Animal Collective's Josh Dibb and Brian Weitz on Influence, Togetherness, Intimacy, and the Future

Animal Collective's Josh Dibb and Brian Weitz on Influence, Togetherness, Intimacy, and the Future
Animal Collective courtesy of Hisham Bharoocha
Animal Collective courtesy of Hisham Bharoocha

‎Animal Collective are one of my favorite bands from the last 30 years, and over the course of my career I've developed an easy rapport with all four of them. (Longtime newsletter readers will probably remember the interview with Noah "Panda Bear" Lennox that I published last year.) Talking to them feels like catching up with old friends at this point, and I was very pleased to hop on Zoom with Brian "Geologist" Weitz and Josh "Deakin" Dibb last month to talk about the band's fantastic new album Time Skiffs, as well as a host of other career-spanning (and world-encompassing) subjects.

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How much did the pandemic affect finishing this new record?

Brian Weitz: It was all written and arranged already, we just needed to go into a studio. We were ready in early 2020 after spending a month together to arrange it in 2019. We were ready to go, and then this happened. We waited a few months, hoping it would pass, we did the Bridge to Quiet EP, and it was more fun [working remotely] than we thought it would be. We all prefer to be together, but we were like, "This is possible." We picked the songs that wouldn't suffer if they were played with a click track guiding us, and everything was done remotely from home studios—except Noah working on some drums with an engineer in Portugal.

What has the pandemic been like for you guys?

Brian: My pandemic had ups and downs. I don't like talking about it too much because it involves my family, and their experience is their experience. Doing a lot of teaching with the kids was not easy, and we don't have a big house. Eventually we got into a rhythm, but it was intense. Working on music was definitely a balm.

Josh Dibb: It was a little different for me. When we realized we couldn't go into the studio, I took on some carpentry work. I was working on a pretty intense historic restoration job. It was pretty intense, working outside in the winter and having to wear a mask. That was coupled with working on the Bridge to Quiet EP, and I was so busy that I ended up interpreting what we'd previously recorded in improvisational sessions through mixing.

There was a heavy period where I felt like the world was falling apart, and I needed to be working so hard as a carpenter, and we were getting the EP finished, and I didn't know when we were gonna see each other again. We hadn't made the decision that we were gonna make the record remotely, so I was worried that the energy behind this music we made was gonna get lost because so much time was gonna pass. There was a lot of uncertainty. Any time we had any discussion about getting together, it was like, "How's this gonna work? What's the impact on Noah and Brian leaving their families behind?" Juggling the logistics was more intense than it was before.

Josh, tell me about working as a carpenter.

Josh: It's a huge part of my life. There's two sides to it. One of them is practical. During hiatuses from the band, it's helpful for me to have another source of income. But I really love carpentry, too. It's something I got involved in during my early 20s, when I first moved to New York. It builds support to and counters what music is. With music, you start with a song idea and the options are basically limitless—and that's an amazing feeling, but there's so many options that you could go in any direction at any time.

With carpentry, there's a problem that needs to be solved—you need to get from here, to up there. What needs to happen? A staircase needs to be built, what are the ideas around doing that? Then you can find ways to create aesthetic beauty in ways that are pleasing to you and other people. There's a meditative sense of purpose in carpentry that I find really valuable in my life. For me, it's been a training ground to build muscles that I don't think I necessarily had, but I apply to music now—and in my life in general.

Time Skiffs is one of the most linear and loose records you guys have made in the last decade. It's almost disarmingly straightforward. How did it come to life?

Josh: Every time we start a record, we set up limitations and make decisions in advance to create a musical world that will give us focus, so we can stay in a process of discovery, too. The most fun thing for all of us is being able to find something that surprises even us. That's why we "reinvent" ourselves every time we make a new record. If we keep doing what we've did, it'll feel like old hat to us.

Noah really wanted to focus on playing drums, and there's more of a focus on classic technique. He wanted to keep it simple with a standard trap kit and focus on his technique in a more nuanced way than in the past. For me and Brian, there was a lot more interest in jazz music in general. Dave committed to playing electric bass, which opened up a simplicity in arrangements as well as embracing some basic ideas. That left a lot of space for me and Brian to fill in the middle. I decided to focus on playing piano instead of guitar, which I'd never really applied in a serious way to the band. That really changed my approach to feeling like what's possible.

How did it feel to make an entire record remotely?

Josh: The sessions in 2019 felt very physical—we were really following our own sense of tempo, so it was really integral to feel like something we were doing in a room. So there was a terrifying element of having to do it remotely, that all of that was going to go out the window. But because we'd spent so much time doing that already, that feeling was already built into the songs, so it was just about calling that back.

Brian: It took a lot longer. There were tangible positives and negatives. It became an open-ended process. If we were in the studio, we would've been constrained by a budget and how long people are going to be away from their families. Sometimes that goes really well, and sometimes it's stressful.

When we used to finish records, I'd listen to them a lot before anyone else had heard them—when they still felt private. I'd listen to them and be like, "This is great! I'm in my favorite band." Now, I never listen to them again. I don't know why I value it so much when it's private rather than public.

With this record, I haven't listened to it except for practicing for shows. It was nine months of remote tracking and mixing. Little decisions turned into emailing a file, downloading it, having Zoom or text conversations, sending it back. But that also allowed for certain things that weren't in the original arrangements, like the hurdy-gurdy and sounds I was making with my modular during the pandemic. So sometimes the overthinking led to improvements, but it led to fatigue at the same time.

People think we've done this a lot. I talked to a lot of friends who were like, "Isn't this how you always do it? You haven't lived in the same city together for twenty years." That's a big misconception. It happens in the demo process, but nothing's ever finalized until we're in a space together. There was a fear to it. Is it gonna work? Are these songs that we feel strongly about going to suffer because of it? But it felt good to see it through.

Josh: One of the things I found for myself, with the pandemic in general and specifically as it relates to music, is this idea of gratitude. All of this stuff that we've taken for granted for so long is tenuous, at best. Going into the process, I was aware of how easy it would be for it not to go well. I felt like we, as a group, were collectively taking deep breaths to get through the process. I'm a reactive person, and it's so easy to get triggered by something going not how you want.

I look back at times when I've been on tour, which I've always loved doing, and focus on how tired or hungry I was, or if you're not emotionally aligned with someone in the band for a day or two and things feel weird. But you realize it's all part of the journey, and you lose the reactivity. As a group, we learned to have patience with each other instead of pushing really hard for three weeks. We got to do [the latter] in December, and that's also great—but I felt like that I had a choice to be defeated, or to take a deep breath and realize it was the best we could do. To me, that translated into the music, and I felt like all four of us were in that place. This was what it took.

What was it like to come together and physically play together again?

Brian: It was great. We did a month in the summer of 2021 of getting together and playing before a few shows. My family came with me to where we were rehearsing, and the friends we were staying with were like, "What was it like to play in the same room again? Were you at the verge of tears?" I'm just not that kind of person, but it felt awesome—like slipping back into band practice. It almost felt like no time had passed at all.

Going back onstage for the first time, it felt really emotional right before we went out, and then I had the normal experience of playing a show. Maybe I just didn't try hard enough to take a breath, but I got wrapped up in it. It felt great, and I was grateful, but I kept expecting this overwhelming thing to happen and it just felt like getting back into it. We'd been doing this for 20, 25 years. The last two years just felt like a time warp, and then I came out of it. I thought I was gonna feel differently—not better, but just more surreal than I actually felt.

Josh: The only difference to me was my own trip of coming back to this place of gratitude. I felt reflective about stepping out on stage for our first show in Asheville, really trying to soak it in in ways I hadn't in the past. It was an active exercise in making myself do the thing that Brian's talking about. But it was meaningful. It washed over me. We didn't know what was going to happen after those shows, and I feel that every day now. We have a tour booked in March, and I assume it's going to happen, but I really just don't know. I find myself really compelled to remember how precious those moments are, and to absorb them in a really full way.

I stopped drinking four years ago, and that was a very notable thing when going on stage after I did that too—feeling different, and more loose. It was the same kind of thing, where I was really conscious about what was happening and what was meaningful to me. Playing shows again last year was just another version of that to me.

I'm reminded more and more these days, more than I ever have been, about how important 1992-1999 was. It was a stretch of time where we made an incredible amount of music that only us heard. That feeling of getting a Come Winter tape from Dave and Brian, or an electronic tape from Noah, or sharing something that Noah and I had recorded—those moments of listening back was what it was all for, and in some ways that's what it continues to be all for.

I think that's why it's confounding to some people, the choices we make as a group. For me, what I want is for Dave, Noah, and Brian to be psyched. I want to see them energized by what I'm doing, or what we're doing. We all feel that same way, so having to deal with putting the record out...I want you to be psyched, Larry, I want the fans to be psyched, I want to feel like what we're making is what people want to come and see us play live, but it's different. Once you let it out in the world, there's no longer the joy of, "Man, listen to this crazy thing we did in the basement."

Brian: Well, the process is over at that point. During the pandemic, I came to realize how important the process is of making music over the result, to me. That's when it feels the most special. When it's just us sharing privately amongst the four of us, I still feel like we're in the process—a weird in-between zone. When you send it out to press, the process is officially over. Then it's about the results—until we're on stage again. Then I love interacting with the songs.

I've talked to you guys throughout the years about influence, and typically with anything you guys have done I've thought, "Well, this sounds like them." But I also know you guys like the Grateful Dead, which I hear in Time Skiffs melodically.

Brian: Josh was the first one to mention to me that the first chord progression on the record is evocative of "Fire on the Mountain." A lot of people have mentioned the Grateful Dead and I've been like, "Really? It doesn't sound like the Grateful Dead to me." It's jammy a little bit, and looser, but the Dead have also been totemic since the early days, so that doesn't feel any different to me.

Josh: I always feel a huge resistance when influence comes up. Yes, there are things that influence the direction, but when I think of influences that affect any record we do, they're micro moments. It's never, "Let's make our big Dead jammy record." I'll hear Jerry for a second, and then I'll hear Scott Walker for a second. There's tons of harmony groups not limited to the Beach Boys that I hear, but people just say "the Beach Boys," and there's so much more to it than that.

I'm so much more interested in the alchemical ways of our myriad influences. It's never, "Let's do our African song." There's so much in the pot that it's hard for me to respond to any one thing in the list. It's too limited to me. But I've listened to the Dead for years, they're incredible. They've definitely popped in there, but this isn't a Dead record to me. You're not the first person to say that, though.

Brian: When we were in Europe in the 2000s, we found it funny that European  journalists felt like they were on to something that American fans and journalists were not. They were like, "You guys come over here so much because we get you, and Americans don't." And we were like, "No, that's not the case at all. We have a huge fan base in America. We talk to the American media a lot. Everyone is always appreciative and kind." Well, not always, but we'd have to assert this identity about being comfortable being an American band. We don't come to Europe because that's where we feel accepted.

So Dave and I showed up to a songwriting session with Josh and Noah where we'd been talking about what it means to be an American band. Noah was like, "What do you mean?" And we were like, "We don't know what we mean." So he started to tease us a bit. If Josh was playing a riff that sounded sweet, we'd be like, "It's sweet how you did that Indonesian riff," and Noah would look up from the kit and say, "That sounds so American."

It was a joke initially, but as the record progressed—and I'm making a connection here that maybe doesn't exist, just because we're in conversation—but maybe the Grateful Dead thing is connected through some subconscious thing about American music? I'm not even sure what American music is. America just kind of borrows from so many other places, that's what we are. We're such a collage culture. The Dead were doing the same thing—they weren't purely a San Francisco blues-rock thing, they were different from the Airplane or the Blues Breakers. They were pulling from all these different places.

I have to say, every time I've mentioned what your music sounds like to you guys over the years, it feels like touching a hot stove. Even when talking about your music to other people now, I usually resort to, "Just go listen to it."

Brian: We were on the Sung Tongs tour in the early 2000s, I'd just come back from living in Arizona and my job hadn't started yet, and Dave and Noah were like, "Just come on the road and hang out." So I sold t-shirts and smoked and drank. I was at the merch table, and they'd held up a Wire review of Ark and said, "I came to the show because of this. What is this shit?"

We'd showed up in Detroit and were already friends with the Wolf Eyes guys who saw us play the noisy shows around Danse Manatee and Hollindagain, and they saw Dave and Noah soundchecking with the acoustic guitars and were like, "What?!" After the show, they were psyched, but they were like, "Why aren't you going up?" I was like, "I was away for a year, they wanted to play these acoustic songs," and John Olson was like, "That's a bunch of bullshit, man. Get up there and make a racket."

I remember telling Dave and Noah about these things. "It's like people are hearing the records that are out right now, and they're expecting this noise-rock thing and whatever bands are in our one-sheets. They're confused about what the two of you are doing up there." We had a laugh about it.

The last time we spoke, we also talked about climate change and a sense of dread that feels more palpable now. What's your outlook on the world? When you look in the distance, what do you see?

Brian: You wanna get dark first, Josh?

Josh: That's a heavy question to end on. I don't know if I have a good answer. If you don't have anything good to say, maybe don't say anything at all—that's how I feel right now.

Brian: I don't know what to say about the state of the environment right now. I don't have a whole lot of hope. But I don't know how to live without hope, either. My only hope can be my children. My daughter's second grade class has been writing letters to the city council, and the kids had to vote on shit. "What bums us out most about our neighborhood?" "Litter." There's these small micro moments.

Josh recently said to me, "Didn't you get this sense when we were kids that we'd find out about these problems and feel that the grown-ups are on it?" Now we're finding out that they weren't. But the state of the world, and the environment...I don't know what to say, I just don't. Maybe the biggest hope is that America isn't going to be in the lead anymore. If we get left behind, God bless it if other people have better solutions than we do at this point. Maybe my hope will come from outside our community.

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Jamie Larson