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Out of His Body, Out of His Mind: An interview with Panda Bear

By Phil Pucci

May 6, 2015

Panda Bear, a.k.a. Noah Lennox, is pushing the boundaries of pop music, but not intentionally. The Baltimore-based multi-instrumentalist is celebrated for the experimental nature of his music, dating back to the early days of his band Animal Collective when they turned “freak folk” into a recognizable genre. But in learning more about Lennox, it is evident he does not experiment with music simply for the sake of experimentation. What gives Panda Bear such a unique flare is that he invites all of his influences to shine through in his songwriting without barriers.

Often, bands are started with a singular, narrowed vision, one of which can be difficult to escape. However, Panda Bear’s aim was limitless from the start. While simultaneously achieving worldwide notoriety with Animal Collective, Lennox released his breakthrough 2007 solo album Person Pitch, a sprawling seven-track opus filled with loops, drum breaks and techno-inspired song structures, received high praise from critics in a crucial time when indie powerhouses like Arcade Fire and Grizzly Bear were staying true to rock and roll.

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Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is the latest Panda Bear album, released in January. It is heavy on synths, dance beats and playful vocal melodies, but also arguably his most melancholic recording since 2004’s acoustic, devastating Young Prayer. It is also Lennox’s first overt attempt to step outside of himself lyrically; Panda Bear’s words (as well as Lennox’s Animal Collective contributions) are typically rooted in family life and deeply insular, but on Grim Reaper there is a sense of mystery. I talked to Lennox about this, as well as his interest in techno, his favorite childhood toy and his favorite Interpol song.

CLTure: I love the piano sample in “Lonely Wanderer.” Was piano your first instrument?

Noah Lennox: Thanks, glad you like it. I like it a lot too. We all played recorder at the school I went to in Baltimore and then we had a go at violins, but piano was the first thing I really put a lot of time into.

CLTure: To me, what is so striking about your lyrics is that a lot of them address basic human emotions in a way that is both matter-of-fact and magical. However, on the new album, the lyrics seem a little more mysterious. Did you approach the songwriting any differently for this album?

NL: Yes. I wanted to write about things that aren’t mine alone. Before, the impulse had been to share my specific experience in the hopes that it might be informative or useful for someone else. More recently, I’ve hoped to get over myself as completely as possible. And the words in the songs mirror that, I think. In a lot of ways, I find that the words on the recent album are more personally revealing despite addressing less autobiographical topics.

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Photo by Alex Welsh of Fader.com

CLTure: You gave thanks to several of your many musical inspirations in the liner notes of your breakthrough album Person Pitch, including Cat Stevens and Aphex Twin. Did any artists in particular influence the sound of Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper?

NL: It’s typically my instinct to try and diffuse obvious inspirations or combine them in large groups to the point that the pieces become untraceable or unrecognisable. I’m sure I don’t always succeed, but that’s the target. Because of this method, it’s tough to talk about singular influences. But I think it’s safe to say that a bunch of hip hop and U.S. radio hits from the 90s served as springboard for many of the productions.

CLTure: The synth patterns in Grim Reaper single “Boys Latin” remind me of Kraftwerk. German electronic music seems to be a significant muse of yours. How did you start getting into electronic and techno music?

NL: In the bedroom I moved into for high school (I boarded), I found an album by The Orb called U.F.Orb and went backwards from there towards Chicago house and Detroit techno, which is still my favorite. I’ve been really lucky to have friends with explorative tastes in music who have fed me great music over the years. My friend Crawford got me into Kraftwerk and Faust among other things when I was 18 or 19. Later on, I worked upstairs at a great record shop called Other Music in Manhattan, and while working, we’d listen to all sorts of things.

CLTure: Your remix of Interpol’s “All the Rage Back Home” has been prominent in my recent listening rotation. Do you have a favorite Interpol song?

NL: I like that one quite a bit and one called “NYC” from a couple albums back. My friend Brad plays bass in the band, so I was especially happy to work on something of theirs.

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CLTure: What kind of routines or rituals do you engage yourself in to keep you occupied, sane and entertained while you’re out on tour for weeks at a time?

NL: Touring with good buds of mine makes things easier but I can’t say that I really stay sane. I kind of lose it every tour, but I’ve gotten used to it and I’m lucky to be able to keep the trips short these days. And of course I’m lucky to go on tour in the first place!

CLTure: You often perform new material live before it gets recorded. Is there a reason for doing things in this order? Do you play new songs to road-test them, or is it that you just want to keep things fresh? Can we expect to hear any new material during your upcoming tour?

NL: These trips are really the end of the road for these songs and I’m feeling pretty burnt on myself, so, sad to say I’ve got nothing new. I should say I’ve been writing for Animal Collective and that has taken up most of my time. There’s a special excitement to playing songs no one has heard and often I find that it helps me see things in the songs that otherwise I might not understand. But it’s also nice to play to an audience that knows the songs, so I try to do a little of both if I can.

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CLTure: Anything you can reveal about the new Animal Collective material and how it sounds?

NL: Not just yet, and I think it’ll be more fun if it’s a surprise.

CLTure: I’ve read that many of the samples on Grim Reaper are available as freeware online. Is there any truth to that?

NL: A small group of them are free samples but a lot of what I used are on sample packs that are for sale on the internet and other places. There are also some drum breaks, which are very common and have been used in many productions over the past 20 years or so. I liked that they’d give an instant familiarity to the songs.

CLTure: What was your favorite childhood toy?

NL: I liked legos the most. It was fun to follow the instructions and build the thing in the picture, but I really liked building things out of the random bunches of pieces.

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