Avey Tare and L’Rain Lead With Intuition

The soon-to-be tourmates talk pre-album jitters, pre-show rituals, and Animal Collective’s new album.

Taja Cheek is an experimental multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who performs as L’Rain; Dave Portner, aka Avey Tare, is a founding member of Animal Collective. Animal Collective’s 12th album Time Skiffs is out this Friday via Domino, and the band will be touring with L’Rain this spring, so to celebrate, Taja and Dave hopped on the phone to catch up about it all. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Taja Cheek: It’s always so funny talking to people these days, because you never really have a sense of time and place. Where are you right now? 

Dave Portner: I live in western North Carolina, kind of outside of the towns of Asheville or Black Mountain. I’m just at home, my cat is eating beside me. [Laughs.] How about yourself? 

Taja: I’m in Los Angeles right now, which is not a place I’m usually in, but I was trying to flee the cold, because I’m a lifelong New Yorker and I’ve never done that before. I’ve been listening to the new record a bunch — how are you feeling? I feel like the moment before someone hears a record is a kind of strange time. 

Dave: It is. I guess when we finish something, or when I finish something, I’m really the most eager to just get it out right away. I feel like, especially with the circumstances of the last couple of years, things have been slowed down even more. So I feel like I’ve kind of had that feeling of anticipation for many months now, because this record has been done for quite a bit, in terms of at least our track record of finishing records and getting them out, I think. 

But I’m feeling good. I feel like I’m the most excited for my peers to hear it, just people that have kind of been in our orbit for a long time, you know? Or people that I know really connect. I guess the other side of it, the general public eye, it’s usually a mix between excitement and a little bit of nerves. Somehow all of our records feel different than the one previous to it, so it’s always a little bit of a question mark in terms of response. But also just being musicians that have been around putting out stuff for a while now, I feel like that also sort of creates a different perspective for people, because we have so much out there. I think it’s a little bit different when you’re first starting to release stuff and everything seems very fresh.

Taja: Yeah, I was thinking about that today. You’ve released so much music in so many different contexts. It’s interesting to hear you say that you still feel nerves, becauseI was like, Man, I wonder what it would feel like to release so much music. If the anticipation and the nerves are still there, I feel like that’s a good thing, in a way.

Dave: Yeah. I think it’s part of just still feeling connected to the process. I feel like I’m still very much an active, enthusiastic artist, musician, whatever. It’s good to know I’m still alive and feeling something about it — if I didn’t have any feeling about it at all, I’d probably start thinking about doing something else, maybe.

I’m curious to know your take on this — I feel like at least most of us in Animal Collective are very much more process people than we are product people. The process often makes much more of an impression on me, and if you were to bring up an old record of ours, I would think more about and connect more to the process of it than say… some of them, going way back, I might not even be able to give you the exact track listing. And it’s not to say that the final product doesn’t matter to me; I’m definitely striving to make something special and personal. But it’s a personal statement from a certain time period. So it’s weird to kind of isolate and solidify that time period and those feelings — everything that’s sort of alive and important to me about life and have it on this solid kind of unchanging thing. So I wonder how you feel about that, in terms of your process and the records that you’ve made.

Taja: Oh, man, I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I make all these little fragments of stuff, and I have things from when I was in high school even, and I kind of revisit them every year or so. It’s funny, because I feel like every time I listen to them, it feels completely different. Things that I really responded to a couple of years ago, now I’m like, I don’t know about that lyric. Like lyrics that make so much sense to me at the time, I listen to them and I’m like, Who is that? I don’t think of myself as a person that’s shifted or changed that much, but the music — or, I guess, the feelings about it — definitely shift and change. 

It feels really vulnerable to kind of solidify something from a period of time. Everything is changing all the time, it feels weird to be like, “This is the final version.” But I always really liked when artists release different versions of things for that reason. Because they can exist in so many different worlds and time periods, and between all of them, there’s a there there, somehow.

Dave: I think that’s important to look at as we move into new ways of releasing music. At a certain point, is there more to releasing music than just the album format? I think definitely the whole streaming idea has pushed that conversation along even further. Though I don’t think streaming would be the outlet I would choose for the best way of putting my process out there. But it exists, so. I have a friend who lives around here, Sarah Louise — she’s a musician and she’s been talking about that a lot too, this philosophy of not having just the one version of one song and putting out different things.

I think for us, it’s always come out that way because playing live and the studio is always so different. I think having the ability to keep songs alive and changing and sort of relevant, the live setting has been a really important part to our process, just making things always feel kind of up to date and relevant for us. That can be sort of troublesome in terms of a fan’s perspective of what they want to hear, or expectations.

Taja: Yeah. Do people complain? [Laughs.]

Dave: [Laughs.] I’m sure it’s a little bit of both worlds. I mean, I think one of the most special things about playing live is it’s this thing that’s happening in the moment, it’s not this solidified thing frozen in time. It’s something new that’s happening. And so from the very beginning, I always wanted everybody involved to feel involved, you know — to feel like there was this trade off of experience. I guess some people are easier swayed than others, in terms of that.

Taja: Yeah, that’s true. I feel like it’s easy to forget sometimes, as like a person that’s watching a show, that it really is a two-way exchange. It’s really important to artists that do play live to feel something from the audience — not just like, “We’re doing this for you!” It’s like, no, we’re in this room together and we’re experiencing this thing, and it can only happen this way because of all the feelings we’re feeling in that moment and all the people in that room.

Dave: I think a lot of people don’t take that into consideration — because obviously they want to come and see the show and enjoy themselves and hear the songs that they want to hear. But yeah, I feel like a lot of people don’t take into consideration that each night for a band is a new space and a new set of faces. I might not be feeling the way I did yesterday for tonight’s show. I like that. I feel like that’s at once a challenge, and just everything that I feel like should influence a good show. I think I was able to sort of embrace that growing up and going to shows, like those shows that felt very spontaneous or like you could tell something magical was happening for the players on stage. I felt like that was the best kind of show. So maybe it’s just trying to recreate that. But it’s definitely hard to do. 

You also kind of set up shows, right? 

Taja: Yeah. 

Dave: You’ve curated for [MOMA] PS1 shows. I wanted to know your feelings about space. Since you’re an instrumentalist who’s played in probably a lot of different spaces at this point, but also have set up shows for bands, what are your feelings on interacting with space and your music and your creative process? And does that also sort of flow into the space of your actual music?

Taja: Space is really important. [Laughs.] I feel like for a long time, I could only really make music literally in my bed, because that’s where I felt the most comfortable and safe. I don’t do it so much anymore, obviously, but I used to host a lot of shows in my basement, too. I feel like there’s something special about home spaces, and something special that happens when you let people in to that. I mean, it’s obviously very intimate. But I think those are also scarier, because you really can see everyone’s faces, and you know exactly who’s there. But it’s also the most rewarding, I think, in a lot of ways — everything I learned about putting on shows and what it takes, and even just learning about music, I feel like has happened in those kind of spaces.

Dave: Having now been around playing different spaces, is there stuff that you look for that makes you comfortable? And do you think that — I guess I think a lot about just the current state of the music industry, and capitalism and that way of thought — do you think it offers the best kind of spaces for artists and musicians?

Taja: Man. [Laughs.] I was thinking about this the other day, about a friend of mine that has been playing music forever, and he is just so not jaded about the world. And I feel like I’ve gone through periods of being really kind of discouraged and and jaded, and I was just thinking about the way that he operates his band and how he operates in the world, and it really kind of comes down to care, I think — just caring about other people. I think the best experiences I’ve had at shows have come down to the one-on-one interactions with people there, and what it’s like when you walk in the door and how you interact with the audience. It’s literally as simple as just caring about other people. It kind of helps me just simplify something that felt very big and weird — the music industry — but it all just comes back to care. And capitalism, definitely, that’s not a number one priority. It’s the opposite. 

Dave: It makes me think of festivals. Have you played a lot of festivals? 

Taja: Not tons, but enough to be weary sometimes. [Laughs.]

Dave: Yeah, I mean, it’s just sort of like you feel like you’re processed cattle or something. You’re just moved in and out very quickly. And even in terms of the audience perspective, it’s like everything’s happening so fast and multiple things at once. It makes me wonder if there are better ways. 

I agree with what you’re saying, too. I think the best situations arise when there’s obviously care involved, and there feels like more of a personal touch than, you know, people that are just kind of on the job.

Taja: Totally. I mean, it’s not even like it’s anyone that works at the festival’s fault, even.

Dave: Oh, no, definitely not. 

Taja: They’re set up that way, there’s no way to operate differently. Like, “You’re on the schedule! You have to get on stage and you have to get off stage and you have to do the thing!” But yeah, it doesn’t seem like it’s always the greatest way to do things.

I wonder how you answer that question. What are your favorite environments to play in? 

Dave: I mean, I feel like we’ve played festivals that I’ve enjoyed, but I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite place to play. I feel like situations where I connect to the environment around — sometimes that has a lot to do with the nature of the place that we’re playing in, or where it is specifically. If it’s an indoor venue, I guess it can come down to the architecture of the space, or it can come down to to just the sound of it. 

There was a period of time where we were using in-ear monitors, and I just totally experienced, a lot of nights, a displacement. It didn’t really even matter where I was, because the nature of the monitoring system was just taking me out of the actual real environment that I was in. I had a really hard time with it. So I feel like I definitely like to experience how sound actually interacts with the space. I can get into a show when I feel like the sound is interacting with the space in a really special way, or a way that makes it really come across in a new fresh way or keeps it alive. When it feels like the sound is sort of secondary, that’s definitely a put off to me, because that’s kind of why we’re there. [Laughs.]

Taja: Totally! It’s always so strange. Like, how can there be bad sound at a place where people are listening to music? [Laughs.] It’s so interesting that you mentioned the in-ear monitors — I literally just got fitted for them. I’ve been really nervous about it for that reason, because I want to hear the sound of the stage and the audience and everything around me. I feel like I’m in my own bubble — intuitively, it feels kind of wrong in a lot of ways, even if it can make it easier for technical reasons sometimes. 

Dave: Yeah, I mean, it definitely can suck the life out of a live mix. Our last round of touring, we’ve been trying to do it without it. But I also think that maybe we’re not playing with as much happening, and I guess we’re trying not to play it at as loud of a volume as we have in the past, so it makes it a little bit different. 

I feel like our last record, I enjoyed it, for Painting With — we were using in ears, and maybe it was just that it fit the nature of that music better. It was kind of like listening to a nice record every night. [Laughs.] Whereas for Centipede Hz, previously, I was not able to feel comfortable a lot of the time. Even though I got used to it after a while — we played a lot that way. But after it was all said and done, looking back and thinking about it, I was kind of [wanting] to work something else out, try a different approach. But that’s not to try to dishearten you.

Taja: [Laughs.] Yeah.

Dave: Your ears are your ears, and everybody is going to be able to approach it differently. I’m interested to hear how it works out for you, though. 

Taja: Yeah, I’ll definitely keep you posted. 

Dave: I haven’t seen you live, so I’m curious — how much of your inspiration is kind of based on intuition, which would then translate into the live experience? Or how much is thought out beforehand?

Taja: I feel like it’s kind of a little bit of both. I definitely try to lead with intuition first, always, and see how far that takes me. But for the live experience, it’s a very different kind of collaboration. We have a pretty set band, [so it’s about] just making sure that everybody has a voice and can kind of do what they do also in the context of the music. To be able to do that, sometimes you have to create some structure, like, “OK, this is what this is, and this is where you can do your thing.”

Dave: That’s definitely how we approach our live set up. I think some people still think we go out there and we’re making a lot of stuff up on the spot, which is always strange to me, because so much of it is written and thought out. 

Like what we were saying before about space, when you can’t control so much about what’s happening to the sound in the space, then I feel like the more open you are improvisation, and the harder it can be totally for it to translate. You want to have more control. [Laughs.] Sometimes that backfires, too. 

Taja: [Laughs.] Yep. When we last saw each other, it was with the whole band, and it’s so interesting to see how you all communicate — you’ve been working together for so long, there’s so much unspoken. It seems like just understanding, somehow, as an outsider. 

Dave: Yeah. I was actually talking about that recently, and just about the idea of mental telepathy. You know, the sort of mystical arts and ESP — a lot of different things in that realm interest me. But I started thinking a lot about it just in terms of this record that we just made, because we had to make it separately just in our own homes. We weren’t able to go into a studio because of quarantine, and I feel fortunate that we’ve known each other for so long and have developed a way of communicating that you don’t need words, or to say anything, really. It just happens. You can just feel out intuitively where one person is going to go. Or in the best situation — it doesn’t always happen that way. But yeah, I felt like it was really crucial to be able to feel that and have that trust even while recording a record thousands of miles away from somebody else. 

Taja: Totally. 

I’m curious if there’s [any rituals] that you do before a show, or that the band does before a show, to get ready?

Dave: Sometimes over tour, we’ve come up with this one — I’ll just pull one song off my iPad that we’ll just play kind of as the song we play right before we go on stage. I feel like that’s just a matter of getting psyched, I guess, to go on stage. Whodini’s “Friends” was a jam, and Brian Auger “Happiness Is Just Around the Bend” was a jam for us. It’s kind of all over the place. So that, definitely, and at a certain point, I need to just put the phone away, kind of just get grounded, get in the moment. I pace around a lot. 

Taja: Oh, yeah, pacing. That’s really important. I’m pacing as we’re talking now, actually. 

Dave: [Laughs.] And I feel like there’s a moment before I go on stage where I kind of just try and put everything in perspective, so it’s not as overwhelming. I just kind of think of a simpler time, simpler situation, something that calms me — something that’s very outside of that environment. I try to keep that headspace in a way when we’re playing the music, and keep it just about our connection to the music.

Taja: Yeah. It helps to keep it simple. I definitely pace for sure. I usually try to find some time alone, or sometimes I like to sneak a peek at the audience, just to kind of see who’s out there and what their energies are like. Sometimes I like to just kind of sit on stage for a while, just to feel it out. But yeah, the pre-show jams are definitely important. I’ll sometimes listen to a friend’s music, just listen to one song a couple of times to kind of get to a zone.

Dave: Nice. Just sort of bring that friend kind of close to you at that point. 

Taja: Yeah.

Dave: So how are you feeling about 2022? 

Taja: So I have a friend that’s been studying meditation for a really long time, and I’ve never had a practice before, but I’ve been like, just, just, just starting, and it’s been really helpful. We were talking and she had this phrase, that really stuck with me: she was like, “Everything is horrible and I’m OK.” So I’m trying to stay optimistic, and I feel like there’s a lot to be hopeful and optimistic about, even though the world feels really overwhelming sometimes. I’m trying to stay small, just trying not to overwhelm myself too much and to find things that bring calm and ease. That’s my goal for the year, at least. 

Dave: It’s good one. 

Taja: What about you? 

Dave: Similar. I feel hopeful, I’m trying to stay hopeful. I feel like when I start looking at the bigger picture, I start getting anxious and kind of less hopeful.I meditate a lot, actually, so I definitely recommend it. It helps keep me calm and clear. But yeah, I think living in the moment and just observing and being aware of my connections to the people around me immediately. Like you’re saying, keep it small. [I have] a tendency to get down on myself these days for not being able to help the greater state of the world. But I feel like it’s also important to realize that you kind of are, even on a smaller level, if you’re just focusing on the goodness and moving forward and being positive with the people around you, small community style. That’s kind of where my head’s at.

Avey Tare, aka Dave Portner, is a founding member of Animal Collective. Their latest album, Isn’t It Now?, is out now via Domino.