If you ask most Alaska musicians who moved away why they left, the answer usually involves being able to tour more easily. But Animal Eyes bassist Colin McCarthur answers the question almost as if he hadn't even considered that part of it: "Touring was something we realized we could do, but I haven't even really thought about the fact that it's definitely easier to tour if you don't have to buy a plane ticket to start your tour," he laughed.
McCarthur is one of three Animal Eyes members who grew up in Homer, while two others are from Talkeetna. Each played in various bands around Alaska, though McCarthur was the first to make the move to Portland, Ore., in 2008 to attend Portland State University. But what really drew him to the city was what he had heard about the music scene.
"Menomena is a big influence for, I think quite a few of us, and they are from Portland, and that kind of planted the seed in our heads that, 'Man, there must be something cool going on there,'" McCarthur said.
Drummer Haven Matthews' mother owned a record shop called Solstice Music in Homer, which McCarthur credited for much of the music he was exposed to growing up.
"She would get a lot of cool stuff in, and she'd have people who had been out and back, like college graduates who'd grown up in Homer, and they'd come back to town and they'd come back with all these ideas about the new music out there," McCarthur said. "So we got exposed to Modest Mouse and Menomena and all these kind of at the time under-the-radar indie bands, which was really cool, and classic rock, too, like Led Zeppelin. A lot of Paul Simon."
As each member gradually found his way south, a folkier early incarnation of the band called Monkey Trick was formed. "Haven came down and was interested in the project and wanted to play in a band, and he was like, 'Well, I'll do it, but we have to change the name,'" said McCarthur, adding that Matthews came up with the new name.
"He was talking about the eyes you have to give to a dog when you really want it to obey you. It's kind of like this communication that has to come from an animal place inside of you. You have to give the dog the animal eyes."
The new band released its first album, "Found in the Forest," in 2011. The old Eastern European folk influences were still there, but so were more progressive rock tendencies like unconventional time signatures and song structures.
"I think it just comes naturally to us because it's something that we enjoy, just playing around with those standard formulas," McCarthur said. "We pride ourselves on being able to keep it fun and groovy and danceable but still a little off-kilter and weird."
Fast-forward to last year's "Ursus" EP, and most of those old Monkey Trick traces have been erased. Just listen to the way accordion player Sam Tenhoff approached his instrument for an example.
"The accordion is treated less like a traditional instrument and more like a synth now," said McCarthur. "We still really like the way the accordion breathes and the cool swells and things you can do with it. It reminded us of what you could do with synth swells and string sections in a way, so the new EP is kind of our attempt to bridge that all together and go in a more psychedelic rock direction and less of a gypsy-folk direction."
But if the band is leaving behind its Monkey Trick days, its Alaska past still plays a prominent role. Alaskan artist Henry Gibson did the artwork for "Ursus," which also features an outline of the state, and McCarthur said Animal Eyes hopes to make summer tours in Alaska an annual event.
"It's definitely a part of our identity. I don't think we're trying to throw that in anyone's face or cover it up," said McCarthur.
As for whether he sees himself ever moving back, he said it's a toss-up. "It's really hard to make that choice. I'm happy in Portland for sure, and I can see myself being there for a long time, but on the other hand, I really love Alaska for a lot of the same reasons I love Portland," he explained. "I'm not sure what will happen. If we're ever super-rich and famous, we can have our vacation house in Alaska."
By Matt Sullivan
Daily News correspondent