by / April 30th, 2008 /

Interview: Panda Bear of Animal Collective

When State initially calls Noah Lennox aka Panda Bear at his home in Lisbon, Portugal, we get a confused Portugese granny on the other end. Despite the language barrier, it’s obvious she is anything but happy that we have rudely interrupted her. Wrong number. We ring it twice. Oops. The next day we finally get hold of the correct phone number and Noah is only too happy (if a little shy) to talk to us.

First, an explanation of a typical Animal Collective live show:

Even for an AC enthusiast, seeing the band live can be a bewildering and cathartic experience. Their recorded output varies from hyperactive, wailing lo-fi campfire folk songs to shape-shifting, upbeat, alternative noise pop. In a live setting, limitations are further stretched and prodded in an experimental direction with the most recent Irish show characterised by improvised drone-based compositions of long length.

This modus operandi stems from the band working roughly a year or so ahead of their recorded output as Noah tells State – ‘It started because when we were first doing shows in New York, it was always the same group of people there to see us play, so we felt like we needed to come up with something new to play for each show. That set us on on this trend of touring with songs we hadn’t recorded yet. That’s become the normal way of doing things for us.’

It’s not necessarily a bad thing to challenge your audience in such a way. At the very least, the show will always be a surprise, a working rehearsal, a glimpse of what’s to come in the future. Fans of the band have taken to documenting these gigs the old fashioned way – through bootlegging. Animal Collective are only too happy to let that continue – ‘It feels really good man,’ Noah enthuses. ‘To realise people are so hyped on it that they are downloading bootlegs and trading tapes and all that. I know for some of the guys in the band – with bands like Pavement and Grateful Dead – they were part of a community who would trade tapes and stuff. So they are psyched they are doing that with our music too. It’d good that people care and like the music so much to do that kind of thing. ‘

It may also surprise you to learn that despite the amount of live shows Noah and Animal Collective play each year, Noah is not entirely comfortable in the live arena. When he closes his eyes on stage and sings to the darkness of his eyelids he may just be trying to remove himself from that place and time for a reason. ‘Playing live I have a strange relationship with,’ he explains. ‘I’m sort of a shy person and I have a weird fear. I guess it’s agoraphopia [An anxiety disorder, brought upon by the fear of having a panic attack in a place from which there is no easy means of escape.]. As soon as I’m in a crowd, I’ll make a beeline for anywhere else. ‘ It used to be a whole lot worse but constant touring has helped – ‘ I feel like I’m a lot better off these days after years of touring but I still feel those tendencies. ‘

2007 must have been a particular strenuous year for Noah then, as Animal Collective toured constantly throughout. Also, under his Panda Bear moniker Noah released his acclaimed solo album Person Pitch. More on that later. When not on tour, Noah heads home to Lisbon where he lives with his wife and daughter, while the rest of the band return to the US. The band only get together two or three times a year for intense periods to work on new material. They are currently recording a new album and much of the material is following the live shows, by forgoing the use of guitar – ‘The record that were are in the middle of working on is definitely…dictated by the equipment that we’re using which is all samplers and strictly electronic. So we’re pretty electronic these days for sure. I definitely feel like a control over the sound and effects is what’s highlighted these days, rather than how well we can play our instruments,’ he elaborates. ‘It’s very much audio manipulation and singing based. Those two elements along with the rhythm going on are the focus.’

Animal Collective – Water Curses

In the interim, this month the band will release Water Curses EP, a 4-track collection of Strawberry Jam-era recordings that have been re-worked as a result of those sessions.

‘They definitely feel like a piece of Strawberry Jam to me but we mixed and finalised those songs after SJ came out. It does have a different quality to it. It’s a little more… I feel like the stuff we weren’t totally happy with on SJ – we kind of fixed for Water Curses.’

What weren’t they happy with?

‘You’d probably get a different answer depending on who you ask in the band. I think the way things sounded as far as the mixing went, we changed that up. Dave re-recorded some of the singing parts. It was all tightened up and made a little shinier. Like SJ to me is very gnarly, spiky, kinda weird and gelatinous. I feel like we smoothed things out.’

State enquires whether the band see a marked difference in their current songwriting compared to their earlier, more impenetrable output. ‘In some ways I feel it hasn’t changed all that much. The process has quickened and I feel like the roles we are all playing, have become familiar to us,’ Noah says. ‘I feel the song-writing now is a lot tighter and less abstract than it used to be. It used to be kind of…. conceptual is such a crappy word, I don’t want to use that word. I guess abstract is the word. It was a lot harder for us all to get on the same page but when we did it was a powerful thing. These days the songs are these tight little nuggets so it’s not as vague what’s called for. ‘

In contrast, his solo record Person Pitch is a lot more elongated. An album with Beach Boys-esque harmonies, swooshing electronics, ambient effects, cheerful percussion and reverb aplenty, the reaction it received bemused Noah who was reaching for a distinct audience – ‘ I definitely meant it as a digital thing. The whole process was digital. Every step was digital. I was excited about that idea and it being an internet thing.’ The reaction was so postive that fans called out for a vinyl release, a notion Noah wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about but State assures him it sounds great – ‘It does? OK that’s good. When I was producing the songs I definitely didn’t want to have a typical cold feeling to it so hopefully, the vinyl supports that intention.’ In fact, he has never heard the vinyl version but for a very simple reason. ‘I don’t have a record player at home.. or a stereo! If I do listen to anything at home, it’s just through the computer but I don’t listen to music too often.’

Animal Collective return to Dublin on May 19th for a show in Tripod. On their last sojourn to Dublin on November 2007, singer Avey Tare caught the flu before the gig and couldn’t sing. Noah took over and played some Panda Bear material towards the end. This time around, Noah has promised to give the audience a full Animal Collective show. Just don’t expect the latest single to get an airing.

Performing new song ‘House’ @ Coachella 2008 (April 2008).

Links: Animal Collective | Panda Bear

  • Frank

    interesting read. great live vid of ‘house’, reminds me how much they missed Avey’s singing at the last Dublin gig.

  • Having Panda Bear songs live wouldn’t be a problem for mw whatsoever!