Panda Bear’s Noah Lennox Hopes New Record “Buoys” Can Be “An Antidote to the Poison”
The Animal Collective co-founder discusses the evolution of his songwriting and the significance of ocean buoys.
In the second season of Mr. Robot, fsociety break into the luxurious New York townhouse owned by E Corp’s General Counsel, Susan Jacobs. By hacking her smart home, they drive her out of the magnificent building—which includes a huge living room and indoor swimming pool—and take it over to use as fsociety’s new HQ.
In the real world, the house is called the World Of McIntosh, and on a brisk January afternoon, Noah Lennox is sitting in the uppermost part of the SoHo building, talking about Buoys, his sixth studio album as Panda Bear. Having co-founded experimental outfit Animal Collective with Avey Tare (real name David Portner) in 1999, Lennox’s solo career has run concurrently with that of the band over the past two decades, and both see him (and his collaborators) pushing the boundaries of the electronic-tinged, psychedelic pop they’ve pretty much turned into their own genre. Buoys is no exception, finding Lennox—in conjunction with frequent collaborator Rusty Santos—floating in a dreamy, calming sea of new sounds. Majestic and beautiful, its nine soothing songs include frequent use of Auto-Tune and fling the door wide open in terms of what could come next for both himself and Animal Collective.
What does this album mean to you?
It feels really different to me than the past couple. There’s a freshness—or a danger—to it that feels exciting to me because it feels so different. I’m wagering that there’ll be a swathe of people who won’t be down for it, but I feel invigorated. Like, I don’t know if the next thing will be some kind of evolution of this or whether I’ll want to go somewhere completely different. There were a couple of things I really didn’t want to keep doing—techniques or methods of production or songwriting that I really wanted to stay away from. So I knew the thing was going to be different, but I can’t say I had a specific vision.
You mentioned people perhaps not liking it, but you’ve made a career—whether as a solo artist or with Animal Collective—out of doing your own thing and not really caring about the trappings of the music industry or what’s en vogue. That’s quite unusual for an artist as successful as you, but do you still feel that freedom, or do you now feel stifled by the success you have had?
I was going to say, there was a while there where it seemed like the history of the band was a positive force for whatever the new thing was—I guess I’m talking about 2007, 2008, that zone—and now I feel the history of the band is working against us a little bit, where it colors the new music in a way that’s a bit of a challenge, whether that’s just expectations, or being compared to the old stuff, or people getting older and moving on.
What’s the significance of the title Buoys? It really does sound as if these songs are floating in water—is that some kind of cause and effect happening?
The first inspiration for the title was having this weird almost déjà vu memory of something: When I was younger, my family for generations back on my mom’s side would go up to Maine and stay there for summers. They’d rent a little house and I remember being young and looking out on the ocean or the bay or whatever it was and seeing these brightly colored balls floating around. These were the buoys that fishermen put on the surface of the ocean, and each person has their own specific way of painting the thing to denote that it’s their trap that’s there. But ultimately, it’s because a lot of the songs address human software and impulses and how, if left unchecked, they can take us down dark paths. I liked thinking about the human body as a buoy, so far as being this superficial thing that’s holding something deep, like this treasure that’s kind of secret.
“I used to write something hyper-personal hoping that the audience might find something sympathetic about it, and now I’m going the opposite way, where I’m trying to talk about everybody and then sneakily reveal hyper-personal things about myself.”
Were there specific events that inspired the need to investigate those emotions?
I just find it something that I think about a lot. I’d wager that part of that is having kids and trying to understand stuff that they’re going through, and that kind of leads me to think about what makes me be what I am. I feel like I’m lyrically doing the inverse to what I used to do. I used to write something hyper-personal hoping that the audience might find something sympathetic about it or something they can understand about their own experience, and now I’m going the opposite way, where I’m trying to talk about everybody and then sneakily reveal hyper-personal things about myself.
The first Panda Bear LP came out when you were twenty. How has your approach to making music changed in that time? Does it fill a different need for you now?
I wasn’t touring or playing any shows when I was twenty, and that music in particular feels like a different person. I haven’t listened to it recently, but I feel like I was doing more imitations of stuff that I liked. It’s cheesy to say, but I guess I hadn’t found my voice yet. And I think there’s value when you’re starting out trying to just copy other things—it’s like taking apart a piece of machinery to see how it works. I feel like there’s instructional lessons to be learned from doing that, but I hope these days I’m doing something that feels more like it comes from me. I hope that I do stuff that nobody else could do.
You’ve talked before about albums being separate moments—so do you think when you look at them as a whole it paints some picture of who you are?
I hope it does! I hope the music delivers an image of my character that’s true. I guess I worry sometimes that the language is maybe too obtuse. That’s something I think about a lot. You can say the most important thing in the world, but if nobody can understand it then it has no value. So I do hope that the meaning comes across.
This album does seem quite fragmented, lyrically. It’s full of all these snapshots and images, yet it still kind of makes cohesive sense.
I’m glad to hear that. I feel like the music tells the story—or that’s what emotionally takes you from point A to point B in the song—and the lyrics are more patchwork. It’s kind of quilty and collage-y. I hope that the phrases act as earworms that will stick in your brain to the point that they would be things that you’d be saying to yourself, like a voice in your head. Because again, I’m not talking about experiences that I’m having—I’m trying to talk about things that are a bit more universal.
The press release talked about the influence of what’s happening in the U.S. right now. You’ve lived in Portugal since 2004, but do you still feel connected to what’s happening here?
Yeah, I do. It’s kind of funny to say because I think the summer of this year I will have lived in Lisbon longer than I’ve lived in any other city. But because all my friends are still living here and my family’s here, I do feel connected. And beyond that, internationally it seems like politics here are still such a story for everybody.
Would you say this record is more a means of escapism from what’s happening here, rather than trying to rail against it? You’re not ignoring it, but instead saying “Hey, let’s not lose sight of the important things we have, like family.”
I wouldn’t say it’s an escape as much as an antidote to the poison. I feel—and not just in the States—that there seems to be this wave of division and of keeping the outsiders out. It’s happening in Brazil, and Poland I gather, and the UK and England. I wanted to make something that encouraged or presented the opposite sort of feeling, something that felt more like an embrace, something that was opening the door rather than shutting it.
You’re sitting in a super luxurious $40 million townhouse, but back in the ’70s, Patti Smith and Talking Heads lived in warehouses around here because they were cheap. It’s hard to survive as an artist in New York now, so did moving to Lisbon help you cultivate your music and establish yourself as a musician in ways you couldn’t have done here?
I think so. But I mean, when I moved [to Lisbon] I had nothing. I remember my wife paying for everything and there was at least a year where I was like, “I don’t have any money.” But yeah, I’m sure, beyond what we’re talking about, that the city has influenced me, not only creatively, but personally as well, in so many ways. But it always feels implicit. It’s hard for me to trace how it’s done what it’s doing or define how it’s happening.
“I wouldn’t say it’s an escape as much as an antidote to the poison. I feel—and not just in the States—that there seems to be this wave of division and of keeping the outsiders out.”
You grew up in an analog age and you’ve developed as a musician alongside the technology you use. How has that affected your mindset as a songwriter?
It pushes me forward. I like getting some new piece of gear or some new way of doing things and seeing how that informs the process. I like putting myself creatively in a place that I’m uncomfortable with, because I feel like it’s going to produce results that are interesting. Maybe not completely successful, but at least intriguing on some level.
Which goes back to the idea that you’ve never subscribed to the demands of the music industry or its trends, that Panda Bear and Animal Collective have become successful…
Absolutely. Are you surprised that you’ve garnered such acclaim?
Totally. I feel like we were—by design—presenting a different perspective on stuff. I don’t mean to say that we had anything to do with it, but it seems that perspectives outside of ours have come closer to ours, in a way. There seems to be more of our sort of mindset these days than there used to be.
And what happens next? Are you going to tour this record?
A little bit. Not too much, because Animal Collective has plans to get together to write something. All the stuff I was writing in the fall was for Animal Collective. But I’d like to do Buoys as a band, with a drummer and a bassist, and play guitar and sing it, but I don’t think I’ll be able to put that together this year. Perhaps next year or down the road, but I’d like to do something that’s like a Violent Femmes set up, which seems at odds with the record, but I think it would be a cool way to present those songs.
Beyond that, what are your hopes for this album? You’re already very established, so what’s left for you to achieve?
I guess, logistically speaking, I’d like the album to do well enough that I can continue to make music. Beyond that, the goal is always to convince people that this is the best thing that I’ve done. That’s always my target, and anything short of that feels like a failure.
How does that compare to your ambitions when you first started making music? What were you hoping for then?
I really wanted a CD with a bar code on it. That felt like the end-all. Everything after that has been kind of gravy. FL