word "jam," and many music fans think of hippie granddaddies
the Grateful Dead, or Phish and its patchouli-scented ilk.
But there are other ways to approach improvisation in rock
The group heard on "The Velvet Underground Live, 1969" is
a jam band. So are Pink Floyd or German psychedelic
art-rockers Can, the early Stooges or freak-folk legends the
Fugs. There's a little bit of all of these groups in the New
York quartet Animal Collective, but hardly any Grateful
"We never really strived to be the most accomplished
musicians in terms of technical stuff like guitar solos,"
says bandleader Avey Tare, aka Dave Portner. "A lot of times
you hear the words 'jam bands' and you think Phish or
something like that, because they tend to jam, and when you
say 'jam,' it means 'rock out.' We would never want to do
anything like that, but at the same time, it's kind of like,
'Well, how can you do something like that with sound?'
"We were really into Pink Floyd when we were younger in
high school -- we were just inspired by how they could not
worry about playing the instruments so much, but would
improvise large portions of their sets. I think just because
we like writing songs and melodies so much, we reached a
point in 2000 or 2001 where we improvised a lot over long
periods of time together, just sitting in our apartments and
making stuff up on the spot. But at the same time, we were
thinking, 'How can we incorporate more of a song structure
in this so we won't always have to rely on improvisation?'
It's hard a lot of times to just go onstage and improvise a
On its sixth and seventh albums, 2004's "Sung Tongs" and
2005's "Feels," both released on the independent Fat Cat
Records label, Animal Collective wound up with a striking
sound that is loose, freaky, psychedelic and often very
free-form and experimental. At the same time, songs such as
"Did You See the Words," "Flesh Canoe" and "The Purple
Bottle" are full of effervescent pop hooks, bringing to mind
ork-pop peers like the Arcade Fire and the Decemberists, or
the Elephant 6 bands (Apples in Stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel
and the Olivia Tremor Control) of the mid-'90s.
Avey Tare/Portner and his fancifully named bandmates
Panda Bear (Noah Lennox), Geologist (Brian Weitz) and Deakin
(Josh Dibb) are high school friends who met in Baltimore and
casually played music together in various combinations as
they scattered to attend college in different cities.
"We never had a serious band until we all came to New
York in 2000," Portner says. His first D.I.Y. recording,
2000's "Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished," was
just him and Panda Bear, but the others soon joined in for a
series of prolific releases.
"When we started making records, I didn't think anybody
currently was making anything as good as [Pink Floyd's] 'The
Piper at the Gates of Dawn,'" Portner says. "When Noah and I
made 'Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished,' I just
wanted to make a record that sounded like that, but also
sounded very current -- like what was happening today,
instead of us trying to make a '60s psychedelic record.
"Now I think we're trying to work with what we have to
make new and interesting sounds, and hopefully people who
are into psychedelic music or whatever appreciate what we're
doing. ... For us, it's all about some sort of natural
progression forward, and just feeling like we're going to
Recent touring has found Animal Collective benefitting
from a growing indie buzz, and the excitement is fueled by
the fact that its last two albums have been its strongest.
"Every record to us is kind of like its own individual
project," Portner says. "Sometimes I feel like I'm more
influenced by films in that way, like how a director's film
seems like its own statement, and you don't really think
about it as related to the last film that he or she made,
even though there might be some similarities between the
"For 'Feels,' it was just a good time for all four of us
to work together again, because it had been really difficult
the last time because of the time and place in our lives. We
didn't have much money, and we were balancing work and
writing songs and trying to get together to play and work on
stuff. ... Now, it feels really good to play the 'Feels' and
'Sung Tongs' stuff live, because it takes on a completely
Which brings us back to jamming.
"We never want to be slaves to a set list, where we feel
like we can only be happy if we get up and play everything
like we planned to," Portner says. "We don't want to be this
band that gets up there and repeats the same thing over and
over again every night, so every night we play something
different. We'll make a list before we go out onstage, but
we're always up for 'whatever happens, happens.'"
Dig it, man.
REASONS FOR LIVING
The indie-rock scene loves to coin new subgenres, and you
may see Animal Collective and kindred spirits such as
Devendra Banhart called "freak folk." But there's a long
tradition of uniquely twisted psychedelic folk-rock, and
here are some of my favorite examples.
The Fugs First Album and The Fugs Second Album
(Fantasy): Beatnik poets from the Lower East Side drop acid
and wax poetic/scatological on tunes such as "Slum Goddess,"
"Swinburne Stomp," "Frenzy" and "Group Grope," all famously
recorded during one long bacchanal/jam session in 1965.
The Best of the Incredible String Band, 1966-1970
(Warner Special Marketing): By far the strangest and most
unjustly forgotten artists to perform at Woodstock, the
Incredible String Band mixed the ancient mysteries of Celtic
folk music with the new discoveries of psychedelia for a
slippery and seductive sound on albums such as "The
Hangman's Beautiful Daughter" and "The 5000 Spirits or the
Layers of the Onion," which are well represented here.
Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
and On Avery Island (Merge): A much more recent
example, Louisiana-bred songwriter Jeff Mangum released
these two brilliant, bizarre and absolutely unforgettable
albums in 1996 and 1998. Ever since, he's been missing in
action, but the cult keeps growing, and with good reason.