The eucalyptus tree is not native to California, but it flourishes there, its distinctive scent hanging in the air in and around Los Angeles. It’s a fragrance that Animal Collective frontman Dave Portner, also known as Avey Tare, immediately associates with his adopted hometown — one in which he, too, flourishes, finding creative inspiration in California’s natural surroundings. So it makes sense that Portner would choose to name his first solo record since moving to the West Coast after the eucalyptus. Portner has been somewhat tight-lipped about the record, much of which was written in his bedroom in 2014, between tours with Slasher Flicks and Animal Collective, but that can be forgiven considering that the material therein is some of the most personal he’s ever written, delivered with the same penchant for acoustic experimentation that made early Animal Collective releases like Danse Manatee and Campfire Songs so compelling.
Across the 15 songs that make up Eucalyptus, there’s country twang, hiccupy pop, staticky textures, and sound collage, Portner’s chameleonic croon shifting to match each track’s mood. Friends surface like ghosts throughout narratives and sonics alike; Portner’s Slasher Flicks bandmate and ex-girlfriend Angel Deradoorian makes a vocal appearance on a song he wrote about their break-up, for instance. With each vignette, Portner displays a sort of courage in letting the songs become whatever they’re meant to be, never forcing them into a traditional structure in favor of preserving their peculiar energies and mercurial moods. Though these songs languished while Portner was at work on Painting With with Animal Collective, he found encouragement to polish them up from Josh Dibb, who last appeared with Animal Collective on 2012’s Centipede Hz. As the songs came to life again, so did the their cyclical theme — they each tell a story about nature, or relationships, or the passage of time, sometimes all at once. And though Portner appreciates music with a sense of mystery, he graciously chatted with me last week about all things Eucalyptus. Read our Q&A below.
STEREOGUM: There hasn’t been much info about this release up until now. Is there a particular reason you’ve kept Eucalyptus on the down low?
AVEY TARE: I’m definitely not trying to be secretive. I guess there are a lot of sides to it. I feel like there’s so many records in my lifetime that I just kinda stumbled upon and don’t have a story really, one of the most important being The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter by the Incredible String Band. I know that’s a very popular record, or kind of a cult classic — it’s by no means anything obscure, so there really is no reason why I wouldn’t know a lot about the record, but I really came into hearing that record and many other records just not knowing anything about it and just kind of experienced it as a collection of songs or as just pure sound and music that didn’t really have any backstory, and it just turned into one of my favorite records.
I feel like there’s often pressure, being in the music industry and putting out records, to need a backstory. I don’t have anything wrong with that if there is a good one there, you know? But I feel like it often becomes what you hear about the record. And especially with how the last Animal Collective record Painting With was written about, I think we all kind of found that we just included a lot of unnecessary information about the record and in the long run that stuff’s not even really important in terms of what I think people should be taking from the record. So I just kinda wanted to say as little as possible for this one, not completely as a reaction to that, but it’s such a personal record for me, and music in general is such a personal listening experience. I think it’s fine and positive that we don’t all share the same ideas about it. The reason for not putting any singles out or anything is just because I feel pretty strongly about the record being heard as a whole, just because I like records that way. I know it’s not sort of like the modern way of approaching a lot of music with the digital era but I think it’s cool to promote that way of hearing music still, so that’s that.
STEREOGUM: Now all will be revealed! Part of what leaked with Painting With was that your surroundings had a big affect on the album — was that true for Eucalyptus as well? Did living in LA impact these songs?
AVEY TARE: Definitely. A lot of records I’m a part of become a sort of environment, something that you can immerse yourself in when you’re listening to it. I wrote most of the songs for this record in 2014 and I needed that time to sort of just be at home and be in LA and I like to do a lot of hiking, camping, nature-y kinda stuff, so a lot of the initial inspiration for the record just came from being in the more wild environments of California — mountainous deserts, rocks, boulders, Big Sur, the ocean. All of that environment started creeping into my brain. But that environment is in danger. I’m really interested in looking at the cycles in my life and being very aware of that, looking for weird relationships between the cycles of the environment, the cycles of the world, and the cycles of life and everything down to your day to day living. I wanted to create a cycle of music that sort of dealt with the cycle of California in one day.
STEREOGUM: Did you record it at home?
AVEY TARE: I did. The whole idea was, since I needed this grounding time, my process would just be pretty much: pick up my acoustic guitar, sit on my bed, just spend part of the afternoon or a couple of hours playing guitar and singing with my recorder — I record everything that I play. I like to find a good balance between intuitive creativity and something that’s very thought out. And I feel like the most intuitive thing, the best idea, is just the first one that comes, often. So I just collected a bunch of that kinda stuff over the year basically. I don’t think I was doing much touring that year; I think I toured a little with Slasher Flicks, but it was basically more about being at home. And so I wanted the record really to be this intimate bedroomy kind of thing. I started just creating the little orchestrations that I wanted, the electronics and all that stuff. I wanted to get it down to where I could just play through these movements and have it kind of all flow together. But I just started getting way too in my head about it toward the end of the year, attempting to do it by myself. When you just don’t have somebody else listening to [your work], when you’re going back and forth between like, pressing record and being in the same place with all the equipment, it just gets hard to do.
STEREOGUM: So that’s probably where Josh Dibb comes in. He hasn’t been as involved with Animal Collective for the last couple of albums, working on his solo stuff. Did it feel like a reunion of sorts? Was there anything about your working relationship that’s changed over the years?
AVEY TARE: Josh kind of instigated me getting back into recording the songs in the first place. Josh and I are very close. I feel like from the perspective of outsiders, people just see the music output that we have and interpret our relationships and collaborative experiences based on all that, but I almost feel like we’ve been working on stuff together nonstop, and we DJ together. So I was just doing a lot of touring with Brian and Noah and Jeremy for Painting With, and I’m kinda always just on Josh for what he’s writing; it’s just the kind of thing we talk about all the time, and vice versa. I hadn’t talked to anybody about [Eucalyptus] really — I kinda just keep quiet about my solo stuff ‘til I feel like all my ideas are firmly in place and I really have something because you never know how long something’s gonna take to really put together. But I had all the stuff, I just kinda got too heady about it and kinda just gave up on it because we started working on Painting With and I kind of just needed to step away from it. And Josh was like, you know I love working with you and I love your stuff so maybe we should just set time aside and actually get it done, and he just decided to devote the time to helping me get it all into place. I sent him a blueprint of how I wanted the whole thing to go with all my demos and everything. I pieced it all together and sent that to him so he would get a good idea of how I envisioned everything flowing, because I wanted to keep this kind of intimate bedroom feel, so we decided to still record it at our homes basically.
STEREOGUM: Let’s discuss some of the textures you achieve on here, because there’s some really nice moments of sound collage right off the bat on “Lunch Out Of Order,” but there’s also this very stripped down feeling, which maybe is just the strong presence of acoustic guitar.
AVEY TARE: Everything was written with all those textures already in mind. Something like “Lunch Out Of Order,” that particular song, the idea was to do almost like a set of pieces that could be played in any order, which is where the title comes from. You could just sort of randomize it and play it however you wanted and it would just play back infinitely with all these different combinations, but on a record it has to have a final sequence, which is sometimes the drawback of solidifying ideas, ‘cause they’re all just sort of stuck in time as this one thing. I feel like, especially with Animal Collective and making intuitive music or music that’s partly improvised or has the ability to take its time to become something, there’s so many different ways that it could be, which is why I got too much in my head about it in the first place. [There’s that] fear that what if, in the long run, I’m not satisfied with the final product. What if it’s always just this idea that’s in my head? Something like “Coral Lords,” or some of the more spacious parts of it, is just my songwriting style. How I like to emote and convey emotions and incorporate that kind of thing into song is really being connected to the moment and feeling connected to the instrumentation and where it’s going and not as much having these set parts. I feel like my writing style becomes more stream of consciousness almost, in the way that I have one complete thought that I want to get out and it can be inhibited by traditional songwriting. Often that doesn’t feel like the most emotive way of writing a song to me. I want to be able to have this musical element that’s happening and then just be free over top of that. That feels the most natural to me. And some of the best stuff, or the stuff I’m the most proud of, I’ve written in that way.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of “Coral Lords,” there’s a curious sample in the beginning — it’s a guy who seems like he’s starting a cult that worships coral.
AVEY TARE: [laughs] That song, out of any of the songs on the record, stands out the most as being about the environment and ecology. I’m inspired by anybody that hones in on a specialty, that really makes one idiosyncratic element their drive and their push. I feel like that’s really inspiring to me, kind of the way I focus on music. So I just had my friend say a little bit about coral for that.
STEREOGUM: Obviously the title of the record is Eucalyptus and it’s mentioned in two different songs, and there are other botanical references. What particular significance does that plant have to you?
AVEY TARE: Well, I think in the most basic or simple sense, I tie eucalyptus to California a lot. I think it’s a scent and a sensation that’s very present in California and in LA. Around different parts of California you often smell eucalyptus. So I think it definitely has to do with that. I also think, being somebody that has suffered from a lot of throat infections, eucalyptus has definitely been a savior for me. It’s calming, in a way that music is calming to me. And I think that the sense of smell probably more than any other sense, is attached to memory. You smell different scents and instantly get drawn back to a specific time and place and I love that about it, and I feel like eucalyptus will probably take me back to the time around writing all this stuff. A lot of the record is about connecting to certain memories and certain people.
STEREOGUM: For instance, your collaborators? I couldn’t help but notice how often Angel Deradoorian pops up in backing vocals, particularly on songs about shifting relationships.
AVEY TARE: Well, Angel and I dated for a really long time. We’re really very very close friends — we have a really intense relationship, and we have a deep love for each other that I feel like is kind of never-ending in a crazy way. We are not a couple at the moment.
STEREOGUM: Partly because she moved back to the East Coast to work on her own music?
AVEY TARE: Yeah. Which is, you know, complicated and a story in itself. When couples break up, especially people that have been together for quite a long time — we were together for six, seven years — it’s always complicated no matter how positive you want to be about it. There were rocky moments. Fortunately, we have no negativity between us anymore and we’re really close. I feel like the musical side of that is we’ve always just respected each others’ musical abilities and tastes and obviously two musicians bond over music, especially when they’re around each other all the time, and I think we just like working with each other. Slasher Flicks was a very specific idea I had that was like, oh let’s put this band together that’s like a power trio.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, because Jeremy Hyman was a huge part of that too.
AVEY TARE: Which is interesting because Jeremy’s like the first non-friend that I’d collaborated with, even though he’s a great friend now. But with Angel and I, it was more similar to my other collaborations, like my band or Eric Copeland who I’ve collaborated with a lot. We were first friends and then started doing this kind of stuff together just as an extension of our friendship. I think for Eucalyptus, I just wanted specific vocal parts singing that I knew Angel could do, just cause her voice is so amazing and I like it so much. So for Angel’s stuff, I wrote all the parts and had it in mind how we would piece all of the parts together after she sang and we kind of just went to her place in upstate New York for a couple days and just had her do all the stuff.
STEREOGUM: Were you more focused on writing lyrics for this particular project? The lyrics seem to be a very big part of these songs, more so than on other releases.
AVEY TARE: I feel like, in the sense that it’s pretty minimal, I knew the lyrics had to be pretty strong in terms of a guide because I felt like for the most part the focus was gonna be on the voice and the guitar. Because a lot of the songs are on the more floaty side, or as some people might say, a little bit more meandering, I felt like I just wanted to use the lyrics more as something you could follow. For Animal Collective, I use lyrics more as melodic punches. But I kind of got into writing songs by being into short stories, so I feel like the way that I approach songwriting a lot of times is wanting to tell a good story.
STEREOGUM: The best example of that story-telling format on Eucalyptus feels like “PJ.” Was there a particular inspiration behind that?
AVEY TARE: “PJ” is based on a short story that I wanted to write when I was a kid about a person walking on a beach and running into somebody, like an old friend of theirs, that had died. I love ghost stories and haunted things, so at that time it had a little bit to do with that. Unfortunately, it just so happens that one of my closest friends passed away some years ago and I was deeply affected by it and still am. His name was PJ and the song is really just getting my feelings about that out.
STEREOGUM: What about “Ms. Secret?” That song is particularly interesting because it has a bit of a country twang to it, with the pedal steel and all that.
AVEY TARE: Over the last few years, Brian [Weitz] instigated this interest in pedal steel guitar for all of us. The KLF Chill Out record is this great ambient record with a lot of pedal steel guitar on it. And I love Hawaiian music and the slide guitar is a big part of that kind of music. Also, I’m inspired by what Susan Alcorn [who plays pedal steel on Eucalyptus] does on her own. I also recently have gotten more and more into country music, like the Harding Family, Roger Miller, a little weirder. Those are people that do crazy stuff with their voices too, so I kinda get into that and, you know, lyrically I kind of feel like there are a lot of cool lyrics going on.
STEREOGUM: There’s a line in that song where you say, “I’m just saving all my courage for a war.” Is that a comment on the current political climate?
AVEY TARE: I will just say, the political thing, I feel like there’s so much talk about that kind of stuff I almost don’t wanna talk about it. People are overloaded with it these days. But for sure, a lot of the record for me is an observation of the state of the environment, of the social state of the world. And I’m definitely aware of what’s going on and that seeps in. “Ms. Secret” is the balance between the quiet times and the crazy times and what happens in between and what happens inside of you. It’s just like finding the answer to life, to the universe.
STEREOGUM: Since you wrote this album back in 2014, has your relationship to these songs changed? Have any of them changed meaning for you?
AVEY TARE: Yeah. Noah says this a lot about Animal Collective stuff and I kind of agree with him: it’s like we don’t always realize what we were trying to say at the time, and it’s only by looking back on it we see how all the pieces fit together. I definitely had serious intentions and meanings, but especially having other people involved, say, like, for example, having Angel involved on a song that’s called “When You Left Me.” Her being like, what is that song about? Somebody questioning me about it definitely changes my outlook on it as well.
Eucalyptus is out 7/21 via Domino.