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Animals in Human Attire Climb a Mountain

Apr. 8, 2014
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Jack Tell didn’t just write songs for Animals in Human Attire’s latest album, Ourmegadawn. He drew them. As he tells it, “I’d been playing a lot of Legend of Zelda at the time,” particularly The Wind Waker, the one where pint-sized adventurer Link sails a vast sea in a talking boat, and he began to internalize the game’s imagery. He started drawing picture after picture of Zelda-esque worlds populated by fantastical creatures and laser-beam shooting monsters, writing lyrics concurrent with the drawings. Gradually a story took shape in his head.

“The general idea is about a dude living on an island who swam across the Atlantic Ocean and wanted to climb the biggest mountain in Antarctica,” Tell says. That’s a deliberately simple framework for a story—a basic quest that leaves plenty of room for tangents, much like a video game—but it serves as a convenient metaphor for the desire to create and find purpose in life. For all its wild twists and runaway imagination, Ourmegadawn is, at its core, a concept album about that most mundane of phenomena: the quarter-life crisis.

Animals in Human Attire are founding members of Milwaukee’s Breadking Collective, a loose network of bands who share members, gigs and resources, and they’re the Breadking band that’s also most difficult to pin down. Other bands in the collective can be summed up fairly well by a single genre—Temple is the punk band; Myles Coyne and the Rusty Nickel Band is a folk-rock group; Conundrum is a jam band, etc.—but Animals’ jumpy indie-rock is always in a perpetual state of reinvention.

Tell’s easygoing demeanor probably explains the group’s fluidity. He’s not the type of songwriter to wed himself to any exclusive plan. When his guitar broke recently, rather than fix it he decided to just focus on playing the banjo, since he already had a banjo. “After you spend a lot of time on the banjo you really learn to love it,” he maintains, “it’s the most fun I’ve had on an instrument so far.” And when Animals, which he began as a solo project, eventually grew into a crowded team effort, Tell rolled with that, too. He started a side project, The Lousy Trouts, as an outlet for his acoustic songs, and perhaps inevitably, that project also bloomed into an ensemble. Like Animals, that group has a new album out this spring—a folky, vaguely world music-inspired disc that imagines what This is a Long Drive for Somebody with Nothing to Think About might sound like crossed with Graceland. It’s really good.

But back to Ourmegadawn. Animals bassist Myles Coyne, who plays in several BreadKing bands, most obviously the one that bears his name, recalls the sessions at Howl Street Studios as gloriously chaotic, with the band tracking multiple parts at once, sometimes seemingly without order. Keyboardist Nathan Toth was tracking nearly constantly, recording albums worth of material to pick from. Somebody brought a cowbell. Between tag-teamed takes everybody played video games and shouted a lot.

“We really wanted the album to sound huge, the way the band sounds live, but I didn’t know it was going to sound this huge,” Coyne says. “It was like they put every idea we had in there. At the end of it, there are songs with three guitar players on it, with three-part harmonies, and it all sounds so big you can’t help but laugh. It feels like more than ever this band has become Jack Tell leading this group of misfits up this steep, 80-degree hill, and we’re all fighting together, like in The Hobbit. That’s what I love about being in this band. It’s really unlike any other band I’ve been a part of.”

Animals in Human Attire play an Ourmegadawn release show Friday, April 11, at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn with The Fatty Acids and Pushmi-Pullyu at 9 p.m. Cover is $5, or $10 with the CD.


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