“I think there’s something inherently exciting in that search to understand something, to learn something,” says Noah Lennox, aka Panda Bear. “I’d rather make a lunge for something and fall on my face than sit in a safe place where I feel like I’ve got everything figured out.”
He tells me this over a pint in an east London pub, where the soundsystem around us is blasting safe indie rock song after safe indie rock song; their formulaic thud is a hilarious backdrop to a conversation that meanders and lurches almost as much as Lennox’s songs. The Animal Collective percussionist is on a whole other plane.
Four years on from his last release, Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper is Lennox’s most ambitious record to date. It weaves together dog barks, babbling brooks, sci-fi explosions and throwback ’90s rhythms to create something that’s paradoxically, unexpectedly intimate. Lennox describes it as being the third in a trilogy with his two previous albums, as well as containing the trilogy within itself: the first six songs fit into the Person Pitch vibe, while the following two are more “floaty” and “emotional” like Tomboy, before the album weaves these threads together in the final tracks to present a “reconciliation of a lot of different elements.”
Among those elements are death, fatherhood, disease, human nature, animal nature, and riddles. All of these seeds began as concrete moments in Lennox’s life – the day he learned his father was ill, the night he worked on an impossible riddle with his daughter, the days he spent making music in a garage by a Portuguese beach – but branched out to become something as impossibly intricate and yet totally familiar as an old knotted tree.
What things did you feel like you were working through when making these songs?
I feel like the usage of the drum breaks was kind of a gamble for me. Even though it’s a type of music I really like – hip-hop, r’n’b – I don’t think I ever felt like I had figured out a way of entering into that room where I wasn’t just making some kind of lame copy of something else, something that felt like a costume or felt artificial. So after I started making a couple of these tracks and utilising these breaks, I feel like I found a way of dealing with them that still felt genuine.
Lyrically speaking, too, it was a mission of mine to feel like I was talking about something bigger than myself, or having a perspective that was more global or universal. In the past it was sort of my MO to use introspection as a tool to express something that hopefully somebody else could find useful. I guess having children had something to do with this change. I feel like introspection is good in general, it can be a fruitful exercise, but there’s a threshold past which introspection seems to transform into self-obsession or narcissism or a self-centred enterprise. So I felt like I was kind of done with that.
In death, you basically chose the most universal theme you could possibly have chosen to be the crux of the record. But it’s not totally serious, there’s lightness and humour to the way you deal with it. How did that idea become central to this project?
It was more a theme of change, particularly in the context of an identity, and how often when something in life happens to us that’s really intense or dramatic, the image we have of ourselves before and after that event can often be quite different. In my experience, after having gone through something like this – whether it’s a close family member dying, or an intense relationship that’s over – there’s something about the way we see ourselves; there’s something about us that either goes away or dies when something like that happens.
There’s actually no song [on the album] that’s about death in any literal sense. But I like that the title was presenting something dark and intense, something that we might normally shy away from, we don’t really want to think about it or talk about it. But when it’s put with the “Panda Bear” and presented in a way where the two are working together, it felt kind of funny. It kind of felt like taking something serious and intense and putting it in a package that was much easier to deal with.
I felt like the death theme really only presents itself explicitly on ‘Davy Jones’ Locker’. just with the title and that sense of submersion. That felt to me like the one place on the album where it’s explicit.
It kind of is, yeah.
But it still feels removed – there’s no words, no narrative.
Before we had inserted that piece of music into the sequence, I felt like on maybe one or two songs – certainly on ‘Acid Wash’ [the album closer], there’s kind of a weird seafaring vibe. It wasn’t intentional, but it felt like there was a strident, seafaring, sea shanty kind of vibe to it. So once I knew I wanted that little piece of music in the album and we needed a title for it, since I’m kind of an obsessive about symmetry I wanted to bring the seafaring towards to the beginning of the record to kind of balance it out. And I just like that the title immediately suggests being deep at the bottom of the ocean, totally pitch dark. I liked where it put my brain at the beginning of the album.
And it’s another euphemistic way of referring to death.
Right. There’s a lot of symbology all over the album. I was really into riddles and illusions and tricks of phrase, and I wanted to put little clues to various things throughout the album. So there’s a lot of dogs, there’s the seafaring thing, there’s obviously death (but it’s not really death), animals and human beings – there’s a lot of reference to those two, as being diametrically opposed. There’s a bunch of crap in there.
What do you mean you were really interested in riddles and illusions?
Well, originally I wanted all the songs to be riddles. Literal riddles, with the words. But once I’d set up all the songs, and the singing parts had to specifically fit into the music, I found it too difficult in the end to really craft riddles out of the words.
What you were saying about wanting to make something that’s universal and not too inward-looking, that’s kind of a principle of riddles.
I would liken it to an image on a computer that’s made out of pixels; if you took out 80% of the pixels, that’s kind of what the lyrics are. There’s a picture of what it means in my brain, but say I put it here, then I took out 80% of the pixels and gave it to you, your mind would interpolate it and fill in the gaps, and probably create a kind of similar picture, but also it would be pretty different. I like that.
One of the themes I felt like I picked up on was determinism versus choices.
Uh huh, choices is big.
What was the thinking behind that?
I think it comes, again, from looking inward, noticing all the impulses that I have that are not super helpful for other people. The nasty impulses, the darker side of my identity and my being, and how I assume that’s probably in pretty much everybody – these ways of acting selfishly or our tendency to do things that benefit us, whether we’re aware of that happening or not. And the sort of tempering of those impulses and the way we sort of guide that process, and the decisions we make in order to do that.
There’s also this sonic theme of kind of animalistic or more “natural” sounds battling against more digital, sci-fi sounds.
I think there is a kind of wrestling of a more animal, aggressive element and a more slick, tech vibe, which I would describe as a more human element, in a way. I wanted it to feel really raw, in a sense, but also polished.
You wrote and recorded the album in a lot of different places, were there any that were particularly influential?
It’s a little bit hard to say. I feel like as a creative person, you can’t help but have your environment. You sort of act as a filter for all this stuff. You might have a vision of what you want to make, but whether you try to or not, all this stuff, the environment, stuff you think about, your relationships, you leave little crumbs of it in stuff that you make. So I’m sure that all the places that I made these songs in somehow leaked into the songs, but it’s really difficult for me to trace the lines exactly of how that influence happened. But I made the stuff in so many different places – I had a garage that I made a lot of the stuff in, near the beach across the river in Lisbon where we lived for a while. I think we moved house like four times while I was making this album. I started making this stuff in Texas, when we were recording the last Animal Collective album. So the diversity of environments I was in I would assume had something to do with the diversity of the sounds – certainly more than Tomboy, I’d argue more than Person Pitch, it’s a more dynamic sounding thing. It’s more quilty and hodge-podge.
Sounds like there was so much going on for you during the making of this record, you’ve already mentioned having children and moving house four times. Are those the kind of life changes you were talking about trying to tackle earlier?
Yeah, I mean again there wasn’t a whole lot of, ‘this happened to me so I’m gonna write about that.’ There’s a kind of fictional element to this stuff that wasn’t really present for me before. Songs would be inspired by stuff that didn’t necessarily happen to me. Having said that, I feel like having children was a big one for me, in terms of shifting perspectives, not only on music but on a lot of things. You spend your whole life as the focus of survival for yourself; you go to school to get a job, to make money, to put food on your table; and then if you have kids, the same system exists, but suddenly the focus shifts from you to this other thing. That change was very influential.
Because as you were saying before, total introspection can spill over into narcissism, and I guess when you have kids you’re just not narcissistic any more.
You can’t be, right? It’s a humbling moment when you realise that the purpose of your life isn’t what you thought it was. That sounds bad, but you’re just not the centre of the universe for yourself any more. That’s a tough bridge to cross, in a way. But ultimately, it was a very good thing for me. But any transformation, in my experience, any sort of dramatic transformation is often kinda painful. This one was no different.
I really love ‘Tropic of Cancer’. What does that song mean to you?
I feel like that’s the most obvious example where it starts in a very personal place and then just expands to a new perspective. The song’s really about disease. It starts with an anecdote about a conversation I had with my parents when they first told me my father was sick. He had a brain tumour. They were really weird about it. It was an effect of being in shock for them, I guess – they were really casual, not like jokey, but really strange. I remember thinking, this is really a big deal, why are you guys being so weird with me about it? So the song starts with me telling that story, but by the end of the song, it just really becomes about disease in a general sense, and trying to be sympathetic towards disease as far as it being something that’s just trying to propagate and continue its own existence, just like any other living being is doing. Animals, people, we’re all just trying to keep our genes going, keep ourselves surviving. A disease is doing the same thing. So it’s kind of trying to forgive disease in that context, I guess.
I guess you never know how people are going to react under extreme circumstances like those, and it can be really strange or surprising.
It’s really true. As much as we like to be like, ‘I would punch that guy in the face!’ or whatever, we get to that moment and we just freeze.
Is the process of making this music quite instinctive for you; do you try not to over-think it?
I’d say the first third of the whole songwriting process for me is strictly mental. At the beginning of it, I’ll just daydream about stuff, think about what I want to do, think about what kind of equipment I want to use, how I’m gonna use the equipment, how I’m gonna perform it live, what i means to me in the context of the music in that moment, how it relates to the wave of popular music. And then, after the plan is in place, I try to remove the mental side as much as I can. Just because I feel like it doesn’t do much good after that.
I was listening to a podcast with Lorne Michaels recently, who’s the longtime producer of Saturday Night Live. It’s kind of famous for the writers pulling all-nighters and working like crazy, apparently it’s a really intense schedule – and he was saying that he liked that the work was so intense that people didn’t really have time to consider whether it was good or not, they didn’t have a whole lot of extra time to deliberate on decisions that they made. It was more like an instinctual spitting out of stuff. He argued that the critical faculty can overwhelm the creative faculty, and I think that’s absolutely true. You can think so hard about if something is good or not that you’ll kind of just kill it completely.
Do you throw yourself into the same kind of full-on routine?
Oh, no. I wish I could say that I did. I used to prefer to work from midnight til about five in the morning, and probably because at that time I was the most exhausted and not sharp enough to really consider if the thing was valuable or not, I would just do it. I think that’s also why smoking weed is a thing I enjoy. It’s like, if I’m stoned I don’t really think like that. I feel like I’m better at being objective in that state of mind. More purely objective. Things either work for me on a very base level or they don’t.
How do you know when to step away from something?
Again, it’s a feeling thing more than a mental thing. When I listen to it, if you think of a river going down a hill, if there’s no obstructions to that river, that’s when it feels like it’s done to me. If there’s a hitch in the way, if that energy wave has an interruption for me, then it’s not quite done.
Can you tell me a riddle?
I can say that my daughter had this book of riddles, and there was one that Einstein made when he was 18 or something like that, and I spent a good five hours figuring it out. She helped me, we worked on it for a while, and then she had to go to bed, but after she went to bed I continued trying to figure it out…it was set up like, there was a bunch of houses and a series of eight questions, there were colours, nationalities, pets that each house had, and you had to figure out from the questions what kind of pet the German had, for example. There was a series of questions that gave you some of the information, and you had to kind of detective out the rest of it. [Try Einstein’s riddle here.]
And that’s kind of what you’re hoping people will do with the Grim Reaper?