Garbled. Babbling. Disorientated: at 3am on a Friday morning, it’s a state that most of Britain’s young adults have narcissistically inflicted upon themselves over the course of the evening prior. I’m all of the above but decidedly sober, sat prodding through the matrix of international and US state dialling codes, smug in the knowledge my head won’t feel like it’s been sat on by a Sumo wrestler in the morning.
The reason for my increasingly sleep-deprived state is Noah Lennox, aka Panda Bear – one part of 2010’s critical darlings Animal Collective. Having decamped from his home in Portugal, he’s back in the familiar surroundings of Baltimore for three months, working on new Animal Collective material and taking the chance to catch up with his “American family.”
“Things are pretty good,” Noah starts, “sort of intense and hectic but I feel like there’s so many good things in my life. I always feel bad about complaining. I’m in Baltimore for three months to work and spend some time with my family over here. I don’t get to see them too often.”
It’s a scenario much in keeping with Animal Collective’s geographically disparate make up. Where most bands have the option of cramming into a rehearsal space at relatively short notice, Panda Bear, Avey Tare, Deakin and Geologist have always taken more of a non-conformist approach that spans the globe and needs planning, with a bit more than an Oyster card to arrange.
“I play in another band called Animal Collective and we’re starting to write new songs, and line those up for a couple of shows in a month or so. Ever since January 1st, we’ve been cracking away at that.”
After the success and acclaim ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ generated early last year, it’s tellingly self-effacing that Noah still feels the need to give his, and Animal Collective’s work, introductory context, even in light of their healthy back catalogues.
In a year that’s also seen Dave Portner (Avey Tare) continue Animal Collective’s rich vein of solo output, with Noah’s ‘Tomboy’, his fourth LP as Panda Bear available in the coming weeks, the group’s on-going success becomes more of a logistical miracle with every release.
“For the past seven years since I moved away, we’ve always sent each other demos and stuff and talked about what we’re thinking about doing, the instruments we’re playing and the vibe and mood of a song or album. There’s a lot of necessary talk and preparation before we actually get together to work on something. This past year, it feels like something we’ve planned for a little bit but it’s been a while since we’ve all been in the same city to make songs from zero.
“We’re lucky to still be kind of growing in terms of getting our music out to people after doing a couple of albums. I feel lucky people still care, and people have stuck with us and we have the potential to get new fans with every record. But with a band like ours too, because of the fact we’re interested and excited by changing things all the time and doing different stuff and introducing different sounds, you’re bound to lose fans too. Everything’s been a steady kind of climb. I guess I can only really gauge by the size of shows.
“Six months down the line I’d like to feel really good about the Animal Collective songs because three months is a really long time for us to work on a group of songs and we’re being super picky about the songs we’re choosing. We’re going on a couple of tours so if we can look back on the summer and feel like we delivered on the ambition and the amount of time we spent on the songs, I’d be happy.”
With that growing success, it’s put Animal Collective and its members’ solo work increasingly under the microscope. On a basic level, the band’s follow up to ‘Merriweather…’ will unforgivingly be held up against its predecessor, and Avey Tare’s and Panda Bear’s albums have, and will be, similarly diminished or empowered by that association. But it’s an external pressure Noah’s ultimately unconcerned by.
“If people hate it I’ll be super-bummed but I’ll probably get over it. It’s a weird thing. If someone really likes it, it’s a bit of a mind warper and could be disruptive. I try not to read too much into anything like that, positive or negative, especially as I don’t know the person writing it. It’s hard to fathom that and to gauge a stranger’s opinion.
“Like if I was writing about food, for example, I’m not a culinary expert, so I might be like, ‘this is lame’ but there might be steps I need to go through to appreciate it, or a certain amount of time has to pass…I mean, I really don’t like asparagus.
“I don’t make music for a specific person or a certain group of people. I’d hope you wouldn’t need to listen to specific records to feel good about the music I make. The universal element is that you don’t need to have studied music to enjoy the emotional thrust of something. It doesn’t matter how you package it because hopefully people are going to feel where you’re coming from.”
To an outsider, balancing the demands of his band responsibilities with his own creative impulses would seemingly represent Noah’s biggest challenge. Either marrying the two and blurring the creative divide or having the conviction to keep the processes separate and focused, brings with it a level of intensity and management many don’t have to contend with. It’s evident, though, that he’s found a ritual that accommodates both and, vitally, has allowed them to flourish.
“For me, it’s all part of the same creative wave. One thing bleeds into the next, and things I learn or figure out for myself pass through onto the next. Even before the four of us all really played music together, we were all making and playing music on our own. It’s something we’ve always done and it’s just a fun natural thing to do and that’s why we continue to do it.
“I think there’s a buffer with three other people. Everyone balances each other out in terms of how you support each other, share the excitement but it also goes the other way too if it doesn’t sound good. It’s a shared thing so you don’t get to have too much self-doubt.
“Personally, making music is a habitual thing for me, whether I’m at home and working on my own stuff or if I’m with the band. I’m always inclined to make music but I feel like a separation makes it easier to focus on one thing at a time. When I’m with the band, I can do that, when I’m at home, I don’t want to say anything else is a distraction but there’s nothing else there.”
The making of ‘Tomboy’ presented Noah with its own set of challenges and demands, and became a daily test of his self-conviction. It’s a recurring theme through the conversation with Noah’s insistence on experimentation and self-compromise, he feels, eking the best out of him.
“I feel like with this solo record, I went through a lot of weird mental stuff. With solo stuff, there’s no buffer zone there and it was just this weird thing that played out in my head. It was pretty much on a daily basis, I just sort of had to push it out and remember that I was working on it and was excited about it and didn’t want it to become detrimental to the process. It was like having a little fly buzzing around…I just needed to swat it.
“If you’re a creative person, it definitely helps to have that self-confidence to see you through the weirder times when you’re second guessing yourself…especially when you get close to something you’re making, it’s hard to be fully objective about it.
“I’ve never felt weighted down by the [album making] process, and there are hard times with it but I’m always excited having finished. I think it’s natural to look forward, though, and there always comes a point where you look to change. Like three years ago it was all guitars, now it’s all samplers, so it’s healthy to think, why don’t I try that?
“It’s not quite a release but it’s a liberating feeling and there’s also a feeling of accomplishment because three years ago you set out to do this thing and to be at the end of it and feel like I did my job – I get a lot of satisfaction from that.”
It’s abundantly clear that comfort and complacence have no place in Noah’s musical make up. Although considered and softly-spoken, Noah’s keen to impress that the force behind his and Animal Collective’s rigorously varied music is one of the few common denominators that permeates throughout: restlessness.
“I feel like when I’m about to do something, I want to force myself into a place that I’m not comfortable with or have a strong understanding of, like the last album, and ‘Merriweather…’ aswell. I was using these two samplers, and after two records of using them and playing live, I felt like I was doing the same thing over and over again. There were specific boundaries, at least in terms of the way I had to make the songs – I had to use two or three pieces of sound and you’re not going to get a lot of chord changes in there – and a lot of the songs were based on one, maybe two chords.
“With the ‘Person Pitch’ songs, I got into mixing those sounds together to make bigger sounds, so before I get into what I want to do or song titles, I knew I wanted to change my gear set up and I knew I didn’t want to use the samplers. That was the easiest way to make sure I wasn’t going to go the same way, for myself.
“I can’t say I’ve ever felt comfortable but there’s definitely bands I love who do the same things well, so I’m not going to hate on that, but I get restless about it and we’ll call each other out and say, ‘you’ve used that sound before,’ or, ‘that guitar line has the same sound as something else.’ We’re all uptight about that. It’s the challenge of doing something new and forcing yourself to a new a place, even though it can be painful and annoying, it’s more rewarding on the other end. Whether we get there or not, we’re always trying to get to that place.”
And rightly so, because ‘Tomboy’ has been some time coming. Rumoured for release late last autumn, the LP never quite materialised. Released on Animal Collective’s own Paw Tracks label, its delay was for decidedly innocuous reasons, but the end result was the right one.
“My initial target was to be done by September but I missed that by a long shot. How it went down, well, it was early on in the process, and I don’t think I’d recorded anything, and I said to someone I was hoping to be done by September and that just became it. Around July, I definitely knew I wasn’t going to make it but I didn’t want to rush it out. I wasn’t going on vacation or nothing, I was just plodding away at it and finished the recording early November and set about on the final process of mixing it which took about two months.”
So having taken the decision to make sure the album was given the right release, Noah’s considered in his expectations for ‘Tomboy’ and is buoyed by his own progress and improvement.
“It’s sort of hard to define. I sort of have a target for myself and it’s more of a feeling, really. The bare minimum I wanted was to feel as though I was improving and that I’d taken it a step further. In terms of how it’s received, I have no control over that whatsoever so I just stick to personal goals.
“I haven’t listened to it in a little while but the last couple of times I listened to it; there was always a different favourite song. I would say ‘Tomboy’, the title track stands out for me because it was one of the first ones I did and it feels like a real odd song for me and unlike any song I’ve ever done.
“I didn’t have a grand theme, lyrically, I just picked and chose, and it was only when I stepped back and looked at them again that I realised that four or five of the tracks had a common theme of something that was two opposing things at the same time, or something that had an inner conflict. That’s why the Tomboy became this image for all the songs on the album; just that feeling of not being in the right place at the right time and thinking about my life and those experiences that had those qualities and I felt that.
“I think some of the other songs have some qualities of my older songs, but ‘Tomboy’ feels more aggressive and the form of it is really weird, but the way that the vocals, the guitar and the two drums are doing different things but working together at the same time I think embodies the spirit of the album; the sense that things can work against each other and with each other at the same time.”
At face value, it’s a wonderfully reflective microcosm of Noah’s own life: two families, two countries and two musical personalities constantly revolving. He’s a man that should feel like the sun, imposing his own gravitational pull on everything around him. But as fans of both Animal Collective and Panda Bear will attest, the lure is much more natural; another relaxed balance Noah is happy to maintain in both his life and his music. Or at least attempt to.
“At the end of this year I’m going to sit back and rest and relax at home but then after like two days, it might not be going into the studio and banging on the drums or the keys, but I’ll start thinking, it might be cool to do a song like that, or what that person just said would be a really good song lyric. Whether I want to or not, I just think like that. I’ll be 33 in July and I’ve been making songs since I was 14 or so, so you do something long enough, there’s a point of no return.”
It’s a co-ordinate Noah’s creative zeal shows no sign of deviating from, and for a musician driven by an ingenious progression for much of his life; that vision shows no sign of failing him, or those around him, anytime soon.
“It’s one thing to stop releasing music, I don’t think that’ll be difficult, but it’s totally different to fully stop thinking about creating music. I think that’ll be impossible for me. I’m almost positive that I’ll get lamer as I go. I’m just hoping I see the point where I see that I fully suck and recognise it. Although I think at a certain point you just don’t care…I’m trying to keep a sharp eye on that.”
Originally published in issue 26 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. March 2011