Q&A: Animal Collective's Panda Bear On How He Is Similar To Kanye West
"Does that mean I have a massive ego? Is there something wrong with that?" asks Panda Bear, a/k/a Noah Lennox, about his latest conquest as a solo artist. Though Lennox is the soaring, helium-voiced member of the ubiquitous Animal Collective and the man responsible for one of the most praised albums of the decade -- the jubilant, loop-heavy Person Pitch -- we tell him that he's no Kanye when it comes to arrogance. "I've never been to an award ceremony, so you never know," he warns. "If you let me loose in that zone, I'm going to go crazy."
Hopefully, this day never comes. Currently recording his fourth album, Tomboy, and preparing for a set at Governors Island this Saturday, Panda Bear chatted us with about the solo artist's ego, inner conflict within the new record, and, out of all people, how Frank Sinatra and Bach are among his influences.
In a previous interview, you described how part of the recording process for your new album Tomboy was done in between a really relaxing day-to-day routine as a family guy. Why do you think your new songs ("Tomboy" and "Slow Motion") sound so bleak and dramatic at this point in your life?
That's a really good question, and I have to admit, I thought a lot about that. I haven't come up with a totally concrete answer just yet. Maybe it's just the stuff that's going on in the world, perhaps -- you know, just a lot of messed-up things happening. I don't feel, like, super stressed out or super dark most of the time. I guess if I look at what the songs are about, they all deal with something that's sort of in conflict with itself, and typically all those things are related to something inside of me. Perhaps that's why I sound on the darker side of things.
What song off the album is a good example of the internal conflict you feel?
Well, "Tomboy" is about how, on one side, I want to appreciate the things I have and the job I have being a musician, being able to play music, record music, and perform music for people -- I feel really lucky to be able to do that. But the other side of it, the kind that takes me away from my family, I'm super uncomfortable with, particularly the performance side of it. And I think it kind of messes me up a little bit, I would say. But that song is kind of about me trying to appreciate everything I have, despite having difficulties with it.
When you say you feel uncomfortable about performing live, is it because of people like rock critic Jim DeRogatis, who didn't -- in so many words -- enjoy your Pitchfork Festival set, or is it because of other factors?
Well, it doesn't feel good when you read or hear that people think you're just really bad or a joke or something like that. It definitely doesn't do anything positive. It's kind of the social aspects of the job, too; it freaks me out a little bit. I'm not the kind of person who really spends a lot of time around crowds of people. I guess I feel like I have trouble meeting people sometimes or talking to people; I guess I'm not the most social person I know.
After living in Portugal with English as your main language, I imagine coming back here, where everybody wants to talk to you, is pretty jarring.
Yeah, that's the thing -- growing up, I was a super, super shy person. Then, sometime after, I dropped out of college and moved to New York, which I guess is just the kind of place where you're forced into social interaction everyday, it was really good for me in a way. I feel like I developed this feeling of being able to talk to people and not feel weird about it. But having moved to Portugal, where I'm in a much more isolated zone and don't speak to people that much, I feel like I've regressed a little bit and I'm more in a socially inept zone than I was maybe five years ago. But overall, being in the spotlight, even though it may be a really dim spotlight, is another thing that I'm not really a natural at.
What do you find difficult about working alone?
Well, you get into your head a lot more. There's no kind of support group to be like, "things are sick" or "not sick." It's all you for better or worse. It's kind of an egocentric thing, in a way, to be like, "What I'm doing is good." From a certain point of view actually, it kind of takes a big ego to do that.
I can see how you'd view a solo album in that way, just being dependent on yourself and trusting your own judgment.
Does that mean I have a massive ego? Is there something wrong with that?
No! You're not Kanye, far from it.
I've never been to an award ceremony, so you never know. If you let me loose in that zone, I'm going to go crazy.
That'd be kind of exciting to see, honestly, but I hope it doesn't happen. Back to your album, I heard the original concept of Tomboy was to incorporate only three elements -- singing, drums, and guitar -- into each of your songs. How faithful did you stay to that idea?
I think I've done a pretty good job sticking to that -- a little more than half follow that kind of blueprint. I was really into the idea of a band like Nirvana and how minimal the arrangement was. Well, that or something like Frank Sinatra or crooner guys. It's a really singular thing, but really powerful, too. I can't really sing like those guys so much, but I guess it's going to be my own version of that.
I also read that, somehow, Bach is an influence on the album. Is that something the listener can hear in "Slow Motion," with those two thick, pounding chords that play throughout the song?
I could see that, I mean, it almost sounds like a church organ in a way. Yeah, I know what you mean. I think on "Tomboy" there's something really serious and almost heavy-handed, which I'm not crazy about. But serious in kind of like a sacred way; that sounds like really lofty and kind of pretentious, but I guess that's where my head's at these days.
Panda Bear will be performing on the Beach at Governors Island on Saturday, September 11th.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.