Panda Bear aka Noah Lennox acquired his nom-de-music by compiling mix tapes. "When I first started writing songs and making recordings of songs I would make little tapes," Lennox reveals personably. "On a couple of the early tapes that I made, I drew panda bears or took images of panda bears and put them on there. I can't remember really why, other than that they're my favorite animal and I thought they looked cool. They were pretty easy for me to draw." Lennox has grown light-years since those early days, both musically and personally. He has settled down and started a family in Lisbon -- we missed our interview yesterday because he was out walking with his son, for which he apologized profusely, "Thank you for sticking with me, I'm really glad we get to do it today."
His music seems to reflect this more sedentary life. At that time, "I didn't really understand the concept of the album as a piece of music or a group of songs that all worked together in some way, or worked towards some kind of ultimate goal," he explains of his formative years as a musician. "An album to me was more just like a mix of songs." His 2007 breakthrough Person Pitch was in many ways the complete inverse of this former perception of an album. The blissed out loops and reverb-soaked melodies blend into each other so effectively on both an inter- and intra-track level that it becomes almost pointless to distinguish between songs.
"To me [Person Pitch] was a big mess of sound, it was like a big soup that I was hoping would swim around your ears or your head or something like that," Lennox explains. "Nothing really stuck out too much, everything was just kind of floating around in this world." In short, all the songs worked together, and to great effect.
For the four years following Person Pitch, Lennox was relatively absent as a solo artist. While the album basically spawned the "chillwave" genre and the morass of artists -- Toro y Moi, Neon Indian, Washed Out, El Guincho -- that followed, Noah Lennox busied himself with his band Animal Collective as they recorded their two most acclaimed albums to date and premiered an experimental film at Sundance. The melodies that looped and overlapped on top of interlocking rhythms on Person Pitch reappeared with a more driving momentum on Animal Collective songs like "Chores" or "My Girls."
The songs on his most recent effort Tomboy seem to further siphon Person Pitch's nebulous cloud into more straightforward arrangements.
The focus of what I wanted to do with the new songs was essentially take that soup of sound and just clench it in your fist, just compress it really intensely to get short little songs. I was really inspired by this album called Donuts by J Dilla. The speed at which he'll move from one thing to the next is really fast.
The invocation of one of hip-hop's most influential artists seems out of left field, but he integrates it masterfully.
"I was definitely inspired to want to make something that felt like it was moving almost too fast, this relentlessly moving thing." The J Dilla touchstone has more to do with the feel of the album as a whole rather than the tone of the individual songs; Donuts is, after all, an instrumental album. However, Dilla's influence can be heard directly in the hip-hop beat that forms the background of "Slow Motion."
To describe the songs on Tomboy as more sparse would be missing the point. Gone though the Person Pitch soup is, Lennox serves up an album of small plates with the same sonic acumen as its predecessor.
"I wanted to draw out a couple elements [from Person Pitch] to be the structure upon which the rest of the sound was built," he tells me. "Instead of just having this mass of stuff I wanted there to be this crux to the sound. I wanted to do really simple, basic rhythms. That generally was the blueprint for all the songs." In order to effect this change of gear, he stepped away from his sampler and picked up his guitar. "I wrote all of these songs on guitar except for "Scheherazade" -- that's more or less a sample song," he explains. "Or "Drone" you could say wasn't really written on the guitar either, but everything else was."
Lennox had been using the sampler as his main mode of songwriting for the past five or six years.
"Both the last Animal Collective record and the Panda Bear record both heavily featured these things for me," he offers. "After a while I started to feel like I was writing the same kind of song over and over again. There were really strict boundaries to the way I could make songs on the thing. Generally speaking there weren't too many chord changes, they were all essentially drone songs."
When I, in a moment of reportorial banter, mention that "Ponytail" on his last album seemed to fit the Tomboy algorithm, he draws a breath and goes into storytelling mode.
Yup, absolutely. That was the stepping-stone for all the Tomboy songs. That was the one song that I guess is sort of strange because it sticks out like a sore thumb on that album. It was the song that I came back to a lot, and was always in my head, even long after the album was over. It was the song that I always wanted to play live. There was something almost embarrassing about the lyrical content of it that I liked. It felt really exposed in a way that was really uncomfortable but there was a power to it that I really liked. I wanted to keep going in that direction both lyrically and as far as it being a guitar song.
Lennox speaks with amiable disposition and this is translated on his album in the sunny outlook of "Surfer's Hymn" or the bouncy effervescence of "Alsatian Darn." The leaner structure of Lennox's new songs allows his voice to stand strongly in the mix, giving the album a feeling of keen introspection.
"A lot of the songs touch on the relationship of my life as a musician and my life as a person," he mulls. "The way those two things are constantly working with each other, or how I'm constantly juggling those two things. Lyrically that was big."
Though many of his songs address broad metaphysical topics ("Take my life/What's my life like?/What's my work like?/How do I pass my time?" on the title-track), the counterpoint of his concentrated arrangements let his lyrics fall with a meditative air rather than as a cascade of platitudes. It seems as though he is pursuing a singular line of thought rather than engaging any idea that crosses his mind. The contrasts offered both lyrically and sonically ultimately informed the album title. "After I'd written maybe four sets of lyrics for the songs, I had this image of a tomboy as representing that whole juxtaposition of forces," he said.
Like in the wake of Person Pitch, Lennox plans to focus his output on Animal Collective after the release of Tomboy.
"For me it's strictly Animal Collective stuff," he says, before making it clear that he didn't intend to leave the record out there without tour support. "We've written a bunch of new songs and we're starting to tour here and there. I kind of feel like the times where I try to do both things at once -- the solo stuff and the band stuff -- I always feel like I'm not giving myself fully to one or the other."
Visit the Guardian for a full stream of Tomboy.