Panda Bear’s Personal Pitch

Panda Bear’s Personal Pitch

After creating some of the most original music of the 21st century, Noah Lennox has excavated a new clarity of voice ahead of his first-ever Australian tour.

Usually, when we talk about an artist finding their voice, we’re referring to something intangible: a shift in the way someone sees the world. But with Noah Lennox – aka Panda Bear – that discovery is literal.

Anyone even vaguely familiar with his music will recognise that Lennox’s voice is distinctive. Over five solo albums and a long career with Animal Collective, Lennox has emerged as one of the most unique musicians of the 21st century. Built from layer on layer of overdubbing and reverb, it’s as much instrument as it is singing, coursing into all the empty space of his tracks.

But when Lennox headed into the studio earlier this year, he knew that something had to change. “Usually I’d done a lot of stacked vocals, and specific ways of panning them, and multi-tracking them, and harmonising them. There was even very specific reverb I would use all the time,” he says over the phone from his home in Lisbon. “I wasn’t much interested in doing that again. I knew there was going to be some kind of new room I’d be searching for.”

That new room is Buoys. Due for release in February next year, it sees Lennox shift that voice from the chanting, choral sound that’s defined him to something more direct. “Knowing that I didn’t want to produce vocals in the same way that I’ve been doing, and trying to find a way to have a much more intimate, single vocal approach, and trying to find a way to do that was pretty tough,” he admits. “Previously, I wanted the vocals to sound kinda like a ball of yarn; for the new one, it sounds like a piece of plastic.”

After five solo albums as Panda Bear, and an increasingly long career as a founding member of Animal Collective, making such a dramatic change to the sound that’s defined you is risky. “It’s a weird thing in that I’m aware that making a change like that, there’s going to be a section of the audience that immediately aren’t down,” he admits. “But hopefully even if it turns them off at first, there’ll still be something about it that intrigues them.”

Identifying that position of risk, however, is exactly what Lennox was aiming for. “I kind of have a feeling that if I could put myself in a place creatively that feels uncomfortable or scary or unfamiliar, there’s something inherently exciting about witnessing a creative person do that,” he says. “Even if it means that the thing doesn’t land, there’s something interesting about watching somebody reach.”

The difficulty here is that, as it stands, the ‘Panda Bear Sound’ has been wildly successful. Ten years after its release, Person Pitch is still a perfect album. Constructed with a Roland sampler from random grabs snatched from YouTube and fusing the mood of 60s psychedelia with the ethos of J Dilla, it continues to reveal depths and details you might have missed the thousandth time around. The way it bubbles up from underwater and washes through in waves; the embroidered samples of owls and its chugging trainlike beat; the choral voice chanting about antidepressants and tempura: it all still strikes you as profoundly new.

A triumph like Person Pitch, however, creates its own problems. Namely, you can’t just do the same thing again. “It’s cool that that one resonated so much with people,” says Lennox. “And in a way I feel like I’m always chasing it, trying to engineer something that speaks to people like that.”

For Lennox, the solution to the problem of repetition is to push new styles and genres through the filter of his taste. For Buoys, a key inspiration was trap – the vital hip-hop scene that grew out of Atlanta. “Trap, to me is an extreme version of dub production; and dub is kind of perfect-sounding music to me,” he explains. “I wanted to make something that was reflective of a more modern, contemporary production style.”

That isn’t to say that Lennox has made a hip-hop record. Rather, he’s used its sonic architecture as a blueprint, filling out the sub-bass range and leaving vast spaces between the hats. “I didn’t really set out to make something that sounded like trap - I think it’s more about the rhythm than anything else,” he says. “I was trying to find a way that still felt personal to me, or a reflection of who I am, that was a little uncomfortable at first.”

The approach reveals a workmanlike quality in Lennox; of simply turning up again and again. “Thinking about music as a job is important, at least for me,” he explains. “It might be boring, but staying creative is about ensuring I maintain a work ethic. Even if I don’t feel like I’m making interesting stuff, I do like to make sure I’m always producing something or having some sort of creative target in mind - even if it means I’m just reading manuals for pieces of gear. Everything I do, as long as it’s hovering around the work, I feel like I’m doing something useful.”

But if Panda Bear is Lennox’s job, that’s not to say it’s not personal. “I wish I could say I have some sort of master plan, but it’s more just about keeping the thing fun and fresh for me - which sounds kinda self-centred,” he says. “Part of that is just spending so much time working on the thing, I have to make it interesting for myself.”

For Lennox, the act of speaking is equally about the art of listening. “ I guess I really like the feeling of being transported by a piece of music, or a movie, or a piece of art, or whatever it might be. So I’m always searching for that feeling, or hoping for that feeling. And that requires giving something my full attention,” he explains. “I like to be swept away by a piece of music. I want it to grab me and make me forget what I’m doing.”

Panda Bear is playing Meredith from December 7-9, The Melbourne Recital Centre on December 13, and the Sydney Opera House on December 16 - check out Chugg Entertainment(https://www.chuggentertainment.com/tours/panda-bear-2018/) for tickets. His new album, Buoys, is released February 8 2019 by Domino.

first published in broadsheet