Rank Your Records

Panda Bear Lovingly Ranks His Solo Catalog

Noah Lennox scrutinises his weirdo-pop career—including the long-forgotten CD he made as a teenager.

by Zach Schonfeld
18 February 2019, 10:57pm

In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.

When Noah Lennox was a teenager, he drew cartoonish pandas on the covers of mixtapes containing his music. In 1999, when he finally cobbled his weirdo-pop recordings into a debut album, he called it Panda Bear for that reason.

The name stuck. Now, at 40—and with a lengthy career under his belt as one of the primary architects of Animal Collective—Lennox a.k.a. Panda Bear is starting to regret the name a bit. “I’ve often thought that when I’m really old, if I’m still using the name, that seems a lot cooler to me than a 40-year-old using it,” Lennox admits, speaking by phone from his longtime home of Lisbon, Portugal.

Sure, it’s an odd moniker for a 40-year-old dad, but it seems to capture the dual poles of Lennox’s solo career—both the tuneful whimsicality and the sense of wilderness conveyed through long, serpentine passages of sample-based psychedelia. After that haphazard, long-out-of-print 1999 album, Lennox resumed his solo career with 2004’s Young Prayer, a hushed meditation on grief, before finally breaking through with 2007’s Person Pitch, a woozy tapestry of sampled textures and dense-as-hell harmony that still feels impenetrable 12 years later.

That was the album that made Lennox an indie darling, but his latest work, Buoys, sounds nothing like it. Buoys is a sparse, comparatively brief song cycle centred around acoustic guitar, wobbly bass frequencies, and Lennox’s heavily treated voice. Its song titles read like something from a meditation accompaniment CD: “Dolphin,” “Inner Monologue,” “Home Free.” For the first time in forever, you can understand Lennox’s lyrics without straining. The approach was inspired in part by Lennox’s experience performing 2004’s Sung Tongs on tour with Animal Collective last year. “I got into writing songs on guitar again,” he says. “It took me a bit of time to get my hands to be able to do that again.” (For this reason, Buoys features the same bizarro tuning as Sung Tongs: E-flat, B-flat, E-flat-, G, B-flat, C.)

Buoys, Lennox says, ranks as his best solo work, so we had him look back on the albums that got him there.

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Noah Lennox: Maybe this is obvious, but my least favourite is the very first one. It’s more like a mixtape than a proper album. It’s a collection of recordings I’d made from the ages of, I’d wager, 15 until 17 or 18. It just feels far removed from who I am now. I feel like I was searching to find my own way of doing things. A lot of the songs feel like imitations of other things I liked.

Noisey: You were only a teenager when you made this. Did you expect that anyone would even hear it?
I hoped some people around town might get into it—peers, friends of mine—but that was really it. We tried to get a label to put it out, but nobody wanted to do it. So we did it ourselves.

I’d never heard this album before this week. It’s hard to find—I had to listen to a stream on YouTube. Are you interested in putting it on streaming platforms or reissuing it?
No. We probably pressed a thousand of them or something. We handmade a bunch of the covers. I know I’ve got a whole bunch of CDs in cases somewhere. I see them every once in a while. There are probably only 200 out there, I’d wager.

Are those valuable now? Like, going for lots of money on eBay?
I don’t know. Somebody brought one to me after a show and said he’d had to pay a bunch of money for it.

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You made this in what seems like a tough time in your life.
Yeah. It really addresses things that were kind of difficult. I certainly don’t regret it. There’s a power to it that’s cool. It’s not something I listen to very often, I should say.

It’s your rawest album.
I think so. I feel like if I would redo it now, I’d do it really differently. It would be arranged a lot more intensely than it is. It’s pretty simplistic. The rest of Animal Collective and Rusty [Santos] did a lot to make it more interesting.

My understanding is that you wrote and recorded this album around the time of your father’s death.
We actually recorded in the room that he died in, which is pretty gnarly. I was writing the stuff while he was really sick—I knew he was gonna go—but didn’t record it until after he was gone.

What impact did those circumstances have on the songs?
I kind of wanted to make something for him. He didn’t hear the music, but I had written a lot of the words, and I showed that stuff to him. He did have some connection with it, I’m happy to say. Beyond that, I suppose it was therapeutic in its own way. Making something while going through that, it was kind of impossible to avoid as a subject, as an influence.

You don’t usually perform these songs at your shows, right?
I did maybe four or five Young Prayer shows, where I just played the whole thing from beginning to end. Those were tough to do. I would get super nervous—it was almost like a stand-up set. Just the guitar and the voice and staring at people.

Another interesting thing is that you didn't title the songs. You did the Sigur Rós thing where they’re all untitled.
They all sort of went together. It just seemed weird to title them differently.

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This is a more recent one. Do you feel good about it?
Yeah. I mean, Young Prayer and up, I still feel really good about. The self-titled one feels like a different person, so I have a tougher time relating to that one.

Tell me how you feel about Grim Reaper now.
There’s one or two songs I might sub out for another song we recorded at the same time but didn’t finish until later. There’s a couple songs I really like still—the more rock-y kind of songs. I haven’t done too many songs that have that quality. Like “Mr. Noah.”

This album has an aggressive, almost beat-driven feel when I listen to it.
Yeah. All the songs started off with the drum breaks. Usually drum breaks and some other melodic element, and I would write the song on top of that foundation. It’s special to me because I made it with Pete Kember [a.k.a. Sonic Boom] here in Lisbon. We had worked together on [2011’s Tomboy], but in separate places. This one, being in the same room, starting from scratch with him, was really cool.

I interviewed you when this album came out and you mentioned dub and reggae had been a big influence on you.
I might say it’s my primary influence. I feel like everything I’ve done somehow hovers around dub production in some form.

How long have you felt that way?
[Since] my first year in Boston... I was maybe 18. I made a cassette recording of my friend Jesse Serwer’s King Tubby dub record. I would listen to it endlessly over and over again on a Walkman, walking around Boston.

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This was a big one for you.
It seems to be most people's favorite. It’s cool, for me, in that it reminds me of a really happy time in my life. Everything felt new, because it was when I moved here [to Lisbon] and met my lady. My life just dramatically changed from this point on.

Your music dramatically shifted as well.
Yeah. Ever since this one, I'm just trying to make something that makes people forget about this one, if you know what I mean.

You don’t want to live in the shadow of Person Pitch forever, you mean?
I think of making stuff like playing golf. If you think about a golfer trying to beat his best round, being competitive in that sense makes sense to me. For myself, I’m always trying to get that juiced again.

This album is very heavily based around samples. What excited you about going in that direction?
I got the [Roland SP-303] sampler because I read Madlib had one when he made the Quasimoto record The Unseen, which I loved. It’s really kind of crude. It’s flexible enough that I felt like I could find my own sort of relationship with it. I would just record little bits of songs that I really liked. It was often really simplistic repetitions and small loops that I would cycle endlessly, and I would try to build the song on top of that. It’s almost like drone music in a way. There’s often only one chord or two chords.

This album got a hugely positive response from critics. Pitchfork named it the best album of 2007. Were you surprised by how much acclaim it received?
For sure. I was happy that people liked it. It certainly afforded me a lot of opportunities that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. In some ways, I feel like I’m still able to make music because of stuff that album made possible for me.

Some people believe that it was an influence on chillwave. Do you think that’s true?
I would have to ask chillwave people, I suppose. When I hear something that people call chillwave, it doesn’t remind me of the Person Pitch stuff so much, beyond being kind of reverby or hazy. If it inspires anything, I’m happy to hear that.

This is also the first album you made as a parent.
I think my daughter was born right in the middle of it. I want to say right in the middle of doing “Bros,” she was born.

In the middle of working on that particular song?
Yeah. I worked on the two parts of it separately. Like, two different project files. Then I had to import all the tracks from one into the other project file and mix them together. As was Animal Collective’s way, I played the songs live a bunch before recording them.

Was it daunting to perform this material live?
No. The arrangements were way simpler when I was doing it live. It was a little nerve-wracking in that if I would trigger samples at the wrong moment, the whole thing would fall apart.

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It feels the most complete to me. It ticks all the boxes, I guess. [With] the other ones, looking back on it now, there’s things I would change. Tomboy still feels solid to me.

This album came out at a time when lots of people were paying attention to you. Person Pitch had been really successful; Merriweather Post Pavilion had been really successful. Did you feel like there was a lot of anticipation for this album?
I suppose I did. “A lot” is relative, of course. I’d done Person Pitch and just thought nobody was going to care. Making something and thinking “People are gonna listen to this” was new to me at that point.

When you made Tomboy, you were trying to move away from samplers and do something more guitar-based.
Yeah, totally. The qualities of the sound reminded me a lot of early 80s. Like, noise stuff. The blueprint was totally different than Person Pitch. I didn’t use any of the sampler stuff at all. It was all just guitar and singing, but the guitar is fed through this Korg M3 box that I have.

It doesn’t sound like a typical guitar.
Exactly.

Do you have a favorite song on this album?
I like “Slow Motion” a lot. I like “Friendship Bracelet,” which is not a popular one. The form of it is really interesting to me. I get most excited about the songs of mine where the structure and form feels really unique. “Friendship Bracelet” is like—it’s the same thing repeated three times, but it’s rising the whole time. It always goes up a note. It kind of feels like the song is slowly rising upward.

How’d you settle on the title Tomboy?
A bunch of the songs are dealing with two disparate elements and the way they’re pulling at each other. So, a Tomboy being of two minds or representing two disparate qualities… I thought that was a fitting title.

Anything else that makes you particular proud of this album?
Just how all the pieces fit together. It feels like it’s all there. There’s nothing missing.

Zach Schonfeld doesn’t care about material things like a social status. He’s on Twitter — @zzzzaaaacccchhh

This article originally appeared on Noisey US.