The music of Noah Lennox has always felt as if it spilled forth from another universe – a more fanciful one, yes, but certainly not without its dark corners. “Ethereal” is an overused word, but there is simply nothing terrestrial about the swirling stacks of harmonies and arpeggios on “Bros”. Or the vocal runs closing “I Think I Can”. Or the weightless beauty suspending “Tropic of Cancer”.
So, it’s difficult to imagine the 40-year-old musician living an ordinary life somewhere, even if that somewhere is sun-soaked Portugal, where the Baltimore native has resided for over a decade.
But that’s exactly where I find Lennox on the first Monday in February. He’s at his Lisbon home, which also houses his studio and another for his wife, fashion designer Fernanda Pereira, who is currently collaborating with a few colleagues. Their two kids are off at school, but there are always people bustling around the space. He apologies for any extraneous noises.
“It’s been a little rainy recently, which is a bummer,”he informs me, “but it’s sunny today, so I can’t complain.”
We are not on a transatlantic phone call to discuss the weather, though. The primary topic of conversation is Buoys, his sixth full-length under the moniker Panda Bear. It sees release today on Domino Records.
Like every Panda Bear record, Buoys finds Lennox swerving from what has preceded it while still slotting within the mosaic of his larger catalog, alone or with Animal Collective. Notably, after two LPs alongside producer Sonic Boom (aka Pete Kember), Lennox reconnected with Rusty Santos – who helped steer Panda Bear’s Young Prayer and the massively influential Person Pitch, in addition to early Animal Collective albums like Sung Tongs – for Buoys.
It’s a record of startling clarity in the most literal sense. The cascading layers of vocals that partly defined previous solo efforts have been peeled back, presenting his natural instrument in its rawest form since Young Prayer. (There is some Autotune in there, but it’s not all that distinguishable from the reverb.) Musically, Lennox has also taken a scythe to the dense rhythms of Tomboy and Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper, leaving in their place uncluttered structures centered around the acoustic guitar.
It would all be unexpected, if that wasn’t what we’ve come to expect.
In the past, you’ve talked about an instinct to pull a 180 after a record – to do the complete opposite of it. Writing and recording Buoys, in what ways, consciously – and, perhaps in retrospect, subconsciously – did you want to make something different than Panda Bears Meets The Grim Reaper?
There were a couple of specific things that I was sure I didn’t want to do, and I figured that the absence of those things the new thing would be different in some form. I can’t say that I had a super clear vision of what the thing was going to become, but I knew there were a couple of things I didn’t want to do.
One was the vocal production. I didn’t really want to employ an aesthetic I’d been using a bunch on the past couple of records, namely stacked vocals and harmonies and that sort of sound, which felt to me like a cloud in the mix. I really wanted to do something that felt more intimate and close – more of a naked voice. I tried on Homies to do that, but I couldn’t really figure out a way that felt satisfying to me. So, going into it, that was one of the main things.
Also, I wanted to avoid having arrangements that were kind of full-blast and just full of stuff. In the past, any time I was listening to a mix and my mind would start to wander, my move was always to add a new sound in there or introduce some new element, and the attention would roll with that new thing and keep me propelling forward. I really didn’t want to do that this time. I wanted to keep things more empty and try to figure that out.
Those are two of several things that I knew I didn’t want to repeat.
How much was the decision to work with Rusty [Santos] – as opposed to Pete [Kember] – fueled by that inclination?
I suppose not working with Pete was another way of insuring that the record would be different in a way.
I loved working with Pete, and I love the stuff that we made together, but I did feel like I wanted to put these songs in a different space somehow. And hearing the kind of stuff that Rusty was working on and where his head was at with music, I figured his filter would make this record different in some way.
In addition to Rusty’s co-production, this album has sort of an intangibly mellow, sunny, laid-back vibe that’s more reminiscent of Person Pitch than anything else that proceeded it. Do you see it as of a kind with that album?
Yes, I would agree with that. I feel like this one and Person Pitch are more extroverted records, whereas Grim Reaper and Tomboy feel like more introverted experiences. This record – like Person Pitch and a few other things I’ve been a part of – reaches out and invites you in.
I’m curious about the acoustic guitar drifting through this record. What attracted you to the instrument again?
It’s not an exciting answer, but it’s really because we were doing the Sung Tongs shows, and I had to retrain my hands to play guitar, because I hadn’t done it in a long time.
I think just because I was practicing so much with guitar, I got into writing songs on it again. And the tuning is actually the same as Sung Tongs, so there’s a direct link to that record, which I thought was cool in a way.
The press materials discuss employing “hyper-modern production” to make something that would “feel familiar to a young person’s ears.” What specifically were those techniques?
It was mainly the sonic architecture of thing. It’s part of the reason I wanted to work with Rusty: I assumed that he would want to place it in that context.
The architecture of the thing reminds me of a trap set-up production wise. I know ultimately it doesn’t appear that way, but if I think about the sonics of the thing – i.e. a really loud vocal, and hi-hats or really high clicking stuff at the top, and then a big empty space at the bottom with sub-bass stuff – that’s really the DNA of Buoys, and it seemed of reflective of a lot of contemporary aesthetics of music, I suppose.
Are there any hip-hop producers who specialize in trap beats that you find yourself drawn to?
One of the first sounds you hear on Buoys is water dripping. How do you explain or wrap your head around the record’s recurring water imagery?
That’s a tough one. It kind of goes back quite a ways [in my music]. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that every city I’ve ever lived in is close to the ocean.
It’s tough to say beyond that, though. Maybe there’s just something about reverb that is captivating and puts me in the zone with the music.
Where did you sample those drops on “Dolphin”?
I think we sampled it from a YouTube video. I’m not sure if we pitched it a bunch of different ways or if we modulated the pitch with an LFO or something, but it does give it more of a natural-sounding quality rather than a static sample over and over again.
The vinyl EP A Day with the Homies came out about a year ago. You – both individually and as a part of Animal Collective – have always taken advantage of various release formats. Do you assign weightier significance to your “proper” LPs? Or is a release is a release is a release?
I think it’s more that a release is a release is a release.
At the time, growing up listening to albums, I do consider myself more of an album person. But I feel like with the way streaming is these days, I don’t want to force that perspective on people.
I feel like I can say that for everything I’ve done, there’s always sort of an ideal format for it. With Person Pitch, I always thought of it as a CD album. Homies was obviously a vinyl thing. And Domino won’t like me saying this, but Buoys is really a streaming album to me. I always pictured someone looking at the mixes on a streaming service.