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Panda Bear: “I’ve gotta zig after I’ve zagged”

11 January 2015, 20:03

Noah Lennox - Panda Bear, to you and me - sounds awfully laid back for a man who, based purely on his frankly prodigious level of output, must be one of the hardest-working men in the business.

As one quarter of Animal Collective - and one of only two members to have featured on every single release from the experimental icons - he’d be plenty busy already, with a hugely impressive return of seven full-length records and eight EPs since 2003, so the fact that he also not only finds time to release music in his own right as well, but has actually carved out both a unique musical identity and fanbase in the process of doing so is indicative of a genunely insatiable musical appetite.

Every now and then, you come across an artist who is very evidently working within an area of music that suits them perfectly; for the tirelessly explorative Lennox, the experimental territory that both his work in Animal Collective and as Panda Bear fits him down the ground - you suspect he’ll likely never run out of ideas. To speak to somebody so prolific - I’ve still not mentioned his collaborations with Bradford Cox, Matt Mondanile and Zomby, or the fact that, you know, he was on the last Daft Punk record - and then find them to be so unhurried, so eager to talk about every aspect of their music in as much detail as possible, is refreshing beyond words. At one point, the prospect of touring crops up: “oh, I probably won’t play many shows for this record. There’ll just be something like three tours, and then some festivals, and then I’ll have to get back to Animal Collective.”

Even if that does represent something like a modest road schedule in Lennox’s mind, it doesn’t change the fact that his latest record, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, is likely to endure far beyond its period of promotion. Sonically expansive and intelligently constructed on a conceptual level, it feels like his most complete, and considered, solo effort to date. “I started out kind of tinkering with some ideas for this record in El Paso, Texas, when we were in the later stages of working on the last Animal Collective album. I was just casually playing around with stuff at first, and then once I started getting into constructing rhythms on my computer - using drum breaks, that kind of thing - I started to come up with a real game plan. I was daydreaming about it a lot, just thinking about what I wanted to do and how it might sound once it was done, so as soon as the Animal Collective touring started to wind down, I dug right into it.”

Lennox’s last record under his solo moniker, Tomboy, was a minimalist affair; restricted sonic palettes and a nagging sense of claustrophobia were the album’s calling card, but Grim Reaper couldn’t be firther removed - it’s effusively colourful, fizzing with unchecked energy. “I think that instinct, to move away from what I’ve done before, is just born of a desire to keep things fresh. I just want to make sure I’m doing something different each time; I’ll use different equipment, or write from a new angle. I agree, for sure, that Tomboy was a bit more austere, and kind of serious, kind of monochrome, which is why I chose the cover art just to be black and white, you know? It was definitely time for me to do something a little more...animated this time around.”

On Grim Reaper, the changes have really been rung right across the board; Lennox tried to approach every facet of the album with a new perspective. “One thing, I guess, was not doing as much, if anything, on the guitar,” he explains, “but, I mean, there’s samples, too; I’ve used them before, but never like this. With this record, I looked at samples like lego blocks - it was a real construction project, stacking them one on top of the other. I think the biggest change, though, was lyrically; I wanted to write words that weren’t really about me any more. For a long time, it was my process to use introspection as a kind of tool, like writing in a diary or something, in the hope that it would be useful to somebody else in some form. This time, I was trying to make it more global, more universally focused; I was looking for a broader perspective on things through my writing.”

There’s potentially another issue for Lennox on that front, though; so distorted, so drenched in instrumental layering are his vocals on some of Grim Reaper’s tracks - as has always been his modus operandi - that there’s the potential concern that his message might not carry to the listener as clearly as he might hope. “That’s something I’m usually horrible at being objective about,” he laughs. “You know, I’ll spend so much time with the words and the sounds that everything’s really clearly defined to me, so I’ll often feel like what’s being said in the song is really obvious, really apparent. Then, I’ll show it somebody else, somebody I’m working with or whoever, and they’ll be like, “I’ve got no idea what you’re saying.” The thing is, I wouldn’t want to highlight what was being said in the song for the sake of of something else; I wouldn’t sacrifice the quality of the song for the sake of legibility. It’s a bit of a balance to get that stuff right, and having the words be an important part of the process is a part of that kind of juggling act, I suppose.”

The release of Grim Reaper has already been prefaced by a single, which would have been an unusually conventional step for Lennox, if it hadn’t been for the fact that he released the track in question - "Mr. Noah" - as an EP, with four more brand new, non-album tracks. “I’d been playing six or seven of the tracks on the record live, and I’d figured they were the best ones for a while - six months or so,” he relates. “On top of those, I had maybe forty to sixty little pieces of songs floating around, too. I went into the studio, and to be honest, if I’d have been left to my own devices, I probably would have just concentrated on those seven songs - fleshed them out, recorded them properly, and ended up with the basis of the record. Thankfully, my friend Pete, who was there helping me out, very wisely just started to gently ease me off of those tracks; instead, he was like, “why don’t we start in on that little piece today, instead?” Then, the next day, he’d be, “you know that other little piece? Why don’t you go work on a vocal for that next door for a couple hours?”

“That was pretty much the basis of how the record was developed in the studio; it was a super smart suggestion from Pete, to just keep expanding the amount of material we had. It was, though, also the reason why it took us six or seven months just to mix everything. We ended up, roughly, with about two albums worth of stuff, but it did mean that the flexibility that I had to create a story with the album was suddenly much greater, because there were so many types of songs and sounds to choose from. It also meant that there was bound to be a bunch of stuff left over, and once the record was done, I figured that the tracks on Mr. Noah were going to be a really good gateway to the sounds of the album. They were only left off because they didn’t really fit into the story that I’d crafted for the record, but they work perfectly on the EP as a kind of tasting menu for Grim Reaper - even if there’s no narrative thread.”

In what you’d have to say was typical fashion for somebody who - as part of Animal Collective - has seldom done things by the book, Lennox’s rollout for Grim Reaper was a cryptic, staggered affair; the luxury of gradually teasing out information about the record via social media was something afforded to him by the long gestation of the album’s concept. “I guess, in broad stokes, I just think it’s a fun way of going about things,” admits Lennox of Grim Reaper’s enigmatic online presence. “But, also, going into the album, when I was in the thick of writing it, I was really into riddles and illusions; sleight of hand tricks, that kind of thing. A lot of the lyrics have these riddles in them, and these collections of symbols that interact in various ways, so I thought it’d be cool for the pre-release stuff to reflect that, too. I like that there’s some trickery involved.”

Whether it’s from the perspective of the absurdist imagery that it offers up in the literal sense, or just down to prior knowledge of Lennox’s sharp sense of humour, it’s obvious that there’s something a little tongue in cheek about the title of Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper; again, it’s something that it’s in stark contrast to its brooding predecessor, but fully in keeping with this album’s preoccupation with rebirth. “It’s funny,” Lennox says, “because none of the songs literally talk about death. It’s more that there’s a lot of references to transformation, and dramatic changes, and I think the record’s story arc generally reflects how I’ve felt in the past when I’ve gone through periods of intense change. The arc on this record is really about the dissolving of an identity, which is in its death throes during the first half of the album - the songs are more hectic, and the environments are a little bit more confusing, and kind of abrasive.”

“Then, at the midpoint, everything breaks down fully; there’s two songs that don’t have any kind of rhythm, really, and they represent that period in between the self-image that we had pre-event and post-event - like the limbo state, sort of an emotional desert. The last three songs, to me at least, represent the new identity becoming itself. And, er, now I can’t remember what the question was. Ah, the title! Yeah, all of that reflects to me the role of the Reaper; that he’s this agent that visits you to facilitate those changes. Maybe I was trying to look at him in a positive light; the figure of death is maybe something that we don’t like to think about too much, so perhaps I’ve tried to mix sugar with the medicine.”

On the surface, at least, that’s where you can pretty clearly divide Lennox’s work as Panda Bear from his endeavours as part of Animal Collective; generally speaking, he doesn’t have that level of narrative freedom with the band. “I’m not sure it’s a major difference,” he counters. “It’s way more complicated with the group, because everybody’s got their own image of, you know, ‘what the thing is’. It ends up taking a lot more to piece everything together; there’s been certain albums where I feel like we all had our own slightly different perspective on what everything means, but that is what I think is exciting about playing in a group of people; you end up being taken places you wouldn’t go to just by yourself. There’s a level of ease to working on my own, but there’s also no surprises, to be honest.”

The fact that Lennox lives in Lisbon might seem a little incongruous initially - it’s quite the jump from his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland - but when you delve into history with the town, it becomes clear what a perfect fit it is for him; he’d fallen in love with the lackadaisical pace of life in the city even before he met his Portuguese wife there back in 2003. “We moved house about three times whilst I was making this record; typically, I work in a room in my house - I’d call it my studio, but it’s kind of embarrassing. For a while, we lived across the river, almost down at the beach, and that was a beautiful way to work; I got a lot of this stuff done down there, a good sixty-five percent. I did a little bit of it whilst I was travelling, too, in hotel rooms and what not, but I finished it here, once we’d moved again; we’re back in the centre of town again. I spent about a month tracking everything here in Lisbon, but in a proper studio. It was a nice, deliberate way of working, really.”

The fact that Lennox is actually able, assuming he was that way inclined, to get proper work done on the road is testament to the versatility of his approach to making music; for the most part, though, he tends to save his biggest creative bursts for the studio proper. “I mean, with sampling, the flexibility is crazy. It’s literally just playing around with sounds, which is awesome, but of course it’s also the case that it might be a little bit tough to pull off the kind of dynamic expression you can get with a real instrument - all of those little sonic details kind of get lost when you’re just using a computer. I really only do the basic stuff when I’m travelling; just touching up a mix, or modifying really slight stuff. I don’t think I’d ever want to do anything really juicy outside the studio.”

Right in the thick of his work on Grim Reaper, in early 2013, Lennox received an offer that pretty much defined the concept of ‘really juicy’ studio work; Daft Punk, themselves long-time Animal Collective admirers, were keen to enlist him for collaboration on a Random Access Memories track, namely "Doin’ It Right". “It was very cool for me,” says Lennox, securing the "Understatement of the Century" title in the process. “I’d been a fan since Homework, and I just didn’t want to screw it up - that was at the front of my mind the while time, but they were so, so cool with me, and they made it really easy to let go of all that nervousness. We just focused on having a good time making the stuff. I went to Paris to record it right in the middle of working on this album, and there’s similarities, for sure; that heaviness in the vocals, and the setup of the drum. The Daft Punk thing almost felt like proof of concept, because I already had a few tracks finished for Grim Reaper that were very much in the same style. It was a very cool bit of validation, to hear these guys who I respected so much going down the same road.”

Lennox’s attentions will now turn to how he can make the material work live; he’s already played a slew of songs off the record in front of audiences, but that was before they shifted shape significantly in the studio. “I think we did five or six shows before going into the studio,” he recalls, “and the versions of the songs we played then were quite a bit more stripped down, and much more aggressive. When we’re back on the road, we’ll base the songs on being much more faithful to the final studio versions instead, so they’re relatable to everybody who picked up the record."

"I sent practice tapes to my friend Danny Perez in LA; he’s a filmmaker, and he’s really fleshed out the Grim Reaper concept for the stage in visual terms - paintings, costumes, projections, and so on. He’s essentially another member of the band on stage; the visual side of things is that important, I think, and it’ll be nice to do something different to just having this big screen swallowing my setup like in the past. There’s a real synergy between the music and the visuals now, and it offers up an extra level of expression I think; Danny’s really into dark stuff too, grotesque stuff, which makes it even cooler.”

Even if the sky feels like the limit in every other respect, though - in the studio, on stage, in terms of collaboration - Lennox concedes that his touring plans will have to be fairly snappy, even if he does manage to squeeze in ‘three tours’ along the way. “I guess I won’t do a whole lot of touring; between this and Animal Collective, I need to make sure I get to spend some time with my family, too. Plus, the other thing is, I’m already in the process of shifting gears back to Animal Collective. It’ll definitely be cool to play these songs to a room full of people who know them, though; that said, there’s definitely been people in the crowds over the past year or so who have somehow known these new songs. Well, either that, or they were just stupidly excited.”

Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is available now via Domino. All photos by Burak Cingi.

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