Noah Lennox is more commonly known to the world as Panda Bear, a founding member of New York avant folk/noise/whatever you want to call it musical experimentalists Animal Collective. In between busily touring the world with his band and garnering critical praise, Lennox has somehow, over the past few years, found time to record two solo records (an out-of-print self-titled debut released in his teens, and 2004’s acoustic driven Young Prayer), get married, move to Lisbon and become a father.
Person Pitch, his latest solo LP – a stunning collection of sunny, psyche-tinged soundscapes framed around glorious pop harmonies – is, to put it simply, completely unlike anything else released so far this year. It’s a brilliant record that breaks the brittle indie, pop and experimental musical moulds so many bands try to squeeze themselves into in this day and age. Point being, it’s a unique work that may rightfully rank near the top of many a critic’s year-end list come December. DiS recently sat down with Lennox in 93 Feet East’s slightly chilly courtyard before his recent London gig to discuss music, fatherhood and his love of George Michael’s last album.
You grew up in Baltimore right, and then lived in New York?**
First Boston actually, for university, then I dropped out of university and moved to New York, and then from New York to Lisbon.
What did you go to school for?**
I was sort of one of those people who didn’t really know what they wanted to do and then it came time to choose a major at my school and so I went with religion. (I) studied religion for like two, three years. What I really wanted to study was theology but my school didn’t offer an undergraduate theology degree and I sort of had to pick and choose classes that represented that.
And then you lived in New York after that? **
Yeah, for like five years.
So how did you go from New York to Lisbon?**
Umm, it’s kind of a long story. The short version is I was on tour with Dave (Porter, aka Avey Tare), who is in Animal Collective with me, and it was just him and I touring at the time for the band. Lisbon was the last stop on a pretty long tour and we had decided to take off for a couple of days in order to just kind of relax for a little bit and wound up meeting this group of people. I met this girl and I started going there to visit her and she came to visit me in New York and it seemed like the right thing to do.
So basically you fell in love and moved to Lisbon?**
Yeah, that’s the short answer.
On that same note, where did you record Young Prayer?**
_Young Prayer _was recorded in Baltimore, at my parent’s house.
** Where was the new album recorded?**
The new one was done in my crappy studio in Lisbon.
** Do you think geography has had an impact on the music you’ve made?**
Yeah, I feel like it’s impossible to not be affected by your environment when you’re making something. And I feel like the record (Person Pitch) definitely reflects that I like the sun, Portugal and the sort of easy going atmosphere that’s really intense there.
** Was the record a structured concept or was it something that grew organically for you? **
It sort of came together slowly. I knew I wouldn’t have a whole lot of time because I’m working with the band so much and that’s my main priority musically speaking. And I just got married…
That’s a lot of work…**
Yeah, I just knew that I would not have a whole lot of time to focus on my own stuff. So what I did was try to do one or two songs at a time and I figured that would make sure that every song I worked on was really strong in its own way, hopefully. So that way the album would be better off – there wouldn’t be any kind of song that was there to just fill up space. It came together really gradually and I was a little afraid that sometimes it wouldn’t work just because it was kind of disparate and was made over such a long period of time. I feel like the sequencing of it, the track order, was kind of crucial in making it seem to work.
** Is the actual album mostly samples or is it live instrumentation? **
It’s, like, all samples. I mean, I did make some of the samples myself. Recorded myself playing guitar, singing and stuff like that, but it’s all buttons being pushed and sounds being played.
I’m surprised, as it has a very organic sound.** I’m glad to hear you say that because I worked really hard to make it sound that way and not just like a bunch of things looping.
** Are they samples you found on other records? **
Some of them, yeah. There are a lot of weird random sound effects and stuff that I got off royalty free sound-effect sites and there is a lot of stuff… I’d say 90 per cent I got off the internet looking around for sounds that I thought were interesting or sounded sweet.
Did you record everything with a Boss Sp 303 (digital sampler)?**
Yeah, two of them. That’s what I’ll be playing with tonight.
** Your previous solo album was mostly acoustic. Do you think the 303 had a major impact on the direction of your song writing?**
Totally, it fully dictated the style that I eventually developed. When I moved to Lisbon I didn’t take a whole lot. I couldn’t really take all my equipment with me on the plane, you know. Those things are pretty small. I managed to take those and they were all I really had to make music on. So I kind of feel like I was forced into figuring out ways into making songs that I thought were good on those things. And like with the looping functions, there is not a whole lot of memory on them, so the samples had to be pretty small. All sorts of things, yeah, it’s a very SP 303-heavy record. It’s as much a musician on the album as I am, if you know what I mean.
It’s your partner in crime.**
The song ‘Good Girls/Carrots’, was that originally two songs? ** Yeah.
** So what made you decide to make it one long song on the record?**
I performed almost all of the songs, except for two, live before I actually recorded them and those were two songs that I always played together. I didn’t think there was a point at which I could… cut them up. I could have put a track marker in there I suppose, if someone wanted to skip one of the songs. I preferred listening to it starting with ‘Good Girl’ and going all the way to the end of ‘Carrots’ and I just thought it sounded better that way. I know it’s a lot to ask someone to listen to 13 minutes, but I feel like the two longer songs go by pretty fast and I tried to put a lot of constantly changing sounds in there to sort of keep it interesting as it goes. I don’t know if I was successful but that’s where my head was at.
The record features dense vocal harmonies. Are they all you, or did you use vocal samples as well? **
All the vocals are, maybe, the one non-sampled element. Some of the backing vocals were sampled. It’s mostly just layering vocals, recording multiple takes of the same thing over and over again.
The vocal melodies come across as pure pop, in a very ‘60s sense. It seems to make the record very accessible to individuals not normally drawn to ‘experimental’ music. Is that kind of accessibility something you’re now trying to convey to people? **
I don’t know if it’s a concern of mind to make sure that it’s accessible. I’d really be happy if lots and lots of people could have fun listening to it, but it wasn’t like, “I want to make a record that everybody is going to like”. But having said that, I feel like the music I like the best is exclusively pop stuff. I feel like that’s the kind of music I get most excited about. So maybe, unconsciously, that side of my sensibilities about music just came out really strongly.
When you create the music you make, do you sit down with a guitar, find a structure and then create these lush soundscapes, or do you start by finding samples and then go from there?**
It was usually more like the last way you described, almost always like that. I’d kind of just randomly gather sounds and samples, and try to see which things work together, pitch things up and pitch things down, speed it up, slow it down, and try and fit things together sort of like a puzzle. And then once I got a group of five or six samples that were then kind of working together in a nice way, I’d kind of set up these repetitions of them. Often times like the loop times weren’t exactly right and they’d kind of gradually be getting off, and that goes back to how I feel some of the songs have an organic quality to them – they’re not perfectly locked and they’re not perfectly synched. But then after listening to the repetitions of the samples over and over again the melodies would just pop into my head and then I’d set words to the rhythms of the melodies that seemed to make sense or that were kind of like the most instinctual things.
You’re reportedly a fan of techno and dance culture. It comes across in the new record, but based on the work you’ve done in the past it wouldn’t have been something that someone could easily pick up. Is that a recent love or is it something you’ve always been interested in? **
Actually, it’s the first kind of music I got really into. Not techno per se, but electronic music. I kind of stumbled across somebody who… I kind of adopted this kid’s room when I went to high school. He had left a bunch of CDs behind and UF Orb (The Orb’s sophomore LP) was one – it totally blew my mind. I had never heard anything like that before. And there are, like, some kind of more housey moments on that record, and it’s from that record that I got more into dancey kinds of music. I know what you mean. Certainly on the record Young Prayer there isn’t any dance element in there, but I feel like more in Animal Collective, at times, it comes out. And it’s not something that I’m alone in really loving in the band.
Who you into right now as far as dance music goes? Anything from Berlin and the records currently being released on Kompakt? **
I think I’ve fallen off of keeping up with a lot of that stuff. Kompakt was my favourite for a long time but then I kind of felt, like, sort of after Kaito’s first record, everything on the label started sounding the same. It didn’t seem like there was as much movement going on, I guess artistically speaking, and, I guess, I just got interested in other kinds of stuff. I’ve heard that the newest thing, one of the newest things to come out on Kompakt, is that Brazilian guy, his name is like Gui Boratto or something. I have a feeling I’m going to really like that record, just from hearing people talk about that. So I’m stoked to listen it.
In your work, you seem to be a fan of using texture and soundscapes. Have you ever considered veering towards a far more structured, traditional and possibly even pure pop style of song writing? **
Not so much. I feel like what I’m most excited about maybe is trying to reference that sort of thing, but trying to go somewhere that I’ve never heard with it. That’s what really excites me about making music: to try and make something that really surprises me and maybe doesn’t make sense to me at first, but makes sense to me later if you know what I’m saying. So, I’m not too interested in using formulas and blueprints… I like to try and fuck things up and see what happens. That’s more fun to me. Also, I don’t know if I’d be any good at it like, “I’ve got to try and make a chorus that really rips”. I feel like what I’d do would be totally shitty.
** According to your bio the new album is influenced by Scott Walker and Berlin techno. It also mentions Kylie Minogue. Have you always been a fan of that kind of pop?**
The first Kylie record I got into, and I know this is way late in the game, was Fever. I really like that record a lot. I’d never heard of her before then. I just think they’re sweet, sweet pop dance songs. George Michael’s Patience record I also really like a lot. It’s amazing, it’s really good. I’d recommend it. Not all the songs are mind blowing, but the good songs are really good.
** On album opener, ‘Comfy in Nautica’, you sing “Try to remember always just to have a good time”. That’s really positive. Is expressing positivity important to you? **
Totally. Yeah, first and foremost with this record, especially after something like Young Prayer, which is really serious and really heavy. Even though I tried to be as positive through that experience, it was just like a really intense thing, you know. So even though I didn’t lay out a lot of rules for Person Pitch, I really wanted to do something that made me feel good while making it, and would hopefully make other people feel good when they were listening to it. Every subject I kind of approached… I tried to approach in a positive way and think about it in a positive way and that’s something that’s kind of been important to me across the board in my life. Just trying to not be immediately negative about what ever it is and try to take advantage of what is going on.
How do you hope people will interpret the record? What’s your dream for the reception of the album? **
Well, the first dream I had about it was that it would be listened to in a club really loud, and people would be dancing to it. I don’t really think that’s going to happen. The second dream is that people feel good when they listen to it, and that’s on the simplest level.
** On a more basic point, why do you do what you do? What’s driving you?**
I think about that a lot. I think the answer to that, that I have come up with which satisfies me the most, is that when I think back to when I started doing it in the first place and it was just a fun thing to do. In the most basic sense it was just like,_ “What am I going to do? I have this 8-track or I have this guitar or there is a piano in the house I can just start ripping on and it’s just like a fun thing to do”. And that is still the impetus for doing it: _“This is going to be a good time. I’m going to do this for a little while.” And then, you know, stuff like, you got to have a job, you got to make money, you have to make a business out of it. In some sense that comes into play much later on in the game, but initially it’s just something fun to do.
** You became a father recently. Has that had an impact on your work? **
Totally, yeah. I feel like the most concrete way it changed me is in terms of work ethic. Just like the massive amount of responsibility that comes with having a kid and the routines that you have to really get into and be diligent about. I feel it’s influenced me and really helped me to focus. When I had that time to work on that one song I could really spend a lot of time with it. Whereas before I kind of winged it a little more and if I wasn’t happy with something I’d just move onto something else. Where as with this, because of the kid, I learned how to really get down to business with something and not just give up if things weren’t going right. It’s a good element to have.
** I’ve heard it changes absolutely everything.**
It totally changes everything. Everything explodes in your brain, in your soul. It’s really, really intense. I thought I was prepared for it. I really revved myself up for it, like, “This is going to be so massively intense and I’m going to be ready for it”. But I totally wasn’t ready for it. There is no amount of preparation you can do. It’s just impossible to fathom before it happens. And then it’s like,_ “Oh, this is what it’s like”_, and you don’t have any choice but to get down to it and figure it out.
** Some creative types, when they have children, say they get re-exposed to children’s creativity via books or toys and find it has an effect on them. Do you find it’s had an impact on you? **
I feel like that’s something… I feel like I’ve always had that kind of sensibility about making things, and that is something I feel like I can thank my parents for and the teachers I had while going to school; just, like, having a really open mind. It’s as simple as getting a colouring book and there is lines to it, and you don’t have to draw in the lines – you can do what ever you want with it. It’s that kind of free approach to making things that has really informed the way I do things.
** Ever plan to make music with your child in the future? **
I don’t know. If she’s down for it, I wouldn’t rule it out.
** Finally, is there one thing you would like to make clear to the world about yourself or your work? **
Nothing that I feel like listening to the record probably wouldn’t already make you realise, or hopefully so. I’d really like for the music I make to somehow be an accurate representation of who I am as a person and the kind of things I think about and what I care about, and what I don’t care so much about. So, in a way, I feel like I want the music to speak for itself.
Person Pitch is out now on Paw Tracks; click here for the DiS verdict.