The release of Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion in January defied critics’ expectations. Paul Fennessy speaks with the band’s obsessive vocalist Noah Lennox.
THOUGH HE HAS spent the best part of the last decade cultivating some of the most fiendishly freaky pop songs ever recorded, when Noah Lennox (a.k.a. Panda Bear – a name inspired by his habit of drawing pandas on the recording tapes he made as a teenager) greets Otwo, he looks barely old enough to drink.
Relatively slight in frame and possessing a decidedly boyish complexion, what the singer lacks in stature, he more than makes up for with creative ingenuity.
While Animal Collective’s efforts were always admired by the critics, their latest recording, Merriweather Post Pavilion, has garnered unprecedented levels of praise with Uncut magazine going so far as to refer to it as “one of the landmark American albums of the century so far”.
Lennox comes across as somewhat of a musical obsessive and perfectionist. He seems never fully satisfied with his band’s achievements and perpetually fidgets while he speaks in a laconic tone, not dissimilar to how he sings. While Lennox is appreciative of all this acclaim, he cannot help but question the reviewers who praise his work at will.
“I guess the initial reaction is sweet, the guy liked our record. That will never have stopped feeling good no matter who says it. Even if it’s my sister who doesn’t give a shit about the music, it feels good.”
“At the same time, there is another reaction immediately following that. You think, what are the criteria for judging [the record]? How could you say that? I feel like it’s best to take it as a positive reaction, but not think about it.”
And despite their immense popularity, few fans would likely be able to identify members of the band on a crowded street. Do they in a sense revel in the sense of mystique associated with the group?
“I think it’s pretty cool. I like bands that I don’t know everything about and that are not everywhere. And also there’s a self preservation element to it. As somebody who’s not a terribly social person, I think it’s good for me.”
The band has frequently been portrayed in the press as musical theorists, intent on stretching creative boundaries and experimenting with a variety of recording styles. Lennox confirms this perception by the comments he makes, explaining how Merriweather was conceived in a very conscious manner.
“There were a couple of touchstones or themes that we definitely knew we wanted to explore. One was to do songs that really have a focus on bass – bass drums and bass lines. Another was consciously not trying to do straight vocal harmonies, although we ended up doing that on one song.”
“And this idea of outdoor music or music that instantly sounded natural in an outdoor place,” he continues. “I feel like for other albums, it has been more song to song where we visualise something and talk about a certain atmosphere that we’re going for.”
“I like bands that I don’t know everything about and that are not everywhere”
“I think in part because we worked on a lot of the same songs and wrote the songs at the same time. We also all got together and worked on a good 80 per cent of the album in two weeks, so I think that gave it a homogenous feel.”
And what does he make of widespread claims that this is their most “poppy” sounding album yet? “Interestingly, we’ve heard it both sides,” he reveals. “People have said, ‘this isn’t as poppy as the last one’, and there have been people who have said the opposite. There have been a couple of things that make it a pop record for me.”
“I feel like some of the song structures or the way in which we arrange a song is still very weird and very nonmainstream, but just the quality of the sound – I feel like it’s very easy to listen to in a way.”
For Lennox, the process of writing songs is a constant struggle. He describes the arduous approach which he feels obliged to take.
“These days I feel like I can’t even write a song unless the message is really worthwhile. I don’t write a shitload of songs. I’ll write ten beginnings to songs and maybe one of those pieces I’ll feel like is good enough to keep going.”
“I spend a lot of time on pretty much every song so it’s gotta be something that I feel means enough to me that I’m willing to put in a couple of weeks work on it.”
His constant obsessing perpetuates itself especially in the run up to the band’s onstage performances. Lennox is not altogether comfortable playing live and routinely experiences a bout of nerves before taking to the stage. Although he admits that this behaviour is not necessarily negative in terms of the show’s end result.
“Before I go on stage I have a drink usually,” he admits. “I’ll never be able to get over [the nerves]. It’s that thing of ‘maybe we’re gonna suck, maybe nobody’s gonna like it’.”
“It would be a little weird if I didn’t feel nervous. It would be as if something were wrong. It gives me a certain type of energy that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I just always get really hyper about the show.”
“I’ll write ten beginnings to songs and maybe one of those pieces I’ll feel like is good enough to keep going”
While there is little sign of this apprehensiveness later in evening, as the band storm through a thunderous set mostly comprising of songs from Merriweather, his words are undoubtedly genuine. These doubts which trouble him are perhaps exacerbated by the fact that Lennox is an inveterately superstitious person.
“I don’t write the sets anymore. I don’t really take part in that because a couple of years ago there was always a major disaster every time I did it. Either the power would go off or equipment would break and it would just be a fucking disaster.”
Lennox and drummer Josh Dibb have known each other since the second grade and the members subsequently all became friends in high school, bonding over a love of bands such as Sun City Girls and Silver Apples.
Lennox always seemed destined to lead an artistic lifestyle. Temporarily separated from his future band-mates for his senior year, he attended what he describes as a “super-arty” high school. However, perhaps owing to his slightly nervous disposition, Lennox was not at all optimistic about securing a successful career in the arts.
“One goal I had for music was always to have a barcode on our CDs so that it was an official product and the other was that I wanted to play a show in another country and that all happened within the space of probably three years after we really started touring a lot. Everything since then, I’ve been like, ‘I don’t know what’s going on’.”
“As soon as I started writing songs, I got two completely opposing things in my brain,” he adds. “One was being absolutely sure that what I was doing was worthwhile – communicating something which somebody else could get excited about and the other was that you should stop doing it, it sucks.”
Given that Lennox seems so preoccupied with “not sucking”, Otwo asks whether he ever worries about losing his undoubted talent. After turning 30 last July, he is approaching an age where famous artists of the past’s music has tended to sharply decline in quality.
“I wouldn’t say I’m worried about it. I expect it, but I feel like it’s not the end of the world. There’s many more things in life to be excited about.”
Unsurprisingly, he harbours considerable reservations towards the more business orientated side of music, while relishing the creative process it involves. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing and producing music,” he states. “I could certainly stop tomorrow being a career musician. I would be upset if I had to stop, but I couldn’t stop doing it.”
Lennox describes the original version of ‘Winters Love’ (the final version appeared on Sung Tongs) as his favourite Animal Collective song. He is proud of what the band has achieved thus far, but feels they have a long way to go to attain musical greatness.
The singer’s reluctance to ever stop is epitomised by his relentless workrate. In addition to working on a film with the band which is due for release next summer, he reassures me that yet more new material is not far off and that the band intends to take another drastic musical u-turn in this endlessly compelling venture.
“I feel like we’re just coming to the end or the twilight with these songs as a conscious thing because with Strawberry Jam, we toured (extensively) with the songs and once that whole thing is over, you just want to put it behind you.”
“By the time we got into the studio, it was kind of like, “I don’t know if this stuff is good anymore. I feel like there is still life in these songs. But by September, I feel like I’ll be able to move on to something else.”
And when Otwo asks if recording in the studio is where he feels most comfortable, his response ostensibly summarises his nature as a person. “If I could just make records all the time,” he says. “Then that’s what I’d do.”
The band’s new album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, is out now.