As one-fourth of experimental pop band Animal Collective and a solo artist in his own right, Noah Lennox (who creates under the moniker Panda Bear) has been making music professionally for nearly 20 years. Along with Dave Portner (Avey Tare), Brian Weitz (Geologist) and Josh Dibb (Deakin), Lennox and the Collective made their mainstream crossover in 2009 with the album Merriweather Post Pavilion, but had amassed a cult following long before that. After playing music together while growing up in Baltimore, Lennox, Portner and Weitz all wound up in Manhattan in the early 2000s, playing alongside groups such as Black Dice while the burgeoning garage rock scene that produced bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was in full swing.
The Jefferson Theater
“Dave [Portner] and I both worked at a record shop, 12 to like 8 or so, so it was always like you’d get off work, maybe get something to eat…” Lennox says. “We had a space we shared with a whole bunch of bands. It was down by the water on North Fourth, I think. It was kind of a wasteland down there. I mean, there was like nothing.”
Lennox says they’d get to the practice space around 10pm and play until 1 or 2 in the morning.
“We’d get the G train back home, which was always a bummer ’cause it just wouldn’t run very often,” he explains. “I don’t mean to complain—it wasn’t like super rough times. We weren’t living a life of luxury, but all things considered it was pretty fantastic. There were a couple times we fell asleep on it and went the wrong way and all sorts of shenanigans. We hated the G train. It was kind of our nemesis.”
The music they were creating in that practice space had a life of its own. From acoustic-based tunes to trippy psych-pop punches and frenetic compositions drenched in synth and reverb, Animal Collective has always transformed and challenged boundaries. While the band’s approach to songwriting usually relies on road-testing material before committing to anything in the studio, Lennox says each record is different.
“It’s more stuff outside of music that gets us going one direction or another and often there’s like a whole bunch of things thrown out in the beginning,” he says. “There can be a slightly different method depending upon how much we see each other, how close we are geographically to each other.”
Back in February, Animal Collective released The Painters EP, a companion to the band’s 10th album, Painting With, which came out last year. The EP includes two songs from the Painting With sessions, a cover of “Jimmy Mack,” popularized by Martha and the Vandellas, and the opening track, “Kinda Bonkers,” which was plucked from the group’s vault.
“‘Kind of Bonkers’ started actually a couple years ago,” Lennox says. “There was this project where we wanted to make four tracks where each of the four of us in Animal Collective would start a song and then kind of pass our work to the next person in line and the tracks would just go around like that. We didn’t ultimately finish those, but ‘Bonkers’ was one of the ones that we finished.”
This method fits squarely into the Collective’s ethos, as their songs are a landscape made up of disparate layers that rely on space, rhythm, noise and ambience to make up the whole. Lennox says that the order in which they sequence the tracks on records can help create an environment for the listener to inhabit.
“It may not always be so literal as far as like, ‘We wanna feel like we’re going into this ice cave now and now we’re in the desert’…but certainly the goal is to, on a micro level, have some sort of experience or invoke some sort of feeling or thought within the song,” says Lennox. “Then on a more macro level have that same type of thing happen when you’re listening to a sequence of songs. And hopefully if the right pieces are assembled, not only do the singular songs [mean] something to the listener, the summary has its own colors or flavors to it.”
Animal Collective enhances these flavors live through improvisation, jamming and song transitions—techniques that were staples for the Grateful Dead. The Dead has always been a source of inspiration for Animal Collective, and its 2009 song, “What Would I Want? Sky,” includes the first and only licensed Grateful Dead sample.
I’m not sure there’s too many bands that I would argue have been a bigger influence on Animal Collective than the Grateful Dead. —Noah Lennox
“I’m more of an American Beauty-only kind of dude, but [the rest of the guys in the band] were like trading tapes and super into it since they were much younger and going to shows and stuff,” Lennox says. “So I’m not sure there’s too many bands that I would argue have been a bigger influence on Animal Collective than the Grateful Dead.”
As the band embarks on another tour behind last year’s Painted With, Lennox says they’ll continue to use these techniques to keep the set exciting.
“Because we’ve toured in the U.S. with these songs a couple times last year, we wanna bring something new to the table so even though it may not be songs nobody’s heard before, it’ll be some kind of older song that’s reworked in a new way or we’ll do some of the EP songs or something like that where we’re adding something fresh to the set,” he explains. “And it’s not just for audiences; it’s for us, too, you know. You wanna keep the ball rolling and keep the energy moving forward in some way. I’m just speaking for myself, but there’s always a fear of getting stale or thinking too hard about where you’ve been, so I think speaking for all of us again, I think it’s always important to keep things moving forward.”