Published on BLURT – Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2010
The Animal Collective member heads down to the swamp and goes a-croc huntin’ on his solo debut.
BY ANNAMARYA SCACCIA
David “Avey Tare” Portner, the 31-year-old founder & de facto frontman of the courted Brooklyn-based troupe Animal Collective, has had one busy year. First, he’s worked with cruelty-free apparel company Keep (started by longtime AC friend, Una Kim) to design shoes that, sold at $75 a pop and available March 2011, will benefit the Socorro Island conservation fund (Animal Collective members Josh “Deakin” Ribb and Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox also designed shoes for Keep). And now, on October 26, Tare will release his long-in-the-making debut solo album, Down There, on Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks label (as for his band, they’re in talks of a new album but haven’t taken any action yet). Influenced by swamps and crocodiles, it’s a deeply intimate first effort, despite its machine-oriented exterior.
Produced with Deakin’s help and recorded in a 135-year-old church, which doubles as Animal Collective’s studio/practice space located in what Tare calls “the Great Northern swamp” of upstate New York, Down There is a debut that, while as personal as any Tare-penned AC record, comes from a darker and possibly more ominous place. The subject matter is more morose (for example, “Heather in a Hospital” outlines his time spent by his sister’s side in the hospital after she was diagnosed with a rare tear duct cancer), and the music, while tinged with a bit of melody, is much more jarring, the vocals creeping underneath Down There’s ascetic and numinous electronic currents. It’s a sonic marshland of the layered and complex, the troubled and sentient – a record that, down to its cover, which was taken from a photo of a crocodile skull Tare took while in Peru in January, full embodies the gloom and obscurity of the swamps by which it was inspired.
And while it may not call on the same polished avant-garde electro-pop that shot Animal Collective to fame, Down There stands firmly on its own. Not only does it establish Tare, who was named NME’s Alt-American Icon for their The Rebirth of US Rock issue, as a solo artist deserving of a concentrated listen, but it also peels back his layers, further exposing the musical genius that lies beneath. BLURT recently had the chance to chat with Tare about his solo debut, what influences his music, and why he was so drawn to swamps’ conceptual existence.
BLURT: You’ve been performing and releasing material for over a decade while in other groups. So why put out a solo record now? Were there things you wanted to say that Animal Collective wasn’t the right venue for?
AVEY TARE: I don’t really think I’ve had the time to do it until now, to tell you the truth. I put a lot of time into Animal Collective and, when haven’t been doing that, I’ve been trying to take as much time to do other things as I can. So much of what I and we do in AC is inspired by experiences we have outside of just touring and playing music all the time. So if I didn’t have that, it would be hard to be inspired to write new things. But I’ve had more time this year, and since we haven’t been touring, it felt like a good time. I guess this record is different than something Animal Collective would do, but I think that’s mostly because I did it on my own and not with the other guys.
Was the approach you took in crafting Down There different than how you would approach an Animal Collective record, or even the work you’ve done as Terrestrial Tones, and with wife/former múm member Kria Brekkan?
Not really. All of that stuff feels really collaborative. I guess I put a lot of input into AC in terms of songwriting but, after that, I try and give up as much control as I possibly can. Similarly, with playing together with [Black Dice’s] Eric Copeland [for Terrestrial Tones] or Kria, I really think those records are based more on having a close relationship with those people and being able to jam and create something together. With Down There, I wanted to create something very personal and that almost had a bedroom quality to it. I also wanted to make something that felt like it was created by one person. It was different with Down There because I didn’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of creatively. And there was no one there to push things along with other ideas. And so, I really had to take my time. In a sense, this was good because I wanted it to be relaxed. But it’s also hard mustering the confidence to do something solo. You have to really trust that things sound good and feel good. I think that’s why I let things sit for so long.
It seems like a lot of outside forces influence the music you create – from films to traveling to books. What attracts you to those mediums as influences?
I’ve always been inspired by film. It’s so easy for me to get lost in movies and so I spend a lot of my free time watching them. I can’t be as critical of them as I am with music ‘cause I don’t know enough about the process that goes into making them. So, in a way, I am more easily drawn into them. For some reason, music feels like it should have a narrative in the same way a movie or book does. In the same way a movie presents you with a very visual environment, in my head, music does the same thing. It might not translate the same way to everyone, but when I am making a song, I am thinking a lot about the environment it takes place in and the characters involved…etc. This doesn’t mean that it’s a piece of fiction because usually songs are based on my personal experience. But I enjoy making music so much more in this manner rather than just thinking about time signatures and things like that.
Down There was inspired by crocodiles and the swamp staple of old horror movies. Why were you drawn to that vibe?
I think the swampy aspect of it pertains more to the environment and the visual side of music that I was talking about [previously]. In some ways, it was good to be able to tie this into the emotional aspect of the music ‘cause I have often thought a swamp is a good metaphor for the emotions I was feeling at the time. I was a bit stuck in a rut so to speak and so that sticky swampy quality worked with the songs and emotions.
Other than a swamp’s dank nature, there’s also a sinister, unworldly feel you can defined as almost spiritual. Would you say that was also an influence on the record?
I like to think of the swamp as otherworldly – like ghost swamp or something you would find in the afterlife.
Did you intend for Down There to come out super electronic and very discordant? Or did it just come natural as you started to flesh out the songs more?
I created it on electronic instruments, yeah, so I always intended it to be more of an electronic creation. The songs came pretty naturally that way.
Down There was created very organically. For example, you said that over the course of nearly two years, you wrote the melodies for the album in your head. How important is the organic process of creating music to you, even though Down There is machine-oriented?
I do write a lot of my songs in my head before I attempt to play them on an instrument but, for me, a specific instrument can be very inspiring. I feel like sometimes the less I know about an instrument, then the easier it is to write what I think is an original song or something I haven’t done before. For example, it’s really hard for me to write songs on my acoustic guitar at this point ‘cause I’ve written so many that way. For some reason right now, working with electronics and sequencers made these songs feel very natural and organic to me.
While this record is just as personal as what you’ve written in previous outfits, it’s a bit more lyric-driven, even though it isn’t “very clear-cut” or “totally soul-bearing.” Why did you choose to go that direction?
For me, most of the music on the record is actually less lyric-driven than something like “What Would I Want Sky?” or “Summer Time Clothes.” I mean, the lyrics are important to me but they are mixed a bit more within the rest of the sound, whereas in those other AC songs, the voice sits on top a bit more. I think this is probably one of the most personal all encompassing pieces of music I’ve ever made.
On the other hand, the vocals have a more shadowy, ethereal quality, which seems like something you were aiming for. Do you think recording the vocals in that way was necessary in order to add to the swamp vibe?
Down There isn’t very melodic or polished, especially when compared to Animal Collective. Was it important to not have it poppish or dreamy in order to get your thoughts across sonically? Or did that lack of melody happen naturally because of the songs context?
Hmm, well I do think there is melody in there, but yeah, the emotions are the driving force of anything I write. They’re purely based on what I’m feeling. Even with Animal Collective, I never think, “Is this poppy or catchy?” The songs are just what they are. I either like them or I don’t.