Animal Collective's Panda Bear on playing drums again and the influence of Aphex Twin
Animal Collective is one of the most critically acclaimed and popular bands to come out of the American underground in the past fifteen years. The outfit's true synthesis of the avant-garde with pop and psychedelia has yielded a handful of albums that have had a profound impact on a huge swath of bands, some of the more interesting guitar-pop acts of the past decade.
On its most recent album, Centipede Hz, Animal Collective returned to its roots of using organic sounds in unconventional ways and delivered the most richly evocative albums of its career. We had the rare opportunity to speak with the band's percussionist, the amiable and contemplative Noah "Panda Bear" Lennox about some of his musical influences, the return of his role as the band's drummer and how Latin rhythms of various traditions fed into those found on the new record.
Westword: How did you find out about Aphex Twin?
Noah "Panda Bear" Lennox: It was a girlfriend of mine, actually, when I was a teenager. She had the ...I Care Because You Do album. The first couple of tracks were a little gnarly for me at the time. I really like 'em now, but it was a bit too sharp for me at the time. I don't know where my head was at. There was one song on it near the end that, once I heard it, I would always ask her to play it for me again. I was super psyched on it. It just took me a while to acclimate to what was going because I didn't really know any other music that sounded like that. He was definitely a gateway to a lot of different kinds of gateway to me.
In what way would you say that music had an impact on how you think about making your own music?
I definitely went through a period where I was copying his style. That guy Squarepusher, too. I'd make a lot of really fast, drum programming stuff. It was really not very good. But I guess when you're young and you're making stuff -- maybe I'm just trying to forgive myself -- you just test things out, and I think that's what I was doing. He definitely gave me the juice to make stuff and try to find my own sort of way with everything.
Is there a period of his work that you find more interesting now than you did then?
I feel like he's done a lot different stuff. Maybe that, more than anything, is inspirational for me; besides just doing cool tracks, the breadth of what he's done, is super inspiring.
Did you ever get to see him play live?
I did. It was at a Coachella. Maybe not the most ideal place. It was during the day, too. Festival shows during the day are always kind of doozies. But he had a cool vibe. He sat down like he was at a desk. On either side of him were huge speakers pointed right at his ears. I thought that was pretty cool. He sort of just deejayed '90s hip-hop for the first thirty minutes or so, and slowly, he started to play his own tracks, and went all over the place from there.
It seemed like he started playing a bunch of shows a year or a year and a half ago. It seemed like he was gearing up for something, like he was going to release something, but I haven't really heard anything. Maybe he's just sort of taking his time with it. I'm sure it'll be super ripping. Take your time, Richard.
You've cited Black Dice as an influence on what you do as a musician and how you conduct your creative life. What are some specific things you learned from those guys that you thought were important?
Part of it's an attitude about the way they deal with their business or deal with their band. They take it seriously, but they also have fun. Those are two very inspirational elements for ways to approach my own music. I feel like they're always sort of reaching for something or exploring new sounds or new ways of making their music and never really kind of resting. I think that's super cool and I hope to be that way all the time.
Other than having connective noise between songs, why did you want to have continuous sounds running throughout the album and for your shows for Centipede Hz?
For shows, it's something we've done for a really long time. And I think in the live sitting -- although I can't remember having a conversation about it -- is to highlight the set as a whole, rather than the sum of its parts. To create some sort of unified experience. I think some groups of songs seemed to lend themselves to that more than others.
Going into this record, we knew we wanted it to be a more organic-feeling type of thing, something that seemed like it was performed live, more so than certainly our last album, which was more pieced together. Even though we could perform it live, it was a way more stripped down version of it. So going into the recording of the record, we wanted it to resemble one of our live shows probably more than any other album that we've done that I can think of.
There's an old OMD album that makes extensive use of radio sounds across the whole album called Dazzle Ships. Are you familiar with that album?
Yeah. I don't have it, but it's definitely been played on many tours. I know the other guys are big fans for sure. I like OMD a lot. I'd love to see them play. I feel like I heard something about them recently, too, as if they are getting ready to play again.
You've gone back to playing live drums for this album and tour? What is it about the physicality of playing the music that way that's satisfying, and what do you find challenging about it?
After we did the touring for the last group of songs, it was like we stood at our stations, and it was more of a mental exercise. There wasn't much of the body in it, you know what I mean? It was more like really concentrating on the sounds that all of us were making. You shift the sounds with your fingers, so it was more like playing a video game or something like that.
It was cool and super fun, and I definitely had a good time playing. But I think I speak for all of us in saying we were just ready to go the other way and have the shows be more visceral and physical and more of a workout. We've done performances like that in the past, and I guess we missed it a little bit.
Since I haven't played sitting down at drums, and since drumming is such a physical exercise, I guess that seemed like the easiest way to kick start that process. I knew I wanted to sit down on the drums, and once we all got together and started to play, it was a matter of coming up with the pieces of the kit that had the sounds I thought would fit into what all the other guys were bringing to the table at the time.
There was an interview, perhaps in Pitchfork, where you talked about going back to Baltimore to record. It sounded like it wasn't as much fun for you to be back there. Is there anything that has changed that you found interesting?
It was totally different. I hadn't been in Baltimore regularly since I was fourteen. I'm 35 now. So it's quite a different place. Probably the weirdest thing for me was just when I was there; I was taking my daughter to school. It wasn't the same building, but it was the same school I went to when I was young. So living life on the opposite end of the spectrum was kind of weird. It was a surreal time overall.
There was definitely some kind of dark things moving around. Me and my wife were sick the whole time. I kept on having bloody noses. It was weird. I don't know if it was the air quality at my mom's house or what. It was a bit of a rough time, but you have those from time to time but you have to press on through.
Brian Weitz did an interview with an Australian magazine where he talked about how songs felt like centipedes and how your drums provide that sonic imagery. Would you agree with that?
Yeah, mostly in the...I can't remember what they're called but Marc Pell, from a band called Micachu and the Shapes, who is a super good drummer, is way more knowledgeable on the technical side of things than I am. They went on tour with us last September, and he said, "Everything you play is one pattern. This kind of fast pattern."
I could see how those rolling sort of drum beats that I do have a snaky or slither-y quality to them. He's something else with the drums. I realized a long time ago I was never going to compete with the good drummers, so I felt like what I was going to concentrate on was doing cool sounds with the drums and be less virtuosic with it because I'm not very good.
Imagination counts for a lot more with most people than sheer virtuosity. And that's where you are not lacking.
Sweet. Thank you. I appreciate that.
In Consequence of Sound, they put out a list of seventeen songs that influenced your latest album. How did you become aware of so much of that music that's comfortably outside the realms of the average music fan in the English-speaking world?
It comes from all over. There's so many sources. The biggest one for me is that I worked at a record store called Other Music in New York for four and a half years. I didn't work on the sales floor because they realized I would be really bad at that really quickly, so I just worked at a computer. But up in the office it was a tight space, and we would be doing our computer tasks, and we would rotate who chose what music was playing.
So, basically, all day long, I would be working at a computer and just hearing records from all over, records I'd never heard before and music I'd never heard before because it was a pretty diverse group up there. I feel like that's where I really built up my vocabulary, you could say, for music.
Besides that, I feel like I'm lucky to know people that have interests in all sorts of different music and are just enthusiastic about music. Especially on tour, I'll hear all kinds of new music, and people will ask if I've heard this track, or that band, or whatever. I feel like I'm just sort of a curious person in terms of music.
The kinds of stuff I'm most excited about is what's going on currently. And that's not really an area that I feel like a lot of people I know are super interested in. It's not like they don't care but I feel like, at least of the people I know, I'm sort of the most rabid about new stuff. That's just internet trolling. That's kind of my bag.
What is something newer that has caught your interest of late?
Do you know Todd Terje? He's a Norwegian producer. He did a Hot Chip remix. He deejays a lot, but he's also done some of his own productions, all of which are really sick. But that's something I came across on the Internet on some website. I'm blanking on others, but he's the first guy that comes to mind. You know how it is when you have a test, and suddenly you can't remember anything.
What is about him that you find interesting?
The journey of the song, the way he crafts that, is amazing to me. In the track, there'll be maybe six elements, and the way he'll manipulate those elements to create a longer story or a longer journey, is really cool. It's masterfully done.
What is it about the rhythms and sound of chicha, or psychedelic cumbias, that interests you?
Overall, for these songs, there are Latin rhythms and a world of rhythm and drumming that, I'm ashamed to say, I didn't pay attention to. When I heard old psych cumbia stuff, that really sort of dictated a lot of the kinds of sounds I wanted to use, in terms of the bongos. I have this weird, metal cylinder thing called a güira. I don't think I use it properly, but it has a metallic clank to it that I really like.
I don't know; that there are any rhythms on the record that are overtly that kind of Latin style. There's several famous Latin styles, but I feel like one of the singles we released before the album came out, I forget the final title, has the most overtly Latin feel to it.
Do you still use the Dr. Sample when you play live or in the studio?
In the studio all the time. It's like our secret weapon.
Is it true you got into using those things because of the hip-hop artist Madlib? J. Dilla used them pretty extensively, as well.
Yeah. I didn't know J. Dilla used them, but that doesn't surprise me. They sound a certain way, and maybe this is a placebo thing in my brain, but I feel like the [BOSS SP] 202 doesn't sound like that. I started playing with two 555s, and I just feel like they don't sound the same. They changed the effects in ways I didn't like. They're a lot more sturdy now, so I stuck with them because they wouldn't break as much on tour. But I probably have four or five 303s now.
How would you describe that sound?
It feels like they put some kind of compression on it that makes everything sound really nice. It's hard to say. There's certain bits of equipment that are transparent, and that's really great in its own way, when a piece of equipment doesn't give any sort of attitude or characteristic to a sound.
Other times, a microphone or a certain compressor, or even a tape machine, or whatever, they change the sound in a way. There's a noticeable imprint that a piece of gear will put on something. I feel like the 303 definitely does some sort of weird mojo to the little samples you use. The effects themselves, there's two or three of them that I use on everything all the time -- maybe to the point where I felt like I've used them too much, and I've been trying steer myself away from them lately. For a while, they were my go-to moves.
What were those effects?
Well, the reverb. There's three knobs on it at the top that control various parameters of the effect. There's a specific configuration of the reverb that I would always go to. And the analog delay is really sweet-sounding. I don't know that they're traditionally cool-sounding. But, again, it's like they have their own vibe to them that I really like. You know it when you hear it. It just feels good.
How did you come to work with Sonic Boom on Tomboy?
I think he got in touch with me just to say he was psyched on the Person Pitch record that I did. He was glad to be thanked in the liner notes to it. He was up for doing shows together, but the scheduling never fully worked out. I stayed in touch with him, and we wrote to each other once in a while.
I had planned on mixing the songs with Dave [Portner] and Josh [Dibb] from Animal Collective, but I was late on finishing the stuff up, and by the time I was ready, they couldn't do it anymore. The day I found out they couldn't do it, I was also responding to Pete [Kember] in some email and thought he would be somebody really cool to work with on the songs. He was down and off he went form there.
Why did you thank him in the liner notes to Person Pitch?
There was a panel on the insert of the record where I listed the stuff I felt influenced the music or the songs. Spacemen 3 was one of those bands that certainly made a big impact on me.
What is about them that you found inspiring?
I don't know if it was a conscious thing so much, but it's more like the pulled out movement of the songs, and the fact that there aren't a whole lot of chords in the songs. For the most part, they're just like drone songs. If there is a chord change there's only two chords, and it just revolves back and forth between them.
I feel like there are lot of Spacemen 3 and Spectrum songs that formulated the same way, in not shifting around too much with chords. There's just kind of a drone and a melody kind of like a raga. That's cheesy, but do you know what I mean? It just kind of floats around one chord. At the time, I thought I was going to make those kinds of songs, but it just came out that way.
What do you feel he brought out in the mixing and mastering?
The songs kind of came to life a little bit more. I think I had a hard time managing the mixes that I had. I felt like the way I was mixing them they were certainly finished in an idiosyncratic kind of way. I feel like he made the mixes come alive. Certainly, I feel like he translated the sound from something that was...It may be a bit extreme to say he made it go from black and white to color, but it's something like that, I feel like.
Why do you like the slower pace of a place like Lisbon?
I don't know if it's because of the type of work I do in terms of traveling all the time, but when I'm home, I kind of don't want a fast-paced atmosphere. It's partly that, I suppose. Maybe I'm just kind of a slow-thinking person. Maybe it's just sort of my temperament and it suits my attitude and make-up a little bit. It can be detrimental a little bit and I might be prone to staying inside too much and being a little too slothful. But I've gotten better at that in the past couple of years.
What is it about the European way of life in general that you appreciate?
It's hard to say for me to think of the European way of life in light of the fact that from country to country things are pretty different, at least in this part of Europe. I'm not as well versed in other parts. For example, from France to here to Spain to Germany -- it's all pretty different, at least from my experience. But for Portugal, I could say it's a bit of a give and take, in that, for a typical work, lunch break is two hours long. That's really awesome on the one hand, but on the other hand, there's such a gnarly financial dire straits here. It's not all positive or negative. But I do like it here.
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