With his Panda Bear project, Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox has earned a place in the indie rock canon. His breakthrough album, 2007’s Person Pitch, is to this day cherished by fans and held up as a landmark album of neo-psychedelia and avant-garde pop music.
Starting out in the late ’90s, Lennox has released five Panda Bear records plus a further 11 as a member of Animal Collective. That’s a considerable back catalogue, especially considering the lateral density that typifies the American musician’s releases.
“Making the stuff is my favourite part of the job,” says Lennox. “I spent the past two and a half months just every day writing stuff. It’s been probably my favourite part of the year. I still have a lot of juice for that side of things.”
Lennox lives with his partner and two children in Lisbon, Portugal. He’s called the coastal European city home for over a decade, preferring the calmer atmosphere and moderate climate to that of his previous homes in New York and Baltimore.
He still regularly tours with Animal Collective and this December brings Panda Bear to Australia for the very first time. Were it not for the demands of his job, however, Lennox might never be inclined to leave Lisbon.
“[Travelling] can be kind of a drag sometimes, but it’s a worthwhile trade-off,” he says. “And playing the shows and the experience of performing is really great, it’s just everything surrounding the touring that takes a toll on me. But I don’t mean to complain about any part of it. I certainly feel very fortunate to do what I do.”
Animal Collective has released roughly twice as many albums as Panda Bear, but Lennox’s solo work has never seemed like a side-project. He’s established a distinct creative identity away from the group on five LPs that each offers a rich sensory experience.
Watch the clip for ‘Dolphin’ by Panda Bear
“When I do a show that is just me, if it goes good it’s a relief but there’s nobody to share that relief with, and if it goes bad there’s nobody to buffer the horrible feeling that that brings,” he explains. “It’s the same with releasing stuff or making the stuff when it’s just me. I know if it doesn’t work and it doesn’t come off well I’ll have nobody to lessen the blow. But it’s okay, I’ll get over it.”
Buoys, the upcoming sixth Panda Bear album, will be out in February 2019. It follows 2015’s Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, which Lennox regards as the third and final instalment in a significant chapter in the Panda Bear narrative.
Buoys is the start of a new stylistic exploration, as evidenced by the minimal and auto-tune laden lead single, ‘Dolphin’. “Even while we were mixing the Grim Reaper stuff I felt like it was time to try something else,” Lennox says. “I felt like I’d refined a process over the past three albums and wanted to try something really different. Even if it fell on its face, I’d rather try.”
Ultimately, Lennox chose to discard his previously fruitful working method and dive into the relative unknown. “I didn’t know where I was going to go,” he says. “I put out an EP this past January called A Day With the Homies and that feels like a very different thing than the new thing. But at the same time, I always intended them to be part one and part two. They’re just very different. I’ve come to think of them as sun and the moon. Homies is very warm and very fiery and Buoys is cooler and more watery.”
Panda Bear’s music has always possessed a vividly sensual quality. The relatively lean ‘Dolphin’ has a sort of a liquid quality, evoking the sensation of being submerged in water; a feeling only augmented by the vocal auto-tune and a water drop sample used in place of a snare drum.
Watch the video for ‘Boys Latin’ by Panda Bear below
“I start with like a thousand things that I want to project and over a span of time I realise which are the most important things or the most powerful feelings that lasted over that period of editing.
“With Animal Collective it’s very similar. All of us throw around a whole bunch of ideas and then at the end a lot of it doesn’t make sense so much any more or all that stuff that we talked about going into the project doesn’t really feel represented at the end. But it gets you where you’re going, so it’s important in that way.”
The Person Pitch liner notes famously included a wide-ranging list of musical influences, from The Beach Boys, Can and Metallica to Ennio Morricone, Wu-Tang Clan and Caetano Veloso. Lennox says there were some significant influences on Buoys too.
“I couldn’t give you an example of this artist or band that I wanted to emulate that sort of sound. But there’s a lot of contemporary production – I’m talking more so about the mainstream sound – that I wanted to use as a springboard.
“I don’t think the end product really sounds like Travis Scott, but I can correlate the broad strokes of the sound sonically to stuff that you might hear on [New York hip hop radio station] Hot 97 or mainstream radio. Stuff that gets millions of plays, like Ariana Grande or something like that.
“I don’t think it sounds like that, but there’s a foundation to the thing sonically that I hoped would resonate with somebody who was listening to that kind of stuff. I guess I’m speaking specifically of younger people, people sub-15 years old. I think that comes from having kids who only listen to that stuff. I’m making something that’s trying to speak to them.”