Animal Collective‘s 11th album, Painting With, is out today (Feb. 19). A predominantly ebullient collection of experimental synth songs with layered harmonies and tribal beats, Painting With contains more blatant pop culture references — an audio snippet of The Golden Girls opens one song, for instance — than ever before from the long-running indie demigods.
Painting With finds the group returning to a trio (the same lineup as on 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, their best-seller to date) after bumping back up to a quartet for the dark, anxious Centipede Hz in 2012.
Sitting down with Billboard, Avey Tare (David Portner), Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) and Geologist (Brian Weitz) reflected on why Painting With is a “brighter” album than their last, how dinosaurs factored into the making of this LP, why they wrote “FloriDada” to defend the state against its haters, and how aware they are of what their dense music can sound like to uninitiated ears.
When did you guys start working on Painting With?
David Portner: We started talking in January  and that was when these two were like, “let’s write a batch of songs.” So we came up with 16 total and it started getting passed around end of March, early April. We all got together in May in a basement studio rehearsal space in Asheville, NC, for 12 days to play. We’d all heard [the songs] at that point. There was still a lot of work to be done, but everybody knew the songs at that point after the emails with the demos.
You made Merriweather without Deakin [Josh Dibb] but then he returned for Centipede Hz. Was there a point he was involved with Painting With but dropped out?
DP: Only the initial conversations like texts and stuff, “What are we doing next year schedule-wise?”
Noah Lennox: Once the real work started, we knew it was going to be three of us. We went into the songwriting knowing he wouldn’t be in it.
Did that change the album? Painting With has a brightness that reminds me of Merriweather, whereas Centipede was a darker album.
DP: I don’t think the brightness or darkness has anything to do with Josh per se. That happened to be the nature of the time with Centipede and how we did it. The process of Centipede was more grueling — not negative, but tiring. The way we all uprooted and went to Baltimore. And a lot of emotional stuff, at least for me, happened personally in that time, so that put a dark twist on everything. But Josh as an abundant guitar player, that’s what changes things the most. It’s a big presence when he’s playing with us, so when he’s not there, it’s either a definite space there or a space that needs to be filled with other stuff.
Why wasn’t this album as grueling?
Brian Weitz: We had gotten into a groove when Noah moved to Portugal. Everyone writes on their own tine and sends demos around. Merriweather was the first time we did that. That let the songs sink it and give people ideas. Centipede Hz, we intentionally gave ourselves… I don’t know if we knew it would be an uphill climb, but it was, “Let’s show up and start with nothing.”
DP: Like Brian said, it was a harder process than this one. Every step. But when we went to Asheville everything came together, the sounds came together, it was laid back, easy going. We’re all in our comfort zone. With Centipede Hz, we weren’t, and that made a difference. And I personally was in a happier place this last year. And I think that was reflected in the songs. I didn’t want to write any songs about inner turmoil because I felt like I’d used the last couple records — [Avey Tare’s] Slasher Flicks and Centipede Hz — to do that for myself. And Merriweather dealt with those themes, too. So I wanted to focus on other feelings.
I’ve heard this referred to as your 10th album and your 11th album. Which is it?
BW: I don’t even know if it’s our 10th or 11th depending on how you count the Hollinndagain. But to me it’s the 11th, and I’m not even a part of all of them.
This album has more straight-up samples than you usually hear on an Animal Collective album. Most notably there’s the bit of the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out” on “FloriDada” and audio from The Golden Girls on “Golden Gal.”
BW: This one has more recognizable samples. I think it’s just those two that are that recognizable, but the way they’re used was a conscious decision this time. I think it was Noah who pointed it out, Dave and I are really into collage stuff, and on this record it was like, “Let’s pick moments in the songs where everything just stops.” Insert a standalone sample or standalone sound. And not necessarily as jarring as the “Wipe Out” one, and we had to talk about not overusing that trick, but select a few moments to do it on the record. It’s a different way of thinking about collage. In the past I’ve used a lot of samples, we all like sampling. Not even other people’s music but making samples that are textured or ambient. In the past we’ve made them as a blanket, weaved into the tapestry. But it’s rare that we’ve done it where the sample breaks through the song. Where it’s like busting through a piece of paper.
There’s also some audio I couldn’t place, a reporter talking about dinosaurs on the highway. Is that from a movie?
NL: It’s from KCRW, a radio station in L.A. We talked a lot about dinosaurs when we were in Asheville.
BW: We had dinosaur movies playing on a loop in the studio [while making the album].
NL: Old ones, a little bit of the first Jurassic Park, a few clips, but old mostly ’70s animatronic, Dr. Who stuff. Anything that had primitive dinosaur makeup. There were a few documentaries about the end of the dinosaurs, too.
BW: Christopher Reeve movies. Dave’s sister edited it into a file. She made us a few reels.
BW: Some people were like “I don’t understand what that dinosaur sample is” and that was kind of the point. The radio host was transitioning from talking about dinosaurs, maybe how much money Jurassic World made, and then talking about traffic. We were listening to it going to the studio and heard it and thought, “Whoa.” We knew if we took that in isolation it would be a funny thing. So we looked at the time on the clock and when we got to the studio I sent an email to our manager and said, “She said this sentence on KCRW at this time and we want it.”
What about “Golden Gal.” Is that song actually about the show?
NL: Sort of. The heart of the song isn’t about the show, but my friend told me a story, or the fact that Golden Girls was a big show for her growing up; that it had a big effect on her as a young lady growing up and influenced her a lot. I thought that was inspiring. But since I wanted to write the song about gender roles and the feminine role specifically, I thought that was a good twist. I like the Bea Arthur character specifically, all the sarcastic remarks are really funny.
BW: My wife and her friends watch it a lot.
DP: It reminds me of being young.
Did anything else specifically influence the album?
NL: It’s hard to talk about specifics other than stuff we were talking about when we were texting back and forth with ideas. We talked a lot about cave people. I had a vision of a lot of people dancing around a big bonfire or something.
BW: Techno drum circle, primitive rhythms, but done electronically.
NL: We wanted to do really short songs as taking inspiration from early punk records, specifically the first Ramones record. We know the music [on Painting With] doesn’t sound like that, but as far as having a record that doesn’t have any slow moments, we just cranked out the stuff. That was a pretty explicit inspiration. The other stuff is hard for me to talk about, at least personally, to get into specifics. Because I feel like we’re always trying to mask the influences. If we feel it’s a copy of something else we’ll try to get rid of it or mutate it so it’s harder to trace the origin. So it can be difficult when people ask, “What are the records you are listening to?”
Is it a fear of being “caught”?
DP: No. For us, if we’re doing something someone’s done before, it doesn’t sound good for us. So then we’re like, let’s try to do it a different way.
NL: And sometimes it’s stuff we’ve done. If it reminds of us something we’ve done before, we’ll try to change it.
BW: That’s how we approached reverb or vocal effects on this record. Especially because on this record we felt we wanted to the vocals to be crisper and have more defined edges, so it helped that we were also in a mood of “I don’t want to hear the band sound like that anymore.”
The vocals are densely layered. I was listening to “The Burglars” and my girlfriend asked if I was listening to three songs at once. Do you ever feel like you have to pull back, like you’re overdoing it?
DP: For us, we know the limit. With a mix or arrangement or a song structure, you know the magic place, the happy medium. In mixing there’s a way we can mix a song where we think, “That sounds cool, that sounds psychedelic, but let’s tone it down a bit.” We really started to do that with Merriweather. Maybe it was because we were mixing with Ben [H. Allen] and he’s a little more pop-minded.
NL: He’d say, “As an outside ear, I can tell you guys this doesn’t makes as much sense as you think it does.”
DP: But I think in general, our outlook on it is that it’s totally normal and tame, but then you play it for someone else and it’s like, “You guys think this is your minimal record?”
BW: To an outside ear, it might be exhausting. [mock seriousness] I hope your girlfriend comes around.
On “FloriDada” it’s like you’re finishing each other’s sentences.
DP: That was something we talked about doing. We didn’t want there to be a lead. The lead was made up of two parts completing each other’s thoughts or melody.
NL: That was another one, talking abut influences, the cave people thing and trying to write music for two voices. It wasn’t a traditional main vocal part and then subsidiary vocal part. The two voices working together crated one unified part. If one of the voices wasn’t there, it would fall apart.
DP: The song is also inspired by hating on people from Florida.
NL: Not that we do that, but a reaction that other people do that.
DP: And just being negative to people, creating the separation of “you’re here, I’m here.” “I’m from the north,” “I’m from Texas.” I heard a radio show where there was a segment like “What are the dumb people from Florida doing right now?” and then a series of ridiculous stories. So yeah, it made me want to write a song like, “Why can’t we get rid of these boundaries?” We’re all living here together, especially here in the United States. That’s what my experience is. Also I love Florida.
So it sounds like ancient history, dinosaurs and cave people, were a sort of touchstone for this album.
DP: I watched a TED talk the other night of a woman who studies cave paintings, and she’s discovered there are like 20 something symbols that are seen universally in every ancient cave painting. And they’re vague. And most of them aren’t even like “Oh that’s the sun.” She wants to prove it’s a type of symbolistic communication that people don’t really acknowledge right now. Usually you think about the animals, but there are actually other things that seem confusing but are in every cave painting.
The title Painting With — where did that come from?
BW: That started a long time ago as a joke where Dave —
DP: It wasn’t a joke.
BW: Well, we thought it was a joke. He had the idea… we were never that series about the name Animal Collective, and for Strawberry Jam, he was like, let’s change the band name. And the band name he wanted at that time was the Painters.
DP: Animal Collective was always supposed to be that way.
NL: With Campfire Songs, we thought of ourselves as Campfire Songs. That was the last time we thought of ourselves like that.
BW: And FatCat [Records], when we were working with them, was like, “Horrible idea, your CDs need to be in one section.”
DP: I thought an alternative title to the Strawberry Jam album could have been The Painters, thinking of us as the Painters.
BW: When we send demos to each other we come up with fake bands names or fake albums. And on this one, Noah referenced this old joke — no offense, Dave — and said, “Oh, the Painters are back!” And then afterward we started fixating on that word paint. It is very painterly.
Do you come up with identities for the fake bands?
BW: Only one that ever had a concept was Centipede Hz. The initial names of the songs, before we gave them real names, were people we went to high school with that had interesting sounding names
DP: And for Centipede Hz we saw ourselves as an alien band. That’s how we wanted to present the music. Which people probably say about a lot of our stuff, but for this one specifically it was true.
NL: Kind of like the band in Star Wars — the cantina band.
DP: That song was a big inspiration. [laughs]
BW: Star Wars dominates my life right now. My son studies it in Lego catalogs, he knows who all the characters are, but we won’t watch it. My son is too scared to watch it. We put it on with his grandparents and popcorn, but after Darth Vader appeared onscreen, it was quivering lip, “I want this off,” and Curious George time.