‘Painting With’ Animal Collective’s Panda Bear

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Noah Lennox of Animal Collective talks about his band's new album, 'Painting With', and reflects on its past endeavors, from the Guggenheim to Waldorf schools.

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the Animal Collective. A collective can be a lot of things, but I tend to think of it as collaboration between artists who work in different mediums, like with Andy Warhol’s Factory. Have you ever felt a special connection to Warhol?

Noah Lennox, AKA Panda Bear: I can’t say that I have—at least, not a conscious one. I’m not familiar enough with his work that to say he’s been especially influential on what I do.

The album is called Painting With and the first song is called “FloriDaDa”. There are a lot of references to strategies in art on the new album.

“FloriDaDa”? That’s one of Dave [Portner, AKA Avey Tare]’s songs. Regarding the lyrics on this album: I’m still trying to figure out what they actually mean. And that includes the lyrics I wrote. I eventually found out that when I listen to my old music—which I don’t do very often—more often than not I’m surprised by my perspective on them. For instance, a couple years ago I did a record called Tomboy. I clearly remember that when I recorded it I basically thought I’d know what the songs were about. But when I listened to it the other day I noticed that my songs meant a different thing to me. The whole album seemed to have a completely different emotional narrative to it. And as far as I know Dave, he doesn’t mean things too literally.

So when Dave composes a song called “FloriDaDa”, that doesn’t imply that he has listened to Kurt Schwitters or other Dada artists before?

No, not at all. And I can also say that none of us has a lot of technical knowledge about scoring music or musical theory. Most of us have had lessons or training at some point in our lives, but certainly—speaking for myself—I have forgotten all about it. So when we about stuff we intend to do in music, we often have to talk about it in ways that are not musical. Often, imagery is used and for some reason references towards painting have become one of our main subjects when talking about music.

Specific paintings?

No, not specific paintings. It’s more like, we sometimes think that an unfinished song still needs some color or texture added, for instance. I feel kind of uncultured when I talk like this. I don’t know a whole lot about art or music. I only know about things that I like.

That’s funny. I thought of cubism when I listened to Painting With because everything in your music seems to be approached from different perspectives at the same time.

We did actually talk a lot about cubism, I should say. That was a direct reference: a distorted reality.

Maybe I have the association because your music sounds like you guys went to art school. You did go to a Waldorf school, right?

Yeah, I’m glad my parents sent me there. I think it provided me with more than just a superficial understanding of drawing, painting, and singing. But I’ve never felt inspired to delve deeper into the world of art. Working in a record store taught me a lot about music, though. Most of what I know about art and music just comes from friends and people I know personally—people playing me things or showing me things.

So it wasn’t like with Quentin Tarantino, who grew up working in a video store and obsessively cataloged and collected information very independently of his peers.

Yes and no. I’ve never had that voracious appetite for knowledge. I’m just not that kind of person. I’m lucky enough to have been around inspiring people who did have that sort of hunger, although I sometimes get that way when it comes to music. Stuff often just comes to me. I don’t even listen to music throughout the day when I’m doing other things. When I listen to music, I tend to get really focused. I get totally immersed in sound, so I’ve slowly gravitated away from listening to music in the background.

Would you say what Animal Collective does is more like an aural sculpture? Does it only have a function when you’re really paying attention to it?

Perhaps. A lot of my favorite music has sculptural or even synesthetic qualities, where you can see shapes or patterns in it.

How was your sonic installation at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2010?

I was the lone member of the group who actually wasn’t physically there. All of us made instrumental pieces of music for the installation. The idea was to set up speakers along the spiral in the museum. We had a programmer who wrote software that would trigger all these little pieces of music and have them circle around these speakers. The other guys in the band had costumes made and stood on these pedestals for hours and hours. People would come in and observe them. I actually don’t envy the others for having to stay there for so long. I spoke to them and they all complained that it has been pretty brutal for their bodies and that they tripped out and went into a different headspace.

Was it your idea to enter one of the temples of high culture?

I actually think that they asked us.

Do you have an idea why?

I think they wanted us to just perform a show. But we wanted to use the architecture. And don’t forget that when we went to New York it wasn’t the music people or the music magazines that wanted to talk to us; it was the fashion and the art magazines. Since then we’ve been noticed by the music press. But I think the invitation from the Guggenheim goes back to our early days when we were basically hanging around with other artists in Brooklyn.

Arto Lindsay told me that your songs couldn’t be covered or recreated because they’re less about structure and more about instrumentation and mic placement. Animal Collective’s soundscapes somehow seem to have an irreproducibility already written into them.

I agree. For us it’s about achieving a certain kind of feeling. It’s not like a math equation. People will ask us when we know a song is done. I don’t know what to say. It’s not something you really know; it’s something you feel. A lot of he time, I’ll mix with my eyes closed. And if I open my eyes for some reason, then the song isn’t done. I can’t think about anything else until it gets to that point. It’s definitely more of a feeling thing than a thinking thing, even though I can’t really describe the feeling at all.

I know that Einstürzende Neubauten sometimes take the settings for one mix of one song and apply them to an entirely different song in order to end up with a less predictable result. Somehow they’re able to rely on that unpredictability. For John Cage it was also a guiding principle.

Unpredictability is important for any creative person in any context. People develop certain habits and ways of doing things, and that often means that they get caught in a rut. Throwing unknowns into the mix is really, really important. I like to change instruments or use a totally different setup. It consistently helps me discover new things.

Do the other band members appreciate that approach?

Totally. We’re always mutually influencing each other. The creative process really is collective in that sense, no pun intended. The other guys are my main source of inspiration and vice versa. That also means that all of our ideas and musical sensibilities are constantly in flux.

That reminds me of Ornette Coleman’s band ideal. He was one of the first musicians to preach that all band members are equals and should be heard as such. That sort of egalitarianism has become pretty standard in free jazz. Does that apply to you guys as well?

In the live context, absolutely. When we perform, we think more along the lines of jazz, although I don’t really know much about jazz, to be honest. For us, there’s never a focus on one person. We never have any solos. It’s about listening to each other and playing with each other. Of course, the song always stands at the center, and everything gets built up around that. When we’re all pushing the boundaries together, that’s when we have the best shows. But in the studio it’s a different story.

Were you charting new territory on Painting With?

Well, apparently the idea of doing that is really an old concept. It’s called counterpoint. But it was new for me. It all started when I did my last Panda Bear album, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper. There’s a song on it called “Boys Latin” that has a singing part that is actually really simple, but the notes were far apart. When I was starting to write a harmony for that, I found out that if I shifted the harmonies in time a bit, it created this bouncing kind of rhythm. On our new album as Animal Collective, I really wanted to push that a bit further and see if I could take that to a different place.

Did you listen to examples of old counterpoint compositions? Did you do your research?

Well, I don’t know if I’d call it research, but I guess I try to be attentive at all times. We are all soaking things in, and in that sense everybody is doing research all the time. Whether it sticks or not is another conversation. I just strongly believe that you don’t create things out of nowhere. There are always influences on what you do.

Why are you interested in such things anyways?

I guess part of it comes from when I sang in a choir in high school. Just hearing how the different parts of the chorus would practice their lines and then how it sounds when you put these parts together, when it all fits, must have been an epiphany of sorts. And I guess that must have been some kind of inspiration for the singing on our new album. But there’s nothing like a speech in my head that is telling me what to do.

It seems like there was a huge misunderstanding in the media about Animal Collective as a “freak folk” band. For me, folk is a clearly defined genre that has to do with storytelling. Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bob Dylan—they all worked within a specific tradition of topical music. How do you think the label applies to you?

I think we were just lumped in with a bunch of bands. I mean, we had done Campfire Songs, which was almost entirely acoustic. I imagine the people who labeled us “freak folk” hadn’t heard a lot of the other music we’d put out before, which was super electronic. I’ve always thought about folk music in terms of musicians relating their experiences and those of people within their community, which is something we do as well.

Experiences that otherwise would have been forgotten?

Yeah. We want to document what’s happening now. We see ourselves as chroniclers. I like the idea of music having some sort of function, hopefully some sort of positive function. But I don’t want to limit it to just that. These days I’ve become interested in making more mantras—pieces that people can listen to on a daily basis. I like to repeat words a lot, or groups of words. I want them to get stuck in peoples’ brains. But not like brainwashing, although what I just said also perfectly describes brainwashing. I just want the music to have some influence on people.

Read past interviews with Panda Bear from 2015 and 2013.

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