“Hope your power doesn’t go out man.”
Those were the last words uttered by Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) to me as he signed off from our phone conversation. A conversation brought to light by the impending release of Tomboy, which may or may not change your life.
Just mere seconds after my conversation with Lennox began; it grounded to a halt due to a slight power failure in my home. Funny really considering for the last four years its been a million points of light for Lennox, from the psychedelic dreamscapes of Person Pitch to the wildly popular idiosyncratic pop of Merriweather Post Pavillion (with his bros from Animal Collective). Lennox now returns yet again, straight out of Lisbon, Portugal for his 4th solo LP, the internal, classically structured Tomboy.
Operating on a near workman-like schedule, away from his home studio, and into a tiny space, located in the Interpress Building in Lisbon, Lennox delivers an album that zigzags dark guitar textures with the amplified warmth that has become so firmly synonymous to his sound. Its Lennox’s unmistakable voice however that will be remembered. As the electronics and samples swirl, his voice acting as a vessel feels as if it’s being launched into the clouds.
In my conversation with Lennox, we talked about many subjects: from the mammoth pressure in following up Person Pitch to a surprising inspiration for the new album: crooners. And because Lennox has returned to his native city of Baltimore (working with the rest of Animal Collective on new music which Lennox unfortunately can’t divulge on just yet), we had to talk about Charm City’s most popular show, The Wire.
What’s it like being back home in Baltimore? How big of a transition has it been for you considering the relaxed atmosphere of Lisbon to now being thrown back into the States?
Yeah it’s been kind of a shock really. It’s like hitting a total reset button on my life because I’ve brought my family over and I’m taking my kid to the same school that I went to so I’m going to the same school every morning that I used to go to. I’m living in a different house with my mom. She’s got a whole upstairs to her house that she doesn’t really use. It’s like having our own apartment but you still come downstairs and see mom every morning. And we’re [Animal Collective] playing music over at Josh’s [Deakin of Animal Collective] place which I always used to do. It’s kind of an eerie reset on my life. It’s going pretty good.
Because you’re originally from Baltimore, I have to ask: have you watched The Wire?
Yeah totally, I’ve watched the whole thing.
So you’re a big fan?
Yeah totally. I thought it was sick. [Laughs] I can’t really say that’s the Baltimore that I grew up with personally. You could feel sort of that side of the city. I feel that vibe of the city permeates everywhere in a way.
When talking about Tomboy you’ve been quoted in a Pitchfork interview stating, “I’m anticipating a lot of people kind of thinking it’s crappy, ’cause it’s different enough to sort of bum people out who really liked the last one.” Did you feel any pressure when recording Tomboy, what with the critical success of Person Pitch and the massive attention that came with it? Also because of the wave of new fans and this almost intense desire to criticize, did you feel at any point changing any of the songs especially the polarizing reception they received when you played them live last year?
It [the reaction to the songs live] never made me want to change anything. It definitely was stressful and I definitely felt the pressure of it. I can’t really say that it made me think like ‘I got to change the way the songs are going or something like that.’ I felt like as somebody making something you kind of just go to do what you think…what excites you and what represents kind of what you’re thinking about at the time and beyond that you can’t really control the way something is received so much. I mean I hope people like it but I’m ready for anything.
For me the major difference between Person Pitch and Tomboy is the tone. With Person Pitch there was this inspiring, exuberant sensation to the music and in return you wanted to share the record with anyone who hadn’t heard it before. With Tomboy, you get this somewhat isolated, moody piece. When you were first conceptualizing the record, were you trying to remove yourself from the sprawling compositions found in Person Pitch and focus on music that was based solely on shorter, straight to the point songs based on mood and feeling?
There’s probably only one song that I really had a specific mood or attitude that I wanted to represent. Everything else just sort of happened the way it happened. I definitely wanted to do something different than Person Pitch but I wanted to do something different from album to album. It’s always been that way. I just feel like it’s the most interesting or exciting way to do things. So I guess that’s nothing new in a way but I can’t say that in terms of the vibes of the songs I really had a clear plan about it before hand. It more just turned out that way.
Like your prior albums before, there’s always a deep, resonant feeling that permeates, with Tomboy it’s more of a dark/intense tone, were you at all surprised that the music took you there?
I was a little surprised how kind of intense it came out. For me it’s really sort of a serious intense listen. I’m really happy with it but I was surprised by that kind of feeling about it. I didn’t really expect that going into it.
On Person Pitch, you listed in the liner notes all your major music influences. I’m curious with Tomboy, what were you listening to (music-wise) at the time?
I can’t say that there was something I was listening to all the time. It’s really hard to say that it was this group of things that I filtered through myself and that resulted in the Tomboy songs. For one thing I was really sort of curious to try and do something that I felt at least from my perspective didn’t have a really obvious point of reference. I wanted to do something that felt really foreign and kind of alien. In that respect I didn’t want it to feature sort of elements of anything that I could think of at the time. I’m sort of weird with music. I don’t listen to a whole lot of music. When I’m on tour with the guys [Animal Collective], you know, you listen to music all the time. And of course with music being our job, we’re playing music all the time so when I’m at home… I kind of like… I don’t even have a stereo at home.
The one element in Tomboy that really struck me the most when I listened to it were the vocals. Some of the lyrics on the record are intelligible and there’s a fearlessness to your voice. For Tomboy, were you trying to use your voice as a vessel, as another instrument to the music?
Yeah that was intentional for sure. On the vocal side of things, I would say there’s a more clear kind of inspiration. And to generalize about it, it’s more like crooners really like Frank Sinatra or Scott Walker, guys like that. Guys that emote with their voices and it’s like this clear defined part of the sound. I feel like on Person Pitch the voices are kind of like blurred in between a bunch of other things. For this one I really wanted there to be a clear…these are the drums, this is the guitar and this is the voice. I setup every song like a triangle, in terms of the way things are mixed and they way I wanted to setup the kind of physical image of the song and that’s why I feel like a lot of the vocals on this record are more like kind of basic but also I wanted to try to do something that was a little more powerful on the vocal side. I can’t really sing like a guy like Scott Walker but I guess Tomboy was my version of that.
With Tomboy you moved yourself away from your home studio to a different studio space, the Interpress Building in Lisbon. Because you recorded in a different location, (as if you were working in an office and operating on a schedule conducive to that) did you feel that you were being more productive?
Yeah I sort of had a totally different way of working this time, just due to the other forces in my life as far as having a family and a wife who’s working all the time… and children. On Person Pitch or anything I had worked on before then it was always like if I felt like doing something whether it was eight in the morning or two in the morning, I would just kind of go there and do it. I was kind of forced to have sort of this regimented routine or something like that [for Tomboy].
Eventually what I did with it, because there’s a lot of time were I feel like I’m not in the mood to do something creative and I’m not going to come up with anything that I think is really any good, so usually what I do with that time which is a good… I don’t know… three quarters of the week or something… I like to kind of just work on something else, like just play the guitar or play with the sequencer to try to figure out things I can do with that. One of the machines that I got, the thing that I affected the guitar with and that made all the sequences is this super complicated piece of equipment [Korg M3]. So a lot of the times I’d just be kind of going through the manual to try and figure out the little things that I can do with it. Ways of sneaking it with other things, which is weird.
I felt like if I was in there in the studio working on something it was all leading somewhere, you know what I mean. It was all work leading to some kind of ultimate goal and before this record it was always just here and there and little bits.
Because of the minimal approach you put towards recording Tomboy (compared to Person Pitch) and the months that you put in to making it, did you feel that you accomplished what you set out to do?
I mean I pushed the schedule of things just to make sure that I felt like I was getting it right. And like you said I really worked on it a really long time. It was until the last week that Sonic Boom was mixing it that I was like ‘yes this is what I was thinking about all along’ maybe I didn’t know it but this is what I had always kind of intended to do.
Speaking of Sonic Boom (Pete Kember), I was wondering how you linked up with him, to do the sound mixing for Tomboy? Was he a great pair of ears for you, for the record?
On the most basic level that’s what he was. With Person Pitch and with Young Prayer there was always an extra person or a group of people who came at the end of the process surveying as sort of fully objective ears and took over the final stages of the mixing. So I knew I wanted to do the same thing for this one. And the first idea was to have Dave [Avey Tare of Animal Collective] and Josh do it but because I was pushing the schedule of things and was kind of wishy-washy as far as when I felt like I needed to do it, eventually they couldn’t do it. And like a day after they told me they probably couldn’t do it in the time frame I was looking for, Pete sent me an email about ATP [All Tomorrow’s Parties] actually and I was just like instantly… like that would be a really good thing if he would want to do it so I asked him and he said “yeah” and two days after that we were sending a barrage of emails to each other everyday. There are probably 6 or 7 emails a day for 2 and half months or something.
The first time I met him was the day I went to hear the final mix in New York. Before that it was strictly emails. I think he had heard Person Pitch from a friend of his and was into it. He wrote to me to say he liked the record and that he was psyched that I had listed Spacemen 3 as an influence. He was pumped on that.
One of the central themes in Tomboy is the ability to handle two lives, in your case, the ability to juggle the responsibilities involved in being both a musician and a husband/father. With the release of Tomboy looming and the certain responsibilities you will have to commit to as an artist are you ready to embrace what’s potentially in store for you, and in doing so try to balance both of your lives?
Yeah I think so. I’ve had a little bit of practice at this point. I’ve kind of eased into it and sort of figured out how to do it all at once. With Person Pitch it was difficult, really difficult to feel like I was doing that record justice after it came out, in terms of touring while we’re also kind of going full steam with Merriweather Post Pavilion touring. I’m pretty sure it’ll be the same on this one, like I seriously doubt I’ll play very many shows, like Tomboy shows. I tried to play a bunch of shows last year, like all Tomboy shows. I think it made me feel a little bit better about it but I don’t know. At a certain point you just got to do the best you can, in terms of honoring all these different things in your life and you got to prioritize things you know.