Q&A: The Duality of Panda Bear

[caption id="attachment_1565" align="aligncenter" width="630" caption="Panda Bear in Monticello, N.Y., September 2009. Photo: Roger Kisby/Getty Images"][/caption]

A new Panda Bear record has become an event. Following 2007’s Person Pitch, as great as it was, it wouldn't have been easily guessed that Noah Lennox would become a beloved beast. It certainly helps that his main gig is Animal Collective. But people gravitate towards Panda’s solo work in a different manner than AC's drippy loop-rock. Panda Bear songs are steeped in memory, whether it’s our own or his or both. It’s more than that though. While rooted in our collective conscious’ past, Panda Bear songs feel complex, indicative of a musician who’s concerned with pushing the limits of song construction. And while the songs on Tomboy don't meander like they do on Person Pitch, there's still that familiar warmth-by-layering that makes a Panda Bear record unique and something to be studied, mining for new sounds with each listen. 

I called Lennox up after a day of Animal Collective rehearsals in Maryland. A polite woman answered the phone, likely his mother (which is an utterly weird realization). But Lennox's mellow demeanor and openness quickly dissipated any fixation on the idea that I was just talking to some dude at his dining room table.  

There seemed to be near riots amongst Animal Collective fans when Tomboy didn’t come out last year.  

I guess I just took too long and made the mistake of being too positive that I was going to be done at a certain point. I feel like I wanted to make sure everything was as good as it could be. 

But sometimes letting things marinate is the way to go.  

Totally. I thought for awhile that I wanted to do just a single, or a couple songs at a time. One of the advantages [with that] is that it helps me sit with the song for awhile and it helps me figure out what other types of songs I’d like to do. 

Regarding the title Tomboy, is this referencing a particular tomboy or just tomboys in general?  

No, it’s the image of the archetype of something that’s two opposing things at the same time. A lot of the songs address different contrasts or clashes like that. Usually within myself or something that I’m experiencing or have experienced before. 

Are you still living full time in Portugal?  

Yeah, we are. I’m here in Baltimore for a couple of months; Animal Collective is working on new music and we wanted to try to be together in one spot. 

But Tomboy was recorded in Portugal. 

Yeah, all of it. The final mixing of everything, which was done by Sonic Boom, he did it in New York. He and I would just kind of talk through a bunch of emails during the day, for two months. 

A lot of folks like to reference the Beach Boys when talking about Panda Bear. It sounds like you’re capturing some sort of timeless sound but it doesn’t seem like it fits in a definitive time frame.  

I don’t think I’m really interested in trying to evoke a particular time or doing something that’s retro or feels like me being anything in any overt way. What’s most exciting for me to do is to try and do something that has no real obvious point of reference.  Or feels unfamiliar. I always had this image of music that came from a different place. Something that was really foreign sounding. With every song this time, I’d spend a month or maybe a little bit more on each son ... a week-and-a-half I probably spent recording, and the rest, I’m just listening to the recording over and over again, adding things here, modifying parts there. The song still has to be interesting to me after listening to it a million times.  The goal is to make something you want to listen to multiple times, instead of something that’s kind of here then gone. Each time I feel like it’s impossible to make something from nothing. I’m pretty sure every move I’ve made on every song came from some memory from some song from somewhere.  I don’t feel like I’m making magic or something. 

That’s for Harry Potter.  

Yeah. Harry Potter’s good at it. 

With Person Pitch, there was a lot of playing with song structures. But Tomboy seems a little bit more conventional. Do you see it that way? 

Some of the songs ... like “Afterburner” has a pretty conventional structure, I’d say. I wasn’t thinking about that a whole lot. I did want to write songs with a guitar and not samplers. That was a big thing.  I’m really into songs these days that have a “point A” and a “point B” and you don’t really revisit any of the parts. It’s like a narrative or a train that just goes. The parts change but you never really revisit anything. 

And that flow wasn't as abrupt as some of the other stuff. More oozy.  

The things on Person Pitch take forever to happen. This one, I wanted to take the Person Pitch songs, or my thinking on that, and condense it into two or three minutes. I sort of succeeded; I don’t think I got any two minute songs, but most of them are around three or four. It’s hard, man. It’s hard to write a two minute song. 

People loved the song "My Girls" on Merriweather Post Pavillion for various reasons.  It had this very sentimental feel to it in terms of the lyrics. Does Tomboy evoke things like that when you listen back?  

The song “Last Night at the Jetty” was just specifically a song that made me think of old times or made me have that weird, sweet but sad feeling thinking about a time that’s gone. I don’t know if nostalgic is the best word, but it’s akin to that. I wanted to nail that feeling if I could. 

That song sounds so sad. And I don’t know why.  

I feel like there’s a longing to it. Or maybe something that you can’t have.  Or that you’ll know you never will have. And that’s pretty depressing. But on the other hand, you get to experience things over again, with a different perspective, which is kind of cool. That’s how I am with my kid. I’m looking forward to right the wrongs I did, too.  The decisions I made -- I’m like, “That was stupid.” Now I get to say, “You know what, don’t do that and here’s why.” 

Do not play with firecrackers.  

[Laughs] It’s hard to lay off them though. They’re the best thing. The fact that they were contraband only made them more exciting. Not only are they awesome, they’re also illegal. The double-whammy. 

When you’re a little kid, there’s not much illegal stuff you can get into.  

You can’t get into bars, can’t get into strip clubs. Fireworks are your only way in there. Graffiti, I guess, if you can get some paints. 

When you compose solo versus Animal Collective -- are those experiences shaping what we’re hearing in different ways?  

Yeah, totally. One thing … they’re all kind of part of the same cycle or trajectory, where one thing feeds into the next. The songs for Merriweather Post Pavilion, are extensions of the songs done for Person Pitch. These Tomboy songs, although a little further removed, I still feel like they’re a continuation or the next step in my thinking from the Merriweather Post Pavilion songs. It’s all the same wave of energy for me, or something. 

So the composition -- how does that go now? Writing on guitar mostly and building it up from there?  

Yeah. After having done two records using samplers to write songs, I started to feel like I was writing the same song over and over again. If you have a two second piece of sound or five that you jam together to make something, that’s repeating -- it’s highly likely that there aren’t going to be too many chords changes there. All the songs on Person Pitch are basically just drone songs. I guess I kinda didn’t think it was exciting to keep writing songs like that. "Ponytail” [the last song on Person Pitch] is definitely and inspiration for Tomboy — or at least a starting point. That was my jumping off point. 

And Animal Collective -- you all are working on a follow up to Merriweather?

Yeah. Well, we’re at least working on a live set. First it’ll be just live music and then we’ll record it sooner or later. 

Tomboy is out now on Paw-Tracks.