Q&A: Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper Meets Newsweek

Panda Bear
Noah Lennox, better known as Panda Bear. Fernanda Pereira/Domino Recording Company

The first great album of 2015? That's easy. Panda Bear's Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is as otherworldly as its title, as colorful as its cover art and as gleefully psychedelic as anything befitting of the Noah Lennox name.

But there is a mournful edge, and beneath the reggae-inspired drum breaks and glimmery, washed out synths lie some of the most conventionally beautiful music the Animal Collective member has ever composed. On "Tropic of Cancer" he sings of his late father's illness over lush, interlocking harp arpeggios, while on the sing-song-y "Boys Latin" he sounds like he's testing out nonsense syllables one-by-one, letting the phrases shift back and forth between headphone channels like a ping pong ball. Neither as sample-heavy as 2007's Person Pitch nor as guitar-driven as 2011's Tomboy, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is a dense, bewilderingly brilliant listen.

Lennox, who has been based in Portugal for a decade, traveled to New York recently to talk about his record. He is boyish and thoughtful in person, his speaking voice a relaxed, nasal-y murmur without those layers of tripped out reverb. We met at the Rubber Tracks studio space in Brooklyn just before Thanksgiving and spoke about death, reggae and the long road to Grim Reaper.

Panda Bear
Noah Lennox, better known as Panda Bear. Tonje Thilesen/Domino Recording Company

Surprise album releases have become so fashionable recently, but you've done somewhat the opposite. What's the benefit of the long build-up?

I wonder sometimes if it's smarter just to surprise it like that. Creatively speaking, I kind of wish I could just finish something and share it with people. I'm always impatient to get it out there. I do a lot of daydreaming and planning about stuff…

I should say on the last two albums, I was always releasing singles kind of staggered. As I would make them, I would release them. I think it worked well on the first one and then not so well on the second one. It's so hard to say these days with the way the whole music business is. It seems like it's so in flux.

You've had these songs sitting around for a while. You've been touring behind them. Have they been mutating all along?

Yeah, but only kind of slightly. The stuff that I was performing live a year or so ago—they've gotten a little more spaced out, kind of more ethereal once we went into the studio. They got a little more floaty and a little more spacey, literally, in kind of a sci-fi way. The way I made a lot of this is by fooling around with drum breaks and arranging the stuff. I made maybe between 40 and 60 what you might call "beats." And the stuff that I found myself going back to and listening to, the stuff I was most attracted to, I would flesh out a little more and try to write the singing parts and the words.

What can you tell me about the album title?

Initially it was inspired by a bunch of dub and reggae records from Jamaica that would pit one musician or producer meets another musician or producer. It was a way of signaling some sort of collaboration between the two. I thought it was funny, the idea of me working together with the Grim Reaper to make music, kind of like making a band together. I like that it harked back to these Jamaican records. I feel like dub music in general has been the most consistently inspiring music for me, particularly from a production standpoint. I just find that sonic setup to be endlessly satisfying. I like sort of rainy and wet-sounding music, and that sort of fits that bill perfectly for me.

Were there any experiences that drove you to the more morbid side of things?

Difficult to say. I suppose being middle-aged, death becomes more of a tangible thing. There's been an image in my mind over the past couple years. I spent the last 36 years of my life walking up a hill or up a mountain. Having a sense of what was on the other side of the mountain, but not being able to see it. Now I feel like I'm kind of at the top where I can look back down one side, where I've come from, but I can also see down the other side. I suppose that being in this place in my life, I wouldn't say it's morbid. There isn't a sense of mortality in any dark way or difficult way. But it certainly becomes a more tangible thing.

Panda Bear
Noah Lennox, better known as Panda Bear. Tonje Thilesen/Domino Recording Company.

It's been more than two years since the last Animal Collective album. How much of that time did you spend working on this record?

When we recording [2012 Animal Collective album] Centipede Hz in El Paso is when I first started making stuff that eventually became these songs. It was a very basic form then. It's been two and a half years slowly chipping away at the stone to make the sculpture.

When does [producer] Sonic Boom come in?

Pretty late. Earlier than Tomboy. I'm not crazy about working with the same people or doing things in exactly the same way. The more the set-up is different, the easier it will be to get results that sound kind of different, or new or fresh. I was a little nervous about doing stuff with him again, but I felt like starting with him earlier, going into the studio, would yield different results.

Any other producers you've been eyeing for potential collaborations?

I'd like to do something with Geoff Barrow from Portishead.

What were you listening to while putting the album together?

I wasn't listening to a whole lot of hip hop or anything like that. Before making the songs I was. Mostly this guy 9th Wonder. He produced a record for Little Brother called The Minstrel Show. I have a version of it that's just the instrumentals, and that was hugely inspirational for this stuff. There's also a Suzanne Vega song, a remix of one of her songs, that I think I heard on the radio, probably around the time when I started making this stuff. The way that song is set up with the vocals and the drum break, I feel like I can connect the dots between these songs and that.

When Tomboy came out, you talked about how you were moving away from samples, towards a more—

I wanted to write songs on the guitar.

Right. Was this reversing course? The new album is really beat-driven.

That was something I was a little nervous about at first. I was making all this stuff on the computer. The possibilities are so open in that set-up. With the Person Pitch stuff and the samples, the boundaries were very clearly defined. There was very little I could do with the sounds and the samples. Making the stuff on the computer, there's a lot more flexibility with how you chop things up and multitracking lots of samples together. And I feel like the characters of the drum breaks and how they dictated what the song felt like.

There are a few tracks that seem like the closest thing you've written to typical ballads. "Tropic of Cancer" is a really beautiful track.

We tried to throw a bunch of stuff at that track, but anything we did trying to add to the song felt like it was diminishing returns. Even the vocal. It's not very exact, it's very imperfect. Redoing that vocal take, it lost some of its power.

The song is about disease. It's a good example of how lyrically, they would start in a very personal place and then you could see me trying to expand my gaze or expand my perspective. It starts out with an anecdote about my father getting sick. He had a tumor. I think I reference a conversation my parents had with me when they first found out about it. They had a weird, casual vibe about it, which I thought was strange. Then, as the song goes on, it sort of becomes about disease in a larger sense and trying to forgive disease as far as seeing it as just any other being in the universe trying to propagate and survive. And trying to emphasize with it in that context.

Can you tell me about the song "Mr. Noah"? I thought that was one of the most striking and overtly psychedelic songs you've ever done.

Oh, sweet. It's kind of like a self-portrait. I was speaking to this holistic healer lady in Portugal and she was telling me that my character was divided up into three sections. She could identify my character in these three animals, one of which was a wolf, one of which was a bear and one of which was an eagle. I thought that was a bit odd. I had to think about if I could characterize things about my personality that fit those animals. [The lyrics] all reference parts of my personality that I'm not super happy about. It's a bit grumpy, the song. It's a light-hearted look at something that's maybe a little darker and difficult to digest.

What was your headspace like when writing the lyrics?

I felt like I'd done a lot of introspective stuff in the past, and started to feel like maybe it was bordering on narcissism, or… I guess I was just weary of that. I feel like past a certain point, introspection just becomes self-centered. I suppose having children and being kind of middle-aged assisted in that impulse a little bit. The themes are very big and broad, though they all started from a very personal space. Often something that happened to me or something that I thought about.

You have two kids now, right?

Yeah. They're nine and four.

Do they listen to your music?

The nine-year-old, I've tried. She doesn't dig it at all. The four-year-old, I still feel like I have a chance. He seems more musically adventurous. She seems to be more stimulated by visual stuff than music. She just doesn't seem that interested.

is it just inherently uncool because it's dad's music?

Yeah, for sure. Yeah. In a big way. The studio is in my apartment, and sound travels in really weird ways. Not only in my apartment, but in my neighborhood. When I'm practicing, it's obvious to everybody in the house. She gets pretty bummed about it.