Along with his cohorts in Animal Collective, Panda Bear — a.k.a. singer-songwriter Noah Lennox — has spent the past two decades fashioning a psychedelic hybrid that defies all existing genre definitions. Yet while bandmates Avey Tare, Deakin and Geologist were at work on 2018’s Tangerine Reef, their marine-themed ambient LP, Lennox’s ethereal tenor was noticeably absent; cue his sixth solo album, Buoys.
Buoys, which follows 2015 electro-pop jaunt Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, is a carnival of the senses. Fashioned loosely after old dub records, it features inflated low-end frequencies, elastic guitar work and vocals gently warped through a prism of Auto-Tune. Different sound systems yield different sonic experiences of the album, making it feel a little like an optical illusion.
Rolling Stone meets with Lennox at the World of McIntosh Townhouse in New York City, a stop on his recent U.S. tour. A former electrical substation, the space is now used as a showroom for high-end sound systems and other technological curios. Lennox sits in a leather recliner, looking casual in a grey hoodie and Adidas track pants. Originally hailing from Baltimore, the artist has lived in Portugal since 2004 — longer than he’s lived anywhere else — residing in Lisbon with his wife, fashion designer Fernanda Pereira, and their two children. “My Portuguese is barely functional,” he says with a laugh. “I sound like a caveman. [Our kids] make fun of me because of my Portuguese, and my wife because of her English. It’s kind of a cheap move!”
It was in Portugal that Lennox happened upon his former producer Rusty Santos, who last worked with Lennox on his 2007 LP Person Pitch, as well as AnCo’s 2004 breakthrough Sung Tongs. Santos had been working with Portuguese funaná singer Dino d’Santiago, among other artists in the area, when he decided to join Lennox in the studio once more — but this time with friends. On “Inner Monologue,” an uncanny-valley take on choral Seventies classic rock, d’Santiago and Chilean DJ Lizz lend vocals and cry noises, a clever Easter egg that evokes the standout track from Lennox’s 2007 LP Person Pitch, “Bros.” It’s a representative moment for Buoys, which often reflects the merits of choosing to “ripple with friends/who ripple with you,” as Lennox sings in “Crescendo.”
“I like trying to make music for the kind of person who would listen to a record 300 times to find something new every time,” says Lennox. “That’s what I like about the Easter eggs, as you call them — I leave them for whoever’s looking.”
Buoys feels like it could be many different records, depending on how you listen to it. Why do you think that is?
There was a moment where we had to decide if we’d continue on the path we were going on, or if we were going to take half-measures to get it to sound better on a laptop speaker. We tried to make it sound pleasant in some way, but to listen to it on a laptop speaker is to get half the story. It’s almost like the high stuff operates in a different way. The high end and the vocals sit on the sub-bass like a pillow.
Add a subwoofer and the effect is more like a bouncy castle.
The sub-bass stuff — we noticed that the more we tried to add to the arrangements, the less hard the bass would hit. Keeping the middle empty was the best way for that low stuff to really punch. The rhythms in this record are more suggested than represented. There’s almost no kick drum, except for in “Cranked.” The sub-bass is trying to do two things at the same time: represent a melodic element, and also acting as the rhythmic grounding element of the song. We would listen to Migos, Bad Bunny and Ozuna every morning. Rusty hoped that [this album] would sonically fit alongside what’s happening in trap and reggaeton.
Are you a big fan of reggaeton?
As with anything, there are some songs I really like. I’ve been listening to the new Bad Bunny album a lot. Did you see his performance on Fallon? When he sang “Estamos Bien”? I knew something very big was happening in that moment, in our culture. And while I know it doesn’t sound like a trap record, to me there are reflections of that in [Buoys]. It reminds me of a dub record, in that respect — lots of hi-hats, and low stuff. The space of it is defined by how the top and bottom levels are fucked with by using effects. Buoys operates in a similar way.
For ages, your work has been referred to as, more or less, a chopped-and-screwed version of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Is there anyone you’d rather be compared to?
Narratives get crystallized and it becomes the thing, whether you want it to be or not! People like stories. I like to think I have more in common with Bad Bunny.
You hadn’t worked with Rusty Santos since making Person Pitch over a decade ago — what made you decide to reach out to him again?
The first time I worked with him was in 2004 for the Animal Collective record Sung Tongs. With Person Pitch I had everything already mixed, then he and I took six days to finish it. Then I didn’t really see him much at all. I really loved a lot of the stuff he was doing, but it wasn’t until October 2017, when he came to Lisbon to work, that we connected again. I appreciate his ability as a translator — I feel like I get too deep in the thing. He’s really good at taking the thing and not destroying it, but translating it in a way that’s easier to digest. My mixes can be kind of obtuse and idiosyncratic, in that it’s not always conducive to other folks wrapping their heads around it.
“I like to think I have more in common with Bad Bunny [than the Beach Boys].”
What was it like going back into the studio with him after so long?
We recorded in this space called Big Bit in Lisbon. On my first day there I was told, “All the Portuguese hip-hop is made here.” We really trusted the room as an accurate representation of the sound. I even had a window! Because of my schedule I couldn’t work at night much — I have two kids now, and everything revolves around their orbit. I also got a French bulldog. She’s a skinny little thing, always cold. My day starts by taking her out. I take my son to school. Go home, spend a couple hours in the studio. I’m looking forward to the day I can work at three in the morning again.
You brought on some new collaborators for Buoys, including DJ Lizz, who’s this Chilean trap princess, and Portuguese singer Dino d’Santiago. What roles did they play in the making of the record?
Rusty had already worked with both of them — Dino is a well known Cape Verdean singer. Lizz had come with Rusty to Lisbon as they had been working on a bunch of tracks and wanted to continue working. They’d often work at night at Big Bit after Rusty and I were finished for the day. After hearing the initial versions of the Buoys songs, Lizz had one idea per song and most of those made it through, [like] the water drop on “Dolphin” and the whistling on “I Know I Don’t Know.” The crying on “Inner Monologue” was Lizz’s idea and performance as well. I thought of it as a cool throwback to [2007’s] “Bros,” something a longtime listener might appreciate.
Dean Blunt both starred in and directed your video for “Token,” which opens with a caption: When Dean got asked to do this video he was all good … He had plans to make something about Toy Story … Then something about cowboys and cowgrrrls … then something about being a token, then something else … then he lost his fucking mind. What came first — the video, or the title for the song?
We didn’t have a long drawn-out conversation about it, but I knew Dean from other, more odd videos he did, and wanted to work with him. There is a levity to the video; the funhouse setting is very much in conversation with the song. There’s some hypersexual images in the song that are funny to me [note lyrics like: “slap on a jelly ass”]. Not in a laugh-out-loud sort of way, but the discomfort of it — that is funny to me. There’s an innocent, like, fish-out-of-water sort of feeling. I see that in his face throughout the video, when he’s looking in the mirror or sitting in the bumper car.
Was there anything new you discovered about yourself in the process of making Buoys?
Personally I can say — this may be kind of corny to say but — I found a love of humanity, and wanting to reflect that. Finding that sort of side of myself — in “Token” there’s a line where I say, “it’s been building all my life.” On the musical side, there’s a new template we discovered using 808 samples, modulating the vocals with Auto-Tune, and the sub-bass stuff was pretty new. I usually start every song on guitar, then add this synth-pop sort of architecture. I probably wrote more songs in the past six months than I have, maybe ever in my life. Some may be shitty, but hey, I’ve made a lot of shitty songs. It was just the template that was easy to get up and running. I had a mission after the Sung Tongs anniversary tour [in 2018], where I said, “I just wanna write one song a day” — no words, but a fully fledged song. I just wanted to be prepared for new Animal Collective stuff coming up. I wanted way more songs than I felt I needed, so I could use the juiciest ones.
What can you tell me about the new Animal Collective music?
Since I moved away, it always starts as text messages between us. Like, “I think it would be cool to make something like this.” Even if the end result doesn’t reflect that, those conversations started in October. Even with the thorough demos I’ve made, we’ll surely transform it beyond recognition. Even if I could say what it will sound like, everyone will get mad at me for telling. Like, “Ugh, you did it again.”
Are you going to get roasted in the group chat if you spill the details?
Mmm-hmm. I have this tendency, if somebody asks me something, I usually just tell ’em. But nobody’s gotten hurt so far.
You weren’t involved in Tangerine Reef, the most recent Animal Collective album. What made you sit that one out?
They agreed to do this show with some friends of ours in Miami. They asked Animal Collective to soundtrack this film they were playing in a museum. But I had been traveling a lot and just couldn’t make it happen. They had been so psyched about the music they’d done. They had the train running, it’s just that I wasn’t on it. Still, I’m encouraged by the activity of the past couple years. It seems more similar to what we started as — people getting together and doing a bunch of things at the same time. For a while we were just writing a record and going on tour — a very traditional way of doing things. I’m excited about the natural way we’re just fracturing, splintering.
It’s been ten years since you released Merriweather Post Pavilion —your most pop-forward album, full of songs you could sing along to [like “My Girls”]. Do you have any lingering feelings about it now?
I haven’t listened to the album in a while, but my associations with the record are more personal. It was nothing explosive — like with Person Pitch, I was having a kid. In Strawberry Jam, things were a bit more disparate. But in Merriweather, it was such a pleasant time in my life, and we were all on the same page about the things we were doing. There was little adversity on that album — I remember when Dave and I sent each other demos of the song, and they fit really well. That was the first time I felt like, “This is gonna be OK.”