Avey Tare on Touring, Nirvana, Animal Collective's Legacy, and His Great New Solo Album

Avey Tare on Touring, Nirvana, Animal Collective's Legacy, and His Great New Solo Album
Avey Tare by Amy Grace

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I love Dave's latest solo album and always enjoy checking in with him every time I've interviewed him, I think we had a great conversation this time about his own songwriting as well as Animal Collective's legacy.

How many cats do you have?

What are their names?
Caramel and Nanook.

Have you had them for a while?
Yeah. I’ve had Caramel for 13 years at least, and I’ve had Nanook since she was born, about nine years.

There’s something to having a cat owner as a pet that coincides with the owner’s personality my whole life. What draws you to cats?
Well, I’ve been around cats my whole life—as well as dogs. I’m drawn to dogs, but cats are easier to take care of for someone who travels a ton. My one cat is a little more hands-on because I need to give him medication daily, which is what “Neurons” is kind of about. [Laughs] I love cats. I think there’s something more alien about them, and they seem a little more self-sufficient. It’s almost like they’re your master rather than the other way around.

There’s a certain mystery about cats that makes them intriguing.
I feel like a lot of people who don’t like cats argue that they have no personality. It’s kind of like what people say about alligators in a weird way, but you see it with alligators—maybe they don’t spend a lot of time around alligators, although I do spend some time around alligators. With cats…it’s funny, Brian just got two new cats, and he’s been telling me about how he’s been bonding with them a lot, and the connections have been getting deep. You just have to spend time around them a lot. There is also this weird mystery to cats because they don’t always let on as to what they want, and what their motivation is—or even if they’re listening to you. It’s in their nature, the way that they are. That’s the cat personality.

You’re the only person in the group I haven’t spoken to since the newsletter started. How have the last few years been?
Good! I mean, good and terrible. [Laughs] As most people would probably say, the last three years were a lot different than life was ever before—a lot of adjusting, a lot of changes. 2020 was difficult and dark, but I definitely learned a lot about myself, and I’m grateful that I’m in a pretty solid relationship with my girlfriend. Because of the quarantining, I had to devote a lot of time to that—but, also, I wanted to, and it’s a good thing. This year feels like a big year of change and heading in new directions—at least, for me, and the people I talk to. Real change is imminent, people are making big decisions in their life. I think the world feels like that, too—if some changes aren’t made…it feels like there’s bad stuff that’s going to happen.

Your music is very personal lyrically, but if somebody just put one of your records on for the first time, I’m not sure they’d pick that up the way they would with a more straightforward singer-songwriter. Tell me about expressing yourself lyrically and how you feel about it.
It’s a little all over the place. It’s certainly something that I’ve worked at and gotten stronger at, the ability to express myself. The first part of my career or whatever you want to call it, maybe I didn’t think about it as much. Specific words and wordplay went into the song’s worlds the way an instrument would. It’s like they were a part of a band, not being used the way traditional lyrics would be. I used them more to enhance rhythm and melody, as well as the environment, since our music is so focused on the environment, space, and mood it’s creating. So often in the past, my lyrics have played into that, with certain words poking out here and there to evoke images and things for people.

A side of that is, at certain times in my life, I don’t want to be so forthright. I’ve gotten a lot more honest in the last few years, but I think people connect to music because they find themselves in there. They relate it to their lives, and in some sense you could say the song becomes their song. I think the scary thing about that is that sometimes people can really think that they know me, and relate to me in a certain way, because they think that the exact same things have happened tous, or that I’m feeling the way they’re feeling. And everybody does this—what, with all the things I attach myself to or have a fondness for—so I’ve purposefully left some holes in there so people can relate it more to their lives, instead of having it feel like I’m dwelling on myself so much. Sometimes I’m worried that it’ll come out as narcissistic or too much like me. That might have to do with the fact that my musical persona, Avey Tare, is a bit different from Dave Portner, which was very important to me from the beginning.

But I think I found that critical response to our lyrics has often been apathetic, maybe lackluster even to how we see lyrics playing into what we’re doing. Or even overlooked, a lot of the time. An example would be Painting With, where we felt like we were dwelling on some cool topics, and for whatever reason people took that record as it would. The lyrics were rarely ever focused on, it was more about the sound palette—and maybe that’s because people had so many problems with the sound palette that they didn’t think about the lyrics. Or maybe it’s because we’re the kind of band where, as you’re saying, you don’t really look to the lyrics right away. On the other hand, it seems like for Merriweather people really did look at the lyrics—maybe I’m totally wrong.

Lately, I’ve thought more about how to express myself differently and experiment with being more open and honest, and I’m also just inspired by music and things that are more forthright. I’m also trying to experience and practice deep honesty and openness in my life in the past few years—in my relationships, and with myself—so it would seem organic to me that that would flow into my creative process. I spend so much time on my own working on this stuff, so it all works together with my internal work.

As a band and as a solo artist, you have a passionate fanbase. You mentioned earlier about people seeing themselves in your music to the point where it’s potentially uncomfortable—have there been any specific fan interactions where they’ve assumed a closeness that they otherwise shouldn’t have?
Oh, definitely—almost to the point of reinforcing that, while all the music I write comes from a personal place…it can just get bizarre when people assume you have certain experiences that I’m not alluding to.

“Hey Bog” has a little bit of history in terms of previous live shows. How often are you returning to stuff that you’ve been workshopping or had put in your vault? I remember seeing you live circa Down There and hearing a lot of material I’d never heard before, and I’m not sure I’ve heard it since.
It happens when I have space or time for it. I’ve had a lot of time around my studio lately, working primarily on putting together a new solo set for my live tour and messing around with some other stuff. I keep track of all the stuff I write and do by voice memo—I have melodies and bits of songs, or even full songs, coming to me all the time, and I’m always trying to capture the sketches. I have another personal recorder too—tons and tons of little recordings. So time periods like this, I’ll sit down and think, “Maybe I want some new jams for the tour,” and I go back into the archive and see what I like. Lately I’ve been stumbling upon stuff where I’ve been like, “Sweet, I gotta do something with that.” It’s stuff that I always wanted to do something with but just passed over while getting caught up with something else.

For that Down There tour, there were a few jams from that tour where I could have easily started another record. But my solo stuff has never worked that way for me. I can so easily just move on. Maybe because, in the past, I’ve put most of my eggs in Animal Collective’s basket. Doing solo stuff here and there was just when I had the time, or when the ideas were really strong to me. But then it would come time for Animal Collective to kick in again, which is why I never did anything with those Down There songs. Time moves on, and those songs were just of the moment for me—and so much about music is in the moment, and what’s happening right now when it comes to inspiration. Even to the point where if I’m spontaneously playing music, I feel like I have to want to do it. It’s not easy for me to just keep a song around because I have it. It’s so easy for me to just let things drift into the past, and see them as a document of time.

I think music, in general, should always be changing. The album format—historically, it’s something we’re all very used to, and I love a good record, and I’ll never stop listening to records—but there is a side of it that is very crazy as an artist, solidifying a time period and always having it be that thing. I just don’t work that way, which is why it’s so hard for me to revisit old stuff or stuff that’s been recorded.

I didn’t see you on the Time Skiffs tour, but I heard the band were playing some new stuff as well.
“New” is a relative term in our world. [Laughs] It was “new” to people in that they weren’t on Time Skiffs, but all the stuff we were doing was from the same group of songs, just recorded separately. We’d been playing it alongside the Time Skiffs stuff since we wrote it all together in 2018 and 2019.

I was re-listening to Ballet Slippers the other day and thinking about how Animal Collective’s live approach has always shifted—the only thing that stays the same is that nothing ever really stays the same. How have things shifted for you at this point regarding playing live?
The last decade has just been mountainous and rocky when it comes to trying to get a hold of how to play live. We’re a band that has eleven or twelve records of stuff that we can play music from, but we’re also really inspired by what we’re currently up to, and improvising in the moment.

The Merriweather era on Ballet Slippers really brought that all into our face, because suddenly there was all this we had to accomplish with a live set in terms of having put out a record that was very popular, for us, and had a lot of songs people were latching onto and coming out to see. With that was figuring out how we should play those songs, and whether to approach the live set as we had to that point—which was mostly writing new material for the tours and playing a few old songs—or shifting a little bit more. At first, we were a little thrown off by it, because the people around us at our label were like, “I don’t know if it’s really coming across as you pulling it off.” They were thinking about us promoting the record, which we also completely understood.

But there’s also a history of Animal Collective being a specific band that does a specific thing, which involves not playing a lot of old stuff and always creating new stuff. The last decade has been us deconstructing all of that and letting it fall apart, while recreating Animal Collective as a live force. We’ve thought a lot about our roots and how we’re different from back then, and the live set has been a big part of it. It all still comes down to what the record we’re working on is like.

With Time Skiffs, we decided to work on things a little more traditionally, with basic instruments as opposed to a lot of samplers, which is how the Merriweather days were laid out. It opened up this new way of approaching our live set—not that we hadn’t used those kind of instruments before, but we were thinking about constructing old jams differently. In my opinion, they’ll never be what they were on the record—it’ll always feel a little bit different. It’s hard to talk about. There’s definitely differences, but they’re created by the moment we’re in.

I don’t think there’s one way that we’ll ever be. We’ll keep changing, evolving, and experimenting. This last round of touring was the most representational when it comes to our records. In past tours, older songs have been orchestrated considerably differently due to the nature of our setup and what our current album sounded like. Because we were just using piano, synth, bass, guitar, and drums this time around, we were able to piece things together to sound a little more like they were on their records, instead of changing it up so much. But I can’t say this is gonna remain that way. [Laughs] We could just do something else next, too.

You guys had to cancel your European tour dates, which was surprising to a lot of people who might not have paid close attention to what’s been going on with touring.
On the one hand, the decision was padded by the fact that, for us, it was a long time coming. That tour had been set up for about a year, and it was announced right when the record was. As the year progressed, it just got more and more obvious that it wasn’t going to be a possibility. It’s a sweet and salty kinda situation. I don’t feel good about any of it. The only solace is that we felt like we’d been on tour for a while, which also had to do with Josh and I getting COVID earlier in the year.

It’s hard not to blame it on COVID, but it messed up our whole groove. If not for COVID, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s already been a little more difficult, especially for my solo project, to get over to Europe. I had to cancel some U.S. and European dates for my last solo tour for similar reasons. I think there are people who assume that we’re rock stars. “They’re Animal Collective, they’re well-off. How can they not just be able to get over and easily tour?” But there’s a lot that goes into it, including the nature of our personal lives and the fact that we’re all spread out. There’s a lot we’ve made difficult for ourselves, and even though we get through it, it’s made aspects of being a working band difficult.

I saw some backlash here and there, and that stuff kind of stings. We all want to get out and play, and it’s the biggest bummer that we have to let people down. The only regrets I ever have about the history of our band is when we let people down. But sometimes there’s no other way out. It just has to happen. The risk of doing that tour was way too high for us, especially with COVID being around, and we couldn’t afford to take that risk. It’s a bummer, but I’m just trying to look into the future and hope we can get to other places and make it happen. I’m trying to figure out how we can change things to make it more feasible to get around and play.

It’s fascinating to me, when you said something about people having assumptions about you being rock stars. I think you’re right, there does seem to be a very skewed perception of how so-called “indie” artists are well-off in general—but, also, specifically, Animal Collective, as well as a lot of other bands who were around when the band started gaining notice in the 2000s. What’s been your awareness with audience perceptions of Animal Collective at this point, especially when it comes to how the band’s legacy sits?
It’s certainly not something any of us really dwell on—some of us more than others, but for me personally It’s not something I dwell on so much. I think it’s a dangerous path to go down, and maybe you run the risk of being influenced too much by what other peoples’ perceptions are. The music, and purely creating, is what I’m in it for, so it’s tough. But there is a side of it that’s important for me to shed that layer of Animal Collective being out there. There’s the complicated side of it, when you’re in a band making music, you make the decision to put the music out there.

I remember back in the Sung Tongs days, when we were touring before it was recorded, it was just Noah and I playing. We’d get up there and do our crazy version of Sung Tongs, which was definitely in line with how Animal Collective had been playing—we’d start, and not stop. Portugal was the last stop of the tour, at an electronic festival—and, typical for us, people didn’t realize what we’d be doing on that stage on that particular night, so we were an outlier. Somebody came up to us afterwards and said, “Yeah, it was good, but you were a little too focused. It seemed like you were doing it for yourselves, and not for the audience. It seemed cathartic, but inward.” I assume it was a negative criticism, because this person had a harder time getting into the set—but, also, it doesn’t help when you’re not playing recognizable music, which is also why people like to hear songs that they know.

That comment, from that point on, made me think a lot about performance. Where do you draw the line between a Mick Jagger, somebody more egotistical and showperson-y, versus doing something that people might be like, “I don’t see how you’re trying to connect with the audience”...It’s always been interesting for me to think about how Animal Collective does connect with people, and I think the band’s fanbase is varied and wide-ranging. There are people who connect to the “My Girls” side of things and want the outward connection, to see people making music—and then there are people who want that otherworldly experience where we do what we do and be Animal Collective. There’s no right or wrong to me, it’s just interesting.

The Painting With era showed us that there are a lot of people who want us to be a very specific Animal Collective—and it’s an Animal Collective they hold very near and dear to their heart, so I’m not getting down on anybody for that, I’m very appreciative that we have any fans at all. But I can’t say if that’s the Animal Collective we actually are. I don’t know if the Animal Collective we actually are is the Animal Collective that wrote “My Girls.” There are so many ways you could look at this band. When I think about bands I’ve liked throughout the years who wrote one-hit-wonders, I try and draw comparisons to us in terms of other peoples’ perspectives. Are we a one-hit-wonder band to certain people? It’s all really interesting to me.

One of the things I’ve loved about following you guys over the years is that you’re not concerned about what kind of Animal Collective people want. It makes the music more interesting to hear.
It’s also because there’s four of us. Having been in a band together for almost 30 years, there are times where we’re all on the same page, and times where we’re not. That’s why we don’t stress that everyone’s involved in every project, because it becomes more difficult if someone’s involved that’s not seeing eye-to-eye with what the rest of us are doing. But it also highlights that the different sides of Animal Collective have to do with our different personalities, and we’re open to all of our personalities coming out and guiding this band. There is no one leader of Animal Collective.

You mentioned the Sung Tongs tour before—I really loved the cover you and Noah did of Nirvana’s “On a Plain” on that tour.

I’ve read elsewhere over the years that you were always drawn to Nirvana as a listener, and I can actually hear that in your music occasionally. What does Kurt Cobain and Nirvana mean to you?
I think anyone who grew up in my generation liked Nirvana. There’s an inexplicable energy that went with hearing Nevermind. I like all their records, and over time I’ve liked the more brutal stuff. I appreciate them having the talent to be able to create such widely appreciated pop music while also having a side to them that’s very dark, abrasive, and almost experimental. There’s some really difficult Nirvana songs to listen to.

Kurt Cobain had a big influence on me as a vocalist in terms of the screaming, in the way he was influenced by John Lennon, who’s also an influence on me in the sense of having a more intense singing voice. I don’t think people talk about Kurt’s lyrics as much as I would think they do, and how sometimes they seem very nonsensical—on Nevermind and Bleach, it’s almost like this fantasy world. “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” lyrically, is a lot of non-sequiturs put together. It’s almost like a collage. But that song has such a big impact on people, and there are lines that show deep meaning even as the whole song doesn’t cohesively read as being about something. In a lot of ways, he had a surrealist songwriting style that I don’t see commented on too often—but I appreciate it.

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Jamie Larson