Panda Bear interview
Some ten years ago, I had a few chats with Noah Lennox (Panda Bear) for the now vanished website Paper Thin Walls about Person Pitch. Ten years on, I dug them out of an old hard drive. And so…
Noah Lennox is known best as the tom-throbbing drummer of the Animal Collective with the boyish voice. He also records as Panda Bear, and that voice was cast in stark relief on the tremulous solo album Young Prayer in 2004, which was recorded as an homage to his dearly departed father. Since that time, his band has become one of the most profound of the 21st century. That is but one of his life changes though, as he relocated to Lisbon, Portugal, got married, and sired a daughter a few years back. Reflecting such change, Person Pitch eschews the acoustic roots of Prayer, as well as the rock base of Animal Collective, instead offering something closer to his Jane project with DJ Scott Mou. Woozy snippets of sound are cycled and thickened.
Album opener “Comfy in Nautica” was originally a double A-side single, and it exemplifies the album’s sound. Lennox layers his voice into a round, all of it buoyed by thwacks and handclaps that might blend into old Chain Reaction dub beats. The means are simple, but the result is hard to pin. At times, it sounds like something the Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson would’ve rendered, had he been obsessed with the joyous sound of the Missa Luba, that Latin mass rendered by a choir of Congolese children. We caught up with Lennox while he was down in Arizona, where he and the Animal Collective are recording their follow-up to 2005’s masterpiece, Feels.
So how are the Animal Collective desert sessions going?
It’s going good. The desert rips. We’ve rented a house out in the middle of nowhere and there are mountains all around. We’re in a pretty steady routine of work and we don’t do much else. The environment definitely creeps in here and I feel like the music is better for it. I really like the way we’re doing this one more so than the last couple so I’m excited about it for sure.
I can’t wait. Of course, you also have your third solo disc coming out. How dependent is Person Pitch on place versus your first, Young Prayer? Is the music connected to the geography?
I’d say they’re pretty equal as far as the influence of environment goes. With Young Prayer, I really went to the most intense place (the room where my father died) with regards to what I was singing about and playing and it really affected the sound of it. I had a hard time doing it. I couldn’t get through the first song for a while. Not that I would start crying or anything, but I think I was kind of overwhelmed by whatever was in there and it was difficult to focus. It’s similar with Person Pitch but a lot harder to quantify and I spent a lot longer doing the whole thing. A lot has happened to me in the past two years and some of it has been no joke, but the backdrop to all of it has been very pleasant and not so serious. I’ve felt happy recently for a bunch of reasons. I imagine both albums would have sounded different had they not been recorded in their respective locations but I think saying they were wholly dependent on those locations is untrue.
Being in Portugal now, do you feel disconnected from friends/family or are you acclimating to the new culture?
I’ve had to work a bit at keeping the relationships I really care about as I’ve never been very good at keeping in touch. Wherever I am is where my mind is at, if you know what I mean. I’ve been talking a lot with my brother and sister and I’m really psyched about that. I suppose I’ve acclimated more or less to Lisbon life and I should say I really like it. It’s slowed down and that suits me.
What was the biggest internal shift for you between the two records?
Having a baby was the big one over the past year or so and it’s safe to say it’s the most intense thing I’ve ever experienced. And the experience keeps going and gets different all the time. When I think I’ve got her figured out, she does something new and different and looks at me like “Nice try.”
How do roles as husband and now father affect your music-making?
Caring for Nadji I feel was totally crucial to keeping to my plans for the releases (the singles and all that over 2 years). I don’t think I would have been so diligent if it hadn’t been for her. Also just being totally freaked out about providing for my family has changed me a lot. I don’t mean to say that all the sudden now I really just want to make music that will sell a lot but I do mean that all of the sudden I felt like I couldn’t fuck up or be lax about anything. It’s terrifying for a second when you realize your perspective has been forced upside down and now its you who’s got to make things happen for the people you care about. But then you get on with it and it’s no big deal, but you can’t go back.
Do you play your music for your daughter? What’s her reaction like?
Nadji is psyched on the jams I think. It seems like she’s really into rhythmic music so it’s the most rhythmic parts of the album that she gets most into. I’ve seen her dance around to it a little and that’s awesome.
Any chance you’ll be singing in Portuguese next time around?
I don’t think so at least right now it’s not something I’m really into. I’m psyched about singing in English. I think I’d feel kind of phony singing in Portuguese but I shouldn’t say I’d never do it. I can understand a lot of the Brazilian jams although sometimes they say things in ways I don’t really understand quite yet. The languages in Portugal and Brazil are generally the same at least the vocabulary and grammar is more or less identical but certain phrases and slang differ.
Anything you want to mention about “Comfy in Nautica” itself?
It was the second track I worked on but the first track I really worked on in the way I worked for the rest of the album. “Searches for Delicious” was the first thing I did (for a magazine called Comes With a Smile) but that was based off of a manipulated live recording. I had the “Comfy” title for a long time and I always really liked it. I remember I did it really fast, like in a couple of hours, then mixed it a couple of days later and that took a while.
Rusty (Santos, his producer) came this past October and we mixed it (and everything else) over again and basically diluted the song down into three or four principal parts. Then we took each of those isolated parts and made them sound as good as we could and then put the parts back together again. I wanted Rusty to help me not only because he’s really good at producing and getting really good sounds but also because I knew I was mixing the things in kind of a funky way. I figured he would give me a more natural perspective on the stuff and he definitely made everything sound way way better. It was good to see him. I think we spent six or seven days working on it and we finished only an hour or so before he had to go to the airport.
What else you digging these days?
Scott Colburn (producer for Strawberry Jam) brought a lot of DVDs to watch in the off hours while recording. He’s got lots of awesome jams, but one thing I was really psyched on was called Forbidden Transmissions. They were like video mixtapes kind of and had some totally sweet things on it and some funny stuff, too. We watched Jackass 2 and that was good but I didn’t like it as much as the first one but it was good and I don’t mean to take away from it. I’ve been watching a lot of freaks and geeks (josh from ac hooked me up there) and reading some lone wolf and cub. As I was saying up above too I’ve been really stoked about talking with my brother and sister. We’re all pretty different kinds of people and even though I know we care about each other a lot we don’t have too many thoughts in common if you know what I mean. But it’s been awesome just saying what’s up every week.
Okay, we may be riding Panda Bear’s jock like Tian Tian at this point, but we’ve been starving for some clicky-post-dub-rocksteady-sunshine-pop-Zulu-chant-indie goodness like you wouldn’t believe. Hitting that spot like so many bamboo shoots, the weightless expanse of “Bros” continues to stay with us. If Sung Tongs’s effervescent centerpiece “Visiting Friends” was the Animal Collective’s homage to Kompakt’s Pop Ambient series, then “Bros” turns the bend, tightens up, and brings it all back to winsome sunshine pop. Tucked into the dubby harmonies and jangle of guitars are tucked pigeon coos, fussy babies, and…Cat Stevens?
What is “Bros” about?
“Bros” is about trying to keep relationships with good friends. I’m the kind of person who likes a lot of space and solo time and the song is about that. I had gotten married a while before I started writing the song and yet the complexities of that relationship really came out in the song. I do believe friends and family are just about the most valuable thing a person has.
I’ve had to work a bit at keeping up the relationships I really care about, as I’ve never been very good at keeping in touch. Wherever I am is where my mind is at, if you know what I mean, but I’ve been talking a lot with my brother and sister lately and I’m really psyched about that. I suppose I’ve acclimated more or less to Lisbon life and I should say I really like it. It’s slower and that suits me.
How does the thought process change using a sampler to craft songs rather than acoustic instruments this go-round? And what are you sampling on “Bros”? I feel like I can hear a bit of the Millennium, but I swear I can even Michael Jackson’s coo, too, deep in the mix.
The samples and the loops I set up really dictate the melodies of the songs. Usually, I’d listen over and over to the repetitions as I would be putting the different pieces together and gradually the melody would kind of just come out (of that). I was pretty instinctual about it the entire process. I tried hard with all the samples I used to work them to a point where I felt I was doing something original and my own and for the most part I think I did pretty well. On “Bros,” the samples I kind of started with as the foundation of the song were from the Tornadoes, Moodymann, the Equals, and Cat Stevens. The guitars for the most part are lines that I played and effected and sampled and then played again.
Being ensconced in Lisbon now and learning the native tongue, any chance you’ll be singing in Portuguese next time around? Perhaps as the inverse of Caetano Veloso’s English album, Transa?
I don’t think so, at least right now it’s not something I’m really into. I’m psyched about singing in English. I think I’d feel kind of phony singing in Portuguese but I shouldn’t say I’d never do it. I can understand a lot of the Brazilian jams now, although sometimes they say things in ways I don’t really understand quite yet.