It’s strange seeing Dave Portner here, tucked away in a corner of Daddy’s on a night that’s as swampy and rain-slicked as his new solo album, Down There. Not because the Animal Collective singer/multi-instrumentalist looks out of place; because the last time we met up at this Brooklyn bar, Eric Copeland was serving us Bloody Mary’s and Portner’s band was about to release the record that changed everything, 2005′s Feels LP.
In the years since, Animal Collective have gone from being an unclassifiable act with a serious cult following to being an unclassifiable act that’s able to sell out amphitheaters. They’ve also grown up, shifting from the nostalgic vignettes of Feels to the family man phrasings of a sun-kissed single like “My Girls.” And as other people in their late twenties/early thirties know, growing up also means facing varying degrees of love and loss. In Portner’s case, that’s meant dealing with the death of his grandmother, the cancer diagnosis of his sister, and a split from his wife, Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir (a.k.a. Kría Brekkan, Portner’s main collaborator on the universally-panned Pullhair Rubeye LP).
The following interview addresses all of the above, as well as an in-depth look at Portner’s first proper Avey Tare LP, which is due out on Paw Tracks next Thursday, and streaming at NPR through October 20.
“One of the reasons I have this swamp vibe going is it’s about being stuck in a rut”
self-titled: So I was just watching the interview you taped with your sister Abby. She’s been heavily involved with your artwork for a while now. Do you remember her doing art when you two were growing up?
Sort of. I remember she reached a point towards the end of high school and the beginning of college where she started focusing on original material and studying fine art. Like this project I did some music for during college. It was similar to what she does now—a lot of illustrative stuff involving fish and whales.
What did your music sound like then? Like sonar waves?
Actually, I did a split 12-inch a long time ago…
That one with David Grubbs?
Yeah, and the last track on it was called “Abyss Song (Abby’s Song).” That’s one of the things from her project.
And you’ve barely released anything under your name since then.
I haven’t had time, really.
But you guys take breaks from Animal Collective…
That’s true, but every time I’ve ended up playing music with other people, like Eric [Copeland] from Black Dice (Terrestrial Tones) or Kristin (a.k.a. Kría Brekkan).
I’m kinda surprised you and Eric haven’t released another Terrestrial Tones record.
We talk about it all the time, but our schedules are just so different. It was easier before because we lived together for a while, although things are a little mellower now because this is the first year Animal Collective’s taken off in a while.
You’ve still been pretty busy, what with putting ODDSAC out and performing at the Guggenheim…
I guess I mean we’ve taken a break from touring. The Guggenheim thing feels a little bit different, like the kind of thing we could imagine doing when we first moved to New York—something very spontaneous, put together in a very short amount of time.
How much planning went into that actually? The sound guy there made it sound like a very meticulous process…
It took about three weeks. The programming was really intense. In a way, it’s almost a shame that the room wasn’t a little more contained. That way more of the details of what we did could have come out. It was hard to make it louder, too.
What was your perspective like from within the suit?
It was pretty much a nightmare. Standing there for six hours straight was a lot more tiring than I thought it’d be.
It’s cool that you guys were actually in there. After all, you could have stuck anyone in the costumes and gotten away with it.
Totally. At first, I wanted to do it all day, too. The main reason it was a nightmare, though, was because we randomized the music. And technically, random means one thing could be repeated over and over again. So that happened at the second performance, more or less. It was a lot darker than it could have been because a lot of elements weren’t heard and there was less variation.
Being stuck in those suits and not being able to manipulate the music must have drove you crazy. Did you have any way of communicating with the sound guy?
Did you notice the reactions around you?
Yeah, my family was there, and they noticed people having meetings there or something?
There seemed to be a lot of kids nerding out near the front…
Right, and near the end people started climbing on this structure behind us and it became more interactive. A lot of people thought we were going to play live, I think. It was really hard to promote properly, but I’m still glad we did it.
Was any of the music from the ODDSAC sessions?
No, it was all new.
Are you happy with how the movie turned out?
Definitely. It was hard to tell for the longest time because we didn’t really get to watch it all until the end. We were psyched on it the whole time, but we weren’t sure how it’d work as one piece.
Could you see doing anything like that again?
Not for a while. We really don’t have the ideas for something like that, because we’d want to make it totally different. A few of the visual ideas were ours, but they were mostly Danny’s. He brings out the darker side in us, which we were definitely cool with.
When did you meet Danny originally?
2001. We were on tour with Black Dice, and he was their roadie, basically. He went to NYU for film, and was a friend of Eric [Copeland] first, so he asked Eric and I to do a soundtrack for one of his movies.
What does that sound like?
It’s on our first Terrestrial Tones record (Blasted, 2005), a dark, textural song called “Danny’s Villain.”
And what was his video about?
He got mugged on the Williamsburg Bridge and had a pretty nasty bike accident, so it’s loosely based on that; on this guy who’s lost his teeth and is having all of this intense dentist work done.
“I didn’t expect people to think we were saying, ‘Fuck you’”
Is he going to do any videos for your new album?
Not for Down There. I want to keep the videos more animated, like the one my sister just did. My friend Jack [Kubizne], who does a lot of visuals for Animal Collective, might get involved with one.
So when did you start working on this record?
I started thinking about songs in 2008, while we were on tour in South America. And it grew from there. I really wanted it to be a bedroom thing; more like how I used to write music on a four-track when I was younger. At first, it was going to be recorded straight to tape and really lo-fi.
It ended up sounding much cleaner and clearer, though.
Well, I ended up [recording] it with Josh [Dibb, a.k.a. Deakin from Animal Collective], in a more intense studio setup that we have upstate.
More of a mobile studio?
He has Logic on his computer and is really good at using that. We did vocal overdubs and some mixing for Prince Rama at the same studio. Some Tickley Feather stuff, too.
It’s cool that you continue to be heavily involved with Paw Tracks…
Yeah, it was cool to actually go to South By Southwest and see bands play this past year.
When did the vibe of this record start to come together?
I started working on ODDSAC around the same time, and one of the first tracks for that is in the same vein as this one—using lots of drum machines, synths, and oscillators rather than a lot of overdubs.
And the concept stems from when?
The whole swamp vibe thing came together last winter, as I worked on it a lot more.
Are all of the vocals on the record you? There’s one sample in “Oliver Twist” that sounds like it could be from an old record.
That’s the one [vocal] I sampled, yeah. Other than that, I messed with my vocals a lot more than in the recent Animal Collective stuff. I wanted it to sound a little more alien, and a little less human.
The album’s a lot darker than the last Animal Collective one. Which kinda surprises me—you’d think you’d be happier than you’ve ever been…
The past two years have been very topsy-turvy for me, as I tried to spend more time on Animal Collective and had less time for my home life and friends. My wife and I also split up. That’s been pretty intense. Around the same time as things started getting rocky with my wife, my grandmother died and my sister [found out she had cancer].
Questions of mortality definitely seem to hang over this record pretty heavily. It’s like Feels was all about letting go of your childhood, and Down There is about accepting the idea that friends and family are going to start passing away.
There’s definitely be a re-evaluation of a lot of that stuff. I’ve also tried to straighten out some thing that I maybe didn’t like about myself. You know? Just working on that, and letting things that you thought would be permanent change.
One of the reasons I have this swamp vibe going is it’s about being stuck in a rut. A lot of times people don’t realize they’re following the same patterns in life, often in negative ways.
You didn’t get too personal with the lyrics, though.
It goes both ways. I never want anything to be too obvious, but at the same time, I’ve gotten clearer with a lot of my lyrics in recent years.
There’s a strong visual aspect to this project too, right? A lot of films that inspired it, starting with an actual B-movie about crocodiles?
Eaten Alive by Tobe Hooper? Yeah, it’s about a guy who runs a hotel, kills people, and feeds them to his crocodile. For me, movies like that are more about the atmosphere they create than anything else, though. It’s a piece of art. If I could put it on my wall, I would. But I’m not really into the gore aspect of it. I prefer movies that are more like ghost stories, or beat-up horror films—the kind you collect on VHS tapes. I got used to the way they look for a while. Like the copy I have of Eaten Alive is from high school…
So you like degraded visuals?
Yeah, that’s kinda what Abby and I went for with that interview video. We filmed it on an old VHS camera. There’s something unsettling about that—something you can’t really pull off with an HD camera. I have troubles with that these days, actually. It’s like videos are becoming too clean.
What are some movies that may not have the best plot, but work really well visually?
There’s this alien movie from the ’80s called Xtro. It’s really over-the-top, a horror film that’s surrealist in a way.
So there’s no plot to it?
No, there’s a plot. This boy’s father gets abducted by aliens and comes back as an alien…I like movies that aren’t horror films, too, like The Hour-Glass Sanatorium. It’s a Polish movie that’s totally psychedelic. I also really liked the Swedish movie Let the Right One In.
The original version of that vampire movie?
Yeah, it’s really great visually. I never understood why people let [their movies] get remade.
So what have you been listening to in the past couple years? I feel like a lot of people are gonna assume you’ve got into dubstep while making this album…
Right. With dubstep, I don’t know artists so much as what friends have played for me, or mixes I’ve downloaded. I also like a lot of techno, like Kyle Hall and all of the projects that Omar-S does. I’ve been listening to a lot of older stuff lately, too, like Bo Diddley and this French singer named Kathryn Ribeiro.
Do you read blogs a lot?
Not really, although I sometimes look at them to find old music or find out what’s going on out there. I don’t read comments, though, especially about my own stuff. That got so weird after the whole Pullhair Rubeye thing.
The reactions to that record were pretty harsh. It’s almost as if people were offended by the very idea of it.
I can see how it bummed some people out. It’s definitely not for everybody. The intensity of the backlash surprised me a little bit. I didn’t expect people to think we were saying, “Fuck you. You thought we were actually going to release an album of songs?” Kristin had an especially hard time with it.
That’s understandable since she hadn’t really released anything major since leaving Múm a few years before then…
Right. It’s hard to know how people are going to react sometimes. With this record, people are already reacting more positively than I thought they would.
Is there any chance of you releasing a full-length record from Kristin on Paw Tracks?
I’d like to. She has her own way of going about this stuff, though. She working on a record now, but I don’t think she wants to put it out with us. She wants it to be a little more low key, which is cool.
The two of you are on good terms still then?
We’re trying to be. We separated two years ago, but a lot of time went into that.
Are you comfortable with the split now?
I am, finally. Doing this record helped me a lot. It got me to a place where everything makes a little more sense. I was so confused by everything last year, though.
It’s got to be hard to find the time to examine your personal life when you’re touring all the time.
Exactly. And then you look back at a time period like two years ago, and you think, “Did I do the right thing?”
You guys are all growing up so quickly. I mean, the other two dudes have kids and everything…
[Laughs] Yeah, Noah has a boy and a girl, and Brian just had a boy in August.
Are you jealous or are you willing to wait a little while for your own kid?
I’m willing to wait a little while. We’re probably going to minimize our touring time in the future, though. A lot of bands feel like they keep needing to reach a new audience. With us, if more people start listening to us, that’s cool. And if they don’t, we’re not going to be bummed about it.
A lot of younger bands are certainly starting to cite you guys as an influence now. It’s as if you made weirder music more acceptable.
And that’s cool. If anything, I’m psyched that people feel like they can pursue their own sound and strive to get an audience that way. The Internet certainly helps a lot. I almost feel bad for bands sometimes, when [our name] gets thrown around as a reference point too much.
Well, let’s talk about your record, starting with “Laughing Hieroglyphic.”
I’m psyched on all of the songs, but I feel really strongly about this one. Maybe it’s because I kept it sparser than the other ones, with the vocals on top and me playing live in a way. It feels like an old soul song.
Did you work everything out before you went to record with Josh?
Not everything. I have a lot of ideas going into an album, but I need to lay them down to figure it all out.
It must be nice working with Josh again.
Yeah, for us, it’s all about a lot of jokes and hanging out, not all that different from when we were in high school.
When he decided to leave Animal Collective before you made the last record, it must have been weird at first, not having your bro around and all.
It was weird for all of us. He has such a specific energy, so it made things different when we played live.
Is that one of the reasons you’ve turned to samplers more recently?
That was more about wanting to hone in on that sound more; something that’s more controlled and lighter on guitar. The songs were a lot mellower, too.
Going back to the new record, what’s the story with the second song, “3 Umbrellas?”
I worked on that for a while. It’s basically a song about those other guys, Brian, Josh and Noah—the “3 Umbrellas.” It’s one of the catchier songs, although I didn’t see it that way at first. It was a slower, sadder ballad, and I wasn’t happy with the versions at my house, so it took me a while to get there, to get to these minimal, Steve Reich-like pulses.
“Oliver Twist” also took a long time. I wrote that on a keyboard, playing parts along to a drum machine. I’m really psyched about the progression that it makes, how it keeps moving forward and never goes back to the same place. It’s also the most upbeat song on the record. With most of them, I slowed things down as soon as they sounded too upbeat.
So once the songwriting came together, you dropped parts in and chopped them up on your computer?
Basically, along with a lot of interludes and collages. I did another version of the album first, but I felt like it wasn’t right, so I took a couple more weeks to fine tune it.
What was missing in the original version?
Just the overall landscape and perspective of it being “down there.”
So there was an certain environment in your head while you were writing the songs?
Yeah, including a lot of characters. The song “Glass Bottom Boat” has a certain narrative to it, with people talking to each other and taking a glass bottom boat to a cemetery. It’s like a joining of two songs, tuning into the void.
It sounds like you should have recorded this album in New Orleans.
[Laughs] Josh and I talked about that, about taking a trip to the bayou. It’s supposed to be beautiful down there in Southern Louisiana. But yeah, a song like “Glass Bottom Boat” is almost a return to the sort of sketches Brian and I would do as a kid. And the songs after that, “Ghost of Books” and “Cemeteries,” are the darkest, murkiest parts of the record. Then it gets to this area that’s almost like floating, the kind of metamorphosis-like songwriting some Animal Collective fans aren’t as into.
What’s an example of that?
Maybe “Daffy Duck.” Anything that doesn’t have a discernible beat or sound like a “real song.” I’d love to do a whole record that’s more like that—really spacious and ambient.
Like Noah’s Jane record?
Totally…So yeah, [Down There] gets darker as you get further into it, but “Ghost of Books” still keeps a beat going. There’s a lot about me splitting up with my wife, too. It’s about being in love with one thing until it becomes a ghost of the past.
The person you loved isn’t there anymore, you mean?
Yeah, or maybe they were never there to begin with…”Cemeteries” is supposed to have a cool, atmospheric vibe to it, with a lot of samples, as if you’re walking through a foggy cemetery.
It took me a while to figure out “Heads Hammock.” It’s the most intensely layered vocal song, with some cool pitch changes on my voice to give it a different vibe.
Did you scrutinize your tracks more because this is a solo album, or less, because you didn’t have anyone else to discuss ideas with?
It’s easy to get stuck in a rut when you have no one to bounce ideas off of…I didn’t really tell too many people I was working on this record, outside of saying to Josh, “Hey, do you mind helping me out with this?”
Did the other Animal Collective guys know then?
They knew about it, but we don’t talk about that kind of thing in detail too much. Not until it’s mastered, really. Even with Noah’s new songs—he was working on two the other day, but he didn’t want to share them until they sound their best. Which is cool. I respect that.
To cite two recent releases, I’m really psyched with how this record and Merriweather [Post Pavilion] turned out. But I know this one isn’t for everybody. It’s not like “My Girls” over and over again, you know? [Laughs]
You mentioned that this record is almost all original music. Any reason for making that decision? Because I’d assume you have a decent record collection to pull samples from…
I do, but when you do something that’s sample-based, it gives the record a certain sound quality. It’s the same thing with an acoustic guitar—it can suddenly sound like all these other artists…
You reissued Campfire Songs and a bunch of old live recordings in the past couple years. That must have put things in perspective a bit.
Yeah. It’s good to go back to something you haven’t heard in a long time. Like I recently revisited Sung Tongs…
Maybe ATP will ask you to play that album in full soon…
[Laughs] It’s funny how fast things move now. Four years are more like 10.
Listening to Campfire Songs must have made you miss how simple things were back then.
Yeah, but that time was pretty complicated, too. [Laughs]
Just in different ways, right? Have we talked about all of the songs on the album yet? I guess we have a couple more…
Yeah, “Heather In the Hospital” and “Lucky 1″ were written around the same time. “Lucky 1″ seemed like a positive way to end the album. With “Heather In the Hospital,” I tried it out on different instruments, but it ended up being played on the piano and manipulated around that.
Did you write the lyrics or play any of the song while you were visiting your sister?
No. I did it after she [got out of the hospital].
What did she think of it?
She thought it was rad to have a song named after her. It meant a lot to her.
Is she an artist too?
She’s in fashion, an artist of sorts. She does styling for fashion magazines.
So you have two sisters. Do you have a brother too?
Yeah. My older brother worked for Top 40 radio stations for a long time, which was really inspiring to me.
Do a bunch of people know his voice then?
Yeah, he has a mainstream radio voice for sure. He doesn’t do it anymore, though. He got out of it when the programming started changing drastically.
Did you grow up listening to him on the radio then?
Definitely. And he’d give me mixes of Top 40 hits from every year. He started in high school, as an intern at the big Top 40 radio station in Baltimore, and kept with it. He also worked at some big stations in Philadelphia.
What does he think of your music then?
He’s into it, although it took him a while to say, “Wow, Dave is making music people really care about.”
He must have considered it your “art project” for a while.
Yeah. Some of the people around him were into more alternative music, so when we started getting some recognition, they started mentioning us a little. I remember him coming to see us in Philadelphia in 2008, and finally saying, “Oh, I like that song.”
So what are your plans for the rest of the year?
We’ll start writing new Animal Collective stuff soon. All of our equipment is upstate, but we’re actually going to move back to Baltimore to write our next record.
Do you ever get nostalgic for home?
Not really. It’s weird. A lot of things have changed, and a lot of things haven’t changed at all, you know?
Has Josh started working on a record?
So are we going to suddenly hear about it being done, too?