Animal Collective's Panda Bear on playing drums again and the influence of Aphex Twin
Animal Collective is one of the most critically acclaimed and popular bands to come out of the American underground in the past fifteen years. The outfit's true synthesis of the avant-garde with pop and psychedelia has yielded a handful of albums that have had a profound impact on a huge swath of bands, some of the more interesting guitar-pop acts of the past decade.
On its most recent album, Centipede Hz, Animal Collective returned to its roots of using organic sounds in unconventional ways and delivered the most richly evocative albums of its career. We had the rare opportunity to speak with the band's percussionist, the amiable and contemplative Noah "Panda Bear" Lennox about some of his musical influences, the return of his role as the band's drummer and how Latin rhythms of various traditions fed into those found on the new record.
Westword: How did you find out about Aphex Twin?
Noah "Panda Bear" Lennox: It was a girlfriend of mine, actually, when I was a teenager. She had the ...I Care Because You Do album. The first couple of tracks were a little gnarly for me at the time. I really like 'em now, but it was a bit too sharp for me at the time. I don't know where my head was at. There was one song on it near the end that, once I heard it, I would always ask her to play it for me again. I was super psyched on it. It just took me a while to acclimate to what was going because I didn't really know any other music that sounded like that. He was definitely a gateway to a lot of different kinds of gateway to me.
In what way would you say that music had an impact on how you think about making your own music?
I definitely went through a period where I was copying his style. That guy Squarepusher, too. I'd make a lot of really fast, drum programming stuff. It was really not very good. But I guess when you're young and you're making stuff -- maybe I'm just trying to forgive myself -- you just test things out, and I think that's what I was doing. He definitely gave me the juice to make stuff and try to find my own sort of way with everything.
Is there a period of his work that you find more interesting now than you did then?
I feel like he's done a lot different stuff. Maybe that, more than anything, is inspirational for me; besides just doing cool tracks, the breadth of what he's done, is super inspiring.
Did you ever get to see him play live?
I did. It was at a Coachella. Maybe not the most ideal place. It was during the day, too. Festival shows during the day are always kind of doozies. But he had a cool vibe. He sat down like he was at a desk. On either side of him were huge speakers pointed right at his ears. I thought that was pretty cool. He sort of just deejayed '90s hip-hop for the first thirty minutes or so, and slowly, he started to play his own tracks, and went all over the place from there.
It seemed like he started playing a bunch of shows a year or a year and a half ago. It seemed like he was gearing up for something, like he was going to release something, but I haven't really heard anything. Maybe he's just sort of taking his time with it. I'm sure it'll be super ripping. Take your time, Richard.
You've cited Black Dice as an influence on what you do as a musician and how you conduct your creative life. What are some specific things you learned from those guys that you thought were important?
Part of it's an attitude about the way they deal with their business or deal with their band. They take it seriously, but they also have fun. Those are two very inspirational elements for ways to approach my own music. I feel like they're always sort of reaching for something or exploring new sounds or new ways of making their music and never really kind of resting. I think that's super cool and I hope to be that way all the time.
Other than having connective noise between songs, why did you want to have continuous sounds running throughout the album and for your shows for Centipede Hz?
For shows, it's something we've done for a really long time. And I think in the live sitting -- although I can't remember having a conversation about it -- is to highlight the set as a whole, rather than the sum of its parts. To create some sort of unified experience. I think some groups of songs seemed to lend themselves to that more than others.
Going into this record, we knew we wanted it to be a more organic-feeling type of thing, something that seemed like it was performed live, more so than certainly our last album, which was more pieced together. Even though we could perform it live, it was a way more stripped down version of it. So going into the recording of the record, we wanted it to resemble one of our live shows probably more than any other album that we've done that I can think of.
There's an old OMD album that makes extensive use of radio sounds across the whole album called Dazzle Ships. Are you familiar with that album?
Yeah. I don't have it, but it's definitely been played on many tours. I know the other guys are big fans for sure. I like OMD a lot. I'd love to see them play. I feel like I heard something about them recently, too, as if they are getting ready to play again.
You've gone back to playing live drums for this album and tour? What is it about the physicality of playing the music that way that's satisfying, and what do you find challenging about it?
After we did the touring for the last group of songs, it was like we stood at our stations, and it was more of a mental exercise. There wasn't much of the body in it, you know what I mean? It was more like really concentrating on the sounds that all of us were making. You shift the sounds with your fingers, so it was more like playing a video game or something like that.
It was cool and super fun, and I definitely had a good time playing. But I think I speak for all of us in saying we were just ready to go the other way and have the shows be more visceral and physical and more of a workout. We've done performances like that in the past, and I guess we missed it a little bit.
Since I haven't played sitting down at drums, and since drumming is such a physical exercise, I guess that seemed like the easiest way to kick start that process. I knew I wanted to sit down on the drums, and once we all got together and started to play, it was a matter of coming up with the pieces of the kit that had the sounds I thought would fit into what all the other guys were bringing to the table at the time.
There was an interview, perhaps in Pitchfork, where you talked about going back to Baltimore to record. It sounded like it wasn't as much fun for you to be back there. Is there anything that has changed that you found interesting?
It was totally different. I hadn't been in Baltimore regularly since I was fourteen. I'm 35 now. So it's quite a different place. Probably the weirdest thing for me was just when I was there; I was taking my daughter to school. It wasn't the same building, but it was the same school I went to when I was young. So living life on the opposite end of the spectrum was kind of weird. It was a surreal time overall.
There was definitely some kind of dark things moving around. Me and my wife were sick the whole time. I kept on having bloody noses. It was weird. I don't know if it was the air quality at my mom's house or what. It was a bit of a rough time, but you have those from time to time but you have to press on through.
Brian Weitz did an interview with an Australian magazine where he talked about how songs felt like centipedes and how your drums provide that sonic imagery. Would you agree with that?
Yeah, mostly in the...I can't remember what they're called but Marc Pell, from a band called Micachu and the Shapes, who is a super good drummer, is way more knowledgeable on the technical side of things than I am. They went on tour with us last September, and he said, "Everything you play is one pattern. This kind of fast pattern."
I could see how those rolling sort of drum beats that I do have a snaky or slither-y quality to them. He's something else with the drums. I realized a long time ago I was never going to compete with the good drummers, so I felt like what I was going to concentrate on was doing cool sounds with the drums and be less virtuosic with it because I'm not very good.
Imagination counts for a lot more with most people than sheer virtuosity. And that's where you are not lacking.
Sweet. Thank you. I appreciate that.