Panda Bear on Latin trap and how Autotune helped him sound less like Squidward

A founding member of the avant-garde electronic group Animal Collective, Noah Lennox, whose solo project goes by the moniker of Panda Bear, has been making waves in the realm of experimental music for years. His work in recording 19 albums as both Panda Bear and Animal Collective, including his forthcoming release Buoys, has earned him the coveted title as a leading figure in contemporary electronic music.

A certain type of fluidity overwhelms his music; it is both heartwarmingly nostalgic and prodigiously original at once. His vocals, saturated with reverb, are hauntingly Beach Boys-esque. His atmospheric sample-based production draws influence from sounds across the spectrum; a myriad of hip-hop and techno producers are skilfully referenced in his works.

Panda Bear’s forthcoming release, however, is different from its predecessors, the artist substituting his regular textures for a more muted palate. Album teasers Dolphin and Token are subtle in their delicacies; on the surface, seemingly less is going on, but the more one delves the more they notice.

Perhaps this is purposeful. Lennox, it seems, has more of a message to tell on Buoys and is rejecting his conventional aesthetic to expose it. Buoys is, without a doubt, the artist’s most vulnerable release to date.

In the lead-up to his forthcoming album Buoys, we sat down with Panda Bear to chat about Lisbon, the vulnerability of transcending aesthetic, and how the album’s specific vocal production took the Squidward-sound out of Lennox’s voice.

HAPPY: First of all, what drew you to Portugal of all places? I know that Animal Collective started up in Baltimore, and I guess Lisbon is such a different place.

NOAH: Well, I was in New York before living here [Lisbon] for about four… four and a half years and the energy of the city was, well I guess it still is really amazing and it really ran parallel to my own kind of energy when I was 20-21 or so, and then, as I got more up towards 24-25 I kind of felt overwhelmed by it a little bit. I was kind of ready to find a new spot and I didn’t know where I wanted to go but I felt like I needed to get out of New York, it was at the end of a kind of long six months or so. We were doing Sung Tongs stuff and at the end of all that touring we had a festival show here at a festival called The Numero Festival that doesn’t actually exist anymore and I remember Nelson and Pedro, who booked us for the show when we got here, like right when we landed they were like “we gotta tell you, we kind of… lied to get you on the festival bill because we wanted to see you” so I guess they, like, sold us this thing that we weren’t. They were like “you’re probably not gonna get invited back but we’re glad that you’re here”. But yeah, I just really like it here a lot. I was here for, I think, three days. And it has to be mentioned that I met my lady while I was here for those days, so that’s certainly not a small part of the reason that I moved here.

HAPPY: Have you found that such a stark change in your environment has affected your sound and the way that you write and record your music?

NOAH: Yeah, I’d wager that it has, although it’s really difficult for me to define exactly how it’s done so. I guess that environment plays a part for anybody who’s working on creative endeavours. I feel like it seeps its way in there whether you’d want it to or not in some form. Sometimes it’s really explicit, sometimes it’s not so much. Yeah, I feel like it’s not as simple as saying… as far as I can tell, it’s not as simple as saying that, yeah, it’s like a really sunny place, and there’s the ocean there and so all music has this sunny, ocean-y quality, although some of it does. I mean for example, I made a record called Tomboy which is, in tone, really different, and the one before it, called Person Pitch, but they were made two blocks from each other. I feel like mindset maybe, or perspective, has the biggest influence on the creative things but the environment informs the mindset, in a way.

HAPPY: Was Buoys written and recorded during your time in Lisbon or was some of it written while you were still in New York?

NOAH: It was all done here, yeah. I was practising to do the Sung Tongs stuff because we had done a bunch of anniversary… reunion shows this past year, and because I hadn’t played the guitar in a while so I was having to retrain my hands to do that stuff, because I have weak hands or something [laughs]. So in between  practising for those shows I began writing the Buoys songs. The Buoys tuning of the guitar was exactly the same as I had for Sung Tongs.

HAPPY: Buoys is a lot more sparse and stripped back than your previous albums, and I know this may sound like a bit of a silly question, but was it more difficult writing songs with seemingly less going on?

NOAH: Yeah, yeah. I guess difficult because I felt like it was… I guess it was uncharted territory, in a way. Or at least not like the sort of aesthetic that I felt like I’d done in some time. So yeah, I guess getting it to sound really pleasing or interesting or attractive to me definitely required sort of a different process than before. But that was partly by design, too. There was a handful of things that I felt like I’d done on the previous three records that I was sure I didn’t want to do for the new thing. So in the absence of that stuff I figured the new record would be different, at least at some level. I can’t say that I had a really crystal clear vision of what the thing was gonna become. I knew that I’d be kind of going somewhere slightly new, at least.

HAPPY: Did it make you feel exposed or vulnerable because of the relative lack of texturing or layering that you’d encountered in your previous records?

NOAH: Yeah, there was sort of a degree of fear for that. There still is, I should say, but also beyond that I feel like there’s an emotional, and maybe this is corny to say, but an emotional nakedness to the thing which I’m not sure I’ve… I suppose I’ve dipped my toe in that pool here and there but this really felt like a full-on plunge into that, for better or for worse I guess.

HAPPY: Thematically, Buoys delves into some deeper themes than perhaps you’ve encountered through your music in past releases. Did you begin the album with the intention of making something more political or culturally relevant or is that something that happened organically through the album writing process?

NOAH: I’d say it was more organic. I don’t feel like I had a sort of master plan, and it wasn’t really a concept record in any shape or form but sort of in line with your question I guess there’s a bit more of, like, reacting to stuff that’s going on around these days, not only politically but also culturally. I feel like I’m kind of reacting to that stuff. Again, in an organic way. I can’t say that there was a plan to it but I do feel like there was a more obvious echo of stuff that’s going about these days than on anything I’ve done before.

HAPPY: With Buoys, you also reintroduced autotune back into your sound. Have you found that using autotune has allowed you to expand your sound in ways that perhaps analogue equipment won’t allow you to?

NOAH: It definitely, kind of, was the first step in achieving this single-take vocal thing that I’d been trying to do for a while. I tried on the Homies thing that I did last year to make it happen but I could never get the single-vocal take thing punchy enough in a way I was really happy with, so when I told Rusty that I wanted to make music that was really centred around this more intimate vocal production, autotune was just a suggestion, and it gives my voice… Being able to track through it, like record through the thing, you can play with it in various ways that I thought were cool. It gives my voice a sort of sharpness, or it textures my voice in a way that it feels a little bit more thick. I feel like my voice can tend to sound a little bit thin on recordings. I mean, I sound like Squidward when I talk [laughs], but it’s always a bit of a challenge. But yeah, autotune was kind of the first challenge, the first step of the vocal production adventure we went on. It was the thing that kind of showed the finish line.

HAPPY: Was it your idea or one of your collaborator’s ideas to use autotune?

NOAH: Autotune was Rusty’s idea, Rusty Santos. We [Animal Collective] did Sung Tongs with him and he mixed Person Pitch with me, and he’s done a lot of stuff with Ariel Pink and Eric Copeland. He worked on DJ Rashad’s record a bunch of years ago. He’s really, really good.

HAPPY: Have you found that collaborating with Rusty has affected your sound in a way that you probably couldn’t have predicted?

NOAH: Yeah, absolutely. I worked with my friend Pete Kimber on the past two records and it was a similar situation there and that’s why I like to work with somebody else. I like to have them colour the music in some way. I like them to bring their perspective to the thing. So yeah, with this it was the same. I mean, when I met Rusty about a year, maybe a year and a half ago he was talking to me about the stuff that he was working on. I was sort of curious to see what the songs that I was doing, how they would sound kind of filtered through the perspective that he was in, or the state of mind he was in with music, so I definitely wanted to bring his, sort of, zone to the thing.

HAPPY: From what I understand, Rusty has been working with a lot of trap artists lately. Is that right?

NOAH: Yeah. Liv, who’s from Chile who does the crying on the record and had a bunch of arrangement ideas is someone who Rusty’s been working with a lot. A lot of Latin trap, sad trap, that kind of stuff.

HAPPY: Do you ever feel overwhelmed with what’s going on with music at the moment, especially with all these new subgenres that are seemingly coming out of nowhere, like Latin trap or sad trap?

NOAH: No, I mean, I guess there is a sort of fear of missing out slant on everything. Not just with music, though. I mean, the internet sort of shows you the vastness of cultural movements and all the intricacies and details and stuff that’s going on and you can kind of surf down pathways endlessly and constantly be discovering stuff. But I don’t know if being overwhelmed is how I would describe it. I guess I find it more exciting than overwhelming. I don’t know, maybe I’m just a curious person or something.

HAPPY: Do you think that Buoys is the beginning of a new chapter? And do you think that the creative channel that took you to Buoys is something that you’ll continue to follow and explore or do you think that your next releases will be something new entirely?

NOAH: I guess that… I mean, I’ve been writing a whole bunch of new stuff over the last couple of months and it definitely sounds like an extension of Buoys, although there’s less guitar going on. But I guess the new stuff is gonna feel somehow tied to Buoys. I’m not sure if the Animal Collective stuff will. That’s what’s sort of exciting about it. It produces results that I would never think of on my own. But the next solo thing will probably feel like an… well I’m guessing that it’ll probably feel like an extension of Buoys. 


Buoys is out via Domino Records on February 8. Pre-order the album here.