Panda Bear: Don't Fear The Reaper
[As I’ve said more than once, the greatest privilege of my job at TIDAL is getting to talk with artists about their art. This pleasure is doubled when the artist I’m speaking to is one whose music has, and doubled again when said artist is the awesome human being you had hoped they were. Noah Lennox is an incredible musician and just about the nicest guy you could ever talk to. I hope it isn’t the last time he and I meet.]
Panda Bear – a.k.a. Noah Lennox – is not a kid anymore.
After co-founding free-thinking unit Animal Collective with his childhood friends – Avey Tare (David Portner), Deakin (Josh Dibb) and Geologist (Brian Weitz) – in the late-’90s, Lennox assisted in evolving their ramshackle free-folk roots into something more eclectic and accessible, leaning on experimental electronica, samples and vocal harmonies.
Meanwhile, he fledged a prosperous solo career, gaining resounding praise for his third solo album, Person Pitch (2007), named Pitchfork’s Album of the Year, as well their 9th best LP of the decade. 2011′s spacey follow-up, Tomboy, was similarly strong, if not sonically divergent. The Bear earned newfound visibility in 2013 when his collaborative track, “Doin’ It Right” marked a high-point on Daft Punk’s Grammy-gobbling Random Access Memories.
Now a 39-year-old father of two, living as an expatriate in the quiet Portuguese capital of Lisbon, the tirelessly innovative artist is more aware of his own mortality than ever, even if his creativity is as youthful as ever.
With his excellent new LP Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, Lennox released the first certifiably great record of 2015.
Co-produced by Sonic Boom, who also worked on Tomboy, the title was inspired by dub reggae albums of the ’70s such as King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown. As the name suggests, the record deals with themes of mortality, as well as the trappings of modern life and domestic responsibility. As personal as the inspirations are, the sentiment is designed to be open and relatable.
Panda Bear would sound like it came from another world if it weren’t for the omniscient guiding voice of Lennox, which leads the listener through the aural unknown. As is exemplified by singles “Mr. Noah” and “Boys Latin,” Grim Reaper is his most dense and robust effort yet. Thanks to weightlessly suspended tracks like ”Tropic of Cancer” and “Lonely Wanderer” act as atmospheric counterweights, it tours through lyrical and sonic darkness without becoming preoccupied with it.
In his review for The Talkhouse, Qasim Ali Naqvi wrote, “It teeters on the edge of bubblegum, but it’s also covered in a generous patina of strangeness … the album seems to vacillate between plastic goodness and violent sonic rips. It’s almost lighthearted in its exchange between these two worlds … The digital flora and fauna that brush at the feet of your listening experience will always remind you of Noah Lennox.”
We had the great pleasure of catching up with Lennox while he was at home in Lisbon.
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I don’t want to dwell on this, but as a fellow American living in Europe, I found a lot of resonance in the the story Pitchfork did on you. You said that as a resident foreigner, you feel like an alien, but that you kind of like that.
I suppose it’s not for everybody but being an alien doesn’t really bother me that much. If anything I sort of enjoy it. There disadvantages to that scenario, but I find that the positives outweigh the negatives.
It’s like you’re on the outside looking in. The language is the most frustrating barrier. Have you learned Portuguese?
I have, very crudely. I kind of sound like a caveman but I can do it. I’m never around consistently enough to take a course. I should say it’s definitely a source of embarrassment to have lived here 10 years and still struggle with it, but I get the job done. Occasionally you get some weird looks and people laugh at you, but that’s okay.
Do you think being that alien in the room translates into your music?
I’m sure it does, though it’s hard to say exactly how. To me it has to do with the influence of environment: I’m always sure it’s happening but I’m never sure exactly how the dots are being connected. That sense of being on the outside looking in not only affects the music but also the way I think on a daily basis. Trying to trace that line gets kind of difficult.
How has living in Portugal affected the dynamic and output of Animal Collective?
We didn’t quite say it at the time but it came out in later years that we were all worried about how it was going to work, or even if it was going to work. But if anything it’s proven to be an overall positive thing for us.
Again this is something that has its positives and negatives, but it has forced us to spend time apart so that when we do get together we’re especially excited to see each other again. We’ve had time to process things while we’re away from each other, we’re especially motivated to work on the stuff and make it something really good.
The downside is that we don’t get to practice whenever we want or need to. That makes it difficult, but if we’re smart about planning things out and maximizing our time when we get together, it works. I don’t think it has tripped us up much, at least up to this point.
How does your work with the group and your solo work differ?
I kind of feel like they weave into each other. They don’t seem super separate to me. The process is super different, the product maybe not so much. When I do stuff on my own it’s obviously really saturated with my own character and personality, for better or for worse, probably the latter.
With the band, what’s exciting about it is that you’re forced to harmonize everybody’s perspective and everybody’s sensibility; you kind of force yourself into places that you wouldn’t normally navigate to on your own. Being able to surprise yourself and create something new within yourself is what’s exciting about working with the band.
When I do something on my own, I may try to explore new territory, but it’s more like finding a room in a house you already live in, whereas being with in band feels like going on a journey and traveling to distant lands.
So you would say your success as Panda Bear hasn’t lessened the gratification you get working with the band?
No, not at all.
You’ve worked both with and without the aid of producers in the past. What does working with a producer do to your process and your end product?
It’s sort of similar to the last thing we were talking about: where getting somebody else’s perspective and viewpoint. I just find it such an interesting, rewarding process trying to figure each other out and build some kind of relationship, both with the person and the thing you’re making.
I always prefer to work that way. I don’t think there’s been a single thing I’ve made that somebody else hasn’t gotten their hands a little dirty with. There are certain moments when I put my foot down and say if I really think it should be done this way, but more often than not I enjoy letting something go where I wouldn’t have taken it on my own.
I find your music particularly hard to define, maybe because I have less to compare it to. I feel that way about electronic-based music in general. Do you see your music as something less rooted in influence or reference, or are you just good at masking it?
Well I don’t think something comes from nowhere, so I suppose I’d argue the latter.
I do feel like there are moments when I’ll do something that has an obvious connection to something else, and the impulse for me is to disguise that as something else as much as possible or lose it completely, just because I feel like it’s less exciting. I think there’s a place for that kind of thing, and music can be great when it has these clearly defined reference points, but it’s not something that stimulates me. It doesn’t get my juices flowing.
What gets me the most excited and motivated is the stuff that doesn’t have a really obvious reference point, or there are so many different things going on it turns into this weird quilty patchwork of influence or inspiration. Usually it’s that second one; it’s rare that I’ll listen to something and say, Where the hell did this come from?
What’s your quilt made of?
In New York I was lucky to have had this job cataloging records in this little office above a record store. The store specialized in things existing on the fringes of culture, so I was exposed to such uncommon recordings.
I’ve always had a group of friends feeding me new and interesting music, so I developed a pretty good musical vocabulary. Having said that, I usually feel like the ignoramus in the group; pretty much everybody I know is more of a muzo than me.
The word ‘psychedelic’ gets thrown around a lot, especially regarding your music.
It does. More and more it seems.
What does that descriptor mean to you?
I don’t know, I really don’t. The closest I can get is to describe it as a sort-of blurring of the edges, where things interact in special and magical ways. There’s often an element of confusion and surprise to it, but that’s about the best I can muster, at least as relates to what I do.
I’ve heard definitions like, “something that happened in the ’60s and ’70s,” or “a type of music” and some people definitely see it as being restricted to that. Other people I’ve talked to – because I’ve talked about it to a lot of people – have wildly different definitions of what it means.
I can’t say that I’m any kind of psychedelic warrior, as far as dropping a lot of acid and whatnot. I don’t have a whole lot of psychedelic experiences like that so I feel like a poser talking about it in detail. But my favorite version has is about confusion, surprise and blurred boundaries.
Is there any strain of rock and roll lingering in your music?
To an extent, especially the older strains of rock and roll. I think I hold onto the spirit and the liveliness of the music, if not the sound. I like the heaviness of it, which has showed up in the more recent stuff I’ve done. Especially the heaviness of [Black] Sabbath and the power of sludge – I like that stuff quite a bit.
Could you describe your music for my grandparents?
I’d probably just define it as electronic music with singing. If they would press, I’d expand and say I use a lot of samples, and that I like a lot of simple, odd song structures and noisy elements.
When somebody asks I’ll usually make a split decision, trying to decide where the person is coming from, and adjust my definition accordingly. Do you know what I mean? The most frequent situation I’m asked that is by customs agents, so I feel like I’ve found a way of describing it in the most bare-bones way.
I guess what I’m trying to get at is whether you think your style of music can be made approachable for that audience?
I hope so – that’s kind of the target in a way. It hasn’t exactly been successful at that yet, [laughs] but I suppose it’s still early.
If you had made music before there were computers, what would it sound like?
You ever heard of Moondog? He was this New York character, in the ’70s I think.
[Ed. Note: Moondog (b. Louis Thomas Hardin) was a composer, musician, poet and inventor of instruments. He started playing in the streets of New York in the late-1940s, where he was widely known as “the Viking of 6th Avenue” due to his iconic helmet. In 1974 he moved to Germany, where he remained until his death in 1999.]
He did a lot of these rounds: there’d be these really simple percussive elements and he’d sing in rounds and get other people to sing. They sounded like these really old folk-type songs. There’d be a lot of repetition; I enjoy repetition. It’s really simplistic in a way but with these really odd, weird angles. I feel like I’d make something like that.
Using acoustic guitars and playing acoustic drum sets, it’s stuff that I’ve done before, and [Animal Collective] has done before. I just think we were always interested in making acoustic guitars sound like something else, like something electronic.
You’ve described yourself as a very private person. I’m sure you’re aware of the paradox given your choice of career. What motivates you to share your art and perform in front of strangers?
I talked a lot about that on my last album. I think [the motivation to share] comes from a type of feeling I’ve had since I was young. I wouldn’t say it’s pride, but it’s this excitement about a creation and wanting to share that excitement. It don’t think it’s more complicated than that. Even as the process and the audience has changed, that feeling has remained the same.