Scott McMicken, Indigo De Souza and Avey Tare release new albums

STAR POWER: Clockwise from left, Indigo De Souza, Scott McMicken and Avey Tare each call the Asheville area home. De Souza photo by Angella Choe; McMicken photo by Wyndham Garnett; Tare photo by Amy Grace

What a joy it is to hear Scott McMicken’s voice on a record again — and we’ll be hearing a lot more of it soon.

The distinct vocals that anchored such Dr. Dog anthems as “Shadow People,” “That Old Black Hole” and “Do the Trick” now lead the charge on an exciting new project: Scott McMicken and THE EVER-EXPANDING, whose debut album, Shabang, was released March 31. Its 13 original tracks straddle the line between familiarity and experimentation, precisely what many fans want from a reliable source of high-quality tunes.

That they were crafted with a group of musicians McMicken had essentially never met before makes the collection all the more impressive. With Dr. Dog on hiatus from touring, McMicken sent demos to producer/engineer Nick Kinsey, who invited him and longtime friend and collaborator Michael Nau (bass) up to Chicken Shack Recording, Kinsey’s studio in upstate New York, to track with a handpicked ensemble. McMicken had crossed paths with keyboardist Zach Tenorio “once or twice, many years ago,” but otherwise the band was composed of complete strangers — and their lack of baggage paid dividends once they started playing together.

“Clearly, [Kinsey] was choosing people who are a combination of very talented and also very chill. So, there was a sort of curated chillness about it,” McMicken says. “But still, I’ve been making music with the same people for 30 years. I’m not accustomed to making music with people that I don’t know. And I loved it. I really loved it, and that’s why I think I was so obsessed with the social experiment aspect of it, because it was very easy for me to see how differently it felt communicating with a stranger with good intentions.”

While Shebang is peppered with catchy choruses like the one on album standout “Another One,” McMicken and his collaborators exhibit a distinct sense of sonic playfulness. Multiple tracks embrace his space funk side, while the vibraphones on “Reconcile” are reminiscent of Animal Collective’s gleeful, childlike creativity. McMicken says the album was a result of seven fruitful days last summer when he and his new friends were “bopping around the room, grabbing [instruments] that felt cool to them.”

McMicken plans to keep making music with THE EVER-EXPANDING, though touring may be a challenge. The band members are spread across multiple states, creating additional travel costs. The group had initially planned for a 14-show run in April but had to cut it down to four gigs. An Asheville show was one of those victims. But other opportunities to catch McMicken live in WNC will soon be plentiful — especially now that he calls our city home.

Having toured through town numerous times with Dr. Dog, McMicken says Asheville “has always left a really positive impression” on him and his wife, Leann Cornelius, a fellow artist and his Press on Records co-founder. Though nothing was driving them to leave Tucson, Ariz., other than curiosity and what he calls “the generally privileged position to be able to pick up and move and try something new,” they relocated to Asheville in May 2021 after an extended visit confirmed their perceptions of the area.

“We wanted to be somewhere really beautiful nature-wise and have some sort of peace and quiet, but also a lot of cool sh*t going on in music and stuff,” McMicken says. “And now, two years in, I feel like life artistically has blossomed beyond my wildest imagination due to a lot of partnerships and creative collaborations and new friendships I’ve made here. So, it’s all working out awesome.”

Those connections have included Greg Cartwright (Reigning Sound; the Oblivians), with whom he’s formed another band — The Hypos — with Evan Martin on drums and Kevin Williams on bass. (Both Martin and Williams also play in Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters.) The Hypos are almost ready to start playing shows around town and nearly done with an album of its own, recorded in McMicken’s no-fuss backyard studio.

“The whole ethos behind the studio is kind of blowing my mind and filling me with a lot of good feelings about making music moving forward,” McMicken says. “It’s just a humble little shed with an eight-track [recorder] in it, but there’s just a lot more embedded in the ethos. And so far, the results have been very affirming of some deep-down, core values about the excellence of collaboration and music-making and the purity of all that.”

McMicken is in the process of moving the studio to a larger shed on his property, at which point he thinks it’ll be more feasible to “really open the doors” to WNC-based musicians.

“My whole thing is local. I moved here because I wanted to be a local musician,” he says. “Part of what we were looking for in an area to move to was somewhere you could be active — making things and recording things and working with people. And so, I would like to put that message out strongly.”

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With a little help from my friends

Community building has likewise proved essential to Indigo De Souza’s personal and artistic development in recent years, albeit in her own distinct ways.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the local singer-songwriter and indie rocker had a strong group of friends and musical collaborators. But after recording her second full-length album, 2021’s Any Shape You Take, she reveals that all of those comrades shifted out of her life.

“I was alone, and I was isolated for a while and kind of had a lot of self-worth issues. I just felt like no one cared to get to know me,” De Souza says. “And I think in that isolation, that’s where I found confidence — which sounds crazy, but it was just being alone and feeling like I had nothing that made me find the strength that I needed from within.”

During that period of seclusion, living roughly 30 minutes outside Asheville, she wrote most of the songs that wound up becoming her phenomenal follow-up, All of This Will End, which was released April 28. Looking back, De Souza says she emotionally had more trust in herself going into the creative process, and, for listeners, that growth has resulted in her most impressive collection thus far. For that step forward, we have her new friends to thank.

“Once I found that [strength], I started manifesting people into my life that treated me well and really showed up … in a way that I actually felt excited about and aligned with me and who I am,” she says. “And it gave me the clarity that all of my past relationships had been extremely toxic. I hadn’t realized that until I saw the other side.”

That perniciousness is reflected in such refreshingly blunt lyrics as “You’re bad/You suck/You f***** me up” on album opener “Time Back.” And on subsequent track “You Can Be Mean To Me,” De Souza gets even rawer, singing, “You can be mean to me/I’m not gonna stop you/You can be a d**k to me/It’s what I’m used to.”

De Souza’s sense of hindsight is especially present in album closer “Younger & Dumber,” a towering anthem that suggests a new direction for her — or at least even more variety for her already diverse sonic palette. While working with producer/engineer Alex Farrar at West Asheville’s Drop of Sun Studios, she brought him a demo of the song featuring just her on vocals and acoustic guitar. At the time, she was unsure how she wanted to build it out, though a vision was starting to form.

“I remember telling him that I wanted it to be very glossy, country-esque — kinda of like ‘Slow Burn’ by Kacey Musgraves, which is just such ear candy,” De Souza says. “I’ve always loved that sound. I love grungy sounds, but I also love pop sounds — like, very clear, crisp, warm-sounding things.”

Farrar was instrumental in combining those two sides of De Souza’s tastes throughout All of This Will End. The two bonded while working on Any Shape You Take and have developed a unique communication style. De Souza says she can make “some crazy squealing noise to him” and he understands exactly what she means.

That connection and the others she’s forged in recent years are evident across the LP’s 11 tracks and left De Souza in a much better place than she was at the onset of the project.

“I met all these new friends and created new community and woke up from that isolation,” she says. “And then when I recorded this album, it was when I was surrounded by that community that had lifted me up. So, there was a lot of beautiful connection between my community and the process.”

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Flipping the switch

For fellow Asheville resident Dave Portner, aka Avey Tare of Animal Collective, the creative process carries a consistently intriguing question: Should the song at hand go toward his electro-rock bandmates’ next album or his solo work?

“If I’m writing for Animal Collective, then I usually imagine that the other guys will fill in the gaps and add the frequencies I’m not providing,” Portner says. “That also means that their personalities shine in there as well.”

But for his Avey Tare albums, including the engrossing February release, 7s, Portner tends to experiment a little more with songs outside the Animal Collective comfort and taste zones.

“The timing of Animal Collective versus solo stuff has made it that I usually start writing solo music while Animal Collective is touring or finished, and so I’m not really thinking or acting on touring my solo stuff in those moments,” he says. “The music has always been created for the studio. Then I will decide how to play it live later.”

With 7s, the recording meant working with producer/engineer Adam McDaniel at Drop of Sun Studios. Portner says he and his longtime friend don’t enjoy dwelling on one thing for too long, resulting in a strong balance between deep listening, being productive and getting things recorded. He adds that McDaniel is also deft with little details, knowing when a beat needs a brief breath or space as well as where to put in what Portner calls “cool artifacts.”

“Adam is great at collecting a sound bed that can be used for the production as the process goes on. Like, he’ll run separate effects chains while I’m tracking so we have a whole wide array of sounds to work with,” Portner says. “He’s very aware and observant … and marks things I like so we can go back to them later and use them somewhere. We’re able to move things along well together at a nice pace.”

Their sonic collaborations pair exceedingly well with Portner’s lyrical imagery of mountains, trails and rivers. During the writing of 7s, he was spending most of his free time hiking and camping around the Asheville area — just the right environment for inspiration to strike.

“When I have that kind of space and clear head, that’s when a lot of ideas start coming in,” he says. “I think a lot of the soul of the record comes from me reflecting and doing inner work while out in the North Carolina mountains. So, it seems fitting that it would pop up here and there in the lyrics. It’s my medicine and where I find the most peace.”

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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