Panda Bear: "The guitar is still a real source of power"

Taking subtle cues from Nirvana and fatherhood, Noah ‘<b>Panda Bear</b>’ Lennox unveils his inner <i>Tomboy</i>

Feature by Darren Carle | 06 Apr 2011
  • Panda Bear

How do you follow up one of the most acclaimed alternative records of the past few years? Well, for Noah Lennox, perspective is everything. Whilst the bulk of critical opinion bestowed ‘album of the year’ type plaudits on 2007’s Person Pitch, his third effort under the Panda Bear pseudonym, the man himself has a rather more grounded view. “It was pretty shocking, definitely,” he agrees when asked if the reception took him by surprise. “When I first handed it to the label it was just, ‘Yeah, sounds pretty good.’ My only hope was that it would do a little bit better than the last one. I was hoping to at least have a slight upward trajectory with it.”

That much Lennox can feel confident in having achieved. The success of both his solo work and as one-quarter of Animal Collective has been as meteoric as it has been surprising. However, as is obvious during our trans-Atlantic conversation, having the proverbial spot-light in his eyes is not something he is entirely comfortable with. “I really don’t mean to complain in any way,” he worries. “I feel really lucky to have everything I have, but it is curious the way my life has gone considering the type of person I am. I’m very shy and reserved, so for me to have this public life as a performer is a weird thing to be doing.”

It’s a situation that has fuelled the creation of Tomboy, the album that will inevitably seek to follow in the success of Person Pitch. “A lot of the songs on Tomboy deal with those sort of opposites that are in my life,” he explains of how the dichotomy of a tomboy itself cemented the album concept for him. Does this conflict extend to performing under the Panda Bear name? “Yeah, I think it does,” he says as if the thought had never crossed his mind. “That’s another weird paradox, to have these two personas, isn’t it?”

Things can’t have been any simpler in the recording studio, with mixing duties bestowed upon Peter Kember, AKA Sonic Boom. Lennox is unequivocal on the influence the Spacemen 3 founder had on the finished album. “I feel like Sonic really put his perspective on there and took the record to the next level,” he praises. “He took whatever was the strength of each song deep down and built his ideas around that. On the last day of mixing, I went up to New York to spend the day in the studio with him and I remember listening to it and thinking ‘this is exactly what I wanted to do.’”

Does this eureka moment qualify as a first for Lennox? “My past records have always come out different on the way out than what I imagined going into them,” he explains. “[Animal Collective’s 2009 triumph] Merriweather [Post Pavilion] was close to what we wanted it to be like, but even then there were things that we didn’t really anticipate. Even after playing the songs live for a while, the recording process always throws up curveballs. Certain songs really come together when you record them, whereas others often don’t. You’re kinda just shooting from the hip, or at least we are when we record.”

Yet Lennox concedes that the live process provides a wealth of opportunities towards shaping the final song. “I get to a point in playing a song live where I’m not even thinking about it anymore,” he explains of testing out new material. “I’m no longer having to concentrate on hitting the right notes or singing the right words. When I reach that sort of ‘no mind’ part of the process, I start unconsciously thinking about how I’m going to do other things within the song and what it needs as far as the arrangement goes. One part of your brain turns off and the other part takes over.”

Where Person Pitch took the sampler as its main tool of expression, Lennox was keen to re-ignite his love of the guitar for Tomboy. “I wanted to force myself to do something different,” he reasons of picking up the instrument again. “With a sampler, I’d be working with two or maybe three seconds of sound, which is very repetitive. You can’t really get a whole lot of chord changes in there. This time I really wanted to do songs that darted around a little more, melodically speaking.”

Citing Nirvana and The White Stripes as two influences in this regard is not entirely obvious upon listening to Tomboy, though Lennox explains that this is not to be taken too literally. “Their sound is over-driven and buzzed out and that wasn’t something I was really into,” he qualifies. “But the guitar is still a real focal point of the music and this source of power. I had seen [televised] performances by both those bands in the space of a day, just as I was thinking about how I was going to approach Tomboy. It was exciting to see that from a simple set up, these bands can crank out some really heavy jams. I think I just took inspiration from that kind of approach more than anything else.”

Anyone worried by such talk can rest easy in the knowledge that, whilst being a definite progression, Tomboy is not a wholly unexpected change of pace. Part of the reason for this, as Lennox himself admits, is to do with location, both in space and in mind. Where his second album, 2004’s Young Prayer, was a response to his father’s ill-health and subsequent death, Person Pitch felt like the spiritual renewal that understandably came when Lennox moved to Lisbon with his wife and quickly started a family. “I’m still in the same city and the same general area as when I was writing the last album,” he reasons. “The thing I’ve noticed is that it was more the actual room and the space that I was working in that had an influence on how things were going. I did Person Pitch in our apartment in Lisbon, which is three floors up, so there’s a lot of light that came in and you could look out across the city. With Tomboy, I finally found a studio space here, but in contrast it was down two floors in this basement. There was no light, it was really dark and it was kind of lonely.”

Tomboy may not exude these feelings as much as Lennox suggests (opening track You Can Count On Me, for example, sounds as if it could have been conceived and recorded on an African savannah) but it is perhaps tinged with a more tangible sense of melancholy than Person Pitch. “Deeper responsibilities and the mental spaces that puts you in,” is his take on this. “Just getting deeper into fatherhood, that was on my mind a lot. That’s probably the big influence on the album, lyrically speaking.”

It’s not that Lennox isn’t enjoying family life. In point of fact, he and wife Fernanda Pereira had their second child last June, but the enforced need to put bread on the table has become a driving force for his creative output. “I wouldn’t say it makes me feel like I have to write music that I feel people are going to want to buy,” he clarifies. “I’m pretty sure if I tried to do that I wouldn’t be too successful. It’s more like doing the best I can and working hard all the time to ensure that I’m doing everything I can to make things happen.”

As well as motivating Lennox to greater heights, he reveals a more direct influence that his children have had on his music. “My original mix of Tomboy sampled a lot of these little children’s movies that my daughter was watching at the time,” he says. “She was really into them and I just remember hearing this sonic clutter in the house all the time. A lot of these kids things feature crazy, weird voices and sounds that I wanted to try to inject into my songs. It’s not as obvious in Sonic’s mix but I’m hoping that those sorts of things will make it feel a little more weird, like a broadcast coming from space.”

Whilst a new Panda Bear album is rightly being awaited with great anticipation, it would seem wasteful not to ask about Noah’s other main musical concern. Although primarily over in Baltimore for a little family R&R as we talk, he and his fellow Animal Collective band members will be using the opportunity to hook up. “We’re working on some songs just to play live right now, and I’m sure we’ll get round to recording sometime in the future, but there’s no concrete plans,” he claims.

However, parallels between his solo work and that of the Collective are rebuked when asked if Tomboy’s approach will have any influence on the band’s next record. “I doubt it,” he says without hesitation. “With Person Pitch, the sampler was essentially my instrument. I was writing some of the songs that I wrote for Merriweather at the same time, so that helped with a connection between the two, but I haven’t played guitar with Animal Collective for a really long time. The drumming and the rhythm are usually my duties so I think even just the fact that I can’t have the same set-up means there won’t be much correlation between the two.”

With his long list of personal paradoxes, and a seeming overlap of writing between his two musical concerns, how does Lennox know who he is at any one time? “I usually decide before I start writing,” he says. “When I’m writing a song for myself, there are no boundaries, sonically speaking, so I can take it wherever I feel it needs to go. But with Animal Collective I have to be conscious of space. I have to know the terms of my particular input to allow the others to put their mark in there without the sound feeling crowded. So, I usually go into a song knowing what my intentions are.”

So, to paraphrase the original question; how does Noah Lennox, AKA Panda Bear, follow up Person Pitch? By rebuking conventional wisdom on its status, by embracing the contradictions that make him who he is, by turning off his conscious brain and by focusing on that which is dearest to him; his family and his music. Noah himself puts it more succinctly. “I’d say my overall goal is to make music that I’m excited about, music that I feel good about and to be able to support my family doing it” he claims. “That’s essentially the beginning and the end of it.”

Tomboy is released via Paw Tracks on 11 Apr, you can stream it here now.

Be among the first to buy it whilst swigging beer and claiming signed Panda Bear posters at Monorail Records' midnight listening party in Glasgow on Sunday 10 Apr