Interview

An Annotated Media Guide To Panda Bear

This week Panda Bear (aka Noah Lennox, also of Animal Collective) will release the highly anticipated Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper, his fifth proper solo album. In anticipation of the new record, we took a stroll down Memory Lane with Lennox and looked back at some of his past work, including student films, early Panda Bear performances, and some of Animal Collective’s more iconic video moments. For Lennox, who prefers looking forward to looking back, revisiting his YouTube history proved fairly refreshing. “This is wild,” he said. “Some of this stuff I haven’t thought about in years, and some of this stuff I’m not sure I’ve actually ever seen.”

As told to T. Cole Rachel…

Fish Sticks (A Film By Andrew Drazek, Starring Noah Lennox) (1999)

Aww. This is me back in my university days. I was probably 18 years old? 19 maybe? This was in Boston. I think this was in one of Andrew’s friend’s places. Andrew — the director — lived in a party house. He lived with five or six other dudes, and there was a band that played there with a drum set downstairs. I did a few of these films with him — it was a trilogy. He and I met through my then-girlfriend, who was in a class with him. She was like, “I have a class with this dude who kinda looks like you and I feel like the two of you would like each other.” Andrew Drazek: super cool dude. I haven’t spoken to him much recently but I am not the best at keeping in touch with people. I have a lot of respect for him though, and I feel like these little films really hold up.

I was studying religion at the time and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I always tell my daughter things like, “You know, you don’t have to stick to your game plan, but it’s good to try and have a plan.” I was just sort of floating around back then. Music was something I always did, but I never thought it would become this major part of my life. I always liked making music, but the idea of making music and somehow making money off of that music … it just seemed impossible to me as a career. It was really the other guys in the group who pushed things along. It was just like: Let’s make a record, and then let’s go on tour, and then we’ll make another record and try to go on another tour. Step by step it slowly became a reality. But in the beginning, the dream of being a professional musician just felt so impossible that it felt like a kind of useless thing to spend time thinking about. But I will say, as I’ve grown older, hearing successful people talk about their careers, there is often this [common trait] where they just did stuff. They took whatever was accessible to them at the time and they just made things. It didn’t always matter if it was all that good or not. You just keep making things and pushing forward. And that idea has always been inspirational to me. You just keep making stuff. You keep going.

Jane (Panda Bear & Scott Mou) – “Coconuts” (2002)

I can’t really remember exactly how this project started, other than me and Scott liking the same music and hanging out together. Again, there wasn’t really a master plan at all. We’d just play around with ideas and record CDRs of things. We both worked at a record shop, so we had an easy way to try and sell the stuff. The entire project, once again, was just really centered around hanging out and making stuff, which is why it all kind of fell apart when I moved away. It wasn’t the kind of music where we could just send each other stuff back and forth; we kinda needed to be together to do it.

I like to think that everything I ever work on kind of just bleeds into the next project. I like to think that it all informs [what follows] in some way. When I hear this now I can see how it would influence the kind of stuff I would do later.

Panda Bear – Young Prayer Live (2002)

Oh sweet. I think I only did about five Young Prayer shows, and that was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been for any show. It was just me and a guitar. I know I did one at the Knitting Factory and one at Bard College where Dave played with me. But this show, it was just me by myself, and I think I was maybe opening for my friend’s band. They were called Brasilia, I think? I also played one at NorthSix, which was a benefit show for my friend Rob. Black Dice played and I opened.

Those shows were nerve wracking for me. I had to memorize how to play all the parts and … .well, eventually the album got kind of spun around, and some of the parts went into different places, but in the beginning I had this very specific sequence, and all the parts were played and sung in this very specific way. The way I made Young Prayer was that I had this little hand-held cassette recorder and I had the words all written out and I would record in little bits, like these little fragments. So when I played it live, I had to learn and remember how to play all of those little parts together. This was before the record was done, I think, but I had the entire blueprint in my head at that point.

Animal Collective – “Grass” Video (2005)

This reminds me of the director, our friend Davide, who made the video. The first time we met him we were playing at the Cartier Foundation; it might have been our first ever show in France. When we got out of the car, he was in the bushes filming us, which was basically our introduction to him. We’d just always hang out with him when we went to Paris anytime after that. I don’t know where exactly all of this footage came from. It’s interesting because it’s one of the only videos where you can see us actually performing. I guess you could say the “My Girls” video is also that way. Mostly when I see this, I just think of Davide. We’ve always kind of liked to have personal connections with the people who make the videos for us, but for my last video, I didn’t know the people at all, which was also kind of interesting. Typically we always worked with people we knew in some way.

Panda Bear – “Comfy In Nautica” Video (2008)

I didn’t really know Patrick O’Dell all that well, but we had a lot of friends in common. I knew him from his Epicly Later’d stuff on VBS and I really liked that. I’ve always been a big fan of skateboarding videos, and I liked the stuff that he was doing, so that was really the inspiration for it.

A lot changed around this time. For those Young Prayer shows there might be 15 or 20 people around. When I went back to New York to play shows for this record, I think I played Bowery Ballroom twice. It was way way different. It was kind of goofy because my setup was still super small: a small table with two little samplers and a tiny mixer. It was kind of lame.

Panda Bear – “Bros” Video (2009)

Oh, there’s Scott Mou in the shower. I always really loved this video. I don’t know who he or she is, but there is someone who made a couple of videos of songs from Person Pitch using old stock and found footage. It’s very much like what Danny Perez — the video artist we work with — does live with mixing videos and images. Anyway, I don’t know who made those fan videos but they were really good. I wasn’t really involved with this video at all. The director had done a couple of Excepter videos and I really liked Excepter, so that’s how it came to be. We were friends. When I know the people involved personally, I don’t really like to get my hands dirty with the process; I like to just let them run with it and do their thing.

Atlas Sound (Feat. Panda Bear) – “Walkabout” (2009)

That sample is from a Dovers record, and I remember hearing it and thinking right away that I’d love to make something with it. We were on tour with Deerhunter at the time and Bradford ended up making the track. He sent it to me. He already had the words and the melody and I only sang what he told me to sing. I’d never done something like that before, where someone else had already mapped everything else out and you just went in and painted by the numbers, but I was happy to do it. I really like the song.

Animal Collective – “My Girls” Video (2009)

A lot of things changed for us around this time. I mean, there was definitely a crowd of people who came to the shows during this era who were pretty bummed. That’s been kind of an ongoing thing, though. When we toured Centipede there were also people there who were kinda like, “Fuck this!” It’s OK. There’s been a couple of times when it seemed like our audience size seemed to really jump — either up or down — but I feel like there’s never been such a massive change that it was really overwhelming or upsetting for us. When we made these songs it was one of the few times where I’ve been right about how I thought people were going to react to the music. I generally err on the side of thinking that people won’t like the new stuff, but Merriweather really felt like … it was just kind of in the pocket, you know? It was fairly easy-to-digest music, and I felt like it would maybe have a chance to attract a larger number of people than some of the other stuff that we’d done. I really try not to think about stuff like that too hard, to be honest: A) I’m usually wrong; B) I’m not sure it has any benefit.

The idea for this video was basically Dave’s, and we did all the green-screen stuff at a photo studio here in Manhattan. The guy who did the artwork for Animal Collective’s Crack Box, he did all the environments in the background and he’s credited as the director. My favorite part in the video is when everything starts to get really gloopy. I love the way it looks.

Panda Bear – “Atiba Song” (Composed Music For A Skateboarding Montage Directed By Atiba Jefferson And Ty Evans) (2011)

Atiba is a buddy of mine and a really great skate photographer. He does all kinds of different stuff now. He told me that he was working on a song and asked if he could send me some different parts of it. And then this is what I made out of it. He asked if he could use it as the soundtrack to this experimental thing he was working on. They were testing out some kind of new camera and they put this video together with it. I don’t think this was ever actually released separately as a song.

Daft Punk (Feat. Panda Bear) – “Doin’ It Right” (2013)

This was such a good experience. It was really kind of a dream come true for me, actually. It’s always cool when someone that you love and have a lot of respect for comes into your life in some way and really manages to live up to all of your expectations, and that was definitely the case here. I was so happy to work with Daft Punk. I’d never met them before, and we had emailed a few times, but I’d never hung out with them in person until we did this song. I went to Paris for a few days to work on this. They already had the track done, they just needed someone to come up with the vocals. I spent the first day with them trying to come up with the vocals and basically just talking to them about the record and what it was they were trying to do. I wanted the words to fit into the larger picture of the record, which was tough. I also wanted lyrics that kind of hit the in-between spot — between their thing and my thing — which also took some doing. I kinda just sat in my hotel room and labored over it. I mean, there are maybe only 15 words in the entire song, but I struggled with it. We spent three days: The first day we spent coming up with the melody and the lyrics, the second day we tracked the vocals, and the third day was mostly spent laying it out and mixing it. It was pretty quick. Doing these collaborations is really fun but I don’t like to do it unless I really like the other artist and if we have plenty of time to really do it right. It always feels like there’s this initial explosion of creativity in which the idea kind of reveals itself, but I always need a lot of time for adjusting things and tinkering.

Panda Bear – “Mr. Noah” Video (2014)

The new one. I wasn’t actually involved with the video. A lot people presented different kinds of treatments for the video and their thing was this sort of looping/zooming sort of idea. I really like music videos that have a simple twist or trick to them; I’m not really all that big on videos that try to be little movies or try to tell a story. I feel like often there just isn’t enough time to properly set up something like that. So I guess you could say that I kinda like gimmick videos, like the Justice video with all the T-shirts. I like that. I was really just pushing for it to be more hectic and intense and kinda seasick-feeling. I think they really responded to the repetition in the song.

I’m excited for the record to be out. I’m not sure how much touring I’ll actually do — I toured a whole lot over the past two years — but I’m looking forward to playing the songs after the people in the audience have had a chance to familiarize themselves with the new stuff. I’ll probably play a few shows here and a few shows in Europe and then I’m gonna try and shift back over to working on Animal Collective stuff. We’re all writing stuff at the moment, so at some point we’ll reconvene to start putting everything together.

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Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper is out 1/13 via Domino.