The Song Remains the Same

Panda Bear's hard road to optimism, and winding path to pleasing repetition

"Ponytail," the fleeting finale to Panda Bear's new Person Pitch, isn't a completely new song. Three albums in—not counting those he's done with his main outfit, Animal Collective, or with his noise duo, Jane—Noah Lennox (as he's known offstage) is happy to be stuck not so far from where he started. "That's the song I've written a hundred times in a hundred slightly different ways since I first started writing songs," he says. "I'm really psyched on the basic repetition of things."

You would not know this from tracing, Casablanca–style, Lennox's progress on a map. Born in a "wooded," quasi-wealthy section of Baltimore before moving north to Pennsylvania for high school—and then to Boston for college—he eventually landed in New York. There, his nascent band of hometown friends, the Animal Collective, found themselves the flagship of a pseudo-primitive pop revival that, three years later, is still coaxing downtown kids out of the city and into the woods. On one of the many tours that followed, Lennox ended up with a day off in Lisbon, Portugal. He met a girl, and Lisbon is now home. A young daughter keeps the family company, and Lennox misses his friends but not his old life. "I've moved around a whole lot in my life so far," he says. "And I've gotten good at feeling at home wherever I am, at least after a little while."

On the phone with me, it turns out he's only a mile or so south, back in Williamsburg to practice with the Animal Collective in advance of yet another two-week tour (they've got a new record out this fall). Lennox was already looking forward to flying back to Lisbon and seeing his family—"I've been away from home, away from my wife and daughter so much, that I try not to push it if I can help it," he says. He'll be back later this month, though, for two Bowery Ballroom shows, both sold-out.

Casual? Check. Goofy? Check. Fun? Probably.
photo: Adriano Segundes
Casual? Check. Goofy? Check. Fun? Probably.

Person Pitch, the vibrant occasion for all this excitement, is among other things an attempt at shortening some of the longer distances Lennox is now regularly forced to cross. Panda Bear's last album, 2004's Young Prayer, was written for his departed father. On Person Pitch, Lennox addresses his mother with "Take Pills," a song he says is about coping with the depression they've both struggled with. Over a jaunty Paul Simon strum, Lennox sings, "I don't want for us to take pills anymore (not that it's bad)."

"I try to write in a really direct way as far as the words go," Lennox tells me. "I feel like it comes out sounding a little stupid or naive sometimes, but that's just the way it goes, I guess."

It's this sincerity, combined with a melodic optimism that's already spawned yards of Beach Boys comparisons, that buoys Person Pitch. After Young Prayer—"just a super-intense thing," he recalls—Lennox made a "conscious effort to try and do something a little more casual and fun and goofy." The result feels something like spending a day at the beach: the gorgeous sunrise and patient pace of "Comfy in Nautica," the sluggish bask and sandy grit coating the repetitive loops of "Bros," the underwater chant of "I'm Not."

Still, Lennox notes with pride how hard that apparent effortlessness came. "I used to be a pretty depressed person, or at least I had a period in my life where I was, and it wore me down slowly till I got to a point where I was pretty debilitated by it," he says. "There was definitely a turning point for me where I just decided that I wanted to change the way that my mind worked on an instinctual level, and I feel like over the past five years I've worked hard at that. But I don't believe in saying, 'Stay positive, and everything's going to work out fine,' you know? I wouldn't say that. You've got to be smart, but you've got to be realistic too. Shit happens, I really believe in that as well."

In this light, Lennox's music—the accidental choir of Animal Collective, the casual buzz of Jane, and his Panda Bear material—often seems like a flimsy but determined hedge against depression and uncertainty. His process is to seek out chaos he can control. "I mean, the initial parts of all the songs were really kind of random in a way," he says of Person Pitch. "I'd just be trying all kinds of different stuff out, trying to put samples together, trying to take parts of pieces of music that I really liked, and trying to set them to other things, speeding them up and slowing them down and pitching them here and there and cutting them up a little bit and stuff like that." Out of that breathless torrent he meticulously shaped his found sources into "tweaked, organic" tracks like "Ponytail," the song he keeps writing over and over again.

The repetition, for Panda Bear, is both a technique and something more—a way of remembering and holding on to the people and places he's no longer close to. While explaining how he knew when Person Pitch was done, he started by saying the same thing twice: "Trying different stuff out until I got to the point . . . " Lennox pauses. "Until I got to the point where a) I sort of had something that I thought was really mine, and b) something that I could listen to a thousand times and still be psyched about."


Panda Bear plays Bowery Ballroom June 18 and June 23, sold-out as hell, boweryballroom.com

 
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