Animal Collective have helped usher in an era of popular music in which genre defying has become genre defining. The band’s masks have also paradoxically become the face of a generation with performance anxiety. Today, Noah Lennox, alias Panda Bear, is no longer afraid to show some face. In the 2011 summer edition of Electronic Beats Magazine, he explained to Glenn O’Brien why Animal Collective is not as pompous as their name implies. Above: Lennox, photographed by Simone Gilges. The Panda Bear-curated Green Ray event takes place on December 13th in Lisbon.
Glenn O’Brien: Are you in Lisbon right now?
Panda Bear: No, I’m in Milan. We’re on tour at the moment.
GO: I went to Portugal on my honeymoon. I was in this town called Guimarães. You ever been there?
PB: Is that in the south?
GO: No, it’s kind of up north. It’s an old, Roman town.
PB: I haven’t been anywhere way south or way north, but I’ve pretty much hit everything in between.
GO: So, did you ever play music acoustically or did you cut your teeth in an exclusively electronic universe?
PB: We’ve all played acoustically. Several of us started out playing piano or acoustic guitar, and I studied cello when I was a lot younger. Our first set-up as a band were these small drums and acoustic guitars. Gradually we’ve shifted towards electronics… and then back to playing acoustically. It goes in cycles. There are advantages to both.
GO: I was trying to imagine what it would be like to grow up in a world where people only used synthesizers…
PB: It must have been really interesting to be around when the first synthesizers were being used.
GO: It was kind of unbelievable. Suddenly a keyboard could replace an entire orchestra.
PB: But the keyboard never really came close to properly replicating the orchestra. It’s kind of funny that today there are all sorts of artificial orchestral sounds that are totally divorced from their original function as facsimiles.
GO: Are you pre-digital? Were you ever firmly in the analog world?
PB: Yeah. Some of the guys in the band are really into tape machines and what not. I’m not really sold either way. I see the attraction of both. There are times when I feel really drawn to the digital world and want to make something that has a really clean, sharp, icy sound…
GO: I think there’s a pretty strong need for digital music. Everything used to be natural and full of woodwinds. Now we have all this digital noise. Do you think digital music should be seen as a reaction to noise?
PB: I think it can be reflective of that.
GO: It’s like the need to harmonize our aural environment. Do you agree?
PB: I think the world’s gotten noisier, especially in the city. I wonder if that makes people want to hear things that are more natural, more meditative or contemplative. Or maybe it’s the opposite, like they want to hear something that reflects their environment.
GO: When I first heard, like, drum’n’bass, I felt really alienated from it. Maybe it’s because I grew up listening to jazz…
PB: I think there’s a lot of electronic music that can only be appreciated in a club or a place where you can actually feel it. I think club music has to be heard at club volumes to be enjoyable.
GO: Maybe you have to be on ecstasy. I always avoided that. I never wanted to take anything that would make me like people.
GO: You know, when I first heard Animal Collective, it felt like you were playing two songs at once. Does that idea mean anything to you?
PB: I feel like between the four of us, we go into so many different directions. We all bring so much baggage to the table, it’s like we’re trying to bring our musical personalities into harmony. Sometimes it feels like we’re playing four songs at the same time.
GO: I’ve never observed the whole two-songs-at-once thing before I heard you guys, except for maybe with Prince. I guess it’s because your music is so layered.
PB: Sometimes we get a little carried away with the layering in the studio. It’s like when you have a certain familiarity with the songs or the sounds, you constantly add things to it to make it more interesting for you to play. But I like the idea that there’s enough of a spark in the music that somebody would feel like picking out all the layers. It’s cool when people start hearing the junk.
GO: Do you ever work the opposite way? Like when you add and you add, and then start subtracting?
PB: Sometimes. There’s a certain balance we try to achieve. There’s a point when you know that if you added one more thing or subtracted one thing, it wouldn’t be as good.
GO: Do you record different versions of the same songs?
PB: Sort of. I’ve done different mixes of stuff for my solo album.
GO: What about playing live?
PB: Typically, we’ll play stuff live that’s unreleased. There will usually be bootlegs circulating, which we then rework in the studio. The studio versions are usually less esoteric and more layered and arranged.
GO: When you get it down on tape, do you ever get sick of it and just play it differently for the hell of it? Bob Dylan does that. He’ll never play the same song the same way twice.
PB: It’s not common for us to play a song for years and years. After a while, the song’s just dead. Or if we do play an old song, we’ll play it in a way to fit in with the rest of the set. When you go on tour with a song and play it a couple hundred times, there’s a certain part of your brain that stops thinking about the fact that you need to play something for four measures. Something else takes over—there’s like an outward perspective shift and you start hearing what the song really needs… or what parts of the song you should get rid of.
Panda Bear plays the drums with his eyes closed. Photo: Eduard Meltzer
GO: It’s brave to play new stuff. Do you notice a difference in the audience’s reaction to new material versus old material?
PB: I actually had a huge conversation with a group of kids about this last night. They ended up driving four hours to see us play in Zagreb, and they were really disappointed that they didn’t hear certain songs. I think we only played three old songs, and they were really upset about it. I consoled them by saying that the best concerts we’ve been to as fans—the ones that made a lasting impression on us—were the ones where we really didn’t know what to expect. And that’s what we hope to deliver. Maybe it’s kind of a lofty goal. I told them that we weren’t trying to be antagonistic or cool, or anything. We play new stuff because we think it could be a powerful experience for you. If that’s not what you’re looking for, then maybe you shouldn’t come and see us next time. Sounds harsh, but it’s the truth.
GO: If you want to hear a certain song, why not just go home and play the recording? You don’t get the opportunity to hear something that hasn’t been recorded before too often, right?
PB: Don’t get me wrong—I’ve seen shows where the band sounded exactly like the record, and it was fantastic. But I’d rather go for the home run, even if it doesn’t work all the time.
GO: When you play songs that haven’t been recorded, are you improvising?
PB: That depends. If you play something often enough, it ends up mutating and you play certain parts differently. It’s a pretty natural evolution I would say. There usually aren’t drastic shifts. It’s not like the entire structure will change.
GO: And the changes are spontaneous? They’re not discussed beforehand?
PB: Yeah, but it happens slowly.
GO: Have you ever listened to John Hassell?
PB: I’m not sure. Did he do a song “Paradox” or something?
GO: I don’t know…
PB: Did he put out an album with a sun on it? Or a drawing of a sun?
GO: I don’t think so. He’s a trumpet player, but he plays the instrument in really weird way, kind of like it’s a kazoo. He started out doing jazz, but now does more electronics. When you go to record stores, you often find him grouped under “world music” for some reason. He does really beautiful stuff and his trumpet voicings sound kind of like talking. When I first listened to Animal Collective, I thought, “This sounds like The Beach Boys jamming with John Hassel.” I’d be interested to know what you’d think of him.
PB: Sounds sweet.
GO: Do you ever do stuff with musicians who aren’t from the “collective”?
PB: I’ve done a couple of collaborations with musicians I’ve met online… But it’s always been from a distance. It makes me nervous to work with people I don’t know. In the band, we’ve all known each other forever. Josh and I have been friends since we were eight years old.
GO: That’s kind of amazing.
PB: It’s daunting to think of the process I would have to go through to work with other musicians.
GO: I think the idea of collaborating over the Internet is really interesting. David Byrne made a record with Brian Eno that way. Have you ever let other people mix your stuff?
PB: Yeah, my last solo album was mixed totally out of my hands. Pete Kember, aka Sonic Boom, did it. But we were in constant contact—emailing at a steady clip of five or six messages per day. He probably sent me thirty different versions of each track. As long as the lines of communication are wide open, working with somebody else can be a powerful experience.
GO: What made you decide to go with him?
PB: When I’m working on music, it gets really difficult for me to be objective. At a certain point, I don’t feel like I can make good decisions about the music anymore.
GO: Was the result better than what you expected?
PB: Yeah, absolutely. He definitely took it to a place I didn’t think it could have gone to.
GO: I know you have kids. Has that changed you in any way as a creative person?
PB: Not creatively, no. But it’s certainly changed my work ethic. I think it’s changed pretty much everything in my life except for the creative process. I think I’ve been really protective about the creative side of things, so I don’t think anybody or anything can really alter that at all.
GO: Is it easier to keep a collective together than a band?
PB: It is in the sense that people can come and go. I just hope it never becomes a drag for anybody to play in the band.
GO: I think it’s an interesting concept.
PB: I actually don’t like the word “collective”. I prefer to be called just a “band” or a “group”… even if the loose membership isn’t really implied.
GO: I like the word because it’s sort of funny.
PB: I think it sounds a bit too headscratching and serious. It’s intellectual in a way I don’t really like.
GO: It kind of reminds me of Monty Python and The Holy Grail where knights are riding along and somebody says, “Where’s your Lord?” and they say, “We don’t have a Lord—this is an anarcho-syndicalist commune!” Did you ever see that?
PB: I did, yeah. I know what you mean—that’s sort of what I’m talking about. There’s pompousness to the name that I don’t think is very reflective of our music. But I guess it’s too late at this point.
GO: Where did the “animal” part come from?
PB: It sounds kind of lame, but we’re all really big fans of animals. At the time, we were thinking along the lines of animals as beings that act purely instinctually… kind of the opposite of a “collective” in that way. Musically, it was about not making decisions based on knowledge or reason. We wanted to work with music on an emotional level, not on an intellectual level. That’s where it comes from.
GO: I wrote a line in an essay that goes, “You spend the first half of your life learning how to be a man, and the second half learning how to be an animal.” Adults have to learn how to follow their impulses. When you work in a cubicle, it can be hard to get back to nature.
PB: I would say you spend the first half of your life learning how to fit into the world and second half trying to escape from it.
GO: Yeah, that’s very similar. What kind of music do you like to listen to?
PB: I don’t really listen to music that much. For me, it’s like chocolate. I don’t listen a whole lot, but when I do, I try and savor it. But typically I look for things that surprise me—things for which I don’t really have much of a point of reference. I like music that sounds alien. When I’m really confounded by something, I find it to be the most rewarding. ~
The Panda Bear-curated Green Ray event—featuring Actress, Brian DeGraw, Ron Morelli, and more—takes place in Lisbon on December 13th. This text first appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 26 (2, 2011). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.