From the spring to fall of 2020, Dave Portner spent most of his time in his home studio, working remotely with his Animal Collective bandmates on what would become the group’s first studio album in six years, 2022’s Time Skiffs. By January 2021, he had enough demos to start putting together his fourth Avey Tare solo record, 7s, which was recorded with close collaborator Adam McDonald in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. If Time Skiffs was a wondrous, celebratory exchange between old friends, 7s retains the musician’s exploratory instincts but applies them to a different, seemingly more insular framework: these (naturally) seven tracks feel like simultaneous conversations between Portner’s diverse musical tendencies, between the real and imagined, past and present – and, ultimately, between the people making sound and those absorbing it. It’s a record of homespun splendor where intimacy, directness, and warmth go hand in hand with things vaguely unsettling and surreal. As they all inevitably rise to the surface, Portner’s approach remains playful and open-hearted: “We’ve sung out all the ages, our sadness and our rage,” he sings on ‘The Musical’, “I can hear the mountains singing, and I do believe they could do that forever.”
We caught up with Avey Tare to talk about Brian Catling’s The Vorrh, J.J. Cale, old Florida, and other inspirations behind his new album 7s.
The Vorrh by Brian Catling
From what I understand, this isn’t really a plot-driven novel, but it takes place in this weird, dark fantasy world. What drew you to it?
I’m always interested in trying to check out good fantasy and horror and darker fiction. It’s not all that I read, but I definitely like to throw it in there to mix things up. I wouldn’t say it influenced 7s in terms of storyline, although to me 7s exists in this sort of fantasy world that’s part dream, part reality, part fantasy, part fantasy from the past. And I feel like The Vorrh plays a lot into this, specifically because it revolves around this forest, I think it’s supposed to be somewhere in Africa. There’s a European town that’s moved “brick by brick,” they say, to the area, and so there’s all this relocating of space, and it’s also very vague. It never really says exactly where it is, the timeline is kind of confusing. Time and space and memory are all things I think about a lot, but definitely started thinking about a lot during the pandemic and being quarantined, and that’s when 7s was written.
The thing about forest is that it erases your memory. There’s a kind of hero figure that goes into it with this bow and arrow that he’s made, he’s this great hunter and he wants to be the first to traverse the vorrh, but then he starts forgetting how long he’s been in there what he’s doing in there. There’s a balance between things seeming real and of this world, but also of another world. There’s another main character that’s a Cyclops that’s this deformed being who sort of is birthed into the regular human world, and it’s discovered by these two young women, and that’s a plot line. And then there’s all these different plot lines that, some cross each other, some never meet up. I just found the reading experience very interesting, and it left me to piece a lot of the things together. I took some time to read some of the reviews of it, and it’s interesting with a work like that to see people react in a sort of negative way, maybe being like, “I don’t understand the purpose of this book, I wish it was more plot-driven.” And I like pieces of art that create this kind of reaction. I like the broken aspect of it, the vague aspect of it, that’s not as forthright as maybe some other linear novels and stories are.
I mean, surrealist is an easy term to use, and I even used it to describe 7s, though maybe I shouldn’t have done that because it’s a little vague. But surrealist definitely brings to mind very specific things, very specific art forms, it’s definitely a movement of art. To me, that element in there makes it easier to digest some of the inconsistencies and the plots not always lining up, because I think that’s the goal of Surrealism. It’s an art form, to me, that’s breaking apart the norms, that’s trying to find its own path into something new. And that’s very inspiring for me in terms of making music, because I try to be on a path that wants to break apart the norms of basic song structure. It’s hard to talk about music or a song that would do the same thing that The Vorrh does, it’s all very conceptual and in my head, but it’s definitely possible, and it’s fun to experiment with and be inspired by something like that.
Tom Waits called this book “a companion on my own dark quest,” and I’m curious if the word “companion” feels like a good way of describing your relationship to these kinds of non-musical inspirations when you’re working on music.
I think “companion” is a good word for art such as a good book or a good film – these are the things that carry me through these time periods and are the sort of memory markers of the time period. Often, the place I will think back to when thinking back on making 7s or that era would be something like The Vorrh or the place that that exists in, because that was such a such an important part of my mornings around the time of writing or recording some of that stuff. It’s not just a background thing or a token of inspiration; if it’s something that I feel very attached to and affects me personally, yeah, it becomes a part of me, a companion like that.
‘Bloodchild’ by Octavia Butler
During quarantine, which coincided with making this record, I was thinking a lot about relationships. Being in a long-term relationship, a love relationship which is very important to me – I live with my girlfriend, and she was the primary person around for me during this whole pandemic, the person I spent time with the most. My girlfriend’s name is Madelyn. Leading up to being with Madelyn, I had been in two very long relationships before that, and part of my journey has been thinking about and dwelling a lot on the nature of relationships and love, and the idea that you know there’s certain agreements and understandings that go into being in a relationship. At least in the history of my relationships, it’s not something I’ve always gotten that deep about during the relationship, and it’s been really helpful to do that.
Octavia Butler really dives into some deep aspects of relationships, so many different sides a relationship that seem to affect me heavily. I think she just has this way of cutting to the core of, almost like putting a knife in, the emotional aspect of being in a relationship, all the bonds and the things you give and the things you take away and the balance that’s required to really be in a great relationship. In this story, it’s represented by this relationship between an alien being and a child, and the alien being selecting the child to spawn its offspring, basically, to put its larvae inside of it. There’s this sort of agreement that happens there, and the child grows for some of his life not thinking a lot about the nature of the relationship that he’s in. But then one night, this dramatic event happens and the child starts to come into this realization of what this relationship really is, what it means, and what’s at stake, and starts having all these different thoughts about himself and his life and his family around him.
In the version of ‘Blooddchild’ that I read, it’s in a collection of short stories and Octavia Butler writes a little afterward about each short story. She says at one point that part of the story was influenced by her fear of the botfly, which lives in South America and she was going to South America around the time. And she says, part of her experience of writing and creating is to get these fears and thoughts out for herself; she has to rid herself of this. And I think that’s what I do a lot during my musical process. I often say that the process is more important to me than the final outcome. I’m always interested in and want to make a final piece of art that I’m happy with and is something special, but what really lingers with me in the long run is the process, and the process can be like this for me, with my fears and all this stuff that comes up. I don’t really realize it when I’m writing the songs, but there are often very specific emotions attached to certain parts of songs and certain lyrics. These things can often be masked in my writing and come out as more surreal or fantasy, but I feel like I’m doing the same thing in terms of getting out what I’m dwelling on.
I think it’s interesting, also, when you think about how lot of artists compare the process of making music to having a baby.
It makes me think also not just of creating music and songs for myself to put out, but also having a contractual relationship with a record label, who are putting out my babies – the emotional side that goes into that, but also the side of it that’s contractual, that’s business, and runs on specific terms. In a lot of ways, not so intensely, but all relationships are like this – they don’t all involve contracts and they don’t all involve business, but there’s give and take and sacrifice, and having to understand somebody else and hope that you can intertwine and almost become one being. Essentially, that’s what the human and this alien are attempting to do.
‘The Old Man and Me’ by J.J. Cale
I hear echoes of this song on Lips at Night’, with the simple guitar progression that drives it and the subtle things going on in background, especially the pedal steel.
Yeah, I’d say with the first few songs on 7s, ‘Lips and Night’ and ‘The Musical’, I definitely thought a lot about J.J. Cale’s music in general. I’m sort of a latecomer to J.J. Cale’s music, and it’s not all my thing, I’m not really a post-blues kind of person. But there’s a subtlety and a simpleness to J.J. Cale’s productions, where it’s like all the elements join together to create this simple, floaty wall of stuff, where the riffs and the bass and the drums are all often very simple. He’s obviously a very talented and competent guitar player, but I find it interesting that his productions are usually a little bit more reserved, I call them.
Sometimes there can something that’s a little bit more spacey, like the pedal steel you’re talking about – I mean, I love pedal steel, that’s another thing. I got a pedal steel over quarantine from a friend, and I love the sound of it. It’s fun to play – very difficult, but I’m not looking to be a champion at it or anything, just use the sounds where I can. He creates this intimate feeling, which, with certain of the songs on 7s, I wanted to do that; bring people into this warm blanket of sounds all working together, often in some sort of groove form, and ‘The Musical and ‘Lips at Night’ both move along in very specific kind of grooves. His delivery is also very mellow and understated, and with those songs, too, I wanted that kind of close, intimate thing.
‘Lady With the Braid’ by Dory Revin
Another beautiful song, but in this case it’s more lyrically that there’s a lot going on. Why did you choose it?
I think because lyrically it stands out to me, her choice of lyrics. I’ve seen an interview with her where she says she wants her delivery to feel like something very spontaneous, almost like she’s thinking it up right as she’s singing it. The difficulty with something like that it’s obviously not something that’s happening very spontaneously that she’s talking about, she’s usually singing something that’s already happened. It just feels very human to me, and I feel like there’s so much music and so many singer-songwriters, especially nowadays, that I just hear how much thought goes into what they’re doing and what they’ve written. Everything just feels like it has to be so perfect. That’s not to say that’s always a bad thing, because it can often add to the structure of a song.
But with this specific Dory Revin song, I can feel her insecurities, I can feel her desires, all because of the lyrics, the words she’s chosen and the way she’s decided to sing them. It sounds very improvised; it sounds like she’s courting a guy and wants him to spend the night, but is trapped between wanting to be very forthright about it, but also being very self-conscious about it. She includes how she feels bad about saying certain things, or she worries that she said the wrong thing. It’s this natural flow, and it’s something that with ’The Musical’ I wanted to do, where it just felt like I was singing about something I cared about: how I got into playing music. And it’s a little bit more questioning, ‘The Musical’, but I wanted it, again, to feel like this very intimate, human conversation. I wanted to feel like I was addressing the listener, and that they had the opportunity to respond or connect to it, and see me as a musician, as I really am, with the fears or questions that I have.
Son of the White Mare
I love animation. I’m a huge Disney fan, I love early animation, and I prefer the kind of analog animation, the original, hand-on-paper style, which this seems to represent. I just love when you can see the paper and just thinking about the artist creating this world. I love that the palette can be transparent, too, and something like this can be created that just sucks you into this world. It’s perfect for a fairytale, and this is based on various folklore from Hungary, I’m not sure what specifically. I’m a big folklore fan, and it definitely follows like a Joseph Campbell, hero’s journey kind of scenario. But again, it’s a little bit vague.
It only recently was put out in the US, I think in 2020, and my bandmate gave me a DVD of it not that long ago. But the first time we watched it, I had just found a YouTube rip of it that didn’t have subtitles. So we were just watching it for the visuals, we didn’t really know what was going on. I’ve experienced some other movies for the first time like this, and I think in the same sense that often I like to listen to music in languages I don’t understand, you just develop your own relationship to what’s happening. You can kind of figure it out since it’s folklore and the structure of it is very familiar, but it’s at the same time something very far and very unique in terms of the experience.
It’s definitely one of the most beautiful animations I’ve ever watched. Especially this new reissue, the colors are amazing. But it’s fluid in such a way where things are at the same time just patterns and backgrounds and visual splendor as much as they are tangible material things, like people. All the transitions are things like people becoming the background, that kind of thing, and then becoming people again. Again, it’s something that’s hard to describe in words how it can inspire music, but the way things fold together and blend, this linear versus non-linear blending together – that’s so much of what I’m about musically.
Also, seven comes up a lot in myths and folklore – there’s a dragon with seven heads, the white mare is breastfed by his mom until he’s 14 years old. There’s all these seven references, and I didn’t pick up on that when I first saw it because I didn’t know I was going to put out a record called 7s, but having seen it a couple of times, I recognize that and I think that’s cool.
‘Earth Beat’ by Herbie Hancock
The album Future Shock was a radical shift for him at the time, and 40 years later, it still sounds subversive and almost alien. Maybe it’s not an obvious influence for 7s sonically, but I can see how its sense of vibrancy and humour could have been inspirational.
Yeah, I think you put it perfectly. Funnily enough, being called Future Shock, probably most of the record but specifically ‘Earth Beat’ could easily be a track that I would stumble upon today and be like, “Wow, that’s awesome.” Using the turntable and the records to create some of the more rhythmic sounds I think is just really cool. You can tell that it’s a turntable in some sense, but it’s done very subtly here and there, and then it’s more forthright here and there. ‘Rockit’, the single from the record, was a huge part of my childhood, that was definitely my introduction to Herbie Hancock. Anybody that grew up in the ’80s, that song was just around. But then at an older age, getting into some of this, earlier records, and liking them a lot – I’m a huge Crossings, Sextant, and Mwandishi fan, I love those Herbie records.
But this song, I got more into it around the time of, my friends and I would do a little Zoom dance party every now and then. We’d each bring a song and we’d play it individually and dance around on Zoom, just to act like we were gathering and the vibe’s good. This song is one of the ones I brought, it’s just the kind of song I like to dance to. It creates rhythms that are almost more in tune with the body, it taps into these things that I feel just organically and naturally want to make the body move.
What does that term signify for you?
That’s kind of the heart of why inspiring to me, and it also relates to The Vorrh, the idea of memory being erased and what memories are really. I have my own relationship to Florida, and everybody else out there seems to have some other opinion or relationship to Florida. Florida is something I enjoy a lot, in a certain sense. I’ve been going to Florida since I was a kid. Old Florida, to me, is a specific part of Florida that’s associated more with the northern parts of Florida that haven’t really been taken over so much by tourism, like Orlando or Miami. These are the parts I enjoy because they’re a little bit more untouched, they’re a little bit more protected in terms of land; there’s some parks, nature reserves, mangroves, and swamps – I’m a big swamp fan.
But what is inspiring to me about is people’s view or people’s attachment, my attachment to it – people’s memory of what Florida is. You ask what old Florida is, well, there’s the old Florida that’s the Florida that I find fascinating, when it was just indigenous peoples living in Florida and a lot more animals, and then there’s the old Florida that’s old town Florida, the original settlements and that side of things. There’s all these different layers of Florida, and it’s interesting to me, the difference in memory and in what people attach themselves to in terms of what the history of Florida is, and where it’s at right now.
My girlfriend and I, just before the pandemic hit, we took a trip down to old Florida. The parts we went to were right outside of Tallahassee. It wasn’t crowded by tourists, and it was almost ghostly, in a way, like we were experiencing a vacation in a Florida that used to be, or a Florida that we really wanted to exist still, but doesn’t really exist anymore. It created this sort of dream landscape in my head that is part of the real Florida, what was there, but also partly this Florida that doesn’t really exist anymore, that isn’t there.
We talked about fantasy as something otherworldly or futuristic, but there’s also this idea of the fantasy of the past that you mentioned before.
Yeah, there’s a concept called hauntology that’s come up a lot for me in the past few years, and I think that has a lot to do with it. This idea that the future that we’re chasing is a future of the past, basically. So we’re pining for the future of Florida to be this Florida that never actually was, that we thought it could be. But really, what the future of Florida is – that’s an interesting concept to me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.