This Sunday (January 11th), Boiler Room will broadcast a full 90 minute set from Animal Collective founder & frontman Panda Bear. The broadcast will come from within Museum of Modern Art affiliate MoMA PS1‘s astounding geodesic VW Dome, as part of their Sunday Sessions. The performance will come backed with a one-off visual display from Panda Bear’s longstanding art collaborator and tour designer Danny Perez—who released concept DVD/LP ODDSAC with the band in 2010.
Panda Bear will be performing classics from across his catalogue, as well as premiering new material forthcoming Domino LP Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, due out globally the day after his Boiler Room debut.
Tickets for the show are available HERE, but be quick! For everyone else, tune in for Boiler Room’s broadcast, live from 1630 EST on 11.01.15; and relooping for 72hrs thereafter. To get excited, read on for a primer on one of the 21st century’s foremost musicians.
Noah Lennox doesn’t seem like the sort of guy to spend too much time dwelling on death. Despite his occasionally mournful vocalisations and the heavy-lidded gaze he offers up in just about every promotional image he’s ever taken, there’s far more evidence that would suggest a sunnier picture of the man who records as Panda Bear. Look back to the whole host of rapturous records he’s released over the last decade and a half with his Animal Collective compatriots—the most prominent of which featured a glossy ode to domestic simplicity as its brightest spot—or the stoned bliss of the grip of solo LPs he’s released over the same period. If you consider too the idyllic decade that he’s spent living in the locales of Lisbon, Portugal with his wife and two children, the title of his fifth solo record, his first since 2011’s Tomboy, seems a bit curious. And somehow there it is disguised in technicolour block lettering across the cover “PB vs GR” or in full: Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper.
So what gives? Are we to imagine that after years of Lennox serving as a bubbly constant in an often dour indie rock world his tastes have taken a turn for the sever? Is our lanky, floppy haired protagonist ready to take over Max von Sydow’s bleak role in The Seventh Seal and is he, in fact, busy priming himself for his own chess match against death? I mention my concern to Lennox partway into an extended Skype call from his home in Lisbon and he offers little more than a dry chuckle in response before setting me straight.
Compared to past records and in particular contrast to the elegiac strains of his first proper solo record Young Prayer, which was conceived as a tribute to the full life of his dying father, the circumstances of Grim Reaper have been a lot easier to stomach. “I haven’t really dealt with death at all,” he says with a shrug that’s almost audible from the other end of the line. “None of the songs even talk about dying in any literal way.“
For the moment at least, the perceived dissonance from the optimistic persona that Lennox projects and the dark allusions of the title of this new album dissipates. But what then is this kaleidoscopic record even about? With symbology that centres on biting dogs and dark clouds, it certainly seems like he’s concerning himself with more funereal themes, but look to the sprightly melodies and it gets a bit more confusing. Ask Lennox himself and he’ll proffer a number of different answers, as he does a number of times over the course of our conversation.
“We’re constantly forced through experiences that allow us to become something new—to create a new identity”
He starts his responses enthusiastically in one direction before shifting to another one entirely. The title, he eventually explains, is supposed to be at least a little bit campy, functioning to highlight an inherent dichotomy between the record’s sonic lightheartedness and its “dark and abrasive” subject matter. “It’s about presenting something that we don’t have an easy time dealing with in a costume that’s just a little bit more clown-y.“
Obscured questioning rules much of Grim Reaper, miring the record in uncertainty and confusion. “Was it, was it, was it worthwhile?” he implores on “Lonely Wanderer” amidst a veritable storm of digital grit and grime. Catchy melodies become confounded by squelchy instrumental abstractions, and easy answers are few and far between. He sees the songs within the record as primarily concerned with “personal growth,” but when pressed on the subject he explains that the fuzziness (both lyrical and musical) is meant to keep the material from being too preachy or too self-absorbed.
“The self-help sort of vibe worries me,” he says. “Before making this stuff I had done a lot of introspection and I was using the music as almost a diary. But there’s a point where introspection turns into self-obsession or narcissism, so it’s always a very careful process to take the lyrical content and address stuff that was a lot bigger than myself.“
The titular Reaper, Lennox will come to explain, doesn’t signify any harbingers of death in his own personal life. Instead, death is used as a metaphor for the the way we define ourselves over the course of our lives. “We’re constantly forced through experiences that allow us to become something new—to create a new identity,” he says. “Moving [to Portugal] was something like that for me. I had this vision of a future for myself as a person that lived in America, and then all of a sudden it was completely demolished.“
Life, Lennox posits drearily, is punctuated by these sorts of experiences. You settle into situations, you start to use them to define yourself and then the rug is pulled out from under you leaving you with nothing. A breakup or the death of a loved one, he says, can function as similarly stirring circumstance. It can be hard to make out how exactly he’s addressing these themes within the album, but the disorienting feeling in the wake of such events is certainly well explored in the midst of the record’s serpentine constructions.
Appropriately for it’s newly extroverted and heady subject matter, musically Grim Reaper represents Lennox at the most approachable he’s ever been. Even as far back as his early contributions to the Animal Collective catalogue, the material that Lennox has penned has largely been pensive and staid, content to lose itself in its compositional convolutions. But here, despite the fact that the subject matter remains as cloistered as ever—these are no longer intimate affairs or mere campfire songs. For the first time Lennox has put together a collection of pieces that’s intent on dominating your attention—it’s meant to rattle out the biggest set of speakers that you can get your hands on.
Starting during the extended El Paso, Texas sessions for Centipede Hz, the similarly ecstatic 2012 Animal Collective record, Lennox began digging deep into a blistering mode of composition that had largely eluded him previously. Though Person Pitch was a testament to the vastness of his sample library, its focus was largely on his preternatural wizardry in manipulating obscure found sound fragments into spectral little pop songs. On Grim Reaper, he’s delving into a totally different world of sample-based productions: the elliptical aggression of breakbeats. After uncovering a folder of what he describes as “the most hackneyed, overused” breaks, he started crafting material that was more forceful than ever before.
Soon after, Lennox holed up returning collaborator Pete Kember (better known as Sonic Boom) to slowly whittle down the 40-60 song ideas he started with. These fiery little bits were smoothed into the dizzying synthesis of clattering percussion and narcotised melodies that make up Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper. Several of the tracks are more stolid numbers that Lennox has occasionally referred to as “sea shanties“, but on the whole this record sounds a little more full of life than albums past.
If Grim Reaper is a heavy reflection on the way our experiences affect our views of ourselves, it seems significant to note that the circumstances surrounding this record were pretty ideal from Lennox’s point of view. Unlike Tomboy, which was recorded in the total isolation of a studio that was two floors below street level, Lennox made this record at home in Lisbon with Kember aiding him in the engineering of the record, in addition to his returning role behind the mixing board. “In this apartment where we’re in the middle of a pretty active neighbourhood,” he explains of his more outgoing time making this record. “There’s a real tangible sense of life and activity out there. It’s pretty safe to say that while I was making this stuff it was a much more pleasant experience.“
It’s worth pointing out, too, that midway through the process of making the record that Lennox fielded a call from his childhood idols in Daft Punk. After two failed attempts at garnering remixes for previous projects, the towering French duo flew him out to contribute vocals to a head-swimming selection from their Grammy winning 2013 record Random Access Memories.
Upon getting to France and hearing the instrumental, Lennox realised that this new material was on a parallel path to the stuff he was working on back home: “There’s this weird vocoded thing in the Daft Punk track and all this junk in the Grim Reaper tracks, but for the most part it’s all just vocals and drums,” he says. “That was sort of proof of concept for me. Hearing this stuff that was similar gave me the juice to keep going with what I was working on at the time.“
So by Lennox’s own logic, of course this album is euphoric. Constructed in a more comfortable environment, and after recording a song with the biggest electronic producers in the world (a couple of his own personal favourite producers, natch) that reaffirmed his own artistic direction. Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper appropriately sounds like an emotional high point for our doe-eyed composer.
“There’s a point where introspection turns into self-obsession or narcissism, so it’s always a very careful process to take the lyrical content and address stuff that was a lot bigger than myself.”
And yet, you look back over the course of his career and you could never predict the bizarre triumph of this record. Philosophical searching and requisite fogginess aside, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is full of boisterous, infectious moments. Check the buoyant synth burbles and vocal stutter steps on “Boys Latin” or the distended Big Beat exercises of “Principe Real”, and it becomes evident that this record is the fullest expression of the buried explosive joy at the heart of all Panda’s output from the last fifteen years. While its not quite “navel-gazey“, as Lennox himself self-deprecatingly describes it, his material—dating all the way back to his first collaboration with Avey Tare Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished—feels somewhat inhibited in comparison to this ebullient new material.
Though he’s a self-described “dreamer“, Lennox was a man of modest goals. “I had two big dreams when I first started recording“, he says. “I wanted to have a barcode on my records and I wanted to have a dedicated card with my name on it in a record shop—to not get sorted with the other miscellaneous Ps; that was good enough for me. And those dreams just seemed so large, but obviously I set my sights super low.“
And now he’s touring the world with a crew of indie rock’s most celebrated experimentalists, chunking out his own wildly successful records, collaborating with Daft Punk, and still managing to raise a family of his own. It’s no wonder that his new album isn’t a grim meditation on mortality. Without grand career ambitions and with famously humble requirements for personal happiness, Noah Lennox has gradually ended up at a place near the top of the strange sphere he inhabits.
Despite the apparent morbidity of the title, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is ultimately a record about figuring out how to define yourself in the midst of the strange turns that life takes. And if he sounds a little excited while he’s exploring those big questions, it’s only because, at least for the moment, life has treated him pretty kindly.
** Boiler Room’s broadcast will take place Sunday 11th January; 1630-1800 (EST) / 2130 – 2300 (GMT). For more info, head HERE **