Life, Grounding, and Inspiration: A Chat with Avey Tare

With the upcoming show at Meow Wolf Santa Fe on May 8th, we talked with Avey Tare from Animal Collective.

An artist with a penchant for the creative and experimental, Avey Tare has been creating his own musical pathway forward in the alternative/indie realm. With his latest release, 7s, he continues to showcase his ability to be wildly creative and bring his personal experience into his work. 

Also known as Dave Portner of Animal Collective, he has been experimenting with sounds and the way that music is crafted for over 20 years. We asked him to speak on his artistic process, and found out how various art forms have impacted how he creates and how his real life experiences have (and continue to) influence his musical process.

What is one thing you (as a wise artist) would tell a younger aspiring artist?

Experiment and practice with as much material and art forms as you can! You should endlessly make things. I think one key to finding your own voice or vision is to work and learn from what’s out there and what’s been done as early on as you can. I spent my early (teenager) days just trying to emulate and almost prove to myself that I could create certain sounds I had heard. I think you start to be able to find your own personality within this stuff. You learn what distinguishes you from other things, and when you move through all that, you can then move onto your own work. Your craft needs care to shine. Don’t ever stop working on it.

What other artists and art forms have inspired you to transcend your own practice?

I think being inspired by films (linear and visual) has helped progress my music and art quite a bit. Films have helped me approach music in a much more visual manner and opened me up to new song forms and ways of writing that other music hasn't. Films also helped build a way for all of us in Animal Collective to communicate with each other. This was crucial in regards to having thrown most musical theory out the window when we were getting started.

A man in a hat standing in a dense forest looking up. His legs are starting to disappear into the air
Avey Tare. Photo by Amy Grace

What is your earliest memory of sound?

I remember very loud thunderstorms in Florida moving me quite a bit. I have a very distinct early memory of being on a screened-in porch while massive sky rumbles shook the earth and flashes of lighting filled the sky. The sound of the piano has also existed in my life since I was born. My dad played the piano probably every day when he wasn’t working and you could hear it everywhere in our house. I grew up with a lot of Gershwin and various 70s/80s movie themes playing around me on piano.

What are some rituals or ways of being that help you get into a zone of making and creating?

I do a lot of breath work. That's been a go-to practice since college. It's partly meditation and head/emotional work and part body awakening. Grounding myself and also slowing down the racing urgent thoughts we all have and sort of easing the clutter of them. I do this very early in the day and often for longer periods in the evening. If I’m working on visual art, I'll get a bunch of records ready to play. Listening to music and working on visual art is very cathartic for me and almost meditative in itself. In all realms of art, I also combine the process with good amounts of THC.

It's really crucial for me to be in the moment when I'm creating. I have to react to what’s happening around me and inside me. I need to diminish thoughts of any other thing that “needs” to happen or that I have to do because I feel you’re not living in the moment when you start thinking about these things and they distract from what could be created. I think this is a crucial way of being in life in general. This is why improvisational music is so important to my process and my skills. It's been important for me to be able to come up with music or art in the moment, spontaneously. It can be hard to get the head and body in the right place for this – especially when it comes down to a performance situation. So I think that's where the previous practices I mentioned come into play.

The album Feels is one of the most inspiring works of art that changed how I listen to music. I’m curious to know, how did it come to life?

Feels came about like most of our 2000s work did. We had taken some time off after our Sung Tongs tour (which was a quite lengthy tour for us at that time). I remember it felt like a considerable leap to somewhere new because it was the first record we did after Noah moved to Portugal. I think the first couple sessions for it happened while he was still in New York but there was definitely an emotional and physical shift that happened shortly into its conception. Emotions were very vibrant. Noah had just gotten married and I was slowly falling in love with someone as well. I felt like we were moving into new realms of responsibility within the band and our own lives and I felt very excited by it but also very anxious or nervous. 

The unknown side of it was partly scary. But I also feel like we did our best work when things were in this kind of state. In a common fashion for me at that time, I just wanted to write honest (albeit partly surreal) songs that really reflected that moment in our lives. I also wanted these songs to retain the kind of ecstatic nature of life that we had been messing around with in our previous work. I still wanted our shows to feel like cathartic rituals that the audience would feel very much a part of. That's where songs like “Grass” and “The Purple Bottle” came from. I really wanted them to stay unhinged. I felt like I was channeling angels and demons and getting them out there. Since it felt like a certain aura of freedom had consumed the band with Noah going his own way and more solo stuff happening it felt important to keep that feeling of freedom happening in the AC music as well. There was this idea that no one wanted to be tied down to any strict way of playing. Blend all this together and you had Feels.

Avey Tare standing on a road wearing a white long sleeve shirt with a bright white background
Avey Tare. Photo by Amy Grace

Is there any memory in particular that inspired Feels’ existence?

When I think of that era, I often return to the apartment I shared with Eric Copeland (of Black Dice) in Crown Heights. We’d watch movies all afternoon (rented from Mondo Kim’s) because he worked all night and I spent a lot of time on my futon on the floor in my bedroom writing these songs which I'd then take to the practice space and work on with the AC guys. I often spent a lot of time at the bar where Eric worked at night – just hanging around talking to people and building what would become a really strong friend group of artists/musicians around Brooklyn and New York. I’m still close with a lot of the people I met at that time. I remember just before Noah left, we had a moving gig based on the fact that we had this small van for touring.

A lot of fun stories came out of the short time we did this, but I also remember Noah and I talking a lot about what we would do next (musically) while moving people's furniture. I remember him telling me he was going to play a small drum kit and start using a sampler. That's basically when we decided it would be an electric album and Josh would be involved. We started traveling a lot with the band and a lot of experiences we had with people we met on tour inspired me quite a bit.

Same thing for Strawberry Jam, can you talk about your inspiration for that?

Strawberry Jam continued the inspiration that was gathered by our sort of global lifestyle at that time. Geographically, the band had become very disparate. Noah even came up with the title while on a plane traveling, so I think it reflects where we were at pretty well. I lived in Paris for a summer with Eric Copeland after we recorded Feels. Then I started spending time in Iceland here and there, and also still lived in Brooklyn. Noah was in Portugal full time and just had his first child so I remember that was occupying a lot of his time and space. He had also begun messing around with Person Pitch stuff. Josh and Brian were both in the States. Eric and I had started messing around with samples and field recordings that we could turn into songs with our project terrestrial tones. I remember we had a piece where I took an old song Noah had recorded and we made our own song around it. There was this classical piano record at the flat Eric and I had in Paris and I started getting into making loops out of these piano songs and singing over them. I wrote “For Reverend Green”, “Cuckoo Cuckoo”, and “Safer” all with loops from this record. But when I brought the idea back to AC world, it was too hard to do this with a full loud band playing, so we decided to incorporate other sounds to make the songs. 

My ex-wife had all these art books at her mom's home in Iceland and I remember reading them a lot around then. I read something about Matisse's Red Studio painting and about how there are details left out of the painting but other objects highlight the fact that you are still looking at a room with objects in it. That idea really struck me and I wanted to make music like that. Where some of the traditional or basic structure of the song was left out and only key things hinted at a song even happening. In my mind, Strawberry Jam was very much like painting with music.

What do you usually eat in a day?

I eat a lot of fruit and dried fruit. Fish. Mushrooms. Granola.

Want more Avey Tare? Catch him at his upcoming show at Meow Wolf Santa Fe on May 8th, and experience his creativity and experimentalism in person.

Or pick up 7s, the new album by Avey Tare. This is peak pandemic-era introspection: forged in quarantine, it bursts with a gratitude for companionship that only isolation can inspire, all the while meandering deep and alone into the nuclear center of the artist’s psyche. It’s a tad deranged, which we’d expect from both the artist and the era (please also see: Bo Burhnam’s gleaming example of Shining-esque pandemic-insanity, Inside). 7s is also subversive– whereas most culture consumers expect to start in the midst of a problem, then end happily ever after, 7s plunges from high to low, ending with a darker finish. This might be the point, as Dave Portner (Avey Tare’s real name) told FLOOD Magazine, “I can be a brutally honest person sometimes, and maybe I’m just leaving it at where the reality of things are.” Still, the adventure down the rabbit hole is effervescent neon fun, characteristic of a member of Animal Collective.

Portner believes in the echoing power of the trance: in such a state, ideas can blurrily flourish, multiply, become larger and take on new meaning. In this solo endeavor, he calls out for his loved ones and even collaborates with Adam McDaniel. The push and pull between the solo and collaborative experience is apparent throughout. 

With his solo albums, Avey Tare has been known to ping-pong around in style based on his own experimental whims–as one should do with their solo albums. 7s might be the most solo-est album of all, nervously dancing around isolation at once, then capturing the poignancy of companionship in other moments. Through his trancelike journey, he deposits the listener where the pandemic left us all: dusting off the cobwebs, still smiling, somehow, and walking shakily into an unknown future.

an album cover for 7s that looks like a collage of faces and the number 7
7s album cover