, I think because the EP went really well, we just decided we were going to give it a shot.”

However, complications arose early in the process: much of the album was already recorded, and when the group tried to start adding new parts, the difficulties of not being in the same room became clear. “It was sort of always like a two steps forward, one step back kind of situation. Noah initially recorded all of his drums in his own studio himself, and they were sounding really good for what they were, but Dave suggested that we have Noah actually go into a studio in Portugal and rerecord all his rooms with an engineer”.

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Deakin continued: “It wasn’t even necessarily because Noah had done a poor job, but I think recording yourself playing drums, especially when you don’t have anybody else in the room, is pretty challenging to do. So we had gotten to a pretty decent place, but his room is really small, and we had kind of imagined a bigger room drum sound.”

It was the remote recording of ‘Prester John’ that convinced the group of continuing on: “That was kind of another big moment too, once we went and did that and, and re-tracked those drums and brought them in, then things start to feel really, really solid. ‘Prester John’ was probably the first one that felt like it was really coming together, sonically, in a way that we all felt like was special enough to justify the process”.

Between the remote recordings and the return to playing in person, the rejuvenated atmosphere led to a surprising addition: the band wrote and recorded an entirely new album before Time Skiffs was even done. “We don’t have a set-in-stone plan for the next record, but it’s all been recorded and hopefully it will be mixed in the next few months,” Dibb reveals. “And I would assume that means that it’ll be coming out in some form, whether it’s as just the next album or an album with an EP. I’m not really sure, but I would imagine that will be coming out within a year’s time, I would hope. Maybe early next year. And so that will be another record coming out with a bunch of songs that we’re going to want to be, you know, supporting and going on the road with.”

Dibb admits that Animal Collective tend to work in “cycles” and that “part of me kind of imagines that some of that will need to start happening at some point in the next 12 to 18 months. People will either be feeling like it’s time to take a break or starting to really think about a new-new-new batch of songs, and maybe even a new way of imagining what we’re doing. I don’t really know if I can totally predict what’s going to happen.”

He continued: “I think there’ll be a balance. I think we all really want to keep doing this. There’s always been a very important element to us of not burning out on material or burning out on energy. And that’s why we oftentimes reinvent ourselves every couple of years. Then each record really feels like it’s a really new world”.

Ultimately, Animal Collective have no plans to stop that exploration that has become their modus operandi. “I know that there’s going to be a point in the future where what we’ve been doing and how we’ve been doing it will start to feel – boring is the wrong word – but yeah, it’ll just kind of feel like we’re ready to move on to something different,” he adds. “And I don’t know when that point will happen. I know it will, and it could be in a year, it could be in two. At that point, there will probably either be a whole new AC era or people will want to take a break and work on solo stuff and kind of come back around after that.”

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