Panda Bear on transformation, handmade songs and kid critics

WORLD MUSIC: Baltimore-born experimental artist Noah Lennox has lived in Portugal for 10 years. "I can say that American advertisements and television marketing noise feel kind of abrasive and overwhelming to me these days," he tells Xpress. Photo by Fernanda Pereira

By Jordan Lawrence

During the past 15 years, no band has had a bigger impact on the sonic trajectory of independent music than Animal Collective. With an immersive touch for psychedelic detours — some scary, some cozy — mixed with wondrous harmonies and propulsive rhythms, the group’s skewed take on pop has expanded the borders of what’s readily considered indie-rock.

But within that talented membership, none has had a greater reach than Panda Bear, aka Noah Lennox, who performs at The Orange Peel on Saturday, May 9. This year’s album, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, still builds on supple vocal effects and echoing textures, but its songs are shorter and punchier, its mood steadier — contemplating the big questions that occupy the thoughts of this 36-year-old husband and father of two.

Xpress caught up with Lennox via email to discuss his life in Lisbon, Portugal, Grim Reaper’s catchier approach and what his kids think about his unusual profession.

Mountain Xpress: You’ve been living in Lisbon for a decade. How does that impact your outlook on the U.S. when you come back to tour?

Noah Lennox: It feels a little odd and foreign to come back, but only in trivial ways for the most part. As far as I’ve seen, people are people, and you take the good with the bad wherever you are. I can say that American advertisements and television marketing noise feel kind of abrasive and overwhelming to me these days.

How do you work on music these days? Is it a regimented thing for you?

I work at home and at a small studio (more like a practice space, really) I share with a Portuguese band called Gala Drop. If I’m going to make any kind of noise, I’ll usually walk down to the studio, but I prefer working at home so long as there aren’t people in the apartment. I do find having a schedule and a routine very important.

This record definitely boasts some of the catchiest, most pop-forward melodies you’ve produced as Panda Bear. I read in one interview that a vocal trick on “Mr. Noah” was a nod to Rihanna. Did you go in trying to make a catchier record?

I couldn’t say that I actively pursued making something I figured was catchier, but I do like pop music and songs and hooks that stick in your head. There are several instances on the album (such as the vocal technique on “Mr. Noah”) where I hoped to introduce a familiar element as a kind of anchor.

You picked the name Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, but I’ve read that you’re not actively scared of death. Why did you pick the title?

I liked that the title referenced a handful of dub and reggae records from the ’70s, which would feature one artist or producer meeting another as a way of signifying collaboration. The title feels like a contrast between a lighthearted and casual element and a more serious and foreboding element. I felt like that summed up a lot of the songs pretty well. Also, I felt like change and transformation was a constant theme in the songs. So I felt the Grim Reaper character could be a symbol for, or the agent of, transformation.

In an interview with Dummy, you talked about working in a more “crude, simplistic” way with this album. Tell me a little bit more about that.

I like for the songs to keep a handmade feel, but I couldn’t say that was entirely new for this album. I don’t like to let the computer or the sequencer do too much work, and I’d say it’s why I like using samples so much. There’s often an implicit imperfection to samples and how they synchronize.

I read that your daughter doesn’t care for your music. Has she warmed up to it? What does your son think?

My daughter still doesn’t care much about what I do. If anything, she seems kind of embarrassed, but that’s OK. My son seems more interested in music and sound in general, so perhaps I have a chance with him. Their feedback means everything to me as it seems as pure a response as I can find.

WHO: Panda Bear with Jessica Pratt
WHERE: The Orange Peel, theorangepeel.net
WHEN: Saturday, May 9, 9 p.m. $20 advance/$23 day of show

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