How Avey Tare Made a Whole Album Out of Necessity
The songs on Avey Tare's Cows on Hourglass Pond emerged from a need for material for a live show, but you wouldn't assume that when sucked in by their soothing, intricate surrealism. Tare speaks about his creative process, the technical forces driving the record, and where he's at lyrically.
Cows on Hourglass Pond
22 March 2019
When you lead one of the most influential groups of the decade through tours and album cycles, carving out a solo career should be ridden with stress and expectations. When I spoke to Animal Collective wizard Dave Portner (aka Avey Tare) right before the start of his US tour, he projected none of that pressure.
For someone who has made dents on indie music with his blood-curdling shrieks, Portner is a calming presence. He takes things as they come, letting projects emerge out of a need for material. Someone with his influence might feel pressure to make a statement with every project they make. However, his latest album, Cows on Hourglass Pond, arose from a different kind of urgency. He needed music for a live performance in Copenhagen, and the songs just settled naturally from there. I spoke to Portner about his creative process, the technical forces driving the record, and where he's at lyrically.
You start touring this album tomorrow?
Yes, I'm in Nashville. I'm there practicing. My friend has a studio practice space that we jam at sometimes. Whether it's solo or with Animal Collective, we always try to practice in the town the tour will start in.
How long have you been practicing?
We've practiced before this (laughs). This is just sort of a warm-up thing that we've been doing for a couple of days.
How are you feeling about the tour?
Good. I started playing these songs on my own, but the way I ended up recording them was with the intention of having a more organic feel. That feel lends itself to a full band playing, so I was psyched that the band would be able to play with me on tour.
How does performing solo shows compare to performing as Animal Collective or Slasher Flicks, where you're billed as a band?
It's more nerve-wracking to play alone. I get way more nervous. It's also because I haven't done it that much. I've only done one kind of short tour for Down There some years ago, and I've only played a few other solo shows since. I'm not a huge fan of having a lot of backing tracks and stuff like that. It's just not my thing.
So yeah, when it comes down to playing solo, it becomes more of a challenge in how to make it feel live and organic, considering the music.
Some of these songs are so elaborate and have a lot going on. How do you perform them live without backing tracks?
You just have to pick and choose the core elements of the song. We'll play them as a band and see what feels like needs to be there and what feels like it doesn't need to be there. It's honestly a lot easier to play with other people and not have to follow a click track or have to pay attention to some backing track that's always there. That always feels stale to me.
It's just a matter of what we can let go. We don't want to be tied down by elements of the songs we can't perform, so we pick the most essential parts.
Even with Animal Collective, you've always been a fan of testing out songs live long before they come out. How do your songs come together when you perform them live?
I think, again, with something like Down There, it was primarily a studio creation. But when it wrote these songs, I wrote them with live performance in mind. I also wanted to keep them a little more minimal. Because I wrote them on a guitar, I wanted to keep them centered around guitar. For these songs, it was a little bit easier because I was happy with keeping them fairly minimal, having a few textures here and there but just focusing on rhythms and the guitar.
When you look at this album as a whole, are there any major differences in how it came together, compared to Eucalyptus and Down There?
It comes from a different place because it's just a different time in life. I'm always inspired by whatever is around me. Down There started as a vision of this landscape and sonic environment that I wanted to create that came together in my head as the Animal Collective tours were ending. Then I found the synth sequencer and built most of that record around that. This record is a little different because it came from needing songs for a show.
The album was written for the purpose of going on tour?
It wasn't a tour. I was asked to collaborate with my sister on a show at this festival in Copenhagen called CPH:Dox. We've done a lot with them before with Animal Collective and solo stuff since we're often doing visual projects like Tangerine Reef and Oddsac. So yeah, I was asked to do that and play another DJ set, but then it turned out I lost a lot of that material. So I was just sort of forced to write the songs.
Would you mind telling me a little bit about the tape machine you used to record the album?
It had been a while since I seriously sat down and recorded a record myself, so I wanted to do it on my own this time. I never really made the jump from my own recording into the computer world, like Pro-Tools and Logic or anything like that. I left that up to Josh and Noah. I find that stuff useful. I do a lot of demoing on basic computer programs but usually leave it to the eight-track.
I think tape recording is always something I've been intrigued by and interested in. It's played a role on more than half of the Animal Collective records. I'm not a stickler about it, I'm not one of those old "tape is better" type of people. I just think it's a different sound and that you can hear the difference.
A lot of the rock music I listen to these days is a lot older, like Bo Diddley and Buddy Holly. I felt like the tape machine lent itself really well because I was comfortable keeping it simple. Animal Collective records can sound a lot more cluttered, so keeping it simple was important for me on the record. It just seemed that the tape machine was the way to go.
Is this the first time you used it since Sung Tongs?
One of the cool things about tape machines is that they have a Varispeed knob and you can switch the pitch on certain things. I first got into that idea when we were recording Strawberry Jam, and I was reading a lot of the Beatles' recording book. In their psychedelic period, they used Varispeed to change the quality of their voices. They'd pitch it up a little, so they could sound older or younger.
That got us into Varispeed. I think it's the best quality pitch shifter that you can use. Digital ones often have an artifact to them that sound very digital and are more abrasive. So for Painting With, we used it for some of the pitch-bending things that we did on that record. We did that for certain tracks, never for a whole song or anything like that. We wanted to use it for Eucalyptus, but it wasn't in good enough condition. I had to get it worked on before I was able to use it again.
These lyrics seem very private, and abstract, so it's hard to make inferences without hearing it from you first. When you write these songs, do you have a premeditated idea of what you're going to sing about, or is it more stream of consciousness when these songs come together?
I feel like a vocal melody is usually the first thing I write when I write a song. I like to play around with words, and I think the way words can be used on and off rhythm is very crucial to the textures of songs. I am very specific about words that I use, and that is what guides me a lot of the time in writing a song. When I'm first writing a melody, I usually come up with words that won't be the final words to the song. In a case like this too, when I have to play a show, and I need words to sing, I still do that.
However, I also feel like there needs to be a certain amount of conviction and belief in the words I'm singing. For Tangerine Reef, because the nature of that record is improvised, I never wrote any lyrics for that record. I just made everything up on the spot. I think that's why that record is seen as sort of amorphous. But this time, because they were written for a show, I just needed lyrics. So it starts with what words work within the melodies, but, in the long run, it's not very abstract. Especially nowadays since I've been writing lyrics more and more.
I think I do like to have a surreal quality to my lyrics. I like to put a person more in a place instead of being heavy-handed when writing about something. But I feel like everything becomes very specific over time.
A big lyrical standout for me was "KC Yours" with all the robot imagery. What is behind that whole motif?
It's about robots being integrated more into our daily life. I believe, eventually, there will be a robot that people can have around the house. I feel like I allude to people having romantic relationships with robots in the song, but really I'm just laying out a new batch of ideas of what I think a robot would be useful for. I'm hinting at flaws that it might have, why it is or is not human, and what the difference between that is. Why do people even feel the need to have a robot do things for them, like cut their lemons and limes?
For me, I prefer when a song is more like a dream that passes over you. When you wake up from a dream, you remember little bits and feelings here and there. That's how I see this song. It's very clear to me what it means, but I can see why it might seem a little bit more abstract to people.
On the last song, "HORS_", you talk about how "horse is just a game for winning". Any chance you're talking about the basketball game?
I am, indeed. That's what the underscore in the title of the song alludes to. It's about how language and how definitions create all of these different meanings for things. It's not just a horse. The meaning of "horse" is so different. Horses aren't even native to the US. They were brought over on boats. It's just a strange, surrealist history of the horse.
What about the song "Saturdays"? You have a line where you talk about how Mondays remind you of Saturdays. What are you getting at there?
A lot of it has to do with expectations. We expect Saturday to be this great thing, and a lot of people I know are "weekend warriors". They work during the week, and then they look forward to the weekend and put a lot of expectation on it. Why did we pick Saturdays to be this day that we put on this pedestal? Why not Monday? Why not Tuesday?
Are there any reasons why the song is called "Saturdays (Again)"?
There's just a lot of songs about Saturdays. I'm just trying to be self-aware about the music industry. I think the industry and music, in general, is in a very interesting place right now. So much has been done already, so I'm just giving a nod to that (laughs).