Instinctively nomadic and musically inquisitive, Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox first stepped out with a Panda Bear solo effort back in 1999 and since then, his musical development has been as puzzling and pleasing as that of the Collective itself. Panda made his way to University in Boston, before moving down to New York at the turn of the millennium to link up with his recently-convened Animal brethren. The range of sounds and the lack of predictability in Panda Bear’s music are certainly still there; as is the sense for glorious Beach Boys harmonies amidst loops and noises going insane, and the transformations from record to record.
When his 2007 effort Person Pitch made it to many year-end lists, with its debt to repetitive techno structures and a clear sense of purpose within the playfulness, this marked the start of a widespread recognition that few people had dared to hope for. Never sticking with any particular sound, Panda’s range goes from the humble folk jams of Young Prayer to full-on electronic pop, while teaming up with Sonic Boom of Spacemen 3 infamy has proved particularly fruitful, with plenty of experimental leanings in his latest albums.
Upon the release of his latest record, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, we caught up with the subtle maestro for a Fireside Chat on RBMA Radio, and to delve deeper into his latest workings.
Could you tell us a bit about the first self-titled Panda Bear album, and how that came together?
It’s more just a mix of songs, or a mixed tape, you could say. I didn’t really understand the concept of making an album where the sequence of the songs told a story. I would assume because, before that, my interaction with music was through the radio, and of course, you don’t hear full albums on the radio.
I remember my father had a couple of vinyl records in the house that he gave to me. I would just look at them, but I don’t think we had a record player, so I had no way of figuring out what was on these things. When I first went about trying to put out this first album, it was just picking and choosing songs that I had made over probably the course of about three or four years, just kind of going, “I like this one. Put that one first. I like this one too. Put that one second.” It was very much a shooting-from-the-hip exercise. It wasn’t until making a record with my friend Dave [Avey Tare] later on that I feel like the concept of really trying to craft a story via a sequence of songs started to crystallize for me.
What kind of equipment were you using on, for example, a track like “Inside a Great Stadium and a Running Race”?
The equipment that I used for a lot of those songs was mainly a synthesizer called a Korg 01 Pro, I believe. My family had this thing. I think my parents noticed that me and my sister had an interest in music. I was lucky enough to have parents who would feed our passions, you could say, and had the means to do so.
I remember this thing just being in the house and attacking it, trying to figure it out. There was a 16 channel sequencer on it... very crude... and I would make these... I guess what now you would call them “beats”... these little sequences, cycles, of music. I would record these pieces that were essentially just turning off and on, muting, off and on, these tracks. It was mainly that. I think I had a Roland Groovebox that I probably used sometimes. Guitars. My brother had a drum kit later on that I would play while he wasn’t around. I think that’s essentially it.
How do you change your sound from album to album? Is it really just changing instruments, or is it an outlook?
Changing the sound is important to me on a couple levels. I feel like hopefully it’s more exciting to witness, more exciting to listen to. Also, for me, it just is more fun. I feel like if I’m using different equipment, if I’m forcing myself to write songs in a different way, often using different equipment, the results just typically end up being more lively and sound more exciting to me when I feel like I’m trying to thrust myself into a place that I may be not entirely comfortable with.
Are there any particular things or elements when you’re looking for a new instrument, or is it like you’re just trying things out?
I’d say the first part of writing new songs for me, I would say, is strictly mental. I’ll daydream and game plan what I want to do. I’ll have an image of what the feeling of the thing is going to be like at the end, which isn’t always where it goes, but the equipment I’ll use, the way I’ll perform the stuff live ... I’ll game plan the whole thing pretty extensively for a period of time. Then as soon as I get my hands dirty making the songs, I try to remove the mental process as much as I can, just because I feel like it doesn’t do much good after that initial period.
[Animal Collective’s] Sung Tongs and your own Young Prayer seem to occupy a similar sound, if not a similar emotion space. Do you find it easy to put deep personal feelings on record?
I do find it quite easy to be revealing with music. I don’t know that I’m always super straightforward. Oftentimes, I feel like the really personal experiences are often tweaked in slight ways, to the point where I feel like it’s not totally me that’s being revealed, which makes it somehow easier.
As I’ve grown older, I feel less interested in expressing myself in that way. I would assume that having children has something to do with it. I’ve thought a lot in the past couple of years how, even though I feel like introspection is a positive exercise, there’s a threshold. There’s a point after which introspection transforms into narcissism or it becomes a self-obsessive exercise.
A big thing for me writing the new songs was trying to ... Even though I felt like all the songs were starting from a very personal thought or a personal experience, it was always the challenge of every song, lyrically speaking, to expand the vision or expand the perspective of the song so that I felt like I was writing about something larger than myself, something more globally and universally concerned.
I remember thinking at that moment that Strawberry Jam might be a good title... that artificial kind of saccharine quality.
What was the inspiration behind the title of Animal Collective’s 2007 album Strawberry Jam?
We were on an airplane. I’m pretty sure we were flying to Greece. A flight attendant gave me my little tray of food. I specifically remember opening this tiny little box of strawberry jelly or jam. Just the look of it was this kind of gelatinous, very synthetic-looking material. I remember thinking at that moment that Strawberry Jam might be a good title for a set of songs, so long as they had that artificial kind of saccharine quality. The set of songs we had at the time seemed to suit that mood a little bit.
Animal Collective’s tracks seem to be more exuberant somehow, while your solo tracks seem to be more personal.
I think that’s true. It’s fair enough. Part of the hyper energy that I think comes from the band more than the solo stuff is due to the set-up. Having three, four guys in a room is just energy-wise a very different atmosphere than myself sitting alone in the studio. Oftentimes it’s what makes recording Animal Collective music a little tough for us, in that it’s typically our way to write songs and then play live the songs quite a bit before going into the studio. Trying to recreate the atmosphere that happens on stage in a studio can be quite difficult. I think oftentimes what happens is the studio versions of the songs take on a very different character. Depending upon what kind of person you are, that can be disappointing or exciting.
How do you look back on your discography? Do you find it easy to see this narrative that the media might talk about through your records, like Merriweather Post Pavilion, as some kind of watershed moment, or are they just simply just separate projects?
This stuff is all just separate projects for me, just separate moments for me. It’s like if you think about yourself and your work and your job, is your job what defines your life? I think most of us would probably answer, “No.” It’s one element in our life, but it doesn’t define us completely. I feel the same way about the albums and the music. How the stuff is dealt with in a public way is another sort of layer of meaning, but doesn’t really define what the thing is to me. Although I’m grateful and very happy about the stuff that does really well, I also have really good feelings about the stuff that maybe doesn’t do so well and doesn’t really seem to resonate with people. Looking back, my vision of the stuff I feel like probably wouldn’t link up very accurately with the public perception.
Moving on to Tomboy: How did you end up working with Pete Kember, AKA Sonic Boom?
We wrote to each other quite a bit before actually working together. He got in touch with me after seeing his name in the liner notes for Person Pitch. He said he liked Person Pitch and was grateful for me including his band’s name, among this long list of influences that I put in there.
We stayed in touch and were trying to arrange a show together for a while, but it never materialized. When it came time for me to find someone to help me mix the songs that eventually became the Tomboy album, I asked him if he would do it, and he, thankfully, said yes. I feel like I’ve learned quite a bit more from him, especially in terms of organization and attention to detail with the productions. I think more than anything, from a songwriting perspective, the idea of distilling a piece of music to its really essential elements, I feel, is highlighted in Spacemen 3’s music. That idea is a very big influence on me.
How has moving to Lisbon affected your work?
I think being in Lisbon has influenced my music in a big way, but it’s very difficult for me talk about exactly how it’s done that. As a creative person, I think environment plays a big role in what gets spit out on the other side. I think as creative people, we can’t help but leave clues and details about our environment and what we experience, what we think about, in the stuff that we make.
I’m sure that Lisbon has made its way into the song, but it’s not as easy for me as saying, “This song sounds really sunny and I’m sure that’s because I’m in Lisbon, which is a sunny place.” I made one album that feels very sunny to me, then the next album, also made in Lisbon, sounds very austere and dark and very serious, which clashes a lot with the idea I have of a Lisbon environment, so although I’m sure that there has been an influence, it’s very difficult for me to trace in any sort of explicit way.
Have you been using any new instruments on Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper?
The use of the computer on Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, I feel like is a new thing for me. Person Pitch also features a lot of sample work, where I used these Roland samplers and the boundaries were very clearly defined with the machine. There was a very limited set of things I could do with the songs. Using the computer, there’s so much flexibility and so many options that you really have to define your own rules with the thing. Developing that perspective, that system, was definitely a new thing for me on these songs.
You were working closely with Sonic Boom on the new album. How has that affected the process?
Pete certainly has his stamp on this music. Sometimes it’s something simple where I feel like an aesthetic that Pete has that he brings to the table will often take the mixes to a place that maybe I wouldn’t have gone to on my own. I also feel like Pete has a very keen ear for balancing sets of frequencies in a way that I certainly don’t. I think he and I hear music in very different but complementing ways. He’s also really good in mixing, finding all the little places that sounds coalesce and interact with each other and highlighting those little moments. It often, I find, produces magical-sounding stuff.