An Interview with Panda Bear
Only with the release of Animal Collective’s last full-length album, Feels, did the public witness a transformation of the nicknamed band members, Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Geologist, and Deakin, to their individual selves, David Portner, Noah Lennox, Brian Weitz, and Josh Dibb, who for seven years have been broadening folk music’s horizon to include electronica, noise, drone, and pop. From their previous recordings like Here Comes the Indian, up through their new release, Strawberry Jam, Animal Collective aims to barrage the senses so that music heard is also seen, tasted, and felt. This makes Animal Collective, as a concept, a psychedelic endeavor and a descendant of the 13th Floor Elevators. Animal Collective relies on aural discord, new technology, and has international influences that vary with each album, making them more akin to Black Dice and Wolf Eyes than new folkies like Devendra Banhart. Years ago, speaking with band member Geologist (Brian Weitz) about his collection of recorded field samples, it struck me that Animal Collective is an anthropological team who struggle to define culture musically. If they express cultural identities, Lennox, still better known as Panda Bear, is the ursine ambassador of friendliness. His contribution to the band often leaves the listener awash in a luxuriant bubble bath of notes.
Panda Bear is one of my musical heroes, more so than ever following this past spring’s release of his third solo album, Person Pitch. Made from his home studio in Lisbon, where he lives with his wife and child, Person Pitch is a harmonious sanctuary of oceanic lullabies and chants reminiscent of Brian Wilson’s masterpieces. Enchanting rhythms, from Caribbean to industrial, keep the listener in motion, minus a couple of tracks that provide an ambient retreat. Vocals loop and echo, folding in on themselves like taffy. Backstage at the Bowery Ballroom in New York, Eric Copeland of Black Dice warmed up downstairs while Panda Bear and I chugged beers, chatting on a gigantic sofa that would have accommodated the entire Animal Collective.
I. “I DREW PANDA BEARS ON THE EARLY TAPES BECAUSE I WAS PSYCHED ON THE IMAGE, AND IT STUCK.”
THE BELIEVER:How do you feel? You just did a sound check and you’re about to play live. Are you nervous?
PANDA BEAR: Not really. I was a lot more nervous for the first night here.Though I’m much more nervous solo than playing with the band, because if I make a mistake here it’s obvious.There’s nobody to hide behind. I’m hitting buttons,turning knobs,and singing at the same time. If I hit something at the wrong point, people hear it. It’s sensitive. Ultimately, I’m pretty good at focusing on what I’m doing once the music starts. If I’m thinking about something else, it must be a really bad show.
BLVR: You tune in to what you’re doing, make a wall of sound.
PB: Sort of. If air isn’t moving because it’s not loud enough,that’s when I’m self-conscious onstage.If it’s loud and I can just close my eyes and concentrate, I’m happy.
BLVR: Do you make music for yourself or for an audience? Do you make music primarily to entertain?
PB: A little of both. I would hope that I’m not so selfcentered that I just make music for myself. It would be silly to say that even though I mass-produce these CDs they’re really just for me. At the same time, I do make sure that I’m first and foremost the person who is excited about what I’m doing. The only thing you can control is your own reaction. I work hard to do stuff I feel good about and then I let the chips fall where they may. I do care what people think. I want people to have a good time listening.Tonight, I’m not playing live just to give myself a good time or to make myself laugh. I want everyone in the room to feel good.
BLVR: Animal Collective is so great about responding to fans. On your message boards, the band personally writes back to young people who idolize you. It’s crucial for young creative types to reach out to artists they admire to discover they’re real human beings.That’s certainly what kept me going in the beginning.
PB: Right. It does make a big difference. Although we aren’t larger-than-life characters or anything.We don’t, like, dress really flashy.
BLVR: Are you still wearing animal costumes? Did you choose the panda bear because you love pandas?
PB: No. I stopped after a year or so. People would show up to the shows just to see us in costume, but it was only supposed to juice things up. Sometimes we still dress crazy, though. I do like pandas. It all started when I got this Tascam 4-track machine, for cassette jams. I went totally nuts. Josh and I would make weird voices and record ourselves, or play around with effects. It was our favorite thing to do. I didn’t have a concept of what an album was or what form it could take. I didn’t listen to a whole lot of music and I still don’t, in a way. I don’t listen to music throughout the day. So I’d make these little compilation tapes with skits. Not like hip hop skits, but goof-offs. I drew panda bears on the early tapes because I was psyched on the image, and it stuck.
BLVR: Pandas have opposable thumbs, which fascinates me. Have you ever heard of a red panda?
PB: Yeah.They’re smaller than a normal panda, right?
BLVR: They’re koala-size. They’re more like raccoons than bears. They’re not even in the bear family. The Santa Barbara Zoo, an hour and a half from L.A., has one. They’re difficult to see, apparently. It’s a nice zoo, more like a botanical garden.The animals are fenced, of course, but they don’t have cages.
PB: So they can just cruise around.That’s sweet.
II. “IN SONGWRITING, IF I WORK FOR SEVEN DAYS, DURING SIX OF THOSE DAYS I’LL DESPISE EVERYTHING I DO. BUT ONE DAY SOMETHING WILL JUST HAPPEN, AND IT’S USUALLY IN AN HOUR OR SO.”
BLVR: I have to tell you how deeply I love Person Pitch. It’s so collagey, the way the sounds layer upon one another. It reminds me of the way the sunlight hits the human body. With that visual component to the sound, it’s so perfect that Danny [Perez] is doing the visual accompaniments for your show.
PB:It is very much that mentality.I think the film works really, really well because Danny had so much time to sequence images for every little part that I’m doing.
BLVR: Does your desire to make the audience feel good have to do with the environment you’ve been living in?
PB:Yes, that is an influence, but it’s abstract. For example, the quality of light in Lisbon, in the evening time, when I hear music, is a deep, orange light.There’s that sense in the music because of sunlight.
BLVR: Like the quality of sunlight in the desert?
PB: It’s not crisp, not dry like that. It’s wetter. It’s very golden. From my house you can see the river, which is close to the ocean. While writing these songs, air was flowing through my studio, the windows would often be rattling with wind, and the sunlight in the evening would flood into the room.I feel that when I listen to the music.
BLVR: Your music reminds me of one of my favorite art catalogs. It’s from the mid-’70s, hippie-era San Francisco, called The Rainbow Book. There was an exhibit about the scientific and metaphysical aspects of rainbows.The book is full of medieval woodcuts and diagrams depicting the history of human civilization in terms of what we believed about weather and rainbows. There’s this chapter about harmony, how each note in music corresponds to a color in the rainbow according to the color spectrum.
PB: That makes sense,because sound is frequency,right? Light is a wave, right?
BLVR: As for layering, spectrums, and collaging, I read somewhere your mention of controlling chaos, or taking a massive amount of information and turning it into something comprehensible, something audible for an audience or for your own ears. I’m reminded of Brian Eno’s mid-career ambient work. What do you think of his music? Do you consider your work ambient? Do you get a pile of ideas and then try to tame them, or do you get sounds in your head and then make the music song by song according to your imagined sounds?
PB: The only album I really know well by Brian Eno is Music for Airports. I do love that album quite a lot. It was one of the first ambient albums I heard. It has this very sad quality, which makes it difficult for me to listen to, but I don’t want to say anything bad about it. Next, do I consider my music ambient? I think there are elements stolen from ambient music or ambient composers, particularly from a lot of the guys on the Kompakt label in Germany.They have that whole pop-ambient series that I’m a huge fan of. And, about controlling chaos: I did try to tame it, with this last album, in that the initial phases of all the songs just came to me kind of randomly. I flipped through my computer files or CDs and sampled little bits here and here, then tried to fit certain things together. I would pitch things all over the place, speed them up, slow them down, maybe chop them up a little bit, or play them manually instead of looping them.Then I’d have this moment where I got a group of samples together that I felt were mine, when I didn’t feel I was totally stealing somebody’s idea.After hearing those repeat and repeat and repeat, the melodies would instinctually enter, and I’d start humming along. I set words to match those melodies. In songwriting, if I work for seven days, during six of those days I’ll despise everything I do. But one day something will just happen, and it’s usually in an hour or so. Maybe I’ve just eaten the right things.
III. “FOLK MUSIC IS ALL ABOUT TRYING TO EXPRESS WHAT IT’S LIKE TO LIVE LIFE IN YOUR COMMUNITY.”
BLVR: I wouldn’t go so far as to say you make surf music, because it doesn’t have that ’60s Dick Dale guitar sound, but, you’re right, there is something really watery about Person Pitch.
PB: Lisbon and Portugal are surf-friendly. There are apparently really, really good surf spots all along the coast. I’ve seen a couple massive waves, but I didn’t surf them. My music has more to do with the environment around surf spots, that mellow, slow-moving, relaxed environment. Everything has its place there. You don’t do something unless there’s time to do it, and if there’s no time, you make time. If you’re going to eat dinner, you never rush through. You just eat. To the Portuguese, walking around the city with a paper cup full of coffee is really uncivilized .You’re supposed to sit and have a conversation while drinking coffee.
BLVR: Since you’re living in a foreign country, surrounded by foreign language, do you have a more urgent need to communicate through music something international, something basic or primal? How do you see music’s ability to communicate beyond words?
PB: I do feel like it’s very much that, not just with this album, but with every piece of music I’ve ever done. Talking, I never felt very good at. I used to be a really, really shy person. Music is all about communicating. Maybe this has been highlighted in Lisbon, where I really couldn’t talk to anybody, at least for a long time. I got so productive writing songs. I hadn’t ever thought of this before, but it’s definitely due to this. With the music I’ve been doing, I’m trying to unconsciously communicate the things that I think are really important. I find it increasingly difficult to write songs about blasé stuff that doesn’t have some deep emotional impact on my existence. That sounds dramatic, but it’s not meant to be. One of the songs I did for Animal Collective recently was about the responsibilities of having a kid, how many things a child changes in your mind, and realizing that you can be either positive or negative about that. I wrote about that massively increased level of responsibility, and about what a waste of time it is to be negative about it. How exciting it is to just try to learn as much as you can from parenting and have a good time doing it. That’s such a normal, everyday subject, but I’m thinking about it in very not-normal terms, or I’m interested in how normal things can become these large issues for me in music. Maybe that’s a grandiose thing to say. I’m hyper-serious about what I do musically, and not serious about what I do at the same time. If you talk to me about what I’m doing I’ll be like, yeah, it’s all right, really casual, but if I think hard about what I’m talking about, there’s nothing that I hold more sacred. I’m explaining all the things that are the number one priorities in my life. Music represents those things. Maybe that’s why it’s so important to me.
BLVR:That’s the weird thing about explaining one’s work to the press, because you want the art to speak for itself. But it’s supposed to build a context, which can be good.
PB: It’s enlightening for me to have to talk about it in these terms too. Otherwise, I’d never reflect on what I was doing. It’s informative to do this sort of thing from time to time.
BLVR: You’re making music that you put a certain level of emotion into, that’s maybe post-verbal.Your music is extremely physical. I wonder if you intellectualize that. Do you give yourself challenges, imposing logic on your songs, or do you think of music like a puzzle, and make up ideas while you’re sampling and editing the sounds you’ve compiled?
PB: I don’t get too academic or too mental about what I’m doing. In retrospect, I often do, but in the process of making something I feel like I’m very without my mind. The work I’m happiest with is the most instinctual. If I do work that sounds like what I’ve done before or what the band has done before, or even if it reminds me of something, it’s instantly thrown away. Doing something that sounds old, or that has any type of nostalgia attached to it, does not interest me on any level.What’s exciting for me, and what coincidentally seems most natural, is to represent what’s important to me right now, living as a person in the year 2007, living in Lisbon, in the present tense.That’s what I do, for better or for worse.
BLVR: Twenty years later you can say,“So that’s what I was thinking.”That’s kind of what art is, right? Not to say it’s journalism, but to make it something that other people can relate to, something that you will hear, see, or read later on to remind yourself of what your life was like during that time.
PB:That’s why I call what I do, and what the band does, folk music,to a tee. Folk music is all about trying to express what it’s like to live life in your community. For the most part, that’s always been what Animal Collective is about. When someone asks us if we consider ourselves a folk band, I always say yes. But maybe that’s where my definition of folk music differs from the typical definition.