Panda Bear Made an Album to Impress His Kids and It Didn't Work
'Buoys' draws on trap's sonic architecture in order to appeal to young ears. Even if his kids are still embarrassed, it's a stunning pop statement.
Getting older offers some pitfalls for an experimentally minded musician. Touring starts to feel more like an unsustainable energy drain. Life responsibilities start to encroach on the disposable income you once had to blow on boutique synth modules. Noah Lennox – the musician who’s recorded loopy, layered compositions as Panda Bear for most of the last two decades – has been doing his best to fight these effects. Slouching in an armchair in an ornately decorated event space owned by an audio equipment company in downtown Manhattan, he explains what he’s been up to in the three years and change since his last album, which, by design, hasn’t been a whole lot. In between the touring he’s done, both on his own and as a member of Animal Collective, he’s mostly been doing his best to settle into a routine with his wife and kids in Lisbon, where he’s lived for over a decade now.
“I think consistency makes it easier to be a happy person,” he says, tugging at the drawstrings on an oversized hoodie. “Having kids balanced me mentally a little bit. With school and everything you’re locked into a daily routine, which I dig.”
Lennox turned 40 last year, and more than ever he says he’s in a balanced place. It’s a good place for him to be, he says, because having his life in order allows him to take some more risks in his music. “I think about stuff less than I used to,” he says, with a laugh. “It feels amazing.” He says he started to feel the process happen on his 2015 album Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, which he describes as “more cavalier” than anything he’d made before. He’s able to silence his inner critic and do things like “Mr. Noah,” a seasick, self-referential track built around the sounds of yowling dogs and some slippery nonsense wordplay. Foregrounding his voice, it was an oblique version of pop from an artist who’d always kept those sorts of dopamine hits at an arm’s length. “I wouldn’t have made a song like ‘Mr. Noah’ seven years ago,” he says. “I would’ve had a bunch more hang-ups about it.”
That record’s follow-up, Buoys, came out last week on Domino, and it’s a push further into the pure-pop direction that “Mr. Noah” hinted at. The production, which Lennox handled alongside Rusty Santos (and old friend who’d previously helped out on the beloved Person Pitch and has recently been working on pop and reggaeton), favours a sort of clarity that Lennox has never embraced in his solo work. Doing away with the hyper-layered approach of his past work, there’s often just a few moving parts on each track: a high-pitched percussion element, Lennox’s voice, an acoustic guitar, and crucially, some heaving sub-bass programming. (That last bit is so important to the overall experience that the label included a listening note to press, advising to check the record on a good set of speakers.)
It’s a risky proposition, but it’s done with a specific purpose in mind. Conscious of the fact that he’s ageing, he says in the record’s press materials that he wanted to make a record that felt sonically familiar to younger listeners. So he chose those elements carefully, wanting to echo the production approach of trap – which pushes a treated vocal to the foreground and leans on a hi-hat and chest-caving bass to do most of the emotional heavy lifting. Partly, it was to make music his kids would relate to, since his 13-year-old daughter Nadja’s reaction to his music is mostly embarrassment. He’s not sure if it’s worked this time, but that’s OK, that’s part of growing up too. “Knowing no matter what I do they aren’t gonna dig it, it’s like, ‘Well, then I’ll do whatever,’” he says.
Noisey: What did it practically mean to make music that made sense to, as you said in the press materials, “younger people’s ears”?
Noah Lennox: There were a lot of things about the songwriting that were weird enough that making something that was – on the surface – something my daughter would consider more normal felt justified. [There’s] contemporary things that I get excited by. It’s mostly producers, and mostly from the states: Mike WiLL, Zaytoven, Metro Boomin.
A lot of Atlanta.
Yeah. I know it doesn’t sound like a trap record, but when I think about the sonic architecture, it’s really similar to me. It’s mostly hi-hat, a really loud vocal that’s treated in a synthetic way, and then sub bass. To me, that’s how most trap is set up, sonically speaking. And I wanted to make something that felt like a mirror of that. The guitar [on Buoys] is sort of the odd thing out, which I think is why Rusty was obsessed with getting it to sound really manufactured. He was not into anything sounding performed. We did the performative aspects of the tracks first, and then spent the rest of the time breaking that down. We were treating the voices in a way that makes it sound plastic almost. But also talking to my kids about what they consider “normal-sounding” music is just fascinating to me.
Do your kids think you make not-normal music?
For sure [laughs]. They think my stuff’s super weird.
What’s their reaction to it?
I think for my daughter it’s… embarrassment, and shame. My son is kind of down for anything. He’ll say he likes it just because he wants to support me, but Nadja is like “ugh.” When you’re a teenager and your dad is into something I think you’re just like “I don’t want to be into that.” I don’t think it’s mean-spirited, I just think it’s a natural state of being for a kid that age. I don’t take offence.
You’ve talked before about kinda being cool with getting older. Aside from your kids, what makes you focused on the younger generation of listeners?
I guess part of it is feeling like I want to do different stuff all the time. Even if the new thing doesn’t land as hard. I’d rather keep trying to explore unknown spaces, just for myself. Old people kinda harden up. They crystallise in a way where they’re not really down for that. Younger folks are more open I guess.
Did working with Rusty again push you in this direction?
Yeah and I assumed it would. I hadn’t seen him in six years, but I’d always appreciated the stuff he was working on. We’d send each other emails every once in a while just saying what’s up. Randomly he was in Lisbon working on other stuff and once he was telling me what he was working on I was interested to hear what the stuff I was working on would sound like filtered through his headspace.
How did your kids ultimately respond to the stuff on this record?
I think I’ve only played “Dolphin” for them and I didn’t get a great response, so it was like “eh, I don’t think it’s worth it to play the rest of it.” Maybe they’ll [understand] in the future. I don’t think I can say “listen to this,” they’ll just have to come to it on their own volition.
Tell me about the role that water plays in this record. It’s called Buoys , the first song is called “Dolphin” and the first line is “To the sea.” What weight does water hold for you?
It’s not just this record, it goes back a ways. It’s hard for me to say beyond two things. Every city I’ve lived in my life has been close to the sea so it’s kind of been representative of a safe space or home. Beyond that, I’d wager that the sea symbolically represents the unknown for me, a frontier, a fantastical zone I want to get to or understand. Perhaps that’s why I invoke it.
You live close to water now, right?
Yeah, the coast is like a ten-minute drive from my place. There’s a river that cuts into the land and Lisbon is all along that river. You can smell the sea some mornings from my place. Baltimore is on a bay. And then I lived in Boston which is near the water. And New York is near the water.
Are you a beach person?
This might be a hot take, but I’m going to say the beach is overrated. Beaches and malls I love when there’s nobody there. The beach at night is dope. But crowds of people, I don’t do well.
What do you feel when you look out at the water?
Any time there’s something that’s visually simple, I feel calm. Maybe that’s obvious but when things are busy I get stressed out. At the beach, you’ve got the sand color and then the sky and the ocean kind of blur together to me. So I like that simplistic view. But beyond that there’s something sort of terrifying, also. The abyss of it is kind of scary to me.
One of the scariest feelings I’ve ever had was in Australia on a tour with Animal Collective. Two of the guys in the band are licensed scuba divers. So they were going to do a dive. Dave and I don’t have the license so we were just going to snorkel. We took the boat out half an hour, far enough that you couldn’t see the land anymore. Those guys went off to go deeper into the water. I remember just plopping down into the water and I had goggles on. I looked down and I just saw emptiness. I kinda couldn’t breathe for a second. I stayed in the water for a while but the initial blast of “there’s just nothing” was terrifying. It was still nerve-wracking the rest of the time.
Does the environment come into play in your writing? It’s hard to think so much about the ocean without thinking of the trash islands and rising sea levels.
I don’t know that it’s there in any explicit way but there’s a lot of talk of humility and I feel like if we could all embrace a little more humility those types of problems would be a little easier to solve.
I was taking out the garbage from my apartment the other night and I said to my wife “I have a feeling that in 20, 30 years even the concept that we’re here like accumulating trash and throwing it in the ground somewhere is going to seem ludicrous.” But I don’t know that I address it in any direct way in the songs.
What do you mean by humility?
It’s respect for other people and it’s also wanting for myself to feel less self-important. More a part of everything rather than an individual perspective on stuff. Having kids and growing older has been part of [that journey]. For the first part of my life it was all people caring for me. The decisions that I would make were for myself. Then when you have kids everything’s the same, but it’s targeted toward the kid. That’s a grand shift that happens for anybody who has kids. Once that happened for me, that got me thinking about that stuff. I don’t know if it will resonate with people. I’m not trying to make any demands or preach in any kind of way. I hope it just comes across more as presenting something for someone to consider, rather than saying “you should think like this.” I don’t dig that attitude.
Also it’s reflected on the production side of things. My impulse before, and this is something that connects the previous three records, anytime my mind would wander when I was listening to a mix, I would add something to it. Something that would keep somebody’s attention. This time I wanted to make something that seduced your attention rather than club you over the heard with a new sound.
You don’t want to be didactic.
Yeah. Some people are really good at that. Maybe it’s just a lack of self-confidence, but I don’t intend to make anything that has that perspective. I think it goes deeper than just stuff that I make. I’ve noticed it’s a weakness of my parenting. Sometimes my kids need me to be more like “don’t do that” rather than “please don’t do that and here’s why.” Sometimes I think it’d be better for them to be a bit more demonstrative.
How does that work for you in the face of injustice? Or when you see something that’s objectively wrong? Are you more inclined to make a firm statement?
I’d hope so. I don’t think I’ve had a challenge like that in my life so far. What’s going on politically in this country is kinda the first time that I’ve felt inspired to engage with politics in any sort of way with the music. But even so, I’m engaging with it in a not-so-obvious way. It speaks to my character again. It’s not like “this is wrong,” it’s “maybe we should be more humble and it wouldn’t produce results like this.” It’s something I admire about my wife, she’ll just be like, “no, you can’t do this.“ I’m more passive. I’m psyched that my kids have both of those perspectives. If it was two people like me I’d be more worried for them.
When you talk about feeling like you need to engage politically –
I feel like we’ve all been forced to. Whether we want to or not. I feel like I know more about what’s happening politically here than in Portugal. It’s hard to ignore these days. It’s encroached on moral and ethical lines in a way that it probably was before, but not in as obvious a way.
I hope to make something that felt like a salve for that. It’s weird to write a record that feels like a love letter to humanity in these times, and that’s what I hope to do I suppose.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.