It’s been a dense cloud of creative brewing for Noah Lennox’s solo project PANDA BEAR in recent months. It broke open in splendour last week, when the electronic virtuoso ushered us into 2015 with what is undoubtedly going to be one of its musical highlights; the wonderfully surreal Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper. A meticulously woven sonic tapestry, the record plays off intricate drumbeats and soluble vocals, the combination melting and fizzing into a washed-over psychedelic watercolour.
NBHAP recently spoke with Lennox from his home in Lisbon. After agreeing upon a mutual aversion to the harsh Berlin winter, we launched into a discussion that pulled apart the creative process behind Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper; traversing the halls of his collaboration with SPACEMEN 3’s psychedelic royalty Peter Kember, the influence of his children on his music and his ambitions for a new ANIMAL COLLECTIVE record along the way.
How would you describe 2014 to yourself, Noah, if you could go back twelve months and tap yourself on the shoulder?
It was consumed by the making of this album. It was really like a daily… struggle isn’t the right word, but it took a lot of time and we definitely lost our minds a little bit making it. I mean, we spent a lot of effort and a lot of time just trying to make it as good as it could be. The last couple of months or so, I’ve just been talking about it. So the whole year has really been consumed by this album.
By both of us, do you mean Sonic Boom (Peter Kember)? I wanted to ask you about your creative process and relationship. Why did you decide to work with him on this album?
Yeah, my friend Pete. He came in right at the end of the process of the last album and I felt like he improved the sound of the stuff so much. I felt like I learned so much working with him. At first I was a little worried, because I don’t really like to use the same equipment or work with the same people or in the same studio. My fear is that the stuff is going to sound the same and probably be less exciting because of that. But once I’d made maybe two or three of the beginnings of the songs I felt like the material was so different and that that would help it become a new thing. Him and I started to work together much earlier on in the process this time, too, I thought that might make it different. And working in a proper, professional studio here, which was a first for me.
Oh, is it really? I’m kinda surprised to hear that.
With ANIMAL COLLECTIVE, the band that I play in, I feel like we’ve been in a bunch of pretty nice studios, but me working anywhere outside of my home studio is almost like a new thing for me. But I feel like Pete and I have… first of all, very different skill sets, a very different set of strengths and weaknesses, but I think strengths and weaknesses that complement each other. Crucially I think that the target for the music is always really similar for us. It’s both of our impulses to dissolve the sound to the very essential elements, and I think the fact that we both have a similar image of where the music should get to, even if we may get there in different ways, helps keep things graceful in terms of working together.
You said just before that you felt as though you’d started out with such different material this time around. How do you think it was different, or why?
Well, it was really the drum breaks and starting to fool around with that; feeling like there was a different character and quality to the music. Even though it was my house, it was like going into a room in my house that I hadn’t really gone into before. There was an energy and a familiarity about the rhythms that made it feel like a sort of uncharted territory for me, I guess.
Did you have any specific intention when you began making the record?
Hmm… Yeah. Wanting to do something – and this is sort of dictated again by the drum breaks – that has this immediate layer of familiarity, in that the broad strokes of the sound would be like a sonic template that was similar to stuff you might hear on the radio now, or speaking a language that millions of people speak. Sort of as the title does, it becomes a way of sneaking elements into the music that are more abrasive or might take more time to digest. It’s a bit like a Trojan horse; sneaking stuff in there, or putting stuff in a costume, in a way. So the rhythm or the energy of the music became… the idea was to have that become the ‘hook’ of the sound, like red carpet into the building of the music.
What I found interesting this time around is that, in the title and also in the track ‘Mr. Noah’, you’ve almost positioned yourself as a character in a narrative. Was that an intentional thing?
There’s a lot of groups of symbols in the music and in the lyrics. Me being a character in there is one of them. Obviously it’s in the title – but you’re right, it is like a cartoon or caricature version of myself. I hadn’t really thought about that until now, but you’re definitely right. There’s kinda a seafaring group of symbology there, a lot of dog and wolf symbology, and a couple of other things.
It’s veering off on a bit of a tangent, but when you speak of seafaring symbols, you have the track ‘Tropic of Cancer’ and then ‘Shadow of the Colossus’, and I was just wondering if you’ve ever read Henry Miller? One of his most famous books was called Tropic of Cancer, and another about his travels in Greece was called The Colossus of Maroussi.
Yeah? [laughs] No, I haven’t. I wish I could say that I had that gameplan, but I’m kind of a literary dunce. I’m not well-read at all. Shadow of the Colossus is actually the name of a video game, and I like that in the video game, you play each level as a character that has to scale this huge monster that’s slowly lumbering around, you have to figure out a way to defeat it. I like that in the context of the songs being about identity and this darker side of ourselves that we’re constantly dealing with. So it worked in a couple of ways, which is often a thing with me; I’ll invent multiple layers of meaning or definition to various things.
Would you say that layering is accidental or intentional?
Accidental in that a lot of it comes from subconscious stuff, and often during this process when I have to talk about it I’ll discover all of these ways of connecting the dots. Again, it’s one of those things where I wish I could say that I had a master plan. There are so many decisions that get made, and choices that you feel like are maybe instinctual, and you don’t think about too much in the moment, and then later when you have to analyse it and dissolve it all down you’re forced to think about why those instinctual decisions felt right to make. That’s often where I’ll be able to connect these dots and trace these lines a little bit more.
What I found interesting, reading some previous interviews, was this imagery of the Grim Reaper and a veil of death – but the record is also quite playful, and you’ve said that it’s perhaps equally about new growth.
I couldn’t say that it’s really a concept album in that there’s one central theme that all of the songs talk about, but they do seem to hover around this story of how a dramatic or intense event in our lives can often force us into a new way of thinking about ourselves. Often, when something really intense or powerful happens in our lives it can kill this old self-image that we had and force us into developing a new way of orienting ourselves within our universe. A lot of the songs seem to touch on that sort of transformative process.
Even the album itself, and the sequencing of the album, represents or defines that process. I see the first five songs being like the dissolving, or death throes of the old identity – it’s often where the songs feature more confusing and hectic environments – and then it all kind of breaks down to the two songs that don’t have any rhythms in them, like the limbo state to me. Oftentimes in my life when I’ve gone through one of these intense moments, there’s a section of it where it feels like an emotional desert, really barren and cold, and that’s what those two songs midway through are meant to be. Then the last couple of songs are like the growth of the new thing, or the new self-image.
That’s why the last song was really important to me. Once we had all of the songs, I didn’t think that one was particularly strong, I should say, but Acid Wash became the perfect ending to the story in that it was a way of finishing the thing. The song felt like it was looking back on a process that was maybe difficult, but it was looking back on it in a way that was sort of like a positive result. Almost like a triumphant thing, rather than just a descent into the abyss, which is really what I was trying to avoid. I didn’t want to finish the thing on a bummer note. I didn’t want to do that.
Also, in terms of new growth, I wanted to ask whether you think that the presence of children in your life has altered your creative perspective.
Yeah, I would assume that the whole kind of movement for me wanting to write music that was not strictly an introspective thing, but that was addressing a more global or universal concern, must have been at least in some way inspired by having kids. I feel like you’re born and you grow up, where all of the focus is on you and your survival and getting through these stages in your life, and then you get a job or go to school to get a job to support yourself and put food on your table. Having children, it seems like that process still exists, but the whole cycle of it, the focus of it changes, it gets put on these little guys. I’d assume that that transformation is in some ways influential to the change in perspective for me, creatively speaking.
One thing that I find fantastic about you as an artist is that PANDA BEAR is quite holistic; as well as the music, it also involves this strong visual element. I wanted to ask you what your connection, or involvement with that side of things is.
For sure, I get involved with it quite a bit. The live show is all my friend Danny Perez’s stuff. He’s a filmmaker in Los Angeles and we’ve been doing shows since 2007. I sent him practice tapes of a lot of this music and he envisioned all of these scenarios and costumes and figures that he shot in his studio. He’s essentially another member of the band in that he’s mixing his video, stuff that he’s built specifically for the songs – and he knows all of the songs just like I do. He’s really performing with me. His aesthetic is quite a bit more intense and brutal, grotesque in a way, and I feel like it really adds another dimension to the music. I guess that’s just a longwinded way of saying that the performance version of the songs is an important part of the story for me.
Seeing as our website is called NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION, I wanted to wrap up by asking if you could name three things you hope to achieve in 2015. It can be anything; tiny things, humungous things…
Hmm… I’d like to write a new ANIMAL COLLECTIVE album with the guys. That’s the big one for me, I guess. I think that’s a strong possibility; or, I should say, the basic plan at this moment. Beyond basic and simple stuff like keeping me and my family and friends happy and healthy, I don’t know if I have other specific things! That should occupy enough of my time, I think [laughs].