Everybody Hz: Josh Dibb on his return to Animal Collective
On 20 July 1969, as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were making history on another celestial body, a congratulatory message was beamed from Earth to the intrepid explorers. “Be advised, there are lots of smiling faces here and all around the world,” gushed mission control of the historic event unfolding before them. “There are two up here also,” Armstrong replied coolly. Then, from a lonely satellite some sixty miles above the moon, a solitary voice reminded the world of his existence. “Don’t forget about me,” quipped third astronaut Michael Collins as he orbited inside the command module.
Although it’s certainly a stretch, it’s possible to imagine that Josh Dibb of the Animal Collective had something of a similar experience. Back in 2009, the Baltimore quartet unleashed eighth album Merriweather Post Pavilion to unanimous glowing praise. A logical culmination of their previous experimental work but with a more accessible bent, critical acclaim went hand in hand with commercial clout and, relatively speaking, Animal Collective went stratospheric.
However, Dibb, who works under the pseudonym Deakin, wasn’t involved in the writing, recording or touring of Merriweather. It was by no means an unusual situation for the group who operate less as a band than an ensemble, where membership can fluctuate fluidly around a core personnel. Even in the beginning, debut album Spirit They’ve Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished was written and recorded by Dave Portner and Noah Lennox alone, only retroactively becoming Animal Collective’s official debut.
Yet having been integral to lead-up albums Feels and Strawberry Jam, Dibb had certainly contributed to the position the band found themselves in as they undertook what was to become, for many, their finest hour. “I had mixed feelings,” admits Dibb looking back on the period from his New York home. “But on the positive side, it’s really awesome being able to be a big fan, guilt free, where I can just say ‘Wow, that’s really amazing!’. And the Merriweather stuff was amazing.”
Indeed it was, yet Dibb was hardly sitting idle during this period. His list of activities is fairly exhaustive but a truncated list saw the multi-instrumentalist indulge in building homes designed for sustainable living, travelling to a festival in Mali via Kickstarter, producing bandmate Dave Portner’s solo record Down There, remixing for the likes of Goldfrapp, Ratatat and Phoenix as well as running the band’s own label Paw Tracks.
Yet despite any misgivings, Dibb remains assured that he did the right thing. “It was a really tough decision,” he admits. “But I knew deep down that it was the right one. It was necessary for a lot of reasons, some of it to do with music, some to do with how I was approaching my life. I felt like I needed it and I don’t think we’d be doing what we’re doing now if I hadn’t.”
By that Dibb is referring to current album Centipede Hz and its iminent world tour. In contrast to Merriweather, the band’s latest studio album is a sonically-dense affair, one factor which earned it cautiously optimistic praise when compared to its predecessor. “When the reviews first started coming out there were so many of them comparing this record to Merriweather,” he says of his initial reaction to the critical feedback. “We’ve always moved in a non-linear way so I couldn’t figure out why everyone was comparing it like that. But obviously in another way it totally makes sense why someone would relate a band’s new record to the one that came before it.”
In its own right, Centipede Hz is a record that requires patience and repeated listening in order to reap the benefits. It’s perhaps not an issue for long-time fans who have taken sonically boisterous albums like Strawberry Jam to their hearts, but Dibb does worry that committing wholeheartedly to an album these days is not for everyone, himself included. “It’s a really difficult thing to do,” he concedes. “I find myself constantly checking out recommendations [but] the first thing I do is go on YouTube or iTunes and sometimes within forty seconds I’ve made up my mind.”
In contrast, Dibb reminisces about his time growing up in Baltimore as a music-loving teenager in the late eighties and early nineties. “Every month or so I’d go to a record store and buy a few records, maybe because a friend recommended one, or I’d heard a song I liked by a band and just wanted to hear the rest of their stuff. So I’d have these records I’d take home, these records I had invested in. In those days I bought a lot of stuff that I didn’t really get into but I still held onto them. They’d sit there for six months and I’d maybe try it again, still not feel it, then a year later I’d put it on and it suddenly just made sense.”
What also made sense and brought the band full-circle in one respect, was returning to their hometown of Baltimore, where such experiences were borne, to write and rehearse Centipede Hz. Yet while Dibb’s sentiments might hint at a nostalgic yearning behind the relocation for these sessions, he in fact claims the opposite. “I think the actual influences of Baltimore were, oddly enough, darker if anything,” he explains. “It wasn’t so much a joyous homecoming. It was a bit too familiar and we had this weird nostalgia where we felt we were coming back to something we thought we had left behind.”
Reminiscence is of course anathema to Animal Collective who have been pushing themselves and their fans with each subsequent release. More accurately, the move to Baltimore was a case of geographical necessity rather than any sort of pining for past experiences. With Dibb located in New York, Dave Portner in Los Angeles, Brian Weitz in Washington and Noah Lennox all the way over in Lisbon, a central meet-up has become ever more essential for the disparate group.
“Every writing session we’ve had since Noah moved to Portugal in 2005 has been really condensed, usually before a tour for a week or so,” explains Dibb of the creative process pre-Centipede Hz. “We’d just make a song every two days then go on the road and play them. That’s been the norm for us for six or seven years, so this was really our first time since Noah leaving where we were together in the same place, working most days for long periods. I think that aspect of it was, maybe not nostalgic, but it was a return to a way of writing that we hadn’t done for a long time.”
Such sessions are likely to become more commonplace for the band as they juggle increasingly complex lifestyle and musical commitments, but it’s something Dibb feels rejuvenates rather than depletes the long-time friends. “We’re trying to figure out how to run the band in a way that doesn’t impact on our families,” he explains. “Early on we experienced what it was like to live and work together all the time and it was a bit claustrophobic. We really feel this way has a lot of benefits for us as long as we make the time to get together. There’s actually a lot more drive and creativity coming out now because each of us is able to spend time on our own projects, so when we do get together, there’s a lot of energy.”
It’s an energy the group are gearing up to take on the road once again, but this time they’re feeling a little more like sharing the good vibes. Notorious for playing ultra-new material even on the back of a recently released album, the experimental quartet have drawn praise from the more avant-garde sect of their fanbase while receiving criticism from those who wouldn’t mind hearing a few tunes they actually know, thank you very much. This time though, Dibb is unequivocal in the band’s approach for touring Centipede Hz.
“This will be the first tour where we’re strictly playing the new record,” he promises. “There’s something really beneficial in playing songs that unite people, to feel like they’re part of a shared event. It’s the new thing for us to do. Playing lots of new stuff and not the songs on the record has almost become formulaic for us. So it’s fun and interesting to go in the other direction a little bit.”
Even when playing it straight, there’s something a little off-beat about Animal Collective. Just don’t expect this to herald some kind of predictable malaise for the band. “It’s really hard for us to anticipate where we’ll be in terms of our next creative burst,” assures Dibb. “We don’t like sitting in one place for too long. We’re all just really restless. There’s a part of us that feels that once you’ve done something, then it’s time to push towards new horizons.”