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Noah Lennox, better known as Panda Bear, is one of the members of avant-folk ensemble Animal Collective. In just three years, the band have gone on to become one of the most revered outfits around. With a series of very different albums under their belt, Animal Collective have rapidly gained respect both in the press and with the public. Only a few weeks after Panda Bear released his first solo album, Young Prayer, and as he is about to unleash the first album recorded with Scott Mou, as Jane, while a new Animal Collective EP recorded with folk legend Vashti Bunyan is announced, we caught up with the man. Here, we enter his very personal universe, where poetry hides at the corner of every new sentence…

Did you grow up in Brooklyn, and how do you think this has influenced you in your adult life and in your music?
I grew up in Baltimore in Maryland. I lived with my mother and father, brother and sister and dogs and cats and birds until they died in a neighborhood called Roland Park. It’s green and gets spooky late in the fall and all the leaves go yellow and come down. Most guys play lacrosse and wear hats and it’s a wealthy place for sure. My parents told me everything but they weren’t demanding and did the best they knew how, and that’s influenced just about everything I do I would say.

What were you into when you were growing up? Did you have any role models?
Mom and dad of course. My brother was a really special athlete and I would always try to keep up with him. He’s older and built a little more solid than I am but I could still beat him playing basketball towards the end there. I will always look up to him. I thought Stewart Copeland was the sweetest drummer and I guess I still do and I thought Aphex Twin was really great when I was younger. My friend Francis was really great too and I admired him and his way a lot. He was very calm and very sharp and finished what he started always and nothing was ever too much for him to handle but he was also really fun and funny and honest.

What brought you to play music in the first place, and how did you get involved with Animal Collective?
I started playing piano with lessons when I was really young but then mom got me a more sophisticated and complicated teacher and I walked out on him because he was an asshole and way too intense. I was like eight or something. Then I moved to cello for a while and played in the orchestra and what not. I would write songs on the piano a lot and it’s still my favorite thing to write songs on. Then I started singing in the chamber choir in high school and that was my favorite. I would like to do that these days too. I sang tenor and there was only like three of us in the whole school who could sing high like that. I went to school with Deakin since we were in second grade and he knew the rest of the boys in high school and I met them all through him. We liked each other’s songs and tapes and shit so we started hanging out a lot and going to shows together and playing.

Animal Collective have been rather well received over the last couple of years, and the band’s reputation grew a lot very quickly after Here Comes The Indian was released, and even more when the two first albums were released for the first time in Europe. How did you all react to it and did that put a lot of pressure on the band when you came to record Sung Tongs?
I didn’t notice it too much until after Sung Tongs was released for a while and we toured and people seemed really excited to talk to me and be around me even though they didn’t know me and things like that. I don’t think we are the kind of people to do stuff because we feel pressured to do it but I can certainly feel pressure from all over. The music business, people want things done one way and that’s usually not the way we’d like to do it so it’s a bit give and take sometimes. There was a photographer today who was upset that Dave had put paint on his face and we were all kind of like ‘what’s the big deal?’. We try and always do things the way we’d like as long as it doesn’t get anyone really angry. Sometimes it seems like you can’t avoid that though I guess, like anything else. So you do the best you can to understand each other and work it through.

Although both Campfire Songs and Here Comes The Indian were recorded with the all Animal Collective formation, Sung Tongs was just Avey Tare and yourself. How do you decide who is going to be involved in a record or do the live shows?
Sometimes it’s because we’re having trouble with each other as friends and we need to sort out our stuff and sometimes it’s just that somebody has work to do elsewhere or something more pressing to take care of. We’re all a little separated from each other these days, which makes touring and recording and writing and stuff nice because we haven’t seen each other for a bit and were really psyched to hang out. When I lived in New York, Davey and I were together almost every waking second of every day for the first couple of years.

Campfire Songs was recorded live under a porch on three minidisks players. How did the idea come up, and what is as spontaneous as the album sounds?
We had had the idea of doing something really warm and inviting-sounding for a while, like three or four years at least. We wanted it to sound like a campfire feels and I think that also made us think of campfire songs that you can sing with a bunch of people and everybody gets connected and feels good and safe. It really wasn’t spontaneous or improvised if that’s what you mean. We worked for a month or so to get it just right like the transitions between songs. I still think Queen Of My Pictures into Doggy is one of the best things we’ve done together. I was really excited about my singing on Campfire Songs I guess because I felt like I was doing things that were difficult for me to do. We played it live just like it was on the record about a week or so before recording at Tonic in New York. I wore my scarf and coat and we played in the middle on the floor and everyone kind of gathered around.

Young Prayer is your first solo album I believe. Was working on it very different from working with the whole band?
Yes it was very different. I don’t have the patience by myself to stick around and get something really sculpted and polished. With the band we get a lot more intense in terms of production and that sort of stuff. When I go by myself, I tend to just spit it out and get away from it. I heard Ariel (Pink, first signing of the Collective’s Paw Tracks label) say to someone that he just gets something sounding good or good enough and I remember thinking: ‘yes that’s the same way I go too’.

This album was recorded just after the passing of your father, and seems a very personal journey. Yet, it sounds optimistic rather than sad. Was recording the album some kind of therapy to help you deal with your loss?
It was more a gift to my father when he was sick and I wanted to make him happy if I could and I wanted to cheer him up and I wanted to tell him that he’d done really great in his time. I was pretty fucked up but I wanted to keep going and I wanted to have strength and I suppose that comes out in the recording. I wouldn’t say it was therapeutic though, at least I never thought of it that way.

None of the songs on the album have titles. Is there a particular reason for this?
Well I just wanted the whole thing to be the Young Prayer like I wanted the whole thing to be one nugget of sound. I put the track markers in there just to separate the sections. All the music is directly connected to the words and I did the words first and they were really the foundation of the whole thing and dictated the structure and stuff. For the most part I would just attach a melody to each line of words and then I would practice them all until I could string it together. Somebody told me that they didn’t like it because it was droney and I thought to myself that it really wasn’t droney at all except for one of the sections really and I thought it was an odd criticism.

Have you discussed Young Prayer with the rest of the band and how did they react to it? Do you discuss solo projects within the band, or are the band and solo projects kept completely separate?
Totally separate, although some of them did help me out with it. Deakin recorded it with me. Russ Santos helped me mix it and convinced me to have everyone hear it. It’s always been important for us to have freedom to work by ourselves or with other people if we liked to. Davey plays with Eric (Broucek, from Black Dice) in Terrestrial Tones and I play with Scotty in Jane and Russ in Together and Davey and Joshmin have played with Gang Gang a couple of times when it sounded fun.

Are you already thinking about your next solo record, and do you already have an idea of what it will sound like?
Yes, I’ve got most of the songs together and ready. I did a tour with Ariel recently in the UK and parts of Europe and I played all my new songs except for one I think most nights. When I moved I only took a few of my old things and all I had to make music was a sampler box. I got two of the boxes and then I was really ready to go. It took me forever to get my own guitar into the country and I had to pay like $200 for my own guitar. That was crazy but I guess you have to do what you have to do if you know what I mean. The new songs are super dubby and old sounding, like Motown or Buddy Holly just a little bit, and I sing a lot on them.

What influences you to write in general, and is it a different process when working as part of the band or on your own?
I sing almost exclusively about relationships like with my family and my good friends and with strangers and music people. I tend to keep things very simple on the melodic and lyrical side because I don’t really understand any other way to do it. My favorite songs of mine are the ones where I haven’t done anything in a while and it comes out quick and good and pure. When it’s with the band, it’s more somebody brings a skeleton to everyone else and it becomes everyone’s thing after a little while playing it. Also with the band I feel like I can be in the background a lot and add a little piece to the whole part of the sound and I like that sometimes.

You have been extremely busy with Animal Collective over the last year or so, touring and recording. When did you find the time to record Young Prayer?
Well I did the recording of it like two years ago or so and it was a little more mellow then. The AC didn’t really play for six months although Joshmin and Davey were working on some stuff but they never went all the way with it.

You’ve also set up Paw Tracks records, and have recently released the first album by Ariel Pink, who is also the first non-Animal Collective artist to get his work released on the label. Are you planning to expend the label, and what are you planning to release in the next few months?
We’ve kind of been taking the label as it comes if you know what I mean. It was started to just do all the stuff we wanted to do within the group but after we heard Ariel’s music, we really wanted to do it. I think we’ll do another older record of his and maybe newer jams too. I really like his songs a lot. I’m sure we’ll put out more stuff but I don’t know what. We like to keep things on a personal level and we met Ariel before we knew his music really. I’d hope that we keep the label going that way always and I mean on the friendship and personal tip.

The songs, either with Animal Collective or those from Young Prayer seem very spontaneous. How do write? Are these the result of improvisations?
Sometimes yes, but we always care a whole lot about composition and form and stuff like that. We don’t really wing anything even though it might sound like it. We spent a lot of time improvising together and practicing playing with each other and around each other. But even with something like Young Prayer where it sounds super meandering and loose, it was all composed and I would play it more or less the same way every time.

Last year, Animal Collective toured with Black Dice, and I read that you are all friends. How did you come to know them?
I met Eric for the first time in a bar in Brooklyn but he was already friends with Davey from school and Davey introduced us. They had class together I think and Davey would go and see them play sometimes and had them play at NYU once too because Davey organized that kind of thing there for a while. Davey and I played our first show in New York with them at the Cooler which is closed now I think. Dogg and Pony and the Rapture played too but we were first. We came out of the dressing room singing and I was hitting a snare drum and we sort of marched around for a long time because we couldn’t find the stage. I think I hurt someone because I knocked into them hard. That was the first time we wore masks and makeup and all that shit. We liked each other’s music but we also got on real well as people and I think that’s been a stronger connection than the musical one. Davey and Eric live together these days and play as Terrestrial Tones. Black Dice took us on our first tour and I feel like the wisest things I’ve learned about being in a band I learned by watching them.

You’ve also just toured on your own to support the album. What can people expect when seeing you live, and how different from an Animal Collective performance is your set?
It’s quite a bit different. My new music is pretty sugary and I hope it’s very deep and it’s close to me for sure. I’m dreaming a lot more than I do for the AC and its not manic and possessed like the AC can be.

Is it essential for Animal Collective to have the freedom of being anything from just one of you performing to be a quartet? How does it affect the dynamics between you?
Yes it is very important to us but I think that’s just a reflection of the way we are as people. We all play different things and think about different things and more than one of us writes music on his own. I’d like to feel like I can play my own music on my own when I like or play with someone else that I’ve just met or something like that. I suppose over all it just allows for all sorts of things to take place that wouldn’t get a chance if we operated as a band in the traditional sense and I think that’s good.

What is the last record you have bought? Do you have much time to listen to music and what do you like?
I like all sorts of things but I don’t buy very much music and I don’t listen too much at home or whatever. I worked at a record store for a while and I’d listen to music all day like I was really hungry for it. The other guys in the band all have tons of records and so I get schooled by them all the time. But I don’t even have a turntable. I like Phoenix and the most recent George Michael record a lot. I like Jonathan Richman almost more than anything. I like lots of dance music although I feel like these days it’s really wanting something new like all the classics have dried and nobody knows what new to do. I’m sure something will come along though. Se Rogie is really great. I like Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers. I don’t get into much noisy things or complications. I like pop music over all even though that sounds strange. I like Ariel’s music very much.

What are you plans for the next few weeks and months? Can we expect a new Animal Collective record this year?
We’re recording right now. There’s a smaller record we did with Vashti that will be out in May. This record we’re doing now won’t be out until fall I would expect. We’ll tour for a few weeks in the US in April and then I’ll take a break and maybe record new music just for me this summer. I’ll have intense things going on for me and mine so I might step away for a bit or a while I don’t know.

Where does the Panda Bear pseudonym come from?
When I first made tapes I drew pandas on them because they’re my favorite animals and it just stayed on.

Email interview March 2005.
Thank you to Noah and Sean.

BBC Collective: Fat-Cat Recors label profile

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Young Prayer
05'04 Sung Tongs
Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished / Danse Manatee
Here Comes The Indian / Campfire Song

Paw Tracks
Carpark Records
Catsup Plate Records
Fat Cat Records

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