Interviews

"Gotta Stay Up 'Til the Sunrise": An Interview with Animal Collective's Avey Tare

Photo: Atiba Jefferson

Animal Collective's Avey Tare talks with PopMatters about his California album Eucalyptus and the importance of space and mystery in music.


Avey Tare

Eucalyptus

Label: Domino
US Release Date: 2017-07-21
UK Release Date: 2017-07-21
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iTunes

Intellect and emotion do not adequately account for what happens when music has a preternatural quality or seems to reach the innermost self. This interaction, which might be understood as mystical and/or neurobiological or something else, isn't constrained to any one genre or tradition. That it might strike anywhere is part of the enjoyment of searching and listening. To try to assemble a list of songs and albums associated with this effect is to overlook the unavoidably personal aspects of music creation and reception.

Perhaps this response of close concordance between music and listener is best left to individual interpretation. An informative exercise for music enthusiasts might be to assemble personal lists of works producing this effect and to try to make inferences by observing and thinking through them. For example, what could it mean that Clouddead (2001), Feels (2005), Drum's Not Dead (2006), The Way Out (2010), Belomancie (2014) and Sleeping Tapes (2015) have similarly held me in thrall from the moment I first heard them? That I'm drawn to self-reflexive works about bodily and sensory awareness?

The latest work in that particular succession is Eucalyptus by Avey Tare (David Portner), which arrives from Domino with a statement outlining the album's origins: "Conceived on Hawaiian mornings. Written on a sunlit bedroom afternoon in Los Angeles. Practiced in the dark early hours of the California twilight. Slept on under Big Sur skies." Also included are specifications for ideal listening conditions ("Recommended listening for dawn or dusk") and a description of the songs' constituents ("An electroacoustic movement through leaves, rocks, and dust").

The specificity of this promotional language helps to guide the listener to the exact zone the songwriter intends us to picture and enter; the optimal experience for receiving the songs. Yet a listener already on Avey Tare's wavelength, for instance longtime Animal Collective followers, or members of his generation, or ears searching for the next great California Album, needn't read any of that to value what Eucalyptus offers. The album is captivating in so very many ways that the feel flows from every direction -- conceptual, elemental, and compositional.

To understand Avey Tare's path toward Eucalyptus and the album's creation, I ask him to comment on what aspects of his process have most changed or stayed the same since his earliest solo efforts like "Crumbling Land" from Fat Cat's Split Series 16. "It's always kind of been different," he says. "It's usually just dependent upon what the inspiration is at a given time. I feel like something like 'Crumbling Land' was just a really specific thing -- I was requested to add some more tracks to a 12-inch that I was doing at the time, this split 12-inch, and so I kind of just came up with that one as a recording project. It was kind of just made in my home studio. I just pieced it together, and wrote it and did it.

"Where, as the years go by, something more like Feels or other material that I've done, it just takes more time to do, you know what I mean? It's focused a lot more. I think where I'm at, at least with this record, and the newer stuff -- especially how this newest record was made -- kind of back to, the nature of it was done at home. So in a way, it's like a return to older ways of making a record. Just doing it and recording it as ... a bedroom thing, which is similar to 'Crumbling Land'. But I don't really feel like there's a trajectory, or linear trajectory, of how my songwriting has progressed. It's usually just based on what's inspiring me or what I'm influenced by. I'm always just looking for a new way of approaching it, you know?"

His reference to Animal Collective's Feels is not surprising, given how much Eucalyptus harks back to an earlier era of that band's sound, from raw acoustic works like Campfire Songs to the wild Sung Tongs and the lush Feels, which is the album Eucalyptus most resembles. While comparing a baroque full band effort to a solo "bedroom thing" might not make much sense, the likeness lies more in the writing than the production.

"Well the production of it was done in a studio but the writing process actually for Feels was, for me, I guess since I wrote most of the songs on that one, I wrote a lot of them on guitar in my apartment in New York at the time. And while I feel like that album is a lot more upbeat and rhythm-based, it's definitely a similar way of writing music on a guitar. This newer album's just a lot more spacious and spread out. Though I guess there are some more spacious moments on Feels."

The spaciousness on Eucalyptus is one of the album's defining sonic qualities, which marks a transition from solo album Down There (2010) and Avey Tare's Slasher Flicks release Enter the Slasher House (2014), albums whose atmospheres were dominated by low-end sounds and generally dense. Is the airy Eucalyptus a conscious break from that approach? "It wasn't really a reaction to that. It was just sort of -- I feel like with this record and Down There, they both started as ideas and things floating around my head and my imagination of sonic landscapes that I wanted to create. And Down There was certainly more beat-oriented and swampy and low-end-y. Yeah, and I wanted it to have that kind of pulsing feeling to it like it was swamp music, electronic swamp music. And yeah, this record was inspired a lot more by California and hikes and mountains and the ocean, and I wanted it to be very airy. Like sunrise, sunset-y kind of vibes, you know?"

While many albums in Animal Collective and Avey Tare's discographies function well as summer records, Eucalyptus has the distinction of being released in summer. The songwriter says this seasonal fit is intentional, but that early listeners have also pointed out the album's place within their daily routines. "I definitely wanted it to be released in a warmer set of months, like summer. But I feel like the more I've given it to people, the more they've said it's actually like a really good early morning, sleepy, kind of dreamy ... it's really good for early morning or dusk, kind of thing. When you're settling down, which I can see, too. But yeah, for me initially, it had a lot of the sunshine and California. Different parts of California, the ocean and that kind of thing."

This focus on sunshine, California, and the ocean also makes more concrete the Beach Boys comparisons often discussed in general terms in reviews of Animal Collective members' music. One period of the Beach Boys' history that most informs or coheres with Eucalyptus is that of the early 1970s and albums Sunflower (1970), Surf's Up (1971), and Holland (1973), in which the sun shone on crumbling land and imperiled waters. Eucalyptus holds a similar pairing of environmental concern with sadness or longing.

"A lot of it, when I'm out in nature, and I do a lot of hiking and camping and that kind of thing, I just observe a lot and soak a lot of it in," notes Portner. "Because it's in California, it's sunny, kind of always sunny there. But I definitely feel like there's a dark side of California as well. There are a lot of sides to it. There's a drought, there are fires; the landscape is going through a lot of changes. And the landscape is in danger in a lot of ways. The ocean is in danger. I'm just really interested in patterns in life and patterns in nature and how they're mirrored by humans. There are patterns in life, patterns that emotions go through. So a lot of the songs are for me about these cycles, these changes, these seasons that we go through, that you go through in a day or you go through in a month, or maybe just the culmination of my whole time in California."

The spoken word section that introduces "Coral Lords", which brings to mind the form and content of Holland centerpiece "California Saga", is a direct statement about the relationship between humankind and nature. "I guess that song in general is the most ocean-focused, like my relationship to the ocean. I think it's a sad thing that we would let the ocean and creatures in it die, just kill it off. It's in a bad state. And I have friends that do this project called Coral Morphologic. The guy that's speaking, his name is Colin Foord. He's a friend of Animal Collective's and a friend of mine. He and his partner are really interested in coral conservation, and that coral is a link to regeneration of the ocean, which would then help a lot of our environment."

Foord’s contribution is emblematic of a careful balance sustained throughout the album, which Portner characterizes by saying, “You know I never want anything to be so direct with something I’m making, because I feel like I’m trying to create more of a sonic landscape or an environment and also something that you could lose yourself in. So I feel like it takes on more of a mystical element or mysterious element in there. But I wanted to have him -- he does a lot of writing and I wanted to have him read a little bit of his thoughts on the situation."

This specific compositional choice relates to an ongoing discussion relating to Animal Collective music, as well as solo releases by any of its musicians; it's the standard of pop music "accessibility" that critics use to describe one release as being more or less experimental than another. I ask if this fixation on accessibility frustrates or otherwise affects him.

"I feel like a lot of people refer to our music I guess because of how popular some of it has become, as pop music. And I think it has put pressure -- not pressure on us to make a specific kind of music -- but the expectations of our audience sometimes, or certain members of our audience, put a specific sense of accessibility in the music. Around the time of Feels and through Merriweather it kind of really bothered us, that term accessibility, critics using that like, 'Oh, this is the most accessible thing they've ever done' because it doesn't really dawn on us, I don't think, as necessarily something we can control.

"I mean I understand why pop music is popular, you know, it's poppy," Portner continues. "It's definitely not a goal of mine when I'm making a song or writing a song. I just want to put myself into it. I do like writing good hooks, and I guess good melodies. Or I try to, you know what I mean? I don't want to make inaccessible music. We've always wanted the largest group of people possible to get into the music, whatever that meant. But we wanted people to come to us or I want people to come to my music because they're drawn to what it is, to [that] part of my personality. We always wanted it to be unique, coming from us. I certainly wouldn't mold anything around the notion of accessibility."

Another Eucalyptus song, "Jackson 5", seems to comment on the pressure to play a tune that will please the crowd ("That if you play those five / they will jive"). He explains, however, the song is less about that pressure and plainly about the Jackson 5 and their place in his musical awareness: "More like I was trying to write a song because I'm such a homebody a lot of the time. And that's sort of the nature of this record. It's just my time spent at home. I wanted it to be this intimate kind of poem, like bedroom-isolating event or musical experience. But there's a certain side to my life, and you know, people's lives in general, especially being in a band and touring and going out and playing music for people -- that's what gets people out of the house and gets people to be around each other.

"And that's an important part of life, too, is being around other people. Jackson 5 the band is such a universal, it was the first concert I went to, there's such a universal thing in music and just for people of all different races, genders. So many people love Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5. So for me it was writing a song about just getting out, and enjoying, and being happy, and having moments like that where you're around people and the things you enjoy in life." Understanding his appreciation for this function of universally appreciated music, I presume that "Melody Unfair" is a nod to the Bee Gees' "Melody Fair", but that's not the case, either, just a coincidence.

Going deeper into the album's themes, one notices many references to searching for ideal days, places, shelters, and states of being. This theme, he says, fills the songs because it's where his "head and emotions have been at over the past seven years or so. Thinking a lot about home and it's not so much even finding a place like a physical place, but finding a mental place. Where I feel like a lot of me and my peers, especially the artists I know, musical artists, visual artists have all been struggling with settling down and being comfortable in life.

"This is just coming from my experience, but I think I'm talking about a greater thing in general, just trying to be comfortable and trying to find a balance between, feeling that you're stable, but also doing the kind of thing that you want. Being creative, being personal with art, for music, that kind of thing. But it's also like what I was talking about before about cycles and changes and letting emotions go. Or being in a relationship and being comfortable in a relationship and being in a place where the relationship feels stable. Those are the kinds of things I've been feeling over the past seven years or so. It all just comes out of me in this way."

Another singer who contributes to the album is central to this personal narrative of relationships and balance. "I'm not in a relationship anymore but was in a very long relationship with Angel Deradoorian, who sings on the record. We just go really deep, her and I and we're really great friends, still. A lot of our relationship was coming to terms with being two musicians trying to do similar things and also being partners or as a couple and finding the balance of all these different sides of life. It's an interesting thing; tough thing. But there are also really amazing things about it, that you see the importance of being with another person or learning from another person."

The other featured musicians of Eucalyptus represent a range of stylistic influences and opportunities to explore new directions in composition. Of Eyvind Kang, he says, "I've been a fan of his music. Me and Brian have been fans of his music since we were in college, we discovered some of his records on Tzadik and I just love his style and the influence of Eastern music, music from around the world really, Persian music. To me, in my head, this record, even as a very emotional songwriter record, I also see a side of it that's influenced by contemporary classical music and composition, where there are movements and cycles, and also jazz music. So I wanted that instrumentation in there. He recently moved to California and we reconnected and it just worked out really well that he could write some stuff for it.

"The other stuff, Susan Alcorn, I guess I've been more recently into Hawaiian music a lot. I've taken some trips to Hawaii and I really like the pedal steel guitar element in Hawaiian music. I love it so much. I love the sound of it. So I'm also a fan of Susan's stuff and just wanted to get that texture on a few of the songs. So we went into the studio with her and kind of gave her guidelines ... it was more like, let's just collect a lot of her playing over the stuff that was more improv-y and then we'll work it into there.

"Angel's stuff, I mostly wrote all of Angel's stuff," Portner continues. "Some of it was very specific, like, here's the harmony, here's the lyrics, do this other stuff like here are notes, here are melodies, but can you just sing a bunch of different stuff and then I'll kind of shape it later on, almost like chop it up or something like that." These collaborations build on the music's foundation, which he reiterates as "very bedroom-y, to me; the vocals, the guitar, and all of the little electronic sounds that float in and out" and "take it to a grander level with the stuff Eyvind was doing, or Susan and Angel."

Finally, I ask about other non-musical works that might have influenced Eucalyptus, which features cover photography by Avey Tare and artwork and design by Rob Carmichael. "I feel like I'm always influenced by film, movies, I watch so much of it, long, expansive, call it psychedelic, if you will. The visual, most importantly, I just like beautiful films, like something like Kwaidan, the Japanese movie, which kind of has its chapters and goes in movements, too. Not as direct a storyline. I like a lot of mystery and I tend to gravitate towards things that are a little harder to understand, for me, like music or film where I don't quite get how a person went about making something like that. I get attracted to it." And this preference is quite evident on Eucalyptus, which closes with wondering "how this flower became this flower ..." It's a rare work that, even after a conversation detailing how the album was made, loses none of its air of mystery or its standing as an album "you could lose yourself in."

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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