You’ve probably noticed that Panda Bear has done quite a few interviews to promote his latest solo album, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, before its imminent release. We were one of the publications that jumped at the chance to talk to Noah Lennox, as we were seduced by the LP’s sample-driven melodies and meditative vocal arrangements.
But we were also compelled to chat with him by an ulterior motive: to pick up our last conversation where we left off. When Electronic Beats’ Glenn O’Brien chatted with the Lisbon-based musician in 2013, the former Animal Collective member averred that “club music has to be heard at club volumes to be enjoyable.” It immediately set off some alarms for us, the same way Erlend Øye stirred us up during a recent interview by saying that the “problem” with electronic music is that “it’s fucking boring to see live.” In a nutshell, both sentiments seemed to be based on a dogmatic adherence to conventions about (in Øye’s case) what makes for a quality performance, or (in Lennox’s case) what counts as “club music” and its purpose. We kicked off our catch-up with Panda Bear by taking him to task on his previous statements, and once he clarified his position, we moved on to less controversial topics, like the spiritual nature of his latest record.
Interview by Osia Katsidou.
Osia Katsidou: The last time you spoke with Electronic Beats, you said that “club music has to be heard at club volumes to be enjoyable.” Do you still feel that way?
I think I’d slightly change that statement by saying that I feel that club music is most effective at club volumes. I think it’s inaccurate to say it can’t be enjoyed [in other contexts]. There’s something to be said for hearing something in a place it was intended to be heard. If somebody makes an album and they’re mixing it in the studio, it can sound very different on laptop speakers, for example. The thing will have a certain power to it in a specific environment and scenario.
Club music certainly has a spatial element to it. Loops and layers need a certain amount of space to properly develop.
There’s a social element to it as well. And I also feel like there is a focus on harnessing energy and momentum with a lot of club music. For example, with beat drops or the typical builds in electronic music—in a social environment, where you have a group of people, the management of energy in that situation is much different than it is when you’re by yourself. Electronic music is fully realized in a social environment.
In order to better understand your thought process on this topic, I’ve picked out some songs that might take on a different character or create a different experience based on the volume that you hear it. Can you tell me how you think these tracks might come off in different environments or on different sound systems?
Evian Christ, “Waterfall”
The bass frequencies take on a different character at louder volumes, but the detail of the production might suffer a bit in a proper club atmosphere. On a home system the low end is something you’re aware of. In a club (if it’s a good one!) the low end is something you can’t escape.
This one’s funny, because he infers the social aspect of the club environment by using what sounds like crowd chatter and by the intermittent shouts. I imagine the response to the crank up at 2:45 or so would be quite a bit different in a club with a group of people. Alcohol, among other things, changes this game considerably.
In the same interview, you also described electronic music as meditative.
I still agree with that, although I could expand that to other forms of music, too. A lot of music that resonates the most with me is stuff that is transported in some way, that hooks me in a way that turns off a certain part of my brain and turns on another. It doesn’t have to be club music, but the repetition, the pulsing and the insistent rhythms in a lot of electronic songs, it induces this kind of mindset.
Do you think the same part of the brain is responsible for religious impulses? Or, can meditative music be a religious experience?
I think music and religion are very similar. It’s a little bit difficult for me to speak about it because I’m not an organized religion type of person, and I didn’t grow up in that environment. But I will say that I think that the purpose of ritual and also the purpose of music—not all music, but most of it—are the same when it comes to inducing a certain type of thinking.
Maybe it makes more sense to equate it to a spiritual experience more than a religious one.
That would make more sense.
That religious aspect was kind of my gateway to thinking about your new album. You named it Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper. This is a cheesy way to ask about it, but how was meeting him?
Well, none of the songs really talk about death, but a lot of the songs hover around this theme of transformation, or how an intense event in our lives can often destroy our self-image or the way we orient ourselves in the universe. Sometimes it forces us to create a new self-image or a new identity. The reaper as a concept refers to these intense events. That thing that forces you to think about yourself in a new way.
Do you think it’s far-off that I made this religious reference to the album?
No, I don’t. Maybe making it strictly religious is limiting, but talking about it spiritually and making that connection between spiritual experience and an intense musical experience, I hope that this album does that. It was definitely a mission of mine to write songs that had a more universal concern.
In the past I used introspection as a tool, kind of like writing a diary. The hope was that dealing with something within myself would somehow relate to the listener. Even though I think introspection is good in general, there’s a threshold you reach with it. It’s a point where introspection can transform into self-obsession, narcissism, or some kind of self-centered exercise. With this album, even though most songs start from a personal story or a personal thought-process, I tried chipping away the specifics until it became something that could belong to anybody. I feel that this album has a scope or perspective to it that’s much larger.
Does it make you feel more exposed?
It’s funny to say that talking about things beyond myself would be somehow more revealing, but I think it’s true. These are things that are not just important for me. I never have the desire to be preachy or tell anybody what to do or how to think. It was kind of slippery in that way, to present stuff that I thought was important and maybe useful to other people, but not in a condescending way. To keep it like an observation.