Every thread of my conversation with Noah Lennox links back to family. While his music as Panda Bear sees him creating supernatural sounds with trippy visuals, Lennox is still a grounded family man.
It's interesting, because Lennox mentions that his daughter hasn't taken to his music – yet his latest album, 'Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper', is the most child-friendly work that he's created yet. The echoed, rounding vowel vocal tricks on Boys Latin sound like a warped lullaby, accompanied by an animated video that recalls the enrapturing panoramas and visuals of the 2005 video game Shadow of the Colossus. That game – a journey of a small boy having to navigate his way through vast terrains to take down giant monsters – was one of Lennox's main reference points for the album and its concept.
When Mr Noah came out late last year, the punchy vocal licks and grainy guitar riffs were a clear message that we were being introduced to a sleeker, more confident Panda Bear. You could chalk this up to experience – Lennox has been releasing music for over 15 years now, both solo and as a member of Animal Collective – but even so, 'Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper' marks a clear change from the quieter, celestial sound heard on his last album, 2011's 'Tomboy'. And while its title might seem bleak at first, Lennox admits that he doesn't really feel afraid of death.
Our conversation covered topics as dark as death, as light as smoking weed, and as unlikely as fantasy basketball. (Fact: Lennox is in a fantasy league with Oneohtrix Point Never: "He had thanksgiving with me and my family. He’s a big basketball fan like me, so we had a lot to talk about.")
How much do you feel you’ve changed as a person since 'Tomboy' to 'Grim Reaper'?
Panda Bear: "I’m sure I have [changed] in many ways – it’s the kind of thing that’s difficult to talk about until you get some space away from it. I feel like I’m maybe too close to myself still to be like, 'This has happened'.
"I say two things. Having a little more road under me as far as being a parent is concerned is a difference because for the last album, it was pretty fresh. That’s one change I feel like.
"The second one is being a middle-aged dude. The first part of my life felt like climbing up a mountain or up a hill – you knew there was another side to it but, you couldn’t see it. It was just over there, somewhere – you didn’t think about it too much. Now, I feel I’m at a place in my life where I’m at the top of the hill somewhere. I can look down at the one side where I came from – maybe it’s kinda cloudy at the beginning – but I can also look down at the other side, to where I’m headed. That’s just a different perspective. It’s an easy thing to resist and reject, I feel."
Do you really feel it’s changed since you passed that point in your life?
Panda Bear: "I feel like I’m right in the middle of that process. I don’t really have a problem with getting old – I know some people who are definitely resisting that process. I’m psyched to be an old guy, so maybe that makes it easier for me."
You named the record 'Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper'. Are you scared of death?
Panda Bear: "I’m not really. It’s one of those things that I don’t think any of us can really say how we feel about it. I don’t know how I’m going to react if it’s there in front of me. Maybe I’ll just cry and be super terrified of it. It feels a lot more tangible to me now than it did five or six years ago. I think that’s part of where I’m at."
Do you worry about it?
Panda Bear: "No, but as your body starts breaking down, things don’t really work all the time like they used to – you don’t spring back from a night of drinking like you used to, jet lag seems to be way worse. All these little things that you notice aren’t working right anymore. That makes the idea of not being around forever all the more real. I don’t think I’m scared of it. I’m definitely curious about it, just to see what happens. I’m assuming that something happens. If it doesn’t, I’m not going to be bummed – I’ll be very dead. I’d say the curiosity about it is greater than the fear."
Thinking about it reminds me of reading about the experience of taking DMT – people describing a sensation of both dying and being reborn at the same time. Have you ever taken it?
Panda Bear: "I haven’t! I’ve spoken to a lot of people who have described the feeling to me, similar to that, but I’ve never experienced it myself. Anything where you have to let go of your sense of control of reality is scary to me – I would imagine it’s scary to anybody. Even drinking alcohol when I was a young teenager seemed scary to me, seeing drunk people and thinking… 'This seems really frightening.'"
"I don’t really have a problem with getting old – I know some people who are definitely resisting that process. I’m psyched to be an old guy, so maybe that makes it easier for me." – Panda Bear
Did you see a lot of drunk people then before you first got drunk?
Panda Bear: "No I didn’t, not a lot! I think it helps to see parents in that scenario – it can prepare you for it. But my parents were sober people, completely. I had no interaction with that. My older brother doesn’t drink and hasn’t had a drink his whole life, so I really got a crash course in it, going to parties and suddenly seeing hammered people everywhere."
On the subject of drugs, I wanted to talk about Marijuana Makes My Day. What went into the song?
Panda Bear: "It’s silly in a way, but more just in terms of its simplicity. I had the sample and the melody, but I didn’t have words for it. I like to smoke weed while I’m working. It’s gotten to the point where, socially, or when I’m around other people, I feel uncomfortable more than anything else when I’m stoned.
"There’s a couple of things that I like about it when I’m making stuff – one is that I feel like I can focus on stuff more purely, in a way. I also feel like the critical impulse will be dulled, so I’m not constantly having to reject thoughts about the value of the stuff. It’s more of an untethered stream. I like that about it. I do feel like I need to approach the songs and the sounds from multiple perspectives, but that’s one of them that I like to involve in the process. The song is really about appreciating that effect. It’s how it will give a part of the day for me a specific colour, in a very specific way. I do enjoy the stuff quite a bit!"
"I don’t think I’m scared [of death]. I’m definitely curious about it, just to see what happens. I’m assuming that something happens. If it doesn’t, I’m not going to be bummed – I’ll be very dead." – Panda Bear
So what’s living in Lisbon been like for you?
Panda Bear: "I really like it, it’s great for me. I don’t know very many people besides my family, so it’s a pretty isolated environment for me, but I feel like my temperament means it’s not a big deal – I thrive in that environment, to an extent. I spend a lot of time in the studio working. It’s pretty peaceful for the most part."
What do your parents do?
Panda Bear: "My father was a surgeon – hips and knees. My mom should have been a ballet dancer, but kids kinda ruined that for her. She did a variety of things, but dancing was her thing."
Why did kids stop that?
Panda Bear: "I assume the trade off of getting someone else to take care of us while she danced. She felt like she had to choose. My father was working all the time – he would get home super late and leave super early in the morning. My mom stayed at home, she sacrificed for us – she was around all the time."
So you’re involved in something so different to your parents…
Panda Bear: "Strangely, my daughter doesn’t seem to want to have anything to do with my line of work – she’s made that very clear."
Do you play her music?
Panda Bear: "I’ve tried. I’ll try in a couple of years to see if I get a different reaction. She does not like it. She’s more into what’s on the radio, Rihanna."
Are you into Rihanna?
Panda Bear: "Yeah! For sure, there’s a vocal trick on Mr Noah that’s definitely heavily inspired by a Rihanna song – that stuttered bit – it’s a Rihanna shout out."
I feel like this is your most confident work. Do you feel that way?
Panda Bear: "Yeah. I think part of that confidence is a residue of being an older guy and being more willing to try various things – letting them be what they are without putting too many judgements on them.
Did you feel that, when you were younger and putting out Panda Bear/Animal Collective stuff, you were a lot more judgemental about it?
Panda Bear: "Yeah, for sure. As we were talking about a little bit, it can kill the creative impulse in that if the critical impulse is constantly defining stuff, you are stopping the creative juice from flowing. I never used to hate anything, but more of that way of thinking would leak into what I was doing. I don’t know if it’s experience, or just having done stuff for a long time, or middle age, or perhaps having children, or a combination of all of those things, that’s made me feel more free to let the thing be what it is. I’d assume that’s where the confident feeling comes from."
"My father was a surgeon – hips and knees. My mom should have been a ballet dancer, but kids kinda ruined that for her." – Panda Bear
One of the songs on 'Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper' is called Shadow of the Colossus. Was that a reference to the videogame?
Panda Bear: "Yeah, completely! I felt like there was a lot of stuff on the album about the dark sides of identity – the potential in all of us to do gnarly, horrible stuff to each other – so the title worked for me in that context. The shadow being this darker element to the colossus, or the giant, which is our ego. It’s a really unique videogame too – the thing looks awesome, first of all, and then every level is just a guy trying to take down and scale this giant monster. Similarly, I felt a lot of the songs addressed that scenario."
I noticed there are a lot of different references to things on the album like Dear Davey John’s Locker. Were you pulling from a lot of different points?
Panda Bear: "There’s a lot of symbols and metaphors in the songs. Lyrically, I wanted them to appear like riddles, or little tricks."
There’s a sample of a harp on Tropic of Cancer, and I think it’s a really under-utilised instrument. What made you decide to include it on the track?
Panda Bear: "It was really the sample that dictated the song – samples of a piece from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. I always loved The Nutcracker. Growing up in my house, it was played a lot. It was one of those things I always had in mind to use in some way, but I could never figure out how to do it. I actually remember one of my daughter’s Barbie videos, several years ago. It was her favourite thing, and in one of those videos they use that specific passage of The Nutcracker song, and I remember thinking, 'I could use that' – it was that harp playing."
You use a lot of samples, but sometimes they can be quite hidden.
Panda Bear: "Yeah. This time around, except for Lonely Wanderer and Tropic of Cancer, there’s no fully realised piece of music. There are disparate elements of drums, or maybe a weird bass sound. It was more about constructing the stuff like Lego bricks, putting the pieces together. Even though I was using a computer and there were endless opportunities and the flexibility was so massive, I find when I’m using the stuff in a very crude, simplistic way, that that’s when I get results that sound the most lively. The less I rely on the computer to automate and make decisions for me, the more I have to get my hands dirty, the better it comes out."
When did you come up with the concept of 'Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper'?
Panda Bear: "A couple of years ago. I like to stockpile record titles, band names, song titles – just have a big master list of stuff. I had that one for a while. I didn’t know how it was going to be used, but I’d say three years ago was when I started thinking about it."
It’s interesting that you have 'Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper', and then there’s 'Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks'.
Panda Bear: "There’s a synchronicity to that, and to Flying Lotus's 'You’re Dead!' – and he actually put out a song called Cosplay as well. There’s definitely something in the air this past year. I wonder if it’s a product of feeling like there’s more natural disasters, like floods and typhoons, and how there’s still wars going on, and all the horrible racial stuff going on in America right now. I wonder if having all of that swirling around in the past couple of years has made its way into our creative thinking."
Domino release 'Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper' on January 12th 2015 (pre-order).