Dave Portner aka Avey Tare is thinking about time. Unsurprisingly for a founding member of genre-pioneers Animal Collective though, not in any way that you might expect.
“Corals were the first timekeepers on planet earth, for half a billion years their internal clocks have been synchronised with the sun and the moon” sings a disembodied American voice on ‘Coral Lords’, the centrepiece of his soon to be released second solo album Eucalyptus. It’s conceptual stuff, and food for thought that might help us understand his approach to his wider musical career, “To me, it’s always important not to view it as a linear trajectory,” he told Noisey in 2014.
As liberating as this disjunction from time may be from a creative point of view, for music writers it’s disorientating. Comparing or evaluating new music against an artists back catalogue presupposes that music – like life – works in a trajectory and that a musician works by building upon a musical past.
This is a concept that Avey Tare doesn’t seem to care for, “I’m going back in time to the nature of the idea of what Animal Collective was in the first place, which was sort of a studio thing, when there wasn’t necessarily a band called Animal Collective,” he tells me, considering himself free to tap into head spaces and inspirations unstuck from the march of time. “Once we [Animal Collective] started touring more we started making records in succession, based on touring for a year, writing and putting out records and I think because we started doing that it sort of set our music to that linear thing.”
Things are a lot different now. After seventeen years and a raft of more than twenty albums, EPs, and collaborations, Animal Collective helped define indie music in the new century. Their indescribable music provides a schizophrenic soundtrack to the internet age, a pastiche of avant-pop in hyper-coloured sprays. Justifiably adored by critics and the masses for nearly two decades, they are in a position in which they don’t have to release another note for any other reason than they want to do so. It’s a position that Avey Tare feels is creatively liberating, not seeing any relevant different between solo or Animal Collective projects, and he’s revelling in “doing more stuff on our own, having more time and space on our own, the ability to make and release records the way we like”.
It’s a headspace that must be working. Eucalyptus encapsulates everything we love about Animal Collective and its offshoots. Springy sing-alongs sit comfortably next to serpentine soundscapes on a succession of songs that feel both completely new and also oddly familiar. ‘Child-like’ is a couplet long associated with Animal Collective, whose songs tap into that near subconscious aural world of Golden Books, Sesame Street and coloured chalk on pavements, a uniquely American sound celebrated so well by the Beach Boys, De La Soul, and Tin Pan Alley. Of course, it’s also a form of longing, wanting to get back to a state of innocence.
“When I was younger I would have said I hate nostalgia. I don’t like the notion of missing the past or feeling that something has been lost, now I think of it as a sort of sweet sadness,” he tells me, “I’ve read that a lot of what attracts people to the music they prefer individually is related to nostalgia or something that they’ve lost.”
If Animal Collective have always had a nostalgic appeal it now represents a sort of double nostalgia. The albums that most fans consider essential – Strawberry Jam, Feels, and Merriweather Post Pavilion – are all around ten years old; most of their fan base have swapped sugar-cubes for mortgage repayments, making Eucalyptus music about nostalgia to feel nostalgic to.
Analogous to this apprehension about the past is Avey Tares’ approach to pop music. The tension between catchy melodies and unpredictability has long been the secret ratio that makes his associated records so endearing and enduring, eking out pop candy erratically amongst washes of sonic oddness to titillate the listeners ears.
“I’m inspired by music that confuses me, by throwing in chords or changes that I’m not comfortable with… It goes back to the linear trajectory kind of talk. For me it’s about wanting to challenge myself to write a kind of song I haven’t written before.” It’s not an overly convincing credo, and a line of thinking that in fact seems to work against parts of Eucalyptus. ‘Roamer’, for example, is surely the catchiest melody hatched by any Animal Collective configuration since undeniable 2009 single ‘My Girls’, and it hurts to hear it its potential as pure pop nugget go unrealised.
But these temporal comparisons represent just the kind of thinking that Avey Tare wants to avoid, preferring to treat every record like his first project, which brings us back to that time motif. “I was trying to write about birth and death, not necessarily the death of a person but more the death of the landscape… I’ve been noticing the landscape around me going through so many changes. Some not so good.” He tells me the record was conceived and recorded in Hawaii and Los Angeles, two places that have no shortage of people championing their pasts and lamenting their transformations, whether they be environmental or cultural. A microcosm for Avey Tare’s country of origin.
For the first time it dawned on me that if fans were nostalgic for Merriweather Post Pavilion, it might be because the year it was made in now seems part of a comparative golden age, with Obama recently elected and America’s position as the global superpower unquestioned. “I wanted it to have the sunshine in California in it [the record] but just as it was coming up or going down” he tells me, and I wonder if we should now hear his child like choruses and American sing-alongs as fighting against the dying of the light?
Avey Tare doesn’t think so. Talking about his new record’s location within American history he says it’s “…very sad but… still really uplifting… pop music is there to lift peoples spirits” and, with that, we’re reminded that, on a personal level, people need pop music no matter the political climate or the amount of resorts on the Hawaiian skyline.
Like the coral marking the passage of years in the billions, pop music was here before Avey Tare and will be here after he’s gone. “When you’re making music, when you’re in the space, time doesn’t exist, so I think its interesting to put time constraints on a record.”
Dave Portner AKA Avey Tare is thinking about time, and so should all of us.
Avey Tare’s Eucalyptus is released July 21st, via Domino Records.Write a Letter to the Editor