Animal Collective's Brian "Geologist" Weitz on Songcraft, Touring, Misconceptions, Money, and Passing Music Down

Animal Collective's Brian "Geologist" Weitz on Songcraft, Touring, Misconceptions, Money, and Passing Music Down
Animal Collective Photo by Hisham Akira Bharoocha

This is a free post from Larry Fitzmaurice's Last Donut of the Night newsletter. Paid subscribers also get two Baker's Dozen playlists a week, featuring music I've been enjoying recently as well as some commentary around it. NOTE! The newsletter will be going on a brief hiatus from October 4 - October 14 as I am going on vacation. There might be one more interview that goes up, and definitely one Baker's Dozen next week—then I'll be off for a week and a half. Thanks as always for reading!

Brian earns his two-timers jersey today with this latest appearance on the newsletter; last time he was around to talk about Animal Collective's fantastic Time Skiffs, and now he's back to talk about the band's also-fantastic new album Isn't It Now? We got deep into plenty of other subjects that, if you're a regular reader, you know I'm always asking about—so just read on:

Even though this record came from the same writing period as Time Skiffs, you recorded it in the studio together instead of that record's remote process. Tell me about getting the band back in the same space again.
It was amazing, and it was the quickest we've ever worked. The songs we put aside were "Defeat," "Magicians From Baltimore," "Stride Rite," "Genie's Open," and "All The Clubs Are Broken"—we weren't even sure if we were gonna record that last one. You couldn't record those to a click-track—they require eye contact, and you get a sense of timing for songs like that from being in the same room together. You have to play off each other, so there was no way we could do them remotely. "Gem and I" and "Broke Zodiac" we did for Time Skiffs, but even though we could play them with a metronome, the remote versions didn't translate to us. We were like, "OK, this isn't just a tempo thing. If we're not in the same room, these songs just don't have it."

We got back together in August of 2021, which was when we were working on videos and photoshoots for Time Skiffs. Originally, we were gonna play some shows in the fall, but we decided to spend a whole month together. My family came with me and we all headed to Asheville, where a friend had just moved and said we could rehearse in his recording studio since it wasn't ready to host sessions yet. We thought about recording, but we weren't sure how it was gonna go, having not physically played together in a year and eight months. So we left it as jamming time, and that's when all the arrangements that ended up on Isn't It Now were done. Even "Soul Capturer" was written just before that as something new to play on tour, so we worked on that too. Then we toured and had a couple of months off.

I don't know why we only booked 12 days—maybe we felt like it'd been four years with some of these songs, and if we didn't know them then, we'd never know them. But also, working with Russell Elevado, we wanted to capture live stuff and not leave ourselves time to go crazy with overdubs. So we showed up after Thanksgiving 2021—I think I literally left from Thanksgiving dinner at my parents' house in Baltimore and went the next day in the morning to the studio. We were just ready to go, and in terms of playing together, I don't think we've ever made a record so fast—not since the early days, when we could only afford a couple of days in the studio. We were done within a week, and then we left a few days to do some straggly overdubs and vocal takes, because people hadn't fully decided on lyrics until the very end. We were definitely psyched to see each other. The connection was there, the telepathy was there. Working with Russ, the studio sounded so good.

It was also nice to save some money, because it was a couple of years of not making any money for the band. Our friends in Gang Gang Dance were housesitting in a brownstone for this artist who had bought it but not renovated it, so there were huge holes in the wall and gas for heating but not the stove, so all the cooking had to be on hot plates. They were living there too, jamming and practicing in the downstairs floor, which was their practice space. So we moved in with them, essentially, for two weeks. Our friends in New York heard we were there, so it felt very rejuvenating to be amongst our old community.

We used to share a practice space with Gang Gang Dance and Black Dice and live with them, so having people in those bands roll through brought a youthful energy to our sessions—just sleeping on a couch again and crashing at your friends' place that you crashed with 20 years ago. I'm not trying to give the "return to roots" speech though. It was just about being surrounded by warmth, friends, and your community. It made me go into the sessions with a great mood. I loved my time in the studio, and then leaving the studio was also great because we knew we were going back to spend time with friends in our house.

I laughed when you mentioned the "return to roots" cliché, because I can't think of a band that's been less clichéd in that regard than you guys. There's a clear progression in this new one from Time Skiffs too, and I'm honestly really surprised that your music is sounding more straightforward than ever when it comes to the pop songwriting. How do you think this record represents where you guys are at songwriting-wise now?
I don't think you could give a summation that would encompass every song on the record. "All the Clubs Are Broken" is something Dave wrote almost in his head—all the harmonies and stuff. We jammed it for a while to come up with a groove, but he wrote it and came in and was like, "It goes like this," and told people what to do. For those three guys to sing together, we knew the melody had to be very written and well-rehearsed. But for something like "Defeat," which Noah wasn't even a part of the first few times we played at, since we did it as part of this installation in New Orleans with other musicians, Dave had the chord changes and lyrics, but you feel the chord changes, so that one became a bit more freeform—even though there's a part of it that's also extremely rigid and written.

I always feel like the guys come with the pop chops—they're strong, in terms of the songwriting. This one was very much written to be played live, so we were relying on ourselves and not machinery. There weren't many boundaries when it came to the songwriting, which wasn't the case with Painting With. Dave and Noah had long talked about our version of a Beatles or Ramones record as a challenge. "Are we even capable of writing a three-minute song? Or a record where every song sounds kind of the same, but interesting enough to be different?" Those challenges guided that record before a single song was even written.

That was not the case with this one, or with Time Skiffs. Finding grooves and jamming was a big part of this record, even though demos were already written. The demo for "Gem and I" doesn't sound anything like what it sounds now—it was just Noah playing a chord progression under a drumbeat with a much different tempo, and it eventually turned into what it is now.

I feel like you guys are a band with a lot of unreleased material that your fans would be interested in hearing. Have you all ever talked about putting together an archival series?
No. I've brought it up sometimes, because occasionally we'll have a reissue and Domino will say, "What can we put out with this? Any live material? Any demos?" There are a few demos that I've pushed for over the years, because I like hearing bands' demos—I'm into it. Growing up as a Pavement fan, in the '90s they often played stuff live or in Peel Sessions before you heard the studio versions. I always enjoy having that, and for some of our songs we have demos that sound radically different.

There's a demo of "Pulleys" that's really different from the album version. I love it and have brought up to Dave a few times, "Why don't we just put out the 'Pulleys' demo? Can I play it on my radio show?" But for the songwriters, that's not what they want to present to people. Animal Collective always has this push-and-pull within the band and even within ourselves. How much are we inspired by Sun City Girls or the Residents, where there's a real mystery to what you're listening to? But we're all big music fans and record nerds, and we like the minutae. We enjoy both sides of it—feeling like something is magic, and hearing behind-the-scenes stuff. I don't think we've ever really known what direction we've wanted to go. Sometimes we wish we never told anybody anything and remained really mysterious, and sometimes we feel like we have one foot in and one foot out, so what's the point? We have fans, we're lucky to have fans that are interested in the minutae, let's include them in it. After 25 years, I don't think we've settled on an answer about the way we want to be.

Going back to a band like Pavement, you get almost nothing from Steve Malkmus. He doesn't sit there and talk about the minutae, even though he might be the one where you're most curious hearing their perspective—so he can remain a mystery. But then you have someone like Bob Nostanovich who will go on every podcast that invites him and tell you every single thing you want to know. Maybe there's a way to satisfy both camps. When it comes to demos, we're still not sure how much we want to pull back the curtain. We probably have less than you think, because we don't live together. There are a ton of demos, I'd say, by necessity—but sometimes they just sound like lesser versions of what was released. For something like Merriweather, where things were written to samples and loops, we can't tell how interesting the demos are. Band time is often so precious to us, so if we're gonna work on something, it's because we want to bring it to some sort of fruition. As a band, I don't think we have tons of songs you've never heard.

This is the fastest you've put out a record since the 2000s, when all of you were in New York and creating at a very rapid pace.
We recorded this almost two years ago now, and it was the earliest we could make it happen post-COVID. Everybody was vaccinated, this record was done to tape until the very end, and Russ doesn't use plug-ins, so for him to do that he needs studios with certain gear requirements. We had to find a studio that worked with our schedules and that we felt safe working in. We did have all these songs after doing Time Skiffs remotely that we felt really passionate about, and we were playing them live and we knew our fans knew most of them already, so we wanted to record it as quickly as possible. We knew that if we sat on them any longer, we'd lose the passion. So this record was tracked and rough mixed before Time Skiffs even came out, and then while we were touring we finished the mixing. It's been ready for a while.

It would've come out sooner, but if you talk to Domino...we just don't make it easy on them, or ourselves, when it comes to how much we're putting stuff out, whether it's solo stuff or Animal Collective records. We want to put our film scores out on vinyl, Dave reissued Spirit, Noah and Pete did their thing, and Dave had been sitting on 7s for two years as well. It would've come out sooner! But it was recorded and released as soon as possible. It wasn't solely just to clear it out, but we do have a lot going on. All of us are doing solo stuff that we're really into. Dave and I have New Psychoactives that we made a record for while soundtracking our friend's art installation, and we put it out on cassette and sold it on tour. We know that there's a limit to how much Domino can put out, but also to how much people can pay attention to us these days.

We're all really excited about working together, but the projects aren't always treated the same way by the public. Josh and I did another film score this summer for a documentary about the construction of the jetty at Rockaway, and it was a project that we loved working on. But we're not naïve. It's not the 2000s anymore. Not every single thing is going to make headlines, and people aren't gonna eat up every single thing we do. Putting out Isn't It Now? so quickly, even as it wasn't as quickly as we wanted to, is to make room for the other projects we're excited for—even if they're not "albums" that get all the press attention. To us, there's not a huge difference. Some generate cash and you have to satisfy contract requirements, which requires more scheduling—but to us, it's all work. That's the Animal Collective ecosystem.

You guys do have a fanbase where they will potentially eat up everything you put out.
Yeah, I'm not referring to them—just the general public. But we're actually learning more with this than we've ever learned before. I wouldn't say we're cocky people, but we got confident in the 2000s where we didn't play by a lot of the timeline rules. Domino would say to us, "We're not gonna fund another recording session for at least a year until the last one came out, because we want you on the road and touring." The press has a natural ebb and flow. Somebody covers you one year, but if you put something out eight months later, those same publications aren't gonna cover you again. But we never listened or played by the rules. We were recording Merriweather four months after Strawberry Jam came out, and we had to go to Domino and say, "Can you pay some bills for the recording studio?" And to their credit, they were like, "You know, we ask you to follow you by the rules, but you prove us wrong. Generally, it seems like people care and like it, so sure." They broke their own rules, essentially.

Now—and it's just a function of being around for a while, and younger kids aging into the world of dialogue and consumption when it comes to music—we're not their generation's band. My son hears me play music all the time, and I say, "Do you like this?" And he goes, "It sounds like a good song, it just doesn't sound like my generation's music." He wants something that feels like his. I don't know if it's a function of that, or we are really just learning now that if you're not critical darlings, there are certain rules you're expected to follow. "Don't put something out in the same year that you've put out solo records and the band put something out the year before—readers don't want to hear that much from you."

In terms of the press we're doing for this record, it's not a normal press cycle. It's much more laid-back. [Laughs] There's way less interest. And it's not like they're saying they don't like the record—or, at least, they're being polite and not saying that. Even scheduling this with you was so funny. We literally had to be like, "When was the last time you talked to Larry? Four months ago? Six months ago? Eight months ago?" And I literally had to be like, "OK, I'm up, but I did speak to Larry for Time Skiffs." And Josh was like, "Well, I spoke with him for Time Skiffs, too." And Dave was like, "I spoke to him for 7s," and Noah was like, "I talked to him for Reset." (Editor's Note: Noah has actually been on the newsletter twice as well.) We were like, "Why does he want to talk to us? Isn't he sick of us at this point?"

Tell me about cancelling the tour the last time around. How do you guys feel about going out on the road at this point? It seems like it's different for everyone and changing all the time at this point.
I just had to cancel a show today because of COVID.

Are you sick right now?
No, but someone else in the bill was. It was supposed to be a house show in Brooklyn. Once somebody got sick, everyone was like, "The show could still go on," and then someone was like, "I know a lot of people in New York with COVID right now. Are we gonna make people mask?" I have this tour with Dave coming up, and I didn't think a basement show before I went and joined a tour was the best idea. Everyone else on the bill felt the same way. It was very triggering, to be honest. I thought my body forgot COVID touring anxiety.

We're not touring this record. Touring takes a lot for Animal Collective when it comes to rehearsals and start-up costs, and that last tour was gonna lose a lot of money anyway. We're no longer popular enough in Europe that we can tour the same way we do in America, and we have to take some responsibility for that by scaling back a bit. But we were gonna ask the label for tour support while scaling back, and it was going to be break-even at best—and if someone gets sick, we lose a lot of money. And we lost a lot of money last year from the North American cancellation we did. You want to still pay your crew—they can't just go get another job. They're not getting publishing royalties. The bus company can't rent their bus out, so you still gotta pay for that too.

It was exhausting. Playing was really fun—we love being onstage, which is why it was also really sad. We didn't even know COVID was gonna be a thing [again], but the solo touring we are doing is easier. You don't have to schedule rehearsals, and if you get sick it's all on you, you're not ruining it for the band and your crew. So we knew going into this record that we were not ready to tour as a band again. Last year was a lot, mentally and physically. Noah didn't get it, but the rest of us got COVID on the road. It lasted a couple of months for me before I could even walk a few blocks to do errands without sitting down. We're not ready to start booking, and these days you have to book eight to twelve months out, so a few months after we cancelled that European tour, we were like, "Are we even able to think about this again?" And we weren't, so we just made a decision back then.

The record may suffer in terms of its visibility, because touring brings attention to a record, and we're all really sad about that because we feel so strongly about this record, but we couldn't jump back in with the effort required to make it happen again so soon.

It sounds to me like you guys aren't necessarily done with touring completely—it's just changed a lot when it comes to booking tours in the future.
Yeah, definitely. Those conversations haven't really even happened yet. I still play house shows and warehouse shows solo, and it's just so much easier to prep for. Even what Noah and Pete do, which are big shows, they both live in Lisbon. For them to go to band practice is not really a thing, or to tour Europe for that matter. They can carry all their samplers in their suitcase, they don't need a drumset or amps. There are ways that the solo tours can happen where all the stressors are removed, but I don't know if that's even possible with Animal Collective. It's just about finding out when we have the time and energy to devote to those tours, and a year after the last tour, we just didn't have it in us.

Tell me about the financial realities of being a musician at this point—especially because you've been doing this for a long time. What's shifted for you and the band?
There's a side of that I don't want to get too far into, because you're talking to someone who's been very lucky. I don't want to throw my lot in with a lot of independent musicians who came of age during the streaming era. We were really lucky that we signed a long contract before streaming was a thing. You don't have to pay advances on royalties back—you only pay them back on record sales. It's not like a record label can come and say, "You didn't recoup that advance—write us a check." At least, not on our contract. That contract lasted through Time Skiffs.

We don't get the kind of advances we got in the past. We can't live off of making records, but it's been a while since we could—at least as a band, since we split things however many people play on a record, and we pay our manager and stuff like that. However, there was a time when we could. I still don't have a day job, and because the 2000s were successful enough...I'm not a millionaire, never been one, but it was good enough that, with my wife working and getting health insurance through her job, I have a couple of years before I would need to panic. Not everybody can say that. We were in the final era of a band getting royalty advances pre-streaming, that doesn't exist anymore.

So that contract's expired now, and we don't get anything anymore that would come even close to supporting me. My solo project is not lucrative in the slightest. [Laughs] I spend more on gear than I make from the shows. But if Animal Collective's not touring a lot or selling a lot of merch, I don't know how I'd make it as a musician. I don't just do it for the money—most of the scoring work I've done has been for no money at all, I just love doing it so much. I think that's why you're seeing so many people scoring now, though. Everybody's trying to do it because we're all looking for new ways in the streaming economy to make a living on music without being on the road. But, again, I don't like to put myself in the same class of a musician who really struggles—who has to have a day job and quit it when they're on tour and come back and find a new job. That's the reality I see a lot of younger musicians living, and I have no idea if I'd be as tough as them. I don't like to speak as an authority. I can speak to my experience, but plenty of people have it a lot harder than I do.

Isn't It Now? is part of a new deal with Domino, but the deals are different than we've done in the past. The last one was for four records, this one is not. It's not like there's anything wrong with the relationship. Domino's great to us. I'm sure every label complains about their bands, and every band complains about the label, but I count myself lucky—just like being in the band. We've all been friends for so long, and sometimes we get in arguments on tour, and our crew or the support band in the van will be like, "I don't think you guys get how lucky you are. You're complaining about someone you work with and create with for 30 years. I don't have that in my life. Be grateful for that and shut up." Our manager says that about Domino, too. She says, "I deal with a lot of record labels, and I don't see them trusting other acts the way Domino trusts your instincts. The reason why the contracts are different is because nobody has any idea of where this industry is going.

As far as misconceptions about Animal Collective that you've seen from the music press or online discourse, has anything stood out to you as particularly grating?
I don't look at it a ton anymore. I don't mean to say that dismissively of music media, I just don't really use social media, so I don't see a lot of comments. I don't visit our message boards anymore. I'm grateful that all that stuff exists and that people are interested enough to talk about us, but you do see too many misconceptions and it's better not to talk about them.

Amongst our fans, the misconceptions aren't anything that's offensive. I think there's the idea that we have a lack of sincerity, or accusations of laziness or phoning it in. Those kind of things always bother me, because we work really hard and put a lot of thought and effort into it. I think about Painting With a lot, because that was one of the albums people disliked the most. I don't think we had any idea that was coming. [Laughs] Seeing the reaction to that, "Oh they just got together and phoned it in, they did goofy sounds," there's a point in which I'm like, everyone remembers that we like musique concrète and analog synth records, right? One of the things that brought the band together was listening to Morton Subotnick. Why is it a surprise?

I started to realize a little later that we had such a blast making Painting With that that influenced things. The touring was so much fun, too. But we never played those songs live before we tracked them, so it was a case of what I used to worry about. We always played songs live before recording them, and I felt that helped the songwriting process. You learned that if you outgrew ideas after doing them every night, they weren't worth keeping.

With Painting With, we played those songs together privately for a while, but they became a different beast after the record came out. Maybe there were just different vantage points to look at those songs from. Maybe they didn't have to just be three minutes! When we played "On Delay" live, it was six minutes long, and maybe that was a better version. I kind of got why, for us, we had a goal and a blast working on that goal, so it felt like a huge success, but people weren't a part of that experience with us. They just got the results. For other records, they were part of the process with us as we were testing things out live and they were hearing how things developed. Maybe it didn't feel as abrupt to them. But yeah, "They just showed up and made a bunch of goofy, annoying noises." To me, I'm like, "That's what I've been doing in the band for 20 years!"

On that tour, we were like, "We haven't played 'Taste' in a long time," so we had to listen to it, and we realized that if you took the reverb off of it, it sounded just like it would've been on Painting With. That was the only difference I heard. But after I saw different sides of the songs live, I realized, "These things I did here I could've done better on the record." And I can't say that about other Animal Collective records, because things had gotten to a point where I felt pretty good about what I was playing. But I don't think that record sucks like everyone else seems to do. [Laughs]

You mentioned your son's musical interests earlier. Tell me more about that.
My son's really musical, but he doesn't listen to a ton of music. He plays piano, and he picked up a clarinet recently and just figured it out, and he started playing the saxophone too. He makes beats with an Akai sampler. Up until recently, he hasn't been interested in listening to popular music, but I took him to this performance space in D.C., Rhizome, that does experimental stuff. A friend of mine is a teacher who helps teenagers set up shows, and if they can't fill out a band, he and other teachers act as the backing band. One of the guys in it is Jim Thompson, who was in GWAR. I heard they were gonna do a show, and one of the Fugazi guy's daughters was in one of the bands—it was three 16-year-old girls, and I brought my son to the gig because I wanted him to see a house show.

Maybe he shouldn't be getting this message from a parent, but I couldn't help myself to be like, "I want you to see that teenagers don't need permission to make shit." So we were just watching these girls rock—they're called Birthday Girl—and they're only a few years older than him, and he sat right up front and he loved it. I went downstairs the other day and I heard him listening to Arctic Monkeys. I said, "You listen to Arctic Monkeys?" He said, "It just came up when I searched playlists for indie rock from this century." I don't think he wants to go back as far as the '90s. [Laughs] He was like, "The algorithm is also recommending the Strokes, do you know them?" I was like, "I know 'em."

So in the last two weeks, he's been asking me to turn him on to some indie rock. I wanted to put some stuff on for him that were records I had in the '90s, and he noticed that the production value for '90s indie rock did not sound as slick as it does today. [Laughs] I was like, "Yeah, indie rock has gone through some changes in terms of its popularity and sound quite a bit." He could hear the difference between a Guided By Voices song and a Snail Mail song, in terms of production. It's been interesting to watch it happen. He asked me to add stuff I grew up with to his playlist, so I put Dinosaur Jr.'s "Freak Scene" on it, and watching him interact with that one lyrically, as a 13-year-old, has been really cool. I'm not always a lyrics person, even though a few people in my band are very lyrical people, but the lyrics of that song are simple and amazing when it comes to talking about friendship groups, cliques, and scenes. Watching him get affected by lyrics written 30 or 40 years ago has been really cool to see.

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Jamie Larson