Steady evolution is a recurring theme for Noah Lennox, who records under the name Panda Bear with his band, Animal Collective, the influential experimental-leaning pop outfit. It applies to his solo work and to the band's evolving live performances.
While the band was touring for its 11th full-length album, "Painting With," Lennox had time to sketch out songs for an upcoming solo release.
While his music is known for warm, lush atmosphere, these will be spare productions, with only vocals, drum machines, bass and a few odd flourishes here and there, he said in a Skype call from his current residency in Lisbon, Portugal.
"They feel really kind of simple to me. Really basic in a way, almost like there's sections of the songs missing. But that's something I like about dub music, for example,” he said. Often, a dub song sounds like as though it has “been modified but there's also been pieces of it taken away, so it kind of reveals this different beast," he said. That "skeletal" nature unifies these new songs.
Lennox had already developed an ear-grabbing solo career by 2009, when Animal Collective reached a saturation point with "Merriweather Post Pavilion."
"Person Pitch," his second solo album released in 2007, melded the emotional heft of his vocal harmonies with the transient, psychedelic haze and flow of an electronic mix, was subsequently named No. 9 on Pitchfork's list of the best albums of the 2000s. The 2011 follow-up, "Tomboy," had more refined songs and production but less buoyancy. By 2015's "Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper" the levity had returned, accompanied by beats alluding to '90s hip-hop. The album title, meanwhile, was an homage to collaborate '70s dub reggae records, a la "King Tubby Meets The Upsetter." In Panda Bear's case, he was referencing the themes of mortality that juxtaposed with the cheerful surface.
His next record, which he said he just wrapped up "about four hours" before the interview, falls somewhere between an EP and an album, with five songs stretching out over 30 minutes.
He wrote the material during the yearlong "Painting With" tour, "whether in the bus or in the hotel or whatever. To be fair, I didn't take the stuff very far in those settings. It wasn't until I'd gotten home and reviewed little things that I'd made and just really focused on ones that I kept coming back to, or that I liked the most and then just sort of expanded upon that, and that's kind of what got me to where I am today."
Since "Person Pitch," his signature has been his vocals — sometimes compared to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, likely because of a certain laid-back California affection, a pop-choir sense of phrasing and rhythm, and overdubbed harmonies.
On this record, he "wanted the singing to sound pretty live. Sometimes there's harmony parts in there and there's stuff that's been stacked, but I tried to gel all the voices together so it kind of sounds like one mass," he said.
While the description does sound spare, it's worth noting that the first song on "Person Pitch," called "Comfy in Nautica," used only a lead vocal, what sounds like a manipulated sample of a choir singing one syllable, a backing of hand-claps and a few other atmospheric samples or flourishes over the course of more than four minutes. The minimalism didn't deter its popularity — it's currently his third-most popular song on Spotify.
After writing on tour, he did the majority of the recording in Lisbon, both in his apartment and at a practice space nearby that he shares with another band. He hadn't talked to his label yet about plans for release.
Lennox is touring with the original members of Animal Collective, all of whom use aliases that were originally names for their solo projects: Dave Porter (Avey Tare) and Brian Weitz (Geologist). A fourth member, Josh "Deakin" Dibb, doesn't often tour with them. (Live, they're augmented by drummer Jeremy Hyman.)
From their beginnings as high school free-form jam sessions, the group took a punk-anarchic approach to folk music’s traditional song structures and instrumental techniques. The word "drum circle" is invariably used for their syncopated rhythms and ping-ponging vocal responses.
While their early work used found sounds, samples, and acoustic guitars and percussion, they gradually evolved into a more electronic base, albeit one that still pitted pop melodies against structural chaos to dizzying and often euphoric effect.
Before recording “Painting With,” the band convened on the East Coast to rehearse and then headed on tour. While they sought a more organic feel for the record, it was still a studio creation that had to be adapted for a live setting.
In a reversal of their normal habit, they recorded the songs in the studio before taking them on the road.
"This group of songs was different for us in that we hadn't really played the songs live before we recorded them. I feel like we got them to a place in the studio where we were really happy with and wanted to represent those versions of the songs pretty faithfully," he said.
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“I was more nervous for these songs than any others I can remember playing live just cause there was more to them," he said. They require doubling on vocals and complicated instrumental parts that had been written and recorded separately for the album.
“I sound like I'm complaining, and I'm not complaining," he said, but it was a little overwhelming at first.
Translating them live requires a certain mental conditioning, finding a rhythmic center for his own parts and staying with it regardless of whatever whirls around him.
“Especially the vocal stuff, you've really got to hammer into your brain that this is sort of your position on the song rhythmically speaking, and you've just got to kind of lock into that despite what the other folks are doing. It's like anything else, the more you do it, the more natural it starts to feel. But yeah, it was a little bit gnarly at first. I won't lie,” he said.
Live, they divide duties. In general on "Painting With" songs, Lennox handles his vocal lines, plus bass lines, some samples and sends a click track to Hyman. The drummer, who has solo work and a Baltimore art-punk band called Ponytail, uses a traditional kit plus an electronic trigger pad called drumKAT.
"He'll be playing some of the rhythms from the record in his own way," Lennox said. "He's definitely expanded the rhythm sides of the songs quite a bit. They're kind of rocked-out in, I think, a cool way."
Porter handles vocals and keyboards plus some samples, and Weitz plays a variety of electronics, triggering samples and synth sounds.
Their tour has been heavily loaded toward "Painting With" material, plus a few catalog cuts.
"Certain songs seem to have a life-span that can ... cross generations or groups of songs, or however you want to call it. To keep the ball rolling, it always feels good to play the new stuff" for the bulk of the set.
"At the same time, we recognize that there's folks at the shows who probably just want to come to see one song, sometimes, you know. It's fun for us, too, to check out older songs and see if we can modify them that makes them fit into the newer stuff, whatever the characteristics of those songs are," he said.
As their electronic gear changes, so do the live versions of older songs. "It's really rare that we'll bring a guitar, for example, just so we can play this one song. Usually if that's what's staring us in the face, we'll try to adapt or modify that song in a way that can be performed not only with the gear that we have for the newer songs, but also so that it matches the feeling of the newer stuff in a way," he said.
For years now, the band has structured their live show into continuous blocks of songs, usually three or four over the course a 90-minute set.
"The transitions from song to song also get written over time. And I like to combat getting stuck in a rut or doing the same things over and over again with the songs and transitions and whatnot,” he said.
In the past month, they've added four or five reworkings of older songs and songs that didn't make the cut for "Painting With" and were released earlier this year on an EP called "The Painters."
To his ear, the additions have colored the set in a different way.
He's not sure some of those songs will ever be released, although the band has been recording all of the sets on the tour.
"They all share this sort of rolling, rhythmic quality. I feel like they're more electronic-ish, and less organic in a way than last year's set. Sometimes it's difficult to say when you're so close to a set, or a group of songs, when your head is the bubble in a way," he said. "I feel like there's been times in the past when I've talked about something I was close to it, and after being away from it for awhile I kind of see it in a different light."
- Lennox said Animal Collective last played in Missoula when they were touring “Sung Tongs” material. SetLists.com has an entry for 2002 at Jay’s Upstairs, the defunct rock bar on Main Street.
- For this leg of the tour, the band is bringing violinist-composer Eyvind Kang as their opening act. The Canadian instrumentalist, who has recorded with jazz artists like Bill Frisell and John Zorn, worked with Animal Collective on “Feels” and is providing chamber orchestration for Avey Tare’s next album, “Eucalyptus.” It’s set for release on Domino Records on July 21. It also features Susan Alcorn on pedal steel, giving it potential for the most far-out album to ever spotlight the instrument.