Animal Collective: Famous & anonymous

Posted: October 02, 2012

TWO AVOCADOS. Dozen eggs. A bag of dates. Brian Weitz slips these groceries into a canvas tote emblazoned with teal bubble letters: ALL TOMORROW'S PARTIES CURATED BY ANIMAL COLLECTIVE.

It's a souvenir from a music festival that his band helped organize in England last year. He's in one of the most critically adored groups on either side of the ocean, but Weitz walks the aisles of a D.C. market unrecognized. "We're big in a very small bubble," Weitz said. "But, yeah, I like the anonymity."

And that anonymity is surprising, considering the blowout success of Animal Collective's "Merriweather Post Pavilion." "Merriweather," named after a Maryland amphitheater, was a triumphal gob of hallucinogenic pop music, crowned the best album of 2009 by Pitchfork, Spin and the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop critics' poll.

Acclaim riled the curiosity of the band's already ravenous admirers. Who's behind this wondrous stuff? But Weitz, who moved to Washington in 2004 to work on Capitol Hill, has tried to keep a certain distance, insisting that he and his bandmates are mere dudes.

"We're just normal people," he said. "But, at a certain point, you can't hide who you are. Or the fact that I watch sports."

Animal Collective plays the Mann center tomorrow. It's something of a homecoming for Weitz. He spent his childhood in Philly - he's still a Flyers fan - before the family moved to Baltimore when he was a teen.

When the band headlined Merriweather Post Pavilion for the first time last summer, there was a euphoria that seemed twofold. Face-painted hordes danced on the lawn, while the band members onstage played a dream-come-true gig. They grew up catching concerts here in the mid-'90s.

Around that same time, Weitz, Dave Portner and Josh Dibb first started crossing paths in the hallways of the Park School of Baltimore, Md., an arts-friendly private school where Grateful Dead tie-dye was kosher with the dress code. Dibb introduced his pals to the band's fourth member, Noah Lennox, during junior year.

By summer 2000, the core of the band had relocated to New York and began jamming in a tiny Manhattan apartment. Weitz was studying at Columbia University, where he would earn a degree in environmental biology, and later, a master's in public administration in environmental science and policy."My goal was to do lobbying for conservation organizations," Weitz said.

By 2004, Animal Collective's reputation was bubbling, but the band members still needed day jobs. Other guys in the group earned their wages as record store clerks and art handlers. Weitz moved to the District for a fellowship working for the Senate subcommittee on oceans, fisheries and the Coast Guard, whose ranking Democratic member at the time was Massachusetts's Sen. John F. Kerry. Weitz would tour with the band when Congress was in recess. When he got home, he kept quiet about it.

"There were already articles in the New York Times about us dropping acid and stuff like that. I didn't really want anybody Googling me. I was really, really paranoid about it, actually," Weitz recalled. "I just didn't want to lose the job. Kerry was running for president. He was the head of the subcommittee. I didn't assume I'd be important enough for anybody to point me out, but . . . I don't think the tolerance for taking LSD is too high on Capitol Hill."

Even with his teenage psychotropic experiments long behind him, Weitz still didn't want to jeopardize a career that had barely started. But when the fellowship ended in 2005, he dashed off to Seattle to record the Animal Collective album "Feels." Then the band was offered a spring tour of colleges. Then some summer festival slots in Europe.

"It just never stopped," Weitz said. "I'd ask myself, 'What am I going back to? To put on a coat and tie? I'm 25. I don't have a kid. I might as well just do this.' "

Weitz stayed in Washington but hasn't returned to the Hill. Animal Collective's popularity continued to billow, peaking (so far) with the rapturous response to "Merriweather."

But life became more complex for a band that still seems uncomfortable with attention. "Animal Collective - it was always based on our friendship," Weitz said. "We're not super social people. I don't really go out that much. A lot of the guys in the band get social anxiety. We're just kind of shy, and we've always been sort of a little insular unit."

They've always used stage names. Occasionally, they perform in costume. Lennox is better known as Panda Bear. Portner is Avey Tare. Dibb goes by Deakin. Weitz was nicknamed Geologist by a friend who mistook what he was studying at Columbia. Onstage, he wears a miner's headlamp.

"We always wanted our music to seem a bit mysterious and a bit detached from reality," Weitz said. "To put on masks and have these names, it's this loss of ego . . . If we sort of turn off who we are in everyday life, we'll feel totally uninhibited."

Which might be why Animal Collective concerts have always playfully pushed toward delirium. There's lots of instinctive improvisation and plenty of mush-mouthed sing-alongs, all anchored in puddles of sweet electronic goop. Portner and Lennox do most of the singing these days, while Dibb plays guitar and Weitz holds the fort behind a fleet of keyboards and samplers.

When they aren't on tour, the band is spread across the planet. Lennox lives in Lisbon, Portner just moved to Los Angeles and Dibb resides in Baltimore, where the quartet recently convened to record their new album, "Centipede Hz."

"We sort of cut ourselves off from people telling us what they want to hear from us," Weitz said. "It's always been more fun that way."

Animal Collective, with Micachu & the Shapes, Mann Center for the Performing Arts, 5201 Parkside Ave., 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, $33.50, 215-878-0400,

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