Interview with Noah Lennox
By Emmy Hennings
In May 2007, founding Animal Collective member Panda Bear released Person Pitch, his third solo album, igniting a rare level of both listener passion and critical praise. Magazines were filled with wonder and the blogosphere lit up like an oversized Christmas tree. People adore this record.
Those familiar with the work of Animal Collective – especially those who have witnessed their astonishingly loose, instinctual live performances – will not be entirely surprised by the spirit that moves through Person Pitch, swooping and bending, shifting tempos and displacing harmonies with a flicker. Panda Bear, known more prosaically as Noah Lennox, incorporates a medley of influences from Basic Channel to Black Dice (both name-checked in the album’ liner notes) without ever sounding contrived. The arrangements are complex but not formidable, built upon semi-porous vocal layers, and samples that echo and melt as if they had been sucked out from damp tunnels. At work is a tension between the oceanic and the airbourne, the half-submerged and the sun-kissed. It’s best expressed on the glorious “Take Pills’, which begins with several obtuse, competing rhythms and a lysergic, reverb-drenched vocal melody. So far, so freak-folk, but at precisely the halfway point the entire song comes bubbling up (quite literally, with a sample), shaking itself dry with a celebratory, looped chorus – I don’ want for us to take pills/take pills/take pills – and a foot-tapping beat that any decent 60s pop group would have been proud to call its own.
Many of the songs from Person Pitch were initially released as a series of 12 inches, and for an album that was recorded over an extended period of time (in Lisbon, where Noah currently lives with his wife and young daughter) Person Pitch has an assurance that’s almost eerie. As an artistic statement it’s fully resolved, and yet as Noah explains below it’s far from perfect, and all the better for it.
[Emmy Hennings gave us the perfect excuse to run this piece as a Q&A, something slightly different in approach for us. The interview was so conversational and in-depth we have decided to keep it this way – Eds]
Firstly, how have you felt about the reaction to the album so far? Everyone is just in love with it.
It’s pretty mind blowing, I certainly wasn’ expecting anything like it at all. That’s not to say that I thought the album was shitty – I mean, I was happy with it, but I didn’ think it was anything extra special. I’m really glad that people have liked it.
Does it make you a bit nervous that everyone has taken it to heart so quickly? Or is it just exciting?
It’s more that I know that I’ll probably get slapped pretty hard the next time around. You can’ keep these things going for more than a brief period of time: looking back at history, that’s the way these things work. So I’m bracing myself to get seriously slammed.
Do you feel like that’s ever happened with Animal Collective, that you’ve been praised one record and then slammed the next?
Actually, I kind of feel like we’ve gotten some sort of special treatment. Well, we have and we haven’. On the critical side I feel like we’ve always been pretty well treated. It’s always been a natural progression [for us]– upwards, if you like – but we also get so excited about changing around so much, doing something different every time, that I feel like with every album we lose a whole section of our fans because they’re so pissed off that we’re not doing the kind of things that they liked about us before. Which is okay.
Well, it’s a way of side-stepping people’ expectations. People can never second-guess what you’re going to do if you keep doing something different.
Yeah, we keep people on their toes.
How does this apply to your solo albums? Do you view them quite separately or do you think there’ something that ties them together?
Well, I think the approach I’ve taken for everything I’ve ever done is that I always like the music to be an accurate representation of who I am at that time: the kind of things I’m thinking about, the kind of things I care about. And that’s never changed, really. Obviously with Young Prayer it was written after a significant death. I tried to be as positive as I could about the experience of making the album. Whereas with this one it was a mixture of making a conscious decision to try and do something that was way more casual – that didn’ take itself quite so seriously, I guess – and also wanting to reflect what’s happened to me in the past couple of years. I feel like I’m a much happier person, much more positive. And the environment I live in is a super, super sunny place, so I think that it would be impossible for that not to come out somehow.
Do you think that Lisbon was the place you were trying to evoke on the record, or was it some place different? Because there’ the place where you record an album, which obviously has an impact on the sound, but then there’ the place that you’re trying to evoke.
I don’ know that that’s what I set out to do; I wasn’ really trying to capture this place. But at the same time I was referencing experiences and thoughts that I’ve had while I’ve been here, so I was trying to represent this place in a roundabout way.
For me as a listener there might be a real space, but there’ also a totally dream-like, fantastic space that the record has as well. And that comes through visually.
I feel like a lot of my favourite music is music that takes the edge off reality in some ways, and again that’s not something that I consciously set out to do, but I feel like it’s my sensibility with music and with sound, to try and make it feel like I’m dreaming or – it sounds cheesy – like some kind of alternate reality.
How did it feel to make? Was it an enjoyable, energetic process to make the record?
Yeah, totally. When I was done working with Animal Collective or touring with Animal Collective and I had free time, I’d work on it. I never really had any agenda or schedule with it: I was without deadlines. I didn’ have to be doing it if I didn’ want to be, so I was only making music when I wanted to be making music.
And it took a couple of years to put together, is that right?
Yeah, I only did it a song at a time. One of the reasons is that I never really had a large chunk of time when I could be working on it, but also I figured that if I worked on it a song at a time, and put out one single at a time, then all the songs would be as strong as each other.
Was there a point when you were putting out the singles where you realised that it was going to be an album? Or was it always going to be an album from the start?
I kind of knew that it was going to be an album from the beginning. The first song, which was “Search For Delicious’, came out with a magazine, and I wasn’ sure at the time that I was going to use that song, but everything after that I knew for sure. And that song became something where I was like: â€œI don’ really have any other song that sounds quite like this one on the album, and I feel like it would be good to put on there as a departure from all the other stuff.â€ After a while I felt like it fit with the rest of the songs.
Was it hard to sequence the album, once you had all these individual tracks, or did it feel like the whole thing worked together?
It was a little bit difficult. I feel like I stumbled upon the sequencing in a really lucky way, and for me it worked really well once I felt like I’d got it. I tried to be symmetrical about it, in terms of the lengths of the songs, and that’s ultimately how I put it together. “I’m Not’s is at the centre of it, and then long songs like “Good Girl/Carrots’ and “Bros’. Then medium-length songs, and you keep going out to tracks like “Take Pills’ and “Search for Delicious’, which are the shorter songs. I had it in my head visually like that. It’s really technical and stupid, but it’s true.
I hadn’ thought about it that way, but that’s so true. Each half is like a mirror image.
I don’ know if you’ve got the artwork for the album, but that was the inspiration for the artwork, that we were trying to make it symmetrical like that.
The artwork is incredibly elaborate. And when I was reading some other interviews with you, you were talking about the fact that you don’ necessarily listen to music all the time –
So I was wondering about other influences on the record, visual influences and things that are non-musical, which you were drawing on?
It’s mostly – almost exclusively I think – my relationships with people and things around me that are the most influential, as far as making stuff goes. It’s hard to point out specific examples, but I guess the point is that for me it’s not really art-type stuff that has an impact. My family is definitely a major inspiration and an influence on me.
And this goes back to what you were talking about before, that you think of each record you make as a reflection of where you’re at, at the time. Does that make it easier to go back to each record once a few years have passed, or do they start to feel distant?
I hardly ever listen to them after they’re done. But I think that also has to do with the fact that you spend so much time writing the songs, practicing the songs, playing the songs live, recording the songs and then mixing the songs that by the end of the process you’re sick of it. By living through the material so much you’ve actually distanced yourself from it. Person Pitch is kind of an exception to that, in that even though I spent a whole lot of time doing each song, I had space in between each of the single releases so that when I came back to listen to it again it still had some sort of fresh quality for me. I may find myself listening to this one more.
Have you played much of the album yet?
As I was going along [recording], I’d play a show every once in a while, and play all the songs that I was writing. Just recently I’ve been putting in the effort to do what I guess are â€œofficialâ€ Person Pitch shows. I’ve taken a lot of the songs plus a couple of newer things and jumbled it up. Songs like “Take Pills’ and “Bros’, I’ve split them up and arranged them differently, to try and keep it new. It’s kind of hard.
And how are you doing that live, are you using sampling?
Yeah, I have two samplers and a microphone. It’s quite a bit more stripped down than the album sounds: it’s similar, but I feel like it’s a little more aggressive and a little more esoteric. I feel like the album is easier to follow than a lot of the shows are, for better or worse.
Are people dancing at the live shows?
There were a couple of people who were dancing the other night. I don’ really lift up my eyes too much when I’m playing, and if I do I don’ really notice what’s going on.
I ask because it’s such a danceable record in so many ways –
It is, and every time I listen to it, especially with a song like “Carrots’, I have a vision of it being blasted through an enormous sound system.
That was totally my dream for it when it was released, that it would be played in a club or something.
Did you find with any of the 12 inches you put out that they were getting any club play?
I don’ know, I kind of I doubt it. I guess somewhere in the world it’s being played on a club system, and hopefully people are dancing [laughs], not just leaving.
Well it’s certainly a context that I’ve been imagining it in. And a few people have talked about it in terms of dance music, for instance the Basic Channel connection?
With something like Basic Channel I definitely want to move around to that kind of stuff, but it’s not easily danceable in any way. There’ such a dream-like sweetness to it, I definitely want to move but I don’ want to get too hectic about it, do you know what I mean? There’ something private about that music, when you’re dancing to it, it’s a private, personal experience. Maybe that’s just me.
I think that’s true, and that’s maybe because a lot of it is so sparse? Whereas with Person Pitch it feels so – and maybe you see this another way – there are so many parts to it, and with your vocals being multi-tracked it sounds crowded, and it makes me think that everyone should be up and dancing, like it was a tribal thing? Whereas with Basic Channel, it’s much more stripped back.
I see what you mean. Thinking about it now there’ some kind of raucousness [to the album], very subdued but still raucous. I’m thinking about the latter part of “Take Pills’ where the parts are bouncing off each other and it sounds like a crowd.
I wanted to ask about the list of influences, like Basic Channel, that appear on the inside of the album cover. It’s always really exciting to hear something that you like and then to start tracing back the influences on it, so I wanted to ask whether that had ever happened to you, whether you’ve ever heard something that you really liked and then started to trace where it’s come from?
Yeah, for sure. Two things spring to mind immediately. One is The Orb. I think I can safely say that they were the first electronic music that I ever heard. I was about 17 and I moved into this kid’ room, and he had left a whole bunch of music behind, and it just blew my mind. I sort of had a vague sense of what techno was and what house music sounded like, but it was from there that I went backwards into the world of electronic music. And something like Daft Punk worked in the same way, where I really liked the sound of it. I think there’ a song of theirs with a voice booming out â€œCarl Craigâ€, a list of all these names, things like Underworld.
And where did you end up, when you started tracing back from The Orb to early house music?
It happened over a couple of years and it was really awesome for me because I was living in New York and I was hearing all the original tracks, all the original Chicago house, in clubs, and it really hit home for me. Because that was the experience it was supposed to be, in that environment. I feel like you’re supposed to experience that music with lots of other people and you’re really supposed to feel it in your body. There was a period of five or six years where I was learning about that.
I was interested to read that you found a lot of the samples for the album on iTunes and stuff like that, just grabbing bits from different places. Was it fun or was it frustrating to trawl through a source as big as the Internet, trying to find the sounds that you wanted?
I think that I didn’ really know what I wanted: it was more that I took what I got and then tried to make something that I liked out of it. Otherwise I would have been totally disappointed, it would have been a wild goose chase trying to get what was in my head. Whereas the other way around, no matter what I was doing I always found something.
In pre-internet days were you a crate-digger, searching through old records?
I really wasn’ at all. As soon as I got the sampler that was my instinct – I guess because I don’ play many records – to go to the Internet for what I was after. About halfway through the process of making Person Pitch I got really psyched about the album being this Internet age thing, and that’s what initially influenced my decision to release it only on CD. It’s only because I got a massive amount of emails that I decided to do the vinyl, and also because I got excited about the artwork being big. But it’s supposed to be experienced on CD.
And why is that?
Well, all the samples were made on a digital sampler, a really shitty piece of equipment. It was recorded on to a computer, it was multi-tracked on a computer, there was absolutely no analogue part of the process. And particularly because it leaked on the Internet and I felt like a lot of people were experiencing it on that level, rather than getting pissed off about it I decided to embrace it. I wish that there had been a way to let people steal the artwork, too. I really wish that I could distribute music for free on a website, but that there was a place where you could print off the artwork for yourself if you actually wanted it.
That’s conceivable. I was wondering if that would be the next logical step for you, to ditch the object altogether, to ditch the CD and just go for a download?
I think I might try it. In some ways I feel like that’s where everybody is headed. For people these days, the younger generations, a CD copy or a physical copy doesn’ mean anything. All their music is in their iPods. For people who are our age or people who are older than us who are super-keen on vinyl, that [other format]is what you’re used to. That’s what music is to you and you take it for granted, you know what I mean? I feel like you have to respect the way someone experiences music. That’s why I’d like to make it so that if you wanted your own physical copy of the album, then you could have it.
As we’re talking about the different ways of listening to the album the thought occurs to me that there’ a contrast. Your experience of Person Pitch might be to download it and to listen to it on your computer or on your iPod, which is quite an individual way of listening to music, and then there’ what we were talking about before, which is people listening to it en masse, in a club.
[Enthusiastically, as if the thought has just occurred to him] I like to think that you could listen to a release of a new album somewhere like a movie theatre, so you get that crowd atmosphere, and a visual element to it. I probably won’ be doing that, but it seems like a really nice idea right now.
Even though the album was recorded entirely digitally, a lot of people have comparing it to things which are completely analogue. Does it surprise you at all that people have been talking about it that way?
[Right at this point in the interview my phone disconnects itself and I endure a mild panic attack whilst trying to redial a 25 digit international number. Noah picks up again.]
Hello. What happened there? I still remember the question. Are you ready?
Sure, go ahead. You’ve had a few moments to think about it now.
Well, I was going to bring up the Beach Boys/Brian Wilson thing. I don’ know if I was naÃ¯ve or stupid, but I wasn’ expecting that at all. I mean, Animal Collective has gotten it a little bit, especially with Sung Tongs, because of the multi-tracked vocals and the multi-part harmonies and that kind of stuff. I assumed that I’d get a lot of dub references [from critics]and maybe a little bit of Buddy Holly and that ’50s, early ’60s pop-rock, but definitely not the Beach Boys, specifically. It makes me feel a little bit disappointed in myself, more than anything, either that I didn’ notice that and nip it in the bud, or that I didn’ do something that was totally mine.
You say that you’re disappointed in yourself for not picking up on it earlier, but it would be impossible to approach making a record in a way where, all the time, you were trying to second-guess what other people might think of it.
It’s also interesting that if it comes off that way – like the Beach Boys – to people listening, when the basis of all the songs is a really repetitive two seconds of sound, then that’s totally the opposite to how people back then were making music. It’s kind of crazy to me that people can have the same feelings about two very different kinds of music.
I think that for me, there’ a tension between the fact that it’s a sample-based record and quite methodically constructed in that way, very repetitious, yet at the same time there’ all these free-wheeling harmonies.
I think that I was scared of feeling too robotic about the methods that I using. The way that it was mixed was all about using the mouse, volume lines and stuff like that. I started rebelling against that. With all the songs I wanted to make sure that I could pay them live before I recorded them, and if I couldn’ play it live then I wasn’ going to try and record it. I wanted all the songs to be based a performance vibe, and I think that helped the album to feel natural, on some level, despite it being methodical. There are a lot of little imperfections in terms of how I played it.
In terms of the multi-tracked vocals, I was intrigued to read you talking elsewhere about the fact that you used to sing in classical choirs as a kid. More than the Brian Wilson/Beach Boys thing that’s what the vocals have evoked for me: that polyphonic texture, quite a liturgical, church-based sound.
There are a lot of interesting things about that. One is that a lot of people get bummed out that they can’ understand the words to Person Pitch, and how that takes away from the emotional strength of the record for them. But when I listen to a lot of choral music I can’ understand what they’re saying: the nature of how it sounds in a church is that when you have forty people singing the pronunciation doesn’ really come across, but there’ an atmosphere. So it’s not a problem for me that people can’ understand the words. But at the same time it made me think about the fact that some people were saying: â€œI don’ like this album because I don’ understand what he’ talking aboutâ€, and I thought: â€œWhy don’ I want people to know what I’m talking about, am I afraid of that?â€ So eventually I put the words up on the Myspace page.
But in terms singing during school in choirs and stuff, I feel like I developed the way I sing because of that, because you don’ want a voice that sticks out too much, you want to really blend in with everybody’ voices. So I’ve hardwired this way of singing into my brain where I try not to put too much character into my voice, I try to keep it like another instrument.
To go back to that idea of listening to choral music, you do attribute meaning to the vocals, but it’s coming out of things like the texture of the voice and the sound of different syllables.
It’s like you feel it more than you understand it, or more than you think about it.
Yes, and you start to create your own narrative or meaning to go with it. You mentioned the fact that you let imperfections into the recording, and I’ve been thinking about the fact that the title, Person Pitch, suggests imperfection. I was thinking about the title with regards to polyphony, and the fact that in the really early days of church music there was no such thing as a written system of pitch or intonation. The album is imperfect, it slides here and there, so even though it’s built from various pieces of new technology it doesn’ sound codified, if you know what I mean?
It’s like imperfection is the natural state of things. That’s really interesting. There’ a Zen aesthetic called wabi-sabi which I think is exactly that, and it’s something I really believe in though I can’ often articulate it. It’s like these old potters who’ll be making a pot for years at a time and make it totally perfect, but as it’s drying they’ll take the top off it so it’s got this imperfection to it, because that’s actually more perfect than perfection. And it’s also interesting in that the title of the album was originally going to be Perfect Pitch.
I was totally fascinated by people who have perfect pitch. I don’ think that I have it. I can tune a piano pretty good, but if you ask me to sing a C flat, I can’ do it. Some people have that natural ability, they know where the note is [in isolation], and that’s so awesome to me, I wish that I had that ability. I was thinking about using the word “perfect’s for a title but then I thought: â€œNo, no. That sounds really arrogant.â€ I don’ want people to think I have that attitude to music. And then I came out with Person Pitch as I was writing the album and thinking about it, and that rang true for me a lot more than Perfect Pitch did.
That is interesting, because in a way perfect pitch is what you get when you can start tying sounds into a system of notes, but person pitch is what you get when you don’ have that.
I feel like I’m really good at knowing whether something is in tune or not, I can listen to the harmonics and the vibrations, but this instinctual knowledge of knowing where a single pitch is in the scale, I have no idea. I don’ understand how it’s possible. It seems like a miracle.
Person Pitch is available on Mistletone/Fuse.