Hot 97 Was the Soundtrack to Animal Collective’s Origin Story

An oral history of the band’s NYC roots, as told by Panda Bear and Avey Tare.

Animal Collective — the now two-decades-old project of Panda Bear, Avey Tare, Geologist, and Deakin — was born in Baltimore but bred, in part, in New York. Recently, the group returned to NYC to record their latest album, Isn’t It Now, at the Bunker in Williamsburg. Here, Noah Lennox (Panda Bear) and Dave Portner (Avey Tare) talk about how the city shaped Animal Collective as a band, and what it was like to return after so many years.

You can find more of some of our favorite artists on the topic of NYC in the Talkhouse Reader — only a couple print copies left, by the way!
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear): Dave and Brian [Weitz, aka Geologist] were in New York quite a bit before I was, and I think Josh [Dibb, aka Deakin] came even later than I did. They were there in school for a couple years before I moved there. I was there visiting them every once in a while, but I think I eventually got there — what was that, your junior year or something?

Dave Portner (aka Avey Tare): Yeah, I think it was ‘99 or 2000. I went to NYU, and that was kind of my first stay in New York. I have an older sister and she moved to New York to go to Eugene Lang when I was a kid. And so New York to me, via her, was this magical, creative place that I was drawn to. I could go to the record stores… it just offered so much more than we had in Baltimore. And being into Beastie Boys and New York hip hop like A Tribe Called Quest made me wanna go there too, and search out all the Lower East Side spots — X-Girl was super exciting, X-Large. So I decided to go there for school. But I hated it as soon as I moved. [Laughs.]

Noah: School, not the city, right?

Dave: Yeah. Well, it made my experience in the city very different. Because I wanted to see the art scene and go to the clubs, and I was still young without a fake ID. I immediately got a pretty crappy fake school ID that I could get into some places with, so I was able to drink at the Cooler — Brian and I would go to the Cooler a lot, and Tonic. Brian went to Columbia. But yeah, I really didn’t like it, just because I felt really isolated. Though I did meet some cool people at NYU, I didn’t really feel close to anybody there. I missed the connection I had with Josh and Noah and Brian. Of course, Brian was there, so we’d hang out on weekends, but most of the time we would just hang out in my dorm room. This was end of ‘97 into ‘98… Noah and Josh and I would talk every now and then about plans for the future, and we’d write each other [about] how we didn’t get to play music that much together at that time, because they were in Boston and we were in New York. 

Noah: We’d play in the summer. And New York was actually the place I wanted to go — I applied to NYU, but they didn’t want me. But I eventually figured it out. I actually kind of freaked out in Boston — for non-school reasons, more like personal wackiness — and moved to New York to be with my girlfriend at the time, who was living right near Black Betty in Williamsburg in the summer of 2000. I visited Dave and Brian a bunch, and we played shows in Baltimore a handful of times. Had you guys played shows in New York before I got there?

Dave: Yeah, we played a couple shows. There were some people we knew from Baltimore that we would play music with while we were in college, [who] went to NYU as well. And towards the end of me dropping out, there was a little bit of a music scene going on. I met this dude Bill Rauscher. We had a shared love of more experimental music, and contemporary classical music, and noise music. I hadn’t really met anyone else in New York up until that point that was into that stuff, so we started a little club at NYU that was like the experimental music club. We would get together and also have these nights that were supposed to be kind of like a performance — I think we had one or two, but nobody came. I remember this houseless guy came in off the street, just curious about what was going on, and he ended up playing with us for a little bit and we just made the room all crazy. But no one ever attended or anything, it was just kinda for fun. 

Then I ran into some financial difficulties, which I thought would smooth themselves out by me taking time off from school. And at that same time, I decided to move out of the dorms and move into an apartment on Prince Street in Soho that was right next to my sister’s apartment in the same building.

Noah: It was like eight floors up. [Laughs.] 

Dave: [Laughs.] It was on the fifth floor, I think. It was up there.

Noah: I just remember in the summer, walking all the way up there, and by the time you’d get to the top you just were like, dead. 

Dave: So that sort of became like a creative hub for me. Then once the school year ended and Brian was out, Brian decided to move to New York for the summer and get a job at a bird store that was right around the corner from that apartment. And the apartment was just a little studio room and a kitchen; we just had two futons on the floor in there, very minimal stuff. I had a pet frog for a minute, Mr. Raindrops. And yeah, Noah started visiting because he was seeing someone up there. We took the time to jam a lot in that apartment.

Noah: Yeah, we played all the time. When I got there in the summer, I thought maybe I’d go back to Boston in the fall, but I just didn’t. I guess partly because I got a job, and partly because we were making so much stuff, I kinda just never looked back. 

Dave: Noah and I had the same job at Other Music. One of our friends from Baltimore had a job there, and he worked it out that we’d have jobs. Noah and I kinda traded off hours, so there was usually a time during the afternoon where both of us didn’t have to be at work, so we’d practice or just mess around. It was really just like improvisations we started doing. Because Spirit [They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished, the first Avey Tare and Panda Bear record] was finished — that I finished right at the end of school, I think, and we had everything pressed and ready to go soon after Josh and Noah moved to New York — so we kinda had moved on from that vibe. As much as living in New York informed Spirit, it felt very Baltimore, to me at least.

Noah: I know what you mean. [It was] indicative of our experience in Baltimore, making music. It was tied to that era for sure.

Dave: It kind of was the grand finale of doing what we had done in Baltimore. And once Noah moved to New York, it felt like we needed to mess around with something new. I think a lot of that had to do with the people we started meeting around there. I met Eric Copeland from the band Black Dice — we had class together at NYU the last semester I was there, and I met the band through my sister, going to one of their shows. That started to feel like a very vibrant time for DIY stuff in New York. I mean, I’m sure it always had been. [But] suddenly Williamsburg kinda popped up and put Brooklyn on the map, and just became this place people started talking about. Eric from Black Dice lived there, close to this bar Enid’s. That was one of the only bars that people were going to there at that time. It still wasn’t really developed.

Noah: There was nothing out there. And they had their practice space out there, too, right? On North 4th, that we eventually went to?

Dave: Yeah, they shared a practice space with the Rapture on North 4th and Berry. And it was just a big warehouse building filled with practice spaces. I think TV on the Radio had a practice there, Battles had a practice space there.

Noah: It was really desolate, though, at the time. At night there was nobody around. It’s not like it is now. 

Dave: It’s a different world now. And it was a different world 10 years prior to that, a lot more dangerous I’ve been told. And just really cheap, and that’s why artists started to move there. But we would walk to the subway at 14th Street on the weekends, and head over there to Enid’s. It was like a noise rock scene. I think the band Lightning Bolt and Black Dice having ties to the RISD/Rhode Island art scene started influencing a lot of things. Because Lightning Bolt had been around a couple years and playing in New York. That time for me — it was very punk and DIY, so in that sense, it felt very fresh and energetic. But what they were presenting, wearing the masks and just being super noisy, really started pushing the energy in a different direction, in terms of possibilities for us at least.

Noah: It felt like a new energy, a new type of thing, and at that point, we were also trying to present something new in some way. It’s funny, I feel like over the years we’ve been lumped in with a bunch of different bands, but never the groups that we felt we were close to, or that resonated with us, which would have been Lightning Bolt, Black Dice, Gang Gang Dance, maybe later Excepter. Even though we didn’t necessarily sound so much like each other, those were the bands that we were playing with that resonated with us, or made sense to us, I guess.

Dave: They were also just people we would hang out with and could talk to about music. It just turned out we all liked old psychedelic music, and that was really what was influencing us. And then at the same time, we were all interested in noise and sound and where music could go in that direction, since it felt like, in a lot of ways, rock and more traditional stuff was getting kinda tired out for us. We were wanting to do something that felt different, felt new. And that energy was definitely the impetus for heading in that direction, for sure. 

At first there was definitely a learning curve. We had never been a live band, and being in New York and having all the venues around and meeting people that were setting up shows, it suddenly became like, “OK, well, now is the time for us. This is what bands do, they play shows.” We were really interested in recording, so we spent our formative high school years just primarily focusing on recording. Because we were underage in Baltimore [we couldn’t] even get into most of the clubs that you could play a show at. And all the other ones were kind of just rundown places that would only be open for a month or something, and then get shut down. So New York felt a lot more like the opportunity was there for us to become some kind of live band. The first year was us just trying to figure out what that was, what that would sound like, and how we related to this scene we found ourselves in.

Noah: Isn’t the first show that we played there a Campfire Songs show?

Dave: The first show I played there, the band was called the Gentle Band. That was when I was still in college, and that was playing with Brian and my girlfriend at the time. I played some Spirit songs, and we played a Campfire song, too — “De Soto De Son,” I think, before it became that. Those shows were just because the opportunities came up when we knew people in bands. The show Noah’s talking about — the first Campfire Songs we played — the guy we worked with, named Giancarlo, had a band, and they were playing out a lot.

Noah: They were called the Mink Lungs.

Dave: The Mink Lungs, yeah. He asked us to play this show at Mercury Lounge, and we kinda took to doing what we had been working on at the Prince Street apartment, which was mostly acoustic. Which is why Campfire Songs kinda became what it was, because we didn’t have a practice space at that point.

Noah: Well, it was like electro-acoustic, right? Because there was that DX11 or DX7?

Dave: Yeah, DX27.

Noah: We used to get into editing the patches on that to get really weird sounds. And I know we’d record onto minidisc, but would Brian play like, minidisc sounds and stuff?

Dave: Yeah, all we had was my stereo in the Prince Street apartment. So it was janky — just like, plug the synthesizer and maybe some of the sounds Brian had on minidisc. But I don’t think he had fully gotten into that yet. I think it was more like he would just use weird things we had around the apartment to make sounds. Because we would just record into one mic live.

Noah: A stereo mic.

Dave: And it would pick up anything that was happening in the room.

Noah: And you could go for 90 minutes on the minidisc, so we’d just try to fill it up. We had, I don’t know, 15, 20 minidiscs of stuff?

Dave: Yeah. It just became more fun to not write anything for a while and just say, “OK, we’re gonna start now.” And we would play songs, but we’d just play the songs off the top of our heads, basically, and kinda see what would happen, and see how much of a song we could actually make up on the spot. Then once that song felt like we had played it a while, we would start to shift. We just kinda taught ourselves how to do what Animal Collective has done properly now the past decade or so, which is take our songs into each other and improv in between. That was sort of like the gestation period of us playing live in that way.

Noah: All those minidiscs got stolen out of the back of my mom’s Subaru Legacy wagon. 

Dave: That was one of the first lessons learned about New York: don’t leave anything precious in a car.

In parallel with all this other stuff, we had this Other Music crew that was super into minimal techno and dance music, house music. Scott Mou was a really sweet DJ; Todd Hyman would DJ around. Kompakt Records was really poppin’ at that time and infiltrating Other Music. Noah had more exposure to electronic music earlier in life, but I didn’t and it really excited me to start discovering all this stuff and wanting to go out. And that’s kinda how we met Todd Hyman, who we started doing Paw Tracks with, who was interested in Ark [the quartet’s debut record as Animal Collective] and wanted to put it out. 

Noah: Another thing that has to be said is: that era of Hot 97 was so good. Not an influence we talk about a whole lot, but it was the soundtrack to every single time we’d drive to the space, drive home. It was always on. So I feel like it all made its way in there.

Dave: You would hear it on the street, it was inescapable. Something like 50 Cent would just be everywhere. That sound was definitely very influential for that time.

Animal Collective recently returned to New York to record their latest album, Isn’t It Now, at the Bunker in Williamsburg. 

Noah: It felt like coming home to me. I feel like there’s still a part of me that’s never totally left New York. I could definitely see myself going back at some point. Although, that’s more of a recent feeling. But every time I’m there, it doesn’t feel like a foreign place, like a lot of the rest of the US does now for me, just because I’ve been over here for so long. [Noah has been living in Portugal since 2004.]

Dave: Yeah, I feel like it was kinda the best of both worlds. There’s a lot that’s similar. There’s great friends there — and that’s the sweetest part about New York for me at this point, the old friends and the family that are still there. But I feel like a lot of it has changed. And just cities in general for me are not really my cup of tea anymore. But I feel like the fact that we stayed with Brian [Degraw] and Lizzi [Bougatsos] from Gang Gang, there was a lot of it that did feel very familiar, and a lot hasn’t changed. 

Once we got into Sung Tongs [their 2004 record], our main form of income became touring. [Though] I remember Noah and I had a moving company for a little bit in New York, right before he left. [Laughs.]

Noah: We’d use the band van to help people move. 

Dave: And we were really terrible at it, because we were signed up for these jobs [where] people would think we’d have more than a van, and we were weaklings and couldn’t lift stuff.

[But] I think that’s when we started being away from New York most of the time, and just didn’t feel as centered around any kind of scene or anything anymore. Our studio records became more like location records. I don’t think I ever thought we would’ve [come back to New York]. But it just seemed to make the most sense to head to the Bunker.

Noah: [Being called a New York band] feels right to me, insofar as the bands that we felt were a crew with us were all New York bands. To me, it’s as fair to call us a New York band as anything else.

Dave: Yeah. I mean, we always say we’re from Baltimore because that’s where we grew up, and that’s where we met each other and decided to get this thing going. But where we really got an audience was New York, and that came from playing around New York, playing all the clubs. That’s where we paid our dues, and I feel like that’s where we were accepted very early on, very easily.

Noah: Although, not by music people.

Dave: Well, yeah, maybe not by everybody. But I feel like the community that we were around accepted us and really helped us out a lot. And in that sense, I think we owe a lot to New York. And people in the Baltimore scene got miffed at us saying we were from Baltimore, because Baltimore had that music scene that happened when we weren’t there. We’re like, “We’re from Baltimore,” and they’re like, “No you’re not!” [Laughs.]

As told to Craig Heed.

Avey Tare, aka Dave Portner, is a founding member of Animal Collective. Their latest album, Isn’t It Now?, is out now via Domino.