An Interview with Panda Bear

The public was introduced to the individual personalities of Animal Collective, Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Geologist, and Deakin (David Portner, Noah Lennox, Brian Weitz, and Josh Dibb, respectively) when they released their full-length album Feels.

From Here Comes the Indian to their latest release Strawberry Jam, the quartet has pushed the boundaries of folk music to include elements of electronica, noise, drone, and pop.

They create a psychedelic experience by blending discordant sound, new technology, and international influences, making them more comparable to Black Dice and Wolf Eyes than other folk singers like Devendra Banhart.

When speaking with Geologist (Brian Weitz) about his collection of field samples, it was evident that Animal Collective seeks to musically define culture. Lennox, better known as Panda Bear, is the ambassador of warmth, his contribution to the band leaving the listener enveloped in a soothing sound.

I consider Panda Bear one of my musical idols, especially after the launch of his third solo album, Person Pitch, in the spring. Recorded in his Lisbon home studio with his wife and child, Person Pitch offers a serene landscape of soothing tunes and hymns reminiscent of Brian Wilson’s work. Varied beats, from Caribbean to industrial, keep the listener engaged, apart from a couple of tracks designed to provide a tranquil experience.

The vocals repeat in an ebb and flow, like taffy being pulled. Backstage at the Bowery Ballroom in New York, Panda Bear and I enjoyed some beers while Eric Copeland of Black Dice prepped downstairs on a giant sofa that could have fit the entire Animal Collective.

— Trinie Dalton has written a book that provides insight into the lives of people who live outside of mainstream culture. She explores the ways in which these individuals create and maintain meaningful identities for themselves in the face of a society that often fails to understand them.

I. The reason I drew panda bears on my early tapes was because I was excited about the image, and it stuck.

What is your emotional state now that you’ve completed a sound check before performing live? Are you anxious at all?

PANDA BEAR: Not really. I was very anxious on my first night here, but now I’m more nervous when playing alone than with a band. When I’m by myself, it’s easier to notice any errors I make since there is no one to hide behind. I’m multitasking, pressing buttons, adjusting knobs and singing at the same time.

Therefore, if I accidentally hit something at the wrong time, it will be obvious. I’m usually quite good at concentrating on the show once it begins. If I find myself thinking about something else, it’s usually a sign of a bad performance.

BLVR: Paying close attention to your actions, you create a surround-sound ambiance.

When the volume is not high enough, I start to feel awkward while performing. On the other hand, when the noise is loud enough, I am content and able to immerse myself in the music.

BLVR: Is your music created with yourself in mind or with the intention of entertaining others? Is the primary goal of your music to amuse?

PB: Both are important. I don’t want to be so self-absorbed that I’m only making music for myself. It would be absurd to claim that even though I’m producing a lot of CDs, they’re just for me. Despite that, I make sure that I’m the first one to be taken aback by what I’m creating.

The only thing one can control is their own opinion. I strive to make something I’m proud of and then leave the rest to fate. I take into account the thoughts of others. My aim for tonight’s performance is not just to please myself but to make sure that everyone in the audience enjoys it.

BLVR: Animal Collective is known for their attentiveness to fans. On their message boards, they make an effort to personally reply to fans, especially those under the age of 18 who look up to them. It’s important for anyone starting out in the creative world to reach out to those they admire to confirm that they are real people. This is what kept me motivated when I was starting out.

PB: Certainly. That does make a substantial change. Even though we’re not like giant personalities or anything. We don’t dress in a super ostentatious manner.

BLVR: Are you still donning animal attire? Was the panda bear your choice of outfit due to your adoration of pandas?

PB: I ended my stint of performing in costume after a year or so, even if some people showed up just to see us in it. We still do occasionally dress up in quirky outfits though, and I’m a fan of pandas. Everything began when I got my hands on a Tascam 4-track cassette recorder, and Josh and I just went wild with effects and making funny voices.

I didn’t have a grip on the concept of an album or what it should look like. I wasn’t really listening to a lot of music, and I still don’t really listen to it during the day. I’d make these little compilation tapes with skits, not like hip hop skits but more comedic. I decorated the early tapes with pandas since I liked the image, and it just stuck.

I’m intrigued by the fact that pandas have thumbs that can be used opposably. Are you familiar with the red panda species?

PB asked if the pandas were smaller than the usual ones.

BLVR: These creatures are small, like koalas. They are much closer to raccoons than bears, not actually being part of the bear family. The Santa Barbara Zoo, located a 90 minute drive from Los Angeles, has one of these animals. It is said that they are hard to spot. The zoo is quite pleasant, having more of a botanical garden feel. Although the animals are enclosed, there are no cages.

PB commented that it was nice that they were able to just travel leisurely.


BLVR: Person Pitch is so special to me, the way the different sounds overlap really reminds me of the way the light reflects off of human skin. It’s so fitting that Danny [Perez] is doing the visuals for your performance.

The mentality was definitely there. I believe the movie was a success due to the amount of time Danny had to carefully craft each part I was in.

Does the milieu you inhabit have an impact on your ambition to delight the spectators?

PB: Certainly, there is an impact, yet it is more ethereal. Take for instance, the evening light in Lisbon, when I listen to music, it is a warm, orange hue. That feeling can be heard in the music due to the sunlight.

BLVR: Enjoy the distinct brilliance of the sun in the desert?

PB: This track is not like the others; it is more damp, having a golden tinge. From my residence, the river is visible, which is located near the sea. As I composed these songs, a current of air could be felt in the studio; the windows would be shaking due to the breeze, and the rays of light in the evening would pour into the chamber. When I hear the music, I feel those sensations.

BLVR: Your music is reminiscent of one of my most beloved art catalogs, The Rainbow Book, which dates back to the mid-1970s of the hippie-era in San Francisco. This book is full of ancient woodcuts and illustrations of the progress of human civilization in terms of our understanding of weather and rainbows. There is a section discussing the relationship between musical notes and the colors of the rainbow based on the range of the color spectrum.

PB: That is understandable, as sound is a frequency and light is a wave, correct?

BLVR: Regarding your approach to layering, spectrums, and collaging, I recall you mentioning the idea of managing chaos – to take a great amount of data and mold it into something perceivable for an audience or yourself.

This is reminiscent of Brian Eno’s mid-career ambient compositions. What are your thoughts on his music? Do you see your work as ambient? Is your workflow to collect a range of ideas and then try to control them, or do you come up with sounds in your mind and craft songs one at a time based on your envisioned sounds?

PB: One of my favorite albums is Brian Eno’s Music for Airports. It was among the first ambient albums I heard and it has a melancholic quality, which can make it hard to get through. I think my music has elements of ambient music and composers, particularly from the Kompakt label in Germany. With my last album, I used a trial and error approach.

I flipped through my computer files and CDs and sampled bits from each, then tried to fit things together. I pitched, sped up, slowed down, chopped, and manipulated the samples until I felt they were my own.

As I listened to each of these samples, melodies and words instinctively began to enter my head. Songwriting for me is usually a process of seven days of despair, followed by a sudden hour of inspiration.

III. Folk music is an attempt to articulate the experiences of living in one’s local area.

BLVR stated that although Person Pitch does not contain the typical ’60s Dick Dale guitar sound, it does possess a certain aquatic feel to it.

PB: In terms of surfing, Lisbon and Portugal are quite suitable. It is said that there are plenty of amazing surf spots along the coast and I personally have observed a few significant waves, but I did not take part in them.

The music I produce is inspired by the laid-back atmosphere of these surf spots. In that kind of setting, everything has its place and you don’t just do something without taking the time to do it and if there’s no time, you make it. When it comes to having dinner, you should not rush, you should just enjoy it. For the Portuguese, it is considered to be impolite to walk around the city with a paper cup of coffee in hand; it is expected to take a seat and have a conversation while drinking it.

BLVR: Being in a place with a language different than your own, do you see music as a more pressing way to express something primal or fundamental? Do you think that music has the potential to convey a message that goes beyond language?

PB expressed that talking was never something he was great at due to his shyness, which was further highlighted in Lisbon. He also noted that he got very productive with songwriting during this time. He then went on to explain that he puts a lot of effort into conveying important messages through his music.

PB also mentioned a song he wrote for Animal Collective that was about the responsibilities of having a child and how it can be a positive or a negative experience. He explained that it is the normal, everyday things that can become large issues in his music and how he holds his music sacred. Lastly, he expressed that music is what represents the number one priorities in his life.

When it comes to discussing one’s work with the press, it can be strange, as it’s preferable for the art to do the talking. Nevertheless, it can be beneficial to provide a background and context.

For me, discussing my actions in this manner is an eye-opening experience. Otherwise, I don’t take the time to think about them. It can be beneficial to review one’s activities from time to time.

BLVR: When you create music that has a certain level of emotion in it, which could be said to be post-verbal, it has a physical quality to it. I’m curious if you think about it in an intellectual sense. Do you set yourself challenges, applying reasoning to your tunes, or do you regard music as a puzzle and come up with ideas as you sample and make alterations to the sounds you have recorded?

PB does not get too intellectual while creating something. He finds that the most satisfying works are those that are instinctive. He avoids any material that has a sense of familiarity or nostalgia, as it does not appeal to him. What stimulates him is to express what is relevant to him at the moment, living in Lisbon in the year 2007. This is what he does, no matter how it turns out.

BLVR: Two decades later, one can look back and comprehend the thought process behind their art. Art isn’t necessarily journalism, but it should be something that others can connect to and remember their life during that time when they view, hear, or read it.

I label what I do, and the band’s work, as folk music. This genre is about expressing a sense of life within a specific area. In that respect, Animal Collective has always been about that. When asked if we are a folk band, I always say yes. But, maybe my interpretation of the term is distinct from the traditional definition.

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