Panda Bear: New Year, New Bear, and the Stark Reality That We're All Going to Die
The Animal Collective co-founder is back with his fifth record, 'Panda Bear Versus The Grim Reaper,' and he's still the perfectly weird Panda Bear we've come to love.
Noah Lennox and I are talking about getting blowjobs in Japan. Well, not actually getting blowjobs in Japan, but we each have stories about getting offers from multiple different women on the streets of Tokyo. I tell him how some guy tried to convince me to have some girl “suck my dick” while I drank a beer in a bar (I didn’t). Lennox laughs. “It’s tempting, man!”
Lennox—the 36-year-old who’s much better known as Panda Bear, captain of the super weird and co-founding member of Animal Collective—is sitting across from me in a back studio of Converse Rubber Tracks in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It's the day before Thanksgiving, and he's in town visiting his family. We're just a few short blocks away from where he lived a decade ago, when he first called this neighborhood his home before eventually moving to Portugal to start a family. During that time, he became one of the most influential musicians of the aughts, as Animal Collective went from being the soundtrack of drugged out sessions in basements without windows to a highly visible art-pop outfit getting talked about on NPR. This week, he’ll release his fifth solo record, Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper, a twisted, bizzarely pop album that continues the Panda Bear way of producing the most fucked up sounds possible while still maintaining to be catchy as all hell. It’s also—and this shouldn’t really surprise anyone, given the title—about death, and facing our eventual demise from the planet.
Yet despite his influence and legacy, despite the possibility for pretension that comes with making a concept album (even though he won't call it that) about death, Lennox is unassuming and quiet. Our 40-minute conversation is thoughtful and direct—and I get the sense that he doesn’t realize or care about the perceptions of his music, he’s just genuinely trying to create the best art that he can. And he calls himself a fucking panda bear while doing so.
Noisey: Let’s talk about the title.
Panda Bear: The inspiration is from a handful of dub and reggae records from Jamaica that, the title is often one producer, one musician, meets another producer or musician and it was a way of signifying some sort of collaboration between the two. I liked that kind of setup and I thought it was a funny thing having me teaming up with this figure of death to make this stuff. Also, I feel like a lot of the songs talk about stuff that’s maybe a little more intense and deep and serious. But that stuff is often dressed up in this costume of more light-hearted or casual thing and I like that the title invoked that relationship.
Yeah, because Grim Reaper is almost like a comical character.
A little bit, yeah.
Death is a huge subject. When you’re approaching something that is so big and vast, what avenues do you navigate?
One thing was just trying to focus on one aspect of it—one context, or perspective, which was thinking of the grim reaper more as an agent of change rather than a death and an ending. I couldn’t say that it was a concept record; it’s not like every song touches on that subject so much. But there is a smattering of themes about things changing, dramatic change, particularly in terms of identity when there’s a change, an intense change something about the identity dies or gets left behind. Zeroing in on that helped. I don’t feel like I was thinking about death too much, and again, I wanted to keep things casual and light hearted rather than sinking into the quagmire of the heavy stuff.
Do you feel that, when you’re approaching death as sort of an agent of change versus the end, is that how you personally view death?
It feels like something happens. I don’t really know what it is. But you hear stories of people talking about seeing a tunnel or like a light. I’d like to think that there’s something, not just like emptiness, you know? But who knows. Definitely curious about it—more curious than fearful of the event. But also, I’m a middle aged guy at this point and growing up, death is this thing that you know it’s there but it’s so far off and in the distance it’s almost like it’s not real, and I feel like I’ve entered the part of life where it becomes a tangible thing. Not that I’ve had friends that have died but you have parents or grandparents who pass, and it slowly gets closer and closer and you can reach out and touch it a little bit.
Do you get anxiety about death?
Death isn’t really something that I have any anxiety about—a lot of other things, but not death.
Has it always been that way, or did you grow into that?
It feels so out of my control. It’s like when I used to get freaked out on airplanes, and then the more I thought about the fact that I wasn’t piloting the plane, I wasn’t driving, it was out of my hands. It was like, once I get on this thing and take off, whatever’s gonna happen is out of my control. And once I feel like I sort of relinquished that need to control the thing, I kind of lost my anxiety about it. I suppose feeling that way about death helps me relax a little. Whereas I stress about things that I do feel like I have some sort of control over.
With your lengthy career, is there anything about which you feel misunderstood?
If it’s anything, it’s a drugs thing. Writing off the stuff as like a druggy thing is a bummer to me. I guess the other is just like, not caring or the idea that we’re not putting a lot of effort and a lot of thought and a lot of work into this stuff. The idea that it’s just kind of tossed. Sometimes with improvised music that can be kind of the way to write it off, as it goes. And I guess the idea that we don’t care or think hard about—or that what we present isn’t like, a carefully sculpted thing, I guess, can be a bit of a bummer.
The chaos is very orchestrated. And maybe that’s lost in translation.
I mean, we may not always hit the mark, but the idea that we were cavalier about it I think is inaccurate.
It seems like you, and Animal Collective, that’s what you’ve done. It’s about the work.
I think that’s true. Part of that I’d say is our whole “animal” deal. Just as far as trying to be instinctual about decisions and not really let too much outside stuff influence what we’re doing. Outside stuff is a big way of talking about it but—it’s a slippery slope, when you start thinking about if people are going to like it, or if this or that person is going to like it, or how it’s going to be received. All that stuff I’m not sure is super constructive so I think our affinity for animals and imagery like that is a reflection of our appreciation for just those sort of objective responses. It’s like when people talk about guilty pleasures. I’m not really sure I believe in that as a concept. I feel like if I like something, I should like it and not—you know, if I have a response to something that’s positive, I don’t want to feel bad about that.
Absolutely. I love Taylor Swift. I’m proud to go to a Taylor Swift concert.
Sometimes I lose myself thinking about why people like things. And the influences things have on how much more there is to have a response to something than just input/output kind of stimulus-deal. It’s complicated. I feel like it’s more complicated than maybe we think. I remember being younger when I’d feel like there would be groups of people where if this other kid didn’t like the music—more the other way—if there was somebody you didn’t like, and they liked this type of music, or this type of movie, or whatever. The impulse was not to like it because you associated that thing with that person that you didn’t like. All those types of associations I think are happening and that’s something I lose myself thinking about quite often.
It’s human nature to want to be accepted and know that our tastes like up with what we think they should be. It’s interesting to think and learn that the animal aspect of Animal Collective is connected to that. What drew you to the Panda, and when you create, is it an active decision? Like, “I am the Panda Bear now.”
That’s kind of cheesy to say it that way, but sort of, yeah. [Laughs.] I think that’s the point of music and ritual. It’s all sort of aiming the same place, of getting our brains to a place where we’re operating on a different level where we’re not thinking about being here in a room and there’s a water bottle there and I’m worrying about this or that. I feel like the goal of these experiences to get ourselves to a place where the brain is just sort of operating on a different level. It’s hard to talk about; I know when I’m there but it’s difficult to define it. Or to speak about it. Performance-wise that’s always the target. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t work so well. And I feel like that sensation, especially live, is reliant on a lot of different factors: the sound system, the environment within the club, the moods of people in the audience. Participation can be a contagious thing, where a small section of people kind of start moving, that moves around the room. I forgot what the question was.
Channeling the Panda Bear. [Laughs]
Right. Panda Bear is just like, when I first started making music and recordings, I didn’t really have a concept, probably because I was more of a radio guy. I didn’t really have a concept of what an album was, or that crafting a sequence of songs in a particular way could kind of craft this experience. That whole thing, I don't think I really understood that yet. So they were more like mixtapes. Just sort of this hodgepodge collection of things that I had done. Since I didn’t know kind of what else to put out, I began drawing panda bears. It’s kind of silly. It’s kind of delicious now in that it can be so infuriating to people that a grown man calls himself Panda Bear. It’s a douchebag repellant.
It’s good to have those in your life.
It could be worse. But it’s something that there wasn’t really much of a reason for it at first. I was just thinking they looked cool.
How does this record reflect you personally and emotionally now, versus where you were ten years ago, and how have you seen that reflected in the growth in your music and as an artist?
The big thing is a sense of being 20, 21, when I was first here in New York, starting to play shows, starting to tour. It felt like this big sort of empty space in front. No sense of security or direction really. And I was slowly figuring various things out, and kind of deciding how life was gonna go. There’s now an overriding sense of safety, which I think creatively gives a lot of flexibility, I guess? These songs, with the drum breaks, I feel like there’s a lot of stylistic things that I wouldn’t have felt comfortable with before, or I wouldn’t have known how to use this type of stuff in a way that felt like it was still me doing it and not just some sort of lame copy of something else. So I’d attribute that to kind of feeling like I’ve sort of figured out, nailing down “this is how I feel about this,” or closing circles and not having empty threads. And that coming from conquering fears I guess, in some ways. I mean, I couldn’t say that I’ve figured it all out, I’d say if anything it feels like the only thing I know is that I don’t know. That’s also kind of a liberating thing to feel, as well.
Yeah, man. I’m 27. The older I get, the more of an idiot I realize I am, but through that I am actually smarter because I’m realizing that I don’t know anything.
I feel exactly the same way.
How old are you now?
Thirty-six. Yeah when I was your age, I moved to Portugal. I was 25. And then I had a kid at 26.
What is the safety you’re talking about? Is it something that’s signified by the fact that just you releasing a new record means that someone like me will sit here and interview you about it?
I suppose that’s part of it, but it’s also—as you were saying—knowing that you don’t know. There is lot of stuff that isn’t worth thinking about once you hit that point, or you realize that a lot of stuff doesn’t really matter that much. I feel like a lot of stuff that was a source of anxiety ceases to be that way when you accept the fact that you don’t know everything. You’re just gonna make mistakes a lot, and that’s okay.
What’s it like coming back to New York? To an area where you got started creatively, you were touring and living here and doing things. Obviously it has changed drastically, but does it feel like walking into a past life?
It’s weird because I’ve been back here quite a bit on tour, and I’ve never felt anything like it. But this time, I’ve definitely had a weird retracing my footsteps sense of things. Especially around here in Williamsburg, because the first apartment I lived in, the first summer I was here, was on Metropolitan. Right at the entrance to the BQE. And the other day, I went and stood beneath the window where I lived, and there was a nostalgic wave that crashed over me. It was weird because I hadn’t really thought about it. It was one of those moments in life where you get the sense of having changed is very real and very present. I never really felt that before.
Eric Sundermann is Noisey's Managing Editor. He's on Twitter — @ericsundy