Spotlight: Avey Tare on _Eucalyptus_ and Working with Mickey Hart

Mike Greenhaus on January 4, 2018

Atiba Jefferson

Dave Portner had high hopes when Mickey Hart reached out about his new project, but even he couldn’t have predicted the album’s most surprising guest—Jerry Garcia. “It’s crazy when you start working with your heroes,” the uncharacteristically gushy Animal Collective co-founder says. “I worked with Arto Lindsay very briefy when I was much younger, but becoming an actual collaborator with someone like Mickey isn’t something that’s happened to me often in the music world.”

In 2009, Portner, who performs as Avey Tare, offcially entered the Dead’s orbit when Animal Collective became the first outside musicians to receive a license to sample a Grateful Dead song, “Unbroken Chain,” on their tune “What Would I Want? Sky.”

While the jamband universe often feels worlds away from the high-art indie-circles that Animal Collective primarily associates with, Portner guesses he’s spent more time listening to the Dead than any other act—he was first introduced to Brian “Geologist” Weitz when his future bandmate walked into their high school wearing a Dead t-shirt. (They proudly boast that, after some hesitation, they showed Josh “Deakin” Dibb “the light;” Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox’s primary psychedelic-rock influences lie elsewhere.)

When Hart was looking for some modern voices to mix into his new, highly percussive solo record, RAMU, his team reached out to the members of Animal Collective to gauge their interest. Portner jumped at the opportunity and spent time working with the Grateful Dead drummer at his Northern California ranch. Dead scribe Robert Hunter delivered a new batch of fresh lyrics for the project and, when Hart decided to weave some recently unearthed archival recordings into the sessions, Portner found himself in the same credits as Garcia himself.

“I was a little uncertain what my role would be or what it would be like working with Mickey,” says Portner, who sings on tracks like “Wayward Son,” “You Remind Me” and the Garcia-stamped “Time Beyond Reason.” “It lives up to all I had come up with in my own head, in terms of that process and everything I’ve taken from the Dead’s music.”

The full- circle moment capped off  a busy year for Portner, during which he embraced the collective part of his band’s moniker. In addition to proper Animal Collective tour dates and the release of their eighth EP The Painters, Portner has shared some concert bills with Weitz and recently offered the first-ever live recreation of his band’s 2004 crossover Sung Tongs alongside Lennox. Closer to home, he also released a new, intimate collection of “sunset and sunrise” recordings, Eucalyptus. Though billed as his second solo record, as opposed to his various collaborative LPs and his more formal side-project, Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks, Portner worked on Eucalyptus with Dibb, and with musicians Jessika Kenney and Angel Deradoorian.

About five years ago, after watching many of his friends move West, the Baltimore- bred Portner relocated to Los Angeles. He started writing what would become Eucalyptus as a low-key project in 2014 before focusing his creative energies elsewhere.

“I was winding down from the previous Animal Collective album cycle and just wanted to settle down in LA and nd some balance,” he admits. “I was doing a lot of electric guitar with Slasher Flicks, so I was using this as

an opportunity to play some acoustic guitar at home in my bedroom—and usually the first ideas I had each day were what I wound up keeping.”

Portner’s life in California served as a compass as he searched for the album’s themes; he honed in on his adopted home’s hiking trails and mountains and also found inspiration in the similarly serene landscapes of Hawaii. Slowly, he started to piece together the “electroacoustic movement.”

“I wanted them all to stick together like a journey, but then I started getting caught up thinking about it too much,” he admits, noting that it took him a while to finish the LP’s final tracks like “Ms. Secret” and “When You Left Me.” “The most rewarding musical situation is when there is the perfect balance between your intuition working and creativity working, and a little bit of intention.”

Eucalyptus connected some more personal dots too, and not just because “Jackson 5” nods to the universal feel of the first concert that Portner ever attended. “I view the microcosm as the macrocosm element of life,” he says. “I look for patterns in day-to-day living, something that happens in the grander scheme. Staying up late to watch the sunrise has been a recurring theme in my life that started as a kid hanging out with my cousins and my family—those first moments being free. That’s transferred into my life on tour with the band, who are like a family. We’ll often be up until almost the sunrise. There’s something unspoken between people who experience something as brilliant as the sunrise—a secret of the universe.”

Last year, Dibb, who has sat out AC’s most recent recordings, pushed Portner to revisit those songs. “Like it is with all of us in Animal Collective, studio [sessions] are the longest periods of time we can spend with one another, so it becomes this opportunity to just have a good time,” Portner says. “We’ve developed this intuitive process. Josh has become so good at recording on the computer; it’s really his strength at this point.”

In between the initial writing and the release of his new album, Portner switched gears and regrouped with Animal Collective to release 2016’s Painting With, one of the ensemble’s most upbeat and accessible albums. The balance is something that Portner has grown to appreciate.

“We wanted Painting With to be more outward and to translate live—touching on themes that weren’t necessarily as self-centered,” he says. “Eucalyptus felt like going back to our days recording in a bedroom with no expectations.”

Portner notes that his recent time with Hart took him back to those halcyon days when he first started to delve into the Dead’s various eras and stylistic shifts. As he worked with Hunter’s lyrics, he also rediscovered the beauty of collaboration. “It’s taught me to move through things sometimes—to embrace working intuitively without even writing,” he says. “It’s very Grateful Dead to me.”