Most readers will know Noah Lennox as Panda Bear, a member of the forward-thinking avant rock ensemble the Animal Collective. Over the years, his solo output has been nearly as prolific and varied as the Animal Collective themselves. Like AC, whose recordings have taken a decidedly pop-based turn in the past few years, Panda Bear's latest is an entirely different animal from his previous efforts. Weeks before its release, Person Pitch is one of the most talked-about records of the year, exposing Lennox as the most saccharine of the AC crew as well, or at the very least the pop voice. Dusted's Rob Hatch-Miller recently had a chance to speak with the Portugal-based Lennox.
Rob Hatch-Miller: Person Pitch is very sample-based, and some of the sources sound vaguely familiar or recognizableÖ
Noah Lennox: I definitely tried pretty hard to hide the stuff or make it my own in some way, put effects on it, tweak out the EQ and that sort of thing, or make the samples as short as I possibly could. The typical process I went through was to just randomly take bits and pieces of songs or sometimes Iíd just listen to the radio and take stuff off there, just random stuff, stuff I didnít even know what it was, and set up groups of samples that I thought sounded cool together, just little repetitions of stuff. And it was pretty casual, I wasnít really thinking of even making songs at first. I was just trying to come up with stuff that I thought sounded nice. And then as I played these things, as theyíd repeat over and over again, little melodies would start forming in my head and thatís kind of how the song would come out. For the most part itís like 96% samples, 10% of which I actually played. Most of it is source material from other stuff.
RH: At the end of one track you can hear the sound of a New York subway train, is that a field recording that you made? What were some of your other sources?
NL: A lot of the stuff I got on the internet. Sometimes Iíd go on iTunesócause theyíll put little 30 second clips of stuffóand Iíd just try to find random shit on there. There are also a lot of free sound effects sites that vary in quality, but thereís some really awesome shit out there. Some of the sounds, as I said, Iíd try to tweak them as much as I could, but that subway sound was just on a free site somewhere.
RH: What about the samples that you actually played, did you play any drums at all for the record?
NL: No drums. Thereís quite a bit of guitar that I did, that I added in there. And sometimes I did singing stuff and sampled myself singing and used that.
RH: How long did it take you to make the album?
NL: Two years. I went really slowly cause I knew that I wasnít going to have a whole lot of time, at least not large expanses of time, to work on stuff. And I also thought it would be kind of cool to do a bunch of singles and then do a singles album. I sort of stole a page out of Basic Channelís book on that one, or Maurizio, or various other dance producers. The original idea was to do a bunch of 12Ēs with remix b-sides and then have an album of all that, but I only got one out that had a b-side remix.
RH: Which one was that?
NL: Bros has a Terrestrial Tones remix. Carrots has an Excepter b-side, and the first single was just me.
RH: Young Prayer sounded almost nothing like your first album [Panda Bear, 1998] and once again this new one sounds totally different from the last. Is that mostly because the recording process has been so different each time?
NL: Young Prayer was super fast. I wrote it pretty fast and didnít spend a whole lot of time playing it out and recorded it in two or three days or something. The overall process was kind of slow just cause I wasnít sure I wanted to put it out. It was kind of a hard place to go back to once Iíd done it. The first one was more similar to Person Pitch in that it was just a collection of songs. I kind of feel like I didnít even have a concept of what an album was back then, for the first one, when I was 15, 16, 17, 18 or so. I just put songs together that I liked at the time.
RH: Do you ever listen to your first album? There must be a lot of Animal Collective fans whoíve never heard it, have you ever thought about reissuing it?
NL: I was talking to Josh [Dibb, a.k.a. Deaken] about the song ďPonytailĒ thatís on Person Pitch and I feel like Iíve written that song 100,000 times in different forms. Itís super simple, itís just one line that repeats and there are a couple of songs on the first album that are really similar to that. Thereís like two or three songs that I guess I still like on that album but I feel like such a different person now. Itís not that Iím not proud of it, or that I donít believe in it, but Iím not so excited about it that I feel like I need to reissue it and get it out to a whole bunch of other people who havenít heard it.
RH: Did you write all of these new songs with a solo album in mind, or did any of them start out as potential Animal Collective songs?
NL: Usually when Iím gonna write a song I already know what itís gonna be for, so that dictates the whole process. I may use the same equipment and kind of the same means, but if Iím writing a song that I know the Animal Collective is gonna be practicing or playing on tour soon or something like that Iíll try to do something thatís more on the minimal side. I know everything is more or less minimal-sounding, but Iíll try to do something that has a lot more space for the other guys to play around in, whereas if Iím doing something just for myself, Iíll totally produce the crap out of it.
RH: Youíve been living in Lisbon, Portugal for a couple of years now, what role do you think that experience had in shaping the sound of the record?
NL: Itís really mellow and sunny here and I feel like the album really sounds like that to me. Also the stuff thatís happened to me in the past two years, like getting married and having a kid and all that, has had a pretty profound impact on the kind of music I play and the kind of subjects I address. My approach to being a musician has drastically changed from having a kid and being a provider. It was kind of terrifying at first, I wonít lie to you. Itís made me feel like I donít want to fuck up, and I want to make sure I cover all my bases. And thatís not to say that I suddenly want to make music thatís going to sell a whole lot of copies cause I donít really think I could do that. But I want to make sure that whatever Iím doing, Iím doing it to the fullest extent that I can.
RH: For whatever reason, a lot of people have pigeonholed Animal Collective as some kind of drug band, so Iím sure a lot of people have been asking you questions about the song ďTake Pills.Ē
NL: Actually youíre the first one. I was expecting to get a lot of questions about that one. I thought ďTake PillsĒ would be the one, like, ďso is this song about drugs and all that?Ē That song is pretty explicitly about anti-depressant drugs, not more recreational kinds of drugs. I was on anti-depressants for a while and my mom continues to be on them. Melancholy and depression is kind of a theme in my family. The song is about appreciating what they did for me at the time but wanting to get off of them, and to try not to rely on them if I could. And thatís not to say that I think nobody should be on them, like I said they really helped me out for a while. But for me personally I just wanted to try to get on with it, and itís kind of me talking to my mom about trying to get her off of them too. I used to see a psychiatrist and he was like, ďYouíre going to have to be on these drugs for the rest of your life, itís just the chemistry of your brain.Ē That kind of bummed me out, so I really wanted to prove him wrong. He was a nice guy, but he was wrong.
RH: When you record and play shows with Animal Collective, do you rely on samplers as heavily as you do on this record?
NL: These days itís all sample stuff just cause thatís what I get most excited about, doing songs in that way. I feel like thatís coming to a close a little bit and Iím starting to work in slightly different ways. I got this little drum pad that triggers the samples and I feel like thatís already leading me to write songs in a slightly different way. There are certain sensibilities I have about music that I know wonít really gibe with the other guysí sensibilities about music. A lot of the songs on Person Pitch are kind of sugary, sweet in a way, and thatís a kind of music that I get really into but I know itís not a vibe that the other guys will really get that into. The other guys are way into horror movies and that kind of thing, like way into it, and itís never been my thing at all. Iím kind of one of those guys that has to hide their eyes when they see that kind of stuff, Iím really kind of a weakling as far as intense images go. Iím definitelyÖ the sugary side, I guess is fair to say.
RH: Since you guys all live in different places now, do you each write your own songs and bring them to recording sessions?
NL: These days itís exclusively that, someone brings some sort of piece and then we work from there. Back then, since we were around each other all the time, we used to do a lot more improvising and making up stuff on the spot and we would get songs in that way. Every once in a while thereíd be a visual image that we would work from, like ďit would be really cool to do a song that sounds like this looks or like this feels in your brain.Ē The way we would approach writing songs was more varied back then, I guess just cause we had the time to play around with it more than we do now. We have to be pretty organized and regimented about the whole thing cause we only have like two weeks to write. Nowadays we only get together for two weeks before a tour to write songs and get them ready. Weíve started to trade tapes a little bit or show each other what weíre gonna be bringing to the table. And also Brian [Weitz, a.k.a. Geologist] and I will come stocked with a bunch of sounds that may or may not work in a given song. So thereís a lot more preparation that goes into it now, itís a lot less on the spot than it used to be, for better or for worse.
RH: When you moved away from New York, were you worried that the band might not be able to stay together?
NL: I was concerned about it, touring and all that, I wondered how it would go and if it would be possible. Financially it was a big risk in that itís expensive to fly all over the place all the time.
RH: But Sung Tongs was the first album that you guys made after you moved away, and it was a huge success.
NL: I think that was our most popular album. I think it was just making sure that we got together enough to work on the songs and tour enough to work with the songs that made it possible. We also spent a long time in the studio, we spent a whole month this time and last time, making that record, so that helps. I also feel like it helps that weíve played together so long and know each other so well that working fast isnít difficult for us to do.
RH: For the most part, Animal Collective used to only play new songs live. Once an album had come out, those songs didnít really get played at shows anymore. Your shows are a bit different now, I assume because the audience has grown and changed. Did you guys make a conscious decision to do things differently, and were there ever any disagreements about it?
NL: It wasnít so debated. As we started playing to more and more people and there were fans ofÖ say thereís a fan of Feels thatís never really heard any of the other songs. It started to become a thing like, weíre not playing for the same twenty guys as we used to who know all the songs, so we want to play all new songs for them. Now thereís kids showing up at the shows who really want to hear this particular song, so I think we feel more inclined to play older songs than we did before. Besides it being just a necessity in that we canít write a new set for every tour that we do. But it wasnít something we argued a whole lot about. And now itís become like, weíll write new songs, tour with them, then record them and then there will be this transitional period where weíre still playing those songs but adding in new songs. I think this time coming up weíre gonna try to have a whole set of new songs to do for the tour.
RH: Do you think your daughter likes your music? Do you ever sing to her?
NL: Actually I donít, not really. Sheís heard all the jams that I produce and sometimes sheíll dance around to them a little bit, but she gets more into the R&B kind of stuff, stuff with a really heavy beat. I donít think she cares too much for my voice or my music so much. Sheís got bad taste, what can I say.
RH: Youíve played some shows on your own in Lisbon, how different has that been from playing solo shows when you lived in New York?
NL: In the past two years Iíve maybe played here like five time, six times. Itís pretty different. The shows are quite a bit smaller. I played a show in the north in a town called Porto recently and people really hated it. They werenít into it at all. Three guys who set up the show and this guy who usually books shows for me here in Lisbon were listening, but pretty much everybody else couldnít give a shit about it. I guess I had a couple of shows like that in New York but for the most part people at least kind of knew who I was a little bit or were familiar with the kind of music I was playing a little more than people here. Which is fine, itís good to get slapped in the face every once in a while. Thatís kind of what itís felt like for the past two years here. It feels like starting over again.
RH: Is it more difficult for you to play alone than to play with the whole band?
NL: I have to say that playing on my own is quite a bit less stressful and less difficult in that Iím not trying to play against three other people. I donít have to listen to anybody else, I know exactly what I want to do at a given moment whereas there if somebody starts playing something a little bit different I have to make sure I know whatís going on or if somebody makes a mistake I have to know where we are in the song and how theyíve made that mistake and how theyíre gonna go into the next part and that sort of thing. Otherwise itíll just sound like crap. And sometimes it does, but you have to try to be on the ball.
RH: When you play these new songs live are you more or less singing to back tracks or do you kind of rebuild the songs from scratch each time?
NL: I trigger the stuff live, itís a sample pad and you hit ďgo.Ē Usually itís like three or four that Iíll start at the same time. I got really stoked about putting samples together with slightly different repeat times so that gradually as the song goes on it kind of changes the way that itís all working together. So sometimes if it gets too off Iíve gotta quickly take it off and start it again at the right moment. So thereís a little bit of staying on top of it but itís certainly not as involved as playing with the band.
RH: It seems like the whole character aspect of Animal Collective isnít quite as important as it was early on. Have you ever thought about putting aside the Panda Bear alias and just recording under your own name?
NL: Not really. I like having the other persona to go to when Iím on stage or when someoneís listening to the album. I kind of feel safe in that itís not really me, if you know what I mean. I kind of like the anonymity of it. The people expecting us to show up in costume are a lot less prevalent than they used to be. So I guess itís not so much of a big deal as it used to be. People used to be like ďwhat, I thought you were gonna be in a panda costume.Ē But itís not like that so much anymore. Sometimes weíll still wear weird makeup and shit if we feel like it but there arenít full-blown uniforms like there used to be.
RH: The liner notes for Person Pitch include a pretty comprehensive list of artists whoíve inspired you, how did you decide to include that?
NL: Initially I knew I wanted to do something that was really symmetrical. The album is kind of symmetrical in terms of how long the songs are, and I wanted the album art to reflect that. I knew I wanted to do a lot of personal thank yous and I knew I wanted to have the artwork from all the singles on there in a symmetrical fashion. So I needed another text panel, and I also thought that since I was sampling so many different people I thought it was appropriate to give thanks to other musicians. Iíd never really done that before, and I also always had trouble when people were like ďwho are your influences, what do you feel influenced the music on this album.Ē I was always like, ďI donít really know.Ē I donít listen to music at home a whole lot and the stuff that I do hear is usually because of the other guys in the band, or the stuff I would hear at Other [Music, a New York City record store where Noah once worked] every day. I donít have a record player or own a whole lot of CDs or anything like that, so it was always kind of a difficult question for me to answer. So this time I was like, Iíll really try to think about what I feel led me to make this kind of music and give respect to those people.
RH: How do you feel about all of the Beach Boys comparisons that the record is already getting?
NL: I see where people are coming from, and I feel like if you do multi-part vocal harmonies youíre gonna get that no matter what, especially if you put a bunch of reverb on it or make it sound kind of spacey. There are one or two melodies that I definitely can see a Beach Boys influence in there but I wouldnít say that itís exclusively Beach Boys influenced. I feel like thereís Zombies in there and Beatles in there. I certainly donít want to sound like anybody else if I can, itís not like I was like ďI really wanna do sweet Beach Boys things over this jam.Ē But at the same time itís totally an honor to be compared to that sort of thing cause those are some of the sweetest jams ever. The one thing that bothers me about it is when people are like, ďhe tries to sing just like Brian Wilson.Ē I canít help the way my voice sounds.
RH: The harmonies on Young Prayer sounded kind of classical, like choral music, and I hear that on some of these new songs at least as much as I hear the Beach Boys thing.
NL: I used to sing in the chamber choir in high school. If I have any skills at singing thatís where I developed it. We would sing complex stuff, classical shit. It was difficult to read the music and the meters were really tough. I used to be able to read music, believe it or not. I think thatís really what influenced Brian Wilson too, in terms of vocal arrangements. He was really classically oriented, I think. So maybe thatís where the comparisons make sense for me. Young Prayer, I should say, is very classically influenced. All the weird baroque flourishes and stuff in terms of the way Iím singing. And that was definitely intentional, I set out to do something that sounded like that.
RH: Lately Iíve been hearing more and more bands that sound sort of like Animal Collective. It reminds me of how at one point there were suddenly all of these bands that sounded like Pavement. Do you guys feel youíve already become pretty influential?
NL: I canít accept that, you know, I canít be like ďthey sound like us.Ē I donít ever want to be the guy whoís like ďtheyíre doing that because of us.Ē Maybe weíre part of something and other people have gotten on the same tip or whatever. I donít think Grizzly Bear really sounds like Animal Collective and Iíve heard that they do a whole lot. I feel like theyíve totally got their own thing going, as far as the songs that Iíve heard. I havenít heard that much to be totally truthful about it, but most of the time when I hear ďthese guys sound just like you,Ē Iíll listen to some of the songs and be like, ďI donít think they sound that much like us.Ē They have their own thing.
RH: Fair enough, but there are definitely bands out there that would count you guys as a big inspiration. Iím just wondering if youíre conscious of that and what you think about it.
NL: What youíre asking is, is it weird to hear Animal Collective-isms in other bands. If anything it makes you feel awesome that youíre making other people psyched enough to do something that sounds at all similar to what youíre doing. It definitely feels good.
RH: I heard that thereís a live Animal Collective box set coming out sometime soon, can you tell me a little bit about that?
NL: I think itís coming out this year, I know itís kind of on the backburner for Rob [Carmichael, proprietor of Catsup Plate records] right now just cause heís got other shit going on. But as far as I know itís supposed to come out sometime this year.
RH: Whatís going to be on it? Any of the same stuff thatís on the Hollinndagain reissue?
NL: It certainly doesnít have anything thatís on Hollinndagain, there may be live songs from around that time but none of the same songs as the Hollinndagain stuff. Itís three LPs and with each side of each LP we tried to do a different era of music for us, starting with the first New York shows when it was just me and Dave [Portner, a.k.a. Avey Tare], up through live Sung Tongs stuff.
RH: And thereís also some kind of long-form music video in the works?
NL: I know the director really hates to think of it that way, but I kind of think itís cool. The idea was that weíd try to meet somewhere in the middle of a movie and an album.
RH: How long have you guys been working on that?
NL: For about a year I think, we did most of the shooting this past summer and now Danny Perez, whoís the director, is editing all the stuff together.
RH: Whatís the status of the new Animal Collective record?
NL: We finished recording the tracks, weíre gonna mix in late March. I think sometime in the fall itíll come out.
RH: Do you think it turned out well? Is it kind of a different direction from Feels?
NL: Iím happy with it. I couldnít say what itís really gonna sound like cause, just like Feels, we recorded more songs than can fit on one album. Depending on what songs we put on the album itís gonna change the way the album sounds and feels and all that. And also the studio had a really weird monitoring situation. We would do a mix in the studio and then take it home and it would sound totally different. So the mixes we have for right now are super, super rough.
RH: Who produced this one?
NL: It was [Feels producer] Scott Colburn again.
RH: Where did you record?
NL: It was Wave Lab studios [in Tucson, Arizona]. I know Calexico did a bunch of stuff there and like Neko Case and shit.
RH: Why Tucson?
NL: We all wanted to do it in a desert setting, and Brian had gone to school right around there. He knew and liked Tucson a lot. And Scott also knew the guy who ran Wave Lab, so it just seemed like the right place.
RH: What did you think of the desert?
NL: It was awesome. We stayed outside the city, it was really still and quiet. Itís kind of intense in that respect. The sense of space there is really amazing.
By Rob Hatch-Miller