Wild About Panda Bear

Photo: Brian Deran

Noah Lennox, also known as Panda Bear, is a solo artist and founding member of the much-loved experimental rock band Animal Collective. One of Lennox and Animal Collective’s biggest fans is actor–music geek Oliver Platt (brother of New York Magazine food critic Adam Platt), who describes Panda Bear’s appeal thusly: “It was my daughter Lily who made me listen to Animal Collective. I was like, ‘Holy crap! What is that?’ Because it’s at once familiar—so freaking Beach Boys—and yet wildly original. And Panda Bear sounds so much like Brian Wilson; he’s got a natural gift for harmony. If there ever was a type of music that you could label as ‘channeled’ on some level, it’s [Panda Bear’s]. I love Animal Collective, but I find his [solo] stuff … I don’t want to say more accessible, but it goes quicker to that place at the back of your neck where your brain stem starts to buzz. And the next thing you know, you’re flinging yourself around the room, crying with the thrill of living.” Such passion deserves a reward. We asked Platt to interview Lennox, 32, who has just released a fourth Panda Bear album, Tomboy, and is working with bandmates David Portner, Josh Dibb, and Brian Weitz on the ninth Animal Collective album. Lennox moved to Portugal in 2004, after marrying Portuguese designer Fernanda Pereira, and Platt is shooting the second season of Showtime’s The Big C in Connecticut, so they spoke by phone.

Lennox, right, performing with Animal Collective in 2009.Photo: Newscom

Oliver Platt: Do you find it hard to talk about how you create? When I’m forced to talk about how I do what I do, I sometimes get embarrassed—the nuts and bolts of it can sound stupid. But it’s also wanting the process to remain mysterious. I want to protect it.
Noah Lennox: It’s like when you get really drunk or something, there’s a loss of control that happens. You get yourself into this place where you’re not thinking about Is my mouth closed? Is my fly up?
Platt: The good news is that directors are always telling me to close my mouth on-camera. They say, “Can we do that again without your mouth hanging open the whole time?” Sadly, I’ve never seen you perform live. But you and the band are known for doing mostly new and un­familiar material when you tour, which I find profoundly brave.
Lennox: We want to play music that we’re excited about. We do things backwards on tour and typically play new songs before they’re recorded and then we play old songs.
Platt: One of the most painful experiences I had professionally was working out a performance in front of people, but that’s what you guys do voluntarily.
Lennox: When we started playing shows, for the first couple years, it was always the same group of people who came to see us, maybe ten or twenty friends. It started to feel like, “Well, it’s the same group, and they’ve already seen these songs, so let’s write new ones.” And then the first tour was, “Let’s have some new songs for the tour.” And we did that, then recorded those songs, and that set us off on this ­cycle. And I think we stuck with it because when I go to a show and I hear stuff I’ve never heard before, I find it really stimulating—there’s no point of reference.
Platt: I tend to download your and ­Animal Collective’s singles when they first come out, and I love the way they evolve when you rerelease them on record. So clearly, you’re trying to capture that feeling of spontaneity in the studio as well.
Lennox: I like to think there’s a part of my brain that turns off after playing a song a bunch of times.
Platt: That’s a good thing or a bad thing?
Lennox: Good. Another part of the brain takes over, where you’re piecing the thing together and thinking more objectively about it, rather than the precision of it or performing it in an exact way. Your thinking about it becomes much freer. You know what I mean?
Platt: I totally do. When you’re doing a play, the repetition is much more intense, and when it really takes off, it’s when the text sinks into a different part of your brain, and that’s when you can play with it. Whereas with film, you’re doing smaller pieces over and over, and you never know the material as well. It’s like being shot out of a cannon instead of a long, mythical journey. I imagine that working in front of a camera is you guys working in a studio, because you have phenomenally accurate instruments and yet you get to do it again and again. Do you get nervous before you perform? ­
Lennox: I always do, yeah, intensely nervous. But one of the reasons I love music is that it can make me forget that there’s an audience—though I don’t think of it as an escape from the people there. It’s the feeling that everybody in the room is focusing on the same thing.
Platt: I was reading Justin Vernon, who calls himself—I can never say his name the way they want me to say it, I just say “Bon Iver [eye-ver].”
Lennox: [Laughs] That’s exactly what I do. I can’t say “Bon EEE-vehr”; it just sounds too pretentious.
Platt: But what he did when he wrote that gorgeous record [For Emma, Forever Ago], heartbroken up in the cabin in Wisconsin, apparently, is that he laid it all down making sounds to the tracks, and when it came time to write the lyrics, he simply listened to those noises and said words to them.
Lennox: That’s a very similar technique to what I do. I always write a melody that has vocal sounds in it without having any words, and then will try to fit words that match those qualities. One of the reasons that I don’t often release lyrics, at least not right away, is that when you don’t have meanings shoved in your face, you find your own way to it. But at the same time, I’m writing the songs for a reason; there is an important something in there somewhere, so I don’t want that to get totally lost. I’m interested in meeting somewhere in the middle.
Platt: This is the magic thing about your music, that the finished product is completely coherent and yet still very mysterious. Didn’t David Byrne famously tell somebody to go stand on the other side of a glass and just talk to him? And he couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he lip-read them and wrote down what he thought they were saying. And those [resulted in] Talking Heads lyrics that you and I probably quote all the time. I love stories like that, because it speaks to the unglamorous, counterintuitive aspects of the creative process.
Lennox: I’ve never felt I was much good at telling stories or making narratives that were imaginary. I’m really not much into flowery language, never thought I was a poet. I wanted to go the opposite way with it and lay out something simple and straightforward.
Platt: I think music fans have these romantic ideas of musicians getting together and jamming, and clearly it doesn’t happen so much anymore. Band members can now write music from different locations—the Postal Service took their name from this very process, right? It’s fascinating that you guys can do this over e-mail. You can be making a record with people—you’re in Portugal, and somebody’s in Baltimore or New York. Yet I’ve read that Animal Collective decided that for the new album, you want to be in the same place.
Lennox: We’re always together in the studio [when we record]. The difference this time was writing the songs in the same place—from January 1 through the end of March, we were all in one room starting from zero, which we haven’t done since 2002.
Platt: One of the things that fascinates me about Animal Collective is that you all have been making music together since you were kids [in Baltimore]. And there is something incredibly playful and primitive and childlike about your music. I can imagine you guys banging on toy pianos and milk crates together when you were young. I listened to a fantastic interview from a few years ago, you and David—I don’t know him, can I call him Dave? Do you call him Dave?
Lennox: Sure, I call him Dave.
Platt: I read this interview in which you were talking about your beloved synthesizers literally as if they were members of your family. That always stayed with me. Do they all live somewhere, or do they belong to the band or to you separately?
Lennox: All the keyboards and sequencers, the boxes and electronics, that’s personal stuff. And you do develop relationships or some kind of friendship with them. I often talk about them as if they were pets. You spend so much time working with this thing, it’s just like training a dog—or sometimes the dog trains or changes you.
Platt: I clearly haven’t listened to all electronic music, but I don’t think of Animal Collective’s music as being electronic. It’s so warm and soulful. So it makes complete sense to me that you think of your synthesizers as pets, because what you get out of them is so alive and natural.
Lennox: It’s a relationship I feel a little weird about.
Platt: I think of you as an international man of mystery. It’s early evening in Lisbon. Are you watching the sun go down over the harbor, having a glass of bold port, considering the beauty of life?
Lennox: Not quite. In half an hour I pick up my 5-year-old daughter from school, then it’ll be home, maybe some baths, some dinner, put the kids in bed. We have an 11-month-old son, so we’re right back to the no sleeping.
Platt: I get a pang hearing you say you’re going to go pick up your child from school. Those are bygone days for me; my three now walk themselves home. Buddy, enjoy your evening, it’s been such a thrill talking to you. I ­really look forward to coming to see you play.
Lennox: Oliver, it was really nice to meet you.

See Also:
Nitsuh Abebe on Animal Collective’s Latest Album, Tomboy

Wild About Panda Bear