David Portner wears a big grin and a flat-brimmed, neon baseball cap that looks like it came free with a Balzac Balloon ball. His quiet growl of a voice limns the border of effective silence. I will forget to ask him which book he wants me to pretend he was carrying at the time of the interview, and later decide that, had I asked the question, a good answer would have been Call of Cthulhu.
On October 25, David Portner, a.k.a. Avey Tare, released his first solo LP, Down There, on Paw Tracks. The record, while more similar to his work with Animal Collective than to his collaborations with Black Dice’s Eric Copeland or ex-wife Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir, reveals a degree of transparency largely unseen in any of his previous songwriting. Centered around the aesthetic of a murky swamp, the album squelches more than it howls and echoes more than it shrieks.
He and I met recently to drink coffee and talk into my laptop.
What caused you to decide to go off on a solo direction instead of working them into more Animal Collective songs?
We planned on taking a break after we recorded Merriweather, after finishing the touring. I didn’t want the songs tilling around. I feel like once I start having songs building up in my head, I wanna get them out, I wanna get them recorded. So I started having enough… It was some time last year.
Did you conceive of the idea of the album as a whole? A whole aesthetic or a whole environment?
Not really, but it was kind of like working towards that. We always do that, with Animal Collective as well. But I wanted it to be a little more cohesive in terms of the way the songs blended together with this record than we do with Animal Collective records.
I wrote “Heather in the Hospital” and “Lucky 1” together, so those were seamless. I always planned on recording them as one full thing, but then I just felt like two separate songs after having it all together. So I wanted to separate it, track-mark-wise. Everything else was written separately. I wanted it to feel like one cohesive thing, but not as if it were one song.
“Oh, my own name? Ah… I think because it’s seems so alien to me, I wouldn’t wanna make it so human. Just like ‘Dave Portner’ or something. ‘Avey Tare’ seems like more of a band name to me, so it seems to fit better for musical stuff than my own name.”
Did you find it more difficult to record an album on your own?
Yeah, definitely. I feel like that’s why it took me, in a way, two years to do it. It was definitely hard to know what I was happy with, what I was not happy with. It’s a lot easier when I have the other dudes around to bounce ideas off of. And other people’s ideas move things ahead a lot quicker too. […] With this, it was just trusting my own instinct, to know if all of the sounds felt really good to me.
I wanted it to be relaxed, too, to not get too stressed out about it. I wanted it to feel a lot more like a bedroom project… something I just worked on in my spare time.
You said there’s no sampling on the album. Are you using analog synths? Where are the electronic sounds coming from?
All different places. I use some analog synthesizers. Some more modern synthesizers like a Korg M3, I use. And other analog oscillators. And a drum machine.
There’s certain looping segments in different songs…
No, those are all sampled or sequenced on sequencers I have. And just put onto the computer later.
I just started, in order to write different kinds of songs for ODDSAC too, doing more electronic stuff because I was demoing a lot of stuff on my own and just recording to my 8-track at home. It fit the vibe for the other songs I started making for [Down There] too. All the same equipment. It’s similar to the first song on ODDSAC; it’s done in a similar process, so I just wanted to record a record that way.
The whole swamp idea. With a lot of the Animal Collective records, the lyrics and the aesthetic quality create an “environment.” Are you going for the same sort of thing in this album? Do the lyrics stand to contribute to that aesthetic or are you using them in a more narrative sense?
Lyrically, no. They’re more personal. Here and there, they add a little bit to that aspect of the environment. I feel like, lyrically, I just stick to stuff that’s going on in my life and work around that, sonically, with the environmental stuff or the samples I use.
Do you think that your lyrics are more, if not literal, more specific than on the Animal Collective records?
Mmhmm. I think they’re a little more clear-cut, to-the-point, and not as abstract as they used to be.
To me, the one that really stands out is “Heather in the Hospital.” Most of the time, when I listen to a song that you composed, I have a very strong mental picture of it, but I don’t see a narrative unfolding. I thought it was interestingly uncommon that that song feels very vivid, from a very specific perspective.
I get a lot of inspiration from just observing things around me, or in the past, observing things I see on tour. Animal Collective has a song, “On A Highway,” which is similarly anecdotal to me. The impressions of the hospital were so intense on me that it was really easy to write that song that way and feel that it was still going to be visual and interesting to listen to.
Is Heather okay?
Was the intensity of that experience something that made you write a more personal song? Was it a coping mechanism?
No, I wouldn’t say it was coping. It was just a specific feeling that went with the melody. It just happened naturally.
So it’s not like a catharsis or anything.
I mean, the whole album for me is a little bit cathartic. Just getting a lot of stuff off my chest and letting feelings out that were lingering around this summer.
Is that why you’re not touring with the album?
A little bit, yeah. I don’t know if it’s something I want to deal with night after night again, revisiting some of the feelings that went into the record [Down There]. But there’s a lot of reasons. It’s a little complex for me to work out live. And I don’t really want to play on my own. I’ve thought about putting a band together, but just haven’t had the time to do it. It’s not something I really wanna delve into completely if I feel like in the end it’s something that’s gonna not make me that psyched.
Do you think that any of these songs would ever find their way into an Animal Collective live set?
Ummmmm… I mean, it’s possible, that if the other dudes were psyched on playing one or something like that, I’d feel comfortable doing it. We’ve done it before with Noah’s songs.
“I don’t know if it’s something I want to deal with night after night again, revisiting some of the feelings that went into the record [Down There].”
I’ve noticed that your vocals seem a little higher in the mix, or at least the lyrics are a little bit more audible on recent Animal Collective albums. On Down There, I’m noticing you can hear the lyrics.
For me it’s just what fits in the song. I definitely feel like the lyrics on this release are a little more tucked in to the mix than some of the more recent Animal Collective stuff. Like on Merriweather, on something like “What Would I Want Sky?”, where the vocals are very up in the mix to me… I want [the lyrics] to be a part of the environment that’s happening or the textures. I still want it to be more of a texture. But I like the lyrics, and they are important to me, especially for this one. So I do what I can to make them heard. Sometimes it just feels like the vocals are too high. I don’t want them that high.
There’s also almost a ghostly quality where you half-catch what it’s saying sometimes.
Totally. I’ve always liked music like that, where it’s a little bit more mysterious. Like why I liked Pavement when I was younger, because it took a little bit more to figure out. You couldn’t always hear what they’re saying.
There’s actually a specific song I was thinking of that’s really interesting to me: on Strawberry Jam, “For Reverend Green.” I’ve never heard you sing like that on any other song.
Haha, oh really?
Yeah, what’s going on there?
Those songs came from a more confusing, transitional time. I think that’s just inspired by the times. And playing live a lot. It was a real up, energetic time, when we’d feel really spastic. That style of singing really crazy just went along with songs like that, like “Safer” or “People.” We all had this upbeat, get-the-crowd-excited kind of vibe. That has something to do with it.
Do you find that you’re pushing your voice more when you’re touring?
For sure. We play really loud onstage. It’s hard to hear the voice, a lot of the times, for Noah and I. So we push a lot louder. So I’ll tend to change the way I sing for a lot of songs just because, if I sing them the way I sang on the record, I wouldn’t be able to hear them [inaudible].
On that song, there’s an almost shrieking quality.
No, I like it. But it could wreck your voice if you had to sing that song.
Definitely. I played some group of shows that really fried my voice [laughs] for a while.
You were touring that song, though, right?
Yeah, we did for a year and a half.
Wow. And did you sing it like that on tour?
[On Down There] Is it only you… like, those low pitched vocal are just you downtuned?
And it’s you that’s speaking in the beginning of the first track?
Uh huh. And some of it’s sampled, too. Some of the talking is sampled in the first song.
“I wanted it to feel a lot more like a bedroom project… something I just worked on in my spare time.”
Oh where does the sample come from?
Just all different old movies, and stuff like that.
Would you care to divulge any examples–
Not really. [laughs]
Whenever you do a project outside of Animal Collective — in the beginning, you guys all had these, not necessarily alter-identities, but a little bit of a separation between you and the audience by having masks and nicknames and all that — but you still use the same nickname [Avey Tare] when you do side projects. Is that just a nickname from your life or is that a music persona?
They’re all music-oriented names. When we started playing, it’s not like we thought we’d be in a band called “Animal Collective.” We thought, with each project that we would do, it would always be just who’s on the record, like “Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Geologist” or “Avey Tare, Panda Bear,” that kind of thing… I think it’s just an extension of that.
So even when you’re doing a project that’s like, say, Terrestrial Tones…
Nah, that’s something different.
You wouldn’t refer to yourself as “Avey Tare” for that?
No. But I just associate that with a different relationship.
Does that make this definitively an Animal Collective side project because you’re using the other name?
I don’t know. It might just be that I don’t really have another name [laughs] I wanna put it under.
You wouldn’t be comfortable using your own…
Oh, my own name? Ah… I think because it seems so alien to me, I wouldn’t wanna make it so human. Just like “Dave Portner” or something. “Avey Tare” seems like more of a band name to me, so it seems to fit better for musical stuff than my own name.
There’s a press photo circulating — is that you in the crocodile mask?
You’re not gonna go playing shows in masks again, are you?
Do you not want to be photographed as yourself?
I just wanted the photos to be… something interesting to look at. I get tired of band photos. The first group of shots that I did with Josh are kind of inspired by old horror films. You know, like Night of the Living Dead.
Swamp Thing? You ever watch Swamp Thing?
Yeah, I love that movie.
That movie’s great. When you were starting to shape the whole concept of the album, were there any aesthetic inspirations, specifically other albums that you were listening to, or are favorites of yours, that you looked to for inspiration?
Maybe some more soundtrack stuff. Something like Predator. Like the Predator sound. I used to always like that when we were younger, and it has a really swampy sound, to me. The texture, the way it sounds very aquatic and wet.
Did you ever watch John Carpenter movies growing up?
Yeah, I love John Carpenter. He’s one of my favorites.
Certain elements of this music… certain layers sound like John Carpenter music.
Sweet, man, I love John Carpenter movies. He’s one of the best directors. Also because he did all the music to most of his films.
You don’t happen to be a synaesthete, do you?
No. I’ve read a lot about it, had interest in it. There are times, going to bed, where I’ll see very vivid colors. But it’s not like I hear sounds all the time, and see colors, or read words and see colors like Nabokov.
A lot of your records have a very visual quality to them. We talked about creating [a sonic] environment, but there are visual factors to that too. I was wondering if that was anything that you see when you’re working on it.
It’s more images, and stuff like that. Very vivid scenarios. And we all communicate about music in that way. Music’s always been really visual to us, from when we were in high school.
Do you talk about it in that sense? Like what the visual is that’s attached to a—
Yeah, for a lot of our songs. Not for every song.
What are some of the images that went behind the solo album?
For the most part, it’s just that swampy environment, like dilapidated shack and docks. Anything, just haunted swamp.
Have you been to an eerie swamp or is it all based on old movies?
I’ve been to some swamps around Arkansas and there’s some swamps upstate where we recorded. They just have that eerie kind of vibe. And just from watching clips on YouTube.