Animal Collective’s Avey Tare Opens Up About His Creative Process, Self-Doubt and Screaming

“Sad to go away but I guess we’re supposed to/ world in a jar”

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These are the opening lines to Avey Tare’s new song, “Wake My Door,” which dropped on April 8. Announcing its release on Instagram, the Animal Collective co-founder addressed the song’s timely message by saying that “hope and sonic nourishment seem like a small thing to offer when there are people out there really stepping it up. My heart is still shining on all the health workers out there in the thick of it and everyone out there working and giving all of themselves to make some order in the chaos… I want to get music out there and create some new energies around you, maybe make you smile.”

Avey Tare — whose real name is David Portner — is no stranger to creating new energies. Since Animal Collective’s first record “Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished” debuted in 2000, Portner has been on the front lines of indie music, pushing its limits and inspiring a countless number of artists. He began putting out solo work in 2010 with his record “Down There” and has since released two additional records and a handful of EPs. The sum of his creative output is well acclaimed and adored by fans, but even he is facing the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic. Portner recently sat down for an interview with American Songwriter

How has this quarantine been for you?

The mood of the times is very difficult and strange. My creativity is all about being in the moment, following whatever inspires me. I suppose if things just aren’t around inspiring me, it’s just not going to happen. It’s a day-to-day thing. Though, I think now is as creative or not-creative as any other time.

Any advice for readers who are trying to be creative at this time?

I think not pushing it is one of the most important things. I make music at home — I have a modest little music area in my basement — so my day-to-day work involves me going down to my studio. The worst thing is to go down there and have nothing happen. It’s a bad feeling. For me, the best thing to do then is to step away from it. 

I also tend to get into a process where I’ll kinda have different projects going at the same time. ‘Projects’ is sorta a vague word for it… it’s actually grown into a day-to-day process that could include visual art or music. It’s good for me to have one thing to be working on, let’s say working on vocals for a specific song, and if that gets frustrating, if I start hitting a wall, I have something else to switch to like working on writing or just playing piano. For me, it’s all tied in to Animal Collective — I do visual stuff for Animal Collective too — so it all bleeds into one process. 

So, does all of your creative work feel like a singular process? As in, music and visual art are different vehicles but it’s the same expression?

I think there are so many ways of looking at, defining it and talking about it that it becomes tough. For me, visual art and music kinda have to be a separate thing. It’s a totally different feeling and I enjoy it that way. I’ve made more and more visual art over the years, but for a long time it became much more of a cathartic ‘I’m not there’ kind of process. When I do visual art, there’s a side of it — and music has this too to a certain degree — where I do it to zone out, not be present and just let what I’m working on guide me. In a sense music is like that, but I also make my living off making music. So, there’s a side of myself and that whole process which is… well, that’s a part of it. I’ve been working on it in a different way than visual art, and for so much longer, that I’m much more aware of myself within the musical process — what I like, what I don’t like, what’s working, what’s not.

At the same time, there is an overall feeling — in the world of Animal Collective, Avey Tare or just a record I’m working on — where it is all just one thing. I’m as much inspired by visual art when I’m making a song as I am by other music — same with film. The way I approach making a song will often be inspired more by a visual artist, or the way someone would make a collage or painting, than something like listening to John Lennon.

Does your writing process differ from project to project? Do you approach writing for Avey Tare differently than you approach writing for Animal Collective?

I feel like there’s an initial feeling a certain song will give me… but, honestly, a lot of the time I’m sitting down to specifically write songs for Avey Tare — now I’m sitting down to write songs for Animal Collective. For so long, I just assumed all the songs I wrote would be for Animal Collective. Aside from doing stuff on my own very sporadically back in the aughts, I didn’t have as much vision for being a solo artist. Even though within Animal Collective I’m like one part of the sum. But, I also just enjoy collaborating with people.

For Avey Tare, it’s just been a personal thing that’s grown over time. It’s only been more recently that I’ve started sitting down to specifically write Avey Tare songs or Animal Collective songs. Part of that just happened by default in a weird way where I just had time to do solo stuff. ‘Down There,’ was really the first record. In between ‘Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished’ and ‘Down There,’ everything I wrote was focused on collaboration, even though I definitely wrote the songs and the parts. It’s just grown into a different thing. Now, if I’m just sitting around and get inspired by a feeling I’ll work. Especially now, since there’s a bunch of Animal Collective songs already written that we want to record. I’m in a place now where if new stuff comes up it’s most likely to go to Avey Tare or somewhere else because there are so many Animal Collective songs we want to record.

With any song, the goal is to go somewhere new. A lot of the time when I’m working on a group of songs I’ll be inspired by a new instrument. That’s also a good way to switch it up. If I’m using an instrument for Avey Tare — for the last couple of records I’ve been using a guitar a lot — then when it comes to Animal Collective stuff I’ll be less likely to start in on that instrument. I do that because if I have a routine going that becomes too familiar to me, I don’t want to carry that over into whatever I’m going to cook up with Animal Collective.

Right now though, anything goes. Last December I put out an Avey Tare EP and I did some shows around New York. I kinda wanted to put Avey Tare on hold and not play any more shows this year, I felt like I was putting a lot of my Animal Collective offtime energy into it. We’ve been really gearing up and are in the process of working on new Animal Collective material. Everything, for a while, was supposed to be Animal Collective stuff, but then this quarantine happened. Now, for a lot of reasons, that Animal Collective stuff is on hold. So now, whatever inspires me, I follow. I’ve been messing around a lot with some guitar, electric guitar and sequencer stuff.

How have advancements in technology impacted your creative process?

There’s a positive side to it and a negative side to it. For me, I’m up for staying new and fresh and I think new forms of technology can be awesome in terms of inspiration. I don’t think, however, they necessarily mean advancing. I think song form and that sort of thing is driven by the person using it. I feel like I’ve looked for things that allow the process to remain organic. It’s sorta ‘how can I find technology that takes me into the future and keeps by up to date but also has an organic attack to it that suits my personality best?’ I prefer a very hands-on way of using things. I feel like after the last couple of years it’s started getting more user-friendly, but for a while there was a lot of technology that was just too complicated for my musical process, which leans on doing things on the fly. Improvisation is always a tough thing to integrate with computers and modern technology. Gotta keep the organic flow of everything going.

What’s the timeline of your process look like?

It changes a lot with the more songs I write. I’m harder on myself now. That is one thing about this quarantine situation, it’s sorta opened me up a little more and allowed me to be a little bit freer. I’m not necessarily making anything for anything specific right now. I’m taking a lot more in stride, or as it comes, with less scrutiny than I would have any other time.

Generally, I’m a pretty fast writer. When I’m writing a lot, I’ll maybe get two or three songs a week — maybe less than that. But those are usually just ideas, and a lot of them will never be fully fleshed out. The ones I really latch onto, in terms of timeline, take a bit longer. Other times, things come together really fast. Writing the basic element of a song, the heart of a song — the structure, the melody, the lyrics — will be the first part, but then when I go into the recording process I’ll discover a different side of it. A lot if it has to do with time and place, my inspiration is very in-the-moment. It reminds me of reading jazz history how some die-hard Animal Collective fans will be like ‘why does this sound different?’ when they hear a recording of a song they first heard live. The big reason for that is it’s just a different time and place. From the time of writing a song to the time of recording a song, the song is going to be a lot different. It’s hard for me to make something that’s based on the past as opposed to focusing on present feeling and emotion.

Kinda as if a recording is just a photograph of the song at that moment.

Yeah, that’s the beautiful thing and the curse about records. They trap a song in a time and a moment in a way that I don’t really think you should do — but also there are so many great records and thank God for records.

Have you ever been tempted to re-record a song?

I’ve never even really thought about that. I have had old songs that come back around, which I suppose is my version of that.

You mentioned reading jazz history — who are some of your jazz favorites?

I like Eric Dolphy a lot, Charles Mingus, Louis Armstrong. It took me a while to get into jazz. I didn’t really get into it until 2009 or 2010, and then I feel deep in for a while.

There were always jazz records here and there over the years that would inspire me — I’ve always loved Sun Ra. The nature and the freedom of free jazz and improvisation has always been something that inspires Animal Collective. Since 2010, I’ve come to really appreciate the sonic and tones of jazz, which I don’t think I did in the past. The most recent Animal Collective stuff has a big jazz influence.

Avey Tare (photo by Madelyn Anderson)

Are you ever critical or doubtful during your writing process? How do you overcome this?

It’s hard. It feels bad. I feel fortunate that I came of age making music with a strong friend group around that supported me and gave me confidence in myself, but also happened to be people I looked up to in regards to making music. They made stuff I really respected and was into and that was my audience. It really helped me grow. If it wasn’t for the people around, the Animal Collective guys, I don’t think I would’ve gotten any confidence. I really owe it to those guys, especially Animal Collective, for giving it to me really early on, like in high school. 

But my self-doubt hasn’t gotten any easier to deal with. I feel like there’s always a period when I’m working on a song where I hit a wall where I’m like ‘is this even any good? I don’t know.’ A lot of that comes from the fact that I can’t really listen to stuff over and over and over again. When you’re making something, you’re in a weird world of yourself — or at least I am — and that has its weird psychological aftereffects. For me, that manifests in self-doubt, over-examination. I’ve been doing this for so long now too that I’m extra hard on myself. 

It’s even at a point where I know that if other people heard it they wouldn’t think that or be as critical of me, but it’s just hard to get over. For me, it comes to a point where I have to play what I’m working on to someone else just so I can get an outside perspective. I think that’s why I don’t work on anything entirely on my own in terms of larger projects, I always get other ears in there before it’s done. Otherwise, I get too wrapped up in myself and in over-examining things. I think that that’s something everyone does. It’s a healthy process to put your ego in check.

You mention that you’re harder on yourself now than you used to be — do you hold yourself up against your earlier work?

Definitely. It’s an odd thing to have made things that other people hold in such high regard. As much as it makes me happy — and for the most part I want our music to reach as many people as possible — but when other people’s opinions start getting involved… well, with our stuff there are some people who don’t get it at all and aren’t into it and I’m totally aware of that, and then there are people who love it and put it really high up there with stuff they love. Either side of that can really mess with your mind. It messes with my mind. It’s hard for it not to. At the end of the day, there’s always been a side of me where I’m doing this purely because I enjoy doing it. That’s not a hurdle to get over, but it’s the most helpful thing for me. My love and passion for doing this has been the same since high school. When I come up with a song I’m excited about, it’s still the same feeling, and that’s what I’m in search of. That’s the good stuff. That’s what I look for whenever I get self-critical or overcome with doubt. The heart of it for me is thinking about what I enjoy about it. That takes me away from my ego and helps me not have such a hard time with it.

This pandemic, this quarantine, is an interesting time in regards to that. What I’m doing… it’s hard to make money. We had tours canceled and that’s my biggest income. It makes me wonder why I do this — err, it keeps me in check. I make music because I sincerely love to make music, I have a good time doing it and I love sharing it with people. I’m not doing it because I’m trying to prove anything. A lot of those things have come up in this time.

Maybe it’s that I feel a little bit more confident in this time. I’ve wavered in confidence over the years. I hate getting into capitalism — I just don’t really enjoy talking in political terms — but I’m in that system. It’s not my choice, but I am. That can mess with you too. I have to put food on the table, my bandmates have families. Over the course of Animal Collective, all of that stuff has changed, so many things have come and gone. At first, back in the day, it wasn’t on our mind to make music for money. In some ways, it still isn’t. It’s hard to explain, there are so many aspects to it. What has been solidified to me now is my drive to do it. It’s definitely not driven by wanting to make a profit, even though in so many ways that has been a driving force. I needed to make money, I needed to live, I needed to use music to make money. It’s been both. I feel like it’s been important for me to maintain this other sort of drive for doing it and keep that in my heart. Right now, to me, that’s the most important thing.

What are you listening to these days?

That’s always the toughest question because I listen to so much. The Cate Le Bon record that came out last year has been on heavy rotation for me since it came out. One of my more favorite records that I’ve heard in a while. Especially in terms of songwriting.

In the morning I’ll listen to more mellow music. Ambient, new age-y, spiritual music. I listen to a lot of jazz throughout the day, kinda searching for new stuff. I listen to a lot of Persian music. I listen to a lot of electronic music. 

When you scream in your music it’s always so melodic and powerful — what is your scream technique?

I think I just got influenced by other screamers, or people who I thought had an intense… well, maybe I don’t think of it so much as ‘screaming’ as much as emoting in a way where it’s still melodic, but still on the verge of being textural and rough sounding. like The Four Tops on a song like ‘Bernadette,’ the vocal delivery is so intense. Otis Redding as well. I know I mentioned not being influenced by John Lennon earlier, but he actually is a big influence on me. His first solo record is a big influence on me lyrically, and his screaming and vocal style has been very influential. Kurt Cobain as well. His voice sounds crazy to me sometimes when it’s in that broken apart, scream-y range. Those are the people I’ve taken notes from.

Other people have asked me about how I keep my voice so strong screaming like that. It’s just the way I’ve gotten into it and am used to doing it. I had many years where it was hard — it’s not a healthy thing. I don’t recommend trying to scream like that. I think that I’ve been doing it for so long too that I just have a tough skin layer down there that’ll protect me.

Listen to Avey Tare’s new song “Wake My Door” below:

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