Dave Portner’s opening gambit during conversation around his latest record might set alarm bells ringing with Animal Collective fans. After all, ‘Cows on Hourglass Pond’, his third album under his Avey Tare moniker, is a solo effort in the truest sense of the word. Having hammered it out over three months at the start of last year at his home studio in Asheville, North Carolina, he certainly did it his own way, cutting it using a Tuscan 48 half-inch reel-to-reel tape machine, more commonly known as an eight-track. Not just any old eight-track, either, but that’ll come up later. He worked slowly, methodically, tailoring his compositions to the analogue medium he so loves. Most crucially, though, he did it all himself.
If this is his preferred modus operandi then you have to wonder how he’s managed so many years - the best part of two decades - as part of an outfit that literally has the word ‘collective’ in its name, and that, as one of the most fearless experimental bands of the 21st Century, they by no means limit themselves to tape recording. “In Animal Collective, we sometimes set ourselves rules and regulations on certain things,” he asserts. Anybody who heard either of their last two records would likely contest this in the strongest terms. “It’s a good way to guide the music. Recording like this is a pretty strict regulation, because you only have eight tracks. It keeps things simpler. It keeps the songs close to how they were when you wrote them. That was what I wanted for this album.”
‘Cows on Hourglass Pond’ certainly feels more accessible than his last Avey Tare record, 2017’s ‘Eucalyptus’; a dense, challenging listen that applied a thick coat of psychedelic varnish to a broad range of genres and that was, apparently, a deeply personal affair, although he won’t be drawn on precise details beyond “it felt precious to me, in a way that made me not want to shout about it.” Instead, and perhaps improbably, ‘Cows on Hourglass Pond’ sounds like the sort of record you could imagine a live band reproducing. It ranges from tracks like ‘Our Little Chapter’ and ‘Nostalgia in Lemonade’ - woozy, synthpop-on-downers numbers cut from Wild Nothing’s cloth - to ‘Taken Boy’ or ‘Remember Mayan’, both of which recall the off-kilter electro-fuzz of Youth Lagoon.
Of course, Dave himself would tell you that his influences were considerably less contemporary, and a reflection of his recent listening habits more than anything else. He name-checks early rock’n’roll, especially Bo Diddley, and ’60s country, particularly The Harden Trio and Waylon Jennings. It makes sense; all those records, obviously, were analogue recordings, too, and it got Dave thinking about what it means to make a stripped-back record - especially given that it’s not something he’s had a great deal of experience with. “With Animal Collective, whenever we’ve used computers to record, it’s all maximalist most of the time,” he explains. “You feel like you have endless tracks at your fingertips, and it’s very easy to get lost within that. I couldn’t have done that with the eight-track, unless I wanted to bounce tracks like The Beatles did on their early recordings. It just kept me from overdoing things - I was honing in on one instrument at a time, and really making it count.”
The tape machine at the heart of ‘Cows on Hourglass Pond’ is one that will already be familiar to Animal Collective diehards; it goes all the way back to the beginning of the band, when Dave and Noah Lennox cut their first collaborative album, ‘Spirit They’ve Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished’, nearly twenty years ago. That album was made with the Tascam, as were parts of ‘Danse Manatee’, the second de facto Animal Collective LP, in 2001. Most notably, the now-classic 2004 record ‘Sung Tongs’ was made with the machine; the pair played it in full last summer, shortly after the former had finished recording his own new record over the course of three months.
“To be honest, I’d like to work this way more often. It’s where I’m most comfortable.”
For Dave, the appeal was as much in the familiarity of the machine granting him some space and time to work alone than anything else - the eight-track was the only collaborator he felt he needed. “I wanted the process to be relaxed, which is why I did it this way, at home,” he explains. “I knew I could sharpen up my recording skills that way, too. I like being able to go in every day and hope to get things done, but if you have a frustrating day, you know it’s not a big deal. I’d much rather release something that I feel I can stand behind than something I made in a rush to meet a deadline.”
That kind of laidback attitude will have served him well when he lost the bulk of the work he’d done for a special show in Copenhagen in 2017; it was this mishap that opened the door for the 'Cows on Hourglass Pond' material to take shape. He’d been commissioned to produce a collaborative piece for the CPH:DOX festival in the Danish capital with his sister, the visual artist and director Abby Portner, but when his initial material vanished, he set his sights on the longer term. “I had just planned on doing some electro DJ stuff, but once I lost the files, I started from scratch and wrote a whole bunch of new songs, and played maybe five of them. That led into the making of this record, and I just kind of picked away at writing more and more in between Animal Collective tours - we were just finishing up the cycle for 'Painting With' around that time.”
With band activity continuing sporadically throughout the making of the record, there was bound to be some overlap between Animal Collective and Avey Tare, even if this feels like one of Dave's less markedly experimental efforts. “The 'Sung Tongs' tour was kind of going on at the same time, and we did a few shows that were around Tangerine Reef, and then the other thing is that I was already working on the next Animal Collective album with Josh [Dibb] and Brian [Weitz],” he reveals. “So, as much as I don’t notice it until I step back and examine it all, there does tend to be some crossover. I wrote ‘Our Little Chapter’ on a Juno-60 keyboard at the same time as a lot of the new Animal Collective stuff, so that’s maybe an indication of where we’re going.”
Before that, though, he'll take 'Cows on Hourglass Pond' on the road, with a twelve-date US run kicking off this week. He’ll be joined by Josh and Animal Collective’s touring drummer, Jeremy Hyman, in what sounds far more like a traditional band setup than the group’s fans might be used to. “It’s a very organic record, so I want to keep that feeling on stage; I’ve put a band together so that the songs will be true to the studio versions. I haven’t done a lot of solo touring, so it feels like I’m starting from scratch in terms of getting an audience out to the shows.”
Later in the year, meanwhile, Animal Collective will whir back to life. “We have a bunch of demos and the new material that we played at some shows last year in New Orleans, and we’re hoping that’ll progress to us having a lot more new stuff to work at. It’s just a matter of organisation, and getting everybody in the same room. We’re playing Desert Daze in California in October, and we’ll be thinking about playing a lot of older stuff, because it’s the tenth anniversary of 'Merriweather Post Pavilion' this year. Hopefully, that’ll be the thing that lights the fire under us and sets us on the road to something new.”
'Cows on Hourglass Pond' is out now via Domino.
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