Avey Tare’s New Record Is Full of Poetry and Oceanic Beauty
Avey Tare’s new record, Eucalyptus, sounds kind of like if XTC covered T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
A rather fidgety affair, the album is replete with samples and rich, gorgeous instrumentation, but the lyrics stand on their own as poetry. Example: “The dolphin skin shine splatters on the sky/The captain waves goodbye/She’s gone wind tasting,” from “Boat Race.” All that’s missing is the mermaids singing each to each.
Avey Tare is the musical moniker of David Michael Portner, co-founder of Animal Collective, and Eucalyptus is his second album under that name. Portner wrote the bulk of the record in sunny locales such as Los Angeles, Hawaii and Florida, peppering it with self-recorded samples of water and other wildlife. It’s an undeniably aquatic, summery album (see tracks “Boat Race” and “Coral Life” in particular) that deals with grief, loss and season cycles alike.
Written and produced by Portner, Eucalyptus nevertheless features a host of outside talents, from ex-Dirty Projectors member (and ex-Portner girlfriend) Angel Deradoorian to violinist Eyvindur Kang.
TIDAL spoke with Portner as the record neared release. Read on to find out more about his relationship with jazz, his obsession with the ocean and just where all those samples came from.
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I heard that you’re a big fan of jazz, and this record, to me, sounds in some ways influenced by jazz. It seems almost improvisational in a way. I’m wondering how you initially got into the genre, and if you remember what about it specifically drew you in.
I guess I first started getting into jazz, into the more freeform stuff, maybe back in the late ’90s, early 2000s. I got into different sounds and textures of music when I was younger, what people might call noise stuff. I feel like that kind of came as a progression from a lot of free jazz, in a way, but I never really connected to a lot of this stuff when I was younger. But there were records that I really liked a lot, like Sonny Sharrock, Black Woman. I think I got into it from being into bands like the Sun City Girls who had kind of a free jazzy element, improv element to a lot of their music. [I was also into] Archie Shepp records, Live at the Pan-African Festival and Blasé. But I didn’t really connect to a lot of it until more recently, maybe like in the last five years.
I can’t remember why I was drawn back into it again. I just got back into it and started exploring it more — a lot more diverse areas of it like bebop stuff, a lot of early ‘60s, mid-‘60s stuff. I like Chico Hamilton Quintet a lot, and a lot of Ahmad Jamal stuff. There’s an Ahmad Jamal sample in ‘Lunch Out of Order,’ actually: ['Moonlight in Vermont' from] At the Pershing: But Not for Me; that’s one of my favorite records by him and just in general these days.
I heard that a lot of these songs were a bit off-the-cuff; they remained the same as they were first written.
When I sit down and I’m writing anything I feel like there’s just an initial idea I have, maybe, and that’s the first thing I’ll work on or the first thing that comes out. When I sit down every day to write something, that’s the thing that I’m most happy with, because I feel the most honest emotion gets put into it, so I record that and then I hold onto that. Then I will often just progress that if it’s not progressed already.
Just reading the lyrics, this album just seems like poetry to me. Obviously songs are poems, but they kind of stand on their own as stories.
I definitely wanted to work a lot on the lyrics for this one, since I connected or got into writing songs through writing short stories and fiction. I guess I like words a lot and poetic phrases, especially. I like when literature and stories are, in a sense, poetic, and the use of words is really interesting or descriptive, so I think that has a lot to do with it.
Another thing that struck me was the presence of water on the record and the recurring theme of the ocean and boats. I know you were traveling to a lot of watery places while writing, but can you tell me a little bit about what that kind of landscape means to you and why it captured your imagination so much?
Most importantly, the biggest inspiration for it was just living in L.A., which is basically a coastal town, and having access to a lot of the coast of California. I just think it’s one of the most beautiful parts of the country.
Since I was a kid, I’ve loved just kind of meditating on the ocean. My family took a trip to Florida, to the Gulf of Mexico, every year; just chill out for a week or so. I’ve just always connected to the ocean. Had a few intense experiences with it.
I think the water theme kind of fits into the record, just because of the nature of the compositions; I think are very aquatic, and there’s a very liquidy aspect to the way the songs move.
There are a lot of samples on the record, water sounds, that you collected yourself. Can you tell us about their origins?
Some of it is actually from a trip to Florida. I was there with my family in the span of recording this record. Some of it is from Hawaii. I’ve gone there a couple of times since living in California, just because it’s a little closer. I love Hawaiian culture, and the music, a lot. I feel like a lot of Hawaii has influenced the record.
One is a recording I made of frogs and some insects outside of the place we were staying in Hawaii at night. We were on a farm and there were a lot of tropical trees, different plots of plants growing, crops growing around, and I think there were just a lot of frogs tucked away in all of that. So I stood at the edge of the brush and just recorded it for a while. That’s definitely on there.
Other stuff, I just was cruising around in a boat around some little islands off the coast of Florida, and some of the recordings on there are birds and the water on those little beach islands that are there.
The song ‘Sports in July’ feels like summer in a way. It made me think of the smell of the air conditioner. Was that something you were trying to get across? That relief?
Oh yeah, that makes sense. I view the record in a lot of different ways, but in one way it’s this transition from morning to night. I feel like ‘Sports in July’ was kind of bringing on the night. Living in California where it’s always, especially in the summer, usually pretty hot, there’s that transition from daytime to dusk and the sun going down, and finally a little bit of coolness coming over and kind of drying up the sweat from the day. Just the feeling you have being inside, maybe with your air conditioning on, or however you approach it.
So what smells and feelings do you associate with summer, and have they changed since you’ve been in L.A.?
I feel like when it gets really hot, it’s a dryer sort of smell. It’s hard to describe. I mean there’s the eucalyptus, obviously, which inspired the title. It differs from the East Coast summer, which I associate very much with rain coming, that smell right before it rains. I really like that smell.
Some of these songs deal with loss and grief. ‘PJ’ is about losing a friend and ‘DR aw One for J’ is about the passing of your friend Dylan Rieder and your aunt, Jackie. There have been so many records that have come out this year, Mount Eerie obviously included, that have dealt with grief — I’m wondering how you as an artist write through that kind of feeling? How do you get to a place where that’s something that you can turn into a creative force?
It kind of differs, because the music on the record has this very transient feeling. I’m more at a time right now where I feel like a lot of things are changing, and dying, and transitioning in the whole world.
For me, something like ‘PJ’… that kind of song is a little bit harder for me to deal with, just because the emotion is so intense for me. I mean, getting it out there and making the song definitely is a big help for me for feeling the stuff that I need to feel. But that one’s a little bit more difficult than maybe other stuff I’ve written that had to do with loss.
But I feel like what I wanted to do with songs like that and songs like ‘DR aw One for J’ was just sort of honor the people that I care a lot about that have passed. They just meant so much in my life that I feel like it’s good to just create something, create art or something that kind of can linger in the air beyond their existence, at least while the songs exist.
There are also a few breakup songs on this record. How does it feel to write a song about another person in that way and know that they’ll hear it?
It’s definitely interesting. I didn’t really want this record to be a breakup record. It was just something I kind of avoided, but it was hard because it was definitely going on in my life during a lot of the time of recording it or writing it. ‘In Pieces’ is really the most breakup-focused song on it. You could say ‘When You Left Me’ is a little bit, but I didn’t start writing that thinking I was going to be writing about a breakup, it was more about things dying, people dying, or people leaving, anything kind of coming to an end.
The person in question, being my ex-girlfriend Angel [who sings on the record] — I think our relationship and friendship is at such a place, a good place, where the nature of the song, to me, is a positive kind of breakup song, or there’s a sweet sadness to it.
I can’t imagine writing a negative song about somebody or a breakup and putting it out there. It’s sad when things come to an end and things change. But I think it’s also very positive to accept change when it needs to happen. I think that’s what a lot of the record is about.
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