In the Studio: Panda Bear on His Next Album, Tentatively Titled “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper”
Don’t Fear the Reaper
As a member of Animal Collective, arguably his generation's most critically-acclaimed band, Noah Lennox is used to the pressure of lofty expectations. Unlike most other artists, though, even Lennox's solo albums as Panda Bear don't provide him an opportunity to relax, as they're now just as highly anticipated and universally praised as those of his band. Tentatively titled Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, Lennox faces the challenge of once again reinventing a sound that is widely imitated but identifiably his own. It's no small task. The follow-up to 2011's Tomboy—Lennox's exercise in minimalist psychedelia that served as his streamlined counterpart to 2007's ecstatically blissed out Person Pitch—the fifth Panda Bear album is inspired by the work of 9th Wonder, the veteran Chicago hip-hop producer whose influence informs the samples-and-beats approach that dominates the new tracks. Speaking from his home in Lisbon, Lennox explains the role technology plays in his songwriting, the increasingly outward-looking focus of his lyrics, and how he makes sure his music retains its rough edges. [Note: There's a separate in the studio article on Panda Bear in our current print issue. These are portions of the interview not included in the print article. Pick up our current print issue to read more about Panda Bear's next album. Keep in mind that the album is still a work in progress and the details and direction of the album may have changed since this interview; consider this a snapshot of the album's recording process.]
Matt Fink (Under the Radar): So how would you describe the tone of the new tracks?
Noah Lennox: I definitely feel like it's going to be quite a bit different from the last one. In some ways, it seems a bit more linked to two albums ago [Person Pitch] than the last one [Tomboy]. But that could be because there's a lot of samples and sampling involved in the process of making the songs, although different samplers, and I made a lot of sounds for the samples myself, rather than taking little samples of other people's music.
So what kinds of samples are you making?
It's pretty simple. The drum stuff, I feel, is a real focal point of the music. It's heavier and break-centric music. There are a lot of breaks.
Is there a dominant tone or texture to the music?
I guess it's a little hard to say, because it's maybe a bit premature to make a sweeping statement about how it's going to turn out, but I'm hoping to get it into a decidedly different place than the Person Pitch stuff and the Tomboy stuff. In a way, I feel like there was, in terms of the impression of the sound, something that linked Tomboy and Person Pitch, and I'm hoping to get to a new environment with these songs, mostly because I feel like these songs warrant that change. It's not that I was unhappy with the way the last two came out.
So you're using different technology to make these tracks?
After Animal Collective did Merriweather Post Pavilion, I felt done with those samplers, mostly because I felt like I was on the verge of doing the same thing over and over again. I felt like I had gotten so familiar with the things that I developed habits, which at first felt good, but after a while it didn't feel like I was going anywhere interesting or exciting. So I tried to leave those guys behind. I still keep one on the studio desk, but I mostly just look at it and appreciate it now.
Are these samplers more or less sophisticated than the others ones you used previously?
They're more so, but with samplers—although they did inform pieces of the music at the end—there are more ways to translate to a performance what I was doing with a computer, just because I'm not a huge fan of using a computer on a stage. Mostly, I would arrange the stuff on a software program, as far as putting the samples in, even though I feel like I did it in a really janky way. I'm not super into the software that will beat match and link things exactly. I do way more drag and drop, very rough. I hope the end product sounds graceful, but I feel like the manner I employ is pretty rough around the edges.
Does the roughness translate into the texture of the music?
I hope so. I feel like when I can trace the human touch—and when I say that I mean a certain imperfection—when I feel that's there in the music, I feel that I respond more positively to that sort of thing more than something that's really exact and like all the edges have been smoothed over by a computer program or overworking the sound in the studio. There are several ways you can go about getting something to sound laser sharp. But I tend to gravitate toward music that sounds more human, and by "human" I mean something that doesn't feel totally perfect.
I know you made Tomboy in a very isolated environment. Is that the case this time?
Less so. There were some of them where I was by myself, but overall it has definitely been more of a social process than the last one. The last one was about as isolated as you can be, just underground and in the studio. Typically, nobody was in the complex during the day, at least not down on that floor. I think there were practice rooms and dance studios a couple floors up, but in the basement I would go a couple of days without seeing anybody.
Who are you working with this time?
I'm doing the recording with Pete Kember [aka Sonic Boom, formerly of Spacemen 3], who did the mixing on the last one. Typically, I like to try to move around as far as working with different people in the hopes that the music will end up turning out a little different. I guess I felt like the last time was him in his zone and me in my place, and there were a whole lot of emails, but the work that we did was very disparate, separate. So my thought process was that this time working together in the same room from beginning to end—and the fact that I'm recording in Lisbon—that would be enough difference in terms of the process from the last time. Plus, I just love working with Pete so much. I feel like he's such an inspirational guy for me.
Do you feel like the writing on the record is taking a particular direction from a lyrical standpoint?
Yeah. From the beginning, I really wanted to try to write words or songs that I felt weren't directly addressing myself, looking inward. And although I feel like all of the songs are inspired by experiences that I had, ultimately tweaking the words and certain lines, I felt like it got pushed to addressing typical human relationships. Really, I feel like the overall theme of a lot of the songs as a group is change or evolution, mainly of people and what that process is like. Growth, I suppose.
Do you think having young children inspired you to think about personal growth as a theme, just because your mind is in a different place than when you were younger?
Sure. I think having children certainly inspires that shift, just because you're suddenly really confronted with the fact that your life isn't only about yourself anymore. I suppose if you're in a serious relationship that will spring it, too. Other characters become the focus of your life, rather than yourself. Hopefully you don't totally lose track of taking care of yourself and making yourself happy, but the big target in your life and mind and existence ceases to be yourself.
Do you think you enjoy your creative process as much as you did when you started making music?
If not more so, because there are more toys and tools to use than there used to be. I can still remember when my brother played in a band with some of his buddies, and I remember they got this Oasis multiprocessor, and it was the first time I'd ever used effects or anything like that, and I remember turning on the reverb setting and not taking off the headphones for a really long time.
When do you think your album will be finished?
I'm hoping that it will be finished sometime in the first half of . As far as when it will come out, I'm not sure. I got myself in a bit of trouble last time trying to predict when it would come out, so I'm trying to steer clear of doing that.
Well, we're looking forward to it. Your albums never disappoint.
Thank you for saying that! I hope I deliver for all of you.
So far, so good.
Never say never.