Dave Portner spent much of last year recovering. For the man best known as Animal Collective's Avey Tare, 2013 was fraught with persistent illness. "I started getting a lot of throat infections and strep throat on tour," Portner says over the phone from his Los Angeles home. "It was really recurring and bad, and would come with fevers and all this dizziness." The on-again, off-again ailments also came with postponed performances and some much-needed rest. "It forced me to be at home a lot," the 34-year-old says. "I guess it's hard for me not to play music, so I just started jamming on the acoustic guitar a little and writing new songs."
The giddy, colorful songs that took shape have since ended up on Enter the Slasher House, the debut album from Portner's newest project, Avey Tare's Slasher Flicks, a psych-pop trio informed by campy horror fillms and rounded out by Portner's girlfriend, former Dirty Projector Angel Deradoorian, and ex-Ponytail drummer Jeremy Hyman. Avey Tare spoke with SPIN recently about the group's just-released LP, and the blend of jazz, cinema, and sickness that inspired the collection.
It's interesting that many of these new songs came together while you weren't feeling well — Enter the Slasher House feels much more joyous than your 2010 solo album, Down There.
The last few years of my life marked an important transitional period for me. There was a lot happening when I was in New York, around when I was doing Down There, but I think it was harder for me to really process it all in a positive way. Not that it was negative, really — it just came out more like sadness and confusion. I was going through a divorce, and New York also really made it hard to get grounded. I still have a lot of great friends there, but I wanted to find a new, positive take on everything, and also be able to have a good time playing with Jeremy and Angel when we could, and not have it be this stressful thing. I think it was important for me — for my health, really, more than anything — to try and lower my stress levels. Being sick created a lot of the stress — not being able to do what I was supposed to do and also just feeling like I was letting a lot of people down. I was really trying to use the Slasher Flicks stuff to create some good vibes in my life.
Why did you decide to pursue these songs with a new band and not do a proper solo record?
It always has something to do with finding a new way to produce a record, or make a new record that will sound different from the last one. That, combined with the fact that Down There was a really lengthy process of getting this theme in my head of all the swamp stuff and this dark place. It gestated slowly and was really amorphous for a while. Since it was all done solo, it felt like this thing that was isolated to the bedroom. When I started thinking about touring for that record, it started being appealing to me to totally rearrange the songs and play them with a three-piece. It was the first time I started thinking, "Oh, it would be cool have some other people play my songs and see how they would be interpreted in a live setting." Then, when I started writing these songs, it started coming about again that that would be a different, cool kind of record to make: Just form a new trio and have the personalities and the style of the other members guide the sound of the record.
There's something oddly funny about this project and the approach you've taken with, say, the the press shots.
Psychedelia isn't just about one mood. For me, it's always been about the combination of moods and how fast a mood can change. I think combining humor alongside something extremely dark is always appealing in the world of psychedelia. I think the way an album is presented — whether it's the way it's recorded, or the artwork, or the press — is all one package. For me, it's mostly about creating a sense of mystery to a band. With this even more so, because I'm already in an established band and I've already done another solo record, so it's not that interesting to me to present a regular band shot or a photo of me hanging out that people have seen for 10 years. We're trying to have this be something a little bit more different. I like the aesthetic of slasher movies and '80s B-culture and '60s B-horror films. I think it's sort of an homage to that sort of stuff, in musical form.
What are some of your favorite slasher flicks?
Well, I'm not a huge gore fan. I like the aesthetic and the art form of it, the effects. That's basically what I like about them: The cheesy, almost rudimentary effects and fake skin, fake blood. A movie like Street Trash from the '80s — it's the worst movie ever, but it happens to have some of the best death scenes, color-wise, ever put on film. They just look insane. I wouldn't know if that's really a slasher flick, but it's a gore film. I really like this movie Alice, Sweet Alice from the '70s. That's actually an early Brooke Shields movie. The killer wears this really classic Halloween-type outfit that's a raincoat and a really blank, simple mask. I like the movie Deranged — that's really good. That's based on an actual killer, Ed Gein. It's sort of a weird, B-documentary on his killing spree.
What were some of the sonic influences on this record?
I think jazz definitely, especially in the way jazz sounds and is recorded. I think jazz-drum sounds are probably some of my favorite drum sounds. And the energy of jazz — I've listened to a lot more jazz in the past few years of my life than any other time.
Why do you think that is?
I don't know. Sometimes it just takes a little while for something to click. I've always kind of had an aversion to horns, actually, and had a real hard time getting into jazz because I've never been a big trumpet or saxophone fan. But lately, I started getting more into the kind of spiritual, free jazz of the '70s. You find that there's collaborations between, like, Don Cherry and Terry Riley, who's another musician that I really admire and inspires me a lot. For a lot of that time period in jazz, it was really about players that enjoyed playing music that got together, formed a trio for maybe a few records, and then would play with other people and put out records with those people. I think that's kind of what Slasher Flicks is, in a way: this trio of these three musicians who happen to get together and make this record.
Did the record label insist on putting your name ahead of the band's?
The record, the artwork, and stuff doesn't say "Avey Tare's Slasher Flicks." It just says "Slasher Flicks." I think Slasher Flicks is a better band name than Avey Tare's Slasher Flicks. [Laughs.] It doesn't really matter to me either way. If you're going to promote a show, I do want people to know it's something I'm doing. I know that helps, so I'm always like, "Oh, they should promote shows this way: 'Avey Tare's Slash Flicks.'"
Animal Collective seems to be very communal. How is the songwriting process for Slasher Flicks divided?
I write all of the basic stuff and most of the lines. All the original demos I did had parts — keyboard parts, guitar parts and just really minimal drum parts — but there's also the live side of it. I feel like live music and recorded music will always be these two different entities. There's always a side of live music that's uncontrollable to me. The more control that one person tries to have over it, the more it becomes music I don't really connect to. The plus of playing with people is to interact with their style and their personality. When we went in to start working out the songs as a band, I didn't want to be like, "You have to play this part," or "This is how it is." I intentionally made things minimal when doing the demos so they could be elaborated on by Angel and Jeremy — and they did, for sure.
Angel is your girlfriend. How is it balancing a creative, professional relationship with a personal one?
It definitely has its pluses and its negatives. For a lot of people, they tell you they would never do that kind of thing. When we first started playing in Animal Collective, Noah [Lennox] and I worked at the same place, we lived in the same place, and the only other thing we would really do is practice. We were around each other all the time. In a certain sense — I mean, aside from the romantic side of it — there's not a lot of difference between that and playing with someone you're also romantically involved with, just in terms of sharing the space. When you start doing everything together, there's the fear of losing yourself a little bit. Angel had actually never played music with a partner before. I had, and I think just having done it before, there's stuff I wanted to keep in mind — that space. And also, since I do Animal Collective pretty seriously, anything I do outside of Animal Collective, I try and take a little bit more lightly, and not build a lot of intense pressure on it.
Do you have another solo record in the works? Or a new Animal Collective album?
No, not really. I'd like to do both, I think. Personally, just because the past couple of years with Animal Collective have been pretty intense writing-wise, I'd like to be able to take a step away from music. I feel like what a lot of last year — and getting sick for months — was about was learning that I need to take more breaks when I can. I am always brewing new ideas and eager to get things started, but sometimes I just have to be like, "All right, wait. Just don't do it yet." The Animal Collective dudes and I talk a lot about what we're going to do next and how to approach things and all that, but it's not something we're really setting up right now. And same with my solo stuff: I've got ideas. It won't be something that will sound like either of these two records, but it's hard to say when it'll happen. With songs, you've just got to take it when they come. You can't really force it.