FYF Fest headliner Panda Bear talks about his 'authoritarian' songwriting
In the strange ecosystem of Animal Collective, Panda Bear is the difficult one. That’s saying something for a guy in a band with barely a phonetically discernible lyric in its long catalog of tongue-wagging acid jams. But while co-frontman Avey Tare supplies a lot of the melodic heft that kicked the band onto the Billboard charts last year with “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” Panda Bear (Noah Lennox to the government) brings the tangles of synthetic samples, errant noise blasts and the woozy harmonies that make the band’s albums immersive worlds all their own.
His solo breakthrough “Person Pitch,” a cracked take on Beach Boys bliss run through a beatmaker’s hall of mirrors, was Pitchfork’s favorite album of 2008, and expectations are simmering for its followup due later this year. The minimalist drum patter of the first single “Tomboy” gave a hint at its direction, but we talked to Lennox from his home in Lisbon, Portugal, (where he relocated after stints in Baltimore and New York) to hear more about his unusual knack for making drippy psychedelia sound like pop hits in anticipation of his headlining set at the FYF Fest this weekend.
How has living in Lisbon affected what you’re interested in pertaining to your solo career, considering you’re pretty isolated from your band?
It’s definitely forced me to be more responsible, as far as being organized and answering e-mail and things. But it hasn’t really changed how I approach it creatively, even in the band one of us always comes in with a pretty finished foundation and then we work on it from there. I’m a big believer in that your environment affects the music you make, so I’m sure things like walking the streets here affect it, but it’s hard to put my finger on it.
So many people have found a kind of childlike wonder and sense of exploration and repetition in your music. How has raising two actual young children informed that sensibility?
The kids have definitely changed me, not taste-wise necessarily, but I feel a lot more responsibility to do my best with music and cover all my bases.
In the sense they made you more open to commercial success, knowing that a family depends financially on your music?
Not that exactly. I always start by doing exactly what I want to be doing in a kind of creative vacuum, but having a family has really moved me to make that music be as successful as possible. It’s a tough balance to maximize your potential, but to do that you’ve got to tour all the time and I don’t want to leave my family in the dust.
The two I’ve released have definitely been in that zone -- using small, basic loops -- and I’ve always been into that stuff. But the rest of the record is going to focus on vocal melody. I’m always trying to make myself uncomfortable and change equipment to change how I write, and I’ve been ramming samplers for the last six years. So for this album I took a keyboard and cut the electronics out, so it’s just a box with sounds and drum patterns that I run a guitar through. It’s definitely my most complex setup; it took me months to get it up and running. It really downplays the melodic and harmonic aspects of a guitar, so I use it to try and strike a balance with the songwriting.
Some of those elements in the new songs seem pretty abrasive, which is interesting because Animal Collective went in the exact opposite direction on “Merriweather.” Was that a conscious decision from you to move your solo work in a harsher direction?
It’s funny, I still think of these as pop songs. The production choices are very un-pop. But even in the lyrics, it’s about joining these two opposing things, and I tried to do that in the writing.
Animal Collective has a really distinctive approach to vocals. What do these new songs do to broaden and explore what your solo voice is capable of?
I’ve been listening to a lot of crooners like Sinatra and Scott Walker. There’s such a power there, and I’ve never really been into literary concerns as a lyricist so I wanted to focus on that forceful presence. It’s kind of a defense mechanism, to keep the songs mysterious and confusing, but then to have this authority on top of it. Dave [Portner] from the band described these songs as very authoritarian, and I liked that a lot.
It seems there’s a much wider audience for drone and ambient and other ‘difficult’ music in recent years. Where do you think that interest came from, and what are people getting from it today?
It’s been a slow movement over the last few years. The internet’s really leveled the playing field; younger people are getting exposed to a lot more music whereas before distribution was really streamlined and this stuff was harder to search out.
When playing as Panda Bear you’re really alone onstage. What’s rewarding and difficult about that as opposed to a full band?
These songs are really personal, and I’m just uncomfortable leading a band. I’ve been thinking about this a lot; I know it’s not the most interesting thing to watch a guy behind a keyboard stand. But I can’t imagine taking these songs into a practice space and being like “OK, guys, that was a good take.” In Animal Collective, those guys and I have known each other so long that we have a complete understanding of when to press and pull back, so it’s a pretty comfortable setting.
The last Animal Collective record made you guys ‘stars’ in a way that seemed really unlikely for some pretty difficult music. Did that process change what you thought the band was capable of?
Our ambitions for that band keep getting blown away from what we expected for it; everything seems to keep moving to a new level with each record. But we’ve never done anything other than write music we’re excited about. So we have no idea what to expect and can’t really think about that.
Photo credit: Maureen Gubia