Exclusive: Panda Bear on How to Make a Trojan Horse

Measuring the musical impact Noah Lennox has made on the music world is something like a history lesson in indie music. He’s a founding member and co-lead singer of Animal Collective, who entered the new millennium as alternative upstarts on the New York scene and have now attained a status resembling indie rock deities. In his solo work as Panda Bear, Lennox has achieved the same, if not more, acclaim. His 2007 album Person Pitch is among the most highly lauded records in recent memory, and his 2011 follow up Tomboy was held in just as high a regard, both garnering praise for his uncanny ability to create incredible complexities and texture in his electronic soundscapes. Subsequently, Lennox has returned with the release of Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, an album inherently his own but quite unlike anything he has previously attempted. Milk Made’s Jake Boyer caught up with the Portugal based musician amid a busy week of performances to discuss the new record and its’ "Trojan Horse" approach, self-awareness in his art, and whether panda bears are actually his favorite kind of bear.

So the rollout for this album was rather interesting, with the video premiere for single ‘Boys Latin’ on Adult Swim being the one of the more unexpected ways to preview your new material.

I think working with the Encyclopedia Pictora guys, who came up with the whole concept, and just the animated nature of the video, lent itself to Adult Swim. I don’t know how we got in touch with them, I can’t say it was my idea. A really good idea, but not mine.

It certainly introduces you to an entirely new demographic.

Yeah I like that kind of thing. It’s sort of like dropping water in different pools and seeing how the ripples go. I’ve done way more for this one than any other album, but I really like this one. I made it known that I was willing to do pretty much whatever. I’m just happy people want to talk about it.

So was there anything new you consciously decided to bring to the table for this record?

I feel like there was a conscious effort to have music that would be instantly familiar. I wanted something that would be known by a large amount of people, like speaking a language that millions could understand. But I guess the hope was tricking the ear into it, to use something familiar as the gateway, like a Trojan Horse way of sneaking in elements of the music that may be more abrasive or might take more time to digest. You have to invest more time to wrap your head around the more aggressive elements. The title does that too.

Speaking of the title, it seems to me that this record is more self-aware than your previous efforts, what with a song being called ‘Mr. Noah’ and obviously having Panda Bear in the album title. Is that another conscious choice?

Well I agree with you that it might be more self-aware. But it happened in a kind of roundabout way. This album with the words…it was a big thing for me to feel like I wasn’t just writing about myself. In the past, introspection was the tool I would use, like writing a diary or telling stories from my perspective, which would hopefully be useful for somebody listening to it on the other end. But I started to feel like there’s a threshold past introspection, in which it transforms into self-obsession or narcissism or self-centered exercise. On this album it was a mission with every song, even though they would start from personal experience or stuff I was thinking about, to always try and expand the gaze or perspective. But it’s interesting that you say self-aware, because there’s something in this process that gets exposed about who I am that I don’t think ever came out before. It’s almost like not being so focused inward, there’s a liberating feeling to the point where I wasn’t so judgmental or inhibited about stuff I was doing.

And I think it seems more playful this way.

I feel like that was a bit of a reaction from the last record, Tomboy. It was very austere and serious, so the impulse was to do a 180 on that, something fun and playful. I like both albums, but I definitely feel like I had done that serious stuff for a while and just wanted to do something a bit different. This one ended up being pretty quilty and hodgepodge.

I’ve read that you don’t really like performing live, which I find interesting because you and Animal Collective have had a reputation from the beginning of shopping your new material during live sets only to record and release it after the fact.

Yeah I’m not crazy about live stuff. I mean, it’s not a drag. But I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite part of the process. And playing new stuff live started when we were playing around New York first getting started. We would always be playing for the same small group of friends that would be at every show, so we started to feel like, ‘we know this group of people and they’ve heard this stuff before, so why don’t we just write new songs?’ And that set us off on forming this habit of always doing the songs live first, and then recording in studio. That may change relatively soon, but we’ll see. There is a specific atmosphere in those shows where you’re playing new material and people don’t know the stuff. When it works it’s really great, but I think it’s far more difficult to really get things going when you’re playing new songs. It’s a fun challenge, it doesn’t always work.

And you’ve also mentioned that your sound system is prone to glitching when you perform, which must be another detractor from the live experience.

Yeah, I’ve had some doozies. I use two samplers, and each sampler has the exact same stuff on it. And I go back and forth from song to song, sort of like DJ-ing. So if one of those breaks, I have to figure out a way to play the song with some of the doo-dads I have up there and segue into those kinds of sounds and then come back to the sampler stuff. So there’s troubleshooting ways to go about it, but if you ever see me rolling my eyes up there, that means something has broken.

Who would we be guaranteed to find on your iPod on any given day?

You’d definitely find an Ariel Pink record or two. This guy Burial, an English producer. I almost always have some of his stuff on there. Black Dice, two brothers from Maine, but they’ve been a New York band for a long time. They took us on our first tour actually, really great band.

You signed Ariel Pink to your label initially, right?

Yeah. A bunch of stuff we put out were re-releases of stuff, really small time stuff, that he had done already. Actually the first proper Panda Bear tour I went on was with him, in Europe. He couldn’t make it through customs so they missed all the UK stuff and met me in Paris. They didn’t have work permits or anything, and I think the customs agent was like ‘What are you here to do?’ and he was like ‘I’m here to play music!’ And apparently he didn’t like it because they sent him right back on a plane to L.A.

Speaking of Europe, you’re now a resident of Lisbon, Portugal. Did you fall in love with it immediately?

Not at first, I think I spent the first four years thinking ‘well this is nice.’ But now after living there I’ve decided it’s where I want to be. I like it because it’s so old, there’s a palpable sense of history there. It feels kind of spooky, you get the sensation of spirits, which is good.

So is a panda bear your favorite kind of bear then?

Hmm I think so. They look cooler than they actually are though. They don’t seem like the most interesting animals socially speaking, they just kind of hang out and eat bamboo. Though apparently they’re really dangerous. You don’t want to get in the bear pit with panda bears.

Now that I’m thinking about it, I don’t think I’ve ever heard how you actually came up with the name Panda Bear…

I really liked them when I was young. And I made this tape of songs, of recordings I had made, and I wanted to give the tape to friends of mine and stuff like that. And on the cover I just drew a panda bear. I did a couple tapes like that, and they all had hand drawn pandas on them. And that was that.

Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is out now via Domino Records

Follow Jake Boyer on Twitter here

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