The Grinning Reaper: Panda Bear interviewed

Panda Bear aka Noah Lennox meets The Skinny to chat about death, creativity and the influence of Suzanne Vega and nineties hip-hop on his wonderfully adventurous fifth solo release Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper

Feature by Colm McAuliffe | 06 Jan 2015
  • Panda Bear

In deciding to title his fifth solo album Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, Noah Lennox – the eponymous Panda – invites us to suppose he is facing up to mortality and engaging with some considerable existential burdens, a not-unlikely turn of events from any artist following up a highly acclaimed and universally praised album, as is the case with Lennox and his previous solo release, 2011’s Tomboy. And while Lennox does acknowledge the presence of death in his lyrics, the conflict posed by the album’s title emerges from a much brighter, more spacious realm: the classic collaborations of 1970s dub such as Augustus Pablo Meets Lee Perry and the Wailers Band, or King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown. Accordingly, rather than muscling up to the pale rider, Lennox sounds in cahoots with death, an unlikely collaboration which has resulted in possibly the most fully realised album in the Panda Bear canon to date.

“I feel like since I really got into dub music, it’s been the most consistently influential sonic set-up in my life,” reflects Lennox. “I always find myself wanting to push into that wet, watery, big empty space feeling. It’s just the type of music I find really powerful, it really resonates with me. I like that the title gave a nod to the dub elements, I like that it was presenting something serious and intense in a light-hearted way, like putting a funny costume on something scary because I think a lot of the songs do that too. I feel like literal death is never spoken about in the songs. I like that the title suggested something really intense and dark, in a casual context. The reaper, or death, is more a symbol of something changing, particularly with regards to identity: when we go through some dramatic change in our life, some part dies or goes away.”

Did this desire to present something more intense emerge from Lennox’s own personal life? “It was more reflections about previous stuff. It was a mission for me this time around with the words to feel like I was singing about something bigger than myself, more outward than inward. My modus operandi in the past has been to look inwards and dig deeper to try and talk about something, like writing a diary, to glean something positive. Even though introspection can be a good exercise for us, past that threshold is narcissism and it just becomes a self-obsessive enterprise. Being wary of that, I wanted to flip the script, expand the gaze.”

"As a teenager, I was nowhere, just in the middle of this hurricane of sound. All of the Animal Collective were a little like that” – Noah Lennox

Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper certainly has more in common with 2007’s Person Pitch more so than any other album in his increasingly prolific canon. The album is typically drenched in reverb and teeming with endless, multi-tracked vocal hooks, something we’ve come to expect from Lennox, but also underpinned with a loose, hip-hop sensibility albeit one warped and contorted by Lennox and co-producer Pete ‘Sonic Boom’ Ember’s staggeringly intricate production tricks, along with some rather unusual adornments. “The recording of this album was more deliberate as far as it was trial and error,” Lennox admits. “Lots of throwing things at the wall to see what stuck and I got really into wind noises. I found this CD called Blow-Tools which is all just ‘whooshing’ noises. All the mixes I’ve been doing lately have this sound on it. But I just find stuff sleuthing around on the internet and see how it works. Although not every mistake is worthwhile.”

Previous Panda Bear albums were typically recorded in a secluded environment but Lennox found himself repeatedly moving house around his adopted city of Lisbon during the recording process, an upheaval which is reflected in the record’s strikingly diverse and mobile array of sounds and extemporisations. The self-referencing lead single Mr Noah refuses to settle in any one singular style, the only recurring motif a near-stuttering vocal line which appears to be at once joyful and uncertain within its own wind tunnel of unidentifiable noises and bleeps. Meanwhile, Tropic of Cancer samples Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite, the exquisite harp sample on a repeating loop through the ever-present breeze and Lennox’s most affecting solo vocal to date. “I’m a big believer that as a creative person, you can’t help the thing you make be a reflection of yourself,” he says. “I always assume that the music has some sort of crumbs of where I’m at and in that sense, the diversity of the songs seem to reflect that sort of connection. The collection of styles is due to that changing around.”

Aside from the overt references to dub, the sonic template for the album derives from Lennox’s youth in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland and, specifically, East Coast radio playlists in the early-to-mid 1990s. “There’s a remix by DNA of Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner and I remember hearing that set-up of just a vocal and a 90s-sounding drum break, and thinking ‘I wanna make music that sounds just like that.’ A lot of stuff that was on the radio in the 90s was a major influence on this record, especially R’n’B hip-hop stations along with bands and people like A Tribe Called Quest, DJ Premier, Pete Rock. The East Coast stuff that was happening around that time had a more jazzy, and very specific swing to the rhythms and, if I had to pin it down, that’s what the influence is more than anything.”

How did these elements find their way on to the record? “When I started playing around with the drum breaks, that sort of dictated everything. There’s like a very distinctive quality to the stuff I was making with those breaks. It felt like being in the same house but finding a new little room. There was a character in the music which I was ready to go to in the past, or didn’t know how to use that style in a way that felt genuine. It’s a hip-hop set-up production wise. Once I started making the stuff and had five or six different pieces, I felt there was a quality about them, a personal touch which I never had before.”

Considering the seemingly ubiquitous nature of grunge and American alternative music in the 90s, it seems Lennox had an unusually wide and Catholic array of influences. Did this set him apart from his peers at the time? “Growing up, radio was the way I interacted with music, almost exclusively,” he affirms. “Hip-hop, R’n’B and even the top 40 stations in Baltimore and classical music at home because that’s all my parents would listen to. I feel like it’s pretty common today to have that basis. People used be more defined by their music back then, wearing badges on their jackets which were a real stamp saying ‘I’m this type of person and I listen to this type of music.’ And it just seems like that doesn’t exist anymore. As a teenager, I was nowhere, just in the middle of this hurricane of sound. All of the Animal Collective were a little like that, which helped us gel together.”

Speaking of which, is Lennox’s flourishing career as Panda Bear threatening to overshadow his Animal Collective membership? “I’d be upset if it was just one or the other. I’m glad not to be forced to make that choice. Creatively, I find it more refreshing and fun to skip around and do various things but also it’s kinda the only way I get to see those guys now. It would be a bummer not to be able to do that anymore.”

This propensity for skipping from project to project has been a hallmark of seemingly anyone even remotely affiliated to the Animal Collective and while Lennox is more than happy to speak about his current album, his mind is already firmly fixed on the next project. “Yeah, creatively I’m on to the next thing although I enjoy the process of talking about all these little instinctual decisions you make when recording an album, as I have to re-trace my steps, which I find interesting. But the creative impulse is focused on the next Animal Collective album and trying to see what pieces fit together and which don’t. I haven’t written any songs for it yet but it’s imminent: the train has left the station.”

Back in the here and now, Noah Lennox is certainly satiating his teenage self, hitting what he terms “the psychedelic sweet spot” with this new album and having sung on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories album last year. The French duo have long been idols to Lennox since their Homework album and, despite turning down an offer to remix Animal Collective’s My Girls track and Panda Bear’s Last Night At The Jetty, a friendship was forged. “In the spring of 2012, Thomas [Bangalter] alerted me to a song Daft Punk had made which he thought I could sing on; they took me to Paris to work on it and that was that.”

However, Lennox is wary of wearing his influences in too obvious a fashion. “Anytime there’s any sort of obvious influence, my impulse will be to abstract it or lose it completely or combine other elements to the point where that one original influence is difficult to trace,” he says. “Just because: what’s the point of doing a copy? The frequency spectrum available to us is pretty much the same as it's ever been but the way that we package music, combine sounds – or don’t – and the speed of things, all those combinations give us opportunities to present something new. And that’s the basis of it: I’m always looking to cook something new.”


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Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is released on 12 Jan via Domino