Interview: Panda Bear Talks Influences, Expectations and Synthesizers


After releasing the highly acclaimed Tomboy this April, Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) has spent time touring on both sides of the Atlantic with Animal Collective. The former Brooklyn resident has two upcoming shows in New York: one a solo Panda Bear date at Music Hall of Williamsburg this Sunday, the other an Animal Collective concert, part of Celebrate Brooklyn!, at Prospect Park on July 12.

Lennox spoke with Nonstop Sound from his home in Lisbon, Portugal, about his nerves performing live, the recording process behind Animal Collective’s newest set of songs, and being compared with the Beach Boys.

You’ve lived in Lisbon for a while now, but prior to that you were in New York. Do your concerts here still have a homecoming vibe for you?
"It’s a little different, if only for the fact that there will be a bunch of people I know there. It’s similar to when I play in Lisbon, in that I’m extra nervous for the show. From a personal standpoint, Lisbon definitely feels like home. From the standpoint of the band, New York is the more homecoming type of show. The two shows we did in Prospect Park after Merriweather Post Pavilion first came out, those were some of the best shows that I think we’ve ever done."
What’s on your iPod these days?
"Todd Edwards’ double album (Full On). The new Gang Gang Dance record that just came out [Eye Contact]. And John Maus’ new record [We Must Become Pitiless Censors of Ourselves]. He used to play with [longtime Animal Collective associate] Ariel Pink, he played in Ariel’s band Haunted Graffiti. I did a European tour with them once, and John and a bunch of the other Haunted Graffiti guys would stick around and play my Panda Bear show with me."
Has anything inspired you in terms of new material, the way that you’ve said some guitar-based bands influenced the way you made Tomboy?
"Having just been on tour with Teengirl Fantasy, they totally inspired me — I’m way more into sequencers now, and there’s a very specific feeling or emotion about their concerts that I found inspiring. It’s maybe a little premature to say what the next record would be like or how I would make it, but I’ll probably try messing around with sequencers. If you get results that you’re excited about, it’s like wind in your sails. But if you don’t, it’s pretty easy to move on to something else."
How do you characterize your work as Panda Bear, relative to what you’ve done as part of Animal Collective?
"I feel like you have to compare the two on a record-to-record basis; there’s been a lot of changes from one album to the next, both for me and for Animal Collective. I was working on Tomboy around the same time that we did Merriweather Post Pavilion, so personally I’m sensitive about a lot of the similarities between those two. I feel like Tomboy and Person Pitch are sort of like bookends around MPP, and there are certain similarities and cross-pollination across the three."
With you living in Lisbon and everyone else living in the U.S., how does the process of making an Animal Collective record work?
"Since I moved here, everything that we’ve done, save the very last group of songs that we wrote, was done with everyone on their own, working on sounds and parts of songs and sending each other really basic demos. And then, usually right before a tour, we’d all get together — typically in New York — and that’s really where the songs get put together. That was the way we worked for the past seven years, up until this last year. This time, it was a conscious choice to start the process together, and see how that went, because we hadn’t done that in a long time."
There’s often a critical consensus about your work — for example, every critic mentions the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds when describing Person Pitch. Are the thoughts or influences you have when making an album similar to what you read about it once it’s released?
"Without question, I didn’t have the same reference points as a lot of people did, at least as far as Person Pitch was concerned. It kinda makes me feel stupid, reading things about the album and thinking, “Why didn’t I think of that?” For Person Pitch, the influences were really about production — Donuts by J. Dilla, even something like Beck’s Odelay, which was a Dust Brothers production — in terms of sampling, that’s where my train of thought was coming from. For me, Pet Sounds wouldn’t be the first thing I would compare my album with…first, because it would be kind of arrogant.
Saying, “My album stands up with one of the most highly regarded pop albums of all time.”
"Yeah. 'It’s like the White album' seems a little bit lofty. When you hear something, you compare it to your own personal library of sounds. Everyone has their own musical history, and everyone connects their own dots."
You spoke about feeling limited by the process of making Person Pitch, which relied a lot on samplers. After you made Tomboy, which was more based on guitars and a Korg M3 (a hardware synthesizer), do you have the same desire to move on to different equipment?
"The thing about the M3 is that it’s a lot more malleable and there’s more you can do with it. The samplers, by comparison, are kind of a more basic setup. But it’s always fun to try to take on a new instrument, a new device, and see what pops out at you and see if it takes you to places you haven’t been before."
You’re open about not being very comfortable performing onstage. Does playing with Animal Collective, as opposed to playing solo, alleviate some of your nerves?
"It’s definitely more terrifying to play on my own, but it also has to do with how risky the material I’m playing is. With a group of songs, the more I play them, the less nervous I am and the less intimidating performing is."
Animal Collective especially has a reputation for a sort of challenging live show.
"I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently. That’s always the way we’ve done things, because we always used to play for the same groups of our friends at the same places, especially early on when we were in New York. It’s also nice to play songs a lot before you try to record them — you get a really clear picture of the song and where you can take it."
…using live performances as an opportunity to practice songs and refine the way they will be recorded.
"I hate to say that shows are like practice — we definitely work on this stuff to the point that we feel comfortable presenting it in concert. It’s more like, over a couple tours, the arrangement of a song falls into place much more clearly than it would just by spending three days in a studio trying to figure it out."
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