Arts Desk

Down There in Alligatorland With Avey Tare

Animal Collective member Avey Tare (aka David Portner) is in town tonight promoting his swampy new album, Down There. Besides keeping the animal association rolling—his website is called Alligatorland and the creature is a motif in his music and visuals—Avey Tare explores themes in his solo work that run parallel to Animal Collective. In a recent interview, we talked about his totem, some of those themes, and how he transports himself and his fans via sound. He performs with Eric Copeland and Insect Factory at U Street Music Hall. 8 p.m. $10.

Washington City Paper: Animal Collective seemed to hit the nail with the need for protection and a sturdy shelter with your hit "My Girls." The theme of home comes around again in "Oliver Twist," with your stanza, "to live in a house and have breathing/is a luxury when you understand its meaning." As domestic themes crop up in your lyrics, does it make you identify with the uncertainty of a comfortable living?

Avey Tare: I suppose. I guess from what I've seen in my life so far, all of the elements of life are so uncertain that it's hard to be able to grasp onto something and say, "This is it" or, "This is how it's gonna be for awhile." "Oliver Twist" for me is more about understanding how fortunate I am at this point. A lot of darkness went into some of that realization. But I think anyone in my position, a musician, for example, or someone who gets to live by doing what they love on a day-to- day basis, should thank the universe every day. I believe in a certain balance that has to happen in the world, though, a balance between everyone and maybe even everything. "Oliver Twist" to me is about wondering if I'm "doing my part," so to speak. If I'm giving back as much as I'm receiving. As a musician part of that is understanding that I make people happy with music or performing. But I wonder a lot if there's more to what I have to do than that.

WCP: This brings me to the second part of your stanza, "But even in a box am I dreaming?/A galaxy of stars above our ceiling?" There's a craving for connection to the natural and celestial world that becomes barricaded or concealed by modern living. How does that separation effect your psyche and your music, and how do you cope with it, or try to improve upon it? After all, your band has almost a shamanistic feeling to it, from the name Animal Collective to the nature of your compositions…

AT: That can mean a lot of boxes to me. Like if I was so poor I lived in a box what would I dream about? Or the way people choose to live in somewhere like New York. "In a little box at the top of the stairs," as Neil Young put it. I dwell a lot on nature versus "anti-nature," or the way a lot of humanity chooses to live. I wonder about the things I would get out of living outside with almost nothing. I watched the Human Planet series that the BBC did recently and it blew my mind. The things and the ways people live by all around the world. It just makes me look at my life even more. What am I learning and what am I gaining from doing all this? My house is still quite artificial, though I do more and more to make it feel more connected to the earth. But if I lived in a house that was breathing. If I was as much a part of the earth as a tree or something...would it be more of a luxury then poverty? It's really just me thinking out loud.

WCP: And on the topic of animals, tell me more why you gravitate toward the crocodile—correct me if I'm wrong—on Down There, from your PR photos to your music videos.

AT: Well, aesthetically I like them a lot. Which is how a lot of decisions are made with my music or AC's music. I really like the texture of crocodilians, and they are very old and ancient. This must give them a knowledge that goes way back.

WCP: The crocodiles in your video "Oliver Twist" almost remind me of Indian gavials, or gharials. Ever heard of them, or seen one? They're crocodiles with long, tapering snouts that end with a bulbous nose, and their teeth look like a dangerous zipper that should never be messed with. Out of all of the crocodilians, the gavials are by far my favorite.

AT: I do know them. I may have seen one in a zoo, but never in the wild.

WCP: In regards to "Glass Bottom Boat," I feel like the name is appropriate to the piece. It's as if the listener is going on a stimulating tour through ambient sound, able to witness all that they pass by. Except the sound is gargled and mucky, just like what swamp water would be like. What do you want listeners to envision during this piece?

AT: My friend told me that the record was like putting your head into a pool covered in wet leaves in the autumn. That's exactly what I'm going for in many ways. The whole glass bottom boat ride thing goes back to when I was a kid. I spent a lot of time in Florida on vacation with my family. I think that's probably one reason I like swamps so much. There were always these brochures you'd see for glass bottom boat rides. I've never actually been on one. I went to Peru sometime just before I recorded the record and I went on a boat out on this lake with a small group of Peruvians. I think I recorded some of the boat sounds on that trip. I guess I'd like this to be a glass bottom boat ride filled with ghosts though. Perhaps the boat is almost broken and real rickety. I like the word rickety.

WCP: Boats seem to be another recurring symbol on this album, between "Glass Bottom Boat" and the video of "Oliver Twist," when the figure steers his way through a swamp on a wooden Huckleberry Finn raft. Have you spent much time on boats, or in swamps at all? Do you view this idea of boats as a means of slow-moving transportation for your listeners through your album?

AT: I wrote this short story in college about a skeleton ferryman taking someone on a trip down this haunted canal cavern way. I guess I've had these kind of visions in my mind for a while now. This is a much more humid trip, though. I do think a lot about transportation when I write music. A lot of my music is about moving in cars or just moving, period. I think when I write music or when AC does I always think about it going somewhere. I grew up listening to music in cars a lot and watching or soaking in the environment as it went by. For me, songs or albums start somewhere and then move to somewhere else in such a way that it feels like it's all a part of the same movement. I guess that's why I write a lot of songs where parts don't repeat or are like traditionally verse-chorus verse.

WCP: Your music and visuals remind me of a project by John Cage called "Indeterminancies," where someone would tell a story but there would be ambient sound interferences throughout it. What do you hope to create, besides a distorted effect, with warped and layered music and art?

AT: I guess it's about imbuing the music with some kind of "otherness." It's kind of supernatural to me and I think it's hard for anyone to explain or put a finger on. But it's almost like you just feel it. It's like knowing somethings haunted or knowing there are ghosts around but not being able to see them. I think there is a warped element or a warped ether around that we can't really see sometimes; maybe I just wish it was more visible and so I'm trying to bring it out more in sound.

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