Words by Anton Spice
As established and widely acclaimed as Animal Collective are, this is not all that surprising. But Weitz is not here to retell the storied twenty-year career that has taken him, Josh Dibb (aka Deakin), David Portner (aka Avey Tare) and Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) to the upper echelons of experimental pop. Instead, he and Dibb are on a video call unpacking something altogether less familiar - the group’s latest foray into film composition on
Elegance Bratton’s directorial debut, The Inspection. “To have to shift our mindset to be in service to somebody else's vision was a new process for us,” Weitz admits. And so, for the first time, Animal Collective got notes.
Like the band, Bratton’s vision is singular and all-encompassing. Based on the director’s own experiences, The Inspection follows Ellis French, a young, gay Black man kicked out of his mum’s house in New Jersey, as he seeks direction, opportunity, and a degree of belonging at a boot camp for prospective US Marines. The prejudice he faces is at times underhand, at others life-threatening. “Most movies made about marines are just bullshit” barks French’s chief tormentor Leland Laws. This one feels brutal enough to be believable, full of violence so extreme it verges on the surreal. It is a claustrophobic experience watching French find his feet, but not one without salvation. The score responds in kind.
Opening minutes aside, the entire film plays out within the strangling confines of the military training centre, pulled tight by music that, like many A24 productions, is woven into the sound design and refuses to let you settle. Bratton said he wanted Animal Collective to blur the lines between French’s inner life and the external realities he endures. And so, as French undergoes a transformation, so do the marching band drums that suffuse early scenes dissolve into a kind of gospel-influenced mantra that accompanies the stirring finale. “This recruit does not know how not to piss you off”, French fires back at Laws, his sense of self stronger than ever.
But for the end credit song, penned by serpentwithfeet, all the music belongs to Animal Collective. Weitz and Dibb describe the process as one of iteration, working and reworking different influences – NYC’s gay club scene, no wave distortion, hip-hop instrumentals – through their own inimitable filter. Then there was the added element of negotiating what kind of “Animal Collective” sound they would bring to the table, balancing the need to satisfy Bratton’s expectations with their own tendency to originality.
When you move a compositional element around and it lands on a certain cut or an emotional beat, it just links in this way that gives you chills.
The Inspection may be the second score to which they have put their name, following Crestone in 2020, but it is the first to really confront them with the reality of the craft. Despite their shared love for film, Animal Collective are learning to swim in new waters and sometimes that can feel a little like drowning. On the one hand, a degree of frustration, moments of confusion and a seemingly endless back-and-forth with a boardroom of film execs they’d never meet. On the other, the sense of achievement, enchantment almost, of hitting the brief.
“Those moments when you move a compositional element around and it lands on a certain cut or an emotional beat, it just links in this way that gives you chills,” Weitz says, with the enthusiasm of someone who is just starting out. Which in a way, they all are.
The Inspection is not yet in cinemas. How does this moment compare to the feeling you have before the release of an Animal Collective record?
Josh Dibb: I wouldn't say it's the same. One of the things I really like about this process is that it's very different from releasing our music as a group because, at least speaking for myself, my own ego is much less involved in it. I understand that in this case, Elegance [Bratton] was interested in our voice being part of what was in the movie, but I really saw our role as more that of craftsmen who go into a situation and try to understand the emotional, visual and storyline elements. I have a familiarity with how to use sound, music and texture to represent some of those things, so let me try and serve that.
At what point of the production process were you brought in?
JD: We were brought in at the end of last year  to start talking to Elegance before we'd even seen footage. I feel like the early stages of it were just conversational, beginning to demo stuff and throw paint at the wall. We’d be like 'if this is what you want, what about this?' and then he would pivot and be like 'maybe actually now I want this'. A lot of the initial process was about trying to find what the palette and the themes were going to be.
One of the things I really like about this process is that it's very different from releasing our music as a group because my own ego is much less involved in it.
That does sound like an act of service. Responding to someone in a collaborative way as much as leading the creative process yourselves.
JD: I'm also a carpenter and I compare this a lot to what I do when I'm working for a client and it's like, ‘well you want trim around your windows and doors, but what do you want that trim to look like? Do you want it to be painted, do you want it to be natural wood?' It's more about reading what someone wants a room to feel like and supplying the craft than it is about coming in and saying, 'this is my vision for the room'.
What kind of sonic themes emerged from those initial conversations?
Brian Weitz: Elegance sent us a very detailed playlist initially, which was really diverse. It ranged from the score for Bram Stoker's Dracula to Three 6 Mafia. One influence he came back to a lot was Ciccone Youth - Sonic Youth doing ‘Into The Groove’ by Madonna. He really wanted something that would represent specifically gay dance culture, but also New York punk and feedback. For a lot of the scenes, it was like ‘OK, can we find some sort of resonant feedback mixed with percussion?’
Although this is the world that Ellis French comes from, it’s not one we see much of in the film. It’s as if the score contains the ghost notes of his life before boot camp.
BW: The original script that we read did not all take place at boot camp, there was a lot more in New York City that was taken out. So in the original conversations it was about turning a military film on its head, because it was going to be contrasted with scenes from Christopher Street and the Christopher Street piers.
The studio kind of went back and forth between wanting a more traditional military movie score - like brass and marching drums. It was a question of how to bring in some of this no wave, hip-hop, punk stuff that Elegance responded to from life in New York and have that make sense in the military world, even though it would be playing against type.
With this project, we were really in service to the narrative and had to be open to notes.
You certainly get a sense of the military presence in the percussion, but another influence that comes through is that of gospel music. I've read Elegance Bratton talking about how French is trying to find a new religion and that this references a sense of spiritual belonging. In terms of both the process and the palette, did you find it invigorating to be operating outside of your comfort zones?
JD: Sometimes yes and sometimes no.
BW: To me, this was such a learning experience because the previous film that we did [Crestone] was more experimental and very collaborative. We would be given footage and we would score it, and then it would almost help lock the picture. Whereas with this we were really in service to the narrative and had to be open to notes, where they might say 'this piece and this piece just feel like two completely different composers!’
And we needed to hear that. There are all these different flavours and colours in our music and when we collect them under the name Animal Collective and put them out as a record it makes sense simply because we frame it that way. It was helpful for people to tell us that was not the case this time, that it needs to have more cohesion, it can't distract people from the narrative or the acting. And so, for us, who are very early in our composing careers, to hear that was invigorating in a challenging way. Initially, you just feel rejection, but then when you nail it, it's definitely an emotional experience that I don’t always feel when working on a record.
How did you get from those conversations to a finished score?
JD: We got back [from tour] and the studio had hired Missy Cohen as a music editor to get it done. We got on a Zoom call with her on day one, which ended up being a seven-hour long notes session, at the end of which she was like, ‘I think there's really amazing stuff here, but we have 12 days to finish this.’ And it was easily 30 days of work. Brian and I were the only ones who had time in our schedules to devote to it…
BW: And I had Covid.
JD: Full blast Covid. And we're being told we have 12 days to pull off an amazing feat. It was that which ended up being the most invigorating. I think I learned more in those days about the process of score composition than I had in the previous months or even on the previous score that we had done. It was incredible and I feel really proud of it. Missy should take almost as much credit as us for really helping to solidify a shape and a focus for the score.
Missy Cohen [the music editor] should take almost as much credit as us for really helping to solidify a shape and a focus for the score.
Despite the ups and downs, to what extent is this something you want to keep doing?
BW: A large extent! We loved it. We've worked on two of our own visual projects - one was ODDSAC the visual album and that was very much a similar thing. There were songs that were written but then there were also moving compositional elements around to land on certain visual cues. Even when we make records, we often talk about visual narratives or visual images that inspire a song or a mix of a song.
I’ve read Elegance say he listens to Merriweather Post Pavilion twice a week, in full.
BW: Way more than I listen to it…
With that in mind, how do you negotiate the expectation to bring an “Animal Collective” sound into this new context?
BW: I think Animal Collective is so broad, it’s a hard question for us to answer. Often when we've been asked to bring something Animal Collective-ish into something, one of the first questions is, which Animal Collective are you talking about? Are you talking about Merriweather? Are you talking about the early years? Are you talking about certain people's solo projects? We have to ask those questions in pretty detailed ways to get at the core of what someone means. At one point we were asked to score a Bradley Cooper movie…
JD: Limitless, I think it's called.
BW: The more questions we asked the director, the more he said, 'I like Merriweather Post Pavilion and I basically want stuff that sounds like you just bounced down instrumentals of ‘My Girls’ and ‘Summertime Clothes’. It was after the Merriweather era had ended and we were really tired of composing music that way with loops and samples. We realised we might be turning down a huge opportunity, but the idea of recreating slightly different versions of stuff we'd been doing for the last three or four years just seemed so torturous. That's an example where somebody knew what they wanted out of Animal Collective and we realised that we couldn't give it to them.
The idea of recreating slightly different versions of stuff we'd been doing for the last three or four years just seemed so torturous.
From your perspective then, what kind of artistic continuity is there between a film project and an Animal Collective project?
BW: The thing I like the most about it [scoring for film] is getting to express the things I don't get to express in Animal Collective. Crestone was a perfect example. I used to live in the desert in Arizona. I don’t know how to play pedal steel guitar, but I've often wanted to make an ambient, atmospheric country record and Crestone allowed us to do that. I kept saying I finally got to make the solo record I'd wanted to make.
And I remember Dave [Portner] and I talking when we were doing the early demos [for The Inspection], that we'd actually never done an Animal Collective project that sounds like early New York no wave or hip-hop. Is there a way we can put an Animal Collective spin on it that would push us into making a quote-unquote Animal Collective record we'd never made before?
Unlearning and then rebuilding with a new set of tools.
JD: Yeah. As a group that's kind of been our MO for 20-plus years. Wading into waters that we're not used to, getting in a little bit over our heads so that we can find something that comes from a place we’ve never been before. And once that starts to become too comfortable, it's time to try something new. To me, that's exciting and falls in line with the theory behind the group in the first place.
The Inspection was released in the United States on November 18, 2022. It will be released in the UK on February 17th, 2023.
Animal Collective’s Official Soundtrack for 'The Inspection' is available to listen to here.