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Spilling Guts: An Interview with Animal Collective’s Panda Bear

Noah Lennox explains the power of first impressions and how that impacted their new record

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    The speed at which Animal Collective became a sensation in the early ‘00s was so quick that I personally faced a backlash about them before the front-lash even hit. Someone in high school was going on about how they didn’t get what all the hype was about — and I hadn’t even heard a single song. Fascinated, I put on the avant-garde-jazz-psychedelic song “Alvin Row”, and I felt a hysterical, frantic energy from being drenched in equal parts beauty and noise, songs sounding like sponges feeding ferociously off New York with dense layers of vocals wrapping around unsettlingly frail rhythms. Heck, I was baffled. Pop was now in a realm where normal could be altered and experimented into the eccentric? I finally understood the hype.

    Although that first album, Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished, was written by only two of four members, Avey Tare and Panda Bear, they didn’t do things in halves. The pair form a diptych of similar but contrasting work. Listening to their melodic, call-and-response vocals (a cubist approach to music, stitching seemingly disparate sounds) further proves their remarkable skill for ushering bizarre, coherent ideas into accessible avant-pop music. But this wasn’t a collective who used experimental pop as the only colors on their palette. Since then, they have managed to become even more unexpectedly strange over the last 16 years, jolting from electronica to psychedelic noise to acid folk.

    The band’s latest and tenth chapter, Painting With, is due February 19th. It’s still washed by those primary colors and those initial feelings you had about Animal Collective (mine were shivers). But now, Noah Lennox – Panda Bear in human form – is in tune with what first impressions can do for a band. “It seems like the first impression you have of a song is really lasting. It colors what happens after that,” says Lennox. Though they’ve relied on first impressions their entire careers, often guinea-pigging unfinished raw material in front of a live audience before hitting the studio to record it, Animal Collective are now doing things a little differently: “We were all sort of interested to see what it was like on the other side of the fence.” Fans obsessing over bootlegs, compiling their own dream tracklists, and arguing over which version of the song is best – none of that “essential” Animal Collective fandom happened this time. Thinking rather about the way people process music, the band opted for a “wabi-sabi” approach: an uncluttered way of making art that helps you find beauty in creative imperfections.

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    Just as the songs on the album fit together like pieces of a puzzle, or even the cubes of a cubist painting, Painting With draws with its primary colors first and then mixes them together to make a new first impression – though one which still sounds like Animal Collective as we know them.

    animal collective painting with new album avey Spilling Guts: An Interview with Animal Collectives Panda Bear

    Where are you at the moment?

    I’m in Lisbon, Portugal. I’ve lived here for just over 11 years. Not much going on today. I feel like I took care of most of my business in the first half of the day, so I’m kind of just mucking around.

    Well, soon you’ll be back on tour. I see you’re going to be playing at the Portugal offshoot of Primavera – NOS – in July, too.

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    Yeah, we’re so excited. We’re doing both Primavera festivals this year.

    We caught you at Primavera last year playing your solo set at the Auditori Rockdelux.

    Yeah, in the cinema-style room?

    It was positively enchanting. People were walking out humming “Boys Latin”, which as you know the lyrics…

    [Laughs] Aren’t that clear? You sort of make up your own. It’s nice to have a really big screen like that, and I know Danny [Perez, director/artist] put so much work into making those visuals. He’s like an extra performer because he’s doing all the mixing live whilst I play. It was cool to have his element of the show highlighted on that one.

    His visuals were so visceral that they were oozing onto the walls. I was on the top floor looking down, and it was projecting onto people’s faces as well, which made it feel like the room was breathing.

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    I like that. I like the idea of taking over a room with sound and visuals. I really like any performance space where the divide between performer and audience is kind of blurred. I prefer the more DJ atmosphere where their focus isn’t really on you. It isn’t a them or us, it’s just sort of everybody involved in this experience.

    Those all-encompassing performances are rare. Sometimes you’re in a bar watching a band and you get distracted. I suppose the romanticism surrounding the concept of distraction doesn’t exist anymore – in 2016, it’s impossible not to get distracted.

    There’s a couple of tricks I feel you need in order to dominate a room. One is obviously to incorporate a big visual component like the one I used, but also I feel that volume can be sort of a weapon in that way, too.

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    With music and experiences like that, I tend to wonder what would happen if a scientist had to hook me up to a monitor during one of those shows, especially during your new Animal Collective album. What would happen to my brain psychologically?

    I know what you mean. I feel like these Animal Collective songs sound charged up to me, so I’d expect it to be like a buzzy frenetic thing happening in our minds when we listen to it.  

    Nina Corcoran, Panda Bear 1
    Photo by Nina Corcoran

    So you’re only 37, and you’ve made 10 albums, five solo albums, nine EPs, live albums, and been professionally active for 15 years. Is it easy to get perspective, looking back on 2005’s Feels, or even 2003’s Here Comes the Indian, and seeing how your current career and creative life compare to what you were dreaming about when you were younger?

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    It’s actually really similar in that I feel like my aspirations, or my dreams you could say, when I was younger mattered to me a lot, but I can’t say that they were really grand. As soon as we started traveling and playing shows, that far exceeded any expectation I had about making music. Ever since then, every day, every tour, every record has been a surprise. I like it like that. I feel like I’d lose my way if I had a big game plan.

    Considering how much improvisation comes into play in your music, that really resonates. If you had everything planned out and it didn’t go according to plan, it devalues everything you valued so highly as an artist. That’s deadly.

    I feel like I’m a pretty impulsive kind of person. I guess I like to keep my options open. It’s a long and winding road, this life, so if something pops up, I’m ready. Looking back, I’ve made what seems like rash decisions to me now. Sometimes I just feel like it’s the right thing to do, because I’m an all-my-money-on-one-horse type of guy.

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    When listening to your music, it seems as if the process of making it is so insular, but then sometimes you announce an album that involves these extroverted marketing moves in beautifully imaginative, creative, and social ways. Like last November when you broadcasted Painting With over the speakers of Baltimore/Washington International Airport and played it on loop.

    We had a couple different ideas for venues of where to play it. We really wanted to do it in a mall, actually, but I guess at the airport we had some connections to make it happen there. We were excited about the idea because it seems like trying to release a record and make sure everybody is listening to it at the same time seems difficult, near impossible on the Internet. This way was way more special.

    When you consider what kind of emotions an airport can conjure already, everyone is locked into their own mode of travel and in their own space.

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    In retrospect, I like that it was a place where people from hopefully all over the world were passing through. I like that side of it because I feel that there’s messages within the record that are about inclusiveness and changing perspectives. So the airport, being a place where you have all this stuff going on and all these people from all over, seems perfect. I can’t say it was a master plan, going into it thinking, “It’s going to have this significant metaphorical meaning.” But looking back, I think it worked out pretty well.

    It’s interesting to see how much change has happened, though. When you all started, you were improvising in your New York apartments in the early 2000s. Rhythmically, you stripped the music down to its primitive core. How much did improvisation come into play when the new set of songs was first recorded?

    Not a whole lot of improvisation went into this. The way we wrote the songs and came up with parts is that we worked on a small section within songs. There’s a lot of improv in the way that we arrange the songs, but performance-wise there won’t be a whole lot. These songs, more than any others that we’ve done, were really scripted and written before we all got together. We made demos for each other. The way that the vocals stick together has to be really precise, so this was the first time that Dave and I wrote singing parts for the other person. There was more set in stone this time than on previous albums.

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    animalcollective11 Spilling Guts: An Interview with Animal Collectives Panda Bear

    Even before releasing an album, your fans have typically already obsessed over bootlegs and compiled their own dream tracklisting, maybe even argued over which version of the song is best. The process of organizing material in a live setting and then recording is kind of a hallmark for Animal Collective. It was quite striking when you decided to have pre-written pieces rather than sample them live.

    We thought about the way that people process music and talked to people at shows. It seems like the first impression you have of a song is really lasting. It colors what happens after that. So, having done the same thing for the past 15 years where we always perform music before recording it, we were all sort of interested to see what it was like on the other side of the fence. Now, the studio versions are really going to be the first impression of the music for everybody, and for us as well … For the past couple of weeks, we were practicing together to get the live show up to speed, and it’s been really interesting having the studio versions as the perfect versions of the song and then trying to recreate them. I’ve never done that before in all my life.

    This all makes me think about the concept of over-editing yourself. We have this brilliant ability to backspace and edit out everything now. Is there some sort of danger in a recording studio, and where does it end?

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    I feel like it’s more something you feel than something you know. At least for us, that’s always how it’s done. Songs just always feel like they’re done. I think it’s important to get a little bit of wabi-sabi in there and have imperfections about your art. Because stuff that’s really sort of super glossy and hyper-real? I guess I just don’t respond to it well. I like to have it feel a little jangly.

    So, take the samples that you used on this album, from “Wipeout” to The Golden Girls. They’re more explicit, more immediate, and more familiar than anything you’ve ever done. How did you stop yourselves from spreading them thickly across the whole album?

    I think that was really the point. Just knowing we had made entire records from samples made us wary of doing that again. They were honestly kind of a surprise. They appeared on Dave’s demos first, and it was a shock that he had these bits and pieces on there. But all of us felt that, since there were so few and them being used in a very different way, they weren’t just another element taking over an entire song.

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    You haven’t really done that since Strawberry Jam’s “Peacebone”, which feels similar to the obviously bold construction and tonal attack of “FloriDada”. Plus, they’re both the first tracks on their respective albums.

    Oh, I totally agree with you. There’s sort of a similar galloping rhythm to both those songs.

    Is there a reason why you decided to open with a track like “FloriDada”?

    Yeah, as difficult as everything else is for us, sequencing is something we spend quite a bit of time on. On some albums, it’s pretty clear, but others, not everybody feels the same way. In terms of the way the rest of the puzzle fits together, “FloriDada” was really the only choice.

    I didn’t know what it meant, actually. I have yet to see your one-sheet [the press document with all the album’s info], which is possibly better.

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    No, that is better. I’ve had it in every interview I’ve done, and it seems like it’s the way things seem to work today. People just want to talk about the one-sheet for the first two years. It really makes a difference what you write on that one-sheet, and I’ve seen people really take that stuff and run with it. And reasonably so. That’s the only information you have in the beginning.

    But interpreting the kind of music you make is incredibly important for the listener. It’s good to stretch the mind a bit, and even if you’re totally wrong, it’s still your version of the song.

    I like to hear that. Again, [it goes] back to first impressions and how they can be really lasting and color the rest of the experience. The next thing that I’d like to do is a one-sheet that’s only technical information, leaving everybody to come up with their own stuff to talk about. I feel like Internet culture demands a unified take on something. It really seems to encourage people to take sides on things in really super clearly defined ways.

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    So, it’s good to have a collective hive mind sometimes? I guess “FloriDada” is a comment on the negativity of a broken world.

    Like, “How do we feel about this?” In the long-term, you start to see more measured responses to events, but in the short term, it’s always really hyperbole one way or another. I feel like there’s very little you can control with this stuff. I’m not going to cry about it. You make the thing, feel good about it, put it out there. There’s not much you can do with it beyond that.

    There are ambiguities and dislocations in these songs, like in cubism and abstract art, which this album was inspired by. Did you want to emphasize this by applying a “cubist” technique to songwriting? It’s best heard when your voice and David’s [aka Avey Tare] are blended more than ever, a call-and-response of simultaneous streams. What caused that shift?

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    It was an idea that we had before writing any of the songs. There were a couple of things that stayed within the walls of the room of the album. We wanted to do short songs — songs that felt primitive and crude — and do something different with the vocals, something we felt like we had never done before. It became about writing music for two singers where it felt like blurred perspectives in one voice.

    The best example would be during “Summing the Wretch”.

    I gather at first glance it comes across as sort of uh … confused. But it seems like the more we listen to it, it’s like one of those Magic Eye things where you see it at first, but it’s just a blurry mess, and then once you see it in the right way, it comes into shape. I hope that’s what you see in the song.

    Oh, definitely. When you listen to it on headphones, the voices metronome from one ear to the other. I wonder what the other band members thought. I love how you progress by changing the lineup and having creative flexibility on every album. Josh [Deakin] went through a bit of a wobble in 2007, which resulted in you three performing together until late 2009. Why did he drop out of making this?

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    Every time we get on board to work on something together, it dominates [our] creative world. So it’s mostly because he had a backlog of stuff that he hadn’t finished, and he needed to tie up loose ends.

    anco2 Spilling Guts: An Interview with Animal Collectives Panda Bear

    It wasn’t as if you were starved for collaborators or creative minds. Where did the idea of having the iconic John Cale and Colin Stetson join you come from?

    It was really about having ideas for specific songs and finding the right person for the job. We knew Colin’s music and really liked his style with a saxophone. Having a unique way of performing with the instrument was really appealing to us. John Cale we knew because Dave’s sister [Abby Portner] was making visual stuff for his live shows. At first we wanted him to come in and replace a stringy sample part that Brian had, because not all of us were totally happy with the quality of it. So we thought, “Why not ask John to come in and play his viola?” It didn’t end up working, but other stuff he did that day made it onto the song.

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    As you said earlier, you gotta keep your options open. But I’ve always felt like you and David have operated with a secret language. You rarely work with outside collaborators. Even looking at the photo credits accompanying this album, they’re Hisham Bharoocha, a guy you’ve worked with for years, and you mentioned Dave’s sister Abbey Portner. Did you feel comfortable explaining to people what you wanted?

    It’s just like any relationship. You get closer and closer; then when you’re figuring it out in the beginning, it’s always a little awkward. Maybe things don’t work at first, but everybody wants to get to that same place. Like chopping away at the tree. We’ve never worked with someone we haven’t had a personal connection to. Collaboration is never blind-date style.

    Are you going to approach the live shows in such a way that it’s a performance and not just a show?

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    I think these live shows will be similar to the ones we’ve done in the past in terms of the form of them. They’ll be heavy on the new songs with sort of a mixed bag of other stuff in there. Live shows have a life of their own. They grow and then change, and then it has a death to it to where the thing can’t grow anymore and you kind of move on to the next thing.

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