Good Times, Other Realities: A Conversation with Panda Bear
Whether with Animal Collective, through his solo work, or via a handful of other projects, Noah Lennox (or Panda Bear) makes a kind of disruptively joyful, emotionally affecting music operate on some sort of limbic plane to change your mood.
Is that an owl on the new Panda Bear record?
Leave it to Noah Lennox -- who along with Avery Tare, the Geologist, and Deakin founded the Animal Collective in the early '00s -- to find a bit of woodsy campfire in the midst of urban Lisbon, Portugal. He lives now with his wife and daughter in the Barrio Alto, a collection of narrow, winding streets that once made up the city's bedrock workers' neighborhood and now is dotted with trendy bars and galleries. These days you can hear the clangor and hammering of restoration nearly everywhere, but sometimes in the evenings Lennox also hears an unmistakable hooting. "There's a building right next to mine that is undergoing massive renovations, so I think maybe he camps out in there," he says. "Especially during the summer, every night I'll hear him."
So, folded within the exuberant harmonies and clattering beats of "Bros", you can just make out the call of Lennox's feral neighbor. It's a fitting metaphor for a musical approach that blends soaring pop with pounding beats and that works little bits of daily life -- a child crying or an owl hooting -- into surreal sonic tapestries.
From requiem to celebration
Person Pitch is Panda Bear's third solo album. The first, recorded in 1999, contained some of his very earliest attempts at songwriting. The second, which came out in 2004, was a somber and inward looking affair.
"With Young Prayer I kind of did it for my father who was dying at the time. So the subject matter, obviously, was really, really heavy and kind of serious. Even despite that, I was still trying to be as positive as I could be," said Lennox by phone, on a break from recording with Animal Collective. "After doing that, I was like, I definitely don't want to do something even approaching that mood again. So I tried to write music that felt more casual and relaxed and that made me feel good more than anything else."
In between the two albums, Lennox had met his wife, moved to Lisbon, and started a family in rapid succession. The whole sequence started, he says, one night after an Animal Collective gig at Portugal's Numero Festival. "It was at the end of a really long period of touring for us, so we had decided to take a couple of days off in Lisbon, and kind of just relax," he recalls. After the second night's show, the rest of the crew dispersed with friends and girlfriends and Lennox found himself alone at the venue. "This guy comes walking up to me, and he's like 'Hey what's up? How you doing?' and the way he was talking to me, I felt like I must know him, but I couldn't remember who he was," says Lennox. "So I just got in the car with this guy and all his friends. I wound up spending three days with these people and one of his friends was this girl, and I just kind of got involved with her pretty intensely." The two ended up getting married and by 2005 when Lennox started in on Person Pitch, they were already expecting a baby. A daughter, Nadja, came along later that year.
It's tempting to link Person Pitch's playful, almost childlike joy to Nadja's birth. Still Lennox says that having a child, if anything, has made him more serious. "The mood of the album is different, but I think that's just more due to me wanting to do something that felt more fun and not so serious," he explains. "But having the kid definitely has affected me in terms of feeling like I need to be really diligent and responsible and ... make sure I'm covering my bases, if you know what I mean? I've never worked on anything so hard in my life before as the album. I feel like that's kind of a direct result of having this little person come into my life and just looking to me to kind of give it all the answers and provide for it."
Finding soul in electronic samples
Unlike Young Prayer, an organic blend of guitars, voice and drums, Person Pitch was constructed largely from samples. "Around the time of Young Prayer we had also just done Sung Tongs and before that, the Animal Collective had done a record called Campfire Songs and all of that was really acoustic guitar heavy," says Lennox. "I guess I felt that I was hearing a lot of music around that was really kind of acoustic-based and I got excited about trying to work with purely electronic means and trying to get something that felt really soulful out of something that didn't have any soul, if you know what I'm saying. That kind of challenge was really exciting for me."
To make the album, Lennox first collected samples, typically about five foundation sounds per cut. His equipment was cheap and simple, a pair of Bose 303 SP samplers, a microphone, and a desktop computer. "The initial process was just gathering samples together and seeing how things worked together and putting effects on this sample and mixing this sample with this sample in a certain way so that it rhythmically and tonally went together," says Lennox. "And after setting up these loops of different groups of samples and playing them over and over and over again as I'd be assembling them, certain melodies would just kind of come into my head, and I'd just start singing along with it. And then I would try to set the rhythm of certain words to the rhythm of those melodies that were coming into my head. Gradually, I just kind of put the songs together."
The cuts on Person Pitch have extravagantly beautiful harmonies and melodies, yet these pop elements are often submerged under abrasive beats and surface noises. The results is a sort of dreamlike texture where song elements fade in and out of focus -- and sometimes take a back seat to other sounds. Asked about the relationship between beauty and noise, whether one requires the other, Lennox replies, "I don't know if I could say that one needs the other, but it certainly is a more captivating sound to me. It's a more exciting concoction of sound than just getting something that's kind of pleasant. That doesn't excite me as much as something where I'm sitting there trying to figure out what exactly I'm listening to."
For instance, in the opening song "Comfy in Nautica" a strange, bowing sound closes out the cut, an unsettling end to what has been, up to that point, a bouyantly pretty song. "That song was so sugary and it almost got to the point where I didn't like how it sounded. I thought it was too sweet, like fake sweet?" he says. "So I thought I would kind of ground it at the end by putting something really fucked up and dark in there. Reset the vibe."
Rhythm is primary on Person Pitch, perhaps not surprising since Lennox plays mostly drums with Animal Collective. And anyway, like many musicians, he wants his music to be physically moving, the kind of thing that makes people twitch and bounce and groove. "One element of sound that is really pleasing, in sort of a fun way, is having some sort of rhythmically powerful element to it, that makes you feel that you want to move ... if only internally," he says. "I'm a huge fan of all forms of dance music and I really like going to clubs and being around people dancing. I like that energy, and I really get psyched about large groups of people all kind of agreeing to just move around together. I think that concept is just so awesome. So another thing that was going on when I was making this record ... I was wishing it would be played in that type of atmosphere. It probably won't be, but that was my hope for it. But it was also my way of trying to make my own form of dance music."
Mixing with eyes wide shut
Lennox says he wrote the rhythms and the melodies relatively quickly, then spent a long, long time trying to get the mix of sounds exactly right. It was an intuitive process, one that involved lots of listening, eyes shut, to the rough mixes. "When I was mixing the songs, if I would feel like I needed to open my eyes, I knew I was doing something wrong. I knew the mix wasn't right," he says. "I wanted the songs to be the kind of thing where a) you would feel really good while you were listening; and b) you would kind of stop thinking about whatever you were doing."
After he'd done as much as he could, Lennox called Rusty Santos (who engineered Sung Tongs) in to fine-tune the mixes. The difference between the initial singles and the album reflects Santos's input. "I sort of knew that my sensibility about the mixes that I was doing was kind of maybe a little too ...too intense for a lot of people," says Lennox. "Rusty.knows a lot about making things sound good. He knows a lot more about the studio environment than I do. I thought that having him come over and go through every song with me would benefit the sound of it a whole lot."
Santos came to the project with fresh ears and immediately realized that the vocals had to be brought up. "I know the melodies that I've written and I know all the words that I'm saying, Lennox explains. "When I listen to stuff, I mix the vocals so low because it's kind of there in my head anyway. But I think for somebody else who hasn't heard it, it sounds like nothing when it's so low. So when he came in, that was one of the things we focused on, was trying to get the words out there a little bit more. It was kind of a tense thing, in that, he was always trying to bring it up and I was always trying to bring it down."
Influences and other projects
Person Pitch is packaged with the artwork from all the singles. The middle of the booklet, however, contains a long list of people, from Maria Callas to Metallica, who've had an impact on Lennox. "I've gotten asked the question of who were my musical influences a lot, and I never feel like I have a very good answer for it," he says. Both the album and the artwork had a kind of symmetry to them, so it made sense to Lennox to balance personal thank you's with artistic ones. "I guess I was hoping that somebody listening to the album would say, 'Well, I really like this, what does this person get excited about?'"
Lennox was in Arizona recording with Animal Collective when I talked to him, an experience he says is far different from recording solo, but with its own distinctive rewards. "What's awesome about being in a band is that it's two or three or four or however many different people, all trying to work together to get the creative sound that everybody's excited about. It's not always easy, but once you get it, it's kind of a powerful, fulfilling feeling to get it," he says.
Lennox has a few shows in the UK as Panda Bear, then he'll be back in New York this spring to help mix the new Animal Collective album. The foursome will hit the road this May in the US, and then it's Animal Collective, Animal Collective, Animal Collective for as far as the eye can see. Asked if he's concerned about Panda Bear getting lost in the shuffle, Lennox chuckles. "I'm kind of burnt out on doing stuff on my own right now. Working with the guys here, I'm so pumped about trying to play with these guys."