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Published: 2009/07/20
by Mike Greenhaus

An Unbroken Chain: The Grateful Dead and The Origins of Animal Collective

This past Friday Animal Collectives management announced that it had cleared the rights to use a sample of Phil Lesh’s ‘Unbroken Chain’ in its song “What Would I Want Sky.” Animal Collective has been playing the song regularly on its summer tour, including in front of several thousand fans at Bonnaroo last month, and many suspect the track will show up on the new Animal Collective EP later this year. The move comes as no surprise to longtime Animal Collective fans who have heard the band cover the Grateful Deads arrangement of We Bid You Goodnight and reference the group as an influence on its psychedelic brand of indie rock music. According to Animal Collective folklore, band members David Portner (Avey Tare) and Brian Weitz (Geologist) first met when a friend noticed they were both wearing Grateful Dead t-shirts in 9th grade.

Relix and recently sat down with Weitz to discuss the Grateful Dead’s influence on his music as part of a larger feature on the merging of the indie and jamband genres. Below, Weitz recount his first Dead show, early Pink Floyd’s influence on early Animal Collective and how he survived his first Phish show.

In a Pitchfork interview you once said, “Sometimes you just get used to a certain audience and you’re curious how another audience would respond. The jam-band one is one I’ve always been curious about.” When you were growing up did you ever see any jambands such as the Dead or Phish live? If so, what did you take from those experiences?

I saw them both. I liked The Dead a lot so I took away a great time from that concert. They played “Wharf Rat” and “The Other One,” so I was psyched on that. I was only 14 or 15, and not playing much music myself yet, so I didn’t really take much away from that specific night that is relevant to what I’m doing now. I remember the feeling of community though and how at least for me, it didn’t feel exclusive. Even if you were a young kid going to your first show people seemed to welcome you.

I never liked Phish, and the only reason I went to the show was because it seemed like an easy place to take part in other recreational activities I was into at the time. Just kidding, sort of. I had a good friend named Jon and we both liked music a lot but the only thing we liked in common was the Dead. He was super into Phish and the jamband scene and I just couldn’t get into any of it. I used to try and play him Pavement since the dude from Phish would say he liked them, but Jon never got into that or any of the stuff I played him. But we both respected how each other felt about music so we kept trying to find a common ground. He took me to see Phish and I gave it a shot because he always said I had to see them live, and I figured if I didn’t like it, I could probably find something fun to eat. I didn’t like the music at all. Sorry people—I had to go with the back up plan. I also went with Jon to the H.O.R.D.E. festival in 1995 I think. That day didn’t do much for my jamband music appreciation either, but the Black Crowes played a pretty rippin’ set at just the right moment.

Animal Collective has referenced the Dead on several occasions as an inspiration—in terms of the band’s aesthetic, if not its style. Have any other so-called “jambands” touched you or your bandmates over the years or are the Dead the exception to the rule?

The Dead are pretty much the exception to the rule I guess, but you are right to say so called jambands. That immediately makes people think of Phish, Widespread Panic or the String Cheese band. Like I said, I had friends and family members into that stuff, and so did Dave, but we couldn’t get into any of it besides the Dead. Was there was one called God Street Wine? I remember people making tapes of that and trying to get us into it.

We were really into bands that improvised, but the bands we liked went different places it seemed. Somewhere a bit more sinister and dark. We liked CAN and Amon Duul and early Pink Floyd. “Interstellar Overdrive,” which was largely an improvised thing, was huge for us in those days. The Sun City Girls were also really important for us in terms of improvised music, but those bands and their music usually went to stranger and more unexpected places for us. The stereotypical jamband stuff just kind of seemed to stay
within a narrow range of recognizable and predictable styles—but The Dead seemed to go everywhere.

It seems like in the past few years many fans of jamband music have turned to indie rock. Why do you think there is such a strong connection between these two particular styles of music?

Not sure. I mean they are both essentially rock music; both tend to have a certain amount of sincerity; and neither are particularly aggressive.

Is it true that you are Avey Tare first became friends in middle school when someone noticed you were both wearing Grateful Dead t-shirts?

It was the first day of 9th grade and I was a new kid. I definitely had on a Dead shirt, but Dave doesn’t think he did. Either way, the guy we knew in common knew we both liked them and we were both big music fans in general, so he introduced us. Thanks Jeff.

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