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Animal instinct

Avey Tare, down to earth

Animal Collective co-founder Avey Tare

Madelyn Anderson

“I want to be like water,” David Portner—a.k.a. Avey Tare—bleats on the bubbling title track of Animal Collective’s 2008 EP, Water Curses. That was more than a decade ago, but the sentiment still animates the work of the 40-year-old Baltimore native and the psychedelic art-pop outfit he co-founded in 2003 with childhood friends, Noah Lennox (Panda Bear) and Josh Dibb (Deakin).

Over the last 16 years, Animal Collective has grown a massive global audience through restless experimentation, blending pop elements with harsh electronic noise and the living vibrations of nature. The result, at once primitive and futuristic, sometimes sounds like a demonic ghoul feasting on the innards of a Beach Boys melody. Getting lost in Animal Collective’s druggy swirl of deep-sea beats, erratic mutations and tape-delayed acoustic samples offers what music writer Simon Reynolds once called “the kind of stripped-down, bullshit-free communion you can experience with cats and dogs.”

I talked to Portner before the band returns to Cain’s Ballroom on Oct. 7.

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Jezy J. Gray: Tangerine Reef [2018] is an audiovisual album about coral ecosystems. Can you walk me through that project and how it came together? 

David Portner (Avey Tare): Colin [Foord] and Jared [McKay] who do Coral Morphologic had been old Animal Collective fans, and we became instant fans of their work. They do installation-oriented videos in public spaces to raise awareness about coral. They have a really cool studio in Miami. They use blacklights and do macro photography to get these close-up shots of coral and other smaller microorganisms in the ocean. And they do it all in tanks in their studio. There was this performance called Coral Orgy happening in Miami and we decided to try out something there and do kind of a specialized Animal Collective-meets-Coral Morphologic performance … We just sort of took that element and kind of projected the Coral Morphologic stuff on the wall in the studio as we were playing. And we developed this piece that could sort of be a little bit freeform, and a little bit … written out. Improvised music has always been a big part of our creative process. I think for some listeners, the lines are often blurry as to when we’re actually improvising and when we’re not improvising. And we kind of like it that way.

Gray: You also recorded an EP [Meeting of the Waters] along the Amazon River as part of Viceland’s Earthworks documentary series. Can you talk about that?

Portner: The sentiment behind it is certainly similar. I mean, we’re all very Earth-conscious people and very concerned about our environment right now. So we kind of do what we can. I think for us … the way we feel we’re best doing that is through the music. Getting people to feel things and hear things. And show how important things like the sounds of nature are. That sort of thing is important to our music. And as the planet diminishes—I guess that’s a dark way of looking at it [laughs]—that might not be as possible, you know? So things like Meeting of the Waters and Tangerine Reef are definitely our attempt at raising awareness, but also to make music in sort of foreign environments to us. I feel like that’s kind of, in a way, what we’ve liked to do from the beginning of Animal Collective. It’s an element that kind of set us apart, and the thing that brought us to make music that was less traditional.

Gray: Your music has always seemed to have something to say about nature. Where does that come from?

Portner: Our pastime in high school basically was just hanging out in nature … where we could listen to music and learn how to appreciate music in different environments. And just start to feel out, really—it’s more of an intuitive thing—how certain music sounds good in certain environments, and other kinds of music sound good in other environments. How I want to live is more in line with the way nature moves. Finding parallels in nature to human life—because we are all connected; we are a part of nature. And we have seasons too, just like fall, winter, spring. That kind of thing. And this whole idea of my writing, and how I want to be like water … that just comes from the experience of spending a lot of time in nature and noticing things. Being more of an observer, really, and wanting to mimic that in my own personal life. 

Gray: Are you anxious about climate change? 

Portner: I mean, I go back and forth … For me personally, the way I want to play a part is by making sure I feel like I’m living right by nature and doing things like getting plastic out of my life as much as possible. And being aware of my carbon footprint, so to speak. We’re doing that with Animal Collective on the upcoming tour, trying to figure out how we can go on tour and make the smallest footprint possible and make sure we’re doing right. The other side of that is, you know, it is a dark, confusing and often frustrating topic and sometimes it’s hard to delve so much into it. Because things aren’t looking very good, you know what I mean? But it’s important in life to be positive and stay positive, and sometimes dwelling on it too much can just lead to a dark outlook. 

Gray: Merriweather Post Pavillion turned 10 this year, which is wild to me. I imagine that’s true for you too.

Portner: [Laughs] Oh yeah, yeah. For us, it’s been sort of a series of records that become earmarks for us year after year. When I bring it up to friends, they’re like ‘10 years ago? That’s crazy.’ I just had that conversation with a friend of mine. Yeah, it’s so wild. 

Gray: What’s the biggest difference between now and then, in terms of how you approach making music together? 

Portner: I think in a way over the past couple years we’ve kind of come full circle, to where we were maybe more earlier on. Where we’re just trying to find more time to do various projects and solo projects. And I feel like for a while, we got caught up in pushing and touring as a band called ‘Animal Collective.’ And I don’t necessarily think when we originally started that was our goal really. … We’re just trying to have space for all the stuff we want to do. 

Gray: To that point, let’s talk about your solo work. Cows on Hourglass Pond [2019] is really beautiful. I’ve been listening to it all day. 

Portner: Oh, thanks! 

Gray: Can you tell me a little about making it, and how it fits into your discography? 

Portner: Every record I do, and Animal Collective too most of the time, comes from hearing kind of a sound in my head and sort of heading in that direction. … Or maybe some of the songs come first and then I’m sort of like, ‘OK. I see this. This is the direction things are going.’ … My sister [Abby Portner] and I, who often collaborate—she does visual work for a lot of Animal Collective stuff and my solo stuff. We got an opportunity to do a show together in Copenhagen for a documentary festival [where] I started writing all these songs. Most of which are on Cows, and some of which are actually going to come out on an EP I’m going to put out later in the year.

My previous solo record, Eucalyptus, didn’t really translate to the live experience. It was more of an intimate acoustic kind of bedroom record. I wanted this stuff to [have] more of the live sound that I was doing at the time and have been doing for the past couple years. … I recorded the songs in my studio at home, on tape. Wanting to record a record on tape just kind of took me back to the way we started Animal Collective. It was kind of a turn back to that style of doing things. 

Gray: How did your collaboration with [The Grateful Dead’s] Mickey Hart come together? 

Portner: I think he had been aware of Animal Collective stuff for some years. … I feel like we were on his radar. And me just being a huge Grateful Dead fan from when I was young. They were the first band that I really latched onto, maybe in the fourth or fifth grade with their Greatest Hits. And then, you know, I moved into being a kid who liked to go see them. I went to seven or eight Dead shows, luckily enough, in the early 90s. Aside from just being able to collaborate on his music … he was sort of a mentor in a way. We talked about writing and lyrics, and being able to also sing Robert Hunter lyrics which had never been sung before. To go through a notebook of Robert Hunter lyrics, who recently passed away a few days ago. Yeah, it just blew my mind. I’m happy to say I feel like I’m a part of that fabric that is The Dead, you know? That world. 

Gray: Your show here in Tulsa is the first of your fall tour. You’ve played Cain’s Ballroom before, right?

Portner: Yes, we have. Early on during the Painting With cycle. It was great. I love it there. It’s an awesome venue—so much history. I love early country music. I’m excited to get back there.

Gray: What can people expect this time around?

Portner: We have a lot of new songs we’ve been working on, which is kind of typical for us, that I’m very excited about. But we’re also going to play a bunch of old songs, so I think it’s just going to be a mix. We have a lot of songs to play. So I feel like from night to night sets will be kind of different. We’ll be keeping it simpler on the visual side, but there will be a visual element too. 

Gray: We’re looking forward to having you back. 

Portner: Yeah. Looking forward to being there. 

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