It’s hardly obvious at first listen, but Animal Collective's Noah Lennox, a.k.a. Panda Bear, intended his third fourth solo record to be “a guitar attack.” “I wanted to do something simple and powerful,” he says. But the end product is more like an attack on his guitar, which Lennox warped into various unrecognizable forms – metallic burbles, echoey madness, church-organ-like resonance – by playing it through a synth module.
Lennox, the driving force behind two of the past decade’s most influential records – his 2007 solo record, Person Pitch, and Animal Collective’s 2009 breakthrough Merriweather Post Pavilion – talked with Rolling Stone about the creative process behind his solo release, Tomboy, due April 12th. (Listen to two tracks from the album, "Slow Motion" and "Tomboy," below.)
Why were you interested in returning to the guitar on Tomboy?
I think I just hadn’t done it in a while, so I thought it might force me to write different types of songs, and it did. But using the samplers and strictly electronic means to write songs, I just started to feel like I was writing the same song over and over again.
At some point you said you were into the idea of less sampling – you even said you were thinking about Nirvana and White Stripes and that kind of immediacy. Did any of that survive onto the final version of the album?
I would guess that for somebody just listening to it, they wouldn’t really see that corollary at all. But stopping the sampling was kind of an easy way out of not doing a Person Pitch, part two – which I really didn’t wanna do.
Recording the album took longer than you expected, right?
It just kept expanding. At first I was really shooting for it to come out in September, and that was sort of on the tail-end of touring with the Merriweather songs, and I’m not going to blame that, but trying to pull double duty I think pushed me back a little bit. Then just wanting to make sure things were as good as they could be, I think made it take a little bit longer.
Were you already working on these songs at the same time as you were working on Merriweather stuff?
I was definitely thinking about it. Even when we were recording the Merriweather stuff, I was already kind of considering songs, parts of songs. I would just kind of jam on the guitar, singing sometimes, before I even started writing songs, kind of just seeing if I could come up with little parts here and there – really kind of like scrapbook style. And then when I really started sitting down to write songs, I would often go through these little pages of stuff to see if there were little parts in any of those things that I thought I could make a song out of. It was a long process, it was a long road.
How much pressure were you feeling to live up to the success of your last two projects?
In the past, I guess I was able to block it out or something, but for this I went through a lot of weird mental stuff for sure. It just became something that I kind of had to fend off in my mind a little bit, like constantly thinking, “Maybe this isn’t good enough” and stuff like that, just always kind of weird doubts and stuff like that. I just kind of had to get over that every day.
Where did you record this record?
I did Person Pitch in this little room in my old apartment [in Lisbon, Portugal where Lennox was living with his wife and newborn baby]. Now, there’s this building called the Interpress Building in Lisbon that used to be a factory, and it’s become art studios and dance studios and stuff – it’s right near the center of town, and it’s pretty close to my apartment. And I share a little space with some other band, and that’s where I did all of Tomboy.
Was it good to have sort of an office to go to?
Totally, yeah. It’s pretty much the way it was treated too, I would just go there on weekdays. It was weird ‘cause I had to start working during the day – for the most part, all the Person Pitch stuff was done late at night, just kind of when I prefer to do stuff. But just 'cause my life has changed, I’ve had to reset my schedule a little bit, so I was working during the day. My studio now is in the basement of the building, and there’s no windows and it’s like, “Ooh, this is weird.” This dark, dank little home down there.
Could you pretend it was night?
Sort of. It’s a weird kind of – it’s like you’re in the night when it’s dark and becomes morning, and you see a little light, it was more like that kind of feeling – you knew there was light outside the building, but it had a really dark vibe.
So what did you actually have in your room there?
I have a laptop and monitors and I have this synth module I used a lot, a Korg M-3. I fed everything through that one, when I play the songs live that’s how I do it. Just like with Person Pitch… and I guess Young Prayer, too, I had played the songs live before I recorded them. So all the recorded versions kind of have this live foundation and then I have expanded on that with multi-tracking certain things, or blending things together, adding sounds that hopefully reinforce my idea of the song.
Given how often people compare you to Brian Wilson, were you deliberately tweaking that idea with a song title as Beach Boys-y as "Surfer's Hymn"?
Uhh, it wasn’t. [laughs] But yeah, that was my original title for it because when you say it, it would be the kind of thing that someone would be like “What? Is that English?” And I like that about it, but the more I thought about it, and thinking about the Beach Boys comparisons and all that, because we get that a lot, I started to get really bummed out about the title. I was telling people that we were going to change it, but the guys I tour with were like “I think you should just keep it” so I trusted them on that one. I hope I don’t get screwed.
Where were you coming emotionally on this record versus Person Pitch?
I think Person Pitch has sort of a newness to it. I had just moved to Portugal, and it’s almost like when you start a new job or something, and if you like it, you have this special juice at that time. And I think that came out in the music a lot. It was really kind of loose and kind of light – I don’t mean like light cream cheese—but light, but festive I guess. These songs, I knew they had more of a serious tone, but probably like the second or third time I listened to it, I was struck by how intense it made me feel listening to it. And it's funny because I feel like a lot of the subject matter of the Person Pitch songs can be pretty heavy at times, but it just kind of came off in this sort of celebratory sound. Whereas these, I wouldn’t say they’re negative, but they kind of have this weathering the storm attitude to them – and it’s heavy-sounding to me.