Behind the Song: Animal Collective – ‘Summertime Clothes’

Animal Collective’s eighth studio album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, was released in January 2009. The album had been recorded over the course of one month the previous February, at Sweet Tea Recording Studio, the 24-track studio with a large control room in Oxford, Mississippi. For the record the band sought out producer Ben Allen, desiring his low-end expertise, and valuing both his background in hip-hop – in the late 1990s he worked on tracks by Bad Boy artists including The Notorious B.I.G., Diddy, and Mase – and his eclectic taste.

With the band’s prominent guitarist, Deakin (Josh Dibb), sitting the album out, Avey Tare (Dave Portner), Panda Bear (Noah Lennox), and Geologist (Brian Weitz) took the opportunity to prioritise electronics, creating a sample-based record that drew in part from Panda Bear’s 2007 solo release Person Pitch.

During the recording process, Animal Collective set up two QSC PA speakers at the back of the studio – the resulting noise contributing to their entertainment, more than it accurately represented the acoustics of live performance. The samples which they had compiled were triggered live rather than sequenced, as the band endeavoured to maintain their characteristic loose warmth and spontaneity. The Roland SP404 and SP555 samplers were preferred, while the band continued to use their favourite Roland SH2 and Juno-60 analogue synthesizers. Weitz noted, ‘The Juno we use primarily for mid‑range or high‑end melodic lines, and the SH2 we use more for the bass sounds’.

After several months listening over the recordings, the album was mixed by the band and Allen at Chase Park Transduction in Athens, Georgia – a studio familiar to Allen, based round a Sony MXP3036 console. The three active members of Animal Collective suggested that, from start to finish, the procedure which led to Merriweather Post Pavilion was one of the happiest, most trouble-free of their careers.

The last time Portner, Lennox, and Weitz recorded as a trio had been back in 2001: on Danse Manatee, the band’s second and Geologist’s first record as Animal Collective, and one he frequently cites as his favourite. Portner remarked on the similarity between Merriweather Post Pavilion and Danse Manatee, saying ‘They feel a lot more closely-related to us than I think anybody would really pick up on. There were definitely times where we said, “are we making Danse Manatee part two?”.

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Until the release of Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective typically used their live shows to debut and develop new material: a practise inspired by Pavement, which had persevered despite the band’s members moving apart, and exchanging ideas worked up individually provisionally via email. What became the fourth track on the album, ‘Summertime Clothes’, was originally know as ‘Bearhug’. Under this name, with different lyrics and higher-pitched vocals from Portner, the song appeared during 2007:

‘Summertime Clothes’ sits on Merriweather Post Pavilion as an upbeat, propulsive pop song between ‘Also Frightened’ and ‘Daily Routine’. These are two of the record’s densest, least immediate compositions, earthy and strangely languid; ‘Daily Routine’ has also been described by the band as their ‘most hip hop’ piece.

All three songs open to the sound of water. Portner has discussed the use of acoustic sounds and field recordings on the record, as the band strived for a more ‘natural and environmental’ sound than that presented on their previous work, 2007’s Strawberry Jam. And amidst the back-and-forth correspondence between he and Weitz in the United States and Lennox in Lisbon, Portner has depicted one emergent facet of Merriweather Post Pavilion: ‘We started talking about watery sounds, and how we wanted to have a ‘shallow lagoon’ feel over the whole record’.

The alternately submerging and restorative effects of water, immersed within the album’s sound palette, are also a theme of the lyrics to ‘Summertime Clothes’. A sleepless summer night, with forehead leaking and the bed a pool of sweat, is alleviated as Portner sings of soaking his head in the sink. And as he and his willing subject await the coming dawn, not only the feel but ‘the sound of the rain’ is desired, wetting the brain and affording respite.

On the structure of ‘Summertime Clothes’, in a 2009 interview with the now-defunct French magazine VoxPop, Portner and Weitz commented:

‘Portner: The melody of this song came suddenly, while we were rehearsing at my house. It’s so simple and we immediately loved it. I tried to find an additional melody, much more dark and weird, but nobody liked it! In general, I write the most ‘complex’ songs in Animal Collective, with structures A / B / C / D / E… but I wanted to keep the almost naive simplicity of this song. This is what suits it, and it’s not as if the first songs of the album were very simple: ‘My Girls’ has a lot of different parts, ‘Also Frightened’ I won’t talk about…

Weitz: What’s important is to assess what the song needs. In this case, ‘Summertime Clothes’ required simple and spontaneous arrangements, quick and self-evident things.’

The one area on which the band and their producer markedly differed concerned the level of the vocals on Merriweather Post Pavilion. Ben Allen tended to want them high in the mix, while the band preferred them lower and blended with other sounds. This difference of opinion was most pronounced when it came to ‘Summertime Clothes’, as Weitz explained to Sound on Sound:

‘To Ben the vocal melody and the lyrics are the core of the song, along with the rhythm. We have a different view. We like everything to blend together. Even if we want everything to be defined, we want it to all have a lot of presence and personality. To us it’s more about a psychedelic sonic listening experience than just a straight pop listening experience. So there was that discussion.

Pretty early on in the mixing we realised we were gonna have to find the middle ground, so we would do three mixes, where the vocals would be where we wanted them to be, then one louder where Ben wanted them to be and then one even lower than where we wanted them to be, just in case we changed our mind. It was very, very rare that we went with the loud vocal version. ‘Summertime Clothes’ is the biggest example of where we disagreed. Even after we finished the record we were still thinking maybe the vocals are too loud on that song. And Ben felt the opposite way.’

Summertime Clothes Cover

‘Summertime Clothes’ was released as the second single from Merriweather Post Pavilion on 29 June in the UK and 7 July in the US. It came accompanied with three remixes of the song, by Dâm-Funk, Leon Day, and Zomby. The song’s video was directed by Danny Perez, who had previously directed ‘Who Could Win a Rabbit’ from Sung Tongs back in 2004. Perez would go on to collaborate with the band on ODDSAC, a visual album full of psychedelic images, comprising 13 tracks over 53 minutes, and released by Animal Collective in 2010.

The single’s cover art displays a vividly coloured still life, replete with sliced citrus fruits, flowers, fabrics, and feathers, a putty crab-like creature with stick-on eyes, asparagus stalks, and a Delft vase. And appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman on 7 May 2009, Animal Collective performed ‘Summertime Clothes’ backed by the Brooklyn-based dance crew FLEX, who would also feature on the song’s video.