By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
Seeing as Animal Collective's Avey Tare (a/k/a Dave Portner) has an e-mail address with "croc" in it, it's not too shocking that Down There, his first-ever true solo album, features a phosphorescent crocodile skull front and center on the cover. "In high school, I was obsessed with horror movies, and I'd tell Brian [Weitz, a/k/a Animal Collective cohort Geologist] that I wanted to die by being torn apart by them," Portner explains. "Tossed to the gators." It makes for a disquieting image over lunch in South Brooklyn, so he quickly switches gears. "This record is more about the swamp. There's always been something mysterious about them to me. In movies, there's always this fear about being lost in the swamp, that you will never find your way out. They're uncharted places."
And while Portner admits to lately being captivated by the BBC series Life (especially the episode on reptiles and amphibians), Down There isn't really about boggy flora or fauna, either. The uncharted places he sought were inside him. "The swamp was a good way to invoke a psychological struggle of stepping into the muck," he admits. "I was struggling in a very complicated web of things."
To fans, that might sound odd, given the continual praise heaped on Animal Collective's 2009 hit Merriweather Post Pavilion, as well as fellow bandmate Panda Bear's (a/k/a Noah Lennox) similarly hailed Person Pitch from two years earlier. But while riding those successes, Portner's life crumbled about him, beset by marital strife, a death in the family, and, as detailed on the queasy and subdued Down There track "Heather in the Hospital," his sister's cancer diagnosis. "The positives [of MPP] were intermingled with these negatives at the same time," he recalls. "And it messed with my mind in terms of what is to be valued."
After eight albums with AC (including a collaborative DVD with video artist Danny Perez), a duo project with Black Dice's Eric Copeland as Terrestrial Tones, and a full-album collaboration with his wife, Kría Brekkan, Portner found catharsis in solo work. "I build up a lot of emotions inside of me and have to work them out through music," he says. The epic, loping rhythms of Down There opener "Laughing Hieroglyphic" help detail that dilemma, along with the apologetic lyrical admission that "I was too busy getting lost in the big sound."
But for this album, Portner investigates smaller sounds, too: "Leaving artifacts, making it feel broken, so that there's something old, something ghostly there," is how he explains it. An avid fan of dubstep and minimal techno, Portner also drew on those repetitive structures and twisted them: "It can't just be an electronic loop—that's not enough of a song for me—so it took a while to be satisfied with them as songs." Bass-heavy and spacious, with the vocals turned into slush and mist, Down There is intended to be a "nighttime record." That it arrives when the fervent AC fan base was expecting instead the latest Panda Bear opus doesn't fluster Portner at all: "People try to make weird competitions between Noah and me, but I don't feel that pressure," he says. "I'm not so concerned that Down There is going to be this huge thing. It's personal to me."