It sounds almost effortless. Panda Bear’s voice – silken smooth, verging on tenor – has applied itself to Animal Collective material for a decade now, in between guest slots with everyone from Atlas Sound to Daft Punk.
But whereas once the musician felt he had to write almost constantly, now Noah Lennox feels a little more relaxed.
“I do try to do something constructive every day – it doesn’t have to be writing songs,” he says. “These days I’ll be in the studio pretty much every day, but whether I’m working on writing songs isn’t so important to me anymore. I’ll just open up a manual for some piece of gear that I haven’t fully wrapped my head around, or search around the internet for new music. I feel like I’ve diversified my palette, you could say, as far as working on a daily basis.”
Yet the songwriter just can’t help but compile new material. With Animal Collective’s album cycle winding down, Lennox found he had more and more time to focus on neglected ideas, on whims and points of inspiration quite particular to him.
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‘Boys Latin’, from ‘PBMTGR’
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“Keeping the solo stuff going, keeping the fire burning has become sort of a way of keeping things fresh, I guess – a way of switching things up. I feel like things happen in a band context that don’t work in a solo context, and vice versa, but they kind of complement each other. It’s a way of keeping things fresh, and I feel lucky to be able to go back and forth.”
Finding himself drawn to the sounds he heard while growing up, Lennox began exploring elements of 1990s hip hop and R&B. Utilising powerful percussive loops, the Lisbon-based artist found that this triggered something new in his songwriting.
“I feel like it’s particularly what was on the radio – hip hop and R&B – in the ’90s. I found that it gave the songs a kind of rhythmic swing that seemed to be really indicative of that time. So it was appealing to have those more kind of bouncy rhythms, I guess in a quasi sort of nostalgic way. I’m not a big fan of nostalgia in general, but it does make sense to me here.”
These elements are never directly referenced though, with Lennox allowing them to inspire a rather more straightforward way of working. “I feel like I was inspired to speak directly,” he says. “The vocals are a bit more up front, the melodies are pretty dry and simple. I feel like that might be a hallmark of music of the day, a little bit.”
‘Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper’ (review), the man’s fifth solo LP, is certainly not a hip-hop record. ‘Mr Noah’ is a powerful introduction, imbued with an almost garage-rock sense of immediacy; ‘Crosswords’ contains all the sonic beauty of prime-period Brian Wilson, while the title itself is intended as a homage to dub reggae. Terming his palette of influences as “The Soup”, it’s clear that Panda Bear was cooking up an enormously diverse fusion of flavours for this particular serving.
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It’s important to pay attention, even if stuff doesn’t really work out or feel like it’s going very well. I feel like if you’re paying attention, there’s always something to learn…
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Refusing to over-analyse his music, the songwriter is keen to stress the light/dark dichotomy that runs through the album.
“I should say that when making this stuff I feel like I’m not thinking too hard it, or really dissecting it or analysing it. But now, after the fact, I feel like I can go back and re-trace my steps a little bit. I think the title reflects that relationship in terms of presenting something dark and difficult in the Grim Reaper, something that maybe we don’t want to think about too much, and presents it in a light-hearted, casual, bubbly sort of way. And I feel like a lot of the songs do that. Not only lyrically, but I also feel like there’s that relationship in the sound of the record. The repeated refrains and singing is a little bit like a nursery rhyme, sometimes, but then there’s also these abrasive, darker elements in the sound.”
Numerous themes recur across the record. Finding himself at an enormous port town – not unlike Baltimore, it should be pointed out – Panda Bear seems to be overcome with seafaring and navigational metaphors: ‘Tropic Of Cancer’, ‘Davey Jones’ Locker’ and ‘Lonely Wanderer’ for example. Finding himself submerged amidst new material, producer Sonic Boom (Peter Kember, ex-Spacemen 3) provided new impetus to push the album ahead.
“It was really on Pete’s suggestion that we record so much material,” he explains. “I’d gone into that initial session thinking that there are six to eight specific songs which I felt were clearly the best. We would record those and that would be that. Pete wisely suggested that we keep tackling different pieces, and some of the stuff when we went in there was very much unfinished. So we wound up recording a whole lot more than we figured we would going into it.”
“But what that allowed for in the end was much more flexibility in terms of the story of what the album could be,” Noah insists. “It’s much easier to craft that experience. Ultimately, when I was searching out different sequences, groups of songs to put together, I felt like the one that you hear on the album seemed to present a really specific story that I liked and hoped would give more meaning to the individual pieces themselves.”
One of the points of inspiration behind the flow of the record was classical music. Sampling performances of material from both Debussy and Tchaikovsky, Lennox again re-visited his past.
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‘Mr Noah’, from ‘PBMTGR’
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“Those are long-time influences,” the singer asserts. “It hasn’t really been so explicit until recently, I suppose, especially in the way that classical pieces move from section to section. The grace with which they’ll change speeds I find very inspiring, although very difficult to pull off.”
“My mom is a huge ballet fan,” he continues, “and I remember growing up and hearing the Nutcracker and various other music from ballet in the house all the time. My daughter had a video, Barbie In The Nutcracker. She was watching it one day and I heard that specific section of that piece and thought to myself: ‘I can make a song out of that’.”
A wonderful, enthralling record, ‘Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper’ is billed almost as a finale, as the closing off of some influences and the opening up of others. For Lennox, it seems to be another port on a lengthy journey, both a worthwhile arrival and a point of departure.
“I think there’s something to learn from every experience,” he says. “Not only in music but in life. It’s important to pay attention, even if stuff doesn’t really work out or feel like it’s going very well. I feel like if you’re paying attention, there’s always something to learn.”
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Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Fernanda Pereira
Panda Bear online. ‘Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper’ is released on January 12th, through Domino.