David Portner stands on a small raised platform masquerading as a stage, singing to roughly 40-50 half-baked witnesses, each of whom seems to be having unique, individual experiences. Those more meditative or sleepy find seats on the muddy blue carpet while his voice dances between frantic and passive, weaving around a repetitive guitar chord or a pounding rhythm. To Portner, who has been performing solo as Avey Tare and as a founding member of the legendary psych-pop group Animal Collective for nearly two decades, the size of the crowd is unimportant – it’s the group experience and the collective consciousness in the room that is far more important.
In the beginning, there was no crowd; there was only Portner and his childhood friends (whom he affectionately refers to as his brothers) letting go so joyfully through music. Nights would be spent huddled around equipment, experiencing sonic mitosis as musical ideas spread and developed between them, eventually forming a band responsible for shaping much of the sound of indie music in the 2000s. Tonight, he’s in a large and open room that isn’t quite suited for his style at The University of Delaware. College plays an interesting role in Portner’s life – one of his band’s most familiar songs laments the unnecessary experience.
Portner dropped out of NYU after only a few semesters, though he was quick to tell me “it wasn’t to pursue music” citing other issues in his personal life at the time. “For various reasons, Josh, Noah [Animal Collective] and I all had to leave college. We didn’t all arrive together in New York until a few months after that” he explains, “We all just got there – it was serendipitous in a way”.
I asked him if after dropping out of a prestigious university, he feared personal failure. “Failure,” he said “We weren’t really thinking about failure at the time. We were just getting together, having fun.”
The music of Animal Collective carries with it a constant feeling of community, be it in the song titles that are references to sibling-hood or the vast array of friends and collaborators they’ve collected over the years. Animal Collective is in part responsible for the successes of artists like Black Dice, Gang Gang Dance, and Ariel Pink, most of whom had been friends since their early days in New York.
“I think one of the reasons I had such a problem in college was because I couldn’t find a community. It didn’t make sense to me and I felt out of place there. It was just by luck that when I stopped going to college I met Eric, Hisham, Bjorn and Aaron [Black Dice] catching a ride to a show. It turns out Eric and I actually had a class together one of my last semesters at school – it was just this weird serendipitous thing that happened.”
Portner mentions luck and serendipity multiple times throughout our conversation, crediting it with much of the success the band achieved in their early days, especially as it pertains to the friends and artists they got to know in the New York DIY scene at the time. “I had met these people around at parties and stuff, and it just turned out that we all had similar interests in the way we wanted to present music. We connected over the ways that visual art could also be affected by music – it was all kind of one world for us. When we started sharing a practice space by chance, we all started making music together.” When asked if sharing such a close space influenced their sound, Portner offered “We each wanted to do something different, not just add on to what else was happening in New York at the time. The first time I saw those guys – Black Dice and Gang Gang Dance – definitely changed the way I thought about approaching music.”
How does a new artist find their sound, especially in a big city, be it New York or Philadelphia? How do you go against the grain of what’s happening all around you and make it your own? When I ask David Portner, he chuckles. “I don’t know if there is a definitive answer” he explains, ”I will say there’s something strong in hearing yourself in your music. It’s really about finding yourself and being comfortable with yourself. I feel lucky that I have three other selves that I feel comfortable around and they feel the same around me, and we’re able to have this sort of individualistic vibe in what we do.” He adds, “It doesn’t always go that way though, finding your sound could just be a crazy event that just happens.”
Portner is well aware that the atmosphere that brought him and his friends success isn’t necessarily as easy to connect with these days. “It just seems like a really hard world out there,” he tells me, “trusting yourself isn’t so easy. The professor and philosopher Joseph Campbell kinda coined the idea of following your bliss. That’s following your heart and what your intuition tells you that you should be doing. I think there’s a lot in that. I think there’s a lot of truth to that.”
Those who have heard and identified with Avey Tare or Animal Collective’s music know that they are wholly unique; no other band has quite been able to replicate what they’ve accomplished. It doesn’t seem like rising from a small NYC community of noise and experimental artists to become psych-pop titans is the kind of thing that still happens these days. In the case of Animal Collective and every other band trying to “make it”, even if it takes a little bit of luck, having a community around to push you forward makes all the difference.
Avey Tare’s latest EP Conference of Birds/Birds in Disguise is available on all streaming services now.