Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Danny Perez & Animal Collective present: ODDSAC

In Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange music is wrongly considered by Alex’s captors to be nothing more than “a useful emotional heightener.” During the experimental Ludovico Technique, the soundtrack to the disturbing images that they show Alex in conjunction with their cocktail of passion-numbing drugs is a mere afterthought. Testament to the power of audio-visual synchronicity, however, is the consequent sickness Alex feels towards the soundtrack’s 'Ludwig van', whom he previously worships. In short, the point is that film and music are inextricably linked.

The difference is that, seated in the Mint Lounge back in May, there’s never the suggestion that OH Productions have coerced the gathered audience into attending, nor are they using (or do they require) arcane tools to keep eyes fixated on the screen. And it’s not a given that pictures should fit snugly with the sound (or silence) of the same moment, but music can certainly conjure emotions and images in the mind’s eye. Add swirling, hypnotic visuals and you have an idea of elements of ODDSAC, a collaborative project between filmmaker Danny Perez and the New York-based buzz band Animal Collective, whose 2009 album Merriweather Post Pavilion has been gazed upon by an approving public eye; affording them considerably more attention than a previously cult following.

But the project might not have happened at all if it weren’t for the rapport between Perez and the band, who’re still as camera-shy as ever but were looking for a way to incorporate their music into film without falling into the trap of predictability and mild, watered-down enlightenment that can be the rockumentary. Animal Collective’s Dave Portner (aka Avey Tare) elaborates: “as a band we’re not very comfortable having cameras around, but we’re comfortable hanging out with Danny and we’d done some videos with him, and we liked the stuff he’d done with Black Dice. So we just started throwing around ideas, such as, um, a vampire rowing on water...! Like what we talk about when we’re writing music – everything kind of comes from mutual ideas anyway, so it’s just nice to take that into a further realm.”

There’s the clear succinctness of shared listening and viewing habits, with Animal Collective providing the score to suit a film specialising in moments of surreal peril. Indeed it is the often improvised acting and abstract storyboard that sets the tempo, as Avey Tare explains, “we didn’t write any of the music until we’d watched the footage, so it was all kind of inspired by the live action stuff at first, then some of the more effective stuff came after that.”

Persuading actors to take on challenging, conceptual roles that range from ‘woman struggling to fend off a tarry wall’ to ‘family choking on expanding marshmallows’ and ‘cultish face-painted pelican people’ isn’t necessarily the easiest of tasks. But the loose, improvised vibe allows for individual interpretation, and there are even select cameo appearances from the US independent music scene, with Animal Collective’s own Noah ‘Panda Bear’ Lennox and Tickley Feather’s Annie Sachs testing their theatricality.

Danny Perez: “Annie Sachs, yeah this is a little bit of ODDSAC’s trivia – she’s a friend of ours in Philadelphia. There were four girls but you’ll notice that one of them I virtually cut out... It’s like, really – I couldn’t work with her; her performance is too bad! You just see her arms every now and then – there were four people and you hardly ever see the fourth person’s face... but two of them were actors and two of them were just friends from our neighbourhood and that woman [Annie Sachs], who I didn’t know too well at the time actually. I thought she had a good look, I thought she had a natural, dancing girl type of quality...”

Perez laughs off the alienation his techniques may bring and puts any differences down to experience: “it was difficult, it was really bottom of the barrel as far as the talent, I mean I’m happy with the performances, but the audition process was really ridiculous, like, ‘you want me to do what with the marshmallow?!’ So, I’d say... two thirds of the people I work with who’re put in ridiculous scenarios stay in touch and the other third never talk to me again!”

The film has had an effect through early viewings, one way or another. There are a couple of shock-inducing edits, exaggerated by added sharpness to the score and the presence of menacing characters, the influence for which is pinpointed by Danny Perez: “we had talks about the vampire. At one point they wanted me to go for the more traditional, widow’s peak type vampire and I wanted to go for a more Nosferatu, Herzog style vampire. His robes are like the religious robes that the clergy wear, but I think there’s a lot of influences – I was certainly influenced by a lot of old German expressionist films. There was definitely a nod to that...”

Portner adds that, “there was one fan who said they had nightmares for a week after!”

“There was one girl in Chicago who told me she was diagnosed as a lucid dreamer when she was younger,” Perez reveals. “She said it brought back a lot of the things that had, like, entered her brain... I mean, yeah, the way it moves, the way it’s formatted – it sort of follows a dream logic and that was certainly intentional.”

There’s a painstaking precision to much of the score, and Portner cites influences such as John Carpenter and Frank Zappa’s Burnt Weeny Sandwich film when composing, but the soundtrack remains undeniably Animal Collective in its strata of feedback, distorted harmonies and psychedelic operatics.

“Well, for the more abstract stuff, we pretty much had to watch the footage as we cut it,” Portner recalls. “Like the long ambient one before the kaleidoscope thing – we actually took a long time with Danny in the studio to just watch it and make some changes; take that there, pull that there because the sounds really get messed up, you know? It was a lot about letting the structure and the scenes shape the way the songs are formed – even the more song-y ones, like the first song was kind of structured that way around the visuals because the way I wrote the original melody it was way too long, you know, we didn’t want it to go on for that long so we ended up cutting all these different parts together in the studio rather than a song that we would normally play together live... None of it was played live – it was all completed in the studio.”

It is a project that’s been four years in the pipeline, but will still be one met with a raised eyebrow by a post-Merriweather fanbase. There are moments of the more palatable chorals synonymous with that latest LP, but it would be more surprising for Animal Collective to ride on the wave of their newfound mainstream recognition, than to continue with their own unique vision as seems to be the case. Reminders of the older, sketchier feedback distortions are frequent, and will likely remain so for the foreseeable. Whatever the response to ODDSAC, they’re certainly not following the Ludovico Technique’s lead by coercing an audience into the auditorium. There may be more than a fair share of disturbing scenes and tension-building music to match, but nobody’s stopping you from hiding behind your sofa, and the side-effects that A Clockwork Orange’s Alex (and the lucid-dreaming girl from Chicago) faced are hardly representative of an engaging end product.

Portner is certainly comfortable with their sound, even if others haven’t been over the years: “well I think we’re pretty used to it by now, we’ve been dealing with it for 10 years or so! It’s, um, difficult in terms of our own tastes and different people’s taste, but I enjoy a lot of feedback and all the sounds you can get from that really leap out and get into your ears. With one of our records in particular, we took it to a label and they were like ‘this record’s broken, man! There’s this loud piercing sound on the first track with these dogs running around the room...’ and we were like, ‘really, it’s kinda supposed to sound like that!’”

Avey Tare does see it as a one-off for the band, though, and lowers expectations of future additions to their live repertoire: “we like playing live because of the freedom and I think we’d have to listen too intently to each track; we’d have too many cues because someone would be synced up and it just wouldn’t be very fun for us! It is what it is – we created it to be this thing and not to play along live to it, so I don’t think there’s any point really for us. But that’s not to say we wouldn’t play the songs live...”

ODDSAC is released on DVD in the UK on 16th August.

Words: Ian Pennington
Pictures: Courtesy of In House Press

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