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Animal Collective Untangle Their Sound

Davey Portner, aka Avey Tare, on the challenge of creating “something a bit more direct” with new album ‘Painting With’.

When we catch up with Davey Portner, aka Avey Tare of Baltimore weirdos Animal Collective, he’s in the thick of it. “Right now I’m at my new home in Los Angeles,” he says down the line. “Just been practicing.”

Practicing isn’t usually a concern of Animal Collective following the making of a new album, but Painting With is different — it’s the band’s tenth, but first to be created in the studio without first testing it out live. “Not playing the song’s live helped,” says Portner of the process. “[Previous album] Centipede Hz ended up sounding like it did because we were so used to playing those songs live very loudly for months. That’s how we got used to it so that’s how we wanted to hear it. With this one, we didn’t have that experience at all. So it was helpful to go into the studio and just create everything little by little and see if we could keep it stripped down.”

Portner spoke to Rolling Stone about the challenge of making a direct record, debuting the record over the P.A system at Baltimore airport in secret, and drafting in a guest because they didn’t like the instrument they played.

Why did debut the LP at Baltimore airport? And how do you even arrange how to do that?
Dave Portner:
Well the original idea was to play it in a public place. A universal or general space where all different kinds of people would be in it, but would also have the possibility of Animal Collective fans being in it. We talked about malls or grocery stores or airports – make a surreal experience for someone hearing it if they were familiar with the band. It seems like something we would have been into when we were younger – walking around the mall and suddenly realising you were listening to a band you really like but it’s stuff you’d never heard before. It would be this mysterious dreamy thing. That was the goal behind it.

Our managers have relationships with NPR, the sector of public radio here that actually programs music at the airport. Being fans of the band they were enthusiastic about trying it out. It became cool that we could do it somewhere in Baltimore. It worked out perfectly.

You’ve spoken about your desire on this record to strip the Animal Collective sound back. Was that out of curiosity at seeing how you could thrive without the layered sonic distance you’ve cultivated?
Totally. Ever since Sung Tongs (2004), layering has been a crucial part in shaping our records. Whether it’s layering acoustic guitars on that record, or the electric guitars on Feels [2005], or how certain things on Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009) blend and mesh together, especially in the way delays and reverbs are used – it has become a very familiar sound for us, even as we’re creating the music. So it was a challenge to try and get a different sound palette going.

There have been times we wanted to make a record like Painting With, something a bit more direct. Strawberry Jam (2007) came close, even the last one [2012’s Centipede Hz] with its in-your-face-ness. But we wanted to try and strip things down even more. Come to the table with individual instruments each of us can play and not add to any of it. Where everything has a purpose. Where it stands out and is meaningful for the songwriter and works in a [different] way that it has on past records, where it blends together. That was what we wanted to hear from us.

Did not creating or testing the songs first in a live setting generate any nerves about performing it? Or seeing how it holds up over time?
We’ve played certain elements of it live together in a room in Asheville, North Carolina, and then recently I’ve started just practicing stuff on my own. Seeing how it’s going to flesh out. It’s feeling pretty good. At the heart of Animal Collective live performance is a specific thing. We want to keep it that way. It’s not like we’re going to get up and go “One, two, three, four…” and play song after song. We’re still going to try and build sets that expand and have open moments. We’re really looking forward to that aspect of the songs.

There’s a squelchy modular synth sound that runs through Painting With, as well the combined syncopated singing of you and Noah Lennox (Panda Pear). Is there a sound that becomes a motif for any one record? Something you chance upon and run with?
Pulling that out is pretty dead on. The vocals were a motif even when we were talking about writing the songs. We wanted the arrangements to exist in such a way that they would guide the sound of the record we wanted to hear. That’s the real syncopated back and forth singing, breaking apart the idea of the lead vocalist. It becomes harder to tell if it’s Noah’s song or my song. ‘Who’s singing the lead here? Who’s singing that part?’ We wanted it to wind in and out and be more confusing.

The record almost sounds like a constant duet. It gives it a united front.
Yeah that’s what we were going for. We wanted to make a very universal feeling record where even the perspectives were a bit more general. About other more open topics that [you might not think] we have feelings about, but we do.

The physical process of learning those syncopated singing parts and making them work together must have been insane.
It was actually easier than we thought it was going to be. When we were working stuff out in Asheville, we thought when we went into studio to do it would be more of a challenge, which makes it fun. But we started nailing stuff a lot quicker than we even have in the past, so we were happy. It went smoothly.

When Deakin [aka Joshua Dibb, the sometimes absent fourth member of Animal Collective who sat out Painting With] isn’t involved with an album, does something different happen in your process?
There’s two things. Josh is a really melodic [guitar] player. The stuff he comes up with are strong melodic lines, riffs, or leads, that run thematically through the record. I don’t think Noah, Brian, or I, do that so much. Maybe because the melodies Noah and I add are with the vocals, so we do chordal elements with instrumentation to back that up. Brian usually does the textural stuff when Josh isn’t on the record, so he stepped up on Painting With. That element is more open and the melodic textures are subtler.

Also Brian, Noah, and I, have a history of playing together in a looser jammier way. There was a time at the end of the ’90s when Brian was staying with me one summer where the three of us would improvise a lot at an apartment I had in New York. That’s a very specific relationship we built at the time – making short little things up on the spot and take them into the other. That doesn’t really come through in the structures and presentation on this record, but in terms of the way we’re used to playing with each other.

What did John Cale and Colin Stetson bring to the record?
For us it’s personality. Our personalities are already so individually prevalent on the record so we’d never have a guest musician in and tell them what we want them to play. It works better when we let a person come in and explore the song. It lets their personality shine a bit more.

So when each came in, we were like, ‘OK here’s the song.’ For John we thought it would be cool to play his viola on a song because we heard it as a stringy kind of sound. He plays on “Hocus Pocus” in the chorus-y parts and the end, and he’s sort of in the outro that leads into “Vertical”, the next song.

But he had the insight that he didn’t think it was going to sound very good tuning-wise and pitch-wise – the song’s in F and he thought the viola was going to sound strange. He was right. So he did a bunch of other stuff and we affected it all together in the studio. It became more messing around with what actually fit into the song rather than thinking this bit has to go there.

It was similar with Colin. We love his saxophone playing and wanted to incorporate it into our music in a way that we would find pleasing. Because we’d never done it before, all of us have an aversion to saxophone in a lot of music, especially pop or rock music. It’s sort of grating to us. So we talked about using something that we’re not completely into, in a way that makes us more into it. That was the goal with saxophone because we all like Colin’s stuff so much.

When people like that come in, does it make you want to preserve what they do? As opposed to with how you deconstruct your own music?
It’s always different. We hear when it sounds like it fits. There’s a fine line between something that stands out and something that makes sense within the song.

It’s funny to hear traditional instruments in the context of an Animal Collective song. Piano, saxophone – you normally wouldn’t hear those recognisable instruments so clearly.
We had a big idea of using collage and samples on this record, but with sounds popping in and out. Have this unfolding of sounds meshing together. That had something to do with it.

It’s the first time Animal Collective have made a record in LA. Did that bring a new experience?
I didn’t really want to record here in LA because I live here. It’s nice to go somewhere foreign and unfamiliar where there’s not a lot of friends around. I was a little worried that we were going to succumb to going out a lot. But we managed to stick to my house after hours. We work such long hours that all we have the energy to do afterwards is hang around and drink a little around the house. Chill out and unwind.

But we always have a desire to record in a new place, somewhere we’ve never been. The experience becomes important to, not only shaping the record, but our perspective and how we’ll experience the process.

I don’t know if I can speak for the other guys but having made so many records now, the process is, in a way, more important than the final outcome. I want to be proud of the outcome and I have been for all our records. But I find if the experience is disheartening or a bummer that’s what I think about when I listen to the record or think about that time.

Now that you all live in different cities, when you get together your time is pretty valuable.
Definitely. I think we’ve got a routine now in some ways. It’s pretty standard that we go into a studio to track for about a month. Then we usually need two to three weeks for mixing, depending on how many songs we have. For our past records that schedule has been working pretty well. This one felt like it seemed to go a bit faster.

And that’s after six months or so of sending stuff back and forth on email?
Yeah. We started writing in January 2015 with the goal of sending stuff through to each other by March. Which we did. Then we worked on that stuff and sent updates of those demos around and then got together in April or May.

The album presser says: “The record is concerned with art – Cubism, Dadaism, and the distorted ways those artists viewed the world and the human experience.” It sounds awesome but what does it mean?
It’s about perspectives. Having all these different ways of looking at things. It brings to mind art forms like Dadaism and Cubism, because a lot of the theories and representation of what that kind of art means or comes out as, is a varied and skewed version of perspectives. The record’s themes and structures lend well to that.

It’s not something we went into with a strict philosophy behind. These subtle things come up while you’re writing and while you’re making things or in conversation.

It’s something that has to represent your three brains.
Definitely. It’s a way we can connect. We’re very visual people when it comes to music. We don’t often talk in notes or scales or time signatures. We can figure all that out when we need to, but when it comes down to actually creating something, it has a lot more to do with the visual connection that we have.