4:09pm

Fri April 1, 2011
Music Interviews

Panda Bear: Sounds Like Home

At the end of 2009, if you glanced at a rock critic's "best of" list, Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion was probably on it. The album followed what had been 10 years of recording and touring for the band, but soft-spoken member Noah Lennox took the newfound success in stride.

"I think one thing that helped us is that we had kind of a slow build," Lennox tells Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "It wasn't like we were playing to 10 people and then suddenly we were playing shows of 20,000 people or something like that."

Another thing that might have helped: Lennox was far, far away from the limelight. A few years ago, he moved from his hometown of Baltimore to Lisbon, Portugal.

Lennox also records as a solo artist under the name Panda Bear. His third album, 2007's Person Pitch, also landed on many year-end lists, and his fourth, Tomboy, comes out this month. Lennox says Tomboy has a darker feel than much of his past work, due in part to his work habits in the basement studio where he recorded it.

"There are no windows, so every day I would go in there and turn off the lights and have my gear set up," Lennox says. "You can't help but have the atmosphere and environment come out in what you're doing."

Lennox's music, both as Panda Bear and in Animal Collective, is dense and filled with soaring refrains, which he creates using sequencers, synthesizers and many layers of vocals.

"I like to think of it like salt and pepper — you put these weird little sounds in there to spice up the song," he says. "I'll often think about making music and making food. I'm a terrible chef, though."

Tomboy also sports another trademark of Lennox's catalog: a cavernous sound heavy with reverberant echoes, much like those that occur naturally in the churches of Lisbon. Lennox says he's always been attracted to those big, hollow tones.

"These stone buildings that have really high ceilings ... it's always been a type of sound I've been drawn to," he says. "I kind of slap it on everything, unfortunately. Music just sounds really good to me in that kind of space." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(Soundbite of music)

GUY RAZ, host:

At the end of 2009, if you checked a music critic's best of list, this was probably on it. It's an album called "Merriweather Post Pavilion" by the band Animal Collective. It followed 10 long years of recording and touring for the band. And their soft-spoken front man Noah Lennox took his newfound success in stride.

Mr. NOAH LENNON (Music Artist): I think one thing that helped us is that we had kind of a slow build. It wasn't like we were playing to 10 people and then suddenly we were playing shows of 20,000. So there was never this moment that kind of felt like overwhelming or anything like that.

RAZ: Another thing that might have helped, Noah Lennox was far, far away from the limelight. A few years back, he moved from his hometown of Baltimore to Lisbon in Portugal. Lennox also records as a solo artist under the name Panda Bear, and he's been working on his latest album for the past three years. It's called "Tomboy."

And while there are traces of the uplifting influence of Brian Wilson for sure, Noah Lennox thinks this new music has a somewhat darker feel than his past work.

Mr. LENNOX: From the last record to this one, I found a studio space in Lisbon. And it's down in this basement, this little bunker down there, and there's no windows. So every day, I would go in there and turn off all the lights and, you know, just have my gear set up and, you know, I would work on the songs.

I wasn't thinking of the thing as being a sort of dark, lonely thing, but I think it kind of came out that way. I think you can't help but have the atmosphere and the environment kind of come out in what you're doing.

RAZ: Because when you're working with Animal Collective, you can all sort of bounce ideas off each other.

Mr. LENNOX: Mentally, yeah. It's like a totally different thing.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LENNOX: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

RAZ: For people who may not be familiar with your work, explain how you actually produce music, because some of it, of course, is done through computers, right?

Mr. LENNOX: It's all recorded on a computer, although I don't like to mess around too much with tweaking the sounds in the computer. I usually try to keep all that live and sort of performance-based.

RAZ: And - but there are all these different layers to the music you produce. And I want to play actually a bit of a track from the record. It's called "Friendship Bracelet," for a moment, before I ask you to kind of walk me through the process of that song.

Mr. LENNOX: Sure.

(Soundbite of song, "Friendship Bracelet")

Mr. LENNOX: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

RAZ: Tell me what we're hearing here. Can you break it down for us?

Mr. LENNOX: There's many layers of vocals, although they're all sort of singing the same things.

RAZ: They're your vocals.

Mr. LENNOX: Yes. And it may kind of sound just like one voice, but to hear my voice singing just, you know, one recording is pretty weak sounding, I'm afraid. But I tend to go for that sort of multi-tracked vocal thing. And then there's a synthesizer kind of doing this weird bubbling sort of thing.

And then there's several layers of percussive elements, clapping and making little hits here and there. And then besides that, I like to think of like salt and pepper. You just kind of like, put these weird little sounds in there to spice up the song. It usually keeps my mind traveling through the song.

(Soundbite of song, "Friendship Bracelet")

Mr. LENNOX: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

RAZ: It's funny because right before you said salt and pepper, I was picturing a chef. It really is like that. It's sort of this kind of intuitive sense of, should I add some of this and a little bit of this?

Mr. LENNOX: I'll often think about making music and making food. I'm a terrible chef, but...

RAZ: You live in a, you live in a good...

Mr. LENNOX: ...I don't know what that means.

RAZ: ...you live in a good food city, though.

Mr. LENNOX: I do.

RAZ: My guest is Noah Lennox. He's also known as Panda Bear. His new album is called "Tomboy."

Forgive me for this. I mean, there's almost a religious sound. And I don't mean religious in the liturgical sense, but religious like powerful, like almost like you're making modern electronic versions of these soaring Christian compositions of the 18th and 19th centuries as cavernous sound by composers like Bach and Handel and Edenheiden(ph). Do you kind of approach it that way?

Mr. LENNOX: Most definitely. And I feel like, for those guys, I couldn't say for sure, but what it seems like, it was kind of like a special event or not something that they would just do on a Friday night or something, you know what I mean? And although I try not to take it maybe that seriously, I'm definitely more in that zone of thinking about music. Music for me is definitely not something I feel super casual about.

(Soundbite of song, "Friendship Bracelet")

Mr. LENNOX: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

RAZ: You ever go into churches in Lisbon and just listen to music?

Mr. LENNOX: I do sometimes go into churches, but I haven't been into a church where's there been music as of yet.

RAZ: It seems like you take some of that atmosphere and you put it on this record, that soaring, big, ethereal sound.

Mr. LENNOX: Well, it's interesting because if you're talking about Bach, cats like that, and they would write music for that atmosphere and, you know, these stone buildings. I have really high ceilings. And there's a natural reverb in there. And ever since I was young, I just love the sound of big reverbs, and that's that.

It's essentially just an effect that you put on a sound that makes it sound as if it's in this really big room. It's always been a type of sound that I've been drawn to, maybe too much. I kind of slap it on everything, unfortunately. But I guess music just sounds really good to me in that kind of space.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LENNOX: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

RAZ: That's Noah Lennox. He performs under the name Panda Bear, usually with the group Animal Collective. His new solo album is called "Tomboy."

Noah Lennox, thanks very much for coming in.

Mr. LENNOX: Thanks very much for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LENNOX: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

RAZ: And if you want to hear Noah spin a few of his favorite new records as the guest DJ over at All Songs Considered, check out our website, nprmusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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