Beautiful songs about "dark, grotesque stuff": The world according to Panda Bear

Animal Collective's Noah Lennox discusses his latest solo album, the creative process and death

Published January 17, 2015 4:00PM (EST)

Panda Bear         (The Windish Agency/Fernanda Pereira)
Panda Bear (The Windish Agency/Fernanda Pereira)

Noah Lennox feels relieved. It is Tuesday, January 13 -- the release date of his very well-received new album, “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper.” The euphoria I assumed he’d feel has yet to sink in. Maybe relief will morph to happiness in a few weeks, Lennox mused.

This is not the first release day for Lennox. He has dropped several solo albums under the moniker Panda Bear, and nine more with the critically acclaimed experimental group Animal Collective. This latest effort suggests aspects of his personality: reserved, curious, competitive, playful and overwhelmingly thoughtful. The title evokes the concept of death, but Lennox explains that it is more about change -- shedding one aspect of yourself for another. While grim material is certainly present on the album, by design it takes a few listens for the feeling to seep in. The darker messages are wrapped in sugary pop-sounds, and bright packaging.

Panda Bear creates a distinctively beautiful form of electronic music. It’s an amalgamation of sound, and is nearly impossible to tease out the individual components: an underlying rhythm, or a string of piano, and of course Lennox’s floating Brian Wilson-like voice. (The inability to "tell what's what" is how Lennox describes psychedelic music.)

Lennox sat down with Salon to discuss the album, the method of creation, some of his favorite records,  and why he thinks music festivals are weird. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

So the album's out today!

It was a long road. It took like three years door to door. There were a lot of people working really hard for this one, so the overwhelming sensation is relief at the moment. Maybe in a couple more weeks it’ll transfer to happiness.

You can exhale now. It’s out and it’s well-received.

Yeah it seems like people like it OK.

Yeah, it’s beautiful. You said it was a three year process. What is your process, and is it different for each album? 

It is a bit different for each album, but for this one every song followed pretty much the same path, in that it would start off without any singing or any vocals of any kind. There are two songs on the album that don’t have any rhythm, and those started really with the samples -- classical samples that I used. One’s piano, I think it’s Debussy [on the song "Lonely Wanderer"], and the other [on "Tropic of Cancer"] is from “The Nutcracker.”

But every other song started with the drums and some type of rhythm. I tried to create these little rhythm machines where it wasn’t just the drums but also weird noises, and tried to set it up in this really specific, kind of rhythmic, little rhythm music box. And then just kind of refining that and spending a lot of time refining those little pieces. I made maybe like 60 of those, and the ones I liked the best I fleshed out into more fully realized songs. Refining those Lego constructions of the rhythms, the singing parts, I would kind of just start to hear little lines, and I would maybe record those in some kind of trashy way, just really quickly, to remember it. Then the melodies would get built in a similar way, just sort of adding and seeing what felt right and what didn’t. The words were really the last thing.

You mention Legos — is it sort of a visual process to build it?

Yeah, it is a bit like Legos or painting — or cooking, especially, is my favorite analogy. Certain elements in production feel more like salt and pepper, or like stuff that always has to be there in a way, or that almost always works in some kind of form. And the way that flavors kind of work together, I find a lot of corollaries in production where certain types of production elements really seem to fit together really nicely.

I like production and cooking analogies, because it’s like in cooking the ingredients have been, more or less, the same forever, but people are still finding new ways to combine flavors and present things in really specific ways. To cook the stuff or not to cook it -- all these different ways of combining elements and techniques that create new experiences. And I feel like production is the same way, or music production is the same way, where the frequency spectrum has always been the same. There are limits to what you can do with sound but the way that you produce it, the way that you present it, the instruments you use, the types of sounds that you use and how you mix them together, you can still hopefully craft new musical experiences.

Was there a specific feeling or something happening in your life or something you were reading that influenced the trajectory of the album?

Maybe not so much at the time, but thinking back on previous experiences there was definitely a...kind of noticing what would happen to me. There’s a couple moments in my life where I felt like it was a really dramatic shift in who I was before and after an event. Often intense break ups, or when I moved to Portugal, when I moved to Europe the first time, when my father died, stuff like this where it’s like, the way I thought about myself, my identity really changed because of certain events.

I can’t say that I had a blueprint for that, or that I game-plan going into making the album. It really made sense when we had recorded all the songs and I was trying to figure out a sequence or a group of songs that would tell some kind of story, I hoped. And once I found the sequence that is eventually on the album, it really seemed to reflect the process that I would go through in these, or that I thought I went through in these intense periods of change. Of course, with the whole “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper” theme, it made sense. Never talking about death in any sort of literal way, but I was hoping to talk about how, when I would go through these really intense changes, there would be parts of who I was before -- or this self image of who I was before -- that would kind of die.

What I thought was interesting was how, despite its name, the album itself is pretty buoyant — and even the album cover is beautiful.

The whole concept of the thing was kind of presenting something dark and abrasive and something that maybe we don’t like to think about so easily and presenting it in a way that made it easier to digest. Like if you put this kind of dark, grotesque stuff in this costume that’s really kind of funny and light, it’s much easier to deal with that harsher stuff.

A lot of the way that stand-up comedy works, where the stuff that they’re making jokes about is often really kind of painful and dark, but talking about it in a humorous way makes it easier to think about. And I felt like a lot of music worked in that way, where a lot of the subject matter is kind of heavy and way below the surface, but the songs themselves, the actual sound, feels kind of playful and light.

And there’s certain parts of the production of the music — I guess I’m talking about the vocals and sing-songy, really simple melodies, kind of like pop, in a way — I hope that that stuff would be kind of the costume that was making the more abrasive elements of the production sort of easier to deal with, or would make you want to listen to them to the point that you could kind of wrap your head around the elements of music that take more time to appreciate.

It’s the kind of album where you listen to it multiple times and it sinks in.

I’m glad to hear that, a lot of the albums that have really stuck with me over the years work in that way, where at first maybe I didn’t totally love them but over time I really kind of developed a relationship with them.

What are some of those albums?

[J Dilla's] “Donuts” is one of them. It was like the pace of stuff, how fast the stuff would transform. It didn’t make sense to me at first. But the more I listened to it, the more I loved it. Probably Grateful Dead's “American Beauty.” That one, I would like certain songs, but developing an appreciation for the collection of songs just took me a while. Trying to think of something else. “Discovery” by Daft Punk wasn’t as immediate to me as the first one, “Homework.” But I really love that one now. Some Scott Walker stuff — maybe like, “Scott 2,” “Scott 3.” There’s a lot.

I’ve heard people say -- I mean, I’m a huge Animal Collective fan -- and I’ve heard people say that they had to ease their way into it. Do you think about that when you guys are creating?

Not so much, no. I don’t think any of us like to get our minds involved too much beyond a certain point. I feel like, personally speaking, I do a lot of thinking before actually making any music. I dream about what the thing's going to be and there’s an excitement to thinking about something that could be exciting and trying to conceptualize it. Like what kind of equipment I’m going to use to make it and how I’m going to perform it live and what’s going to be exciting about it in terms of my picture of what the musical universe is.

But once I actually start making music, I try to remove the mental part of the process as much as I can, because I feel like after that point, it’s just sort of a slippery slope. I was listening to a podcast with Lorne Michaels the other day and he was saying how he really liked that on "SNL" there’s this really hectic, intense schedule, where you have people writing sketches down to the wire and people are working really late into the night and not sleeping a lot. He really likes that kind of atmosphere because he feels like the critical faculty can overwhelm the creative faculty, and I guess that’s sort of what I’m talking about here where if you start thinking about something too hard you’ll just start not making progress and not developing the thing because you’re constantly making judgements about how it should be, or what it should be. Once we start getting our hands dirty we try not to think too much about how it’s going to be received or how it’s going to make sense.

Is the process different for Animal Collective versus Panda Bear? One’s obviously solitary...

Yeah, that’s actually the biggest difference. When you’re doing something by yourself, you know all the moves, and it is much more difficult to surprise yourself with the results. But it’s like this streamlined process; it’s like this unobstructed flow of stuff. But it’s also what makes it less interesting in a way. Working with a band and trying to marry everybody’s perspectives on the thing, you’re often forced to go to places you wouldn’t really go otherwise, so you can be surprised by the results in an exciting way.

Does place have any sort of influence? Baltimore, New York or Portugal?

Yeah, all of those places, I’m sure. But it’s always really difficult for me to trace the lines in any sort of obvious or literal way. For example, the two records before this I made within about 100 meters of each other in Lisbon, but the two albums sound drastically different to me, have very different feelings to me when I listen to them. The environments, like the actual rooms were a bit different, but I still feel like that highlights how tricky it is to talk about how the environment influences the stuff.

But having said that, I’m sure that living in Portugal has influenced the music in some way, it’s just really difficult to talk about exactly how it’s done. But I’m a big believer that when you’re making something, when you’re a creative person, as much as you might try to hide yourself and your experience and your environment and what you do, there’s always little clues and breadcrumbs in there. And sometimes I like to do it really kind of literally, where I’ll title songs [after] places or streets or zones that have meant something to me, kind of as a little breadcrumb trail to my life.

I’ve read some reviews, and I’m always amused by the ways reviewers will project their ideas on an album, and it’s fun to sit with the artist, and learn at least to some degree what the actual intent is.

I don’t mind that at all. I feel like that’s perfectly natural. What bothers me is when they act like that’s not what’s happening, that it’s not just their perspective. You know what I mean?

One of my favorite quotes that my wife is always mentioning i.s, “We don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.” I think that’s totally true. She never knows who said it. Somebody said it and they were a smart person.

I’ve talked to some people who say they could not pick out a favorite songs of theirs, on a specific album or even at all, because it would be like picking favorites with their children. Could you?

I feel that way with albums. It’s really hard for me to say this album is so much stronger than this one. But songs I can do.

And I do because I feel like [my favorites] are the most fully realized versions of what my vision for this stuff was in the beginning. They are the most successful attempts at doing what I wanted to do: “Mr. Noah” and “Come to Your Senses.” They are kind of the most rock songs to me, “Come to Your Senses” less so, but there’s kind of like an aggressive energy to it. The vocals really more sugary and like ear wormy, which is what I want to do.

How do you know when a song or an album is done?

It’s sort of like cooking, you can’t cook the steak forever. At a certain point you’re like, oh it’s done, I’m going to eat that now. That’s kind of what it’s like, a feeling and you know experience helps, just a feeling like something is ready.

I read the Rolling Stone interview where you’re contemplating killing off the Panda Bear moniker.

He kind of goaded me into that though. He’s my friend, Andy Beta, really cool guy, known him for a really long time. It was after we had done the interview and he was like “yeah, I was just wondering if you’ve thought about this?” And I had to admit, I figured if there was a time to do it, now is a good time because of the title, because I’m an old guy, and because I felt like this album was sort of like coming full-circle on something.

It definitely feels like the end in someway of something, which of course is the beginning of something else. But if there was like a smart time to do it would be now, but I can’t say that. I’ll see in a couple or years. I’m not planning on it now.

By Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email

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