In anticipation of his first solo album, one day I went and had lunch with the Animal Collective's Dave Portner a/k/a Avey Tare. We dipped into some fava beans and talked about the events that led up to the album and just how deep his love of the swamp and its critters really goes.
Are crocodiles your spirit animal?
Yeah, maybe. I don’t know much about that. Lately too, Josh and I and my girlfriend have been watching BBC Life specials, and I’ve been into the reptile one. Everybody thinks crocodiles are cold and heartless. Maybe, there’s this story about this guy in South America who raised a crocodile and he goes swimming with it. And they’re holding each other. I think they’re really cool. They were my favorite animals when I was younger. In high school, I was more obsessed with horror movies and I’d tell Brian that I wanted to be torn apart by them, you know, tossed to the gators. But now that I think about it…They are an old species, so they are ancient and anything that’s been around that long has generated and evolved and has some sort of knowledge.
But for the record it’s more about the swamp.
And what do the swamp connotations mean?
Brian and I liked these southern horror films, Eaten Alive, Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Something about the swamp, even some place like the New Jersey pine barrens or what have you, appeals to me. When we were touring and were in Arkansas, there was a swamp monster that lived there. It was the Arkansas Bigfoot. Where we recorded in upstate New York, it’s all swampy around there. The Great Northern Swamp. There’s always something really mysterious about swamps to me. They seem impenetrable and no one ever wants to go in them. In movies, there’s always this fear about being lost in the swamp, that you will never find your way out. They’re uncharted. But there’s a beautiful aspect to them as well, as an ecosystem. All sorts of flora grow in them. I studied them back in middle school and dug them.
You keep referencing these older memories. Does the album feel like a culmination of the past for you?
Not in terms of being old. In terms of what’s been happening to me the past few years, it all seems very current. I wanted to focus the album around darker things that have been happening to me. And the swamp motif made it seem easy to tackle darker stuff. The swamp was a good way to invoke a psychological struggle, stepping into the muck. I was having a hard time getting out, or struggling in a very complicated web of things to get through. I guess, starting two years ago, my wife and I started breaking apart. And that was a really rough struggle over the past two years.
Especially when you work so hard to achieve a relationship, to have it be your foundation, only to have it crumble out from under you…
That intermingled with the Animal Collective stuff, being tied up with the success of Merriweather Post Pavilion, the positives intermingled with the negative at the same time. It messed with my mind in terms of what is to be valued. Over the course of this year, recording the album allowed me to have a bit more time to myself.
What took so long to make your first solo album? It seemed like it was imminent a few years back when you did the Fat Cat split.
It was not having a lot of time. It wasn’t a priority. In the time that I’ve been writing these songs, we worked on Merriweather fulltime, ODDSAC, and whenever there was a moment of free time, we had to finish the DVD. I feel like a lot the process for me went hand in hand with ODDSAC. The first track of the film tied into the album and my songwriting process. I was using the same sequencers to make those songs. The first song on the ODDSAC soundtrack was in this style and structure that was very me. It had this darker vibe and the emotions tied into that were what I was aiming for with Down Below.
My grandmother died around the same time as that song (2008) and my family was really close and she tied everyone together. It was really monumental, losing her. That affected me a lot. I spent a lot of time in my practice space alone and it was this cavernous basement space, humid and moist and maybe that had something to do with wanting to have this feel permeate the music. And to top it off, my sister was diagnosed with cancer. That happened all at the same time. That was intense too. She’s alright, but she lost an eye and had to undergo serious surgery. I spent a lot of time in the hospital. It was about figuring out how to rebuild my life, what the best thing to do would be.
Did the album help then?
I had to get it out of my system, clear my mind. I do that a lot. I build up a lot of emotions inside of me and work them out through music. I guess I’m better at doing it through music than I am in real life. The record has to do with that struggle as well. The first song is about me being able to better express myself through music than through talking to somebody.
I am in therapy for something similar, struggling to feel your emotions in the present moment, rather than storing them up for art.
I’m not good at communicating certain things and that’s something I have to work on.
Maybe it’s a guy thing?
I get all tangled up and it’s hard for me to bring up things. I don’t want to cause trouble.
There’s a noticeable dubstep influence on the album, which is interesting as to this point, I didn’t think of it as a vehicle for singer-songwriter mode of expression.
Lately, when I pick up an acoustic guitar and try to write a song, it doesn’t flow right, as it did in the middle of the decade. Even on “In the Flowers,” which I wrote on an acoustic guitar but after awhile, I can’t express things in a unique way (with it). I’m sure the time will come when I pick up the guitar and feel it, but the songs started flowing a bit easier using sequencers. For Merriweather, I would play samples and go “Oh, I can write with that.” Dubstep, techno, and house, the more repetitive-ness of that music I wanted to strengthen them and make them more for songwriting. That’s why it took awhile how to figure it out, to be satisfied with them as songs. It can’t just be an electronic loop, that’s not enough of a song for me. I play a lot of keyboards on the record. The first song, I wrote the song before the beat, but it comes from a keyboard line.
That song in particular has a soul influence to it that I wasn’t expecting. Like an old-fashioned belter.
To me, that is a natural way of emoting. That’s something I’ve been working on a long time. When I tried that in the past, or modern ways of emoting that way, like screamo, or when raising the voice comes into the context of modern music, it feels “emo” or “hardcore.” There were a lot of soul singers who screamed their head off and it wasn’t considered “emo” back then.
Were you thinking of Otis Redding with it then?
Totally. Him and Bobby Womack, they had amazing voices. Not that I can there, but it’s something I’d like to work up to. To me, it’s translated more through John Lennon and even Kurt Cobain, they had that emotion and could emote in that way. You can feel what’s going through them.
With a lot of my songs, it’s about taking a number of things that are happening in my life and then combining them and finding a way that’s more picturesque. It’s not just a singer-songwriter. It is honest but it’s not obvious. To me, that makes me uncomfortable. There’s times on Feels, that it’s written with Kristen in mind. I want to make it a little bit more topical. Animal Collective would never make a record this electronic. Maybe MPP feels electronic, but it’s still live drums.
Was it tough not having them to bounce ideas off of?
Definitely. With them things move so much faster. That’s another reason it took so much longer. Because I’ve been doing it so long, I do have a better sense personally of what’s good. Stuff that lingers in my mind that I can hold onto, to me that’s a sign that it’s worth keeping. Ideas that I don’t get a handle on don’t linger. I was so nervous committing to it.
What made you commit?
Finally having a vision for it that it could become, seeing an overall view for Down There.
Is it a psychological direction, Down There?
In listening to it, it works best at night, and in open space. On headphones, it didn’t have the same effect. It comes across better for me in those conditions.
I imagine it to be a nighttime record. I think people tend to have expectations for stuff, thinking “this artist is going to do this thing.” They try to make weird competitions between Noah and I, but I don’t feel that pressure at all. Ever since we were young, what I do is different from what Noah does, which is what I appreciate. He has this unique sound and I wouldn’t want to do that. I’m not so concerned that it’s going to be this huge thing. It’s personal to me. I don’t want to promote it. People just make things like that up. That’s the weird part of being in Animal Collective. It doesn’t effect the way I approach playing, but it is weird to feel like that.
All the interviews I read of you are about Noah and what the new Animal Collective is going to sound like.
Usually, we’re good about deflecting that. ODDSAC press was about not talking about MPP. It was a collaboration with Danny. People don’t want to get information right. People will ask me about Noah’s record and when it’s coming out. And Noah hasn’t finished his record! People create all this stuff around you.
You mentioned somewhere else that there were ghosts in the record. What is something you would do to achieve that effect?
Subtleties mostly. I always liked weird moments in records. There’s a Silver Jews record, either Starlight Walker or The Natural Bridge --or something like Piper at the Gates of Dawn by Pink Floyd—and that’s not to say that these records were designed for this but all these weird little things happen. But on the Silver Jews’ song, I was listening to it on headphones and I heard someone say “David” in the background and I was alone in my house and I thought someone was there.
But the idea of random artifacts being in there on purpose and making it sound haunted appealed to me. I do that with samples, mixing them in there really low, to where you wonder if there’s something in there or not. Leaving artifacts, making it feel broken, so that there’s something old, something ghostly there.