For Animal Collective's early shows, the electronic-folk foursome wore surreal furry costumes onstage -- but it wasn't just an arty affectation. "It's a way of not being self-conscious," says drummer Panda Bear (a.k.a. Noah Lennox, 27), who is still very uncomfortable in large crowds. "I had a panda mask my girlfriend made for me out of black and white towels, and [singer Avey Tare] had a ribbon bandanna connected to leaves that looked like they came out of his eyes." Even though the band rarely plays dress-up anymore, the Collective's sound is still awesomely weird, swinging from mystical, raga-style jams to glorious Smile-era Brian Wilson psychedelia.
Panda, Tare (Dave Portner, 26), programmer Geologist (Brian Weitz, 26) and guitarist Deakin (Josh Dibb, 27) got together when they were in high school in the mid-Nineties. Drawn together by a shared love of Pavement, the Grateful Dead and horror-movie soundtracks, the kids started making music in their families' suburban Baltimore basements. By 2000, the group had relocated to New York, where it holed up in a Brooklyn loft, honing its sound during weed-fueled free-form jams. "We'd just turn on the mike and go," says Deakin. "And what resulted was really clear songs, but completely spontaneous." (Getting high, says Panda, "can bring a different perspective on things.")
Animal Collective scored an indie hit last year with the acoustic-guitar-heavy Sung Tongs; the expansive new follow-up, Feels, is a leap into poppier territory, with tracks like the Arcade Fire-ish "Did You See the Words" and the energetic "Grass," punctured by tribal shouts, birdcalls and samples of rockets whizzing by. "The music has a lot to do with love and loving in our lives in the past year," says Panda. "The others have serious girlfriends. I got married a year ago, and we've got a baby."
The tightknit group is currently touring in Europe (before hitting New York and L.A. in late November), but personal lives have scattered the members across the globe: Tare is in Brooklyn; Geologist is in D.C., working on ocean conservation and environmental policy; Deakin, who is also a carpenter, shuttles between New York and Baltimore; Panda lives with his wife and son in Lisbon, Portugal. But the foursome still finds time to write and record. Says Deakin, "For us, playing music together is happiness."
Animal Collective are set to play a string of U.S. dates: on Sunday, at New York's Webster Hall; on Monday, at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall; and on Tuesday, at Los Angeles' El Rey Theatre.