Baltimore’s experimental pop veterans Animal Collective originally formed as a duo of David Portner, a.k.a. Avey Tare, and Noah Lennox, a.k.a. Panda Bear. Over the years—and with their partners in weird, harmony-laden musical crime, Josh Dibb (Deakin) and Brian Weitz (Geologist)—the group has cemented themselves as indie icons, seeming to always push the envelope with the soundscapes they create while also peppering their output with undeniably catchy hooks stuck within and augmented by rich instrumentation.
The members of Animal Collective each have their own identity, though, and both Portner and Lennox recently came out with new solo albums (Cows On Hourglass Pond and Buoys, respectively). Here, the musician known as Avey Tare discusses the inspiration and process of his solo record, the importance of improvisation in live music, why solo endeavors strengthen Animal Collective as a group and what the band has in store next for fans in 2019 and beyond.
I’ve read that your last solo album, Eucalyptus, started as a solo/bedroom type thing. Is that your regular solo writing M.O.?
Yeah, it’s pretty much my M.O. for all the songs that I write, depending on when [I write it], where I am, what’s going on with my own life or what’s going on with Animal Collective at the time. For example, I’m through the creative process, obviously, of this record, and now a bunch of solo stuff, so anything I’ve been writing in the past five months or so, or even last summer, has been dedicated to Animal Collective. It’s hard to write on tour, traveling around. A lot of the songs I write just sort of come into my head. It’s like that old saying, you know, feeling that the music’s not mine, really. It’s coming from somewhere else and I’m just channeling it or something like that. I tend to lean toward believing that, because it’s not very often that I sit down and work out a song. I do work out parts, but usually the bulk of the song just comes to me—like the melody will come into my head and then, if I have my phone around or a personal recorder, I’ll usually go right to my piano or my guitar and get that basic thing recorded. Most of the songs I write progress from there.
With these songs, it happened that I was asked to play a show in Copenhagen at CPH:DOX, which is a great documentary festival that Animal Collective and myself and my sister Abby have done a bunch of stuff for, whether it’s playing shows or visual stuff. Abby was asked to do a visual performance there, and she wanted me to help her out. The original set that I intended to do was gonna be a set that I’d played before that was more DJ-style, more electronic, but it turns out that I lost a lot of that material when I went to go look for it. Because I had moved from my place in LA. So I decided to just write a whole new set, and it really opened up the door for me for a year of some pretty creative times and I ended up writing a bunch of songs of 2017. Last year, I just closed myself up in my home studio for the winter—January, February, March—and started recording the songs. I hadn’t really done my own recording in a long time. I mean, I do a lot of demo-ing and lighter stuff like that at home, but it had been a while since I sat down and wanted to record a proper record and make it sound the way I wanted it to sound. I was like, “Well, I want to get better at this.” So it was me taking the time to be able to do that, as well as record the record.
Did you have anyone else in the studio?
I mixed it with my friend Adam McDaniel, who has a studio called Drop of Sun [in Asheville, NC]. I recorded it on tape machine, on half-inch tape, and I wanted to keep that vibe with the analog thing going, so we mixed it on a really basic little mixer using outboard effects and stuff like that and trying not to use any computer plug-ins or anything.
Do you usually try to record to tape?
By myself, yeah, in all the personal recording I’ve done. I still use a tape machine I got in high school. At that time—back in my day [laughs]—there wasn’t a lot of computer recording going on yet, so all of us in Animal Collective sort of got into recording and making music via DAP machines and tape machines still. It wasn’t until we moved to New York that we were opened up to the computer way of doing thing—and it was really more Noah [Lennox] and Josh [Dibb] that went that route. I just stuck to demo-ing stuff like that because, whenever we would do Animal Collective stuff, we’d always go into a studio where we’d have an engineer that would be using the computer, so I kind of put proper recording for myself aside for a bit, ‘cause I was mostly focusing on Animal Collective stuff. But yeah, I wanted to get back into it and I just love the way tape sounds. For the quality [I was going for] and what I was influenced by for this stuff, it seemed like tape would be the way to go.
And the songs were recorded in Asheville—is that where you’re living now?
Yeah—sometimes yeah. I kind of move around. Actually, [I’m here with] Josh and Jeremy Hyman, who plays drums with Animal Collective sometimes and went on the Painting With tour with us. They’re gonna help me out on tour with these songs, so we’re in the middle of a practice session.
If these songs are always kind of coming to you, how do you know when it’s time to make an album, especially with different projects going on?
It starts with testing the waters of what feels right to do and when. You know, as Animal Collective progressed over the aughts or whatever, we started touring longer and longer for each record. So, by Merriweather Post Pavilion and Centipede Hz, we were touring for a really long time—for us, not compared to other bands. Some bands tour forever, and that’s not our thing. It was during the Merriweather touring—just because that was the first tour that felt like it was a very lengthy tour for us—I started thinking, “Oh, I think I’m pulling together a solo record in my head.” I finally wanted to sit down and record a solo record, which was [2010’s] Down There. Then it was just a matter of waiting for that tour to be over so I could have time at home to really focus on it. [Since then,] it’s been sort of trial and error, trying to figure out the best times to do this or that. In the last couple years, it’s been so separate in terms of when Animal Collective is doing stuff and when I have time on my own. Solo stuff—for me and the other guys—starts as an Animal Collective tour is dying down. That was definitely the case in 2017, when we had a couple Animal Collective tours but most of the year I had to myself at home, so I was able to write.
You mentioned that recording to tape was a good method considering some of the influences that affected this record. Can you talk a bit about that?
A lot of it was early rock-and-roll stuff. From doing the first set that I did—the Copenhagen one I was talking about—and then some where I incorporated songs from Eucalyptus with these newer songs, it became clear to me that it was going to be more of a guitar-centric record. And the guitars I’ve liked to listen to in the past few years are that old style of recording guitars, where they’re more textural, just sort of adding warmth to the melodies and that kind of thing, just getting the chords in there. I found that from a lot of Buddy Holly and early Waylon Jennings and early country—‘50s and ‘60s country stuff that was maybe a little bit more pop-centric. And I love Bo Diddley. It’s got a rawer vibe than my stuff, that early style of recording—like Sun Studios and Chess—it’s a few guys in a room with maybe one microphone. With the setup that I had, it was crucial for me to go for that, because I was using the same mediums.