Q&A: Panda Bear Doesn’t Fear the ‘Reaper’
The Animal Collective member analyzes his newest solo record, 'Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper,' and takes stock of middle age
A little more than a decade ago, Noah Lennox left New York City and moved to Lisbon. In the time since, the man who records as Panda Bear has enjoyed much success and acclaim as both a solo artist and as one part of the tirelessly shapeshifting unit that is Animal Collective. He’s also gotten married and started a family — he and his wife have a 9-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son. But in late November, the 36-year-old Lennox found himself near the Brooklyn building he called home way back in 2000. “Just this morning, walking around, I went to the first apartment I was in,” he told SPIN that same day. “I got really emotional, strangely. It was weird. It’s like I could remember in ways I couldn’t before… It’s all really different now than it was, but I had a very vivid sensation of what it was like back then. It was a flash, but it was cool.”
The theme of change hangs over Lennox’s latest one-man effort, a throbbing, kaleidoscopic album dubbed Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, out January 13 via Domino. The sample-savvy singer-songwriter visited NYC just before Thanksgiving to promote the record, which, like its chillier predecessor (2011’s Tomboy), was co-produced by Peter Kember, a.k.a. Sonic Boom of ’80s psych-rock heavies Spacemen 3. Lennox sat down with SPIN at the community-based Converse Rubber Tracks recording studio in Williamsburg to discuss Grim Reaper and getting older.
The title of your new album obviously confronts death and mortality, but does so in a lighthearted way. Were you trying to inject some levity into your work after Tomboy?
It’s my instinct to go the opposite way, to distance myself from the thing before. But that’s common for me: to want to do a 180. It’s important to try to push yourself into different spaces, try to do things in different ways. Actually, I never intended the title to invoke death. The way the theme works in the songs is more like the Grim Reaper is a representation of change. Often when there’s dramatic change, it feels like something kind of dies — particularly in identity, when there’s parts of us or parts of our character that kind of die.
On the whole, Grim Reaper is a lot less severe than Tomboy, which felt very cold and gray. I know that you made Tomboy in a basement, hidden from the sunlight, and that definitely came through in the music.
Yeah, “the dungeon.” I wanted to do something quite a bit more colorful — Tomboy was so austere and strict and severe. I liked that and I intended it to be that way, but I definitely was attracted to doing something that felt more lively and busy.
Musically, the new album recalls Person Pitch, but it doesn’t feel like a direct sequel or a retread.
The use of sampling draws that connection, whereas with Tomboy, I wanted to essentially write guitar songs. Even if the thing falls on its face I’d rather attempt to do something different or new than stay in a place where I know all the moves, so to speak. So I was a little weary of using samples again, but using the drum breaks set off the music in a way that felt really different from any of the Person Pitch stuff. The style of sampling was very crude and caveman-like. I’m not a big fan of software. There’s a lot of slick ways that software will skip a lot of steps for you, and I understand the impulse and how that can be super useful, but I’m not really crazy about how things sound after that kind of stuff.
There’s a very specific quality to how things sound when everything’s perfected and perfected. It’s not a type of sound I really respond to very well. Once I had done maybe ten to 12 pieces in that way, just fooling around, the thing was heading off in a direction that I felt like was going to be different from the Person Pitch songs. I felt okay about it at that point.
Is it especially hard to do something different with every album, since you have such a deep back catalog between your solo stuff and Animal Collective’s output?
I suppose in a way it gets harder the more you make. The options seem to dwindle. I like to think about making music like cooking, where the ingredients and the materials for cooking have been more or less the same for a really long time. But the way people combine flavors and the way people cook the stuff or don’t cook the stuff — people still come up with new flavors and new sensations with eating, and that’s how I think about producing music. It’s like, the guitars and sound and frequencies are all more or less that same, but the combinations we come up with can produce results that maybe aren’t the most common.
You’ve been sneakily busy for the last couple of years. You collaborated on a track with Daft Punk, you made this record, and you spent a chunk of 2013 touring with Animal Collective, which was complicated because of Avey Tare’s health problems.
It was pretty rough on tour for that year. On the one hand, I do like to be making stuff all the time. I kind of feel weird when I don’t have a project that I’m thinking about or getting my hands dirty working on, but also, from just a financial point of view, I kind of have to be working all the time. It’s funny when people are like, “You’re so prolific. You’re always making stuff.” And I’m like, I kind of have to. I definitely feel lucky to do this and appreciate the fact that anybody cares, so I’m happy to get busy.
Have you ever thought about taking a sort of extended break?
No, I don’t think I really could. I’ve definitely thought about doing different kinds of stuff — still making music, but maybe like productions for advertisements or video games or films or stuff like that, where I’m not on the road so much. I guess that’s taking a break from what I do now, so I guess the answer’s “yes.” [Laughs.]
You said that the album’s title is less about death and more about change, but you’ve been writing about mortality for a number of years — the theme of growing up runs through much of Strawberry Jam, and death hangs over Merriweather Post Pavilion’s “My Girls” and “Brother Sport.” How has your perspective on death changed over the last few years?
When you’re young, death is something that you figure that happens, but it’s so far away on the horizon that it’s not really a tangible thing. It’s not really real. And I think I’m at a point, especially having children and being in sort of a middle-aged zone — I’m 36 — [where] thinking about that stuff becomes a much more… it gets a lot closer [and] definitely becomes a thing you can reach out and touch a little bit. Maybe you had parents who pass, and I suppose I haven’t really hit this point yet, but you had friends that die. It becomes a real part of life around my age, so I’m sure that has played out in the music somehow.
Is that feeling scary to you or is it just something you carry in your head to keep things in perspective?
I feel like we can guess how we’re going to react to something like that, but — I don’t know if you’ve had things like this — it’s like being in a fight and getting punched. You can say, “I’m gonna get really mad and I’m gonna karate chop the dude or whatever,” but until you get there and the thing happens, it’s one of those things you can’t really guess how you’re going to react to it. When I think about dying, I don’t really… It’s not something that fills me with anxiety like so many other things. So I guess in that sense, I don’t feel like it’s something I have hovering over me. That’s okay. I’m more curious than anything. I’m more curious what’s on the other side.