As a key creative force within Animal Collective and as Avey Tare, Dave Portner’s sonic adventurism has never failed to bring unconventional ideas closer to the centre of popular music. Characteristically off-kilter, his work seems unbeholden to any sonic ideal or expectation. Animal Collective notwithstanding, forthcoming album Eucalyptus delivers one of his most powerful, intimate and beautifully compelling musical statements to date. Although, he’s yet to release any of it publically.
An elemental blend of psychedelic folk and electro-acoustic meditation, the LP’s fragmented sounds meld into a mesmeric blur of layered production and disarmingly emotive song. Amidst dense soundscapes and avant-pop leanings, Portner’s uncompromising creativity continually pushes outward. The album embodies the gleaming idea that popular music is and should be something forever striving to surpass its own limitations. Ahead of the release of Eucalyptus, we caught up with Portner who took us further into the influences, collaborations and experiences which colour his remarkable new work.
Music Feeds: Some of the songs on Eucalyptus put across a lot of feeling. Tracks like ‘In Pieces’, ‘Selection of A Place’ and ‘When You Left Me’ especially. Were you intentionally going for a more heart-laid-bare approach this time around?
Dave Portner: I think that’s just how the songs came together. When I started writing the first group of them, ‘Selection of a Place’, ‘Melody Unfair’, and ‘Coral Lords’, they all kind of had a lot of nostalgia. I’ve said [it] before, but a lot of good music has a nostalgic element to it, it’s dealing with something lost. I feel like that certainly rings true for me. I definitely feel like a lot of these songs are about something lost, something missing or something dying. Not always in a negative way. I think I also saw that this record and the group of songs are as much the sun rising as the sun setting, you kind of need both. They both, kind of, happen in a day and in a life. There’s certainly a positive aspect as well.
But just in terms of the mood of the record, it’s certainly mellower all round. Once it started coming together, those sounds and that kind of mood, I wanted to keep it that way. ‘Jackson 5’ is the only one which is a standout. It’s a little bit more of an upbeat song. I feel I really only included it in the record as a nice twist so that the record would continue on a nice journey rather than being bloaty or stretched apart the entire time. I wanted it to have some twists and turns.
MF: At the same time the album has this very beautiful and meditative quality. There’s a lot of repetition and mellowing elements. You’ve talked before about meditation as being a big part of your life, is there a connection here that’s coming through in your music?
DP: I think I like and approach listening to music in a meditative sort of way. I like to put on micro tonal drone music, contemporary classical music or mellow music to calm down. You know what I mean? Just to zone out. For me, it was wanting to make a record that could serve that purpose for other people. Some of my friends have referred to the record as dreamy in a good sort of turn-the-lights-down, maybe a half-asleep, half-awake kind of way and I think that’s awesome. It works for me, definitely.
MF: Was the sequencing of the record a big effort for you or was it all hanging together in your head beforehand?
DP: It mostly came together, in that I had most of the songs, by 2014. But after that, I kind of gave up on the record for a while to work on the Animal Collective record [Painting With]. When I started going back to the songs and trying to piece them all together I wrote a couple more. ‘Since You Left Me’ and ‘The Secret’ were just to, kind of, fill out what I thought was missing from the flow of things. But yeah, I was able to get the sequencing together before even recording the songs. I had a good feeling about it.
MF: You’ve brought on a number of really talented experimental artists to work on the record. Alongside your partner Angel Deradoorian, there are people like Eyvind Kang, Jessika Kenney and Susan Alcorn. Are these people you’ve been looking to work with for a while?
DP: Well it’s different for everyone. Angel Deradoorian is just a long-time friend of mine and we constantly collaborate. It’s her voice that I love as well as her being able to sing the parts exactly the way I want them. Eyvind is an old music friend. We recently reconnected because he moved to California and started teaching at CalArts [The California Institute of the Arts]. I set up an all-night ambient evening in Los Angeles and he came out to it and Brian [Weitz] performed too.
I used some of the material from Eucalyptus in my set and I was just talking to Eyvind after it. We just connected about the music. He was pointing out certain things in my set and it made me psyched that he was pointing them out. I saw that his material had a similar approach to my music.
It made me start thinking it would be good to get some other instrumentation in there, hand it over to other people. I haven’t often done that sort of thing before, so I thought it would be cool. I handed it over to Eyvind and he worked on some stuff, a lot of it with his partner Jessika Kenney who sings on the record. He came up with a lot of stuff then my producer Josh [Dibb] and I just went through it all and decided where we felt like the album needed Eyvind’s sounds and where it didn’t.
Susan Alcorn, the pedal steel player, she kind of balanced it out. Where Susan was really strong and would shine through was where I didn’t need Eyvind and vice versa…
MF: Is Susan another contemporary of yours? I think she’s been around for a little longer…
DP: She was awesome to work with. I’m a big fan of the pedal steel guitar. I like it in country [music] and I particularly like it Hawaiian music. I listen to a lot of Hawaiian music and a lot of instrumental stuff. I like the more experimental sound-based approach. It reminds me a lot of the reason why I like experimental music. The textures are really kind of awesome.
MF: San Francisco and the West Coast have always been this traditional hotbed for experimental music, a lot of people doing a lot of crazy things musically…
DP: I felt I haven’t really connected as much to Los Angeles. I mean I’m a big fan of the history. I like older L.A. music, garage and psychedelic music: Love, The Doors, The Byrds, Crosby Stills and Nash even. I love Neil Young. A lot of modern experimental L.A. stuff I don’t really know about but I’m sure it’s there.
I’m a huge fan of the music that’s come out San Francisco and I feel like even though I come from the East Coast there’s a whole connection, this lineage to a lot of experimental stuff that was happening in the ’80s and early ’90s. It was happening between Seattle, Portland and San Francisco and I kind of grew up listening to that. And the music from San Francisco, of course, goes back to The Grateful Dead. Having played music publicly for 15 years or so, I feel like it’s good to be part of this conversation that’s been happening. A big part of it is being able to turn people on to smaller bands from these areas.
MF: So there’s an element of creating awareness for lesser known artists that are motivating you?
DP: Yeah, definitely. I think it’s awesome to get these people in and to show others that other stuff is out there. Changing people’s awareness of how they can write music, even pop music, in a different way. For me and for Animal Collective that’s why we have chosen to take people on tour with us and have them on our records. It’s also because we like their music too! We’ve noticed that our fans seem to be pretty open-minded and positive about music, they just want to explore. So they’re usually fairly open to things we turn them on to.
MF: Is it challenging working in more unconventional instrumentation into the more conventional world of popular music or is it just a case of ‘whatever sounds good’?
DP: It’s usually just what sounds good, but I have a grasp of everything that’s influencing this record. There’s jazz, contemporary classical music, freeform music, but also folk and singer-songwriter music, anything from Kris Kristofferson and Fred Neil to more out there stuff like Buffy Sainte-Marie. I think it’s just matter of feeling… It feels like composing more, creating longer form pieces rather than just writing traditional songs. Animal Collective stuff is structured more traditionally so I wanted this group of songs to feel just a little looser but still emotive. To express the kind of feelings I do in Animal Collective but in a looser way. I think that lent well to the crazier instrumentation, but also because the music is so minimal there’s just a lot more space for interesting things.
MF: Both in Animal Collective and with your solo work you always seem to have pushed outward from the bounds of what you’ve done before. Do you ever look back over your shoulder and revisit older recordings?
DP: I don’t do it often. Sometimes I do it more than I have to. I recently had to approve a new test pressing of Sun Tongs, but, for me, having a more hi-fi sound system and turntable than I had back when we made that record, it was a treat to be able to sit down and hear it on a good system and be like, “Wow this sounds really good!” I mean, I’m proud of it!
Other times I’ll listen to records when I’m making a new record, Eucalyptus for instance. I go back and maybe listen to other stuff I’ve done just to compare the mixes and how the music is presented. I try to see how my music can be different or similar, just out of curiosity. To see if there are any similar threads running through all this different music, now especially because there’s so much of it!
‘Eucalyptus’ is out Friday 21st July. Pre-Order here. Below is a letter from Portner to ‘Eucalyptus’ listeners.