Panda Bear Chases the 'Psychedelic Sweet Spot' on 'Grim Reaper' LP

Animal Collective's Noah Lennox blends Nineties beats with a few sea shanties on January album

Panda Bear's latest album is a psychedelic take on late Daft Punk and Nineties hip-hop. Credit: Steven Dewall/Redferns via Getty Images

Last year, Animal Collective drummer Noah "Panda Bear" Lennox fulfilled his teenage dream when he sang on Daft Punk's Grammy-winning Random Access Memories. "I'm the most full-on Daft Punk fan," Lennox says, seated in a studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, slowly sipping veggie juice. "Homework was a big deal for me. That and Doggystyle were the only two albums that my brother and I could agree on in the car."

The Daft Punk collaboration was more than a bucket-list moment, though — it strongly influenced Lennox's immersive and beat-heavy fifth album, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, which is scheduled for a January 13th release. "The Paul Williams song [on R.A.M.] is my favorite as so much change happens within the song," Lennox says. "I wanted my own album to have that flavor where nothing lasts a long time, there's always new stuff happening and new places the music is going to. It keeps the mind busy."

Rolling Stone caught up with Lennox to discuss the new album, Nineties hip-hop and what he calls "the psychedelic sweet spot."

Person Pitch felt like a very bright album, but its follow-up Tomboy was decidedly darker in sound and cover art. Is Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper lighter?
For Person Pitch, I made that record in a room where the light was always flooding in. Tomboy was virtually no light at all. Tomboy was made a bunker. This one's more out in the open again, but it was made at so many locations. I started some of the tracks while recording [Animal Collective's 2013 album] Centipede Hz in Texas. I made a whole bunch of pieces – what might be cheesy to say – but "beats." I made them in lots of different places and the ones that were most memorable, the ones I kept going back to and tweaking out, those were the ones that I made songs out of.

What makes something become an Animal Collective song as opposed to a Panda Bear song?
I have to know going into it. I learned that the hard way. I would try to just make stuff without thinking where it would go, and it didn't go so well. I would have stuff only to realize there was too much of my personality and my character in it. When you make something with somebody else, everyone has an idea of where it can go. Gameplanning songs often doesn't work in Animal Collective. We're all particular and so it has to be unfinished so that there's space for other people to insert their perspective. For my own music, I throw stuff at the wall – concepts, images, daydreams – before getting my hands dirty. A lot of stuff that doesn't make it to the other side.

What are some of these images?
On the recent EP, "Mr. Noah," for example, the break was forceful and a focal point of the production. Adding vocals and swirling sounds were to make it more confusing. I wanted to balance it with a magical environment that pulls the song away from that driving rhythmic force. Working with Sonic Boom [Pete Kember, former member of Spacemen 3 and producer for MGMT], there's a tug of war and perspective where the song meets at a new place. I get forced into places I wouldn't otherwise feel comfortable to go.

I'm not a psychedelic warrior by any means, but that's an element of music that I find to be very psychedelic: when everything mixes in weird ways and you can't tell what's what. That's when quasi-magical stuff starts to happen, when things start tricking my ear and my brain. One of my favorite questions is asking people how they define psychedelic music. For me, it has something to do with things tricking your ear, when things are more than the sum of their parts. I feel like that's the target always with my music, the psychedelic sweet spot.

The drum programming is much heavier and foregrounded on the new album. Were there any producers that were important for you?
It wasn't like, "This is what I'm going to do." A lot of times I feel there's a lot of decisions that get made subconsciously and it's only in retracing my steps in interviews I realize what I was thinking. But I used the drum breaks that were also commonplace in a lot of Nineties hip-hop production. It has a very particular rhythmic swing to it. I feel like in the 2000s producers moved away from using samples and breaks in that way – everything became sequenced and MIDI. But stuff like the Dust Brothers, Q-Tip and A Tribe Called Quest productions, Pete Rock, DJ Premier, 9th Wonder and Jay Dee were important to me. We ended up doing 19 songs in the studio so that in the end I was flexible in the story that could be told.

Is there a larger story being told on Grim Reaper?
Not something that I had envisioned from the beginning, but once I had all the songs the sequence that I put together feels like a story to me. The first section feels like an identity dissolving, hectic and busy and more intense, more abrasive. It's the death throes of the identity and as the album progresses, it gets more broken apart and damaged until it hits this place where the previous identity completely disappears. It matches the times in my life where I felt like I had gone through an intense change of character when I felt like I was growing the most. The last songs on the album, "Selfish Gene" and "Acid Washed," are like sea shanties to me. There's a weird undercurrent of sailor stuff going through the album, which I suppose is a Portuguese influence subconsciously.

Do you perceive an end to the "Panda Bear" avatar then?
It certainly crossed my mind. I figured if there was a time to do it now was the time. I may still, although I don't expect it. I think I'll know when I start making the next one whether the name still fits or not. Insofar as it relates to the story told by the sequence of songs, the "death" is of character traits that are unnecessary or detrimental.

There was a time when you had a standing offer for Daft Punk to remix an Animal Collective song. Is that what ultimately led to your vocal contribution on Random Access Memories?
I knew it was a long-shot, but when we did "My Girls," that was the one remix I wanted. We were lucky enough to have a connection to them to get in touch. Daft Punk said, "We're not into doing remixes any more but we like the song." But Thomas came to a show in Paris, and we stayed in touch after that. They then said they were working on an album, and I flew to Paris for three days at the studio. Most of the time we were just talking about the album's concept. They played me the background for "Doin' It Right" and right at the end of the first day, I figured out my part.