The legendary indie group talk virality, making money, and their new score to Elegance Bratton’s The Inspection – a poetic A24 drama about a gay Black man’s survival in the military
Animal Collective are a band whose hypnotic, heartfelt music conjures up wild, distinctive images. Among their many records, including two visual albums, ODDSAC and Tangerine Reef, the experimental art-pop foursome have tended to release songs intuitively tied to an album cover. Hearing a few bars of “My Girls” or “Brothersport” immediately brings to mind the trippy artwork for Merriweather Post Pavilion, as does anything from Centipede Hz, Feels, or their 2022 LP Time Skiffs with regards to their respective sleeves. I don’t know what a leaf house is, but, by the end of “Leaf House”, I can envisage the architecture in my head.
Yet Animal Collective, who soundtracked the indie doc Crestone, have only been asked twice by directors of studio movies to compose an original score. The first request was for the 2011 Bradley Cooper misfire Limitless (the band turned it down). For Elegance Bratton’s The Inspection, a poetic A24 drama about a gay Black man’s survival in the military, the band loved the script but required convincing.
“It was unexpected,” laughs Brian Weitz, also known as Geologist, over Zoom in January. “I’d have thought horror or sci-fi were more our wheelhouse. When Elegance came to us with this life experience none of us have lived, we were like, ‘Are you sure we’re the right ones to help you tell your story?’ But he was confident, and I’m glad he was.”
Bratton’s semi-autobiographical feature stars Jeremy Pope as Ellis French, a homeless 20-something who’s been disowned by his mother, played by Gabrielle Union, over his homosexuality; joining the Marine Corps, Ellis faces persecution in boot camp when macho recruits discover his sexual orientation. More Beau travail than Full Metal Jacket, the character-study adopts a dreamy, sensual flow, often driven by the evocative textures and rhythms of Animal Collective’s accompaniments.
Weitz recorded the soundtrack with Josh Dibb (Deakin), David Portner (Avey Tare), and, a little less than usual, Noah Lennox (Panda Bear) during the pandemic, meaning they worked remotely. “When we score, different people have different strengths,” Weitz says. “If there’s a more melancholy scene, that goes to Josh. A scene with more tension, darkness, or surrealism might go to me. In those moments, I express different things than I would on an Animal Collective song.”
While Domino Records have never asked for a more radio-friendly single, A24 delivered feedback to the band and Bratton. “We turned in a lot of the score and went on tour,” Weitz recalls. “A lot of that score when we came back was rejected.” Due to a film festival deadline, a music editor tasked the group with recording a bulk of the score in a fortnight. “I had COVID. I had an emergency visit in the middle of those two weeks. I was in a chair in my pyjamas every day, working as hard as I could. Josh and Dave were doing the same.”
Not that any arduous conditions are apparent on the purchasable soundtrack that’s effectively a 49-minute Animal Collective album. Highlights range from the harmonising of “Crucible”, to the closer, “Wish I Knew You”, with Indigo De Souza on vocals. Another is “Shower Fantasy (Original Mix)”, which sounds like an outtake from Pavement’s Wowee Zowee, complete with a Malkmus-y guitar tone and the gasping of “Best Friends Arm”. At school, in 1993, the band bonded over a shared love of Pavement’s REM-referencing “Unseen Power of the Picket Fence”, and recently became heroes in the Pavement fan community for digitising personal bootlegs.
“Pavement quickly became our favourite band,” Weitz says. “We saw them a few times in 1994 on the Crooked Rain tour. We were kids teaching ourselves barre chords. It was inspiring that they didn’t care if they played their songs perfectly.” However, the sparser, less Pavement-y “Shower Fantasy (Movie Edit)” is what appears on-screen.
“We talked about breaking out of a military film, and making it dreamy, like the shower sequence where he has erotic fantasies. The studio asked us to pull back on the ‘music video’ side, and go more traditional.” For “Shower Fantasy”, Bratton suggested emulating Sonic Youth’s ‘Into the Groove’ cover by combining gay dance culture with raw guitars. “Dave turned in something the studio thought was too much of a song. The editing team stripped it back. Since we didn’t create that edit, on the soundtrack we include both.”
In 2014, Dazed interviewed Bratton about his role in the New York ballroom scene, some of which was reflected in the original screenplay but not the film. “Things like [gay New York house culture] were where we started, but that was the side of the score the studio asked us to pull away from,” Weitz says. “You hear more of the romance, orchestral, and gospel stuff... The shower scene is the closest we came to executing that vision, but we were told it’s so disparate from the narrative. I don’t think they were wrong.”
Nevertheless, Weitz wishes to emphasise the fun of scoring and having “our egos checked”. If told, for example, to insert a cello player, Weitz would opt for a creative solution, whether string modelling or sample packs. “I’ll add textures that sound like a unique patch. It wouldn’t be like anybody in a room playing the cello. It’d sound like something I created. There are ways to take a note to simplify, and still express yourself.”
Right now, Animal Collective are “tweaking some stuff with the mastering” of a new album they’re about to hand to Domino, much of it tracked before scoring The Inspection. Some of their productivity was due to a cancellation of 2022 shows in the UK and Europe regarding economic conditions.
“I don’t think we’re as big as people think we are in Europe and the UK,” Weitz says. “We’re in our mid-40s and we’re not a new band anymore. We play shows in America where only 300 people come out some nights, and that’s what happens in a lot of Europe and the UK, other than London. Our guarantees aren’t high enough to support flying everybody over.
“It’s a cumulative thing. We lost so much from the cancelled US touring, because we still paid our crew their salaries. It’s not their fault we got sick. The bus company doesn’t give you your money back because you return the bus early. They can’t rent that bus out – no band is like, ‘Hey, we need a bus tomorrow.’ When we booked Europe and the UK a year ago, at best it was: break even. The idea of someone getting sick again, and having to cancel more shows, was just crushing. None of us are super-rich.”
He explains that American bands often rely on summer festivals in Europe to fund their expenses. “We don’t get asked anymore. We haven’t had a ‘My Girls’ thing that’s popular on the BBC in some time, we’re not a streaming band, and we’re not viral on TikTok. I don’t know when we’re coming back.”
There could, at least, be future film-scoring, now the word is out that Animal Collective are available for soundtracks. “I hope it happens more,” Weitz says. “It’s a lot of fun.” On the whole process, he comments, “Pretty quickly, we realised: this isn’t an Animal Collective record. This is a story we’re helping people to tell. Eventually, I really enjoyed being in service of somebody else’s emotional experience.”
Signature Entertainment presents The Inspection in UK cinemas on 17th February. The soundtrack by Animal Collective can be listened to here, or check out their 2022 album Time Skiffs here.
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